When the brothers Josh and Nick Cotherman decided to start a business in 2008, they settled on selling fountain pens and ink — even though neither one had ever even held that kind of writing instrument before.
When the first samples arrived, “we had no idea what to expect,” Josh Cotherman, 39, said in a phone interview with his brother, 36, from the workshop of the Birmingham Pen Company, the brand they later founded. It is based in Cranberry Township, Pa., a suburb of Pittsburgh not far from where they grew up.
“When we started playing around,” he said, “we realized that there was a lot more nuance and intricacy to a fountain pen than we saw just as a picture on a computer screen.”
Initially, the pair sold third-party brands of fountain pens and ink online, and for a couple of years at a store in Pittsburgh that they called the Birmingham Pen Company — a nod to the city’s South Side neighborhood that once was called Little Birmingham and was, like the English city, a manufacturing hub.
But by 2018, they had decided to make pens (and to keep the Birmingham name). “The only way we could start personally reacting to the feedback we were getting from our customers was if we were making the products ourselves,” Josh Cotherman said.
Although the company is younger than heritage American pen brands like the Esterbrook Pen Company (founded in 1858) and Parker (in 1888), Birmingham’s positioning deeply respects tradition. The custom font of the brand’s logo, for example, resembles lettering that might have been used on a 19th-century building. And then there are the links of the Birmingham name.
“They really lean into the heritage of Pittsburgh itself — where they’re from — and it speaks to that great tradition of the Rust Belt manufacturer,” said Nicky Pessaroff, editor in chief of the magazine Pen World, using a 1970s term for the industrial region.
Yet Birmingham also typifies the modern fountain pen companies that offer alternatives to established brands like Waterman and Montblanc. There is Clyde Pen Company, for example, founded in Aberdeen, Scotland, in 2018, and Etelburg, in Budapest, operating since 2016.
In the United States, brands include the Edison Pen Co of Huron, Ohio; Scriptorium Pens in Jackson, Miss.; and River City Pen Company, in Bethel Park, Pa., just 30 miles south of Birmingham’s own workshop.
“It’s almost a throwback to an earlier era of American manufacturing where you have these start-ups all the time just popping up in an office space, creating something new, finding a niche and then just growing,” Mr. Pessaroff said.
Birmingham’s pens have a vintage-inspired shape that conveys some swagger: At about a half-inch at their widest points, they are roughly as broad as the Classique size of Montblanc’s Meisterstück pen. The colors and finishes vary, with eye-catching shades like bright pink, royal blue and turquoise (and recently, mint green swirled with lavender); speckled patterns; and metal versions in neutral hues.
They retail for $129 to $199, although models frequently go on sale on the brand’s website, its sole sales point.
To fill this kind of fountain pen, the shaft has to be unscrewed from the nib portion, revealing an insert called a converter. Birmingham’s are plastic and made in Germany. The converter uses a twisting plunger mechanism to draw ink from a bottle up into its cylindrical chamber. Once the chamber is filled, the pen pieces can be screwed back together; the ink then gradually flows down to the nib with each use.
The pens are shaped from thick rods of plastic resin that have been molded into shape on a CNC (computer numerical control) lathe in a rented garage not far from the brand’s headquarters or their parents’ home. Their father, Dan Cotherman, an environmental engineer, helps out on weekends and their mother, Dianne, a retired nurse, gets pens ready to ship and packages orders.
When the Cothermans are considering new designs, a few samples are made. If they decide to go ahead with a particular piece, they will make it to order but limit the design’s total production to 20 to 100 pieces. “We’re not a mass manufacturer, so every pen kind of has its own personality with how small of a batch we make them in,” Nick Cotherman said.
The brothers will not share their sales figures, but they say that they have sold several thousand pens since they began making them.
The brand’s inks, which start at $15 for a 60-milliliter bottle, also are made in small lots, blended in five-gallon buckets by a row of mixing machines from formulas that Josh Cotherman perfected over two years of testing.
The inks come in about 50 colors: The selection of greens, for instance, includes shades called Horseradish Mustard and Rotten Seaweed — both in the chartreuse family — as well as Cooked Spinach and Kentucky Bluegrass. There are more conventional shades too, but many have twists, like Wrought Iron, a soft black, and Supercell, a teal-tinged shade of blue. To help customers select inks, Nick Cotherman developed an online tool called Inkvestigator for the brand’s website that makes it easy to compare options.
A few distinctive formulations also are available, such as Twinkle, with a sparkly finish, and Wishy-Washy, designed to clean easily if spilled.
“It’s remarkable that there’s a demand and a market for even just tiny color shifts in fountain pen ink,” Josh Cotherman said.
The Cotherman brothers are the company’s sole full-time employees. Nick tends to focus on the pens, like attaching the German-made nibs, of which there are nearly a dozen options. He bends every pen clip by hand, too, from metal that is cut by laser. The ink is mostly Josh’s domain. And machinery is part of the process as well: A robotic apparatus tests pens and inks while an engraving device adds the brand’s logo to each pen.
Colors of both the pens and inks are, as Nick Cotherman put it, “a yin and yang” of the brothers’ stylistic choices.
“I see something super interesting and unique and I say, ‘Oh my gosh, that’s going to be amazing,’ and Josh says, ‘Nobody is going to want that.’”
“Usually,” he said, “the decision-making ends up somewhere in the middle.”