The Complete Beginner's Guide to Fountain Pens (2019 Update)
Fountain Pens are the embodiment of preferring quality over efficiency, patience over haste, and a solid appreciation for old-world style. They provide a beautiful approach for anyone to give some class to their signatures, handwritten letters, calligraphy, or general writing.
This is the total beginner's guide to all things fountain pens from the anatomy, to use, cleaning, and storage. It can be a little daunting when thinking about getting a fountain pen when strange words like converter and nib get thrown around. This guide is written to answer these questions and to give you the full confidence to dive into the wonderful world of fountain pens.
If you are keen to get your first fountain pen then have a look through our full store at Fountain Pens Online.
1) Anatomy of a Fountain Pen
a) The Nib
The nib is the part of the pen that touches the paper when writing. The shape and style of the nib is important as it changes the amount of ink distributed and hence the thickness of the line you are writing.
Nibs can come in many different materials and styles and are ranked from extra-fine to extra broad.
- Extra Fine – 0.5 mm
- Fine – 0.6 mm
- Medium – 0.75 mm
- Broad – 0.9 mm
- Extra Broad – 1.1 mm
Most fountain pens have replaceable nibs.
b) The Grip
The grip is the place where you hold onto the pen. This can be made from a variety of materials for style, aesthetics, and comfort.
c) The Barrel
The barrel is the back end of the pen and is a structural component and screws into the grip. The ink cartridge or converter is kept within the barrel.
d) The Cap
The Cap or Lid covers and protects the nib when not in use. Most fountain pens are designed for the pen to be written with the cap attached to the barrel from a balance point of view. There are also capless pens available.
2) Install the Ink on a Fountain Pen
There are two main options for putting ink into a fountain pen - using ink cartridges or using a converter with bottled ink.
Cartridges are the most common and simplest approach to ink. They are a self-contained ink package that slots inside your pen. They are highly recommended for beginners.
Cartridges cannot be re-sealed when partway full, so if you are looking to change colours frequently this can be a problem.
Once you have installed a cartridge it can take some time for the ink to fully saturate so it might not start writing straight away. It can take up to an hour to get completely filled depending on the ink and temperature.
Not all cartridges are compatible with all fountain pens due to their length and diameter - so make sure you have gotten the correct brand/type.
Quick tip – most cartridges have a plastic seal that must be broken by gently pressing the cartridge towards the nib. We have had some confusion about cartridges not fitting because they have not been correctly installed by breaching the plastic allowing the ink to flow.
b) Bottles and Converters
A converter is a refillable device that draws ink from a bottle. These generally come in either piston or squeeze converters.
Using ink bottles are preferable if you go through a lot of ink as they are cheaper in the long run. They also offer more colour options compared to cartridges.
Converters can be cleaned and washed with water to remove residual ink before colour changes, although due to their cost it is recommended to purchase a few different ones if rotating between different colours frequently. This also means that you lose less ink than if you had to flush the converter every time you want to change colours.
The use of a converter with an ink bottle is the most stereotypical image most people have of using a fountain pen as it most closely mimics the old fashioned practices.
3) How to Hold a Fountain Pen
Hold the pen nib comfortable in your hand with the nib at 45 degrees from the paper surface. It is also critical to make sure both nib tines are in contact with the paper, so don't rotate the pen while writing.
Also, keep in mind the pressure applied. Fountain pens require less pressure than ballpoint pens, in fact applying too much pressure can damage the pen over time.
Practice makes perfect and this is true of using a fountain pen. Modern-day fountain pens are very easy to use and closely mimic ballpoint pen behaviour. The key areas to focus is keeping the nib straight and at the correct angle.
Some fountain pens are also designed to be used with the cap placed on the back of the pen from a balance point of view.
4) How to Maintain a Fountain Pen
We recommend cleaning your pen every 2 months to remove any foreign particles, such as dust, that can clog your pen over time resulting in poor quality writing and low ink flow.
This can be done by disassembling your pen and rinsing it thoroughly with clean flushing water. The pen can then be placed in a glass of clean water. When the water changes colour from the ink then replace it. Keep replacing the water until all of the ink has been removed. This generally only takes a few hours.
Cleaning or replacing the converter is also suggested when changing colours or inks.
5) Practice Makes Perfect
It can take some time for writing with fountain pens to feel natural. We always recommend practicing and experimenting with different nibs and ink colours.
Try writing at different angles and different pressures to figure out how your unique pen writes best.
There is a big difference in performance with changes in ink quality. All inks have slight changes in viscosity, flow, colour, and cost. Finding the ink that suits your style best is one of the best parts of owning a fountain pen.
Changing nib sizes is also fascinating as going from extra fine to extra broad will severely change the behaviour of your pen and the look of your writing. Calligraphy sets often come with a series of nibs to give you more options.
6) Frequently Asked Questions
Does Fountain Pen Ink take longer to dry?
Yes, generally this is true. There are some specially designed faster-drying inks. The type of paper you are writing on also impacts on the drying speed. Having said that it is generally only a few seconds to dry.
Some inks display a smudge test after 1,2,5, and 10 seconds to show the drying speed and how likely it is for a smudge to occur.
Do I need special Fountain Pen paper?
No, fountain pens will work on most normal paper. For best results, then fountain pen paper will improve your writing, drying time, etc. but it is not absolutely critical. Fountain pens can struggle to write on some plastics that a ballpoint pen might work.
Do Fountain Pens write upside down?
No. Fountain Pens use gravity so writing upside down or even at a high angle is problematic.
What is the difference between an ink cartridge and an ink converter?
An ink cartridge is a pre-filled cylinder of ink that is loaded into a fountain pen, consumed and thrown away. A converter is an empty cylinder that can be loaded from a bottle of ink, consumed and re-used.
How long does a fountain pen cartridge last?
It depends on the size of the cartridge, the nib size (a broad nib releases more ink than a fine nib), your writing style, and the type of ink.
How do you Clean a Fountain Pen?
Fountain pen inks are water-based so they can be cleaned from a fountain pen by rinsing it under clean water. We also recommend soaking the pen for a few hours in clean, cold water, and replacing the water until the dirty water stays clean to remove every last drop of ink.
What is the best Fountain Pen for Beginners?
We recommend LAMY Safari, as they are very affordable, well made, durable, and write well. They also have a moulded grip that forces your fingers into the correct position to write with. They are a good pen to practice with and then upgrade from later.
How to Transport Fountain Pens on a plane?
The main concern is that the ink leaks due to changes in cabin pressure. With modern fountain pens this is less likely to happen, however, if you are worried than we suggest the following options:
- Remove and Ink and flush the pen with clean water
- Pack with the nib standing upright
- Put the pen in a ziplock bag/plastic sandwich bag
My brand new fountain pen does not work!
It is pretty uncommon that a brand new fountain pen will not work, however, it does happen from time to time. Here are a few ideas to try:
- Flush the nib with clean water to remove any potential foreign particles
- Make sure the cartridge is all the way in and the plastic seal has been broken
- Prime the ink by holding the pen with the nib down - it can take 10-60 mins for the ink to flow (depending on the viscosity) and fill the pen and nib
Do I need to change converters when changing ink colours?
No. Fountain pen inks are water-based so you can flush the converter with clean water. You should also flush the fountain pen and nib with clean water to remove residual ink as well. If you are looking to change colours very frequently then it might make more sense to keep multiple converters so you do not lose so much ink every time you switch.
Why does my fountain pen skip?
Skipping is when the ink flow does not keep up with the pen stroke and runs out of ink. This can occur for a variety of reasons, such as damaged or misaligned nib, or foreign particles blocking the internals. The first step is to flush the nib with clean water. You might also want to consider a thinner ink if this is an ongoing problem.
Why are fountain pens worth it?
Fountain pens bring elegance, and class to what has become a tedious and commonplace task – writing. Turning a boring task into an enjoyable hobby is a fantastic experience. A fountain pen is a great piece of engineering, particularly modern design. For the kind of person who values patience and quality over speed and quantity then upgrading to a fountain pen is a great idea.
What are the best fountain pen brands?
We might be biased but based on cost, quality, ease of use, and access we recommend LAMY, Kaweco, Faber-Castell, and Pilot.
If you are excited to dive into the world of fountain pens then have a look at our store at Fountain Pens Online. If you are still confused then ask us a question below and we will strive to answer it.