The Complete Beginner's Guide to Fountain Pens (2020 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 of a pen, to how to use one, cleaning, and finally storing a fountain pen. When fountain pen users start throwing around terms like nib or converter it can seem a bit daunting, but this guide has been written to cut through the confusing and give you the 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.
a) The Nib
The nib is the part of the pen that writes on the paper. Different shapes and styles of nibs can change the amount of ink distributed and the thickness of your writing line.
Most fountain pens have replaceable nibs. They 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
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. It screws into the grip and is where the ink cartridge or converter is stored.
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, but pens without caps are also available.
There are two main ways for putting ink into a fountain pen – installing ink cartridges or using a converter and bottled ink.
Cartridges are the most common and simplest approach to ink. They are a self-contained ink package that slots inside your pen. For beginners we highly recommended getting started with a cartridge pen.
An opened cartridge cannot be re-sealed, so if you are looking to change ink colour frequently this can be a problem.
Once you have installed a cartridge it can take time for the ink to fully saturate the nib which is needed before you can start writing. It can take up to an hour the nib 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.
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.
If you have a mental image of an old fashioned writer dipping a pen in an ink bottle then you are thinking of a fountain pen with a converter.
Using ink bottles are preferred for writers who go through lots 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, but due to cost we recommend purchasing a few different converters if rotating between different colours frequently. It also means that you will lose less ink than if you had to flush the converter every time you want to change colours.
Hold the pen nib comfortably 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.
It is also important to keep in mind the pressure you apply to the paper. Fountain pens require less pressure than ballpoint pens. Applying too much pressure can even damage your fountain pen over time.
Practice makes perfect and whe using a fountain pen. Modern-day fountain pens are easy to use and can closely mimic ballpoint pen behaviour. The key areas to focus on 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 to better balance the pen.
We recommend cleaning your pen every two months to remove any foreign particles, such as dust, that can clog your pen over time and lead to low ink flow and poor quality writing.
To clean your pen you will need to disassemble it and rinse it thoroughly with clean water. Then place the pen in a glass of clean water, when the water changes colour due to 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.
After a lifetime of using ballpoint pens it can take some time for writing with fountain pens to feel natural. We always recommend trying out with different nibs and ink colour and quality to find what feels comfortable to you.
It is also important to write at different angles and different pressures to figure out how to best use your pen.
There are big differences in performance with changes to ink quality. Different inks have differences in viscosity, flow, colour, and cost. Finding an ink that suits your style best is one of the best parts of owning a fountain pen.
Changing nib sizes can also make big changes to your pen style, as going from an extra fine nib to an extra broad nib will change how your pen writes and the look of your writing. Calligraphy sets often come with a series of nibs to give you more options.
Does Fountain Pen Ink take longer to dry?
Yes, generally this is true. There are some specially designed fast-drying inks. The type of paper you are writing on also impacts on the drying speed.
Having said that many fountain pen ink types take only a few seconds to dry. Some inks have a smudge test after one, two, five, 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. Using specialty fountain pen paper will improve your writing and reduce drying times but it is not absolutely critical.
It is worth noting that fountain pens can struggle to write on some plastic that a ballpoint pen might work on.
Do Fountain Pens write upside down?
No. Ink in fountain pens are gravity-fed so writing upside down or even at a high angle is unlikely to work.
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?
That 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 can be cleaned from a pen by rinsing it in 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 affordable, well made, durable, and write well. They also have a moulded grip that helps keep your fingers in the correct position to write. They are a good pen to practice with and then upgrade from later.
What is the best way to transport fountain pen on a plane?
The main concern with fountain pens in a plane is that ink may leak due to changes in cabin pressure. With modern fountain pens this is unlikely but 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
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 allowing ink to flow
- 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. If you are looking to change colours very frequently then it might make more sense to keep multiple converters so you do not lose 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 including a 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 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 the 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.