Fountain Pens


A fountain pen is defined as a pen with an internal reservoir of liquid ink. If you’ve ever used a dip pen, you can appreciate the benefits of this deceptively simple idea.

In general, it seems to be only those pens with a direct line of descent from the dip pen and its shaped metal writing element (properly called a pen, but more commonly referred to as a nib) that are called fountain pens. This includes cartridge pens (the cartridge is a removable reservoir). Technical pens, with their needle-like capillary tube, are not commonly included, nor are those few ball-points or felt-tip markers that contain liquid ink instead of paste or an aborbent core.

The business end of a typical modern fountain pen

With very few exceptions, fountain pens are made to be refilled. They are not disposable. This, to me, is important. Not only is it environmentally friendly, it also allows you to become fond of a pen, to adapt to it, to work out what it can do. The refills are direct and as free of surplus packaging and commercial control as possible (you can put Waterman ink into a Parker; you can use ink from small or specialist suppliers; you can choose different colours, different properties… ). Even a cartridge can be refilled (using a syringe), or you can buy an inexpensive converter.

A fountain pen often seems to have its own character. This will be inherent to a certain model and may also develop with time (an extreme case: I wore down, through sheer use, the steel nib of the Schaeffer I had while I was at school, until it would only write at one very specific angle). Some nibs are designed to be very constant, irrespective of angle or pressure; others give a variable line width. Italic and calligraphy nibs do this by having a flattened tip (italic nibs are angled at around 45°, while (Western) calligraphy nibs are a blunt 90°). Oriental calligraphy nibs are made with a curious hook or upturn of the nib, allowing the user to roll the pen in a way that mimics a brush stroke. These are called “Fude” (Japanese for writing brush) or “Fude de Mannen” (which I understand to mean writing brush variety of fountain pen) pens. Flexible nibs, used in copperplate handwriting, make variable width lines by bending and allowing the tines to separate, so making a broader mark. Few modern nibs are flexible; this is supposedly because too many of us have got used to writing with ballpoint pens, which often require us to press hard to get any ink out.

In the heyday of the fountain pen, nibs were often made of gold, which would – apparently – flex beautifully. Most modern nibs are steel, which is far stronger and more durable as well as being less expensive, but it is possible to design at least some “flex” into a steel nib.

A note on how Fountain pens work

Fountain pens are basically a small bottle of ink with a special stopper, called a feed, that regulates the flows of ink and air through narrow channels etched or moulded into it. A full description of how it works can be found here.

The important thing to know is the feed will only work if those narrow channels are open and free-flowing.

Fountain pen ink is designed both to have the right viscosity for the feed and to avoid clogging the narrow, inaccessible channels of the feed with particulate matter. For this reason, the colourants in fountain pen ink are usually highly soluble in water.

In general, ink colourants can be split into two categories:

  • dyes, which dissolve in water
  • pigments, which do not dissolve in water, and are typically particles carried in suspension

Pigment inks are not generally recommended for fountain pens as they may leave particles stuck in the feed that are difficult to dislodge. Inks with binders like shellac are even worse: if the binder hardens inside the feed, it will be irrevocally ruined.

This is why you should only ever put fountain pen ink in a fountain pen.

In my next post, I’ll discuss some exceptions to this rule.