Are you a writing enthusiast who appreciates the elegance and precision of fountain pens? Or are you just sick of using an Ipad or tablet and want to reconnect with the simple art of writing? If so, read on - this guide is for you.
Different people consider the fountain pen in different ways. Some think it is an outdated instrument and we should all be using a ballpoint pen or tech gadget to make notes, some see it is a mystical art that is too difficult to master and is therefore a waste of time. Then there are true fountain pen lovers, who see simply see it as a pen that allows you to write and take notes while thoroughly enjoying the experience.
Most people have really bad handwriting and this is generally because they are writing fast and just want to get notes down quickly. Fountain pen users know that you cannot rush writing with a fountain pen, the pen forces you to slow down and think about what you are writing. Yes it takes more time, but it also gives you time to express yourself and be creative. And it improves your handwriting because of this.
So what if you're interested and want to try a fountain pen but don't know where to start? A quick google search will bring up article after article with technical jargon that is not much help. Here we'll keep it simple and to the point. Let's dive in and find out what fountain pens are all about.
A Brief History of the Fountain Pen
Here we're talking about the 'modern' fountain pen. If you would like to find out how the fountain pen fits into the history of pens, check out our fascinating blog 'The History of Pens'.
Who Invented the Fountain pen?
Most perople attribute Lewis Waterman to inventing the fountain pen in 1884. It was actually a man named Frederick Fölsch, who is widely recognised to have invented the fountain pen long before Waterman. Frederick Fölsch's patent, filed in 1809, was for a feed system that allowed ink to flow freely from a reservoir to the nib without the need to frequently dip the pen in ink. This patent would begin the revolution from dip pens to fountain pens as we know them today.
Unfortunately there was not a lot of commercial success at the time, and a problem remained with the feed mechanism; it was not reliable, and wasn't a great writing experience. An improved feed mechanism was required, but it was slow going because it was not fully understood how important air pressure was to the regulation of ink flow. There are a slew of patents around the start of the 1800s for various designs and feeds trying to overcome this problem.
Small improvements were made over the next few decades, as new manufacturing techniques were discovered. AT Cross, an American manufacturer brought out the Cross 'Peerless' which claimed to provide a fountain pen with 'unmatched technology and design' further improving on the ideas that came before.
Lewis Waterman and the Nib Feed
However problems remained, with the biggest being leakage from the nib, preventing them from becoming truly successful. It would be a man named Lewis Edson Waterman, an insurance salesman in the 1880s, who would go on to find the solution to the leaking ink feed. The story goes, that when Waterman was in the middle of signing a big contract with a client, his pen leaked all over the contract. While he was looking for a new pen, the client left and signed with another agent. Waterman was so angered, that he decided to develop his own fountain pen to solve the problem himself.
Newell Rubbermaid, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Although this is unfortunately just a story, we do know that he did patent his improved fountain pen feed system, the 'three fissure feed' in 1884. Lewis was first to understand the role of air pressure and the function of capillary action in nib feeds and his three fissure feed allowed an effective exchange between the ink going one way and air replacing it in the other direction. Later he founded the Waterman company. Waterman is widely recognised as first to develop a refined Fountain pen that could be mass manufactured, was reliable as a writing utensil and ink leakage was no longer a major issue.
Reservoir Filling Systems
One major problem with dip pens was that they had to be frequently dipped, and the first mass manufactured fountain pens were still being filled with an eye dropper, which was slow and messy.
Roy Conklin developed the crescent filler in 1897 to solve the fiddly filling process. Conklin's Crescent filler was a new innovation which used suction to draw ink through the nib into a rubber sac; this vastly improved the convenience of a fountain pen. You can see the image below shows the same system in their pens today - you dip your nib into ink, push the crescent button to empty the ink sac of air, then release the button slowly and as the air sac reflates, it draws ink in through the nib.
Such was the success of his new invention that Mark Twain, author and writer, approved the design. So impressed with the Crescent filler was Twain that he became the official spokesperson for the Conklin brand.
Here is the Conklin Crescent filler pen today, it still uses the same design all these years later.
Ink Leakage and Improvements
Parker is another pen company renowned for its innovations that helped push the fountain pen forward. A big problem with fountain pens was that once you had finished writing, there was always excess ink still in the nib. You would inevitably put the cap on and leave the pen to itself. Upon coming back, you would remove the cap and often find that the nib had leaked ink everywhere. Parker solved this problem with the 'Lucky Curve', its own unique feed system, which was shaped with a curve in the feed to touch the inside of the barrel, allowing capillary action to draw the excess ink from the nib back into the pen reservoir after use, helping to eliminate ink leaks that ruined many a pocket.
1898 parker catalog, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
They also released a pen called the Parker Jointless, named because the barrel was just one piece of material, with no join, to prevent leakage from another problem area of the pen. They continued to adapt and improve their designs and it is this constant drive to improve that helped them become the most successful pen company in the world.
"it will always be possible to make a better pen." - George Safford Parker, Parker Pen Company 1892 - present
Quink Then and Now - First Image - Mike Burger, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons
The Piston Filler and the Ink Cartridge
Piston fillers were investigated and incrementally improved upon in the 1800s but their popularity grew with Pelikan Pens after their acquisition of a patent that Hungarian, Theodor Kovacs owned for a piston filler with a differential piston mechanism. In 1929 they released their first piston filler pen. Turn the nob at the end and it draws a piston up the barrel via a screw, in turn drawing ink into the nib via suction.
Image Source: Joshua E. Danley and The Pelikan’s Perch
This mechanism is so simple and effective, it is still used today in many pens and converters. Here is a Waterman Fountain pen converter, current model as of 2023.
The ink cartridge was invented in 1890 but we would have to wait until a suitable material was developed before we could use them in a pen. In 1953, Waterman finally created a plastic cartridge which was able to be fitted into a pen. Its only real limitation being that it had a smaller capacity than a standard piston fill pen. At this point, their popularity and convenience meant piston fillers were only used by people who valued the capacity of ink in their barrels such as writers and journalists. For most others, the cartridge capacity would be fine.
Capless Fountain Pens
The introduction of the ballpoint pen in the mid 1900s should have sounded the death knell for fountain pens, and indeed their use did drop dramatically. The convenience of a retractable ballpoint pen was seemingly unbeatable and ballpoint pens were becoming the pen of choice for the vast majority.
Current Release of the Pilot Capless Fountain Pen - 2023
In response to this, Pilot Pen Company designed a retractable fountain pen. 'The Capless' in 1963, later changed to the Vanishing Point for better marketing. A fun and versatile variation of the fountain pen which aimed to recapture market share and help bring people back to the fountain pen. This pen is still one of the best selling fountain pens today, such is its popularity.
Designs and Materials
In the 1950s, celluloid took over from hard rubber, and meant that pens could now be designed with fancy barrels and new colours. Today when we look at pens, fountain pens in particular come in a wide array of colours and are sometimes intricately designed, using a variety of materials and precious stones. This Visconti Blue Lagoon is made from Clear and Opaque Resin and Sterling Silver. It is a Demonstrator pen, meaning you can see inside the pen to the piston filler; a nifty function that also allows you to see the ink colour of your pen.
Anatomy of a Fountain Pen
Nib - The nib is the part of the pen that comes into contact with the paper. It can be made from a variety of materials such as Steel, Iridium, Gold, Palladium and Titanium, each have different properties, like flexibility and corrosion resistance.
Feed and collector - The feed and connector are one unit. It is the black plastic component that the metal nib sits on top of. The feed is what connects the nib to the reservoir and allows ink to pass through while also allowing air to pass in the opposite direction to maintain the balance of pressure. The feathered fins at the bottom collect excess ink from the reservoir and prevent to much flowing at once.
Barrel - the part of the pen that houses the ink reservoir.
Ink reservoir - the space inside the barrel that holds the ink or where an ink cartridge will take up when inserted.
Breather Hole - Serves to allow space for air to travel back into the pen to replace ink that has been used. It also adds a measure of flexibility to the 2 tines of the nib which aids in the writing experience.
Tines - these are the 2 sides of the nib, either side of the slit.
Slit - this is the space between the 2 tines of the nib and allows ink to travel from the feed down the nib to the paper via capillary action. Capillary action in this way is effective only if the space between the tines is accurate. They should not touch - if they touch or are too far apart, the pen will likely skip.
Tipping Material - this is usually a material that provides low friction, such as iridium, gold or Osmium. Other material are also used, and the material affects how smooth the writing will be.
How to choose a Fountain Pen
As a beginner, it is best to not get caught up in all the intricacies of different fountain pens and brands. You first want to find a simple pen that uses cartridge ink at a relatively cheap price.
We, and many others, recommend a few beginner pens.
The Lamy Safari, Platinum Preppy or Pilot Metropolitan
While not exactly the most striking, these fountain pens are popular for beginners because they are inexpensive, their nibs and ink come in a range of sizes and colours respectively, and the pen is a nice size to learn with. Stick with a medium nib and you'll get a good ink flow as a beginner while you learn what angles work best for you and how quickly you can write.
Your aim at first is to find a comfortable position, pressure and speed that works. It might take a bit of experimenting and you'll likely have to go through the 'scratchy' period where the nib doesn't contact the paper correctly. Once you are comfortable with writing, you can look at changing your nib to suit the size of your writing style.
Small writing - Extra Fine, Fine, Medium
Larger writing - Medium, Broad, Extra Broad, Stub
We have written a helpful guide on nib types in our article A Beginners Fountain Pen Nib Guide. Check it out for a more detailed analysis of nib widths and materials.
Pressure is important
Fountain pens react very differently to pressure compared with a ballpoint which you are probably used to using. Where a ballpoint requires a bit of pressure to get the ink to flow, a fountain pen will need next to no pressure, it should flow over the page with the lightest touch. This is why writing with fountain pens is so enjoyable, it should be effortless.
Note: Too much pressure can damage the nib as it can push the tines apart. The space between the tines is very important; it supports the capillary action of the ink and must be correct.
Why choose a piston fill or converter over cartridges?
While ink cartridges are very convenient, extremely cheap and changing them is simple, they do have a few disadvantages.
The capacity of a Fountain Pen ink cartridge is extremely limited, they will often require changing very frequently, even if you don't write a lot. They also limit you to the most popular standard ink colours, like Blue, Black, Red, Green and Purple for example. (Parker pens do offer larger capacity cartridges but they only fit Parker pens so you need to own a Parker to use them. As do Lamy Fountain Pens.)
As a beginner this is fine; you are just beginning to understand the Fountain pen world and extra choices like ink colours and ink types will only add complexity to your job of learning to write with a fountain pen.
As you become more confident though, you will want to experiment with new inks and you can do this with a cartridge pen, you simply need a piston converter.
Converters also have limited capacity, they are approx the same size as cartridges but they are more flexible in terms of ink ranges. If for example you have a Parker pen, you must use special Parker Ink cartridges. If you use a converter, you can then use almost any brand of ink in almost any colour imaginable. Check out these colour swatches for Robert Oster Inks.
If you decide to buy a pen with a piston filler or similar, you open up a whole world of extravagant ink ranges and colours, some even have glitter, so you can really find an ink that showcases your mood or the feel of the writing. These pens can be more expensive though so be prepared.
This is where the fun starts. So you've decided to use a fountain pen converter or have splashed out on a piston fill pen! Now it's time to find your perfect ink.
Brand and Quality: There are numerous ink brands available in the market, ranging from well-established ones to smaller boutique brands. By choosing a reputable brands you can be confident you're getting a quality ink that is less likely to cause issues with your fountain pen. Do some research and read reviews before making your choice.
Ink Composition: Fountain pen inks are usually made of water, dye or pigment. Dye-based inks are more common and offer a wider range of colors, but they may be less permanent and more prone to fading over time. Pigment-based inks, on the other hand, are usually more permanent and resistant to fading, but they may be thicker and can sometimes clog the pen's nib. It is also very difficult to wash this ink off your hands and clothes if spilled.
Ink Properties: Different fountain pen inks may have varying properties that can affect your writing experience. For example, some inks may have a higher or lower viscosity, which can impact ink flow and saturation. Others may dry faster or slower, depending on their formulation, some may have a sheen effect, and some even contain a glitter, metallic particles to make your writing shine. Be careful with some of these, they can clog pens if you don't keep them clean after use.
Pen Manufacturer's Recommendations: If you want to play it safe, some fountain pen brands provide recommendations for the type of ink that works best with their pens. It's always a good idea to check the manufacturer's guidelines, as using incompatible inks can potentially damage your pen or affect its performance.
Preference: Lastly, choose something you like, or choose multiple inks for different occasions. You can even have a couple of cheap fountain pens with different inks in. It's all about customising your own experience. That's where fountain pens really shine.
For a deep dive into fountain pen inks, check out our article about the inkredible world of fountain pen inks.
You can also check out our comprehensive fountain pen collection including pens from popular brands such as Parker, aswell as more niche companies like Noodler's.
What makes a fountain pen unique?
There’s a feeling of prestige when writing with a fountain pen - offering a personalised, handwritten effect. Unlike rollerball pens which use liquid/gel-based ink, fountain pens utilise a lavish ink that provides the smoothest writing experience.
Given their timeless nature, fountain pens are stylish and aesthetically pleasing - many premium brands like Waterman and Parker have a profusion of unique shapes and designs. As a result, many fountain pens are seen as collectables, curated and collected by many hobbyists and pen aficionados.
What’s the difference between fountain pen nibs?
Every Brand has a slightly different set of nibs for their pens. Parker for example offer a Fine and a Medium for their range of Parker IM Fountain Pens, but for their mid range Parker Sonnet Fountain Pens they offer a larger range of Extra Fine, Fine, Medium, Broad, Broad Italic, Medium Italic, Medium Oblique and Medium Reverse Oblique.
Lamy and Kaweco are two popular brands which also offer a large range of nib sizes. One confusing aspect of choosing a nib size is that a Parker Medium may not give the same line width as a Lamy medium and so on. They might also write very differently in terms of feel and flow. Another factor to consider is nib material - gold is considered the best material due to its flexibility and smoothness, but a lot of nibs are made from steel and iridium at the cheap end. These are still good nibs provided you stick with an well know pen company. This is why it is so important to experiment to find what works best.
To discover more about different nibs, their properties and how to find the right one for you, read our fantastic blog The Beginners Guide to Fountain Pen Nibs.
Disadvantages of Fountain Pens:
While fountain pens are exquisite and comfortable - apt for elegant writing, they do have a few limitations. Fountain pens require a lot more maintenance than a regular ballpoint or rollerball pen, for example, it’s recommended that fountain pens are fully cleaned at least once a month - more if you are using shimmer/glitter ink or any specialist ink which is prone to clogging a fountain pen.
Fountain pens also have a bit of a learning curve; if you are willing to put the time in then this may not be considered a limitation. Nevertheless it is wise to note that fountain pens are not considered as convenient as other types of pen.
Fountain pens, particularly those with delicate nibs, can be more fragile compared to other types of pens. The nib, which is the part that touches the paper, can be easily bent or damaged if mishandled or dropped. Some fountain pens may also have more intricate mechanisms that can be prone to wear and tear over time. But look after them and you'll get a lifetime of joy when writing with them.
It’s not common, but if bouncing around your pocket, or exposed to hot weather, a fountain pen is prone to leakage more than any other pen type. Look out for tips on how to store and handle fountain pens on our blog.
What brand of fountain pen to choose:
There is a wide range of designer fountain pens online, including major brands such as Cross, Waterman and Parker fountain pens. There are also a host of smaller boutique Fountain pen brands, such as Kaweco Pens and specialist fountain pen brands like Conklin Pen Co, and Platinum Japan who are renowned for quality fountain pens. If you’re looking for a luxury fountain pen gift, we have a wide range of stainless steel and sterling silver fountain pens.
Germany Pen Company, Otto Hutt offer amazing luxury fountain pens in Sterling silver. German nib quality is second to none, with many coming gold or palladium plated. The Otto Hutt Fountain Pen Collection, offers a modern and contemporary aesthetic with many of their pens based on the Bauhaus style.
Finding the right fountain is a completely personal experience, below is a selection of fountain pens that are top sellers on our market.
Parker Jotter Originals
First introduced in 1954, typically, when you think of a Parker pen you’ll most likely think of the iconic Parker Jotter. A practical yet affordable, stylish and fun fountain pen with a sleek, stainless steel design - the Jotter is a staple range from Parker that has been known and loved by many a writer and doodler. This Parker Jotter fountain pen has a stainless steel cap that is paired with a glossy, colourful barrel - the revamped Parker Jotter Fountain pen is inexpensive and a perfect beginner pen for using every day.
Highly professional and polished, the Parker IM fountain pen is an ideal partner, utilised with a hard-wearing, stainless steel medium nib. Ideal as a starter pen. The Parker IM has a tapered silhouette for ergonomic writing, finished with a range of glossy lacquer and classic brushed metal finishes. The fountain pen is complete with a luxury, redesigned Parker gift box.
A deep and sumptuous design with a graceful appeal, the Waterman Hemisphere is a must-have for any pen devotee. The Waterman fountain pen is a modern accessory that perfectly matches any time or place. Finished with a rich lacquers and brushed steels, its slim aesthetic showcases a sophisticated statement of personality and style. Across its body are twenty-three-carat gold plated trims with a gold bevelled end cap.
Otto Hutt Design 02The Otto Hutt Design 02 range features a curvaceous, cigar-shaped design synonymous with luxury pens and a high polished, striking finish. Crafted with the finest 925 Sterling Silver, each Otto Hutt pen features its own 6 digits serial number, uniquely identifying your specific pen. All Otto Hutt fountain pens are beautifully made with precise German craftsmanship. The Design 2 is presented in a luxury Otto Hutt gift box with a silver cleaning cloth and writes in blue ink, available with a fine, medium or broad nib.
Cross Classic Century
Authentic and with a group of passionate fans who remain loyal to this iconic design, the Cross Classic Century has undergone a transformation for 2019 with minimalist colour schemes and intricate engraved patterns. This Cross Classic Century Brushed Chrome fountain pen has a unique engine-turned patterned body that is layered in a satin-brushed PVD coating for an eye-catching finish. With this reliable Classic Century in your hand, no task is too great to overcome, whether it is making your signature on an important deal or jotting down your goals and ideas for the future. Presented in a luxury Cross gift box.
The beloved Sheaffer Vibrant, Fun, and Modern fountain pen has experienced a modern-day makeover with a new polished chrome finishes and a stylish tapered silhouette. The effortlessly elegant VFM fountain pen certainly makes a statement, available in a wide range of sophisticated finishes with a fun and modern look appealing to the larger audience. The fountain pen writes with flawless, smooth grace and a great starter pen.
Drawing inspiration from another of the world's most famous artists, the Visconti Rembrandt fountain pen echoes the beautiful finishes of Rembrandt’s painting technique, chiaroscuro, which is characterised by the contrast between light and dark. The fountain’s resin barrel reveals a multitude of beautiful shades which gives the impression of a hand-painted masterpiece worthy of Rembrandt himself, creating a unique finish to each individual pen. Presented in a beautiful gift box, the fountain pen comes with a steel nib available in fine, medium or broad. You can use cartridge inks or bottled inks with the Visconti converter.
Kaweco Brass Sport
The Kaweco Brass Sport fountain pen closely follows an original 1935 octagonal design of being small in your pocket, large in your hand. The fountain is crafted from solid, untreated CNC machined brass that will age over time unless polished, otherwise, it will develop its own unique sheen. The stainless steel nib is made by Bock of Heidelberg and nib sizes range from extra fine to extra broad. Packaged in a nostalgic gift tin. Kaweco are a brand with an illustrious history, their pens are manufactured to the same exacting standard and make a wonderful addition to your collection.
A perfect marriage between luxury and style, the Monteverde Invincia fountain pen asserts a combination of colour contrasted with simplicity in a timeless, classic design that complements past, present and future fashion styles. Expertly made using carbon fibre, each facet of the pen has been painstakingly created and rigorously quality checked to ensure the fountain pen is nothing short of perfect. Presented in a luxury gift box, the pen writes a medium steel nib with a modern black finish to the nib
How do I refill my fountain pen?
As fountain pens require periodic ink refills, you will need to know how to refill them. Fountain pens are unique because they can either be refilled with ink cartridges or retrofitted with a converter and refilled with bottled ink.
Firstly, you needed to acquire the specific ink cartridge refill that suits your fountain pen’s size and brand. For example, the Waterman Hemisphere fountain pen uses short Waterman fountain pen cartridges, and Parker fountain pens use a Parker ink cartridges. You can also use a branded converter along with almost any bottled ink you prefer.
Once you’ve acquired the right ink cartridge or inkpot, hold your fountain pen up horizontally, pull off the cap and screw off the barrel.
If you’re using cartridge ink: remove the used cartridge from the grip section and insert the new cartridge into the back of the grip where the feed is. Screw the barrel back on and hold the pen up vertically for a couple of minutes and then start writing. Difficulty: Very Easy
Tip: Make sure you feel the 'pop' of the cartridge as the ball seal is punctured to ensure it is securely seated. Otherwise it may come loose.
If you’re using bottled ink: Fit your converter into the pen as you would an ink cartridge. Then submerge the pen’s nib into your bottled ink. Either screw or push the piston filler to draw ink into your converter. Clean any excess ink, screw the barrel back on and hold the pen up vertically for a couple of minutes to allow capillary action to feed ink into the nib and then you're good to write. Difficulty: Easy
How do I clean a fountain pen?
As you refill your fountain pen periodically, you’ll need to maintain the cleanliness of your pen, ensuring that it can function accordingly. You should fully clean your fountain pen around four times per year or more if you are switching ink types and colours regularly. To do so, follow these simple steps:
Disassemble the pen: If your fountain pen is a cartridge/converter type, unscrew the barrel and remove the converter or cartridge. If it's a piston-filling or eyedropper pen, follow the manufacturer's instructions to disassemble it properly.
Flush the nib with water: Fill a clean cup or container with lukewarm water. Dip the nib section of the pen into the water, and then repeatedly flush water through the pen by gently squeezing the converter or the piston, or by dipping the nib in and out of the water. This will help to flush out any residual ink from the nib and feed.
Use a bulb syringe or converter: If you have a bulb syringe, you can use it to force water through the pen to clean the nib thoroughly. Alternatively, you can also use the fountain pen's converter to flush water through the nib by repeatedly filling and emptying it with water.
Remove stubborn ink residue: If there are still stubborn ink residues in the nib, you can use a soft toothbrush or a nib cleaning cloth to gently scrub the nib and feed. Be careful not to apply excessive pressure or bend the nib.
Dry the nib: Once the nib and feed are clean, use a clean, lint-free cloth or paper towel to gently dry them. Make sure they are completely dry before reassembling the pen.
Reassemble the pen: Put the pen back together by reattaching the nib section to the barrel or reinserting the converter or cartridge. Make sure all the parts are securely fastened.
Test the pen: Before you start writing with the pen again, make sure to test it by dipping the nib in ink and writing on a piece of paper to ensure smooth ink flow.
Using a fountain pen is a unique and personal experience, as the smooth ink flow and the tactile sensation of writing on paper create a connection between the writer and the words they put on the page. Each nib slowly conforms to a users writing styles (so much so that you should never share your fountain pen). Fountain pens offer a level of customization with their diverse nib options, ink choices, and materials, allowing writers to express their individuality and creativity in their writing.
Fountain pens are not only functional writing instruments, but also objects of art, creativity and personal expression. Whether you're a seasoned fountain pen enthusiast or a newcomer to this timeless writing tool, exploring the world of fountain pens can open up a whole new world of writing enjoyment. So, embrace the beauty of fountain pens, discover their rich history, find the perfect pen that speaks to you, and let your words flow effortlessly onto the page. Happy writing!