The Basics on Fine Writing Pens: The Fountain Pen Edition
Most of the customers that pass through Wallack’s are not super familiar with fountain pens. They are often seen as something that is used only for special occasions, or are completely unaffordable. While there are fountain pens that do fit within those categories, we’re here to break down the basics of these mystical pens so that everyone can find a pen that is easy to understand, love, and won’t necessarily break the bank.
Wallack’s carries one of Ottawa’s largest selections of entry-level and mid-level fountain pens that span all sorts of different aesthetic tastes and uses. Some are brightly coloured, some have special nibs, and others even conveniently collapse into pocket-sized writing instruments adorned in bronze. Cool, right?
With fountain pens growing in popularity with the rise of the journaling movement, it begs the question, just what makes a fountain pen so special?
Before we go further, it’s important to cover some terminology about the parts of a fountain pen.
There are many different styles of nibs that you can choose from when selecting a pen. Different brands will have a variety of styles, sizes, shapes and materials making up their range of nibs.
In terms of sizes, nibs can range between an extra-fine point, all the way to a bold nib, with several variations in between.
Some brands will carry nibs that come in titanium, steel or even gold. Each material will have it’s advantages beyond just looking different. Gold nibs tend to have a bit more flexibility, and will therefore give the ability to change the width of a line with a little amount of pressure, whereas steel and titanium nibs will have less bounce because the material is stiffer.
The style of the nib can drastically change the output of the written line on the paper. Some nibs will have a stubby end that is flat and angled slightly, and will produce a varied line that changes thickness as you right. This type of nib is a calligraphy nib. They can even be angled to accommodate left-hand writers!
Wings (Part of Nib)
The wings of the nib are the sides that are wrapped around the outer edge of the mechanism underneath (called the feed, see more below). The wings tightly grasp the feed and ensures that only a limited amount of ink flows from the feed at a time.
Tipping (Part of Nib)
The tipping is a small ball that is often laser-welded onto the tip of the nib. The tipping is the actual part of the nib that makes contact with the paper. It’s typically made of a strong metal material that prevents it from wearing down too quickly. When you change the size of the tipping, you are changing the boldness of the line produced.
Slit (Part of Nib)
A slit refers to the area where the nib is split into two halves. The purpose of the slit is to draw ink downward in a capillary action from the feed channel to the tipping.
Breather Hole (Part of Nib)
Not all pens will have a breather hole, but some will have one so that the ink flows in a consistent manner. The purpose of this hole is to allow air that pushes the ink.
The feed sits under the nib, and its purpose is to draw the ink from the reservoir to the tip of the pen through the channel. Under the channel you can find a series of ridges that will hold extra ink. This was created for people who write quickly, so if the ink that sits in the channel doesn’t provide a sufficient supply, the ridges will act as a back up.
Filler Hole (Part of Feed)
On the underside of the feed is a small hole right at the base where the feed meets the grip. This hole is where ink will be drawn into when you’re extracting it from an ink bottle.
The ink will travel up this hole and into the reservoir in the pen’s body.
The body of the pen is made up of the portion that houses the ink reservoir, and the grip, which is where your hand would grasp to write with the instrument. The body’s outer appearance is what makes up the pen’s general image. They can range in quite vastly in the materials chosen to make the body. They can be made of wood, plastic, metal or even stone.
They can have a more organic and ergonomic shape, or a simplified and rigid shape. The pen’s body can be heavier, often making it feel more important, or can be light and have the intended use of everyday writing.
Ink Reservoir (inside the body)
Simply put, the ink reservoir is where the ink is stored. In some cases, the ink can be stored right inside of the pen’s body, but in most cases, either a cartridge is used, or a converter, which essentially is a reusable cartridge.
Depending on the user, there are benefits and drawbacks of using either of these types of ink reservoirs.
Cartridges are a great option because they offer a mess-free solution to refilling your pen with ink. The ink is sealed into a small cavity that is pierced when you screw the pen back together after reloading. It’s a great option for beginner pen users, or for people who use their fountain pen every day and require a quick change-over after using a full cartridge. However, for the environmentally conscious, the act of having a single-use plastic material to refill their pen may not be the best solution.
Alternatively, some writers will choose to use a converter to fill their pen. In this case, a converter is a mechanism that will draw the ink up through the pen and into a reusable cavity using a plunger method. This is a great option for those who like to have a variety of different ink options, those who like to mix their own inks, or those who prefer to explore different ink brands.
On the downside, filling a converter can be a messy experience, and so it requires a little bit of trial and error to nail down the process.
If your fountain pen is brand new and you are using an ink cartridge it may take some work to get the ink to flow. When you fill a fountain pen using an ink converter or piston fill pen, the ink flows through the nib and feed filling the pen. With a cartridge the ink must flow down through the feed and nib.
The cap of the pen is necessary for the pen to function. When the cap is sealed properly, it allows the ink to stay wet. Some fountain pen caps will fit onto the pen’s body by screwing it on via a set of threads, whereas others will just click into place.
Some caps will also have a clip on them which serves to keep the pen in an upward position while being stored in someone’s pocket. The clip can also prevent the pen from rolling around on the table top. The clip is often a point of style for the pen, and can sometimes be engraved with the company's logo, or have a signature shape that only one company will use.
There is specific ink that must be used in a fountain pen. As you can see from the parts listed above, there are many small parts of a fountain pen that can easily trap dried ink. Not all types of ink can be used in a fountain pen.
Calligraphy and india inks are not designed for fountain pens. They can be corrosive and can dry to be waterproof which, in the pen overtime, can cause it to clog. Some calligraphy inks are also thicker meant for dip pens so that the ink sits up on the paper and does not bleed into the paper fibers.
Fountain pen inks are specifically designed for fountain pens so that they flow easily through the feed. These inks are not waterproof which means they will not dry and cake up the feed of nib. If fountain pen ink does dry in a pen, usually a good soak in water will clear it up, though it might take awhile. See more about cleaning below.
If you’re overwhelmed with all the different types of ink out there for fountain pens, a good place to start is always with the same brand ink as your pen.
If you don’t frequently use your fountain pen, they can clog with dried ink inside of the mechanism. Don’t fret, there is an easy way to fix this, as well as prevent it from happening in the future.
The easiest way to unclog a fountain pen is to fully disassemble the pen into all of its separate components, and soak it in warm (not hot) water. You’ll see the ink slowly be released from the different cavities that may be housing the dried ink. Let it sit in water for 24 hours, then run each part under warm running water. Reassemble the pen.
To prevent this from happening, it’s best to use your pen at least once a week.
A frequently clogged pen can be caused by a number of reasons. Most commonly, the nib may be slightly bent, allowing for extra ink buildup on the underside of the nib. In this case, you may have to have your nib replaced. It could also be that your pen was reassembled improperly, allowing air to get into spaces where it shouldn’t be.
Storing your pen properly can keep it well-maintained for years to come. For fountain pens in the higher price points, it may be worth investing in a leather pouch to keep it from scratching or from normal wear and tear.
While travelling on a plane or highly pressurized environments, keep your pen in the upright position (cap facing upward) to prevent it from leaking. Otherwise, your fountain pen can be placed horizontally in a box, too.
How to use
Some might wonder, can fountain pens just be used for writing?
These pens can also be used for sketching and drawing, too! They have the excellent quality of having a varied-width line depending on the amount of pressure the user applies, and often will make drawings have quite a bit of character and uniqueness. They’re great for small gestural drawings and highly detailed work, too.
How to hold a fountain pen
Each pen user will develop their own way of holding a fountain pen. Sometimes there are ergonomic grooves on the grip of the pen that indicate where the fingers should lie, like on the Lamy Safari Fountain Pens. But, as long as the top of the nib is facing upwards while being used, the placement of the hand can change quite a bit. Slightly shifting how the pen is held will change the outcome of the line, too!
What type of pressure to apply
While using the pen, experiment with pressure. You will quickly get a feel for how much weight to apply to your hand to change the line’s consistency. Be careful, though! You won’t want to push too hard and split the nib! Start with a lighter hold, and gradually increase pressure.
Choosing the right paper
Technically, you can write with a fountain pen on any sort of regular paper, but it will reach its fullest potential on a thicker type of cardstock, or a cotton paper. Papers that have loosely “woven” fiber tend to make the fountain pen bleed a lot more than a higher quality paper. A fountain pen releases quite a bit of ink when it’s used, so you want to find a paper that the ink will glide over instead of being absorbed and bleed out. Having a smooth and thick paper will greatly improve your experience of writing with a fountain pen.
Because fountain pens inks are water-soluble, you’ll have to stay away from plastic surfaces as the inks simply won’t stick.
Our absolute favourite choice for notebooks is the Itoya Oasis Notebooks. The notebook is filled with soft Japanese paper which is magically both thin and fountain-pen friendly.
Who is this pen for:
- People looking for an elevated experience (signing important documents, etc)
- People who are looking to make a fashion statement
- People who want something customizable by using different inks and nibs
- People looking to write in a more stylized text.
- People who want gestural drawing techniques