The earliest mention of a pen with an ink reservoir dates back to the 10th century, when the caliph of Maghreb in Northwest Africa requested a solution for keeping his hand clean while writing. The caliph’s messy situation emerged from the quill-and-ink format and other writing utensils without ink reservoirs that were popular at the time. From there, various versions of fountain-like pens were set into motion, but it wasn’t until Lewis Waterman’s patented version hit the market in 1884 that a truly reliable, efficient model was born. Fountain pens continued as the dominant writing instrument until the ballpoint pen’s reliability and lower price-point won over consumers in the mid-20th century.
Amid today’s fast-paced, technology-driven world, some argue that the art of penmanship may be lost in favor of the immediacy of mobile phones and text messaging. As a result of this growing movement, cursive writing itself fell out of favor among elementary school curricula in the United States somewhere around the turn of the millennium. Thankfully, it has landed back on the roadmap, with several states in the U.S. reviving the teaching of cursive to students in 2016.
Those who turn to fountain pens today value the timeless writing tool for its crispness and connection to history. Top pen manufacturers such as German brand Montblanc, Dunhill-Namiki, and Italian brand Aurora have enticed collectors with state-of-the art, limited editions since the beginning of the 20th century. Aurora, known for their plush writing instruments, boasts the development of one of the most expensive writing utensils in the world, the Diamante. Encrusted with 2,000 diamonds, this alluring pen sells for a cool $1.5 million.
The fountain pen stands as an iconic writing tool, steeped in history and tradition. From vintage models to modern examples, recapture the lost art of penmanship and learn how to write with fountain pens with the step-by-step tutorial below.
The Anatomy of a Fountain Pen
Though most of the basic components of fountain pens have remained the same for much of written history, there are a handful of moving parts and many are even referred to by different names, depending upon the type of pen. Here, we’ll review the most common parts of the pen and the purpose they serve in writing.
The nib refers to the metal tip of the pen that physically touches the paper. This thin, pointed part draws ink from inside the pen and channels it through a small slit to deposit it onto paper. Nibs come in a variety of shapes and sizes. Today, the vast majority have a round tip to help create uniform lines. Nib sizes vary depending on the width of the line desired. Larger nibs create wide lines used most often for bolder writing styles, while smaller nibs are more common for everyday writing since they have a finer line width. Above are examples of three basic nib sizes.
Finer nibs give a line width around 0.4mm–0.6mm. They tend to have a more controlled flow, making them more tolerant of varying qualities of paper. Fine nibs are best for those with handwriting that is smaller and tighter.
Medium nibs produce a line width around 0.8mm. They’re suitable for those with average handwriting size, and work particularly well in creating signatures.
Broad, or bold, nibs produce a line width around 1.0mm. They often have higher ink flow, creating wider and thicker lines. It’s important to keep in mind that the faster ink flow created from broader nibs can cause ink to bleed through thinner paper.
The feed of a fountain pen is made of either plastic or ebonite and contains three thin channels that connect the nib to the reservoir, the ink tube concealed in the pen’s handle. The feed acts as a vehicle for ink delivery, incorporating a system of parallel channels that allows air to flow upward into the reservoir as ink travels toward the paper at a controlled rate.
The barrel is the exterior of the pen, the entire body which houses the ink reservoir. Barrel sizes and ergonomics differ depending upon preference. The first barrels were made of black hard rubber since they were ink-resistant and easily machinable, but barrels today can be made from a variety of materials. More expensive ones are crafted from materials like brass, silver, and gold, where less expensive versions are made using acrylic resin or Lucite.
Converters were created to enable writers to use any type of bottled ink with their pens. These small filling mechanisms fit right onto the pen, taking the place of an ink cartridge, and allowing you to use any bottled ink instead of the limited proprietary ink cartridges. The majority of converters contain a twist-fill plunger that works like a syringe, but others come with a bladder that is squeezed much like that of a vacuum.
Ink cartridges are disposable capsules attached to the back of the fountain pen that supply the pen with ink. When ink runs out, the empty cartridge can be thrown away and replaced with a new one. Though cartridges are easy and less messy, they don’t offer as many colors and ink choices as converters do.
How to Fill a Fountain Pen
Filling and refilling fountain pens is relatively simple, and the process differs whether you are using a cartridge or converter. Below, learn how to supply your fountain pen with ink using both methods.
Inserting a Cartridge
To insert a new cartridge of ink, start by unscrewing the barrel from the grip section. Find the opening of the cartridge and insert it into the pen’s grip section, pushing firmly until you hear a “click” that signifies the cartridge is punctured and set. It takes time for your cartridge to work its way towards the tip of the pen, so leave your pen facing down for about an hour until the ink saturates the feed. You can easily switch between converters and cartridges by simply rinsing the nib and piston converter with cool water between uses.
Filling a Converter
To fill a fountain pen converter with ink, start by unscrewing the grip from the barrel and attaching the ink converter to the pen if it isn’t already attached. Turn the top screw of the converter counterclockwise to remove any unnecessary air, then insert the converter into the nib section of the pen if it isn’t already. Next, submerge the nib into the ink bottle, slowly release the converter, and wait for the ink to be drawn into the chamber. Repeat this step until the chamber is full.
How to Use a Fountain Pen
Writing with a fountain pen is different than using other pens, and it requires significant precision and patience. Positioning your arm correctly, writing at the exact angle, applying the appropriate pressure, and other factors go into the perfecting the craft. Below are the best practices for using a fountain pen.
Hold the Pen Properly
To best optimize ink flow, hold the fountain pen between your thumb and index finger with the barrel resting over the bottom knuckle of your middle finger. The pen should create a 40–55 degree angle with your writing surface.
Position the Nib Correctly
The nib should be positioned to best glide across the paper. The slit of the nib needs to touch the paper, and if angled to one side or the other, ink will not flow. The metal side of the nib should be facing away from the paper rather than the plastic or rubber feed below it. If positioned incorrectly, writing will feel scratchy and sticky.
Keep Fingers and Hands Rigid
It’s best to write with your lower arm, keeping fingers and hands rigid. This will enable you to use larger muscles instead of the smaller ones in your fingers which can prevent injury, fatigue, and will help with hand and wrist strain. Remember to keep the elevation and rotation of the pen constant for consistency.
Apply Pressure Gently
Ballpoint pens require constant pressure, but it’s important to override this thought process and practice when using fountain pens. Fountain pens, by contrast, require very little pressure, and you can actually damage the nib by pressing too hard. Using light strokes will give you a consistent, even lines while keeping your pen in pristine condition.
Proper Cleaning and Storage
About every six weeks, or every time you change ink color, it’s best to flush your nib. Do so by unscrewing the cap and nib to remove it from the pen. Then, remove the ink cartridge. Hold the nib under cool water to flush out the ink, place it in a bowl of clean water, and continue replacing the water until it runs clear. Wrap the nib in a soft cloth, and place it in a cup to dry for 24 hours before reassembling. It’s best to store your pen with the nib up to prevent it from clogging or scratching.
Crafting a Perfect Signature
Signing a work of art, a book, a business document, or a personal project is an integral part of the creative process, and helps identify that the object has been created and approved by you. A handful of famous creatives had remarkable signatures, and it’s those written with conviction that are best remembered. Fountain pens serve as the ideal writing tools to enable you to master a clean, crisp signature.
Both vintage and modern fountain pens are highly collectible as they subtly nod to the past and carry an unspoken connection to a bygone era. Fountain pen enthusiasts understand their many benefits, from smooth, crisp writing capabilities to their interchangeability in color, thickness, and weight. Whether you are adding to your collection of pens or using a fountain pen for the first time, be sure to explore all that these collectibles can offer when writing.