Return to Introduction to Fountain Pens

So you’ve decided to buy a fountain pen….

Because a fountain pen is unlike most other writing instruments, buying one is a bit more of an involved decision.  It’s sort of like buying a parrot rather than a gold-fish; with care, it could well out-live you, so you’d better be sure that you’re compatible and you should understand that it’s a bit of a commitment.  As you read what follows, do bear in mind that the person writing it is somewhat obsessed with fountain pens, and with the exception of a few obvious points what follows are guidelines rather than strict rules.

Old or New?

About the first decision to make is whether to get a vintage pen or a newly-made one.  Personally, I find vintage pens in general rather nicer, as the ones still around have had all their bugs worked out and they were made in a time when the makers expected a pen to be used with some regularity.  However, I also generally suggest that someone just starting on a fountain pen get a new one.

What you can expect from a vintage pen found “in the wild”.

Why?  Well… because I’m afraid to see an old pen broken.  While they were made to be used, the users were expected to have had a little bit of training in penmanship.  Many people who dive into pens at the vintage end find disappointment; the point collapses under a hand used to ballpoints, the writing seems scratchy, and unless the pen was bought at a reputable restorer it is apt to need repairs to the filler before it can do any writing.  I have bought a lot of vintage pens from online auctions, garage sales, and antique stores, and have received exactly three that were ready to use, of which only one could really have been said to be fully functional.

New pens, while having slightly less character, are at least under warranty.  If there’s something disastrously wrong with them, they can be sent back for repair or replacement.  They’re also more likely to forgive the heavy-handedness of the modern writer.

A while ago, I did a series of blog entries suggesting entry-level pens, starting here.  I stand by that, and suggest a look there, and add to that roster these suggestions for the first time fountain pen buyer:

As for the repeated “under $100”, I can only say that if one is only just getting started, spending a pile of money seems reckless.  On the other hand, a large expenditure may act to commit the newcomer to the life of a fountain pen user, and I probably shouldn’t urge against it too strongly.  Since writing the above, I have added a gallery of vague suggestions you might want to glance at as well.

What To Look For

Externally, the general choices in fountain pens fall along lines; heavy or light, narrow or wide.  There is a current notion that a heavy pen is a more prestigious pen, which I urge you to not fall victim of.  There are light pens which are expensive, there are heavy pens that aren’t worth a tin of peas.  If you find a heavy pen congenial, that’s fine, but remember that one of the points in favour of fountain pens is that one does not need to use force to get a mark out of it, and it seems to me odd to then choose one that takes an effort to hold up.

Narrow or wide I have less of a view on, since that is mainly a matter of how big your hands are.  Those with hands of middling size can probably get well into either extremity.  This is very much a field where I can recommend wholeheartedly the notion of “if it feels good, do it.”

The grid is of 5mm squares, as a guide to scale

The last choice to make when pursuing a fountain pen is point size.  I go into this in somewhat more depth in the Anatomy area, but you need to decide on whether you like writing with thin or thick lines.  Until recently, I could not see any reason to own a pen with a point wider than a “fine”, and I still occasionally revel in the teeny writing a XXF point can offer.  Others see equally little reason for getting anything smaller than a “broad”, since part of the joy of using a fountain pen is seeing the shading of the ink, a treat which is limited if not entirely absent in the finer points.  Overall, though, my recommendation in this regard is to go with something that compliments your style of handwriting.

The material of the point is somewhat moot.  Gold, steel, or other, it doesn’t have a huge bearing on the writing qualities of the pen, and you usually can’t choose anyway; if you like a given model of pen, you’ll have to live with one point material or another.  The exception to this is the Pelikan Souverän series, which has interchangeable points in steel and gold.

You may also consider which means of filling you’d prefer.  In practice, this means in modern pens you’re either looking at a piston filler, or a pen which uses cartridges with the possibility of a converter.  There are a few other fillers currently on the market, but they tend to appear in pens a first-time buyer won’t be considering.  I’m not a great fan of cartridge pens, but in much the same way as point material this is not an issue that should really drive the choice.  If you like the way a pen sits in your hand, the way it gets ink into it is a very secondary consideration.

If you are very lucky, you will have a pen shop within easy distance.  If you do, I urge you to go in and actually hold some pens.  Looking at pictures is fine, but gives very little sense of how any pen might work in your hand.  If you’re in the majority of those who can’t get at a pen without having already bought it, have a look at sites like mine that describe a lot of pens.  See what you like the look of.  Once that’s established, I can recommend a few sellers of new (or at least, unused) pens who are trustworthy and intent upon the satisfaction of the buyer.

What To Expect from a New Pen

I’ll briefly digress into what to expect from a vintage pen– desperate need of a cleaning, and almost certain requirement of refitting of the filler, unless you bought it from someone who already took care of these points (like me!).  I don’t, despite actually preferring them, recommend vintage pens as first pens.  A little bit of training on a modern pen is wise.

That being said, what you should find in the box is the pen, a cartridge if it swings that way (and if so there’s usually a converter as well), and some possibly adequate instructions.  Depending on how much you spent, there may also be a little warranty information within, and I urge you to hang onto that for the first year or two.

Initial Treatment: The first thing to do with a new pen is to clean it.  In a lot of new pens, there is a residue of machining oils, dust, and labourer’s thumb-prints that can interfere with the flow of ink through the pen.  Get yourself a pot of water (500 ml/2 cups at least, and no warmer than room temperature) and add a single drop of dish-soap to it.  Fill the pen from this two or three times, then dump that water and get a similar quantity of clean water to rinse in.  Three or four fills of this should clear out the soap, and the pen should be ready for ink.  This is an optional step, frankly, but if you find a new pen isn’t writing well it’s the first thing to try.

Warranty Issues: A new pen should write quite well right out of the box.  However, there are some issues in quality control appearing in some modern pen manufacturers.  What I’m going to cover here is stuff that you might be able to see to for yourself, but if you’ve paid any substantial amount of money for the pen, it’s probably better to look into chasing the maker on their warranty.

The Baby Bottom Problem – modern pen-makers tend to do this to ensure smoothness (click for more legible version)

“Hey, this pen doesn’t start up well!” A lot of pens made today are ground with an extra-super-smooth rounding on the inner wall of the slit.  This formation is called a “baby-bottom” for its shape, and while it prevents the inside of the slit from catching on the paper, it can also hold back ink from contact with the paper.  If the pen is persistently having trouble at the start of each word, this is likely the issue.  You can confirm it through a magnifier, if one’s on hand, but this is the sort of thing that I find extremely vexing from a pen maker and I urge chasing the warranty.  If the maker won’t put it right, there are after-market point grinders one may turn to.

“Hey, this pen is scratchy as all get out!” That is almost certainly a disalignment of the tines, with one higher than the other.  In a lower-cost pen, you can probably see to this yourself; TWSBI has posted a bit of a how-to primer, and since their pen is extremely friendly to DIY exercises, it’s not out of place to try if you have a magnifier to check progress.  If you don’t, or if you spent more money on your new pen than a TWSBI Diamond costs, use that warranty!

“Hey, this thing hardly writes at all!” This is either a problem with the slit being too compressed, or with the feed being too tight or extremely loose to the point.  Any of the above takes some special effort to fix, which the buyer of a new pen shouldn’t have to put in (especially since it’s likely to void the warranty).

“Hey, this thing isn’t filling!” Sometimes the problem lies inside the pen.  If you’re sure you’ve been following the directions (try mine if the maker’s are obscure), then it’s time to bug the maker.  A bad seal on a piston means a pen which will not fill, period.

The not-very-great menace of nib creep

Stuff you might want to learn to live with: Fountain pens are nearly perfect, but they still have some occasional foibles. The primary thing that people find unappealing about fountain pens is a phenomenon known as “nib creep”, in which the shape of the point and the surface tension of the ink combine to draw ink out onto the back of the point, where it startles the user when they uncap the pen. In some combinations this can actually lead to ink getting all down the section (Waterman Carènes and Noodler’s inks are the most notorious example), but it is usually a very mere cosmetic issue. One tip for avoiding it is to wipe a finger across the back of the point before filling; the skin oils act as a barrier to the ink. Many long-time users of fountain pens are indifferent to nib creep, though, as it really doesn’t cause any harm.

A new fountain pen user will need to grapple with the question, “Can I borrow your pen?” The problem here is two-fold. The asker doesn’t know how much you spent on that pen, and probably doesn’t know how to properly use a fountain pen. I’ve got a longer meditation on the point in my blog, but the basic things to satisfy yourself upon before responding are whether this person is generally careful with other people’s property, and how much they will mind being told how to handle a pen. If you don’t like your own answers to those questions, don’t lend the pen. What you will have to get used to is slightly dirty looks from people who don’t understand why you’re not lending them your pen.

If you are given to mad gesturing with open pens in conversation, you may have to moderate yourself. Ink is subject to centripedal acceleration, and to gesture madly with a fountain pen is to have a mottled conversational companion and likely a slowly diminishing number of people who will hang around with you.

Fountain pens do not like to have their points out in the open air for long periods; think of them as markers in this regard. Even hooded pens won’t go for much more than ten minutes without drying out (unless you live in an extremely humid part of the world). Unlike markers, fountain pens are easily revived by a quick moistening, but making a habit of this sort of thing will lead eventually to clogs.

What Do I Need to Do?

If you have never used a fountain pen before, there are a couple of things you need to attend to as a user. The first is a matter of slightly retraining yourself to use a fountain pen, since it asks for a different approach than most of the writing implements you’re used to. I cover this in almost annoying detail in the section regarding writing .

It usually takes about the same time to discharge one of these as it does a fountain pen, too

There is also maintenance.  The closest to the sort of care a fountain pen asks of the user in modern items is probably the cell phone’s demands to be regularly recharged.  Depending upon how much you use your pen, you may go a week or two between fillings, or you may be filling the pen daily.  I recommend finding a time of day that is convenient, and filling the pen at that time if it needs it.  For example, I’ve made it a part of my work-day routine of leaving the house: wallet in pocket, lunch packed, pen filled (if needed), shoes on and away.  You might find it more congenial as an evening wind-down ritual

There is also a need for regular cleaning, but that is on a scale of months rather than days.  For that aspect (and for a little fuller treatment of inks in general), have a look at my pen care page.

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