Using a fountain pen instead of a ballpoint pen is almost like using a pocket watch instead of a wristwatch. Like the pocket watch, a fountain pen offers much more style and character than a simple ballpoint. Unlike a pocket watch, however, a fountain pen has a practical advantage over a ballpoint—it’s a lot more versatile.
Fountain pens can be way more flexible than any other type of pen. From the width of the strokes to the types of ink used, fountain pens are built for being able to do what you want them to do.
Of course, fountain pens can be confusing, especially since there are so many different types and so many different parts. Before I jump into how to use a fountain pen, I’m going to go over all those different parts.
The Anatomy of a Fountain Pen
The Nib – This is What Touches the Paper
This is the metal tip of the pen and is what transfers the ink from your pen onto your paper. The nib has a slit along the center, which allows ink the flow down more easily. It will also usually have a “breather hole” at the end of the slit to help replace the ink container with air and also acts as a stress-reliever when pressure is applied on the nib.
The Barrel – The Body of the Pen
This is the longest part of the pen and is the part that you’ll hold when writing with a fountain pen. It’s also the part where you’ll find the ink reservoir, but more on that later.
The Feed – This Brings Ink to the Nib
This is the black plastic part that can be seen on the opposite side of the nib. The Feed is very important as it’s the thing that regulates ink and air flow to and from the barrel.
The Reservoir – Ink, Ink, and More Ink
This is found inside the barrel of the pen and is what holds all of the ink. It can come in many different shapes and sizes, but the following are a few of the most common types.
- Cartridge: this is a sealed container of ink that you just place inside your pen when your old container runs out.
- Converter: this is manual-filling mechanism that can be used instead of a cartridge (if a pen can use cartridges, it can use converters).
- Piston: essentially the same as a converter in terms of refilling ink, but it’s permanent, so you can’t use cartridges.
A Quick Science Lesson
To really understand how to properly write with a fountain pen, you should know a little about how it works. Without overcomplicating things, a fountain pen is simply a mechanism to control a leak.
What you may be tempted to think is that a fountain pen is like water flowing down a pipe onto the ground. If this was true, you’d be forced to write nonstop in order to keep the ink from dripping everywhere.
Although gravity plays an important role it the fountain pen, it’s only part of the equation. The “leak” is influenced by other forces, such as capillary action, the second most important factor next to gravity.
Capillary action occurs when the surface tension of a liquid allows it to “climb” up adjacent surfaces, such as between two needles on a comb. On a fountain pen, this occurs when ink reaches the slit on the nib.
Think of the ink coming from the nib onto the paper as a sort of chain. When a “molecule” of ink hits the paper, it helps pull the next one down and then that one helps pull the one after that. This continues to form a chain reaction and only stops when you lift the pen from the paper.
Now that you know how all that works, here’s how you begin writing your next letter to Grandma.
Getting the Ink to the Paper
Hold it properly
This one is pretty obvious. Holding a fountain pen shouldn’t be any different than how you hold a pencil or a ballpoint, but because of the way you write with a fountain pen, you may want to rest the barrel on your middle finger instead of your ring finger.
Now that you’re holding the pen, place the nib on the paper at a 45-degree angle. You may want to make a few practice strokes, rotating the pen slightly until the nib moves smoothly and doesn’t scratch or skip on the paper.
Move Your Shoulders
Making strokes with a fountain pen is way different than with a ballpoint pen. Ballpoint pens rely on pressure to make ink flow into the paper, but that’s not the case with fountain pens.
Due to gravity and the aforementioned capillary action, fountain pens require only very gentle pressure. In fact, too much pressure will probably damage the nib, which is probably not what you want.
To prevent breaking the nib, you’re going to want to avoid writing with your fingers like people do when writing with a ballpoint. Keep your wrist rigid and rely on shoulder movements to get the pen moving. It may feel a bit awkward at first, but not only will this prevent applying too much pressure to the nib, but it will also help you keep a steady angle against the paper.
That’s pretty much all you need to know for basic movement, but things can get complicated when it comes to stroke thickness. The next part will cover all the factors that go into making your letters even fancier.
Controlling the Thickness of your Strokes
The thickness of your lines will be determined by the type of nib you’re using and how you write with it. To understand what nib will suit you best, you’ll need to know typical characteristics of nibs and how they differ from one another.
The Size of the Tip
This refers to the width of the pointy end of the nib and is the biggest factor in stroke thickness. The typical sizes of the tip include extra fine, fine, medium, and broad. What size you get will be determined by your writing style, but medium is the most popular.
What the Nib is Made Of
The nib is typically made of stainless steel or gold, but you may find some nibs made of different metals, such as gold alloys. The material of the nib doesn’t affect the thickness of your lines too much (gold is a little more flexible), so, unless you want that extra bling, I’d recommend going with stainless steel.
The Shape of the Tip
This is the part that makes you pen either more like a ballpoint or more like a calligraphy brush. Round tips are the best for casual writing because the thickness of the lines will stay the same regardless of the direction of the strokes. Square tips, however, rely on the direction of the stroke to make thick or thin lines. Square tips can be either italic, which gives sharper edges, or stub, which makes the edges rounder.
The Flexibility of the Nib
The flexibility of the nib is determined by how stiff it is (or how unstiff it is). More flexible nibs will give thicker lines with less pressure. Stiff nibs will give you a consistent thickness aren’t influenced much by pressure.
That’s it for the nib. The thickness of your strokes can be influenced by pressure, direction, and speed, but how much the thickness is affected by each factor depends on the characteristics of the nib, so choose yours carefully.
Some General Care Advice
If you’re going to use a fountain pen, you’ll need to know how to not destroy it. Luckily, taking care of a fountain pen isn’t that hard. Following the next few tips will ensure that yours doesn’t get thrown in the waste receptacle.
Keep It Stored Properly
When you’re not using your pen, always keep the cap on and make sure to store it so that the nib points upward. The cap will help the ink keep from drying and the upward position helps prevent leaks and lets air out of the reservoir.
Keep It to Yourself
When you continually use your pen, the nib will start to adapt to your writing style. Because of this, you should stray away from letting others borrow it, unless it’s for something as simple as a signature. If you want to be a nice guy, however, you can always carry around a basic ballpoint pen for other people.
Keep It Pristine
Like any tool, a fountain pen should be cleaned about once a month to keep it in top shape. A simple flush will do, which is performed by filling and emptying the pen several times with cool water. If the buildup is particularly bad, try soaking it in water overnight before flushing it.
Consider Yourself Educated
You are now well on your way to achieving higher levels of shorthand sophistication. No longer will you be known as boring ol’ ballpoint—you’ve got yourself a fountain pen and everybody’s going to know it.
Fountain pens may be a bit more inconvenient than any other type of pen (except for the feather), but I can guarantee that you’ll get a whole lot more out of fountain pens than the Bic found under the seat of your car.
I hope you found this article helpful. If you have any questions or concerns, then be sure to leave a comment below and I’ll get back to you as soon as possible.