Arguably the most elegant and defining writing instrument, the fountain pen is one style of pen that the true writing connoisseur cannot live without.
With prices ranging from just a few dollars for a Jinhao pen upwards of thousands for special edition Montblanc, Visconti, and St. Dupont pens, among many others.
Using a nib, the fountain pen is the modern version of the original dip pen, and unlike its predecessor, utilizes an internal ink reservoir that draws the ink from its container to the nib using a feeder without having to constantly dip it in an inkwell.
The History of the Fountain Pen
Despite the fact that the fountain pen is a more modern variation of the dip pen, it still dates back centuries to 973 when Ma’ād al-Mu’izz, the caliph of the Maghreb requested a pen that wouldn’t stain and was given a pen with a built-in reservoir for the ink that could be held upside down without leaking.
By the 1600s, pen makers in Germany were producing a pen made from two quills, one of which served as the ink reservoir inside the other. Using cork, the ink was held captive in the quill and squeezed out through a small hole in the nib. Over the years, the development improved and by the late 1600s fountain pens, as their known today, were in vogue and being used through England.
As their popularity grew throughout Britain, developments continued to take a stride and by the mid-1800s, the slip-in nib was being manufactured in bulk and easily added to a wide range of fountain pens. The industry was booming and thousands of skilled craftsman were mass producing fountain pens for all the gentlemen throughout Europe. What was once reserved due to cost for the wealthy aristocrat, was now widely available for a minimal price that almost anyone could afford. For the men and women who previously couldn’t afford to write, the fountain pen proved to increase literacy as they began to acquire their own collection of pens.
Despite the increase in production and quality, the pens were still widely unreliable as the manufacturers didn’t accurately understand the role that air pressure played in the pen. In addition, the inks were corrosive and damaged the pens easily.
It wasn’t until around 1850 that knowledge of the pens dynamics caught on and from then on, there was a growing number of patents being filed on a regular basis. Once the free-flowing ink was invented, along with hard rubber and the iridium-tipped gold nib, the industry caught fire and fountain pens became the standard writing instrument used on an almost global scale.
By the end of the 1800s, stylographic fountain pens were popular and by 1880 the fountain pen as we know it today became a reality. Some of the companies that continue to produce pens, today were incorporated and the New York-based Waterman company became a frontrunner in the fountain pen industry.
Despite the appearance of the pen being the same as it is today, the actual process of filling the reservoir with ink was a tedious and messy procedure requiring a steady hand. It wasn’t until self-filling pens were developed at the dawn of the 1900s that companies like Waterman, Parker and Shaeffer began to produce pens with a twist, button and lever fillers.
Still, the pens continued to leak so pen makers began to produce what were known at the time as safety pens which either consisted of a retracting nib or a screw-on cap that sealed tightly around the nib, preventing it from leaking.
Meanwhile, in Germany, companies like Pelikan, which had been around since the early 1800s were beginning to produce fine writing instruments with the more modern piston filler which they patented in 1925.
By the time the 1960s rolled around, ballpoint pens had been invented and rendered the fountain pen almost useless in many parts of the world including North America. Since then, ballpoints have been the standard writing instrument in America and fountain pens only continued to be used in grade school by children in some parts of Europe. While Sven Raphael Schneider grew up writing with a fountain pen in Germany, I on the other hand never even saw one as a child.
Today, fountain pens in much of the world are simply viewed as a collectors item or status symbol. However, anyone I know that uses one would argue that the writing experience far surpasses that of the ballpoint or even rollerball pen.
While I carry a ballpoint pen with me, my personal preference is to use a fountain pen and I keep one within reach almost everywhere I go.
The Fountain Pen Nib
Fountain pen nibs can be found in a variety of metals and alloys, but most users would argue that the 18k and 14k gold nibs are the pinnacles of fountain pen nibs due to their flexibility and resistance. However, a nib is more than just the material and two 18k nibs can have very different characteristics. Back in the day, nibs used to be more flexible allowing you to create different looks with one nib. Today, nibs can be softer or harder, but generally they do not have the range of flexibility they used to have.
Many gold nibs are a combination of alloys and are usually tipped with a metal from the platinum family. Often nicknamed iridium, it’s really only a term to describe another alloy as very few pens made today actually contain iridium. In the less expensive pens, the nib is usually constructed of steel and may sometimes retain a gold coloring or fine plating on top. Nibs are largely considered the most beautiful and elegant part of the pen, often constructed by hand and designed with intricate engravings and patterns. Some fine writing instruments manufacturer nibs that could easily compete with jewelry in beauty and aesthetics.
With most nibs, they are constructed with what’s referred to as the breather hole and a small slit down the middle. Using a combination of gravity and capillary action, the ink is drawn down the center slit while air is exchanged through the breather hole to minimize stress on the nib as it’s flexed. Without minimizing the stress, the nib would be prone to breaking as the user wrote with the pen.
In addition to various metals and designs used for the nib, there are also a selection of styles one can choose from to make the writing experience more personal. The standard size is M (for medium) with two other standards being F (fine) and B (broad). In addition, there are other options available including oblique, reverse oblique, italic, stub and 360 degree nibs. My personal choice as someone who is left-handed is the F nib as it provides a more unique writing style than the M nib, yet doesn’t release as much ink which prevents my palm from smudging the ink as I write on the paper. I do, however, have pens with both an F and an M nib. It’s also important to note that those who are left handed like me, will for the most part be unable to use some of the specialty nibs like the oblique, as it just simply won’t write with ease due to its design.
One nice benefit of a fountain pen is the ability to change the thickness of the ink by flexing the nib on the paper. While the predominant benefit of fountain pens is that you don’t have to apply pressure to write the same as you would with a different writing instrument, should you choose to add pressure, you can customize your letters, giving your writing a very unique and personalized style. There are a number of factors that determine how flexible a nib will be, including of course the metal used to create it, the curvature of the nib and the size, shape and position of the breather hole. A smaller hole will result in a stiffer pen whereas larger breather holes provide more flexibility. When it comes to the metal used, the purer the gold, the more flexible the nib. What’s nice about most pens produced today is that you have the ability to interchange nibs. As an example, I have both M and F nibs for my Pelikan fountain pen that, should I choose, I can interchange. However, this isn’t typically something you would do on a regular basis.
If you are looking for a more flexible nib, I highly recommend considering a vintage fountain pen from the first half of the twentieth century as the nibs were designed around the Spencerian and Copperplate scripts that most gentlemen favored. It is often said that the new pens are stiffer and lack the craftsmanship found in some of the older pens. One factor that has caused the quality of craftsmanship to decline is the competition between brands.Most of the fine writing companies now offer lifetime warranties on their pens which
Most of the fine writing companies now offer lifetime warranties on their pens which mean that the better quality nibs can no longer be supported financially. A fountain pen should glide over the paper without the use of any pressure, however, most nibs today feel similar to that of a hardware nail scraping against the paper. Those who invest wisely in fountain pens will often attempt to acquire a vintage pen over a new one. This can be said for both the less expensive variants as well as the finer pens from companies like Montblanc, Visconti, and St. Dupont. A good quality nib will last longer than your lifetime whereas most of the nibs made today may only last a few decades at most.
Do Not Lend Your Pen To Anyone
One very important note that any fountain pen user should keep in mind is NOT to lend their pens out to anyone. This is the reason I also carry a ballpoint with me. The nib of a fountain pen is a very personal device that gets worn in and shapes itself according to the angle and pressure used by the owner. Lending your pen to anyone, even for a brief moment could result in the nib being altered, and it will take a while before it feels like before. For the same reason, you will always have to write in a nib, so don’t expect it to be perfect for the first few months.
Those who do purchase vintage nibs will often have to work the nib in before they can write comfortably. Of course, this is primarily the case with high-quality gold nibs, whereas the less expensive steel or bargain nibs may not see any effect. Both my wife and I use a fountain pen, but we never use each other’s.
How to Fill Your Fountain Pen
There are a variety of filling mechanisms used by fountain pens old and new. My personal favorite is the piston filler which allows you to dip the nib into an inkwell and extract the ink into the reservoir located in the barrel of the pen. Other options include replaceable converters or cartridges. If you do purchase a pen with a converter, it’s wise to try and acquire ones that use the international standard converter as opposed to proprietary converters that are more difficult to come by, and often more expensive.
If you do purchase a pen that’s older than the 1960s, try and figure out what type of filling mechanism it has as it may be inferior to the newer mechanisms or require more effort to fill. Many pens around the 1940s and 50s introduced various filling mechanisms which aren’t frequently used today. Now, most fountain pens are made with a piston filler or a cartridge, although many of them can utilize a converter which works the same as a cartridge but allows the writer to fill it with ink from a bottle which is favorable.
One tip is to always research how to properly fill your pen or replace the cartridge. Many pens are different so searching Youtube can be a valuable learning tool to make sure you don’t damage your pen. It’s for this reason that we’re not discussing exact filling procedures as they vary based on the manufacturer and range.
Fountain Pen Ink
The inks used in fountain pens are water-based, but there are many different kinds and qualities. Check out our fountain pen ink guide for more details. I personally recommend the Montblanc ink which you can buy here or the Pelikan 4001 or Edelstein ink which you can click here to purchase.
The inks are reasonably priced, easily sourced and are widely considered the purest inks on the market that won’t easily clog your pen or dry out. Of course, you can purchase Jinhao cartridges which are very cheap, but I wouldn’t use them in any pen you made more than $50 for. Ideally, if you can, try and use a converter over a cartridge as you have more control over the ink used in the pen. Both the Pelikan and the Montblanc inks come in a wide range of colors, which again, adds a personal touch to your writing. Many people will stick with a specific color that they brand as their own, whereas others will use different colors in different pens. The standard colors, of course, are blue and black and personally, that’s what I choose to use. While you may spend $20 on a bottle of ink, in the long run, it’s less expensive than repeatedly buying cartridges. Most pen enthusiasts opt to use bottled ink.
One thing that’s important to note is not to go for the cheapest ink or any ink for that matter. Many of the inks you’ll find in artist stores are iron gall inks or India inks which will actually corrode your fountain pen and effectively render it useless. While this may not be a concern for cheap pens that cost more to ship than purchase, it can be devastating for those who save up to buy a Montblanc or other fine writing instrument. It’s also a very common mistake as most people who own a fine writing instrument are not fountain pen enthusiasts and simply acquired one pen as a status symbol or gift. They often assume all ink is the same and never have the chance to really use their pen because it gets ruined from flash corrosion. Take care when selecting ink and read reviews from pen experts.
Even the more expensive and purer inks need to be flushed out of the pen to prevent corrosion or clogging. In most cases, this can be done twice a year provided you take care of your pens.
Montblanc 149 Meisterstuck – Approx. $900
The flagship fountain pen from Montblanc, the Meisterstuck range of pens is widely considered the Cadillac of pens. While it is a good fountain pen, it’s not my first choice in pens, but has to be recommended for those looking to acquire the quintessential fine writing instrument. Vintage 149 are a bit shorter and heavier containing a brass telescope mechanism but learn more about Montblanc Meisterstück Pens here. Click here to buy one.
Faber-Castell Ambition – $120
If you’re looking for a very nice fountain pen at a reasonable price, I urge you to consider the Ambition line by Faber-Castell. I was sent this pen a few weeks ago by the company after they sent me a pen from Graf von Faber-Castell (their fine writing line). I have to say that despite its reasonable price tag, it’s one of the smoothest writing instruments I’ve used. Click here to buy one.
Jinhao X450 – $3
Easily one of the cheapest pens on the market, the Jinhao X450 and X750 are shockingly well made. They actually look and handle nicely. They’re great if you buy them in bulk in lieu of BIC ballpoints and I keep a small handful of them on my desk. This is one fountain pen I don’t mind lending out and one that’s a great starter pen for kids. Click here to buy one.
Kaweco Sport – $30
If you’re looking for a handy pen that fits in the pocket of a tight pair of pants, the Kaweco Sport is going to be your best friend. At its low price point, it’s one of the smallest pens I’ve ever owned, but posted is double the size, making it large enough to comfortably handle. Kaweco is a German manufacturer and despite the low price tag, it’s a really great pen that never fails. I usually carry it with me if I’m dressed casually in a pair of jeans and don’t have a bag with me or room for a pen case. Click here to buy one.
Other brands that are really worth considering are Waterman, Omas, Lamy, Parker, Shaeffer, St. Dupont, Namiki, Cross, Caran d’Ache, Graf von Faber-Castell, Michel Perchin, Montegrappa, Stipula, Monteverde or Hero. They all range in price from just a few dollars for a Hero to hundreds for a quality Waterman or Shaeffer. I highly recommend reading reviews or watching them on Youtube.
Fountain pens are without question the ideal writing instrument. If you’ve never used one, buy an inexpensive one off Amazon and try it. So long as you buy one that’s reasonably made, you’ll never go back. What’s your favorite fountain pen?