Fountain Pens 101

And now for something slightly different – Fountain Pens 101 – Fountain Pens for Beginners.

What’s a fountain pen? It’s a pen – a writing instrument that uses liquid ink, applied directly to a writing surface via contact (and capillary action) – which has an integral, internal ink reservoir of one sort or another. They came into being around the turn of the last century, and some contend they had their heyday in the late 1940s. Today they’re seen as anachronistic throwbacks to yesteryear – obsolete, inconvenient, and expensive.

That’s not actually true – fountain pens don’t just survive today, they thrive, in part because they’re more affordable and more convenient to use than ever before.

Numerous writers have enunciated elsewhere the reasons you’d want to use a fountain pen, and I have no intention of reinventing the wheel. A brief summary of the arguments looks something like this: they’re more comfortable to use than ballpoints or most rollerballs; they’re easier to use, and actually help improve the handwriting of most people who use them; they allow a much greater degree of personal expression via the written word (in terms of nib and ink choices); they’re better for the environment; and they’re fun!

Don’t take my word for it, though; most everything you’d want to know about fountain pens can be found over at this website, whose collective contributors know most of what there is to know about all things fountain pen.

When you think of a fountain pen, you probably think either of some classic, chunky pen from the 1930s, or some ostentatious status symbol like a Mont Blanc. (Or perhaps a classic, and ostentatious, status symbol from the 1930s?) Believe it or not, there are still over two dozen companies making fountain pens today, and thanks to the internet, they’re not exactly expensive – you can quite easily get started for as little as 15 USD, with a pen and some ink.

There are, roughly, a gajillion pens out there, from antique collectibles to new-production, and everything in between. eBay is a good source, if you know what you’re looking for; so too are websites like this one and this one. And if you’ve ever felt constrained by the color choices in life, you can rejoice – there are over three hundred colors of fountain pen ink on the market today, in damn near every color imaginable. (Including invisible inks, white inks, waterproof archival fraud-resistant inks, and everything from conservative blues and blacks and browns to eye-popping neon yellows and reds and electric greens… you name it, somebody probably makes it. And if three hundred colors isn’t enough, you can mix most of ’em to meet your needs – try that with a ballpoint!)

What kind of pen should you look for, as an introduction to fountain pens? Usually, if you ask that, you get one of two sorts of answers – people will suggest the usual suspects of entry-level pens, the Lamy Safari or the Waterman Phileas (both of which are around 30 USD)… or they’ll suggest their favorite, rather more expensive, pen – a Pelikan M200, say, or a Mont Blanc of some sort.

For my money, that’s kind of putting the carriage before the horse. Before you think about which pen, you should think about which kind of pen – mainly the filling system.

Fountain pens take ink in two basic ways – they can accept small plastic cartridges of ink, or they can fill from a bottle of ink. The former is easier and more convenient, but rather more expensive, and you’re greatly limited in ink availability. The latter is slightly fussier, but substantially more economical, allows you to use any ink out there, and – generally – means you have to fill your pen less often than you would with cartridges. Most but not all pens that accept cartridges can be used with bottled ink by means of a “converter”, so you can have the best of both worlds.

Unless you’re really concerned about bottled ink, I’d suggest you stick with bottle-feeding pens, as they’re easier to use in the long run, in my opinion. They also come with none of the compatibility issues that cartridge pens can have – not all cartridges fit in all pens, and it’s all too easy to wind up buying a pen for which cartridges are only made in three or four colors, or are only readily available, online, from a few suppliers.

Among pens that fill from bottles, there are several filling methods. Some use a rubber sac inside the barrel to hold ink; they fill by having the nib inserted into ink, and a lever or button or bar on the body manipulated somehow to suck ink up into the sac. Others use a squeeze filler of some sort, where you have to unscrew the pen body and squeeze a metal-and-rubber filler inside the pen to fill it. Others use a twisted piston to suck ink into the pen, and there are a few where you simply fill the entire inside of the pen with ink from a syringe or eyedropper… plus there are some variations on these that are mainly found on vintage pens, as well.

All of these systems have their proponents and their detractors, and their strong and weak points. A lot of people really love the piston filler, for example, and it certainly has its strong points – chief among them a typically large ink capacity – but there are relatively few models of pen that actually have a piston filler, and they tend to be relatively pricey.

My suggestion is, for a first pen, to look for something that uses a squeeze filler. Why? Because it’s a very simple and reliable mechanism, with almost nothing to go wrong, and because it’s commonly found on inexpensive pens. (…and some quite pricey pens, too.) It’s also arguably the most noob-proof filling system out there. (If you try to force a piston filler hard enough, for example, you can break it, and people never fail to amaze me with the ways they can screw up inserting a cartridge into a pen.)

For a first pen, my suggestion is – if you live in the United States – to hunt through the ISellPens website, looking at the various $5-10 pens, or to browse eBay in the “other” fountain pen sub-category, and maybe limit yourself to pens costing 10 USD / 8 Euro or less. You’ll see an enormous variety of pens coming out of China, and I know it’s hard to believe, but almost all of them are actually quite excellent writing instruments. For sometimes as little as 3 USD – with shipping anywhere in the world – you can get a quite nice first pen with which to test the fountain pen waters. Brands to look at include Hero, Duke, Wing Sung, Jinhao, and Luoshi. Most of these pens will have fine nibs and use an integral squeeze filler, and they should all be perfectly serviceable pens right from the get-go. Read the descriptions carefully, as pens come in all sizes, from Bic biro size up to Sharpie size and beyond, and you probably won’t enjoy a too-small pen. Also watch out for calligraphy nibs, which aren’t really meant for everyday writing. Oh, and the Hero models 70 and 360, which have very strange nibs unlike any other pen out there. (I actually quite like the Hero 70, but it’s very much an acquired taste, even where fountain pens are concerned.) If you’re bewildered by the choices, and looking for a specific recommendation – look at the Hero 616 or the Wing Sung 233, two excellent, average-sized pens that can be had for under 10 USD.

For a first ink, get a bottle of something tried, tested, and boring – Sheaffer or Parker or Waterman or Pelikan inks in blue, black, or blue-black. I know, I know – there are hundreds of much more exciting inks out there, and you’re probably dieing to try “Sonic Blue” or “Bad Blue Heron” or “Gruene Cactus” or “Saguaro Wine”… Please, curb your impulses, and go with a tried-and-true, boring ink first. They’re cheap, they’re easy to find, and they perform consistently and reliably in pretty much any pen. The same is not always true of some of the most exotic “boutique” inks out there, and you sometimes have to make sacrifices to get, you know, bright electric ink colors that sear people’s eyeballs.

Fill pen with ink; blot excess ink with a tissue or paper towel. Apply nib – gently – to paper, and write. If you’re anything like me, within half a page, you’re going to be wondering why on earth the crude horror that is the modern biro ever replaced the fountain pen in the first place. Convenience? Progress? The hell with that, thanks.

Published in: Geekiness, General | on January 6th, 2010| No Comments »

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