Want to use a fountain pen but feel intimidated because you don’t know how? This ultimate guide has you covered.
TL;DR: Fountain pens use metal nibs to channel ink that flows from a reservoir. At the time of their invention, this was an advancement over dip pens (like quills) because the user could write continuously without pausing to dip the pen into an inkwell. While ballpoint and felt tip pens were the next evolution, fountain pens are still preferred by many, for both the writing experience and the beauty produced by variances in ink flow.
If you are a beginner, a quick search on fountain pens can make you feel like its an exclusive club with a steep learning curve.
One of the things people love about fountain pens is the variety. There are different kinds of nibs, inks, a pen styles, the question of cartridge vs. converter—it isn’t as easy as picking up a plastic ballpoint at the drugstore.
This is a comprehensive article and we want to make it easy. So, before we dive in, here’s how to navigate:
- You can read the whole thing here online.
- You can download this article as a pdf ebook.
- Use the jump links below to skip to what you really want to know. Now.
How does a fountain pen work?
There are three parts to a fountain pen:
The Barrel and Cap. This is the body of the pen and can be created with several materials. Plastic is common, but the barrel and cap can also be composed of aluminum, gold, silver, brass, or wood. Most of the time, you put the cap on the barrel to balance the pen. (Unless you are loaning your pen to a friend; then, you hang onto the cap, so the other person doesn’t walk off with it. <grin> )
The Charging System (sometimes called the Filling System). This is the ink reservoir. The main options are pre-filled ink cartridges, or a converter. Converters are unique to the brand/make of the pen and can be filled and refilled with ink.
The Nib. This is the tip (the part you write with) and nibs vary in size, shape, material, and flexibility. Here’s what you need to know:
- Extra fine (EF) and Fine (F) nibs make narrow lines. You need to have a light hand when writing with these nibs, or they’ll scratch the paper. They are great for detailed drawing and may be preferred by people who tend to write in a small script. Some left-handed people prefer fine nibs because they lay down less ink, which dries more quickly.
- Medium nibs (M) are good for most writing scenarios and can be easiest for beginners while you learn the ropes of the craft.
- Broad nibs (B) are used to make thicker lines – and while they are fun to write with, a pen with a broad nib probably shouldn’t be your starter pen.
- Tips can be round or square (also called italic or stub). Beginners usually have a better experience with round nibs, but people practicing calligraphy may want square nibs. (For context, compare the difference in the writing experience between bullet tip and chisel tip markers.)
- Flexible nibs allow you to vary line thickness, based on the pressure you apply.
- Most nibs are embedded in the pen, though some pens do have changeable nibs.
Is it hard to write with a fountain pen?
It’s not hard to write with a fountain pen, but it differs from writing with a ballpoint or felt tip pen.
Three big differences (which you have to simply play with to get a feel for):
- Hold the pen at an angle.
- Don’t press as hard as you normally would.
- Move your arm as you write.
The best way to practice is to do a series of cursive e’s or l’s (which look like short or long loops) across your paper. Making a page of these loops will help you figure out the best angle, pressure, and arm movement for your writing style.
The hardest part of writing with a fountain pen is overcoming the muscle memory associated with how you write using a ballpoint pen. It may feel strange to write with a fountain pen, but at the end of the day, it’s just ink and paper. You can’t mess it up – so have fun with this!
A fun fact about fountain pens: you cannot use them upside down. They rely on gravity for the ink to flow.
How do I use a converter?
Most pens you purchase will come with a cartridge of ink, but you can also use a converter. Converters allow you to use bottled ink, which can expand your color selection quite a bit, because they can be emptied, rinsed, and re-loaded with whatever color of ink you want! (We love this feature.) Converters are often purchased separately and you will need to get the model that matches your pen.
To load the pen with ink, you remove the barrel, insert the converter above the nib (in the “grip” section) and press down. You may feel a small click, much like when you install a cartridge.
Dip the nib of your ink pen into the ink, then twist the converter knob (ridged at the top) counterclockwise to expel all the air. Then, twist the converter knob clockwise to draw ink up into the pen.
Withdraw the pen from the inkwell and wipe any remaining ink off the nib. Replace the barrel, and then write some practice loops (like cursive l’s) across a page to ensure the ink flows smoothly.
Many converters use a twist mechanism, but some converters work more like an injection with a plunger.
What do I do when a fountain pen dries out?
If you aren’t using a fountain pen consistently, sometimes the ink can dry in the feed between the reservoir and the nib.
If this happens, take the pen apart and soak the nib (which is usually connected to the feed) in a glass of water for about 15 minutes, to soften the dried ink. (This is a messy process, but effective.)
If you were using an ink cartridge, throw it away and get a fresh one. If you were using a converter, empty it of whatever ink is left and put the converter in the glass with the nib to clean it out. You can dry it off and reload it once it’s clean.
After the 15 minutes is up, rinse everything off, dry with a paper towel or chamois (aka a shammy) and reassemble. Write practice loops (cursive l’s) until the ink starts flowing freely again.
Are fountain pens waterproof?
If you are asking this question, there is a good chance you want to use your fountain pen in concert with watercolors. Here’s the issue:
Most ink in cartridges sold for fountain pens have ink that is water soluble. This is practical. It makes dried ink easier to clean out of a fountain pen.
However, there are some water resistant inks. Noodler’s Waterproof Ink is one of our favorites. Get a converter for your fountain pen, then load it with Noodler’s ink. Make sure the ink is fully dry on your page before adding any watercolors.
If you enjoy working with watercolors, and haven’t found a waterproof ink you like, we recommend the book, Urban Sketching: Color First, Ink Later. It describes a great technique that allows you to use your fountain pen for sketching without having your colors run.
Are fountain pens good for left-handed people?
The biggest challenge in writing with a fountain pen for left-hand people is the occasional smudge, which can happen if the ink isn’t dry before their hand passes across the page. Here are some tips for preventing that:
- Use a fine nib pen and practice writing without pressure. (Note that medium nibs aren’t impossible – in fact, you might love them; it’s just that fine lines dry more quickly, which is why we recommend using a fine nib, at least to start.)
- Avoid stub nib, italic nib, and flexible nibs until you get the hang of writing with a more basic nib.
Note: Both the author of this article and the editor are lefties. Fountain pens are enjoyable no matter which hand you write with. Oddly though, we really despised writing with Lamy’s left-handed pen, even though we love their normal Safari pen.
Can you take fountain pens on airplanes?
There are two common questions about taking fountain pens on airplanes: 1) Will the TSA allow it? 2) Will the ink leak with the change in air pressure?
There is no restriction against taking a fountain pen on an airplane; however, the TSA gets the final call on what can and cannot board, so you are at the mercy of the TSA’s decision. (This really only matters if you have an expensive pen, or one you just particularly love.)
Preventing leaks is tricky. Keep the nib pointed up if you are flying with an ink pen and most of the time you will be okay. (So consider your storage options carefully!)
We particularly like traveling with the Kaweco Sport because the cap screws completely closed onto the barrel, protecting from leaks. However, we don’t recommend traveling with the Kaweco Sport converter because it just doesn’t hold enough ink for multiple days of use. Pack cartridges for your trip.
What fountain pen should beginners buy?
We suggest that beginners start with less expensive fountain pens, to discover what size and type of nib you like and what feels comfortable in your hands. (That said, we also really like Trina O’Gorman’s story of how she invested in an expensive pen and journal when she was just a kid, to underscore the importance of her thoughts.)
Here are a few links to fountain pens we recommend for beginners.:
- Amazon Basics Refillable Fountain Pen (choose the fine nib or medium nib version) – at under $10, this is the most affordable entry-level pen.
- Pilot Metropolitan – at around $20, it is a very good starter pen. Check out the retro pop versions for different designs. Before ordering, be sure the version you choose has the nib size you want.
- Lamy Safari – also at the $20 price point is the Lamy Safari. For a few more dollars, you can also buy a Lamy Safari Al-Star which features an aluminum barrel, rather than a plastic one which may feel better in your hand.
- Kaweko Sport – This is our personal favorite at the $20 price point. They are designed to be portable and the screw-top cap is a great feature if you want to throw the pen in a bag or pocket. The aluminum barrel version is double the price.
- Scrivener – This boutique British brand produces a heavier pen with a luxury feel. The pen comes in multiple colors in each nib size at a $50 price point. Fans rave about how smoothly it writes.
Where can I buy inexpensive fountain pens?
You can sometimes find luxury fountain pen brands like Montblanc, Montegrappa, Sheaffer, or Ferris Wheel at pawn shops or estate sales. (If you are a beginner, we don’t advise investing much in a used fountain pen because you don’t know how well it’s been cared for; more experienced fountain pen fans will have better intuition about this.)
Ebay also has a section for fountain pens, but you’ll see a mix of new and used pens.
For pens that look expensive, but aren’t, try:
Can fountain pens be used for drawing? Which are best for urban sketching?
Fountain pens are wonderful for drawing and artists tend to have their favorites. Many urban sketchers–those who capture streetscapes and storefronts quickly–appreciatethe ability to choose nibs to achieve different line weights. Here is our advice for beginners:
Purchase two inexpensive pens: one with a fine nib, and one with a medium nib. Practice line weights and crosshatching a bit to get the feel of things, and then take them out in the wild to see what works best for you. (You also have the option of diving right in, using a flexible nib to allow you to vary the line thickness based on the pressure you apply, but we find it’s better to start with a standard nib.)
For urban sketching, we like the Kaweco Sport (for its small profile when closed).
What fountain pen is best for calligraphy?
Calligraphy uses a stub nib (also called an italic nib). You will need a set of pens with different sized nibs to achieve different sized letters.
What to do when you get your first fountain pen?
Now that you have an understanding of the basics, the very best thing you can do is just start writing! Start by practicing loops, then purchase some stationery or a journal and put your fountain pen to work.
The more you use your fountain pen, the more the nib will shape itself to your writing. (Seriously, you and your pen will become friends.)
The only reason it feels difficult in the beginning is because there are so many different variables to consider– like the sizes of nibs or whether to use a cartridge vs. a converter. But now you know more and can dive in with success!
Download this article as an ebook to keep it handy while you shop for supplies!