You aren't alone if you have ever wondered what fountain pen lingo such as filling systems or nibs mean.
Even if you know what a filling system is, the variety can boggle the mind.
In this article, I'll break down each ink filling system and what the different nibs are.
To start, here is a list of all the different types of fountain pens by filling systems and nib:
- The Mystery Filler Fountain Pen
- Magnetic Filler
- Vacuum Fountain Pen
- Bladder Sac/Rubber Sac Fountain Pen
- Eyedropper Style Fountain Pen
- Japanese Eyedropper
- Safety Fountain Pen
- Bulkfiller Fountain Pen
- Pen Nib Material
- Stainless Steel
- Pen Nib Style
- Round Tip Nib
- Italic Nib
- Stub Nib
- Flex Nib
- Pen Nib Size
Starting with the filling system:
This refers to the way that ink is put into the fountain pen.
Let's start at the top and work down the list of the different types of fountain pens.
What Is A Cartridge Fountain Pen?
This type of pen uses a prefilled plastic ink cartridge to hold the ink.
For users, this means they must install a cartridge to fill a pen with ink. When the pen runs out of ink, they discard the cartridge and insert a new one.
Different brands require different, specific ink cartridges. Some brands have proprietary ink cartridge sizes, while others use the standard international ink cartridge sizing.
For a full list of what brands take which ink cartridges, check out this PDF.
How to Fill a Cartridge Pen
Unscrew the barrel from the section (grip) of the pen and locate the opening in the top of the section.
Place the tapered end of the ink cartridge into the opening. Then, push firmly until you feel the cartridge puncture and lock into place. This will most likely feel like a snap. It's pivotal to puncture and secure so that the ink flows through the pen and doesn't leak into the barrel.
Best Cartridge Fountain Pen
The best entry level cartridge pen is the Pilot Metropolitan. Affordable, easy to use, and heralded by beginner fountain pen users and enthusiasts alike, the Metropolitan is one of the best go-to pens out there.
Luckily, a large majority of fountain pens take cartridges. As a result, your options are near endless to find a cartridge pen that you like at any price point.
Truly any...like from $4 on to $4000...
What Is A Converter Fountain Pen?
You can refill this type of pen with an ink converter, which you insert into the same slot as a cartridge. However, this lets you draw ink into the converter, turning it into an ink reservoir.
Cartridge pens and converter pens are more often than not the same pens.
Converter pens allow the user to fill directly from an ink bottle instead of simply using a disposable ink cartridge.
Converters themselves can come with many different types of ink filling systems such as:
Piston converters use a threaded twist action mechanism to depress a plunger that draws ink into the ink chamber.
Squeeze converters work by using fingers to squeeze the air out of the rubber ink chamber. When fingers are released ink is draws into the reservoir.
Plunger Converters are a form of piston converter, where the plunger is physically pushed down and pulled up to draw in ink.
Push Button Converters create pressure inside the converter when the button is pushed. As a result, liquid ink is drawn into the converter when the button is released.
How to Fill a Converter Pen
The converter should be snugly inserted in the pen and the entire nib submerged up to the section in an ink bottle. Activate the converter with whichever method it requires until the ink reservoir is full.
Best Converter Fountain Pen
The best converterpen is the Waterman Expert.
Finding the best converter fountain pen comes down to taste and preference within the fountain pen world.
However, it is hard to come across a company with the history of Waterman. Waterman’s Expert offers the same portability, elegance, and precision that made Waterman's Ideal a household pen.
Here is a quick list of other converter pen brands that will not disappoint:
What Is A Piston Fountain Pen?
This type of pen has a piston filling system built into the pen barrel itself.
When you engage the piston mechanism (the mechanism will be proprietary to the brand), the piston plunger lowers in the pen and pushes out all the air. Then you re-engage the piston and pull it back up in the pen's barrel.
Piston pens, as well as all the following filling systems, use the entire barrel of the pen to store ink instead of storing it in a separate attachment.
One benefit is that the barrel holds a greater volume of ink than a cartridge or converter.
How to Fill a Piston Fountain Pen
To fill a piston fountain pen, submerge the entire nib in bottled ink and turn the knob at the back of the pen until the plunger descends and the knob stops turning. Turn the knob to pull the fountain pen ink back into the pen until the knob locks in place.
Use a paper towel to dry any excess ink off the top side of the nib and around the grip.
Best Piston Fountain Pen
The best piston fountain pen is the TWSBI Eco.
It is exceedingly affordable at around $32 and is a precision writing instrument. I love the TWSBI Eco pretty intensely for a couple of key reasons.
- TWSBI uses a lot of redundancy in this pen like a double layered cap that seals the nib to prevent dry out and two rubber gaskets around the plunger to prevent any leaking.
- The demonstrator body (meaning you can see the ink inside the pen) tells you just how much ink you have left.
- A springy, reliable nib in a variety of sizes.
The Mystery Filler Fountain Pen
These pens use a push button at the top of the pen to unlock the piston filler.
Press the button, unlock the piston, and twist the top of the pen to send the plunger down.This expels air, and retracts to draw ink into the pen. Press the push button again to lock the piston into place.
The Pineider Mystery Filler Fountain Pen currently has the unique Mystery Filler system.
What is a Magnetic Filler Fountain Pen?
These pens use a powerful magnet in the cap of the pen to manually lower and raise a plunger with a magnet inside the barrel of the pen.
The magnet pushes out air as it descends. As it ascends, it draws up ink into the barrel.
How to Fill a Magnetic Filler Fountain Pen
- Unscrew the cap from the top of the pen
- Place the magnet at the top of the cap against the magnet inside the barrel of the pen to engage.
- Slowly drag the cap down towards the nib of the pen, pulling the magnet inside the pen (and depressing the plunger) to the section end of the pen.
- Insert the nib in ink up to the section and slowly move the cap back up to the top of the pen. This will draw fountain pen ink into the reservoir.
- Once the magnet inside the pen reaches the top of the barrel, disengage the magnet in the cap, and the pen is ready to write.
PenBBS Magnet Filler in action (please excuse the inky fingers!)
by u/cursiveandcaffeine in fountainpens
Best Magnetic Filler Fountain Pen
The best magnetic filler fountain pen is the PENBBS 487 Fountain Pen. To be honest...I think it is the only magnetic filler fountain pen available.
What is a Vacuum Fountain Pen?
Vacuum filler fountain pens create an airless vacuum inside the ink chamber of the pen that, when released, draws ink into the chamber.
How this happens looks a little different and explaining how it works also explains how to fill vacuum fountain pens.
A vacuum fountain pen has a steel rod inside the pen attached to a plunger. Unscrew the blind cap at the end of the barrel to unlock the rod. Pull the rod out of the barrel as far as it goes. Insert the nib into the liquid up to a section, and then depress the rod back into the pen.
When the plunger rod reaches the bottom of the barrel, ink fills into the space around the rod, and the pen is ready to write.
Now, the inside of the barrel where the rod and plunger are located is not uniform. Most of the barrel is a tight, sealing fit around the plunger. But close to where the ink chamber and the section come together on the pen, the diameter of the internal barrel widens. When the plunger hits the wider part of the barrel, the vacuum seal is broken.
What does that have to do with getting ink into the pen?
If the plunger stays tight inside the barrel the entire time, the pen works like a piston fountain pen, simply removing air from the chamber and drawing it back in as you twist the piston up.
Instead, the vacuum filler breaks the air vacuum inside the pen. The plunger entering the wider area of the barrel draws the liquid into the barrel, behind the plunger (around the rod), thus creating equilibrium inside the pen.
Best Vacuum Filler Fountain Pen
Pump Filler/Vacumatic Filler
Underneath the category of vacuum fillers are pump and vacumatic fillers. Pump fillers and vacumatic fillers use a rubber diaphragm instead of a plunger to create the vacuum pressure that sucks ink into the chamber.
How this works:
The top of the barrel attaches a sping-loaded plunger to a rubber sac diaphragm. (They generally store the plunger behind a blind-cap).
When you depress the plunger, it stretches the diaphragm, pushing air out of the ink chamber and creating a vacuum.
The spring releases and relaxes the diaphragm, and this action sucks ink into the barrel. A small breather holf here prevents each depression from pushing the ink back out of the barrel.
Multiple depressions or pumps are necessary to fill the barrel.
Best Pump and Vacumatic Filler
For around $17 the Wing Sung 601 is a modern pump filler that has created a lot of buzz for being a really decent pump filler fountain pen.
The name "vacumatic" actually comes from the pen that uses it the Parker Vacumatic, which you can only find as a vintage fountain pen.
What Is A Bladder/Rubber Sac Fountain Pen?
Technically, bladder sac fountain pens are fountain pens that store the ink in a rubber sac inside the barrel of the pen.
Now, the question “what is a bladder sac fountain pen” is a little confusing because if you google bladder sac fountain pen...you will not get any useful information.
Any fountain pen that uses a permanent rubber bladder as the ink chamber is a bladder sac fountain pen. But, no fountain pen that uses a bladder sac uses that name.
Fountain pens get their names from how you fill them, not how they store the ink. As a result, there are a ton of different ways to fill a rubber sac.
Engineers have designed beautiful mechanisms to fill fountain pens with a bladder sac.
Bladder sac fill systems include:
What is a Lever Fountain Pen?
A lever fountain pen uses a lever on the outside of the pen to push a pressure bar inside the pen. The pressure bar depresses the rubber sac in the barrel, pushing all air out of the sac. When the lever is released, the bar disengages from the sac, and the sac reinflates with ink.
Modern lever fountain pens do not exist, but a large majority of vintage fountain pens used some sort of lever bar system like Swan Fountain Pens.
What is an Aerometric Fountain Pen?
An aerometric fountain pen uses a metal pressure bar around the rubber sac like a pair of tongs. Manually pinch the metal bar with fingers to depress the sac. When you release the pinch, the pen draws in the ink.
The aerometric system is esentially a built in version of the CONB squeeze converter that Pilot uses.
The Parker 51 is famously an aerometric pen.
What Is A Crescent Fountain Pen?
The crescent fountain pen is an earlier model of the lever fountain pen but it has a crescent shaped metal bar protruding from the side of the barrel.
The pen attaches the crescent to the pressure bar inside, and when you push the crescent, it depresses the sac inside, deflating it. When you release the crescent, the sac refills with liquid.
Since the crescent always sticks out from the pen, the manufacturers placed a dial lock mechanism under the crescent to stop accidental depressions. To fill the pen, you must twist the dial lock to align a slot opening for the crescent lever.
Conklin invented the crescent filling mechanism and remains the only seller of crescent pens to this day.
You can find crescent fountain pens in the vintage market or newly manufactured by Conklin.
What is a Pneumatic/Touchdown Filler Fountain Pen?
Pneumatic/Touchdown fountain pens work by creating air pressure around the rubber sac to compress it. Breaking the pressure vacuum around the sac causes the sac to expand and fill with fountain pen ink.
Most often, the pressure is created by using a finger to close the breather hole at the top of the blind cap and pulling the metal cylinder around the sac up to create an air vacuum that compresses the sac.
When the finger is released from the breather hole, air flows back into the barrel, releasing the pressure and reinflating the sac with ink.
Once the sac reinflates, the cylinder can be slid down around the sac, and the blind cap twisted closed. The pen is ready to write.
What is a Snorkel Fountain Pen?
A snorkel fountain pen is a touchdown fountain pen with a filler tube that descends out of the feed of the pen when the blind cap is unscrewed.
This means that instead of submerging the entire fountain pen nib up to the section in fountain pen ink, just the filler tube (aka snorkel) needs to be submerged in ink to fill the pen.
Snorkel fountain pens are no longer in production, but are still a mainstay for vintage fountain pens.
To snag one, look for a Sheaffer Snorkel or a Sheaffer PFM. The pen may need to be refurbished before use.
What Is An Eyedropper Fountain Pen?
Eyedropper fountain pens are fountain pens that use the entire barrel as the ink reservoir and are filled by unscrewing the barrel, using an eyedropper to fill the barrel with fountain pen ink, and then screwing the barrel back onto the section.
Eyedropper fountain pens are incredibly straightforward and generally offer the largest volume of ink since there is no space taken up in the barrel by the filling system.
Some pens are specifically made to be eyedropper style fountain pens, but almost any converter/cartridge fountain pen can be turned into an eyedropper fountain pen.
For example, the Platinum Preppy is often turned into an eyedropper pen by removing the fountain pen ink cartridge, sliding an O-ring to the base of the threads, filling the entire barrel with ink using an eyedropper or syringe, applying a thin layer of silicon grease to the threads of the section, and screwing the barrel and section carefully back together.
Eyedropper pens do have a flaw that can deter users. The downside of the eyedropper pen...it burps.
What is burping and how does it happen?
Burping refers to a fountain pen expelling a glob of ink out of the nib. This can happen when a fountain pen experiences a change in atmospheric pressure.
Since converted eyedroppers are a sealed system, they can leak ink into the cap when atmospheric pressure changes like a change in altitudes or drastic temperature variation occurs (think of flying in a plane or going from a hot car in the middle of summer to a chilly air conditioned room).
When you write with an eyedropper (any pen actually), you use the ink and air replaces the space created by ink leaving the chamber. When the air inside the ink chamber experiences atmospheric changes, such as the heat from a hand warming the air inside the pen, that air creates pressure that pushes on the liquid ink causing it to burp out of the pen (like popping a bubble).
The air wants to equalize, the ink is in the way of it equalizing, the air pushes the ink to move it out of the way so it can equalize…out comes an ink blob.
This issue by no means deters all users, but some pen designers wanted to figure out a solution.
Japanese Eyedropper Fountain Pen
Japanese eyedropper fountain pens are exactly the same as standard eyedropper pens with the exception of an additional valve system that prevents the pen from leaking (burping) when not in use.
This valve system essentially creates two ink chambers, one small one around the section of the pen and one large one around the barrel.
When the valve is unscrewed and opened, ink flows from the large chamber into the smaller, supplying the pen with continuous fountain pen ink.
When the valve is closed, the large chamber is sealed. Only the ink around the section can flow out of the pen. With the valve closed, the writer has a short term amount of ink for writing until the small chamber needs to be refilled.
This matters when storing the pen. Since the large ink chamber can be sealed off from the pen, it cannot leak with atmospheric changes. No burping can happen.
Best Japanese Style Eyedropper Fountain Pen
With a demonstrator body, a large barrel that holds 3.5ml of ink, and a JoWo nib, the Opus 88 Omar Fountain Pen offers a great user experience in a pen that will take you a lot of writing before you even begin to think about refilling it.
Safety Fountain Pens
These pens are eyedropper style fountain pens with a nib that retracts into the barrel of the pen.
Safety fountain pens are actually a very old style of fountain pen that is regaining popularity with Noodler's Boston Safety Pen.
How does it work?
Safety pens were designed to combat that same problem of ink leaking when the pen is not in use. Instead of dividing the pen into two chambers like the Japanese eyedropper pen, the safety pen makes the entire pen one single ink chamber.
To do this, the entire nib retracts into the inkwell (submerging it in ink) and caps the pen at the reservoir so it is a single, sealed tube.
To write with the pen, uncapped the pen with the nib pointed up. Push and slowly twist the back of the pen until the nib emerges from the ink chamber and locks into place. Once the nib is locked in, the pen is ready to write.
Since the nib sits in the ink before writing, there is no start up time necessary to get the ink flowing. The nib is wet from the start.
How to Fill a Safety Pen
Uncap the pen vertically, nib pointing upward and retracted. Fill the barrel of the pen with an eye dropper or syringe of ink (about 1ml). Extend the pen nib and write.
Special note with Safety Pens: You must ensure the nib end of the pen points upward when you remove the cap. Because the nib is submerged, removing the cap eliminates the the ink's seal. If you uncap the pen horizontally or upside down, all the ink will spill out.
To snag your own, get a Noddler’s Boston Safety Pen.
Bulkfiller Fountain Pen
Bulkfiller fountain pens use a hybrid filling system that is part piston filler part vacuum filler to maximize the amount of ink drawn into the pen by the filling system.
Like a vacuum filler, a metal rod sits in the reservoir. When the knob on the blind cap is twisted, the rod unlocks and is pulled out of the pen. Keep twisting the knob with the rod pulled out to lock it into the piston plunger at the top of the barrel.
Push the rod/plunger down ( just like piston fountain pens) to expel the air from the chamber and pull it back up to draw fountain pen ink into the pen. Then, turn the knob in the opposite direction to detach the rod from the plunger. Push the rod back into the pen, and the knob until you tighten the blind cap.
What is great about a bulkfiller is it leaves almost no wasted space in the barrel (like an eyedropper style fountain pen).
Currently only one company makes the bulkfiller system, Conid. To try one of these out, you will need to get your hands on a Conid pen like the Minimalistica.
That brings me to the end of the different types of fountain pen ink filling systems, let's talk about the different types of fountain pen nibs.
What Are the Different Types of Fountain Pen Nibs?
The fountain pen nib is the other distinguishing factor of the fountain pen. Nibs ultimately have three distinctive features: their material, their style, and their size.
Stainless Steel Nib
Stainless steel nibs are the most common form of nib material due to its resilience, its durability, and its affordability.
Until the modern fountain pen, the nib material was a major source of trouble for fountain pens due to the corrosive nature of early fountain pen inks. Fountain pen inks had a history of eating away most metals (like the iron nib pen) with the exception of gold.
Modern stainless steel has by and large solved the corrosive issue.
Stainless steel nibs are incredibly resilient. I'll discuss this more when we talk about gold nibs, but steel is generally less flexible.
This means you will see less distinctive line variation in fountain pens, but they withstand the wear and tear of daily writing.
Lastly, stainless steel is the most common of the types of fountain pen nibs...because it is much cheaper than precious metals.
Gold used to be the standard for fountain pen nibs, but when the cost of gold went up, stainless steel became an affordable alternative.
Developers created different alloys to address historic steel problems, and by adjusting the thinness of the nib, they added some springinness to the steel nib giving it more writing character.
People still consider gold nibs as premium nib material becasue of the cost of gold, its anti-corrosive nature, and the flexibility it provides.
As previously mentioned, gold nibs were the historic solution to the corrosive nature of fountain pen ink. On top of that, gold is a soft metal which means it bends and flexes as the user writes. This gave the fountain pen nib a unique line variation that is a defining feature of the writing instrument.
The nib's flexibility increases with the karat of gold used to make it. 14k nibs are relatively "stiff" compared to 18k or 23k nibs.
One common practice is to have a gold-plated nib instead of just a solid gold nib pen. In this case the fountain pen nib will be stainless steel plated with gold.
Titanium nibs seek to find a middle ground between gold and steel. They are not particularly common, but titanium is cheaper than gold and resilient like steel, while offering a surprisingly tactile writing experience.
These are currently only used by Visconti on their high end pens.
Palladium offers a similar user experience to gold with a springiness and flexibility that offers a little line variation, but with a particularly wet writing line.
A wetter writing line means more ink is transferred to the page, leaving a darker, more defined line.
You must mention this material when discussing nib material because many fountain pens commonly have an iridium tip, specifically the small ball you see at the end of round fountain pen nibs.
Iridium is a very hard, anti-corrosive metal. The tip uses it to extend the nib's writing life while still maintaining the flexibility and springingness of the metal forming the nibs body.
The nib style is the shape of the nib and the nib point.
Round tip nibs are the most common nib style on fountain pens today. They are distinguished by the small round ball on the end that splits with the nib tines.
Most people use round tips for everyday writing becasue they provide a more uniform writing line, and the extra metal(usually iridium) on the tip resists wear and tear.
How a user holds the pen, the orientation of the paper, angle of the nib...all these things have a much smaller impact on a round nib, meaning anyone can pick one up and use it.
They are also a smoother writing experience since the tip mirrors a ball (like a ballpoint pen or a rollerball pen), and allows the writer to write quickly without scratching the paper.
These have a square nib point that is flat across the top with square edges.
Italic nibs are famous for giving a huge amount of line variation all by changing the angle of the pen.
When you are thinking of how great your handwriting will look when you start using a fountain pen...you are probably imagining yourself with an italic nib.
Italic nibs have a stiffer writing experience because of the squared edges. Using the pen nib at the wrong angle can tear into the paper or bend the tines because it puts stress on the wrong part of the nib.
Time and practice are needed to build the technique of writing with an italic nib.
Italic nibs also use more ink since they release more ink in each stroke.
They have a square nib point that is flat across the top with rounded edges.
Stub nibs are in between a round nib and an italic nib and have a popular following because they offer greater line variation with their flat tip, but do not require as much special attention to writing angle and hand position due to the rounded edges. (Neil deGrasse Tyson is a big stub nib fan).
Stub nibs use ink more quickly than round nibs because they are wetter.
Flex nibs spread the tines easily when you apply pressure. This is done to create line variation like the italic nib.
Where the italic nib is highly dependent on the size of the nib for the width of the variation, the flex nib is primarily dependent on the pressure of the strokes.
Flex nibs are wetter since the amount of ink they release varies, and they do require some time to acquire the knack for using them.
Flex along with italic and stub are often used in calligraphy writing.
Shawn Buckles of the One Pen Show has an even more intricate breakdown of different nib shapes so for more information, check out his article.
Nib sizes are pretty straight forward. The smaller the nib size, the smaller the writing line. Nib sizes get very technical very quickly, grading up and down by millimeters, but as a general rule fine, medium, and broad are the go-to sizes.
These nibs are around 0.6mm in width and are ideal for quick writing, small font writing, and fine-line drawing.
Fine nibs are more about precision than variation. If a person writes with their letters close together or very small, a fine point is the best option.
Medium point nibs have average width of 0.8mm in width and most users consider them the standard writing point.
Standard handwriting size, daily writing...these are the kind of tasks where a medium nib is ideal.
Broad point nibs are around 1.0mm in width. This will have the best results for larger writing and signatures.
The larger the point, the more ink it releases, and thus, i produces a wetter line. So if a writer tries to use a broad nib but has to write in a small window, the ink can run together and look like a blob.
Whatever nib style and size you choose, remember to use the best ink for fountain pens to avoid issues such as a clogged nib.
That ends this article on the types of fountain pens available from different types of fountain pen filling systems to the different types of fountain pen nibs.
What's your favorite fountain pen to use?
Leave a comment below! And if I didn't mention your favorite filling system or nib type, let me know, and I will add it to the list.
For more informative articles on pens, check out some of the Jotted Lines other articles:
- Who Invented the Ballpoint Pen: A Brief History
- How to Choose the Right Fountain Pen Ink
- The Top 11 Everyday Carry Pens: #1 Is James Bond's Pen
Sam Di Nardo is an author for Dayspring Pens, where she has honed her expertise in ballpoint, rollerball, gel and fountain pens since joining the team in 2018.
From her initial role as an Engraver to becoming the Production Manager, Sam's journey has been marked by her passion for the history, manufacturing, and the unique value of gifted writing instruments.
A graduate of Regent University with a degree in English Literature and a special interest in Old Norse literature, dive deeper into Sam's world and discover why she's your trusted guide in the realm of gift pens.