Whether your experience with fountain pens has been watching the pen in your dad’s hand smoothly gliding over paper as he signed documents, using fountain pens to take notes in grade school, or you are considering adding them to your writing tools, fountain pens can seem a little daunting, especially with numerous types and brands available today.
In this article, I will answer what is a fountain pen and explore everything you need or want to know about them, from their history to the manufacturing process, how to care for these pens, and more.
Let’s begin by looking at the basic parts of a fountain pen.
1. Definition and Basics of a Fountain Pen
Why does the word ‘fountain’ appear in the name? There’s actually an interesting reason behind that.
Historically, in order to write, a pen would have to be repeatedly dipped into a pot of ink to coat the nib and transfer ink to a paper.
Fountain pens contain a compartment inside designed to accommodate a miniature inkwell. Thanks to the self-supplying source of ink from an internal reservoir, they became known as fountain pens because the ink would continue to flow like a fountain.
Let’s explore the different parts of these pens that make meticulous writing possible.
First, you have the barrel, which is the outer housing of the pen. It protects the ink reservoir, provides support to the entire structure, and covers the filling mechanism.
The cap accompanies the barrel and keeps the water-based ink from drying out, which clogs the pen and makes it unusable. The cap also protects the nib from denting or breaking.
Next, the nib is where the pen meets the paper. Nibs come in various styles, shapes, sizes, and materials such as stainless steel, gold, and iridium.
The ink reservoir holds ink which is moved to the nib by a part called the feed.
Located behind the nib, the feed is usually made of plastic or ebonite. It contains a channel that delivers ink from the reservoir to the nib.
At this point, there is a great deal of variety to how each of these pieces are created or put together. I will get into the varieties a little later on, but in the meantime it is good to know that high-end fountain pens are made of premium materials such as quality resins, celluloid, and ebonite. They’re handcrafted, adhering to superior workmanship standards regarding functionality and aesthetics, and are often personalized with custom engraving.
So what makes the ink inside a fountain pen so special it needs a uniquely designed pen?
What is Fountain Pen Ink?
Fountain pen ink is water-based ink created specifically for use with fountain pens.
Most fountain pen inks are made of a combination of water and dye plus other ingredients such as:
- Biocides - Prevent mold growth
- Surfactants - Reduce the surface tension of the ink thus improving ink flow
- Humectants - Prevent the ink from drying out
- pH modifiers - Reduce the ink's corrosiveness
Since fountain pens operate on the principle of capillary action, this ink is almost exclusively dye-based and contains no solid pigment particles unlike pigment-based inks. This avoids the issue of clogged internal pen parts.
Now that you have a better understanding of the inner workings of your trusty writing companion, what are the origins of the fountain pen?
The History of the Fountain Pen
Before fountain pens, people used ‘dip pens’, called so because you had to periodically dip the pen in ink while writing.
Both the ink and pens used have evolved greatly over time. From Roman times until the 19th century, most writing instruments were quills, made from bird feathers. Actually, the word ‘pen’ comes from a Latin word penna, which means feather.
The first fountain pens were referred to as ‘reservoir pens’. The writing points were made of quills, silver, or steel, all of which either wore quickly or were corroded by the fountain pen ink and had to be constantly replaced.
And as a greater difficulty, the reservoir pens constantly clogged or dumped all the ink out of the pen in an uncontrolled rush.
The first major breakthrough in fountain pens came in May of 1809. Frederick Fölsch filed the first patent in England for a fountain pen that allowed ink to flow through the pen.
This was followed by Joseph Bramah's feed patent of September 1809 and an avalanche of innovations ensued culminating in the work of Lewis Edson Waterman
Lewis Edson Waterman is credited with developing a three-channel ink feed fountain pen in 1884 which ensured a smooth flow of ink when writing. His version is considered the basis of the modern fountain pen, since the design hasn't changed much today.
Next, let’s take a look at how fountain pens work.
How Fountain Pens Work
Fountain pens function under the principles of gravity (the force that draws things downward to the earth), capillary action (the process of liquid being drawn through a narrow space because of cohesion aka liquid liking to stick together), and air flow. Stay with me, I’ll keep the explanation simple.
It’s basically ink out, air in.
Ink moves from an internal reservoir through the feed to the nib, the part that’s in contact with the paper.
Ink is pulled downwards by gravity due to its own weight. Then capillary action draws the liquid through the narrow tube connecting the reservoir to the nib point.
Once the ink touches the paper (adhesion), cohesion continues to pull the liquid along the channel and writing occurs.
But airflow is critical to the process.
As ink leaves the reservoir, air enters the pen at the same time through the slit in the nib. This air moves in the opposite direction, gradually filling up the reservoir and preventing a vacuum from being created inside the pen.
So, how is this science applied to actually building fountain pens?
How Are Fountain Pens Made
Let’s see what steps lead to the manufacturing of fountain pens.
i) Design and Material Choice
It all starts with the design phase, where the shape, size, and style of the pen are determined. Manufacturers then select materials such as precious metals (gold, silver), stainless steel, celluloid, or resin for the pen barrel and cap.
ii) Nib Production
Next, the nib is shaped using precision machinery. Fountain pen nibs are typically made from materials such as stainless steel, gold, or other alloys.
After cutting, the nib is ground to create the writing point. The intensity of the grind determines the style of the nib: fine, medium, broad, or italic.
Details such as the breather hole, slit, and tipping material are also added at this stage.
iii) Feed Production
The feed is composed of channels and fins that control the flow of ink. This part of the fountain pen is usually made out of either plastic or ebonite (hard natural rubber).
Since ebonite needs the shaping tools to be constantly sharp, ebonite feeds are individually hand cut and finished. As a result, they are expensive and susceptible to quality control problems.
Plastic, on the other hand, is easy to cut using laser machines and works well with injection molding. This mass production not only keeps the cost of plastic feeds down but also ensures quality control.
iv) Cap and Barrel Production
This step involves using different methods to form the cap and barrel of the pen. For plastic pens, manufacturers use injection molding while metal pens are made through machining.
It’s at this phase that special additional processes including engraving, polishing, or applying decorative finishes are done to high-end pens.
v) Filling Mechanism Installation
Here, different filling mechanisms are installed into the barrel depending on the style of fountain pen. For instance, for cartridge/converter fountain pens, this phase is where the converter or cartridge holder gets fixed into the barrel.
At this point all parts of the pen are brought together. Everything is done carefully to ensure the parts align and fit as required.
Rigorous quality control checks which include inspecting the nib for defects, checking the ink flow, and ensuring all parts fit together well are done on each fountain pen.
While there are some differences in the manufacturing process depending on the brand, price range, and level of craftsmanship of fountain pens, it generally follows the steps I’ve discussed.
Types of Fountain Pens
Below are the different kinds of fountain pens that bring joy to users all over the world.
- Cartridge/converter pens: Use disposable ink cartridges or a refillable ink converter
- Piston filling pens: Contain an integrated piston mechanism that draws ink directly from a bottle into an internal reservoir
- Eyedropper pens: Users fill the barrel directly with ink using an eyedropper or syringe
- Button filling pens: Come with a button at the end of the barrel that compresses an internal sac to draw in ink
- Vacuum filling pens: Operating a knob, a vacuum is created within the barrel, drawing ink into the reservoir
- Aerometric pens: Squeezing a sac inside a metal or plastic casing expels air, causing air pressure to fill the sac with ink
The following table compares the main features of these pens to help you see the difference between them:
|Fountain Pen Type||Filling Mechanism||Ink Capacity||Maintenance|
|Cartridge/converter||Cartridges or converter||Moderate||Easy to Clean|
|Piston Filling||Piston mechanism||High||Moderate cleaning|
|Eyedropper||Barrel as reservoir||High||Requires careful filling|
|Vacuum filling||Vacuum mechanism||High||Moderate cleaning|
|Button filling||Button compresses sac||Moderate||Moderate cleaning|
|Aerometric||Sac and air pressure||Moderate||Moderate cleaning|
Benefits of Using a Fountain Pen
When it comes to writing, your pen of choice matters a lot. I believe that fountain pens are a cut above the rest—here’s what makes them a great choice for fountain pen collectors and users.
- Liquid Ink
- Ergonomic Use
- Variety of Point Sizes
- Aesthetic Appeal
- Environmental Friendliness
Variety of Nib Choices
Fountain pens come with different nib options, such as fine, medium, broad, or specialty like flex or italic. This allows you to choose a nib that adapts to your handwriting and preference for line thickness.
It’s hard to rival the sense of elegance that fountain pens embody. The aesthetic appeal and craftsmanship of these pens tailor them to individual tastes and styles.
From modernist simplicity to old world detailing to demonstrators and custom nibs, each fountain pen offers the versatility of choice, while maintaining the expressive, tactile finishes only a liquid-ink nib based pen affords.
There are very few examples of disposable fountain pens. Fountain pens are built to last as they are refillable and the parts are often interchangeable.
That pen that your grandma has been using since she’s been using it before you were born? It’s not just her being super careful—the instrument was designed to stand the test of time.
Most fountain pens are refillable, thus producing less plastic waste compared to their disposable counterparts. For those seeking a more sustainable writing experience, fountain pens provide the perfect solution.
The personal satisfaction, practical advantages, and aesthetic appeal that fountain pens carry all enhance the act of writing, elevating it from a mere task to a delightful experience in ways that no other instrument does.
How to Choose the Right Fountain Pen
Let’s say you are browsing through an online shop searching for custom fountain pens to gift your employees after successfully completing the latest project. While all the options look fantastic, how do you decide which ones to pick?
I’ve got a few tips to make the process easier.
Nib Size and Type
Various nib sizes (fine, medium, broad) suit different handwriting styles. For people with a small, precise handwriting, a fine nib may be preferable, while broader nibs provide bolder lines ideal for large handwriting.
If the recipient of the fountain pen gift is interested in calligraphy, specialty nibs, such as italic or flex nibs, come in handy to provide them with a more adaptive writing experience.
With fountain pen nibs, you get different rates of ink flow depending on their construction. Nibs are classified into:
Wet nibs (like a broad point nib) lay down more ink, offering smoother writing but longer drying times. On the other side, dry nibs (such as extrafine points) release less ink and produce lighter, finer writing lines, allowing for faster drying time.
Are you looking to experiment with different ink colors and brands?
Then a pen that’s compatible with a wide range of inks is best. The flexibility such a pen offers allows you to work with various inks without worrying whether they match with your fountain pen.
In the realm of fountain pens, there are options to match every budget.
You’ll find pens that go for less than $10 to those with price tags in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. And although higher-quality pens usually cost more, you get your money’s worth with longevity, elegance, and a pleasant writing experience.
Material and Aesthetics
Fountain pen materials have a bearing on the durability of the pens. Stainless steel and chrome pens, for example, are more sturdy compared to their plastic counterparts.
In addition, materials affect the aesthetic appeal of fountain pens. Those made of precious metals such as gold exude elegance and timeless style—the same can’t always be said about plastic fountain pens.
Brand and Reputation
When it comes to brands, not all are created equal. It’s important to consider fountain pens produced by brands known for their quality craftsmanship and customer service. This way, you’ll have peace of mind that you’re getting a top quality product that’s worth its price tag.
Also, reputable brands often have a wide range of models to choose from. So whatever your taste, you’ll find something that fits your needs.
Maintenance and Care
Just as with any piece of equipment, fountain pens require proper care and maintenance to work at their best.
Let’s look at a few tips for keeping your pens in great shape so you can enjoy them for years to come.
Tips for Using Your Fountain Pen
- Always make sure that the nib is properly aligned with the feed. Otherwise, you’re likely to experience problems with ink flow, resulting in scratchy writing.
- Unlike other types of pens, fountain pens use their own weight to execute the writing. This means you don’t need to press the nib hard onto the paper. Avoid using excessive pressure, as this can damage the nib and affect the flow of ink.
- Try using high-quality paper whenever possible. Abrasive paper poses the risk of damaging the nib and can react poorly to the water-based ink making feathering and bleeding more common.
- Don’t forget to pair good paper with top-notch fountain pen ink, since poor quality ink can cause clogs in the feed and nib.
- In addition, always follow the manufacturer’s instructions when refilling your pen. This will help you avoid spills or overfilling.
- When your pen isn’t in use, store it in an upright position (nib pointing up). This helps with preventing ink from settling in the nib and feed, which can lead to hard starts. In addition, ensure the cap is on firmly to prevent the nib from drying out or becoming damaged.
- Equally important is to clean your fountain pen regularly. The best way is to flush the pen with lukewarm water until it runs clear. Cleaning the pen prevents the buildup of ink residue that can clog the nib and feed.
Troubleshooting Your Fountain Pen
If you notice your pen skipping or has trouble starting, this could indicate that air bubbles are blocking the nib’s ink channel. To resolve this, tap the nib gently on a piece of paper and the ink flow will be restored.
In case this doesn’t work, the ink in the nib has most likely dried up. Wetting the nib with tap or distilled water will reactivate the dry ink and resolve any hard starts.
If your pen runs dry again soon after applying the above fixes, flood the feed with ink. This will force ink from the reservoir to the nib.
For cartridge/converter pens, open the pen and turn the knob on the converter or squeeze the cartridge.
If the fountain pen is a piston fill type or another type, work the filling mechanism to push the ink out through the feed.
If the leak is on the grip section, check the inside of the cap and wipe it with another paper towel. If ink fully saturates the towel, this indicates that the nib is leaking.
Wipe the nib dry and store your fountain pen with the nib facing upwards and you likely won’t face this problem again.
However, if your pen still leaks after this, then the nib might be damaged and needs to be replaced.
A loose connection means the seal is compromised, so try to tighten the connection. If this doesn't work, it’s time to shop for a new cartridge or converter.
Does your pen happen to be a non-cartridge/converter fountain pen and has a barrel leak?
Then you need to seek professional service. Since you’re not dealing with replaceable parts, it’s best to reach out to the brand's warranty service repair department to fix the barrel or filling mechanism.
Frequently Asked Questions
Are fountain pens suitable for everyday use, or are they reserved for special occasions?
Although fountain pens are associated with elegance, they aren’t limited to special occasions. Your fountain pen will work just as well for everyday tasks such as note-taking, journaling, and paperwork, so go ahead and use it as often as you like.
Can I use a fountain pen for calligraphy?
Absolutely. Calligraphy nibs have broader and more flexible nibs compared to regular fountain pen nibs enabling you to achieve varying line widths as you write.
Some fountain pens are designed for calligraphy and come with interchangeable nibs to accommodate different writing styles.
Remember to avoid using calligraphy and india inks with your fountain pen, as these tend to be corrosive and can clog the pen’s internal mechanisms.
Fountain pens are sophisticated writing instruments with a rich history, all the way from the carved reeds of ancient Egypt. Modern versions are highly refined tools, with a wide variety to match different preferences.
With all the flair they exude, fountain pens continue to be the right choice for those who appreciate the art of writing.
Plus, if you own a fountain pen, it speaks to your prestigious taste—so give yourself a pat on the back for being pretty cool.
What do you love most about owning or using fountain pens? I’m curious to hear your thoughts in the comments section below.
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.