Why are these archaic devices still in existence, and why do some writers prefer them to Bic, Biros, and even roller-ball pens? This Tipsy Thursday is all about pens: a writer’s best friends. Sorry kittens.
Why Fountain Pens?
It’s not about nostalgia. It’s not about looking cool. It’s definitely not about trying to stand out in a crowd, though uncapping a fountain pen in public is a nice way to start a conversation. Simply put, no finer instrument has ever come along that can replace the smoothness of a fountain pen nib. Long writing sessions are easier and don’t cramp up your hands, and the reduced stress on your pen fingers allows your writing to flow nicely. It can even improve your handwriting.
A Little History
Fountain pens were originally the solution to a common problem with writing implements. Specifically, the need to carry an ink well around in your pocket. The nib design is similar to nibs cut into reeds and feathers, but a steel or gold nib never needs resharpening, so durability comes into play. For most purposes, the nibs are very similar to those used on any dip pen, but the general idea of the fountain was the ability to hold a much larger reservoir of ink, hopefully without draining it all over the page. There’s some dispute about who made the first “true” fountain pen and I’m not getting into it, but since their inception they’ve been used and appreciated until their eventual replacement by roller-balls and ballpoints.
So what’s the Difference?
Ballpoint pens contain an ink reservoir with a captive ball at the end. Applying pressure spins the ball so it can continually pull ink from the reservoir and deliver it to the paper. To keep from leaking, ballpoints use an ink that is thick and greasy. Generally they cannot be refilled. Even for “refillable” ballpoints and gel pens, the refills are a whole cartridge. That is ball, captive holder, and pre-filled reservoir. True roller balls are much smoother, requiring less pressure to work, and higher quality in design, allowing them to use just about any kind of ink that would work in a fountain pen, such as water based inks. Gel pens are of similar design with their own special ink, putting them somewhere between ballpoints (Bic/Biro) and roller balls.
The key note about all of the above is they require some pressure to write. High quality roller balls can be quite smooth as a note to their construction and price, so they can be lovely writers too. Another key difference in fountain pens is the angle the pen can be held at. There is a limit to how far you can tilt any captive-ball system toward the paper before the captive mechanism is catching the paper instead of the ball, causing drag and skips in the ink flow.
Fountain pens have an older design where a slit down the nib carries ink by capillary action. Thus, if the point touches the paper, ink starts to flow, and keeps flowing. The ink lubricates the point allowing it to glide effortlessly. No pressure is required on a properly functioning fountain pen. This makes it easier also to practice the old Palmer method of handwriting where your fingers just hold the pen and your arm movements make the strokes. Compared to squeezing a ball point and jabbing it into the page as you write, fountain pens reduce stress on your entire hand, allowing you to write for much longer sessions with no carpal tunnel worries and no hand cramps. The biggest difference in a fountain pen isn’t the look, it’s the feel. For bad arthritis, a nice pen is essential to comfortable writing.
You have to refill them all the time though.
Okay, yes. Most commercial FPs run out of ink faster than a Bic unless you get one from a reputable company like Office Monster. Two important things counterpoint this note. Typically, when I used Bics, they would get lost or tossed long before their ink supply ran out. Not likely with a more expensive pen. Second, once you get the hang of it, refills are not difficult and don’t take much time at all. Less time, certainly, than a trip to the store for more pens.
Refilling your pen, specially if you are using a reservoir system that doesn’t require cartridges, reduces the amount of plastic being tossed in the trash. That’s never a bad thing. It also means more choices of ink. Any color imaginable and even scented inks are available. There are different types of inks to suit different styles of writing. Some are waterproof, others aren’t. Some even resist bleach so they are great for checks (I know. What are those?). A truly permanent ink is great for archival stuff.
Also, there are lots of options when it comes to reservoirs. Converters don’t hold much, maybe 1/2 a cc. A good piston mechanism can easily double or triple that capacity, requiring less refills, and converting your pen to an eyedropper fill can allow it to hold enough ink to outlast a gel pen or a Bic. The real question for most people is “how much do you write?”
Aren’t they Messy?
Not really. Refilling can spill ink, and opening a brand new bottle of Noodler’s without inking everything around it can be a fun challenge. I use a couple of paper towels and I’m careful, so most times I don’t get ink on my fingers. It depends on the filling mechanism too. My Ahab pen is tricky to fill without ink stains. The good news is your fingers are back to their normal color in a day or so. I find a little silicone grease around the bottle threads helps keep them from leaking in harsher conditions (like hours in a hot car). For most people, ink wells stay at home though, so it’s no bother.
What’s the catch?
The catch is the learning curve. Fountain pens require a little more maintenance than a Bic that you can just throw away when it acts up. Flushing the pen before filling it when it’s new is a good practice, and smoothing out a baby-bottom nib is a good skill to learn, though might be too much for some. Usually the place you order from can do basic nib services if the pen isn’t acting right. A fountain pen should never be a hassle. If it is, then something is wrong. It’s also not a good idea to leave a full pen unused for a long time, as the ink can dry out in the nib. I leave my inked all the time, and if one stops up, a brief pass through some pouring water, flick twice into the sink (a little ink will spray out), and half a twist of the converter fixes the flow problem. Just make sure to give it a good wash before the next fill-up.
Question always comes up when someone takes an interest in one of my pens, but prices can be scary for first time buyers.
If you want a “disposable” pen for a bit more than the price of a gel-pen, then Pilot Varsity is a fantastic choice. They run about $3 and give you an introduction to fountain pens without spending long-term money. They aren’t refillable by design, but they hold a good bit of ink and last a long time, they are also very resistant to drying up.
Another cheap way to go is a Platinum Preppy. At about $4 you have a very capable cartridge/converter pen. In my experience they write a little rough and have the feel of a pencil, but for me there is no better work pen for my job. I work in a pretty rough environment that requires a solid but inexpensive pen and waterproof ink. Noodler’s X-feather ink works well in a Preppy for my application. A converter for this pen costs more than the pen, but you can also convert them to eyedroppers with pretty good success. All it takes is an o-ring and some silicone grease.
From there, I would say the Pilot Metropolitan is the next step up. I don’t own one, but it’s so highly recommended that it’s hard to ignore. They run about $15 and the performance is supposedly amazing for such a cheap pen.
If you will be doing art stuff and need line variation, the Noodler’s pens are at a decent price point (Ahab for $20) and allow some flex. It won’t match your dip pens for performance, but works really well for the menial stuff. Nibs can be modded for better performance and higher risk of springing the nib.
My favorite pen in the $50 range has to be the TWSBI 580. Beautiful pen, piston filler, and performs very well. I love them.
There are a billion other choices, but these are my picks based on my experience and research. If you can throw down $1000 for a Visconti or Mont Blanc then go for it 🙂 I have friends who like Lamy pens, specifically the Safari, which runs about $40. Pelican is another great brand, but a little on the pricey side.
Leave a comment. Have you been tempted by this article to try a fountain pen? Do you already own some and have anything to add that I may have missed? What are your favorite pens and inks?