Writing with a Fountain Pen 101

In an increasingly electronic, digital, automatic world, many people long for something “real.” Some bake, work on a smallholding, or take up crafts to connect themselves with the world of manual labour. Others pick up a fountain pen. But how do you get started, if you’ve never used one before?

First of all, understand the filling system that’s used. Modern pens come in two main types: the cartridge-converter pen (from Parker, Waterman, and Sheaffer) and the piston-filling pen (from Pelikan or Montblanc). The cartridge-converter pen’s section (the part that holds the nib) unscrews from the barrel, allowing you either to insert a cartridge or to use a converter to draw ink out of a bottle. The piston-filler, on the other hand, only takes ink from a bottle, which is done by turning the knob on the end of the pen to activate an internal piston which sucks up the ink.

Take a good look at the nib. Ink is drawn down through the feed, the ebonite or plastic plug underneath the nib, which contains fins and ridges that act as a buffer to prevent excessive ink flow, and through the slit in the nib, by capillary action. Where the nib makes contact with the paper, the ink will flow; if the pen is well adjusted, this will require only minimal pressure, unlike a ballpoint pen, which needs you to press on the paper.

Because you don’t need to use any pressure to write, you can hold the pen more lightly than you would a ballpoint or gel pen. You should hold the pen at a lower angle, rather than straight up as with most ballpoints; most nibs are designed to write best at a 45-degree angle. Use the “tripod grip” for best results, with the pen resting on your middle finger and kept in place by forefinger and thumb.

While using a beautifully designed fountain pen in a colourful acrylic or metal finish can be an aesthetic delight, the nib is the most important part of the pen. You may prefer a fine nib, which allows you to write small letters with great precision, or a wider nib that can add character and let you indulge your bolder side. Some fountain pens, such as the Lamy Safari or most Pelikans, are designed to make it relatively easy for you to swap nibs in order to experience different widths and find out which you prefer.

More advanced users may want to go on to using specialised nibs for calligraphy. Italic nibs give good line variation between a wide vertical and thin horizontal line, allowing a better-formed script. Italic nibs can “bite” when they aren’t held at just the right angle; cursive italic nibs, with the sharp corners rounded over, are a better bet for everyday use, as is the even more rounded stub nib. For writing in a more copperplate style script, you can use a flex nib. Since it is flexible, it allows you to exert more pressure to get a wider line, and will spring back to give a hairline if the pressure is relaxed. Flex nibs are difficult to find in modern pens, however, and they’re expensive in vintage ones.

Although it can take a while to get used to the feel of a fountain pen, many users are glad they took the time. There are hundreds of different inks are available, many at bargain prices per kilometre of writing, compared to ball pen refills. Using a fountain pen gives you a feeling of connection with the paper that you won’t get with a ballpoint or gel pen, and it opens up opportunities for calligraphy, fine writing, and even just doodling.

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