Fountain Pen 101: Why Fountain Pens?

Welcome to my inaugural Fountain Pen 101 issue! I’ve had a handful of questions about fountain pens on my various social media accounts, so I thought it might be helpful (and fun) to provide an introduction series. This 101 series is intended to provide you with all of the information necessary to make your first (informed) fountain pen purchase and/or prepare you to use a fountain pen you’ve been gifted. Stay tuned for a 102 series that will guide you through this rabbit hole you’ve discovered.

Down the rabbit hole

I’ll be posting weekly on Fountain Pen Friday (yes, that’s a thing), but you might want to subscribe to avoid missing a post. Before I go any further, I’d like to take a moment to say this won’t be an objective, all-informative series. I’ll be including what I’ve learned so far in my 1.5(ish) year journey down the fountain pen rabbit hole, including some very subjective information/analysis.

I decided to start with the simplest question: why fountain pens? But before I answer that, I’d like to take a step back and address a larger question. Why write?

The benefits of writing vs. typing have been well-documented, and are easy-to-find. Writing improves memory/recall, sharpens critical thinking, and pen/pencil and paper are easier on the eyes than digital screens.

Now, imagine how much the benefits improve when you enjoy writing. Ballpoint/Rollerball/Gel pens have come a long way. The writing is smoother, there are more color choices, and the pens are prettier than they ever have been. But fountain pens give you a completely different experience that really brings joy to writing.

Benefits

So what are some of the real benefits to fountain pens? Keep in mind, this list is not exhaustive, it’s an overview of what I consider to be the biggest perks.

  • More colors: There are hundreds (perhaps thousands, I haven’t counted) of fountain pen inks available. Every single one of them is just slightly different from the next. Granted, sometimes the difference is negligible. If you can imagine the color, it’s likely an ink has been made, or is in the process of being made, to match it.

Dromgoole's Ink Bar

For example, here is the inkbar at Dromgoole’s Fine Writing Instruments in Houston, TX.

  • Pretty Pens: There are many fountain pen makers in the world, and new indie pen brands are popping up seemingly every day. You don’t have to be content with something off-the-shelf. Whether you like your pens heavy or light, long or short, colorful or demure, your perfect pen is out there, or there’s someone out there who can make it. You can find something to suit your hand and your style. Fountain pens really let you express yourself.
  • Nibs: The nib is what really makes a fountain pen special. For those not familiar with fountain pen anatomy (don’t worry, I’ll cover it later), the nib is the piece you actually write with. The most readily available sizes are EF (extra fine), F (fine), M (medium), B (broad), BB (double broad), stub (typically 1.1mm 1.5mm, 1.7mm, and 1.9mm), and Flex. Beyond these, there are nibmeisters (people who make adjustments to nibs) who offer “custom ground” nibs (more on those later). Depending on the nib, you can have a line as thin as a hair, or as thick as a marker. And with flexible nibs, you can write in the beautiful hand-lettering calligraphy style that’s so popular on social media right now.
  • Writing Quality: Beyond the size of the nib, you also have varying amounts of feedback (how much the nib interacts with the paper). Don’t confuse feedback and scratchiness, though. If there’s scratchiness, there’s a problem with the nib. Some people really love feedback, others prefer a really smooth writing experience. Whichever you turn out to be, there’s a pen out there for you.
  • Character: Fountain pens add character to your writing. Depending on the ink, you may see different colors (referred to as shading), a different colored sheen when the ink dries, or a sparkle (referred to as shimmer). If using a flex nib, you may find some lines are thicker than others. Fountain pens make you want to write more because it’s fun to write. You’ll find yourself improving your handwriting to bring it closer to your ideal style.
  • Pen World: The pen world is a fabulous place inhabited by almost exclusively lovely people. I’ve never encountered such a giving and welcoming community. I’ve made more pen friends in the last year and a half than I’ve made my entire 10 years since moving to the DC area.

Pen Show After Dark

The pen community gathers after the 2018 Baltimore Pen Show.

  • Environmentally Friendly: Admittedly, this isn’t a big factor to me (I know, it should be). But fountain pens are environmentally friendly in that they keep you from throwing away those cheap plastic pens when they run out of ink. With a fountain pen, just wash, refill, and reuse.

Detriments

Didn’t think I’d mention the bad points, did you? But I’m realistic. Nothing is perfect. There are a few detriments to fountain pens.

  • Ink Drying: It can take a long time for the ink to dry. But, this is typically only an issue if you favor broader nibs. The more ink the pen lays down, the longer it takes to dry. If you favor thinner nibs, then this isn’t much of a worry, but it is still a consideration.
  • PaperNot all pen/ink/paper combinations are compatible. There are a lot of fountain pen friendly papers out there. You can find some that really let the ink shine (sometimes literally). But, some paper just doesn’t like fountain pens. Notably, copy paper and basic lined notepaper. That’s not to say you can’t use fountain pens on them, you just want to stick to fine nibs, or you’ll have to accept the feathering and bleed-through.
  • Cleaning: Yes, you have to clean fountain pens, even if you always use the same ink. But, there are some easy cleaning methods (I’ll cover them later, too), and every time you clean a pen, that’s a pen you aren’t throwing away.
  • Possible Mess: If not cared for correctly, fountain pens can be messy. But, if you keep them stored upright and avoid major temperature changes, you’ll drastically reduce your chances of a mess.
  • Expense: Fountain pens can be expensive, but, they can also be dirt-cheap. You can find some under a dollar. And you can’t just assume that cheaper pens will be worse. There are some fabulous cheap pens (look for an overview later).

When not to use fountain pens

So you’re considering switching to fountain pens? Great! But, don’t throw away your ballpoint just yet. There are times you’ll want it around. Fountain pens don’t perform well on glossy or super-absorbent (think cotton rag or napkins) paper.

Fountain pens also aren’t the best for art. The majority of inks aren’t light-fast, so they’ll fade over time. And those that are light-fast have a higher tendency to clog your pen.

What’s Next?

That’s a wrap for today’s post. So what’s next? Here’s my currently planned “agenda” for this series. I’ll try to remember to come back and update it to link to my future posts.

  1. Anatomy of a Fountain Pen
  2. Where to Start (with Pens)
  3. Nibs
  4. Ink Types & Brands
  5. Ink Reservoirs
  6. Cleaning
  7. Fountain Pen Friendly Paper
  8. Stores

I hope you enjoyed this first issue. Are there any benefits or detriments you feel I missed? Do you have any questions you’d like to make sure I answer? Leave me a comment here or on any of the social media posts for this issue and let me know. And make sure you subscribe to my blog so you don’t miss any of the posts.

And no, the irony of promoting fountain pens on a digital blog isn’t lost to me. 😉

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