Many think fountain pens are inconvenient, complicated, and honestly messy. But when you use your first fountain pen, you realize they’re not that different from any other pen. It’s about time we explored Fountain Pens in depth.
However, there is a learning curve, which is why I wanted to create this guide, and all of our other posts, on fountain pens. I’ll share some tips, tricks, and advice that I’ve found helpful while getting started with fountain pens. Make sure to ask us any questions you have about using your fountain pen in the comments below. Let’s get into our Beginner’s Guide to Fountain Pens.
You can also check out our list of the Best Beginner Fountain Pens.
(If you’d like to learn more about the parts of a fountain pen and how they work, see our guide to How Fountain Pens Work Here.)
A Brief History of Fountain Pens
The fountain pen was officially invented in 1809, with the first patent filed in England by Frederick Fölsch. This first English patent covered (among other things) an improved fountain pen feed issued to Joseph Bramah in September 1809. John Scheffer’s patent of 1819 was the first design to see commercial success, with a number of surviving examples of his “Penographic” known.
Another noteworthy pioneer design was John Jacob Parker’s, patented in 1832 – a self-filler with a screw-operated piston. The Romanian inventor Petrache Poenaru received a French patent on May 25, 1827, for the invention of a fountain pen with a barrel made from a large swan quill.
But many prototypes existed long before 1809, dating as far back as c.974, when, according to Qadi al-Nu’man al-Tamimiin his Kitab al-Majalis wa ‘l-musayarat, the Fatimid caliph Al-Mu’izz li-Din Allah in Arab Egypt demanded a pen that would not stain his hands or clothes, and was provided with a pen that held ink in a reservoir, allowing it to be held upside-down without leaking.
There is also evidence that a working fountain pen was constructed and used during the Renaissance by artist and inventor Leonardo da Vinci. Da Vinci’s journals contain drawings with cross-sections of what appears to be a reservoir pen that works by both gravity and capillary action.
Historians also took note of the fact that the handwriting in the inventor’s surviving journals is of a consistent contrast throughout, rather than exhibiting the characteristic fading pattern typical of a quill pen caused by expending and re-dipping. While no physical item survives, several working models were reconstructed in 2011 by artist Amerigo Bombara that have since been put on display in museums dedicated to Leonardo.
So what exactly is this thing called a “fountain” pen?
A fountain pen refers to any pen with ink stored inside the barrel of the pen that uses a metal nib to apply the ink to paper.
Originally, the term fountain pen was used to describe any writing instrument that stored the ink inside the body of the pen to allow continuous writing without dipping the pen in ink.
By these standards, even ballpoint pens and rollerball pens would be considered fountain pens.
But pretty quickly into the development of the fountain pen, the metal nib became a necessary feature, unique to the pen.
Where fountain once referred to an unending flowing of ink that needed no interruption, it later referenced the steady flow of water-based liquid ink from the reservoir through the recognizable metal nib.
Dip pens were used to write before the invention of fountain pens. A dip pen was a reed pen or a quill pen dipped into an inkwell to coat the tip ink and write. You can think Harry Potter here.
Why Write with a Fountain Pen
So we’ve seen that the fountain pen was a vast improvement on the dip pen common over two hundred years ago. But today, we’ve created pens that write much easier and with lower maintenance. So why would we use fountain pens today?
Improved Writing Experience
Fountain pens are more than an attractive writing tool, though in my opinion they have a great aesthetic. They also transform the experience of writing. Thanks to the nature of flowing ink, you can avoid the dreaded hand cramp often caused by tightly clutching a ballpoint pen. The shape of fountain pen barrels is often optimized for a comfortable grip, so you can focus on your script rather than worrying about hand fatigue or ink flow.
Handwriting is personal, so why should the writing instrument be generic? A fountain pen allows you the freedom and flexibility to tailor it to your personal preferences.
You can switch the size and shape of the nib tip depending on the style in which you wish to write, and the changeable ink cartridges allow you to choose any color that takes your fancy.
Fountain pens can be a substantial investment, although there are various brands and models to suit a wide range of budgets. That said, fountain pens can be an incredibly economical investment in the long term, thanks to their refillable barrels.
Not only do the pen refills make fountain pens economical, but they also make them eco-friendly! If you opt for glass bottled ink, then even better, as you’re avoiding the disposable plastic cartridges and opting for an alternative that can be recycled after use.
How to Use a Fountain Pen
Install the Cartridge
When you buy a fountain pen, they almost always have the ink cartridge uninstalled, either in a separate pouch or inside the body. This keeps the ink fresh and the pen clean for the new user. But that means you’ll have to install the cartridge after you open your pen before you can use it. See how to install an ink cartridge here.
When it comes to ink cartridges, It’s not one size fits all. You’ll need to check the product descriptions for your new pen when buying refills to make sure you’re buying a compatible cartridge.
Bottled fountain pen ink is also an option because many fountain pens have a filling system built-in or a converter-refillable cartridge. Some prefer bottled ink to cartridges because there are many more colors to choose from, and the cost of bottle ink is cheaper than cartridges long term.
See our guide on Ways to Fill Your Fountain Pen to learn more about these options.
Hold It Correctly
It’s important to know how to hold a fountain pen correctly because it’s a little different than your average ballpoint pen. You should hold the pen at about a 45-degree angle to the paper, so the nib is vertical to the feed. Your pen won’t write if the nib is the wrong side up or at a different angle.
Don’t twist your pen in your fingers either, making sure to keep it perpendicular to the paper. The nib has a slit running through it, separating the point into two sides called nibs. The two tines must to rest evenly on the paper in order for you to write properly. Writing unevenly will cause one of the tines to come away from the page and will make stop writing or the ink to skip.
Don’t Press too Hard
You don’t need as much pressure to write with a fountain pen compared to a gel pen. Using hard pressure can actually let out too much ink, causing botching, and could the nib or tines. Fountain pens need very little pressure to write which is handy for those who suffer from hand cramps or write a lot.
Make sure its Capped
You should retract or cap your fountain pen when not in use. If left open, the ink in the nib can will out, causing the pen wil stop working.
If the nib dries out, scribble on some scrap paper for a few seconds to get it writing. If your ink is very dry you can rehydrate the ink by adding a drop of water to the nib. This should get things going.
Clean it Regularly
While in use fountain pens can get clogged with dried ink, dust, or paper fibers. I advise you clean the pen every 1 to 2 months or every time you change your pen ink, depending on how often you write. See my step by step guide on how to clean a fountain pen here.
6. Write on Fountain Pen-Friendly Notebooks and Paper
This isn’t a necessity, but paper made for fountain pen and other slow-drying inks will make your writing experience more better and won’t cause any issues with splotches, long drying times, or bleeding.
You can use normal paper while writing with a fountain pen, but you will have issues with feathering (when ink spreads into the fibers of the paper to make a feather design- this sometimes happens with sharpies), skipping, and bleed-throughs. All of these can happen on “good or bad” paper so don’t think you have to run out and buy expensive paper in order to use your fountain pens. But most paper today just is made for dryer inks found in ballpoint pens.
Fountain pen inks are also sensitive skin oils and dust. Paper sitting around collecting dust or that’s been touched a lot won’t handle the ink like new, untouched paper.
See our guides to fountain pen-friendly papers to see our top recommendations.
Read More: The Best Bullet Journal Notebooks
If you can write with a ballpoint pen, you can write with a fountain pen. With that being said it can take time before it feels right. You should experiment with various writing styles, papers, and inks to find what work best for your new pen.
You can compare using fountain pens to having a child. (Stick with me now). You can read our guide to learn everything about fountain pens or a certain model, but the pen you get will be unique with its own quirks and preferences. One pen works better with a certain ink or will require a different writing style to write optimally.
I can see why fountain pens might seem like a high-maintenance pen, especially when there are plenty of great options for ballpoint or gel pens out there. But unlike a standard pen that will perform differently with each pen you purchase (even from the same brand and model), once you’ve really gotten the hang of your fountain pen, you will keep getting that same result you love if you continue to take care of your pen.
Read More: Best Japanese Stationery on Etsy
When To Not Use a Fountain Pen
I love fountain pens and think everyone should try them at least once, but I know there are times that they are not a good option. This doesn’t mean you can never use them in these situations; you’ll need more preparation and the right combination of ink and pen to make it work.
If you want a pen that’s perfect for all paper types.
As I said, fountain pens work best on paper made for fountain pens. Fountain pen inks (like Noodler’s Black and Waterman Serenity Blue) work well even on most non-fountain pen-friendly paper. if you don’t want special ink and can’t buy special paper, it’s better to stay with a classic ballpoint or gel option. There’s nothing wrong with gel pens. In fact, I write with gel pens every day.
If you want a pen that dries immediately.
Fountain pen ink is slower to dry than other types of ink. Some ultra-fast-drying inks can dry as quickly as a gel pen, but they often feather badly, even on fountain pen-friendly paper. And again, you’ll have to buy separate inks when it might just be easier to grab a ballpoint pen.
You can find more info on quick-drying inks in my guide to the best fast-drying fountain pen inks.
If you want a pen that’s archival or waterproof.
Most fountain pen inks aren’t archival or waterproof. Even most inks marketed as water-resistant don’t compare to a ballpoint pen. Noodler’s “Bulletproof” inks and other pigment-based inks can be a waterproof option for fountain pens. However, they still dry slower and are susceptible to smearing. If you really want an ink that lasts, try an archival marker like the Sakura Pigma Micron or pigmented gel pens like the Uni-ball Signo, Zebra Sarasa Push Clip or Pilot Juice
See my guide to the best waterproof fountain pen inks for more information.
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If you want a pen that writes for reams without refilling.
If you write a lot, you’ll need to refill your fountain pen often, possibly weekly. Students or lawyers who write all day may need to refill their pens every few days. While it’s easy to change cartridges, it can get annoying to constantly replace or refill your cartridges or pens. If you know you prefer ease and functionality, it’s better to get a ballpoint or gel pen.
If you want to write on a plane.
Fountain pens do have an issue with leaking on planes. As the airplane ascends, the air pressure inside the plane goes down. The reduced pressure causes the air trapped inside a pen to expand. The expanding needs to be released somewhere, and it often leaves the nib, pushing out any ink in its way.
Thankfully today, it’s less of an issue because of how fountain pens are manufactured, but to be safe, you should fill or empty your pen completely before departing. Also, if you are going to write during the flight, you should store it with the nib pointing up (as always) and wait until the plane is at cruising altitude before opening it. Just be careful when you do.
If you want a pen that writes in freezing weather.
Fountain pen inks freeze and will break their container if you leave them exposed to freezing temperatures long enough, except for Noodler’s Polar ink, which is made specifically for the cold. A pressurized ballpoint pen like the Fisher Space Pen or Uni Power Tank—is your best option in sub-zero temperatures.
If you want a pen that writes on glossy surfaces or upside down.
So there’s no workaround for this one. Fountain pens can be fickle when it comes to writing surfaces. And as we’ve mentioned above, fountain pen inks dry very slowly, so they’ll rarely dry on a glossy surface. You’ll end up with smudges and smears and not end up with a good product.
Also, the ink from your fountain pen won’t flow upward even with newer technologies, so you’re out of luck if you want to write upside down. If you need to write upside down or on glossy surfaces, try a multi-surface marker. or pressurized ink pen.
If you want a pen with no maintenance.
As you can see, there’s some maintenance that goes into fountain pens. All fountain pens must be cleaned if you want to keep them working properly. But some need a little less maintenance than others. Most Platinum fountain pens, like the Plaisir, Preppy, 3776 Century, and Procyon, all feature a “slip and seal” cap that helps keep ink fresh for long periods of time.
There is also the Pilot Varsity, which is zero maintenance, so perfect for those who want to look of a fountain pen but the ease of standard pens. However, they’re not reusable, so you’ll need to buy more pens more often.
Choosing Your First Fountain Pen
With its smoothness, reliability, and affordability, the Pilot Metropolitan is perfect for new fountain pen writers. It’s a great mix for those just looking for a good starter pen. The fine and medium nib sizes are easy to write. If you write very small, I would choose the fine nib, but if your writing is larger, go with medium.
The Metropolitan also comes with both a cartridge and a converter to use with bottled ink, making it great for both beginners and those who want to venture out with bottled inks too.
The Platinum Preppy is a great option if you aren’t ready for a $20 pen. You can find the Preppy for about the same as a ballpoint pen but with the style and benefits of a fountain pen. Besides its affordability and great quality, it’s also great for those who are unsure if they’ll stick with fountain pens. The preppy has felt replacement tips so you can convert it into a marker if you change your mind about fountain pens.
See my guide on the best beginner fountain pens for advice on picking out your first pen.
How to Store Your Fountain Pen
If you store your fountain pen vertically with the tip pointing down (as is recommended for felt tip markers), you’ll keep the nib fresh and saturated with ink, but you risk the ink leaking into the cap and possibly out onto whatever is near the pen.
The second best option is keeping your fountain pen vertically with the tip pointing up. This allows the ink to drain back into the cartridge and keeps it from leaking out. But, this will dry out the nib. You’ll know your nib is dry is if the ink skips or it won’t come out at all. If that happens, you can get it going again by scribbling on scrap paper or by adding a drop of water to the nib. If you continue having problems with your pen not writing, check out my guide for more ways to get your fountain pen writing again.
It’s always best to store your fountain pen horizontally to minimize the chance of the nib leaking or drying out between uses. Horizontally keeps the nib appropriately wet with ink, while not oversaturating it to cause a leak.
Fountain Pen FAQs
Does anyone still use fountain pens?
Despite living in a fully digital age, fountain pens are as popular as ever. They’re still popular because they are one of the easiest pens to use for achieving beautiful penmanship without getting a hand cramp because of their ease of writing with them.
There are people (like me) who prefer to handwrite over type, and want to do so with a beautiful and long-lasting pen.
Which fountain pen nib is best for beginners?
While there’s no hard and fast rule that says what nib is best for newbies, I would recommend fine or extra fine as they’re most similar to the pens you already use. Another rule of thumb is to choose the size of the nib based on the size of your writing. The smaller you write, the smaller nib you should get, and vice versa. Learn more about choosing the best fountain pen nib Here.
Are fountain pens a good investment?
My initial reaction to this question is: definitely a good investment. But it really depends on the person. If you love pens, write a lot, and know you’re going to continue using your fountain pen then obviously, it’s a great investment. You’ll pay more upfront but will pay way less to refill your pen in the years to come.
But, if you’re unsure of fountain pens, don’t write a lot, and prefer using pens you steal from hotels or doctor’s offices, then a fountain pen might not be for you. If you’re still curious to try one out, go for the Pilot Varsity or Platinum Preppy to get the taste for fountain pens without a huge price tag. Then you can choose if a more expensive pen would be a good investment for you.
Do I need to clean my fountain pen?
This is where fountain pens truly differ from traditional ballpoint pens regarding maintenance. To keep your fountain pen working properly for years to come, you need to clean it properly. A clogged or dirty fountain pen will mar your enjoyment and possibly cause damage. Cleaning it will help get dried ink and dirt that may be inside your pen. Cleaning the nib and converter will also ensure a smooth writing experience. Check out our guide on how to clean a fountain pen Here.
Bottom Line on Fountain Pens
If you’ve never tried a fountain pen before and you’re interested in pens or stationery, it’s definitely worth a try. The flow and ease of writing are great for those tired of hand cramps or who write a lot. The choice of ink colors puts even your rainbow gel pens to shame. Finally, fountain pens offer you a higher-end look for a price that doesn’t always have to be expensive. You can invest a small (or large) amount into a pen body, and keep it for years to come, refilling it with whatever color ink you want at a low price.
I hope you enjoyed reading our beginner’s guide to fountain pens. If you have questions, make sure to write them in the comments down below!