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How Fountain Pens Work

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Fountain pens tend to have a bad rap for being complicated. But they’re sort of like your iPhone. You don’t have to know their ins and outs to operate them effectively. But, knowing the ins and outs of their mechanics can make your experience easier and more rewarding. This is particularly true if your fountain ben gives you any issues and you need to find a solution.

This article will show you how a fountain pen works and what makes a fountain pen a fountain pen.

For more information on fountain pens check out our Beginner’s Guide Here or browse through our other fountain pen articles.

How Fountain Pens Work

So how does a fountain pen work?

When the pen is being used, it’s tipped downward with the nib touching the paper.

Gravity pulls the ink from the reservoir until it’s filtered into the feed and collector. The ink travels down further, through the slit of the nib using capillary action to the tip and can now be considered primed for you to begin writing. You can easily picture capillary action if you think about placing a paper towel on spilled water. The towel slowly soaks up the water.

The design of fountain pen nibs and feeds ensure that there’s proper air regulation to avoid air bubbles from forming. This prevents leaks and splatters that could occur if any air bubbles were to pop when using your pen. 

Air regulation also ensures that the ink that’s used gets replaced from the reservoir by pulling the ink towards the end of the reservoir. This keeps everything flowing which makes the nib essentially self-filling.

After being stored, the ink from the feed enters the nib which is designed to keep the capillary action in motion and help to keep air flowing.

Now we’ll break down of each part of the fountain pen to show how each of them works together to write.

Essential Parts of a Fountain Pen

A fountain pen is made up of three main parts: the nib, feed, and ink resevoir. It needs these three parts to be considered a fountain pen.

Nib

The Nib

The iconic metal piece on the tip of the fountain pen is the nib. This is the most recognizable part for many people new to fountain pens. This is what distinguishes fountain pens from other types of writing tools like a rollerball pen or gel pen.

Like I said above, the nib draws ink through the small slit in the nib with capillary action. This slit separates the nib into two halves called tines. The tine tips are usually made from a hard metal alloy that helps keep the tip from breaking down while you use it. (The metal alloy is called “iridium,” though the element iridium might not actually be present.

The slit ends in a small hole called a breather hole. The tines and tips should never actually touch, instead will narrow slightly from the tip up to the breather whole.

Feed

The Feed

The next element of a fountain pen is the Feed. The feed sits below the nib to supply it with ink from the inside of your pen. It’s usually made of a black plastic, but it can also come in various colors depending on the design of your pen and may even be made of ebonite or other high-end metals when you get up to the most expensive fountain pens.

Feeds usually have a main ink channel to draw ink from inside the pen down to the nib, again using capillary action. The feed usually has distinctive fins that hold excess ink to help regulate ink flow. Depending on your pen you might not see the fins, but some pens show them off with clear bodies. This is another distinctive design that will separate fountain pens from a gel or ballpoint pen.

The feed should sit flush against the underside of the nib for it to work properly. There also can’t be any clogs in its fins or ink channel. This is why it’s important to clean your fountain pen. It’s also important to only use an ink labeled for fountain pen use because the ink must have the right viscosity for the capillary action to occur. Non-fountain pen inks won’t flow well in your pen, and could actually harden in the feed and will ruin it if the ink contains binding agents like shellac.

Ink Reservoir

The Ink Reservoir

And finally, the ink reservoir is what obviously holds the ink. This is what separates a fountain pen from a dip pen that, as the name suggests, needs to be dipped in ink for it to work. I always imagine Harry Potter when I think of dip pens. The ink reservoir can be an ink cartridge that is easily inserted or it’s a special filling mechanism that holds bottled ink. It may also be a converter which is a device that acts like a cartridge but can be filled with bottled in.

Read my guide to fountain pen filling systems for info on the different options for filling your fountain pens.

Other Fountain Pen Parts

Cap

The Cap

Most fountain pens come with a cap though there are a few retractable fountain pens. The cap is actually a really important part of a fountain pen because the nib can dry out in just a few minutes if left open. If the nib does dry out no ink will flow out of it and make it unable to write. If your pen dries out you can scribble for a few moments on a piece of scrap paper or even add a drop of water to the nib to get it going again.

However, having the nib dry out too often will cause it to become clogged with dried ink and could even ruin your pen in the long run. So make sure to cap your pen (or retract it) when you’re not using it and clean it regularly to remove dried ink and other particles.

Nib Collar

The Nib Collar

A nib collar is sometimes present on fountain pens. The nib collar holds the feed and nib together to form a “nib unit.” The nib unit is easily screwed onto the grip section to be cleaned or replaced.

Some nib sleeves pens are found on the TWSBI Diamond 580, Kaweco AL Sport, and Karas Kustoms Ink.

Grip Section

The Grip Section

Now onto the grip section. The fountain pen grip section connects the ink reservoir, feed, and nib and, as you could guess, is where you hold the pen. This section is sometimes called the “nib section” or just “the section.”

Barrel

The Barrel

The barrel makes up the majority of the body. The barrel is a fancy cover that protects the ink reservoir and filling system and makes the pen comfortable to hold in your hand. For higher-end pens that have a vacuum filling system or piston, the barrel is an important part of the ink reservoir. For eyedropper pens(you can see my tutorial Here), the barrel is actually the ink reservoir.

In conclusion

Other Important Parts: Cap, Nib Sleeve, Grip Section, and Barrel

So there are all of the parts of a fountain pen and what each of them do to help keep your pen working and writing well.

Continue on to:

If you need more information about fountain pens you can check out my guides Here.

Leave us a comment below if you have questions about how fountain pens work or want to chat about your favorite fountain pen!

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