Introduction: Fountain Pen Primer

Welcome to the world of fountain pens. It's another one of those rabbit-hole fields of interest that turns into a passionate "hobby". A fountain pen is an instrument, a tool for writing, ah, tools...

It's such a maker thing to acquire, use, make, or collect fountain pens. Makers can appreciate the craftsmanship and materials that goes into making a fountain pen, the skills to use, maintain or make better, and the thrill of discovering a new fountain pen.

Here is my rundown on what I find fascinating or what drew me into fountain pens. Because writing is such an individual experience, everyone will have their own personal take on things.

Step 1: Brave New World...

When I graduated college I was gifted a Waterman fountain pen set. It had some nice sample stationery and blue ink cartridges. I had used it a few times and put it away. It's been a long time since then but I found a renewed interest in fountain pens as I had gotten LAMY Vistas for my nieces as Christmas presents.

The fountain pen community seems to call this a "hobby". Seems like a good term to use that covers something that may turn into an obsession.

You can be any part or all of the spectrum that uses fountain pens, makes fountain pens - turning from exotic woods or handpoured resins, collecting vintage pens, restoring/modding/repairing fountain pens, or just window shopping and appreciating those "grail" fountain pens.

There are a lot of vendor sites online that avail themselves to be a resource to learn about fountain pens. It may take a while to go through and read all the past blog posts.

I learn a lot from the posted videos that do reviews on fountain pens, ink and paper.

I've gotten a few printed catalogs that are venerable coffee table books because of the high production value they put into the book.

There are various internet forums and social media to connect with or ask questions of the fountain pen community.

It is a global thing with fountain pens made by many different international manufacturers and crafted all over the world.

Knowing one day I will get that "grail" pen (Visconti Homo Sapiens - lava rock body is interesting) and saying I will stick to a budget going forward... I have decided to foray in the area of under $50 demonstrator pens. Ok, I've actually got a few LAMY AL-Stars - no limited editions and that Pilot Metropolitan - black... and so I'm enjoying my value range of LAMY, Pilot, Monteverde, Wing Sung HERO, Jinhao, Schaeffer and whatever else I come across.

Step 2: Take It Apart...

Fountain pens are one of those things "You own it, you can fix it." or do anything you want with it.

From a mechanical standpoint, take it apart and put it back together. See what makes it tick. See what is inside. It's good to get a loupe or magnifying glass to really examine the fountain pen up close.

There are not too many parts to a fountain pen but the assembly may be tricky. There is the main body shell or case, the cap, the grip, the feed - usually made of a hard rubber ebonite, the nib and the ink filler mechanism. The ink storage can be a bladder or sac, a tube or the body of the fountain pen itself.

If the filler mechanism is not integral to the fountain pen, the ink it uses will usually be in a pre-filled cartridge that you insert into the pen or use a cartridge converter which allows you to fill the pen from a bottle of ink. In the long run, bottled ink is cheaper and more environmentally friendly by not having to dispose of the empty plastic ink cartridges. Most brands will accept an "international" cartridge converter but there are a few brands that will use only their proprietary sizes.

Nibs come in various widths for your preferred style of writing. Some may be interchangeable amongst brands to upgrade the fountain pen you have. It may be a #5 or #6 size but the friction fit or screw-in feed and opening may be shaped differently.

Different parts of the pen body don't usually mate up between different brands or models but that hasn't stopped the "Frankenpen" kitbashing build of fountain pens. The pen show I went to had bags of assorted mixed brand leftover parts on sale just for such purpose. Make 'em if you got 'em.

Appreciate the engineering that went into making a fountain pen. If it is a modern pen, appreciate what features are built in to make the pen perform better. You have various designs for the method of filling ink. You have screw and pull piston type cartridge converter mechanisms.There are interesting variations of the piston pump / vacuumatic method of drawing ink. One vintage fountain pen has a snorkel filler which is a hidden tube that extends for ink filling.

Appreciate the craftsmanship to fabricate the pen.

Appreciate the artistry in selecting the material to make the fountain pen aesthetically pleasing. Is it some exotic material like lava rock, carbon fiber, or Stradivarius tone-wood? I recently saw fountain pen barrels with electronic circuit boards in resin. Looking into how it was made, it seems a populated circuit board had all the back material shaved down to form a flexible wrap for a pen tube and then coated with resin.

The shape of the pen, how it feels in the hand, heavy-light, is the grip comfortable to hold - slippery-secure, are there textures that distract- threads on the barrel, smooth transition from grip to body, is it comfortable with the cap on the pen (cap posted)when writing, balanced, feel solid like an expensive pen?

How did they pattern or swirl the colors of the resin body?

Is it a deep lacquer finish done with the Japanese Urushi technique?

How did they machine the texture into a metal body pen?

Are there mother-of-pearl inlays or embellished fine paintings done with the Japanese Maki-e technique?

A fine nib is a book unto itself. What metals were used to make the nib? Is it a sculpted glass tip for a dip pen? Is the nib tipped with a harder wearing metal? What kind of round or oblong profile is the tip shaped to? Is the nib gold plated or actually soft gold alloy? Are there fancy engravings on the nib? Is the size and shape of the nib appropriate for the type of writing you want to use if for? Extra-fine, Fine, Med, Broad, Stub and other sizes are available. Variation in the drawn line width gives character to the written word. My Noodler's Ink Ahab has a flex nib which allows me to press harder when writing to splay the tines apart feeding more ink. Flex nibs are interesting on how they make a rigid piece of metal flex and control the ink. Is it hooded to help with the capillary ink flow? Is the nib retractable like on a Pilot Vanishing Point? There are some flex nibs that have a barbed harpoon like winged shape.

The shape of the nib can be fine tuned to the user. There are a few celebrated "nibmeisters" known for their skills in grinding the nib to perfection to suit the user.

My preference for fountain pens seems to gravitate toward the clear body Demonstrator type pens. They are called demonstrators because originally manufacturers made new models of fountain pens with clear bodies so the salespeople could show off how the pen worked or was assembled and thus "demonstrate" the new fountain pen.

It is fascinating to admire a demonstrator pen and also fun to watch the ink slosh around the pen as you take it out to use it. It's also the best indicator of knowing when you need to fill up the pen with ink again.


Since you know how to disassemble your pen for inking, you should be able disassemble your fountain pen for cleaning.

It's always a good practice to clean out the entire pen occasionally, especially between fills of different inks.

The dye pigments in ink may crust up in the pen if the pen has not been used in a long time. That leads to clogs and the fountain pen not performing as it should.

Since a fountain pen may be made from precious minerals and metals, it is best to only use water, a toothbrush and cotton swabs to clean out the fountain pen.

Use a cup or bowl to keep all your pen parts together when cleaning. You can get one of those suction bulbs for baby care to power flush water through the internals of the pen.

A good soak and rinse with plain water usually all you need. Soaps or detergents aren't necessary. Ammonia is a component of pen flushes so that might be the harshest chemical that you might use.

eh, the ink stains on hands should wear off in time. I hope.

Step 3: Getting Inked...

Fountain pens are just one type of pen that use ink. You can use anything from a bird feather, porcupine quill, toothpick, brush, or traditional dip pens that just have a nib and no ink tank.

Inks come in pre-filled cartridges to fit your fountain pen or you can fill from a bottle of ink. There is a wider variety of inks available that come in bottles.

Fountain pen inks are made from dyes and pigments suspended in water.

Besides the range of colors that inks come in, there are certain properties of the ink that fountain pen users look for.

Is the ink permanent? Does it wash out or can it be relied on for archival or fraud-resistant(cannot be washed out with various solvents or lightened by laser) properties on important documents?

How fast does it dry? It may help to have a quick drying ink if you are left handed and don't want to smear any print with your hand passing back over it.

Does it dry with a sheen, shiny or a dull matte flat finish?

Is there a shimmer? Some inks have added metallic particles to add that glitter look. Maybe you want it to glow under UV light. Neon bright transparent ink for highlighting? Special consideration is taken to clean the pen out after a full use or using a pen that can flow the ink properly.

When the ink dries, is there color variation or shading to add interest to the ink, will you have some kind of ombre coloring going on within the written characters to give it a special look? Some inks will have various dark to light shading of an ink or have fading between various colors like a red - orange - yellow as in Noodler's Apache Sunset color ink.

Does the ink spread out well? You don't want "feathering" which is the absorption into the paper fibers around the written character giving it a fuzzy look.

Is the ink so wet that it "bleeds" through the paper you are writing on?

A lot of people like to keep logs and color swatches of inks they have used. The pen and nib size are also recorded to note what worked well for what pen.

A big patch of ink is swabbed on to a piece sample paper to really see the color.

A small writing sample is done to see how it looks when written with. "The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog." is a sentence that uses all the letters of the alphabet so it makes for a good lorem ipsum sample text or you can use some memorable quote.

Do some crosshatching or draw scroll patterns to see how it works with sketching lines and such.

There is a whole connoisseur type vibe going on with inks of which there are probably some fountain pen ink sommeliers out there. Ink samples can be purchased to try out inks that are pricey by the bottle. You only need about a milliliter of ink to fill a typical fountain pen and with 3-4 ml sample bottles, you would get a couple of fills in to see if you really like the ink. A favorite ink is also a matter of taste.

When using and refilling fountain pens, don't be afraid if things get messy.

The first pic is from opening a new bottle of Noodler's brand ink which is known for filling the bottle to the brim to give you the most product for your money. It was at an ink sampling table at a fountain pen show so I didn't expect it to be that full. Yes, go for the bold colors first. Experiment.

Always have paper towels handy to dab up any errant drops.

In normal use, a fountain pen may have some ink on the grip near the nib as that may be some ink that has collected in the cap. A fountain pen may "burp" once in a while depending on that air pocket in the fill mechanism. You may get an ink splotch here and there. I've never used a fountain pen in a plane or submarine so I don't know what happens there.

Since that entire nib usually has to be submerged in the ink bottle in order to draw up the ink, you have to be nimble at positioning the pen and bottle while turning the fill mechanism to get ink into the pen. You get good at the operation and a lot less messy after a few times. I've experimented with filling the converter up separately and then placing that back on the pen. Some use an eyedropper or syringe to fill. There are some inkwell fillers and devices to concentrate the ink in a smaller vessel to fill but I haven't purchased any of them. I guess it's more fun to live dangerously as you tilt the bottle nearly on it's side to get the nib under the last of the ink and try to turn the converter shaft to draw ink up.

Step 4: Get That on Paper...

In the USA, there is not really a modern day culture of using fountain pens. The industrialization of and proliferation of the common ballpoint pen has left us with the non-fountain pen friendly paper we find in school composition books and spiral bound notebooks.

Elsewhere, you will find more fountain pen friendly papers which are more ink resistant, possibly coated, smoother and less coarse. They are usually in the A4 sheet(close to our standard 8.5 x 11 inch notebook page), A5 and A6 smaller notebook sizes. The big paper brands are Clairefontaine, Rhodia and Tomoe River(Tah moe ay). What's available here found in the better bound journals or day planners seem to be different.

I remember moving on from that wide ruling on loose-leaf paper to the narrower college ruled lines. I guess it meant you could write more and more professionally. You can get faint printed dots instead of lines and there is French ruled which is a different kind of grid. You can also get the familiar graph paper or blank and put a preprinted ruled grid of choice under the sheet to see through the paper for guidelines as you write.

I'm not sure if they still teach cursive writing in school anymore but it takes a lot of practice to get good at it. I'm pretty sure a course is in good penmanship not offered in Medical school. There is the whole art of calligraphy that can be done with fountain pens. There are special italic or wide stub nibs for that. For foreign languages that use various strokes to form the characters there is an odd looking bird-beak type of nib called a Fude which writes thin and wide. You can experiment with writing with the back of the nib tip or turned over to see if you get a different type of line. There are nibs which are brushes to allow you to paint with ink.

I've been using regular 20 lb inkjet/laser copier paper as my go-to since the imported papers are so much more expensive. I have plenty of normal copier paper around for my computer printer. I find the glossy photo print paper pools up the ink too much and I still get ink feathering with some inks on the regular paper so it is more experimentation to find a high quality "inexpensive" paper that I would buy and use by the ream. A heavier weight paper might work out a little bit better. Finer sized nibs are recommended to control some of the feathering but I prefer a thicker line and thus I like to use Medium or bigger nibs. I've got a whole bottle of Apache Sunset ink hoping it lives up to the raves it gets.

I don't find that being left handed is that much of an issue for me with using fountain pens. I would attribute some of the skipped ink in my writing more to writing too fast for the pen to keep up the ink feed. I guess I could tune the nib by sanding with some micromesh sandpaper (super super fine grit emery cloth/paper) to change the shape of the ball on the nib or smooth out the edge of a tine. I do experience some drag or scratchiness with a new pen but I seem to find the sweet spot to avoid that. I do prefer a medium nib as opposed to fine so it doesn't catch as much.

I am finding I now like to do my sketching, note taking and noodling with a fountain pen as the experience makes it seem more expressive. I'm not a bullet journalist though.

Step 5: Connect the Dots...

As a maker, we can mod the pen or make accessories for the pen.

It's as simple as mixing inks to see what happens...

For an electronics theme, I modded a Pilot Metropolitan by printing a custom graphic for the middle ring. I applied it as a sticker to the body of the pen. I added an IC chip to the clip. I guess I could cast and mould a custom design spring clip for the pen.

If I had some Sugru or thermo-formable plastic, I could mod the ergonomic grips that don't really accomodate my large hands to make them more comfortable to use.

Some 3D printed parts could probably be modeled if you wanted a custom lattice shell case or body to fit the threads of the existing components. Custom grip sections. Light saber fountain pen. May the force be with you.

Having a growing collection of pens leads one to be able to display them properly or have them organized ready for use.

This is one I have already made.

Other ideas are(go ahead and make them, I probably won't get around to it, the more the merrier):

Glowing Resin River Wood pen display case

Pen case embedded in a glowing resin river live edge wood coffee table.

Wood pen desk stand

For the geekier fountain pen user/collector:

Star Trek Enterprise pen holder with two pens as the warp nacelles.

TARDIS pen/pencil holder box

555 timer chip pen stand

Stargate Infinity Mirror multiple pen display stand

oh yeah, Instructables Robot fountain pen stand

and so on...

So go and discover the joy of writing with a fountain pen.


Pocket Sized Contest

Participated in the
Pocket Sized Contest