A Guide to Fountain Pens

A Guide to Fountain Pens

What exactly is a fountain pen? The dictionaries and encyclopaedias will state that a fountain pen is a pen with a nib which is fed ink from an internal reservoir. The ink being drawn through a feed to the nib by a combination of capillary action and gravity. With the ink flowing to the nib, the pen requires little or no pressure to write. Indeed some sufferers from arthritis can’t use ballpoint pens but can use fountain pens.

However, if you read the numerous online forums and magazines dedicated to the fountain pen, it is a way of life, a collector’s item, a best friend, a writing experience, I could go on but suffice to say that a lot of people wouldn’t be without one whether it be for signing important documents or writing their journal.

The Nib

Today, gold (usually 18carat), is the favoured metal from which to make nibs given its resistance to corrosion (from water based inks) and its flexibility. It’s usual though to have gold nibs tipped with harder wearing metals or alloys, usually platinum, rhodium or stainless steel.

The nib has a ‘breather hole’ to exchange air for ink in the reservoir to aid the flow of ink and to prevent the nib splitting along its length through prolonged pressure from the user. Nibs usually have a slit down the middle to convey the ink to the tip by capillary action.

There are a bewildering array of nib sizes and types available, here are some listed below.

* XXXF = Needlepoint
* XXF = Super Extra Fine
* EF/XF = Extra Fine
* F = Fine
* OF = Oblique Fine
* SF = Soft Fine
* FM/MF = Fine Medium
* SFM = Soft Fine Medium
* FK = Fine ball point
* M = Medium
* OM = Oblique Medium
* SM = Soft Medium
* B = Broad
* OB = Oblique Broad
* BB = Double Broad
* OBB = Oblique Double Broad
* BBB = Triple Broad

* C = Coarse
* MS = Music
* PO = Posting
* FA = Falcon (flexible)
* WA = Wavily (brush stroke)
* SU = Signature (stub)
* Z = Zoom (multi-angled)

That said, most everyday pens come in the following sizes.

* Needlepoint – an extremely fine point for precise figure work. Useful for architects and designers but not intended for every-day use.
* Extra Fine – for fine line writing and requires minimal pressure.
* Fine – Produces a fine line and is ideal for general use..
* Medium – Most common and used for general use.
* Broad – Produces a bold, wide line.
* Extra Broad – Produces a ‘heavy’ line, great for bold signatures as it has a large rounded point.
* Extra Extra Broad – As the name suggests, this produces a bold broad line.

If you’re buying a nib, buy a good one as nibs can and usually do, last longer than the user.

Filling Mechanisms

Today, most pens will use either an ink cartidge or a piston filler. Many pens will also use a ‘converter’ which is a device which has the same fitting at one end as a cartridge  but has a reservoir and filling mechanism to allow the user to use cartridges or fill the reservoir from a bottle of ink.

So which is best?

Cartridges are certainly mess free and convenient but some manufacturers make pens which will only take their own proprietary brand of cartridges so make sure you know where you can buy these and their cost.

Piston filling is more economical in the long-run as ink sold in bottles is usually cheaper than in cartridges. In addition, there is the opportunity to try out different shades and selections of inks to find one you really like.  In addition, bottled ink is arguably kinder to the environment than plastic cartridges. Some advocates of bottle based inks state that it prolongs the use of the pen as it cleans the nib and dissolves old dry ink each time new ink is drawn through.


Inks can, surprisingly, be ‘dry’ or ‘wet’. This however, has nothing to do with how quickly it dries on the paper but is to do with how ‘free flowing’ the ink is. Some pens and nibs work better with dry ink and some with wet. A free flowing nib coupled with a ‘wet’ ink might puddle ink on the nib, particularly if you write slowly.

Bottled ink comes in a multitude of colours and shades, it’s all a matter of finding one you like. Beware however that not all inks are permanent and most will fade over time, especially the water soluble, ‘washable’ inks.


I hope the bewildering complexity, choice and combinations of pens, nibs, ink mechanisms and inks has not put you off. It’s all about finding the right combination to suit you. It doesn’t have to be the most exclusive or expensive, just as long as it suits you.

About the Author:

Carl Barton (carl.barton@officeallsorts.co.uk) is the Commercial Director at Office Allsorts Ltd, a discount online office supplies and stationery business based in the UK. Visit the website at www.officeallsorts.co.uk.

If you’re interested in purchasing a Fountain Pen then OfficeAllsorts.co.uk has a huge selection at great prices.

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