The first fountain pen to appear in written record was built in 953 BC for a Moroccan Caliph, who demanded only that his pen should: 1) Never stain his hands or clothes, and 2) Successfully deliver ink from reservoir to nib.
Add about 500,000 choices to that list, and you should have a pretty good idea of what the industry looks like now. The breadth of choice is truly phenomenal -- everything from the shape of the nib to the shade of ink can be tweaked to suit the writer’s preferences. There’s a fountain pen out there for every conceivable purpose, from filling out DMV paperwork to signing birthday cards.
The idea of wielding a fountain pen is intriguing, yet also kind of intimidating. If you don’t know what you’re looking for, want a basic rundown on fountain pen options, or simply feel a bit befuddled, carry on reading!
When embarking on a quest for the perfect fountain pen, you should probably take a moment to ask yourself three fundamental questions:
What am I going to use this fountain pen for?
What is my handwriting style?
What characteristics should my fountain pen have to satisfy the requirements stated above?
Nib size is crucial for most writers, since it has a direct and tangible effect on the way the pen writes. Unfortunately, nib sizes are not standardized across the industry, so manufacturers and brands will often define the grades differently. For an example, Japanese nibs tend to run finer than American or European nibs. In fact, a medium nib from Japan is often the same size as a fine nib from Germany!
The filling mechanism of the pen determines which types of ink refills it can use. The main filling methods are cartridge, converter, cartridge-converter, and piston. Cartridge refills are disposable, portable, and convenient to use. Converters use suction to fill the fountain pen with ink from a bottle, and usually have to be acquired and installed separately. Installation instructions can be found in our How to Use a Fountain Pen Converter article. Most modern fountain pens are versatile cartridge-converter types, meaning that they can use ink cartridges as well as converters for bottled ink. Piston fillers have the largest ink capacity of the options listed. You can simply twist the end of the pen to draw ink from a bottle and into the reservoir of the pen.
The fountain pen has to be fast and reliable, producing notes that remain legible under the intense scrutiny of a squinty late-night study session. A simple extra fine or fine nib is perfect for the job, especially considering that fine pens leave less ink on the page, reducing the drying time as well as the potential for tragic incidences of smudging. The light and inexpensive notebooks commonly used by students can’t handle much ink before they bleed through to the other side, so fine pens are also a good fit in that respect.
Lamy Safari Fountain Pen - Extra Fine Nib
Pilot Vanishing Point Fountain Pen - Fine Nib
Architectural sketches, technical drawings, nature drawings, and even ambitious doodles are best served by consistent writing instruments that can achieve a high level of detail. In most cases, the thinner the nib, the better. Ink flow is just as critical -- too much or too little ink can lead you into mortal peril. When you’ve been faithfully reproducing a scene in photorealistic detail for the past ten hours, a nib with bad ink flow is a disaster waiting to happen.
Pilot Penmanship Fountain Pen with Ergo Grip - Extra Fine Nib
Journal writing is strictly for pleasure. There are no hard requirements or limitations, so why not let loose? Try a calligraphy nib with line variation for striking and expressive letters that change with your mood. Pair with a few whimsical ink colors -- like Indian Orange or Moon Dust Purple -- to communicate with visuals as well as words.
Pilot Plumix Fountain Pen - Medium Flat Italic Nib
Pilot Prera Clear Body Fountain Pen - Calligraphy Medium Nib
Naturally, fine and medium nibs are considered quite versatile, and are the usual choices for daily writers. A retractable nib will definitely last longer, especially since you never have to worry about losing the cap, but a regular nib with a secure cap will also do. Cartridge-converter pens quite versatile, but high-volume writers should consider a piston filler for a much-needed bump in ink capacity.
Pilot Prera Fountain Pen - Fine Nib
Pilot Capless Decimo Fountain Pen - Any Nib Size
Convenience and style are of paramount importance when it comes to signatures. Retractable nibs can be a lifesaver when you’re holding onto a coffee mug and laptop case with one hand, and trying to sign important documents with the other. Fast signers should consider a wet nib that can handle the speed of signing without skipping. People that stab forcefully while signing should invest in a stiff nib, while those that have a lighter hand can try a more expressive flexible nib.WE RECOMMEND:
Platinum Plaisir Fountain Pen - Medium 05 Nib
Pilot Vanishing Point Fountain Pen - Broad Nib
Experimentation is key when it comes to choosing a fountain pen. Many beginners start with a pen that’s well-rounded and affordable, then move onto more specialized models once they realize what they like and dislike about it. Finding the perfect fountain pen is a continual process of refinement, especially since preferences are constantly changing.
Of course, the perfect companion to a fine fountain pen is fine paper. While most fountain pens will perform respectably on generic copy paper, the pen's true potential will come out when paired with smooth paper of high quality. For further thoughts on writing with fountain pens, as well as a primer on fountain pen friendly paper, be sure to check out our "Favorite Notebooks for Fountain Pen Use" article!
What did you learn from your first fountain pen? Share your tips and recommendations in the comments!
Below are the fountain pens mentioned above in an easy-to-read table format
Beginner Fountain Pens Selection Guide
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