Guide to Choosing a Fountain Pen

November 5, 2012 - Posted by Lucy to Guides, Fountain Pens

The first fountain pen to appear in written record was built in 953 AD 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!

Important Fountain Pen Characteristics

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?
Different types of fountain pens have different specialties. Are you looking for a fast note-taking pen, or a showy pen to display on your desk? Examine your writing habits to get a sense of what you need.

What is my handwriting style?
Those with neat and small handwriting usually prefer fine nibs for precision, while fast writers favor wetter, broader nibs that can keep up. Heavy-handed writers might want an iridium-tipped nib, which is more durable and tends to reduce wear and tear. In general, fountain pens should complement your writing style.

What characteristics should my fountain pen have to satisfy the requirements stated above?
Although there are a ton of characteristics that can be used to differentiate fountain pens, nib size and filling mechanism are two of the most important ones.

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!

View all: Extra Fine Nibs / Fine Nibs / Medium Nibs / Broad Nibs

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.

View all: Ink Cartridges & Bottled Inks / Converters

If You Want a Fountain Pen For...


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
The Safari is a low-key fan favorite that gets the job done. It’s popular among students for its solid construction (ABS plastic that can take a beating in your backpack), excellent ink flow, and affordability. This cartridge-converter pen can be refilled by 18 different ink cartridge colors, but once you’ve exhausted them all, you can always opt to install a converter instead.

Pilot Vanishing Point Fountain Pen - Fine Nib
The Vanishing Point (VP) is a low-maintenance pen that writes with a smooth and constant flow. It has a retractable nib, which operates just like the click mechanism of a ballpoint pen, preventing the nib from leaking or drying out. However, it is a bit on the small side and holds a limited amount of ink, so if you’re looking to spearhead a novella-writing club, you might want to opt for a Lamy 2000 instead.


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
The needle-point nib is comparable to a 0.3 or 0.4 mm gel ink pen, but produces a remarkably smooth and consistent line. The cartridge-converter filling system allows you to draw in any color, and the Penmanship can also be converted into an eyedropper pen for maximum ink capacity.


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
This pen has an italic nib that allows for an expressive line that is still small enough to be used in a journal. It is surprisingly comfortable in the hand and you'd be hard pressed to find a better calligraphy fountain pen for the price.

Pilot Prera Clear Body Fountain Pen - Calligraphy Medium Nib
Those looking for something more upscale need look no further than the Pilot Prera Clear Body with the Calligraphy Medium Nib. The ink-filling mechanism is on proud display through the transparent body and allows one to monitor ink levels for those multi-page journal entries. Pilot paid attention to the little details, down to the cushioned click when closing the cap.


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
With a thinner nib than the Lamy Safari, this fountain pen is better suited for margins and newspaper crosswords than most. The cap closes with a secure clicking sound that is both reassuring and vaguely addictive, and the translucent model allows you to easily check how much ink is left in the pen.

Pilot Capless Decimo Fountain Pen - Any Nib Size
A nifty feature of this pen is that the nibs are interchangeable, meaning that you can swap out your fine nib for a broad nib anytime you feel like it. It’s also retractactable, so you don’t have to worry about the cap wandering off and getting into trouble.


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.


Platinum Plaisir Fountain Pen - Medium 05 Nib
If you’re an occasional fountain pen user, the Plaisir’s special cap design should be of interest: it prevents ink from drying or evaporating, even with a year of disuse. It’s also quite affordable, and can be refilled with nine colors.

Pilot Vanishing Point Fountain Pen - Broad Nib
It almost seems like the Vanishing Point was made for signatures. The nib is flexible, tends towards the wet side of the spectrum, and “vanishes” back into the pen body when it isn’t needed. Aesthetically speaking, the pen is stylish, professional, and a pretty good conversation starter to boot.


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
Fountain Pen Filling Mechanism Use For
Lamy Safari Fountain Pen (Extra Fine Nib) Cartridge-Converter Taking Notes
Pilot Vanishing Point Fountain Pen (Fine Nib) Cartridge-Converter Taking Notes
Pilot Penmanship Fountain Pen with Ergo Grip (Extra Fine Nib) Cartridge Drawing
Kaweco Classic Sport Fountain Pen (Broad Nib) Cartridge-Converter Journal Writing
Lamy 2000 Fountain Pen (Broad Nib) Piston Journal Writing
Pilot Prera Fountain Pen (Fine Nib) Cartridge-Converter Everyday Use
Pilot Capless Decimo Fountain Pen Cartridge-Converter Everyday Use
Platinum Plaisir Fountain Pen (Medium Nib) Cartridge Signatures
Pilot Vanishing Point Fountain Pen (Broad Nib) Cartridge-Converter Signatures

Related Links:
Beginner Fountain Pens Selection Guide

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