Chisels and stone, quills and scrolls, and today’s ubiquitous touchpad—people have used myriad tools to record their histories, and none more timeless than the fountain pen. Initially created to make writing more efficient, it’s celebrated today for its complex mechanism and simple pleasure; its ability to turn a routine into a ritual, and to fill every note and letter with personality.
The credit for the first fountain pen goes to Romanian inventor Petrache Poenaru, who received a French patent in 1827. Using a large swan quill as its barrel, it stood apart from its predecessor, the dip pen, by adding an internal reservoir of liquid ink. The ink was drawn from the reservoir through a feed to the nib, and then deposited onto the paper using a combination of gravity and capillary action (more on this later). This method saved users considerable time by allowing them to keep writing without having to repeatedly dip the pen into an inkwell.
The (Not-So-Lost) Art of Handwriting
The fountain pen quickly gained popularity, with a steady acceleration in production throughout the mid and late 19th century. It took many iterations—and the inventions of hard rubber, free-flowing ink, and the iridium-tipped gold nib—for it to look like the modern fountain pen most are familiar with today. Over the years, and despite advancements in note taking (the default office ballpoint, smartphone notepad apps galore), it remains the instrument of choice for a dedicated subset of the population.
It’s not all about nostalgia, either. These days, the design and materials are improved and diversified, and durability and portability are more important than ever. There’s something out there for everyone, from first-timers and students to hobbyists and serious collectors. To help you get acquainted with the world of fountain pens, here are a few key terms every ink slinger should know.
Nib: This is the thin, pointed piece of metal on one end of the fountain pen that distributes the ink on the writing surface. Nibs come in a number of tip shapes (round, italic, left-handed, oblique, etc.), sizes (extra-fine, fine, medium, and broad), and materials (gold or steel), all of which have a big impact on how the pen writes. They vary in flexibility, and are often engraved with the company’s logo and other decorative flourishes. We’ll go deeper into these characteristics in a separate post.
Tip (or tipping material): The hardened metal ball that’s welded to the end of the nib. This is what actually touches the paper as you write. The tip is often made of iridium alloy or another metal that’s harder-wearing than the rest of the nib.
Slit: The cut in the nib that the ink flows through. This line splits down the middle of the nib and serves as the function for the capillary action that draws the ink from the feed to the tip.
Tines: The two parts of the nib (right and left side) separated by the slit.
Breather hole: The hole at the end of the slit in the middle of the nib that allows air to travel through and assist ink flow. Some nibs don’t have breather holes, but most do.
Wings: The sides of the nib (on either side of the tines) that reinforce it.
Feed: The part behind the nib (often black in color, but sometimes not) that draws the ink from the pen to the nib.
Feed channel: The slit on the top of the feed that the ink travels down to get from the reservoir to the nib.
Fins: The deep recesses on the underside of the feed that act as regulators for the ink. They fill up with ink to help maintain consistent flow, no matter how fast you’re writing.
Filler hole: The small hole on the underside of the feed where the pen draws ink when filling. When you’re filling from an ink bottle, make sure to submerge your pen past the filler hole, all the way to the grip section.
Capillary action: The tendency of a liquid to automatically draw itself along a very thin tube as a result of surface tension. This is how ink moves through a fountain pen, and also how water rises inside a plant.
Body (or barrel): The main section of the pen that houses the ink. It can be made of resin/acrylic or metals like aluminum, titanium, or brass, which can lend either a lightweight or heftier feel to the pen. In certain types of pens called demonstrators, the resin barrel is transparent to provide visibility of the internal features.
Grip section: The part of the pen that holds the nib and meets the body. The grip section is generally where users hold the pen while writing.
Reservoir: This is the part of the pen inside the body that houses the ink. Some models have a cartridge or converter inside, while other models can hold the ink directly with no cartridge or converter.
Threads: The grooves that allow one pen part to connect to another. Seen on screw caps, where the body meets the grip section, and elsewhere.
Cap: This one is pretty obvious. The cap’s primary function is to seal the nib from air to keep the water-based ink inside from drying out. It has the added benefit of protecting your pockets from ink stains when you’re carrying your pen. Some caps can be posted on the other end of the pen, which adds length while you write (great for users with larger hands) and also helps balance weight.
Finial: The very top part of the cap. It’s largely decorative but can also be functional, in that it’s responsible for affixing the pen’s pocket clip (if it has one).
Clip: The part of the cap (usually metal) that allows you to slide your pen securely into your pocket. It also keeps the pen from rolling on a table or any surface that’s not perfectly level.
Trim (or hardware): This refers to the clip, bands, and any other decorative accents.
Ink window: Some pens have an ink window, a translucent section of the barrel that allows you to see when your ink level is running low.
Cartridge and converter: Most contemporary pens use either disposable ink cartridges or a removable ink reservoir called a converter. Some cartridges are interchangeable with pens from other manufacturers, while others are proprietary to their own brands. Cartridges are designed for one-time use, while converters are reusable and allow for filling with bottled ink.
Built-in filler: A fountain pen that has a built-in reservoir and filling system, and doesn’t require cartridges or converters. The two most common types are piston and vacuum. The body of the pen acts as the ink reservoir, and can be refilled by dipping the nib directly into an ink bottle while twisting the end knob (piston filler) or moving the plunger (vacuum filler). These often have a larger ink capacity than cartridge/converter pens.
Eyedropper pen: A fountain pen designed to be filled with an eyedropper, syringe, or pipette. Many early pens used the eyedropper method and couldn’t be filled any other way. These days, most eyedropper pens are cartridge pens that have been modified in order to increase their ink capacity.
Stay Tuned for More
There you have it: Fountain Pens 101. But that’s only the beginning. Look out for posts and tutorials that dig deeper into these topics, and be sure to hit the "Follow" button to be notified about future posts from this account. In the meantime, if you have questions or comments about this post, or about fountain pens in general, leave ‘em below. Have personal recommendations or stories to stare? We’d love to hear them—and see pictures, too!