There are a lot of good reasons to use a fountain pen. For one, it adds character to your handwriting—in every dot, cross, and flourish—that you just can’t get from a standard ballpoint. Some people consider it a relatively inexpensive way to bring luxury into their day-to-day lives. Others like that it’s reusable, and more cost-effective than buying a new disposable pen every time the last one runs dry. Then there’s that hard-to-describe feeling: Fountain pens feel good to write with, plain and simple, and they make you want to keep writing.
Once you’ve decided to make the switch, there are a few steps you’ll need to take before you’re ready to jot, scrawl, and scribble with the best of them. The world of fountain pens, like any new hobby, can be a mysterious place with its own history and vernacular. And it can get a little messy, too—especially when you want to clean your pen or start inking it from a bottle. But don’t let that scare you! The process can also be incredibly rewarding, as you try different pens and accessories, discover what you like, and begin to build your own collection.
This post will offer tips on how to get started with your first fountain pen. For a list of basic components and key terms, check out "Massdrop 101: Intro to Fountain Pens" (dro.ps/introtofountainpens).
Choosing Your First Pen
When testing the waters, first-time users may look for a fountain pen with a combination of comfort, affordability, and convenient, easy-to-use features. Take the Pilot Metropolitan, for instance, which has a well-balanced body in a variety of colors and patterns, and a converter that makes it compatible with bottled inks right out of the box. Or, try the Lamy Safari, whose contoured grip section is designed to help users hold the pen in the traditional position. Other great pens for beginners are the Platinum Preppy, Pilot Kakuno, Lamy Vista, and Lamy AL-Star.
When your fountain pen arrives, check it top to bottom for damage and contact the manufacturer if anything looks off. If an instructional manual and warranty card are included, read them thoroughly and abide by any suggestions from the manufacturer.
Different Pens & How To Fill Them
The fountain pen consists of four major parts when assembled: the cap, the nib, the barrel, and the ink reservoir. The mechanisms used to fill the ink reservoir vary by pen type. Cartridges are the easiest and quickest to use because they come preloaded, but their biggest drawback is that they’re not designed to fill with bottled ink. Converters make cartridge pens more versatile by allowing them to be filled from the bottle. Pens with built-in fillers—and eyedropper pens, to an even greater extent—provide a higher ink capacity for those who need it. When choosing a pen, think about which benefits are most important to you.
To install a cartridge, first unscrew the barrel by turning it counterclockwise. Then, find the stopper end of the cartridge and insert it into the grip section of your pen. Press down firmly until you hear a click. This means that the stopper has been punctured and the ink is able to flow through. Screw the barrel back into place. Finally, to allow the ink to saturate the nib, leave the capped pen in a cup (or another container) with the nib facing down for about an hour—some users will even leave it overnight.
Note that some pens use an international standard cartridge that can be used across brands, while others have a proprietary cartridge that won’t be compatible with pens of any other brand. Make sure you know your pen’s compatibility before you pick up any new cartridges. The same is true for converters.
Use a converter to ink your cartridge pen from a bottle. The most common types are the piston converter and the squeeze converter, which work more or less the same way: by using mechanical force to create a low-pressure chamber into which ink is drawn.
To fill a piston converter, install the converter into your pen the same way you would a cartridge. Dip the pen into the bottle of ink until the entire nib and part of the grip section is submerged. Twist the end knob until the piston is fully extended. Then, twist the knob in the other direction, retracting the piston and drawing ink into the converter. You may need to repeat this step once or twice to fill the converter. When you’re done, wipe the nib off with a paper towel and reassemble the pen.
To fill a squeeze converter, dip the pen into the bottle and gently squeeze. You’ll see bubbles appear as air leaves the converter. Release the converter slowly and wait for the suction to draw ink into the pen. Repeat until the bubbles stop appearing.
Fountain pens with built-in filling mechanisms can be broken into two main categories: piston fillers and vacuum fillers. Built-in piston fillers operate much like piston converters, so follow those steps above.
With a built-in vacuum filler, unscrew the knob at the end of the pen and pull back the plunger. Next, push the plunger back down—this motion creates a vacuum in the ink chamber behind it. When the plunger reaches the flared section at the base of the chamber, the vacuum is broken and ink will flow quickly into the pen.
An eyedropper pen is one that must be filled with an eyedropper, syringe, or pipette. Because no space in the barrel is occupied by a cartridge, converter, or built-in mechanism, these have the largest ink capacity of any pen. To fill an eyedropper pen, unscrew the barrel and coat the threads with silicone grease to ensure a watertight seal. Fill the barrel up to the threads with your choice of ink, and then reassemble the pen.
Preparation & Troubleshooting
When you’re starting out with a new pen, quickly run the nib under running water to help get the ink flowing. Don’t worry if it doesn’t start flowing automatically—there a number of troubleshooting techniques you can try.
Some users leave the pen resting nib down for an even longer period of time, some gently squeeze the cartridge, and some dip the nib in water. Others still will tap the point on a piece of paper until a drop of ink comes out, then stick the point in the droplet and draw it in. Of course, the best way to keep a fountain pen going is to keep writing. Plus, as you use your pen more and more often, the nib will wear down to your specific writing style and posture.
Still not working? Brand-new pens sometimes have an oily film on the feed or nib, and unless they are given a thorough cleaning, the ink may not flow smoothly.
Cleaning Your Pen
The following steps can be used to clean your pen on day one if you’re having trouble getting it to write, and also for regular cleanings throughout the life of your pen. Maintenance should occur every 2 to 4 weeks (depending on the pen) if you’re using the same color, and every time you change colors. Manufacturers recommend distilled water, but room-temperature or lukewarm tap water can work just as well.
Sink Method: Disassemble your pen near your sink or cleaning station and empty the ink. If the pen is full, you can try emptying the ink back into the original bottle or another small vial to save it for future use. If you’re not worried about that, you can simply empty it into the sink. Next, hold the nib section under running water until the water runs mostly clear. This is the fastest way to flush your pen, and for pens that are properly maintained and haven’t accumulated buildup or debris, this step may be enough.
Optional Soak: If your pen has been sitting for a while (or you want to be extra thorough), you can also leave any parts that have been inky to soak in a cup of water. This helps clear out any dried ink. After you remove the pen parts from the water, dry them as much as possible. If you have time, let them dry on a paper towel overnight. If you’re in a hurry, go ahead and reassemble your pen and fill it with new ink. If you fill it immediately, however, you may need to use scratch paper for a bit until the ink flow becomes appropriately saturated.
Alternative Method: For a deeper clean, fill two plastic cups with water and use a converter (or the pen’s built-in filling mechanism) to pump in and out. Use one cup first, and then the other. Because the water you flush through your pen will dirty the water in the first cup, it’s helpful to switch to the second cup part of the way through the process, so you’re not continuously moving dirty water through your pen. If you’re cleaning an eyedropper pen, you can use the same setup but with a rubber bulb syringe.
Now it’s time for the fun part. Spend time with your fountain pen so you can get used to a different kind of writing. You’ll want to use less pressure than you would with a ballpoint or rollerball—a properly tuned fountain pen should write under its own weight, and adding to much pressure could damage the tines or nib, or cause your hand to cramp up.
You may also find that you’ll need to write bigger than you did with other writing instruments, holding your wrists and fingers stationary and using your arm and shoulder to shape the letters. If you’re left-handed, you may have to adapt your writing style even further. Because fountain pen ink takes longer to dry, you’ll have to work harder to avoid smudging as your hand moves across the paper.
While you’re writing, pay attention to what work’s working and what isn’t. Do you like the weight of your pen, or do you wish it were heavier or lighter? Thinner, thicker, or shaped differently? Post the cap or don’t—it all depends on whether you like the extra length. Is the clip important for holding your pen while in transit, or do you prefer to carry it in a case or sleeve? Do you like the design and materials? Write, observe, then write again.
Play around with different paper. You’ll notice that, suddenly, paper matters a whole lot more than it did when you were using a ballpoint. Some will work well, while others may make your pen feel scratchy or cause the ink to bleed through or feather. Write on anything you can get your hands on—around the house, the office, or the waiting room at your next dental appointment—until you find what’s best for you. If you’re looking for somewhere to start, Rhodia and Clairefontaine both make excellent paper that pairs well with fountain pens.
While you’re at it, try different inks. Notice the thickness of the line on the page, and appreciate the ink’s texture, sheen, and depth of color. Take careful note of how the color gradually changes as the seconds pass, and you might actually get excited about watching ink dry. (That’s when you know you’re hooked.) If you don’t know where to start, an ink from the same brand as your fountain pen is a safe bet.
Dos & Don’ts
A few parting thoughts: Never use rubbing alcohol or acetone to clean your pen, as both contain chemicals that can damage (and even melt) the plastic parts within. Be careful to use only water-based ink in fountain pens, and stay away from shellac-based calligraphy ink (like India ink or Lawyer’s ink). Calligraphy ink is designed for use with dip pens only, and can cause serious clogging. Between writing sessions, keep the cap on your pen to prevent the ink from drying out. Be careful not to carry your pen in the same pocket as your keys, as the metal of the keys can damage the pen body.
Stay Tuned for More
There you have it: a guide to getting started with your new fountain pen. 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!