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a beginner's guide to fountain pens

What you should know before buying your first fountain pen: a beginner's guide

Writing with fountain pens is one of my biggest daily sources of joy. I love the way the nib glides across the paper and the wet line of ink it leaves behind. Fountain pens make the writing experience so pleasant that I find myself making excuses to write more.

I'd love for everyone to experience this magic. Unfortunately, it's not the easiest hobby to get into, and some of the difficulties of using fountain pens that made gel and ballpoint pens take over will always hinder it. But after a few years of writing with fountain pens, I believe fountain pens can be for everyone, and I wrote this as a guide for other people curious about getting into the hobby.

Why write with fountain pens?

Fountain pens use more viscous ink than ballpoints or gel pens, which means they write more smoothly and require less pressure than other pens. This reduces hand fatigue when writing for long periods of time.

Fountain pens are the most customizable of all writing instruments. With just one pen, you can dramatically alter your writing experience by swapping out the nib or filling it with one of hundreds (if not thousands) of inks of different colors and qualities.

Fountain pens are also environmentally friendly. Instead of throwing away disposable ballpoint or gel pens, you can refill your pen when you run out of ink. If you find yourself wanting something new, you can customize in one of the many ways I described earlier. This way, you can reduce your consumption of single-use plastic and develop an attachment with a durable and well-designed writing instrument that you use for years to come.

What are some of the drawbacks of using fountain pens?

All these benefits come with a price: fountain pens demand the most upkeep of all pens. But many fountain pen fans would even argue that with time, many of these chores turn into pleasures of using these pens. Indeed, I've come to enjoying the regular ritual of washing and re-inking my pens.

Writing with them can be difficult.

Fountain pens make use of a metal nib to let ink flow from the cartridge to the paper. This nib only writes properly if you contact the paper at the right angle and orientation. It will take some getting used to and likely will mean altering your writing form at least slightly, especially if you've used gel and ballpoint pens your whole life. This is why I urge everyone to try out a fountain pen before buying it. You never know how it will write until you try it.

You'll need to maintain your pen regularly.

Fountain pen ink can dry up in the nib and feed and ruin your pen, so it's important to use your pen regularly and wash it to prevent buildup and maintain consistent ink flow. Fountain pens are best for people who write frequently, at least every few days. You'll need to dedicate time to refill your ink when it runs out and wash your pen every once in a while.

Fountain pens can get messy.

You will get inky fingers using fountain pens. There's no way around it. Of course, good technique and practice will minimize this, but it's unavoidable. Despite your best efforts, ink might drip into the cap and end up on your hands. This can be remedied with proper preparation, but you should still expect inky fingers every once in a while.

Fountain pen ink won't cooperate with all kinds of paper.

For me, this is the biggest drawback of using fountain pens. You can't just write on any old 10c notebook you got at the dollar store and expect your fountain pen to write fine. It'll lay down ink, but that ink will likely feather and/or bleed through the page. Using thinner nibs and anti-feathering inks will help with this, but be prepared to invest in getting some better quality paper for your fountain pens.

Fountain pens can be fragile and hard to travel with.

Fountain pens can be difficult to travel with. Because the ink is so viscous, it can leak and spill in bags when thrown around. Some pens are better for traveling than others (see: the Kaweco Sport), but in general I would expect extra care and some inky fingers when traveling.

The nib is the most fragile part of a fountain pen, followed by the feed (the part that transfers the ink from the cartridge to the nib). If you drop a pen on its nib, you've likely damaged its tines beyond repair. The good news is that it's fairly easy to buy a new nib and swap out the old one. The bad news is that you'll have to be extra careful not to damage it by not pressing on it too hard or dropping it nib-first.

I'm ready to make this commitment. Where do I get my hands on a pen?

In my experience, there are three main ways to get your hands on a fountain pen.

  1. Direct from the manufacturer (e.g. at a flagship store or boutique)

    Buying direct from the manufacturer like at the LAMY flagship store in a big city will likely give you the best experience when choosing your pen, but it will come at a price. You'll have access to a wide variety of pens, and likely be able to try out many of them to see how they write and feel in your hand. There also is likely a knowledgeable attendant ready to answer any of your questions on site. Like I alluded to earlier, this is going to be the most expensive of the three options. But you'll be able to walk out with a pen in hand after trying it with the guidance of an expert, and that can make a big difference in your satisfaction.

  2. From a certified reseller (like JetPens or Goulet Pens)

    Buying from a certified reseller is a middle ground. You won't get the cheapest prices, but you'll get a good selection and (typically) strong customer support. I usually recommend this route for beginners after they've tried out fountain pens somewhere in person. If you have an issue with a pen you buy from a reseller they should be able to assist you.

  3. From the gray market (Amazon, eBay, Reddit)

    Amazon or other gray market sources will almost certainly have your pen for the cheapest price. But the selection (colors, nib sizes) will be limited, and customer support will be nonexistent. If you run into an issue with your pen, you'll be lucky if you can return it. Otherwise, you'll be stuck with a pen you can't use. I would only use Amazon for pens with reputations of reliability and only after you've tried them out in person.

Caring for your pen

Now that you've got your pen, there are a few things you should do to take care of your pen.

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