Choosing a Fountain Pen

Dictionaries state that a fountain pen is a pen with a nib that is fed ink from an internal reservoir. The ink being drawn through a feed to the nib by a combination of gravity and capillary action. Because the ink flows to the nib, the pen requires little or no pressure to write. Some sufferers from arthritis whilst unable to use ballpoint pens, can use fountain pens.

However, if you read the many magazines and online forums dedicated to the fountain pen, a fountain pen is a collector’s item, a way of life, a writing experience, a best friend, I could go on but suffice to say that many people wouldn’t be without one, be it for writing their journal or signing important documents.

The Nib

Nowadays, gold (usually 18carat), is the favoured metal from which to make nibs because of its resistance to corrosion (from water based inks) and its flexibility. It’s commonl though to have gold nibs tipped with harder wearing alloys or metals, usually, rhodium, stainless steel or platinum.

In the middle of the nib there is a ‘breather hole’ which exchanges air for ink in the ink reservoir to assist the flow of ink and to prevent the nib splitting along its length through prolonged pressure from the user. Nibs commonly have a single slit down the middle to convey the ink to the tip by capillary action.

There are a bewildering array of nib sizes and types available, here are some listed below.

  • XXXF = Needlepoint
  • XXF = Super Extra Fine
  • EF/XF = Extra Fine
  • F = Fine
  • OF = Oblique Fine
  • SF = Soft Fine
  • FM/MF = Fine Medium
  • SFM = Soft Fine Medium
  • FK = Fine ball point
  • M = Medium
  • OM = Oblique Medium
  • SM = Soft Medium
  • B = Broad
  • OB = Oblique Broad
  • BB = Double Broad
  • OBB = Oblique Double Broad
  • BBB = Triple Broad
  • C = Coarse
  • MS = Music
  • PO = Posting
  • FA = Falcon (flexible)
  • WA = Wavily (brush stroke)
  • SU = Signature (stub)
  • Z = Zoom (multi-angled)

Usually though, most everyday pens come in the sizes below.

  • Needlepoint – an extremely fine point for precise work. Useful for designers and architects but not ideal for every-day use.
  • Extra Fine – for fine line writing and requires minimal pressure.
  • Fine – Produces a fine line and is great for every-day use.
  • Medium – Most common and used for general use.
  • Broad – Produces a bold, wide line.
  • Extra Broad – Produces a ‘heavy’ line, great for bold signatures as it has a large rounded point.
  • Extra Extra Broad – As the name suggests, this produces a bold broad line.

If you’re buying a nib, make sure you buy a good one as nibs can and usually do, last longer than the lifetime of the user.

Filling Mechanisms

Nowadays, most pens will be filled using either a piston filler or an ink cartidge. Many pens will also use a ‘converter’ which is a device which has the same fitting at one end as a cartridge but has a reservoir and filling mechanism to allow the user to use cartridges or fill the reservoir from a bottle of ink.

So which is best?

Ink Cartridges are mess free and conveniently easy to use but beware, some manufacturers make pens which will only take their own brand of cartridges so make sure you know how much these will cost and where you can buy them.

Piston filling works out cheaper in the long-run as ink sold in bottles is normally cheaper than in cartridges. Also, there is the opportunity to try out different selections and shades of inks to find one you like. In addition, bottled ink is kinder to the environment than plastic cartridges. Some supporters of bottle based inks also state that it prolongs the use of the pen as it dissolves old dry ink and cleans the nib each time new ink is drawn through.


Inks, surprisingly, can be ‘wet’ or ‘dry’. This has nothing to do with how quickly the ink dries on the paper but is to do with how ‘free flowing’ the ink is. Some nibs and pens work better with ‘wet’ ink and some with ‘dry’. A free flowing nib coupled with a ‘wet’ ink might ‘puddle’ ink on the nib, especially if you write slowly.

Bottled ink comes in a multitude of shades and colours, it is all a matter of finding one you really like. Beware however that not all inks are permanent and most will fade over time, especially the ‘washable’, water soluble inks.


I hope the bewildering, combinations and choice of nibs, pens, inks and ink mechanisms has not put you off. It’s all about finding the right combination to suit you. It doesn’t have to be the most expensive or exclusive, just as long as it suits you. If you want to learn more then I really recommend looking at The Fountain Pen Network online. This is run and contributed to by enthusiasts of Fountain Pens. Between them, what the members don’t know about Fountain Pens isn’t worth knowing.


Carl Barton is a director of Office Allsorts who has worked in the office products industry for 15 years.

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