(This is a guest post by Adam Di Stefano. Adam is a writer, armchair philosopher, former lawyer, entrepreneur, marketing professional, obsessive compulsive, and consummate generalist. He has also recently become addicted to fountain pens. You can read more of his ramblings on his blog at The Happiest Man in the World.)
I have always loved the look and the mystique of fountain pens. As a writer, I have a sentimental attachment to the written word, and all things that go with it. I've always had a bizarre fascination with stationery stores. I own far too many notebooks, and while you would have to drag me kicking and screaming into a shopping mall, I'll happily spend money on office supplies. As such, maybe it was a foregone conclusion that I would some day grow fond of fountain pens.
But, getting into fountain pens is intimidating. It's a mysterious world, with its own vernacular, and full of odd people who watch ink dry and wear fishing vests when they get together.
If you're like me, there aren't a ton of people you know who share this obsession that you can ask for advice on how to get started. So, instead, you turn to the internet to find this information. There you will find a ton of great info and great blogs (like this one, but most of it speaks to people who know what they're talking about. Not to us newbies.
If you're like me, you'll read a lot, you'll feel lost, and you'll be intimidated. And then eventually, after months and months of reading stuff that you barely understand, you'll decide to take the plunge and buy a pen and see what happens. You'll make some mistakes, but eventually after some trial and error, you'll start to realize just what these fountain pen aficionados are so crazy about. Or, you'll give up because it's too much hassle and regret having waster your money.
That's why I decided to write this. My goal is to give someone who wants to try fountain pens for the first time a step-by-step guide on how to go from true beginner to early-stage addiction in a single concise article, all the while removing some of the intimidation and false starts that come with plunging in on our own.
Some Basic Definitions
I could write a whole glossary just on the terms and terminology used in the fountain pen world, but that's not my goal here. My goal is simply to give you the most basic definitions you'll need to understand the rest of this article. I want to focus on things that someone who doesn't know much about fountain pens wouldn't know, while not getting into details that are unnecessary for someone just getting started.
The nib is the part of the pen that touches the paper, and that the ink comes out of. On most pens it will be stainless steel, and on higher end pens it will be gold. By changing a nib, you can completely change the experience of writing with a pen. One of the first decisions you'll have to make when buying a fountain pen is the size of the nib's tip.
On most standard fountain pens, nibs can come in various points from extra fine to bold. The tip of the nib will determine just how much ink is released, and the thickness of the lines that you will put down. In addition to extra fine to bold, there are also a variety of other nib types like a cursive italic, or a stub. These special grinds are best suited for specific handwriting styles.
To further complicate matters, nib sizes aren't standard. A "fine" nib on a Japanese pen, will tend to be finer than a "fine" nib on a German pen.
Certain nibs work better with certain inks, and certain handwriting styles.
Nibs made of softer materials, like gold, will wear in such a way as to adapt to the handwriting of the person using it. As such, if you have a very soft nib on a pen, and you lend it to someone else, the ink flow will seem strange to them, because the pen will have literally adapted itself to you.
A cartridge is the reservoir of ink that you can swap out of your pen and replace in its entirety, similar to how you would refill a ballpoint or a gel pen. The advantage of cartridges is that they are easy. When you're out of ink, you simply pop in a new cartridge, and you're good to go. The downside is that it costs much more to constantly replace your cartridges than to simply refill your pen with ink using a converter.
A converter changes a cartridge filling system into refillable solution. There are various types of converters and filling systems, but the main purpose remains the same: a refillable reservoir that holds the ink that your pen uses to write. Some pens come with converters, others need to be ordered. For instance, a Pilot Metropolitan comes with both a cartridge and an empty converter, whereas a Lamy Safari comes only with a cartridge. If you want to refill a Safari, you either need to buy more cartridges, or you need to buy a converter plus ink.
Step by Step of How to Get Started
1. Buy a Starter Pen
One of the reasons you'll have gotten into fountain pens in the first place is that they look so damn cool. Unfortunately, for most of us, the idea of jumping into buying a $200+ pen without knowing anything about it isn't so easy. As a result, it's probably a good idea to wet your feet with what I call a "starter pen."
In my travels around the pen internets, there appear to be two pens that come back again and again as great starters: the Lamy Safari and the Pilot Metropolitan. There are other good pens in the sub $50 range but these two appear to be the best to act as starters for a few different reasons, which I won't get into here.
For the time being you should buy one of them.
When it came time for me to buy my first fountain pen I asked the one and only, Brad Dowdy, what he recommended and he said, "Definitely the Pilot Metropolitan."
So, naturally, I bought a Lamy Safari (it was an availability/lack of patience thing).
In all seriousness, either of these pens work very well as a starter pen. I think if I had to recommend one to someone, I'd probably recommend the Metropolitan. It's slightly cheaper. It's better looking in a very classic way. And out of the box it comes with a cartridge as well as a converter, so you can play with both filling systems.
The Lamy Safari is slightly more expensive, is a bit odd looking, and depending on your colour choice, can look a bit cheap. The Lamy Safari comes with a Lamy cartridge and if you want to refill the pen using bottled ink, you'll need to buy a converter separately, which will add to the price of the pen.
On the flip side, I actually prefer the way the Safari writes, so your mileage may vary.
Each of these pens comes in a variety of colours and looks, but the most important decision you'll likely need to make is what size nib you want. I purchased mine with a fine nib. As a general rule of thumb, if you have tiny handwriting, you'll want a finer nib. If you have bigger handwriting, you'll want a bigger nib (you probably don't want to go higher than medium, though). Either way, the goal here is to get to know how the pen writes, so pick one and don't worry too much about it.
Either way, either of these pens will be a great introduction to the world of fountain pens, so buy one and let's move on.
2. Get Used to Writing With It
The day I got my Lamy Safari, I started using it immediately. Admittedly, my first impression was less than stellar. I found the pen scratchy to write with, and found that it was skipping. I began to wonder if I was doing something wrong, and then questioned whether getting a fine nib might have been a mistake.
I stuck to it, and a few hours into taking notes with my pen, somethign magical happened: the ink started to flow better!
This was my first fountain pen lesson. The way a fountain pen works is different from the way a ballpoint or a gel ink pen works. Pen doesn't just start flowing automatically. The ink needs to work its way through the entire nib. In addition, if ink has been sitting in the pen for a while, it may have dried slightly, which will give you a less smooth writing experience. In general, using it will allow you to get through the drier ink and then it will start to flow.
As I continued to write with my fountain pen, the more I found I liked it.
3. Try it on Different Papers
As I started using my new pen, I began to notice something that I had never really taken stock of using my old ballpoints or gel pens: paper quality. I soon found that some papers worked great with my pen, while others made it feel scratchy, or caused the ink to bleed.
You can read exhaustive articles on which paper is the best to try with what ink and pen combination. However, my best advice is to try a bunch of different things.
Write on whatever plain pad of paper you have lying around the office. Write on post-it notes. Write in your favourite notebook. Write on scraps of paper.
You'll soon get a feel for the difference that paper can make.
Brad recently wrote a great piece for Rhodia about how paper is like the tires on a car, and it's true. You don't really notice what kind of tires are on your car until you have a high performance car that can take advantage of them. The fountain pen is a little bit like the high performance car.
It's also a good moment to call out the aforementioned Rhodia. I have a few Rhodia notepads, and I have to say, their paper is something else. For one, when you write on it, it's so smooth that you wonder if you're actually writing on paper or if you're writing on plastic. If you want to get a feel for a pen's true potential I highly recommend it.
That said, I'm not saying you should now write exclusively on premium paper. In truth, the majority of my writing still takes place on generic ruled office pads, the brand of which I couldn't tell you.
Returning to my car analogy, it's kind of like having your every day tires for the commute to work, and saving your performance tires for the track on weekends.
4. Learn How to Adapt Your Writing Style
I think there is a misperception about writing using a fountain pen that if you're using a fountain pen, you should be writing in cursive (or attached letters as I understand it's called across the pond).
That's nonsense. Personally, I love the look of cursive writing, but I simply don't like my own cursive writing, and I don't feel like devoting the time to improve it. So, I continue to write in either tiny all capital block letters when I'm trying to be neat, or very round, large lower case block letters when I'm writing normally (I have had my handwriting compared to that of a seven-year old girl because of how bubbly my letters are).
So, if you don't have to write in cursive, why am I telling you to adapt your writing style? Well, simply because a fountain pen writes differently than a ballpoint pen. The ink flows more, and tends to dry slower. Furthermore, fountain pens need to be held at a certain angle so that the nib contacts the paper in the right way to allow the ink to flow properly.
As such, some people may have to adapt their handwriting. Lefties for instance, may need to tweak their style in order to avoid smudging the entire page. Some people have to change the way they hold their pen because they tend to hold their pends nearly perpendicular to the page.
In my case, it just meant making a conscious effort to lift my pen when writing in block letters. My normal handwriting tends to drag the pen across the page. As such, even though I write in block letters, they tend to appear attached half the time, just because I haven't actually lifted my pen. With a ballpoint pen, this doesn't cause many issues. However, with a fountain pen, more often than not, this leads to smudging. As a result, I've had to curb that habit.
5. Buy Bottled Ink & a Converter
In my opinion, the true fountain pen experience only begins once you've started buying bottled inks and refilling your pens.
Cartridges are easier, neater, and more convenient. You can just swap them out whenever you want. But if you want to use cartridge refills, you might as well stick with ball points and gel pens.
If you get into fountain pens, buying bottled inks is the way to go. There's a few reasons for this. First, there's a very cool feeling when you're refilling a pen from a bottle. It just makes you feel like you're writing a very important letter.
Second, once you have a converter, you never have to worry about buying the right cartridge for your pen, and you can use the same bottled ink interchangeably amongst all your pens.
Third, the selection of inks you will get when you go the route of buying bottled inks dwarfs what you can find in cartridges, and so you can really begin to customize your writing experience.
And if you're concerned about the difficulty of refilling your pen, like I was, because you've heard it's messy and difficult, don't worry about it. It's not as bad as you've heard. Here are a couple of links to some explanatory videos of how to fill a pen with bottled ink.
6. Notice the Colours
One of the great things about fountain pens, and refilling them is the sheer variety of different colours. It's not unusual for a single ink company to produce a few dozen colours. And before you think that after a few primary colours, all other inks are just variations of the same thing, you are missing a huge part of the ink experience. It is only when I started using fountain pens that I started to truly understand what it meant to appreciate an ink's texture and depth of colour.
Even the standard blue that came with my Lamy Safari had more variation and depth than any other ink I'd ever written with before.
The moment you start getting excited about watching the ink of your pen dry, that's when you know you're hooked. So, at this point, I would suggest that you buy at least one ink refill.
7. Play with it Some More
Now that you've tried a couple of different inks, different papers, and different filling systems, play around with your pen some more. See how each thing you change, changes the way the pen writes. Notice the feel of the pen. Learn to appreciate the thickness or thinness of a line. Understand bleed and feathering. Unless you experience these concepts yourself, it is difficult to truly understand their importance.
In short, with the same pen, you can have a number of different experiences. Learn to appreciate those, and the entire process at this point has cost you less than $50.
8. Buy a Different Cheap Pen with a Different Nib
At this point, if you're like me, you probably want to run out and buy a super expensive, cool looking pen, because you've now fallen in love with the experience of writing with a fountain pen, and you just have to have that next $200 pen.
Instead, what I'd recommend is you buy a different cheap pen with a different nib. If you bought a Pilot, buy a Lamy. If you bought a Lamy, buy a Pilot. Try a different nib to see what size nib you prefer. Remember that if you're buying Japanese instead of German or vice versa, even buying the same nib size will actually give you a different writing experience. Both my Safari and Metropolitan have fine nibs, but the Safari has a much thicker line.
I consciously bought this way so I could compare and contrast both pens. My next Pilot will likely be a medium nib, just because it suits my handwriting better. My next Lamy, however, will probably still be fine, because I don't think I need a thicker line than what's provided by the Lamy Fine nib.
I would not have known any of this if I hadn't bought a second pen. Sure, I could have read about it, but that wouldn't have helped me understand which nib I prefer.
9. Try Different Inks
Before you spend a fortune on a Nakaya or some other crazy expensive pen, realize just how much fun you can have just by trying different inks.
In my mind, inks are a seriously under-appreciated part of the fountain pen experience. Most articles you will read about fountain pens focus on the pens (with good reason, it is what you're using to write!). However, changing the ink in your pens is a more affordable way to get a great variety of experiences with your fountain pen.
Think about it. Instead of spending multiple hundreds of dollars on new pens, you can spend a few bucks on a new bottle of ink, ink your favourite pen, and boom, just like that, whole new writing experience!
Some inks are "expensive." For instance, the first bottle of ink I bought was Pilot's Iroshizuku Shin-kai. This blue-black is considered a premium ink, and I paid upwards of $20 for 50 mL. That may seem like a lot, but 50 mL will likely last me a LONG time and it is a heck of a lot cheaper than me buying a brand new pen when the mood strikes!
10. Buy a Nicer Pen!
Now that you've got a feel for a couple of "cheap" pens, and how fun they can be to use, NOW you can appreciate fancy pens.
Read all those blogs that were too hard to understand before. Shop around. Talk to the weirdos wearing fishing vests. You can even try going to a Pen Show to see the selection. Whatever the case may be, you've now made the leap into becoming a true pen addict.
At this point, you're probably thinking to yourself, this all seems like a lot just to buy a pen. And you're right. It is. However, if you just want a pen that you can pull out at any time and it just works, then I'd suggest grabbing a roller ball or a gel pen. There's a ton of great ones out there, and you can read through Brad's reviews to find the best of the best. If you're looking for a utilitarian tool, that's the way to go.
However, if you're approaching fountain pens as a piece of art, a hobby, or worse, a potential addiction, I think it's worth taking the time to understand the basics with a few of the cheaper options before diving head first into the vast selection of premium pens that exist out there.
Hopefully this guide will help you on that journey. Best of luck, and let me know how you enjoy it!