What is a Fountain Pen? [A Beginner’s Guide]

A few posts in, it might seem odd that I am writing about what a fountain pen is. But I thought it might be worth discussing since one of the recent comments I’ve replied to brought up the difference between fountain pens, calligraphy pens and a general unawareness of fountain pens in general so I thought it might be worth addressing in a separate post. For starters, fountain pens are very similar in structure and function (but of course! 🙂 ) to “regular” ballpoint pens but that’s where the similarities end. I suppose you would have seen enough pictures of them here and on the internet in general when doing a search but I hope to go a bit more in-depth.

First of all, Ballpoint pen nibthe ballpoint pen nib is the most marked difference even though they operate with some similar principles. The ball in ballpoint pens forms a layer preventing the ink inside from drying out yet providing a reliable way to apply it to paper.

As the ball rotates within the socket, it picks up ink and applies it to paper. This process also relies on gravity to pull the ink downwards which means that it won’t work underwater or in space. I mention that because there’s a pen out there which does and which I’ll talk about another time. 🙂

What is a fountain pen?Detail of fountain pen nib

A fountain pen has a thin metal plate which draws ink from a reservoir or cartridge in a controlled manner to deposit it on paper. Its function is based on similar principles as ballpoint pens actually. After all, they are ballpoint pens’ predecessors. However, the main difference is in the nibs/tips of the pens and I’m sure that’s immediately obvious as you navigate your way around all the images of fountain pens available.

For a fountain pen to write, the tip of the pen will be in contact with the paper and ink in deposited on paper via capillary action and gravity. The air channel and breather hole is meant to allow air to escape.

There are a number of variants of pens which I will show in a number of images below and talk a little about each of them. Some of these are truly works of art and if you do own one of them, let me know in the comments!

Calligraphy pen

You might argue that fountain pens can be used for calligraphy or are associated with calligraphy and I wouldn’t say that is wrong. It’s just that not all fountain pens are calligraphy pens and not all calligraphy pens are fountain pens. Calligraphy pens is something of a broader term in this case but I will talk a bit about fountain pens which have this specialized purpose in this section.

Stub nib fountain pen with calligraphy in background

The image shows a fountain pen with a stub nib or a ground nib which produces a thicker down stroke as compared to the cross stroke much like the writing in the background. You can read more about nibs in an earlier post here which gives a bit more insight into fountain pen nibs and other varieties.

Glass pens

Glass pen with perch


This is a beautiful example of a glass pen and I feel like I am taking everyone back in time – From talking about ballpoint times, to fountain pens and now dip pens, or rather a modern take on dip pens. How these work are like an even earlier variant of ballpoint and fountain pens. The glass nib contains deep grooves which hold the ink and the action of the nib on the paper makes the ink flow.

Glass pens don’t work too well with inks which are more viscous or thicker as the grooves may not allow the ink to flow onto the paper very well. Ink which is too thin as well won’t be ideal as the pen won’t be able to “hold” it too well and you’d find yourself dipping the glass pen into the ink well very often!

The video below illustrates how a glass pen writes. It also showcases the extremely wide variety of ink available and the different writing implements we have at our disposal:

Dip pens

I was debating whether to put these in a different section since they operate the same way in essence as with glass pens. However most of these “pens” have interchangeable nibs. The pen really just being the body itself and the various nibs would allow you to experiment with different grinds, line sizes and the like.

One interesting aspect of dip pens though is that you would be able to visibly notice the ink diminishing from the reservoir which is the hollow space just behind the tip of the nib. When you see that there is less ink there or that the lines on the paper start getting a little thin, it would be time to dip the pen into the inkwell again. Some penholders are intricately carved or are curved at certain points such as to follow a natural grip.

Dip pen nibs with various penholders

The video below is a good example of a dip pen in action complete with interchangeable nibs and a good showing of different line variation:

Parting thoughts

I hoped that helped to bring about a greater awareness and understanding of the wide array of pens and nibs out there. I personally have not as yet used a glass pen but would definitely welcome the opportunity. If you have any of your own dip pens or calligraphy pens you would like to share, please feel free to post them on Facebook!

About the author

Jaron is a self-confessed idealist who is passionate about fountain pens, badminton, jogging, nature and food. When not blogging, he can be found watching videos on YouTube or reading.

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