March of the Fountain Pens…

Due to other commitments and the fact I cannot be bothered writing anything more witty this month TeamPlanner brings you the Bertrand Russell tribute guide to: “Buying a fountain pen properly”…

Ah sir, if I were a fool, a flapdoodle, a jester I would walk into any famous office supply emporium and demand that they sold me a Bic Crystal of the highest calibre. But no sir! I am a man of the highest intellect and demand a pen to prove it.

As a schoolboy, there were very few fountain pens with rigid nibs, and most ‘affordable’ pens still had screw on caps. (You have to bear in mind there was an expectation that one would provide one’s own pen and not rely on one’s parents to buy them for you.) They leaked, they cracked, and crossed nibs were a common sight. Most were scratchy too. There is noting romantic about these fountain pens, yet once mastered the flow of beautiful writing was incredible….

Weapon of choice: what should I look for when choosing my pen?

  • Go for looks: because life really is too short to buy an ugly pen.
  • Ink delivery system: for the purpose of this article I will lump ‘eyedropper(1}’, fountain(2) and cartridge(3) pen together. However there are a couple of things one needs to consider when choosing a pen: It is a lot easier to remove a cartridge while trying to make your way through customs then flush a ‘captive system’. On the other hand, if you generate a lot of notes eyedropper and piston fillers hold more ink than other systems.(Notes on using bottled ink in cartridge pens: converters are available for some cartridge pens and for other just refill an empty cartridge with a syringe or small ‘eye dropper’.)
  • Size matters; unlike the pencil or ballpoint a fountain pen does not need a Vulcan like death grip, it should rest comfortably between finger and thumb, this means not only getting the girth right but also the length, weight, and balance.


  • The best nib for every day use is a round point with a little ‘give’ in fine, medium, or extra fine (F, M, EF) depending on the size of one’s handwriting. Note that each manufacturer has its own idea of width. For example, Lamy and Pelikan gold nibs run slightly wider than steel ones and Montblanc (gold only) are even wider.Examples include: Aurora, Lamy, Monblanc, Namiki (Pilot), Pelikan, and Waterman.
  • Gold or Steel? With the exception of flexible nibs, [see below] it makes little difference. From the flex point of view the correct 14 k gold alloy has the greatest elasticity and therefore less likely to bend or kink.

And for special occasions?

  • Broad, double broad and triple broad (B, BB and BBB). As the name suggests this type has a broad tip with rounded edges. Sign a cheque or business letter with one of these and people will you are somebody. Who that somebody might be will be far less clear as the letters will stand half an inch tall and blend into each other….
  • Italic nibs are not italic at all – although they are capable of italics. Italic nibs are square cut designed to give a broad down stroke combined with a narrow cross stroke. The cheapest ones such as those found in ‘calligraphy’ sets usually have plain or gold plated steel nibs. Better (and more expensive) ones will have chisel like ‘iridium(4)’ tipped nibs.Examples include: Lamy Joy, Manuscript Calligraphy Set, and rotring Artpen.
  • Stub Italic: these are harder to define whereas a round point moves in all directions giving a smooth mono-line and a good italic gives very crisp strokes the stub is neither one nor the other. An interesting nib for people who would like to add some character to their writing without sacrificing too much in the way of speed.Examples include: Bexley, Parker 75, and Waterman Exception.
  • Oblique (O): Anyone familiar with the old Osmiroid school pens will be disappointed. The modern oblique is a stub and in the case of modern Pelikan a poor one at that. As the name suggests, the nib is ‘cut’ at an angle making the pen easier to hold especially for left-handed users. Well that is in theory the practise is somewhat different. Unlike print, which uses the ‘x’ high as its base, handwriting uses the ‘o’. When one considers the angle of different scripts – Print and modern round hand 0 degrees; uncials about 25 to 30 degrees and some cursives as much as 45 degrees off centre. Nevertheless, some left-handed users (and right-to-left scripts) can benefit from a reverse oblique as the nib is pulled rather than pushed along the paper.Examples include: Aurora, Manuscript Calligraphy Set (LH), Parker Duofold, and Waterman Edson.
  • Flexible: true flexible nibs are rare and best made of 14k gold. By varying the pressure, an expert can add ‘shading’ (variable line width) to their cursive script. For those who wish to try their ‘hand’ I suggest buying a Joseph Gillott steel pen [no. 170, no. 303, or no. 404] and holder first.Example: Richard Binder’s Flexible Nibs for Pelikan.
  • Music: a genuine music pen has a very broad, semi-flexible stub italic nib, and a high ink flow. Why would you want a music pen when the $30,000 Macputer, midi keyboard, and ‘Song Monger XL Pro’ can do it all? I think you have just answered your own question. Due to limitations in both hard and software, one cannot fully interact with a computer in the same way as one can with paper. A second problem occurs when the software developer decides to change file formats, the layout of a program or worst of all no longer supplies drivers for one’s hardware.(Note: not to be confused with a ‘stave pen’, which is a steel nib use for ruling staves).Example: Platinum #3776 Music Pen(5)
  • Qualia: a quale is an indefinable quality that can only exist in the mind of humans (although some would argue that ‘The Barry von Newman self-replicating Schtroumpf assemblage’ will one day be able to do the same… if we spill enough coffee on it). Having a quale does not necessarily make for a better pen, but I believe it is a reason why some quite ordinary pens have become classics while others of equal testable quality have remained off the radar.Examples include: Lamy 2000, the OMAS Ogiva in celluloid, Pelikan Souverän and Platinum #3776.
  • Second-hand – New Old Stock (NOS): There is a world of second hand and NOS pens to explore unfortunately it is outside the scope of this article. I only mention it here in the hope a collector will share their expertise with us in the near future.

Fountain pen ink falling to three main groups:

  • Pigment: For practical purposes dyes are small, water-soluble particles that embed themselves in the paper whereas pigments are larger, only disperse in water and need a binder to hold them in place. Carbon, ‘Sepia'(6) (cuttlefish ink) and non-waterproof calligraphy inks such as those sold by Winsor and Newton claim to be safe for fountain pens however the particles will quickly ‘silt up’ the narrow canals of the fountain pen feed if they are allowed to settle for any length of time. I will leave the individuals to make up their own mind as to whether to they wish to try it or not. Note: never use drawing, metallic, or acrylic ink in a fountain pen whatever the label claims, the solvents used to clean drawing pens and airbrushes will reek a terrible death on one’s writing instrument(7).Carbon based ink is one of the oldest of this group. Independently discovered by the Greek and Chinese and early use can be traced back to the courts of Ptolemy I. Made by a suspension of carbon particles in water combined with a small amount of binding agent: traditionally honey or Gum Arabic. Warning do not let these inks dry in one’s fountain pen as they can damage the feed. Note: some Indian (India) inks contained shellac in order to make it waterproof this makes it highly unsuited to fountain pen use.Modern examples include; Chinese stick ink, Higgins Eternal, Pelikan Fount India, and Platinum Carbon Black.
  • Ferrous gallic acid: The next group of interest is the infamous iron gall inks little is known about the origins of this ink, although it was known to the Romans. It gained popularity amongst European scribes, artist and academics in the late middle ages due in part to its seemingly permanent nature and rich colour. Unlike most ink that works by staining or coating, the paper (or animal skin) iron gall ink readily oxidises forming a velvet bluish-black precipitate, which in the case of parchment and vellum binds to the skin. However, iron gall ink is not without a downside the precipitate will block the feed and due to its highly acidic nature, it corrodes steel, aluminium, gold even platinum. It will not however eat your paper; a myth which persists in some quarters. Tannic acid is not responsible for ‘eating holes’ in old manuscripts. This is untrue. The actually cause is a reaction between oxidised iron (II) sulphate and contaminates in the paper which in turn cause the structure of the supporting material to break down. Note: this is waterproof ink.Modern examples: include Lamy and Montblanc ‘Blue-black’ bottled ink, although not the cartridges. Rohrer & Klingner (‘Scabiosa’and Salix). Diamine ‘Register’s ink’.(Note to budding artists: Diamine ‘Prussian Blue’ is a well-behaved dye-based ink, which provides a good if imperfect [non-waterproof] alternative to blue-black ink.)
  • Dyes: most modern fountain pen inks fall into this category. As the name suggests these are made from water-soluble dyes, a surfactant, and sometimes a fungicide. It should be noted that only ‘washable’ blues such as Waterman’s Florida blue, Washable Quink and Pelikan Royal Blue ink should be considered fully water soluble and therefore truly safe. Why? Some inks cause staining, reds and Browns in particular; so-called supersaturated inks can cause a build up of particles in one’s feed while others slowly precipitate.Modern examples include: Diamine, (except ‘Register’s ink’); J Herbins, Lamy, Montblanc (except blue-black bottled ink); Pelikan 4001, Quink, Rohrer & Klingner (except ‘Scabiosa’and Salix); Waterman’s, and Visconti.(Notes on mixing inks: one can mix most synthetic dyes without problem. However, combining natural dyes, such as J Herbins, with other brands can be a risky business.
  • Reactive dye: these are a group of dyes which readily react with protein or in our case cellulose forming a covalent bond which for all intent can be thought of as waterproof(8). Reactive dyes can be acid or base. However, both types can be safely neutralised. Of more concern is perhaps the need for a sequestering agent, not only to prevent chemical precipitate but also to capture metal ions in the paper itself, which as we now know eats paper.Noodler’s appear to be the only ones manufacturing reactive dye inks for fountain pen for now.
  • Ink nomenclature: There was a time not so long ago when everyone understood ‘washable ink’ could be remove from one’s shirt with sodium carbonate whereas ‘permanent’ was there to stay. Unfortunately, Noodler’s have now ‘borrowed'(9) the term permanent and are using it to describe part of their range of reactive dye inks, ‘Bulletproof’ [sic] ink is apparently the term reserved for their fraud resistant range.


Fountain pens give their best results on smooth, properly sized paper. Everyone will have a favourite and as if by magic here is mine:

  • Clairefontaine Vélin Velouté (brushed Vellum) Available in soft and hardback notebook, loose leaf, sheet, and Clairing (Circa compatible discs) with a range of rulings.
  • Rhodia. Top stapled desk pads of 80gm (20lb) bond paper. Far too good to waste on work. 😉
  • Basildon Bond ‘Champagne’ writing pads. Available in Duke and Post Quarto.
  • Black n Red. Various rulings, bindings, and sizes.
  • HP Bright White A4 copier paper. 90 gsm (24 lb) (Foolishly I forgot to write down the product code)(Notes on paper weight: 20lb = 80 gsm; 24 lb = 90 gsm; 27 lb = 100gsm [bond])


1/ Simply put a non-metallic with a feed and nib at one end.
2/ Fountain pens have a captive filling system capable of ‘squirting’ ink. (I could list all the various designs however I fear your heads would explode. 🙂 )
3/ Cartridge pens – the name says it all. Originating in France, the modern varieties have replaced glass vials with polyethylene ones
4/ Iridium is a super hard metallic element with many uses, however no one seems quite sure one of those uses is fountain pen points.
5/ The Platinum #3776 is available with a range of nine high quality gold nibs including extra extra fine and music.
6/ Not to be confused with ‘French Sepia’, this contains shellac in order to make it waterproof.
7/ Sorry but I have to be dramatic it is in my idiom.
8/ Reactive dyes are not actually waterproof; the ‘bond’ with the cellulose in the paper is stronger than the bond with the ions in the water therefore they stay with the cellulose yet (in theory) rinse off plastics.
9/ Does p = nw still or is p now nw OR wp? Worse still does p = nw to the older generation and p = x to the young? Bah! Paradigm to the lot of it.

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