In the wild: a beginner’s glossary of fountain pen terms and phrases.

For those new to the hobby, some of the terminology encountered on fountain pen blogs and forums may seem confusing. Here in a brief introduction, is a bluffer’s guide to get you started or to toss in to conversations with pen enthusiasts over the holiday period. Doubtless there are many others that I have omitted.

  • Acrylic A transparent thermoplastic often used in pen making. Short for Polymethyl methacrylate. So, plastic then.
  • Architect A type of nib grind to produce narrow down-strokes and wide cross-strokes, so named as used reputedly by architects in those elegant annotations of technical drawings and plans. The opposite of a stub nib.
  • Baby’s bottom The shaping and over-polishing of a nib’s tipping material which results in the pen failing to write or skipping.
  • Barrel Usually the long bit of the pen, that screws onto the section.
  • Bleedthrough An annoying tendency of ink to soak right through a sheet of paper to the other side, when unfortunate combinations of pen, ink and paper are used.
  • Bounce A certain softness to a nib, which writes with a spring in its step. Opposite of a nail.
  • Bricks and mortar A shop/store that you can physically walk into and talk to a human being, as opposed to online shopping.
  • Broad The next size of nib width after fine and medium.
  • Bullet proof A term applied to inks that have a high level or water resistance.
  • Buttery A term applied to certain nibs which are extremely smooth, as in “like a knife through butter.”
  • Buyer’s remorse An unpleasant sense of regret at having bought a pen, often when expensive and bought in haste and/or when found to be less satisfactory than one you already own costing one tenth of the price.
  • Currently inked The term conventionally used when providing a list of those of one’s fountain pens which contain ink, at a given time.
  • Cursive Joined up writing.
  • Demonstrator A pen which is comprised of a transparent or semi-transparent material through which you may observe the ink sloshing around and the inner workings of your pen.
  • Dry time The length of time taken for ink to dry on paper to avoid smudging. May also be used to describe a period of abstinence from purchasing additional pens.
  • Ebonite A brand name for a hard rubber, made from vulcanizing natural rubber, for prolonged periods.
  • EDC Every Day Carry. A pen that is carried on a daily basis.
  • Eyedropper A device comprising a tube with a squeezable rubber bulb on the end used to lift ink from a bottle and deposit it into the barrel of a pen. Term also applied to describe pens that fill in this way.
  • Facets Flat surfaces on a pen, sometimes found on the grip sections of pens intended for novices to aid “correct” placement of the fingers symmetrically either side of the nib. Loathed by those who do not conform to this way of holding a pen, as their fingers rest on uncomfortable sharp ridges. For example, Lamy Safari.
  • Feed The part of the pen that regulates the supply of ink from the barrel (ink reservoir or cartridge) to the nib. Usually plastic but sometimes Ebonite in older or a few high end fountain pens if you are lucky.
  • Feedback The sensation of feeling, and sometimes hearing, your nib on the paper surface as you write. Too much of this or too little can be a bad thing. A particular feature of some nibs from Aurora, Montblanc and Sailor.
  • Finial A decorative feature at the top of a pen cap. Serves to help identify a pen in a Pen cup.
  • Fire hose A metaphor applied to nibs which write with an over enthusiastic flow of ink.
  • Forgiving A nib which will still allow you to write when the nib is at less than the ideal angle to the paper.
  • Fountain pen friendly Paper which can be used enjoyably for fountain pens, having a pleasant writing surface and a resistance to bleedthrough. Not paper which is too shiny or coated, or which is too rough textured.
  • Ghosting When you can see one page of writing from the opposite side. Also called showthrough. Not as bad as bleedthrough but may sometimes be bad enough to limit use to one side of the paper.
  • Girthy Having a wide diameter. Typically applied to the grip section or barrel of a pen.
  • Grail Term used to describe, typically, an extremely desirable high end pen that owing to its price or rarity is almost unobtainable.
  • Grind A reshaping of a nib to create a different writing experience and line from its original design.
  • Gusher A nib that emits an excessive amount of ink; see also Fire hose.
  • Hard start The frustrating tendency of some pens not to write immediately when required, after an interval in use of a few days.
  • Homage A polite term for a pen that is a blatant copy of a respected pen design from a different manufacturer. A euphemism.
  • In the wild The natural habitat of fountain pens not yet in your own household. Where you might hope to encounter a pen, hitherto seen only on the internet.
  • Inner cap Usually plastic; an interior layer inside the pen cap to create an air tight seal around the nib when the pen is capped, to prevent ink evaporation, nib dry out and hard starts.
  • Italic A slanting style of writing.
  • Lefty A person who is left handed.
  • Line variation The attractive quality of writing which exhibits both narrow and broad strokes, achieved either by using a flex nib and applying pressure on the down strokes or by using a stub or architect grind nib and keeping the nib at a constant angle as you form the letters.
  • Loupe A magnifying lens, usually of higher magnification than a typical magnifying glass and sometimes illuminated, used by jewellers and watchmakers but also essential for inspecting the nib.
  • Medium A good comprise between a fine and a broad nib. Suits average writing size. Note that in some Japanese pens, a medium nib may equate to a western fine.
  • Micromeshe Abrasive pads for smoothing nibs.
  • Nail A metaphor for a very stiff nib with no bounce or flex.
  • New Pen Day A term often used to announce an additional fountain pen acquisition on social media.
  • Nibliography A term believed to be first attributed to Jon of to describe a list of pens and inks used in a handwritten letter.
  • Nibmeister A person highly revered in the fountain pen community who is skilled in the craft of altering or repairing a nib.
  • Oblique A nib in which the tip is cut at an angle, usually at 15 degrees, typically from top right to lower left.
  • Overwriter One who writes with a pen held above the line on which he is writing, with the nib pointing towards himself.
  • Pen cup A receptacle to hold the “Currently inked” fountain pens in a vertical position with nibs upwards.
  • Pen loop A device to hold a pen attached to a notebook or notebook cover, usually made of elastic or leather.
  • Piston A type of filling mechanism. A plunger which is lowered to expel air from the ink reservoir and then raised to draw ink up from a bottle by vacuum. Most converters also work in this way.
  • Post Verb, to attach the pen cap to the back end of the barrel, to add length and weight to a pen whilst writing and for safe stowage. Noun: an article written on a blog or verb, to publish such an article.
  • Precious resin: The material from which many Montblanc fountain pens are made.
  • PVD Physical Vapour Deposition: a type of coating applied to nibs or other furnishings of a pen.
  • Rhodium A silver coloured metallic element, highly reflective and resistant to corrosion. Sometimes used to coat nibs and furnishings of a pen.
  • Roll stop A protrusion on a cylindrical pen to prevent it from rolling off a surface.
  • Safari A model of fountain pen made by Lamy and often used for size comparison photographs of other pens.
  • Saturation A quality used to describe ink. Highly saturated inks have a high purity of colour.
  • Section The part of the pen that you grip. Also called the grip section.
  • Shading A pleasing quality in an ink, to produce light and dark tones, caused by ink pooling in the indentations formed by applying pressure to the paper.
  • Sheen A quality of some inks to appear a different colour from different angles. For example a blue ink might exhibit a red sheen.
  • Shellac A natural resin, which was used to form a glued seal in the making of some fountain pens.
  • Shimmer A sparkling quality in ink.
  • Shims Brass sheets of various thickness which are very useful for cleaning and adjusting nibs.
  • Showthrough When the writing on one side of a page is obtrusively visible on the other side. See also ghosting.
  • Sidewriter A person, typically left handed, who writes with his hand moving along from the side of the page rather than from below the line of writing (Underwriter) or above it (Overwriter).
  • Silicone grease A lubricant and seal against ink leakage. Also used by scuba divers and hence available in diving shops. Particularly useful for eyedropper pens.
  • Skip The frustrating tendency of a pen to move across paper without laying down ink.
  • Stealth Term applied to an all black pen with a matte finish, after the aircraft designed to evade detection by radar.
  • Step The difference between the level of the barrel and the section of a pen, sometimes creating a sharp ridge which may be uncomfortable.
  • Stingy Mean or ungenerous. Term used to refer to nibs which write on the dry side, causing reduced lubrication of the nib on the paper and a less enjoyable writing experience.
  • Stub A nib shape which produces broad down strokes and narrow side strokes. Often expressed in millimetres for the broadest strokes, such as 1.1mm, 1.4mm etc.
  • Sumgai The unknown person who gets the best deals at a pen show.
  • Sweetspot The part of the nib which when held to the paper at the optimum angle provides the smoothest writing experience.
  • Tine gap The narrow space between the tines of a nib. Usually narrowing from the breather hole towards the tip. The gap down which ink is drawn as the pen writes.
  • Tines The two sides of a nib, separated by the nib slit or tine gap.
  • Tipping A pellet of hardwearing material applied to the end of the tines and then shaped and polished to form the writing surface.
  • Tomoe River A brand of fountain pen friendly paper from Japan, a favourite of many fountain pen users.
  • Tooth An ability of a pen to provide a degree of feedback from the paper surface and to write even on shiny coated papers.
  • Underwriter One who writes with his pen below the line of writing and with the nib pointing away from himself. A fortunate person for whom fountain pens behave better and exhibit smoother writing.
  • Wish list A list of pens that one is thinking of buying and craves, instead of focusing on those which he already owns. An aid to deciding whether to splurge on one particular pen or another.
  • Workhorse An unglamorous pen that is used day in day out for general purposes and menial tasks.

So there you have it. There are probably lots of terms that I missed, as I only thought of this today. Any errors are purely my own and may be corrected in future editions.

The Great Bottled Ink Count.

Well, that wasn’t too terrible. Being confronted with my own greed and folly was never going to be comfortable. But it was not as bad as I feared.

During the week I took part in Anthony’s online survey of the pen community, on UK Fountain pens. One of the multiple choice questions was how many bottles of ink you have. I honestly did not know and had not counted but suspected it might be nudging past the hundred mark. I resolved to find out.

I used to own only a few bottles of ink, Parker Quink generally. Getting through a whole bottle of ink takes time, particularly if you often use cartridges instead. Assuming, very roughly, that a 50ml bottle might give you fifty fills and that each fill would last you for, say 20 pages of A4 writing, that is 1,000 pages. Fortunately most bottled ink keeps well. The exception, ironically, is iron gall ink which needs to be used up within around 18 months of opening the bottle, or else it loses its colour and darkening properties.

I have a couple of old bottles of Monbtblanc ink, still in their boxes with a price sticker saying £4.95. Now they cost about £18.00 I think.

It was perhaps around 2014 that things escalated with my fountain pen hobby getting hooked on pen reviews on the internet. That was the first year in which I attended the London Pen Show, coming away with a TSWBI Vac 700 and a bottle of Omas blue ink. Should I have stopped there? In November 2016 this blog was launched to share the journey.

Since then I have been adding steadily to the fountain pen stash and accumulating a fair amount of ink along the way. I was curious to see quite how bad it had become.

A couple of years back I bought a plastic storage unit, with four nice deep drawers for my stationery stash. The top drawer has some accessories, like pen wraps and pouches, micromesh kit, some dip pens and a few boxed pens. The second drawer is my stock of unused journals, mostly A5 size but with a few smaller ones. And then the third and fourth drawer down are for ink. That is not to say that all of my ink is in these drawers: some frequently used bottles are on my desk (AKA the dining table) and others on the book shelves behind me.

The bottom drawer

It was not difficult to do a stock take. They are all in one room, (except for an emergency bottle of Cross black which lives in my desk drawer at work).

I created a spreadsheet, with columns for the Brand, the Colour or name, and finally, a simple name for the group which that colour falls into (for example Graf von Faber-Castell Cobalt Blue, Waterman Serenity Blue and KWZ Azure number 4 all come under “Blue”).

It was interesting (to me at least) to see them sorted by brands too and which were the most represented brands in my stash. It turns out to be Montblanc with nine bottles, closely followed by Waterman with eight and then Pelikan Edelstein with five (mostly gleaned from the annual Pelikan Hub events).

These should cover most eventualities for a normal person.

My final tally came to 65 bottles. As I was expecting it to be around one hundred I was pleasantly surprised. So I have enough ink for 65 years and not 100! Phew!

By colour group, it came as no surprise to me that I had 16 bottles of blue ink plus another 11 of blue black, almost enough to form a Democrat government. Next were 8 browns, 7 blacks and 7 greens, 6 reds, 3 pinks (What?!) 2 Burgundies, 2 green-blacks, and finally 1 each of Magenta, Purple and Orange.

What lessons can I learn from this?

  • I need no more ink for a while;
  • It is good to know what you have;
  • I have been buying ink faster than I have been using it.

I have not included a stash of ink cartridges in this count. Nor have I included a half dozen or so ink samples which are not in original bottles.

It is satisfying to finish a bottle ink. Last week I came to the end of a very enjoyable bottle of Pilot Iroshizuku Shin-kai blue black which I had been given by a friend. Once it got down to the last 5ml or so, I decanted it to my Pineider Travelling Inkwell, so that I could go on filling my Diplomat Excellence easily, without wasting a drop.

For anyone in a similar boat who has put off counting, I recommend it. It might not be as bad as you think.

The joy of macro.

Staedtler Mars micro 0.7mm mechanical pencil

Who doesn’t love a mechanical pencil? I already have several but could not resist this one when it was less than half price in our local Rymans.

Recently, I have been enjoying a revitalised enthusiasm for photography, prompted by the acquisition of a new Nikon Coolpix A900. New camera day! I was attracted by a host of exciting features, particularly the articulated screen, the ability to shoot macro from 1cm, a massive x35 optical zoom with Vibration Reduction, (Nikon’s anti-shake), 4K video, 20 million pixels, Wi-Fi connectivity and many more. It was some years since I last bought a new camera, if you do not include mobile phones and things have move on a lot in that time.

There are a few things that it doesn’t have, such as the ability to shoot in RAW, or a touch screen, which I decided that I could live without. Exposure compensation settings are readily to hand, as are white balance settings and colour adjustment. It is wonderful to be able to have white paper looking white, even if taken under artificial light in the depths of winter.

It is the ability to take macro shots with such ease, that I have found most exciting. Even hand-held shots seem acceptably sharp but with a small tripod, combined with a two second self-timer delay setting it is better still. Here is my new pencil again.

Getting up close with the Staedtler mars 0.7mm mechanical pencil.

Here is the production date stamp on the elegant black and chrome guilloche Cross Century II fountain pen:

Date stamp on the collar of a Cross Century II fountain pen.

Obviously it is tempting to try the other extreme and see how the telephoto performs. I tried a quick shot of the moon, with a manual exposure and a few stops of under exposure. This was the result:

The moon over London. The farthest subject that I have photographed so far.

Finally, one of the subjects that I wanted to photograph better, was paper. Not ideal with a mobile phone. I wanted to be able to capture the texture that you see, particularly under high magnification and with a low wintry sun slanting in to add contrast to the ups and downs of the paper surface. I shall continue experimenting with this but am always impressed and appreciative of the professional looking close-up photography that I see on fellow bloggers’ sites. Working during the week, there is limited time to enjoy the daylight hours at this time of year but sometimes it all comes together with a bit of sunlight at the weekend. Here was one of my early efforts. I used to think that Paperchase soft flexi notebooks had very smooth paper but under high magnification, the surface looks more like a newly plastered wall. Most of my fountain pens love it.

Paperchase note book. Conklin Mark Twain Crescent Filler, with Jinhao X450 medium nib and Aurora Blue Black ink.


2016: some of my fountain pen highlights

Now that 2016 has ended, it seems a fitting time to look back at where this hobby has taken me, over the past 12 months.

First, to get the figures out of the way, I bought a total of 40 fountain pens for myself. Many of these were inexpensive and bought in twos or threes or in different colours. If we can deduct all the pens costing £6.00 or less, of which there were fourteen, then the total comes down to a slightly less greedy 26.  A very few of the purchases turned out to be regrettable and lessons were learned. On the other hand, some of the inexpensive pens turned out to be surprisingly good, which was marvellous.

However, the pen-buying was only part of a larger picture and I now see that there have been many highlights over the course of the year. Let me list a few here, in no particular order.

1. Trying brands that were new to me. I bought pens from several brands that I had not tried before, including Campo Marzio, Diplomat, Kaweco, Noodlers and Pelikan which all proved very worthy buys.


2. Visiting the beautiful city of Bruges, Belgium in March. Whilst there, I did a Google search for fountain pen shops which led me to Iris De Corte, a third generation pen shop, in a cobbled street just off the main square at Sint Amandsstraat. When I visited, the shop was closed with the shutters half down. I peered through the metal grille at the attractive window displays which included Kaweco, Cross, Visconti, Parker, Faber Castell and Hugo Boss. I then noticed some people working inside. A charming woman then came out. I asked her if the shop was open. “No, but I can be open.” It transpired that this was Iris and she was busy taking photographs of products for a web site. She kindly let me look around, having my own private shopping experience. I bought two leather pen cases for my Kaweco pens.

3. Buying my first Parker “51”. This was at the London pen show in October, a cedar blue Aerometric dating from 1949 which is now the elder statesman of my pen cup. I am grateful to Graham Jasper, the vintage pen collector who sold it to me. Now that I own one, I have enjoyed reading up on the Parker “51” with added interest. Using this pen feels very special and unlike any other that I own.

4. Making use of the internet. Throughout the year I have been both entertained and informed by the many You Tube reviews, WordPress blogs, Instagram posts and FPN threads by fountain pen enthusiasts all over the world. These eventually led me to start my own blog through which I have become acquainted with some inspiring like-minded people, whose work I much admire.

5. Getting more organised: Having allowed a growing number of fountain pens and their entourage of boxes, inks and accessories to spread unchecked throughout the house, it became necessary to find a better way of storing inks, tools, empty pen boxes, new notebooks and pen cases. I found a plastic storage tower, consisting of four nice deep drawers which has been an improvement on the previous state of affairs.

6. Being more adventurous with inks. Having gone for many years using a limited palette of mainly blue and black inks, I am now exploring some of the huge range of other coloured inks available and enjoying the pursuit of inks to match particular pens. This has now got to the stage where I might see a car in the street and remark that I know just the ink that would go with that.


7. Experiencing a fountain pen auction. Whilst visiting an antiques emporium in Hampstead and enquiring whether they had any fountain pens, I was told of a forthcoming silver, jewellery and general antiques auction which would include pens.  I took a catalogue. Flicking through, I found several lots consisting of a selection of fountain and ball pens. One item that caught my eye was listed as a “Parker, a burgundy marbled resin fountain pen, with medium 18 carat gold nib, cartridge converter mechanism, no box or paperwork” with an estimate of £20 to £30. I went to the viewing and handled the pen, which was a very pretty Duofold Centennial. I registered to bid by telephone in the auction which was a few days away. In the ensuing days, I thought about how high I might go, allowing for the commission and vat payable on top of the hammer price. In my head the pen was mine.

When the day of the auction came, (which was by telephone and internet or previously lodged bids only) I was able to log on to a saleroom web site and hear the auction progressing through the various lots. It was not until about four hours in, that the burgundy  Duofold came up. The much anticipated telephone call from the auction room came, a couple of lots before hand. I was told that there had been a lot of interest on the internet, on this item. And then the bidding started and within seconds had gone over £100, to £120 and I chickened out. It sold at £140.00 plus commission. This was an interesting new experience but lessons were learned as to (a) not assuming that a pen is yours until you have bought it and (b) not expecting an item to be sold to you for the estimated price.

8. Trying new pens. Getting a new pen home, it is exciting to examine it and try it out, with various inks and on various paper surfaces and determine its role. Finding the right ink can sometimes happen first time but can be an ongoing process of experimentation, trial and error.

9. Washing out pens. Having bought rather too many pens in the past year and wanting to make use of them all, I am suffering from having too many inked at a time (currently over 20). A few of these will suffer from hard starts if not used regularly and so there is a continuous process of lifting a few out of the pen cup to be flushed and rested for a while. A few of them seem immune to hard starts, such as the Pelikans and the Platinum 3776 Century with its slip and seal inner cap. Whilst not really a highlight,  I do find enjoyment and relaxation from washing the pens from time to time and rotating the selection although I struggle to keep the numbers down and do not like to flush them if it means wasting a lot of ink.

10. Writing with the pens. Not to forget the obvious, it is putting the pens to good use that should be the goal. I have varied my office pen from time to time but currently use a TWSBI Vac 700 clear demonstrator with Graf von Faber-Castell Cobalt Blue, for signing letters and documents. My Every Day Carry pen is currently a Sheaffer Sagaris, which I also used for most of the year as my 2016 daily diary pen. In 2015 it was the Italix Parson’s Essential, that I used almost every day for the year with Waterman Serenity Blue ink.

Aside from work use, I have enjoyed setting aside an hour or more a week, to write up such things as memories of parents or school days, for my own satisfaction before memories fade.

In the final hours of 2016 I took another pen to flush, picking up the Campo Marzio Ambassador in brown marbled resin. I have been using it with one of my favourite inks, Conway Stewart Tavy, by Diamine which is a classic looking blue-black. Having washed the converter and rinsed the nib and feed with running water and then with water squirted through a bulb blower, I then left the section to sit in a basin of water. As the water became still, I watched a ribbon of deep blue ink, slowly issuing out of the feed and fading into the water. It seemed rather symbolic of the final hours of the year, ebbing away.

I have been very fortunate to have a hobby that gives so much pleasure. It is useful to look back over the year to see what lessons can be learned. My main one is that, without a strategy, my occasional and often spontaneous pen purchases resulted in rather a shocking number and I expect to buy a lot less in 2017 and to make more use of the many delightful pens that I now own.

A Happy New Year to all.











What to consider when trying a new pen

Picture the scene. You are in a shop and are considering a purchase of a new fountain pen. You have circled the pen display a few times and are now at the stage of asking to see the one that has caught your eye.

I am assuming that the pen is not in a sealed blister pack and that you are actually able to handle it. The pen is put on the counter for your inspection. You turn it over in your hands. Assuming that there is nothing that immediately puts you off, the next step is to ask to try the pen.

A bottle of ink and a test pad are produced. You dip the pen and then comes the moment of truth. The pulse quickens. How does it write?

It occurs to me that you then have a tricky task of weighing up multiple factors and reaching a decision within a matter of, perhaps, less than a minute. Clearly you are not able to carry out an exhaustive inspection and writing tests, at your leisure. You have one pen, one paper and one ink. You need to be fully focused and aware of what you are looking for and what you are looking to avoid. And so today,  I thought it may be of assistance to collect together a few thoughts on some of the factors that you might want to have in mind.

Having jotted down a list of random points, these seemed to fall into two groups, namely, How does it Feel? And How does it Perform? Of course, these are only my suggestions and you may wish to create your own list.

How does it Feel?

Smoothness. This is probably the first and for many, perhaps the only, factor considered when test-driving a pen. How the pen feels as the  nib moves across the paper depends on several factors. Are the tines aligned? Misaligned tines is a common issue even with new pens and fortunately one that is usually possible to correct yourself. Also, is the nib well polished? You will soon notice if it is not as the tip feels as if is caked in rust. The effect of maximum smoothness is often described as “buttery.” The opposite extreme is “scratchy”. If your pen-purchasing trip was pre-meditated, bringing a loupe to inspect the nib tines alignment is very useful although you may look a bit like a diamond merchant.

Give. Or Springiness. Or Softness. This is a lovely quality in a nib. Whether you wish to have it, may depend upon what you are used to and how you write. Nibs differ in firmness, from a very rigid and unyielding nib sometimes termed “a nail”, to the very soft, flexible nib, sometimes called “a wet noodle”.  If your experience has always been to write with a firm nib and you do not apply a lot of pressure expecting line width variation  and shading this may not be an issue for you. But a softer nib gives a more cushioned ride and allows for easier application of pressure to generate a wetter and broader line here and there as you write. This in turn lays down more ink in places, creating darker lines and thus adding variety and expression to your writing. It is said that generally, gold nibs are softer than stainless steel. This may be true if both were made exactly the same way. But with good design, it is also possible to have a stainless steel nib that is on the softer side and I have found this with the Parker Sonnet and the Pelikan M205. And not all gold nibs are soft.

Feedback. This refers to the information that the nib sends back to you as you write. The feel of the nib on the paper. Rather like the handling and feel of your car tires on the road. It is rather more difficult to describe and is easier to identify when comparing a few different pens at the same time.  Basically you want a pen that gives a little feedback, letting you know that it is in contact with the paper, but not too much or too little. Too much, means that you are uncomfortably aware of resistance and scraping. Too little and it is like skiing in a white-out, you barely know whether your nib is touching the paper at all.

Tooth. Some of these terms have different meanings for different people. To me it refers to a catchiness, or digging in of the pen to the paper, too much of which is an undesirable feature and a symptom of misaligned tines, where the inner edge of a tine catches on the paper when you move the pen in a certain direction. It could also mean the nib having a slightly rough surface to grip on paper and help the pen to lay down ink. That is, the opposite of being over-polished and struggling to write on smooth paper.

Length. Is the pen long enough for you? A pen that is short when un-capped, can often be lengthened by placing the cap on the back of the barrel (“posting”) which adds length but also adds weight and may upset balance if the cap is heavy and does not post deeply. A pen which is too short feels a little awkward as the back of the barrel does not reach back far enough to rest comfortably on the crook of your hand between thumb and first finger.

Weight. You will want a pen that is a pleasant weight as you write. Pens with a metal body are generally more heavy than those made of resin, other things being equal. Feel the weight as you write. Are you going to use the pen posted or non-posted?  Here, you  may wish to avoid a pen that is unusually heavy if you plan to use it for very long writing sessions.  But a pen that is too light may sometimes feel insubstantial. Then again, people wrote with a quill in the past which was as light as a feather! A good fountain pen should write under its own weight, with little or no extra downward pressure required and so a bit of weight is a good thing. Having said that, I have a few pens that weigh next to nothing and I also enjoy writing with them very much.

Balance. Slightly harder to explain than weight, this usually refers to whether a pen feels back heavy or not. First, think whether you are going to use the pen posted or non posted. Here, you first need to check whether the cap does actually post. Does it fit nicely on the back of the barrel? Is it secure or does it fall off or slide around? If you plan to write with the cap posted, then it is important to see how the weight distribution feels in your hand. A poorly balanced pen may feel a bit like writing with a 12 inch stick with a tennis ball on the back. Once you become aware of discomfort in this respect, it becomes more annoying. (All is not lost however. You may rescue a short and unbalanced pen by finding another light weight cap that fits, to post instead).

Comfort. This, like many of these points, is a personal thing and depends on several factors, such as section width, material and finish, position and sharpness of screw threads if any, the presence of a “step” down in diameter from barrel to section,  and balance as mentioned earlier. As to section width, try to decide whether this is too wide for you or too narrow. I was initially put off buying the Sheaffer Sagaris which has a fairly skinny section but overcame my prejudices and love it now. Also, I was aware on buying a Cross Century II in black lacquer and chrome, that it was a very slender pen but the appeal of its sheer attractiveness outweighed this for me.

How does it Perform?

Write a few lines with the pen in your usual handwriting. How does it look?

Nib width. The width of the tip is mostly what determines the width of the line and the basic choice, if any, is usually between Fine, Medium or Broad. Rarely, there are extra fine and extra broad (or double broad) options. Then there are stubs and italics. Most pens seem to be sold with Medium nibs.  If your writing is small, a Fine may give a line that is more in proportion to the height of your letters and help to keep some white space in the loops of your letters and so improve neatness and legibility.  Conversely a Broad nib gives a thicker bolder line, suited to larger writing.

Shading. The attractive effect of ink being put down in your letters in varying densities, giving light and dark shades. Applying a little pressure perhaps on your downstrokes or the tails of your g’s and y’s for example, spreads the tines, lays down more ink, which pools in the indentation created in the paper thus giving the effect of two coats of ink instead of one. Not all inks do this. A nib that has some flex to it is a help. My Platinum 3776 Century with a 14k gold Broad nib, paired with Waterman Harmonious Green Ink seems to produce effortless shading.


Line width variation. Pressing down on the nib a little spreads the tines and widens the line of ink. If you go too wide, you may produce two separate parallel lines (“railroading”) or if you go really too far, you may bend (“spring”) and ruin the nib, such that it will not resume its normal shape. Also, variation in line width is a product of the nib producing a narrow  line if moved in one direction (say, from side to side) or thicker if moved in another direction (up and down) and so if you hold the pen at a consistent angle to the page as you write, this will occur naturally. A calligraphy nib or a stub nib does this.


Flow. The degree of ink flow to your nib, is crucial. Too little, and the pen does not write. If there is not enough ink getting to the tip of the nib, there is also insufficient “lubrication” of the nib on the paper, to provide a pleasant writing experience. It is not just a smooth nib that gives a smooth writing experience, but having a cushion or layer of ink, on which to glide across the page. Without this, you would then be aware of resistance and drag as you move the pen, which makes for a tiring and unpleasant writing experience. Too much flow on the other hand, and you have a “gusher”, a pen that lays down very wet ink, which stays wet even after you have written another three or so lines. This is more likely to “bleed” through or least show through, to the other side of the paper and to “feather” (spread out) on the side that you are writing on.

Unfortunately it is difficult to gauge how good the ink flow will be, when you have just dipped a pen, as the nib and feed will be wet and this is not representative of how the pens will write when inked normally. A pen that may look very wet and off-putting, may in fact have a good flow when filled properly and once the feed is working in normal conditions and not saturated.

Skipping. Also difficult to gauge in shop counter conditions with the pen only dipped and not yet run in to your writing angle. This is the annoying tendency of a nib to miss out part of a letter or word as you write, so that you have to go back and write it again. This may be due to a combination of an overly polished nib plus very smooth paper, or the nib being too rounded and not yet having any flat surface with which to make contact with the paper. Happily this sometimes resolves itself once you have had a pen a few weeks and written it in, gradually forming a flat surface at the angle at which you hold you nib to the paper.

Hard starts. Again, dipping a pen and then trying it straightaway, is not going to tell you whether the pen will suffer from hard starts. This refers to the pen not being ready to write when you want it to. If a pen has been standing, nib-upwards, for a few days or longer, or been carried upright in a pocket ink drains down away from the nib and so takes time to reach the tip of the pen again, when you try to write with it. Also, pens which have a good seal when capped, usually by means of an “inner cap”, are better at staying ready to write and avoiding drying out. Pens with large nibs may fare worse at this. I don’t like to think of it as a fault, as it is just gravity really and I don’t know how it is that some pens (my Pelikan M205 for example) always seem primed and ready to go even after weeks of inactivity.


This is a long list of factors. Each of these topics can be a dissertation on its own. So, who considers all these things in the heat of the moment when buying a pen? Probably nobody. Even as a keen pen enthusiast myself, I am usually too blinkered and excited to make a considered judgment when faced with a  shiny new pen. For larger purchases, it is good to do your homework beforehand, perhaps weighing up reviews and a few of the many useful resources now available from the internet, except for those spur of the moment purchases. But from my experience, it is good at least to be aware of a few of the main factors which are of particular importance to you and your writing needs and preferences. Do also check whether there is a guarantee and keep your receipt. Happy Shopping!