So many of you may know, I really like pens. I’ve written about them before, I make them, I modify and adjust them, I fix them and I build franken-pens from spare parts. I feel like I should preface this by saying that I really don’t consider myself an expert by any means. I know a bit about a very tiny part of a much larger subject but I do want to share what I’ve learned so far.

I get questions like the following from Ted Brandt fairly frequently, so instead of writing the same thing over and over, I figured I’d write a post so everyone can read. So here’s what Ted asked;

I have a pen-related question. I’m thinking about getting a fountain pen to try ink with, do you have any you’d recommend? As far as pens go, I’ve only used dip pens so far. They were good fun, but the nibs I had were a little firm and scratchy, and ink flow was a little tough to control.
What I’m looking for really is something with a pretty soft nib, so I can get a really good range of lines from it. I also tend to use archival quality inks, so anything that could handle something that thick and strong would be a definite plus.
Most people’s experience of fountain pens tends towards the nasty fountain pen they used at school, or the kind of thing you buy in a stationery shop. The pens I’m talking about here aren’t all that readily available.
I like dip pens. I used to work exclusively with a G-Nib however I stopped using them as I found them frustrating. Ted is right in that they can be a bit firm and a bit scratchy. You can polish them out to lose some of that scratch but from my perspective I found that dip nibs felt a bit disposable. I’d wear them out after a while and have to replace them. Part of the reason I started exploring fountain pens was to get a similar line quality as I had from the G Nib but without the hassle of constant dipping, wear on the tip and the luxury of portability.
Let’s break down Ted’s question a bit.
What I’m looking for really is something with a pretty soft nib, so I can get a really good range of lines from it.
We are looking for a nib that is fairly flexible. For my money this means we are looking for a gold nib. I use 14ct gold nibs almost exclusively now. I’ve tried 18ct nibs, but have found them to be less responsive than the 14ct. I’ve tried out a bunch of flexible steel nibs too (Plextyl, Stylomine, Esterbrook) but I have found them to be far less forgiving than a 14ct gold nib, bending out of shape fairly easily. I am a heavy-handed brute of an artist and have ruined a bunch of perfectly good pens by being rather too rough with them.
Now is probably a good time to talk about the anatomy of a fountain pen. The pen has essentially 6 parts. The nib, the feed, the section, the body, the cap and the filling mechanism. All are important and without any one of these bits you have a stick, not a pen.
The body and the cap are fairly self-explanatory. One holds the rest together and the other stops ink going everywhere and the pen drying out. Here’s a little video I drew explaining the bits and what they are for;
The section and feed must fit each other and the section must fit into the body. The nib is held in place with friction in many cases, although some more recently manufactured pens have feeds that are screw-fitted. (Osmiroid and Esterbrook spring to mind)
The filling mechanism tends to vary wildly from brand to brand. Some of the older pens use a lever filling mechanism on the side to compress the ink sac allowing you to fill it with ink. Unless you are happy replacing ink sacs and getting inky fingers, I'd probably avoid these.
What I tend to do is to find a junky old pen on eBay or in an antiques shop and see if the nib looks any good. If the nib is good (not bent, no huge gaps between the tines, no wobbly reflections along bits that should be straight) then I'll remove the nib and clean it up. I've got an ultrasonic cleaner I picked up which does a great job of shifting old ink. Once the
The nibs I've had the most joy from are Watermans Ideal, Conway Stewart and Swan Mabie Todd. I got most of the nibs I have from eBay. I had a quick search about this morning to see what was listed at the moment. As with everything on eBay, exercise caution as you might be paying a lot of money for something that isn't particularly good. I'll try and show you what I look for.
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This is a Swan 14ct nib. A lot of the nibs you encounter might have numbers on them. This is a number 6. There doesn't appear to be a standardised numbering system across brands, so unless you know what number 6 means in this context, you'll have to have a look at the tip to get an idea of what kind of line thickness you'll get. This one looks pretty fine to me. Notice the breather hole on this nib too - it is in the shape of a heart. I'm sure this isn't a rule, but in my experience nibs with heart shaped breather holes tend to be more flexible than ones with circular breathers. Not that circular breathers can't be flexible though. This particular nib looks ok. The reflections don't look distorted, the tip seems in fairly good condition too. Probably a fairly safe bet. Probably £30+ regardless of the condition of the rest of the pen.
This one is a Watermans Ideal. I really like these nibs but this one has a couple of telltale 'uh-ohs'. Notice the right hand tine towards the tip seems to be twisting? Steer clear. This is like to give you problems, write scratchy and possibly bend/snap under pressure. Save yourself £30+ and avoid anything that looks like this.
This one is a Watermans Ideal. I really like these nibs but this one has a couple of telltale 'uh-ohs'. Notice the right hand tine towards the tip seems to be twisting? Steer clear. This is like to give you problems, write scratchy and possibly bend/snap under pressure. Save yourself £30+ and avoid anything that looks like this.
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This one was listed as a vintage Conway Stewart. Aside from needing a new ink sac (It should be attached to the end of the section) this image is really blurry. You can't make out what kind of condition this pen is in. You can however see that the end of one of the tines is missing. Avoid nibs that look like this.

 

This Conway Stewart hasn't been photographed particularly well but I wanted to show it to show what had likely snapped off the previous nib. See the silvery bit at the very tip of the nib? That is Iridium. Iridium is an incredibly hard-wearing metal. It is the reason that these nibs can still be used. Gold is a very soft metal and without the iridium this nib would have probably worn away long ago. For a bit of comic-book context, every time I use the word 'iridium' you should hear the word 'adamantium'. Conway Stewart nibs seem to have a very generous helping of iridium adamantium on their nibs. I'd buy this nib.

Needless to say, finding nibs and pens on eBay is often more luck than skill. Set yourself a price limit and don't go over unless you are really sure that what you are buying is going to solve all your artistic problems. (It won't)

So you've found a nice nib. That's step one. Unless the pen you have got has been recently refurbished with a nice ultrasonic clean and brand new ink sac, you are going to have to now build your pen. So Ted continues;

I also tend to use archival quality inks, so anything that could handle something that thick and strong would be a definite plus.

Let me translate this into practical fountain pen talk; "I am likely to clog this pen up".

Normally if you have a pen and it stops working you fling it out of the window and buy another. Not so with these kinds of fountain pen. Because you can take them apart, you can clean them. This gets tricky if you have a pen with an ink sac. Not impossible of course but tricky. Plenty of things will make your pen clog; using indian ink, storing it flat, storing it upright, storing it with ink in, not using it for a couple of days, not cleaning it, looking at it funny, treating it nice, turning your back on it etc. Basically if you are using anything other than vanilla fountain pen ink, you are going to experience clogging. The good news is that this needn't be the end of the pen, but does mean that you'll have to take care of it.

I'd recommend building a pen with a converter. Now, I'm assuming that you are looking to build a functional working pen rather than a thing of beauty to sign billion dollar contracts with. It is nice to be able to brag about how the pen you are using is older than your parents, but it doesn't really mean anything. You have options at this point;

  1. Buy a recently refurbished pen (£££ $$$)
  2. Buy a junk pen or a few junk pens and frankenstein a working pen (££ $$)
  3. Find a nice nib and body that will work together nicely (£? $?)

If I was just starting out getting into finding a magic pen, I'd focus on point 3 first. There is a Chinese pen manufacturer called Jinhao that make very cheap fountain pens. The nibs aren't great, but they do tend to about the same size as the fancy nibs we've been talking about. This means you can get a fountain pen for a couple of quid/dollars, fit it with a fancy nib and go buck wild. The bodies on their pens are relatively good quality, have a nice weight to them and feel more expensive than they actually are. You have to be careful to make sure that the

Dirt Cheap.

The benefit of doing this firstly is that if it goes wrong, you've not spent huge amounts of money. I'd recommend buying a few of these pens anyway so you can take them apart and get used to pen anatomy before jumping further in. Secondly these pens can be fitted with converters.

A converter is a special ink cartridge that can be re-used over and over. This means you can use whatever ink you want to (within reason) and can use it to force warm soapy water through your pen to clean it without having to worry about replacing or refitting rubber ink sacs.

A converter

Once you've got a pen into which the nib fits and you can actually draw/write with it you may find that the pen has a nasty scratchy line that is unpleasant to use. This is not the end of the world either. You can polish out minor snags and scratches fairly simply. Reshaping the nib (making it thinner, oblique etc) is a bit more advanced and probably worth trying on a bunch of cheap nibs before you take a grind at your favourite nib.

To polish out snags in the nib I use nail buffing sticks. I did spend money buying specific fountain pen buffing sticks but the manicure things seem to work just as well, but wear out sooner.

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I make sure the pen is empty then using small circular motions I slowly buff the end of the nib on the finest grit I have, testing against a piece of toothy paper to see when I've buffed out all the scratches. You don't want to apply excessive pressure or do too much as you can't put back what you grind off.

There are further adjustments I've found that can help - deepening the groove on the feed to allow more ink to flow along it while you are flexing the nib for broader lines for example.

Basically there isn't a straightforward answer to the question 'what pen should I get'. My best advice is to play about and see what works for you, but start cheap and work up rather than starting at the expensive end of the scale. I'll update this post with some better pictures perhaps and answering more questions as they get asked.