I got a fountain pen in college because I was tired of running out of ink when taking notes with ballpoint pens. Now, 10 years later, I still write with one every day and vastly prefer them to ballpoints. Along the way, I've learned quite a bit about how to take care of them.

Care and feeding of your fountain pen:

  • Never let anyone else write with your pen, not even to try it out for a few seconds. Really. High-quality nibs adapt to your (unique) hand position and writing style, and even a little trial scribbling from someone else can compromise this. It is especially important not to do this if the other person writes with the opposite hand than yours.
  • Don't overfill the pen with ink. When filling it, get into the habit of drawing a full amount of ink into the pen, then releasing three or four drops into the inkwell and drawing back air. This will pull the huge pool of ink that is clinging to the nib from being dipped into the inkwell back into the pen. Flooded nibs can bleed or just drop pools of ink onto the paper. A flooded nib can also get jostled when the pen is closed and spray ink all over the inside of the cap, which will end up on your hands when you next use the pen.
  • Store the pen vertically (nib up, eg: in a shirt pocket), whenever you can. Leaving it horizontal for long periods of time can cause excess ink to flow into the nib.
  • Flying: Leave your pen at home when you fly – the changes in cabin pressure can cause pens to leak and discharge ink all over your luggage, shirt pocket, or whatever. If you must take your pen with you, empty it completely first. Travel with a small ink bottle with a really tight cap, and put the entire ensemble in a sealed plastic baggie wrapped in a paper towel, in case it leaks.
  • Leave the cap on whenever you can. The nib will dry out and clog if the cap is off for long periods.
  • If your pen does dry out (symptoms: ink doesn't start right away, pen seems to write badly or skips), empty it out and soak it in cold water, preferably with a few drops of ammonia. (I use a squirt or two of ammonia-based window cleaner like Windex). Draw the water in and out several times, and (ideally) let it soak for a while. Then empty it out and fill with ink as usual.
  • Put the cap on the back of the pen while you are using it. Not only does this give the pen a nicer, heavier feel, but it will keep it from unexpectedly rolling off your desk when you put it down. This is critical because if you drop that baby and it lands nib-down, it can easily damage or outright destroy the pen. If you do drop it, having the cap on the back it increases the odds that it will land cap-down and not nib-down.
  • Write with the pen regularly. The more you use it (correctly), the better and smoother it will write. If you leave it unused for weeks, it can take a while to get the ink started again.
  • Don't press hard. The fountain pen should glide effortlessly over the paper, which is the whole joy of using it. If it shows resistance, skips or has trouble getting started, you're either out of ink, or it has dried out and clogged, or both.
  • Don't lose it. Most fountain pens of acceptable quality are expensive, and since they're small they are quite easy to lose or misplace. Get into the habit of keeping the pen in a regular place (a shirt or jacket pocket) and develop a routine around it, the way you do other personal objects: wallet, cell phone, glasses. I clip mine to my subway card every night so I don't forget it the next day. NEVER travel with it in a pants pocket, especially clipped into the edge of the pocket – it's way too easy for it to pop out when you sit down. Unless you have a screw cap, it's also not wise to clip it to a t-shirt collar: I've seen people end the day thinking it was still there, only to discover that only the cap was.

That seems like a lot to remember, but once you internalize it all it will seem like second nature. Plus, it may help to insure that your pen may eventually become an heirloom, not just a writing instrument.

The arrangement of the working parts of a fountain pen are as follows :-

     :     :     :
     :     :     :
     |     |#####|	
     |     |#####|  
Reservoir  |#####|  - Ink reservoir,
     |      \###/     fits tightly onto the
     |_      |#|      capillary tube on feeder bar

     |       | |    - Capillary tube
     |       | |
     |    =========
     |    =========
  Feeder  ========= - Fins which absorb excess
    Bar   =========   ink squeezed from
     |    =========   reservoir
     |     |  |  |
     |     |  |  |
     |     |  |  |  - Capillary groove
     |     |  |  |
     |_     \_|_/

     __     _____
    |      |     |  - Nib which sits on feed bar,
    |      |     |    slit aligned with
    |      |     |    capillary grove.     
   Nib     |  o  |    
    |       \ | /   - Slit
    |        \|/
    |__       *     - Nib Pellet

The reservoir feeds ink to the feeder bar, via a tight fitting seal on a capillary tube. The feeder bar passes the ink in a smooth stream to the nib, and holds any excess on channels, forced from the reservoir, by say the heat of your hand. The feeder bar supports the nib, passing the ink down through a groove, along a slit in the nib via capillary action to the nib pellet. If these two capillary channels are not aligned, the pen won't work.

The nib pellet has to be made of a very hard material, as quite a lot of wear will occur as it scrapes across the paper. Commonly Ruthenium or Iridium is used. The split in the nib gives two tines, which will bend and flex apart according to the style of the writer, giving a distinctive look to each persons handwriting; the better the pen, the better and more consistent the flex.

Source, the www.parkerpen.co.uk web site.

The preceeding are nice technical descriptions of the workings and care of a fountain pen. They miss, however, the most important aspect of a good fountain pen - what a sheer pleasure it is to write with - in fact, this is the only reason to use them (other than, perhaps, for decorative calligraphy).

Good tools make the job that you are working on easier, and the end result better. A good keyboard, one that you feel comfortable with, whatever your definition of that is, will allow you to write both better and faster. Faster because you feel more comfortable with it, because it functions, mechanically, as you would like, and better because you are not frustrated by your tools - you can spend all your energy thinking about the writing, unencumbered by the distraction of a keyboard that is sticking, or too small, or whatever.

There are times when one has to write on paper: tests; paperwork; random scribbles in margins; etc. And there are times when it is just nice to write using a fountain pen, for a letter, or perhaps a manuscript, or because for some, it is easier to get started thinking when writing with a pen. Either way, it seems logical to use the best tool for the job.

A good fountain pen will give you nice, smooth lines. It will require little, if any pressure against the paper, thus your hand will be more relaxed, and you will feel more comfortable. It will feel almost as though the pen is floating over the paper. And the result will generally be more ledgible than that from other types of pens. I lost my fountain pen for about three months and almost stopped writing as a result... it just didn't feel right, writing with a ballpoint pen.

A cheap fountain pen will do some of this - the $7 Parker from the drug store will be better than nothing, especially if you get a converter, so that you don't have to keep buying cartridges for it. But you will still have to press it against the paper to get a mark, and it will feel a bit rough.

A bit better pen, say, a $25 Waterman, will be nice... you will get the feel of what a fountain pen is supposed to be... but it just isn't quite right.

Spend a bit more, something in the $50-$75 range, and you will have a pen that you will never want to be without. One can spend more, of course, but beyond that point, a lot more money must be spent for very little additional return.

Choose a fountain pen because of the way that it feels in your hand and how it glides across the paper, not by how it looks. The Rotring 600 series look like a ugly large hunk of metal (in a good way), but feel perfect to me. Choose what works for you.

And treasure the way it works so nicely and feels so perfect.

If you're at all interested in giving fountain pens a chance, I encourage you to acquire a vintage pen, rather than buying something in the $100 range.

If you can afford the much more expensive Pelikans or Mont Blancs, go for it, but for around $30 to $50, many nice, useable vintage pens can be had. Vintage Watermans with their extra-flexy nibs, the classic Parker 51 with its hooded nib, nigh-indestructable Esterbrooks with large assortment of replaceable nibs - the list goes on. Vintage pens (at least ones that are at least 30 years old) tend not to be cartridge/converter pens, resulting in much greater ink capacity. But some care must be taken, as not all vintage pens have not been refurbished to withstand daily use.

My first decent fountain pen was a Namiki Falcon. I got it on closeout for $100. Though it's a solid, dependable writer, I could have gotten two more interesting vintage pens...

There are many online sources for vintage fountain pens, and they also appear quite often on the various online auctions.

Some time after I wrote the above, I became a Sheaffer Snorkel-only collector.

In this age of modern communications, where it has become all too easy to send an e-mail or pick up a cell phone, taking the time to actually write a letter to somebody has become a form of rare luxury.

As is the case with all such luxuries this means that we should take the time and the effort to do it properly. Just like taking the perfect bath requires the right atmosphere of calm and relaxation, writing the perfect letter requires the right pen.

Writing a letter, be it a quick note to a friend or a romantic poem to a loved one, needs to be done with the right amount of care and attention. This means you can't write it with a 50 cent bic ballpoint. A ballpoint pen is a ballpoint pen whatever you might try and case it in. A solid gold, hand finished, ballpoint will still write no differently to its plastic cased throw away cousin that you'll find on the desks of any office. A fountain pen is, however, different.

In many ways fountain pens are slightly archaic, being little more than the not-to-distant relation of the quill pen and the dip pen. In its essence a fountain pen is nothing more than a quill that can hold its own ink. So what is it that gives the fountain pen its sense of style and its unique charm?

Perhaps it derives a large amount of its charm from the fact that fountain pens do seem a touch archaic in today’s world of throw away consumables. Maybe it comes from the implication that the writer cares enough to use a tool that requires a little bit more care and attention, after all fountain pens need to be kept clean, filled up with ink and generally need that little more personal effort. For me the thing that always does it for me about letters written with a fountain pen is the amount it tells you about the other person. Do they use the normal blue or black inks? Or are they slightly different and use green ink, or even purple or orange? Do they use a thick nib or a fine nib, or perhaps they use a calligraphic or oblique nib. How do they write? A spidery copperplate or with broad flowing strokes of the pen. In these ways the fountain pen is a little window into their persona.

Now that I've hopefully persuades you that you desire a fountain pen, let us move on to the main topic of this humble write-up: How to Buy a Fountain Pen.

Firstly you should decide how much of your hard earned capital you are willing to part with. This is quite important since you're about to part with anything from $5 for a cheap-and-potentially-nasty pen, all the way to in excess of $2,000 (no I've not added an extra zero mistakenly) for hand crafted specials from the likes of Mont Blanc, Pelikan and Montegrappa. Personally my fountain pens (I've got four of them) run from $35 for my Lamy Al-Star all the way to about $400 for a Mont Blanc I was given eight years ago. Currently I'm writing this on a plane to Dallas using a Caran D'Ache that I got recently.

Once you've decided how much you're willing to spend then its time to head over to a pen shop. At a good pen shop they'll have a wide range of pens from a variety of different pen makers, including several that you're likely not to have heard of before.

At the store you should start by spending some time perusing the pens that are available within your price range and see if there are any that catch your eye at a first glance.

Once you've found a few pens that you like then ask to take a look at them. Pick up each one as if you were going to write with it. Start off by just holding it and getting the feel of the pen.

With each pen feel its weight in your hand. Does it sit naturally in your fingers and in the cleft between your thumb and index finger? Does it balance nicely (remember to place the cap on the top of the pen if that is where you would normally keep it) or does it exert too much upwards pressure against your fingers. Is it too heavy for you? Would it tire your hand to use it for long periods of time, or is it too light so that it feels insubstantial when you hold it and you lose some of the fine control over the pen.

Now feel your grip on the pen. Is the barrel too wide for you or is it too narrow so that your fingers hit each other. You do after all want your pen to be comfortable in your hand so that you won't get cramps when using it for long periods at a time.

Now that you found a pen that’s comfortable and well balanced in your paw its time to try writing with it. At a good store they will have pots of ink into which they will dip the nib of the pen to charge it up and let you try writing with it. Once the nice man (or woman) has done this you will be offered a pad of paper to scrawl on. Try writing a few words on it, sign your name, doodle a quick pattern with it. How does it feel to write with? Does the ink come out too quickly? Or too slowly so that it fades out when you write quickly. Is the nib too thick or too fine? If so then ask them, many places will just be able to change it over for you.

If you've done all this and you're still happy with the pen then congratulations you've found the right pen for you!

Now here’s the difficult bit. Repeat after me (to the shop people) "I wish to purchase this quality product." they will then ask for money, give them your credit card and sign the bits of paper. Well done you now are the proud owner of a shiny new fountain pen. Go forth and write freely with age old style and quality.

Coming next week: Choosing an Ink

all hail nate, may his blessings fall upon us

I've always loved fountain pens; they remind me of the thrill of passing the Common Entrance Exam and going to St Joseph's Convent when I was ten or so. No more elementary school; that meant no more short skirts or knickers except at P.E., no more marching in lines from assembly. It also meant no more pencils, except at math class. Our teachers came to us, while we sat at our very own desks that we chose at the beginning of the term. In the middle of the immovable area of each desktop, behind the desk's lid, sat an inkwell. I remember stopping by the stationery store on the way home, proud in my convent girl long skirts and crisp blouses with the school pin at the throat, and spending long periods choosing inks and admiring new pens.

We were not allowed to use ballpoints; strict lectures assured us that ballpoints would ruin a young lady's handwriting, and that elegant penmanship with neatly-executed and above all legible lettering was one of the hallmarks of true refinement. I remember the thrill and horror of blotches as we worked with the pens for the first time, and the easy admiration for those girls who learned first to use them. I remember still how the weight and fit and flow of them lifted the simple act of writing out of the commonplace and made it an art. And I still feel, today, as if a good instrument lends its weight to the thoughts being transferred to paper.

I've owned a few fountain pens over the years, as you might imagine. Cheap ones, mostly, picked up at grocery stores for the joy of reminiscing, and invariably lost soon afterward, because they felt nothing like the ones I remembered. Last year, however, I bought myself a Sheaffer. I loaned it to my father, and the loan became a gift. I almost don't begrudge it.

The two pens I bought recently more than make up for the loss of the Sheaffer. I was wary of the Levenger pens; I need not have been. I bought a very affordable Levenger Exeter as an afterthought, and it's become my favourite, over and above the cyan-blue Cross ATX with my birth name engraved on it. (Guess which one I expected to be my favourite.) The Exeter is heavier, sturdier, easier to grasp, and the fine nib lays down clean, crisp lines. The ATX also has a fine nib, but for some reason, it has a more fluid feel, something better suited to writing affectionate letters to dear (and forgiving) friends than to aiding in the capture of the right words to carry a thought, with many pauses and deliberate execution of strokes and curves. The ATX is less intimidating. The Exeter is a superior taskmaster. Neither one, I'm thinking, will see the inside of its case again soon.

I must confess: my late introduction to fountain pens, and my subsequent mania, is all the fault of the estimable sockpuppet. When we were in college, I noticed that he always carried with him a sturdy, elegant yet simple fountain pen - with the result that not only was he never without a pen, but he never lost any argument that involved diagramming on napkins. Believe you me, he can make anything in the world involve diagramming on napkins.

At the time, I was a typical college student (read: broke) and hence was unable to afford a nice fountain pen of my very own. The next time I was home, however, I made a wonderful (re)discovery - I had been given, for my barmitzvah, a nice Sheaffer Executive fountain pen! I had, at the time, naturally made polite noises and shoved the box in a drawer, more concerned with the Apple II+ I had also gotten. Going through my desk (and my dresser, and my closet, and my bedside table, and my bookshelf, and my parents' dresser, and my father's desk - AHA!) revealed an unmarred Sheaffer box, with a sticky note on it. The note read: WHEN YOU FIND THIS, IT WILL BE BECAUSE YOU ARE READY.

I should mention that my father is a writer. To this day, he writes with an IBM Selectric, and edits with pen.

Opening the box revealed the pen, in its matte black and gold glory. I took it back to my room and spent perhaps two or three hours writing with it, until my hand was sore, trying to learn the proper position and stance. At the end of the vacation, I proudly wore it back to school, clipped to the neck of my T-shirt (yes, sockpuppet was talking about me, up there).

Over the next couple of years, that pen never left my person. I had a terrible scare one day when I did, in fact, sit down in my common room and pull the pen from my shirt - only to find myself holding the nib and reservoir - the barrel had abandoned ship some time before. Fortunately, it had been within the building, and I found it. After that, I started keeping it in my blue jeans change pocket - which to my dismay caused the barrel to split where it joined the pen body due to torsion on the pen whenever I sat down.

At that point, however, I learned one of the wonderful things about many good fountain pens, especially Sheaffers. They are guaranteed for life - with some escape clauses, but usually, as long as the nib isn't damaged due to carelessness, you're OK. I dug the box back out, shipped the pen to Iowa, and waited.

Five weeks later, the box returned. Inside was my pen, looking almost brand-new. They had brazed the barrel split, re-enameled the barrel, cleaned every piece of it, and shined the brass trim. The only way I could tell it was my pen was the pattern of shinier enamel spots where my fingers rested, and the fact that when I drew it across the first bit of paper, the nib whispered across it without a sound, knowing as it did the position and pressure of my hand.

That was the beginning. I had the (mis)fortune to end up working a job, later in life, next door to a fine pen shop. As of this moment, I think I have eight fountain pens. They are all in the $30-$90 range. I have my favorites - that Sheaffer is never far from me, but it has a fairly broad nib, and is more useful for quick doodles and signatures than technical writing or correspondance. I have a Rotring 600 which I keep loaded with red ink, for diagramming and editing. A brace of nice, slender Watermans that I keep on me for longer writing tasks, with (as a prior noder noted) their flexy nibs that allow a wider variation of pressure and hence line width. A Parker, just because I wanted a metallic pen, which turned out quite nice. Two older pens, a Parker 61 and a Pilot, and a newer Sheaffer Prelude to round out the collection.

Yes, I have more pens than I can use in a day or two. On the other hand, I don't own a watch, so maybe it evens out. I don't own (and never have) a Mont Blanc; one day I'll have the scratch to buy myself the 'standard' Meisterstück. If I get extremely lucky, I'll be able to nab the 2003 Writer's Edition pen - the Jules Verne. It's a blue enamel and steel pen, with Verne's signature, Captain Nemo's insignia, and a diving helmet engraved on the nib. Best of all, it's heavy and writes with a consummate smoothness even though the nib hadn't been adapted to me. I barely made it out of the Mont Blanc boutique without one. At least my credit cards survived, at least until the Apple Store next door.

The fountain pen, if you'll permit me some perhaps elitist enthusiasm, is (for me) a constant reminder of the power of information, and the fact that people create information, at the base of it all. There is no text or idea I can produce with my Macintosh that I cannot also produce with my pen; while it might take longer, and be less legible, it will also nevertheless retain a sense of me - whereas the computer product will be impersonal. Communication from me is recognizable through the pen, if you know me. My only lack, to date, has been a suitable notebook to keep with me - but after reading cbustabeck's writeup et al on the moleskine, I know where my next $15 is going.

Last night at nine exactly I put away my things from dinner, plates and a bowl, my cup, and found the dark blue fountain pen that was given to me from the hands of my uncle Fedeh who I never met. I sat down to write him a letter, which I have done every year on his birthday, January 28th. I have all of them, more than twenty now, here in the bottom drawer of my desk, each one in its own envelope and each envelope unopened.

My immediate family, mother, father and younger sister, were all born in the Ukraine. But Fedeh, who was twelve years older than my father, was born in Afghanistan and was left behind there (we'll send for you) with an uncle of his own when my grandmother and grandfather began the travels that saw them, after the second world war, as good as trapped in the Soviet Union. They never did send for him.

In 1980, and more than 50 years old, he fought with the mujahideen against the Soviet troops and was one of 90,000 comrades (yes, and I can see the irony of that word, but they were comrades together, these strugglers who defended their land so fiercely) who were to die before Moscow managed to disentangle itself from the folly and atrocity that it had made. And then, after some time, and by way of a strange route, for it was no easy thing to send a mujahid's few personal effects via the mails from Zaranj on the Iranian border to a small village outside Uzhhorod in the Carpathian mountains next to what is now Slovakia, I received his pen.

What is a little strange is that when I use this pen, and I only use it once in the year for it is too precious to me to risk it being lost or stolen, I feel as though I am Fedeh himself, writing to himself with his own pen. I know I am not, but now that I am the same sort of age that he was when he died, I increasingly feel myself reassuring him that he is remembered and all that we do he does also.

I use turquoise ink which I clean out once the letter's completed, to make sure that it doesn't get clogged or leak during the year it sits in my old pencil tin. As we know turquoise is a pale blue-variation, but still it's translucence on the paper, the way one can somehow see through it, makes me think of the capillaries and veins you can see under the skin of very old thin people.

It does not comfort me to think how many of those 90,000 might have, by 2006, died anyway, from old age, disease, accidents, other incidents, at the hands of the Taliban perhaps who were already coming but no-one knew. How many proud warriors would have been rounded up for having a wife not dressed modestly enough or for a lack of sufficient beard?

Fedeh would be seventy-something if he'd have made it. When all the walls fell, that first one and then the others, when the bloc broke up like an old berg cracked by the icebreaking ships of history into its constituent pieces (mostly), I wrote to Fedeh and said: "Come to our home now. Come ride the ferry to Sevastopol, come climb Hoverta!" And I believe that he did and has. I believe in my blind unread heart that if I write these things to him that he is at least in the limbo of the dead who are dreamed alive and, after all, that may be more living than many here yet choose to do.

Of course, finally, as an offering, some communion or Kaddish beyond denomination, I write each year to mark him, and all of those who were caught by history and used by it, consumed by the times. And to remember too, that until today at least, we are here remaining and with breath in our lungs, food upon our tables, love in our possession, and when it feels that life is futile, we still have hope. Hope for change. Hope for love. Hope as much for those to come as those we loved who have already now so soon gone sad before us.

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