It is interesting or shall I say surprising to me the number of people I’ve handed a fountain pen, encouraging them to give it a try, they either decline or stumble along. The initial look of fear, then confusion, followed by the exasperation “I don’t know how.” They are at a loss – how to use the pen. Thus the inspiration for a series of Fountain Pen 101 primers.
The workings of a fountain pen can be described simply as a controlled leak.
Major Fountain pen components
- The nib. The pointed metal end that transfers ink to the paper and is the most recognized or iconic part of a fountain pen.
- The feed. Sits under the nib and supplies ink from inside the pen to the nib. It often contains a visible set of grooves or fins which collect ink flowing from the reservoir and regulates ink flow.
- The reservoir. Where the ink is stored in the pen’s barrel.
Take notice of the nib, there is a slit from the nib tip running half the length, terminated at the “breather” hole. The slit is placed above a similar groove along the dorsal side of the feed. The breather hole has two purposes, it acts as a means of “stress-relief” preventing the slit from growing and it allows air to enter the ink channel.
How does it works
How does the ink get from the reservoir onto the paper?
In part, gravity, but mostly through capillary action – the process by which liquids travel along the surface of a solid material because of attraction. Think how water spreads out across a paper towel to soak up a spill.
The feed of a fountain pen consists of one big channel with small groves or channels (usually 3) cut into the channel bottom. Ink flows along the small channels while air flows through the space above. This arrangement allows air to flow into the ink reservoir and simultaneously allows ink to flow towards the paper at a controlled rate. Capillary action along with gravity keep the channel filled thus preventing ink from escaping the fountain pen because air can’t get into the reservoir to displace ink.
The fins of the feed act as a temporary reservoir regulating the flow of ink. They fill with ink that is drawn across the top of the feed and the ventral side of the nib by capillary action.
A quick note on Fountain Pen Ink
Ink is water with dyes and other chemicals required for proper functioning. The chemicals create the properties of the ink, including the surface tension or viscosity (wettability). While the saturation of the dyes provides the color. Also, present are anti-bacterial chemicals so your ink does develop a life of its own in the bottle. Mold does bad things to your pen!
The ink also needs to be the right viscosity for capillary action to pull it through the feed. This is why it’s so important to only use fountain pen inks in a fountain pen.
The Ink Reservoir
The ink reservoir stores ink and can be a simple ink cartridge to a complex filling mechanism that’s capable of drawing in and storing the ink. Contemporary pens primarily use one of 4 types of ink storage; converter, piston, cartridge, or eyedropper, all located inside the handle.
A cartridge is the most common of the reservoirs. Each comes pre-filled with ink, making it easy to replace. Simply buy a new cartridge and replace the old one.
Converter and Piston reservoirs function by twisting the filling mechanism at the end of the pen. To operate, submerge the nib or opening of the converter into a bottle of ink twist the mechanism, and ink is drawn into the reservoir. Converter reservoirs are similar to the ink cartridge in that they can be removed. While Pistons are non-removable converters that come built into the fountain pen.
Eyedropper ink storage is more popular in regions that experience year-round heat and humidity (like in Asia). The filling process is considered cumbersome and potentially messy. The process is not that bad, simply remove the section, use an eyedropper (I use a straw) to draw ink from a bottle. Insert the eyedropper into the barrel, give it a squeeze, and you are done. These pens hold considerably more ink but due care is needed when filling them.