Q&A: How does a fountain pen work?

What are the basics that I need to know?

Fountain Pens may seem like complicated little contraptions, but there are just a few sophisticated but relatively simple parts that make it function. Here we will show you some of the terms and the functions there are in each bit of the pen that make a fountain pen work.

Fountain pens draw ink from the cartridge or reservoir to the nib through gravity (the ink draining down out of the pen when held vertically) and by capillary action (where a liquid will be drawn along a narrow tube).

What are the main components of a fountain pen?

There are three main parts of a fountain pen that get the ink from inside the pen onto the page – the reservoir, the feed and the nib.

1 – The reservoir

The storage part of the pen which holds the ink. The inks can be held in a cartridge, in a converter or even just in the barrel itself (known as a demonstrator pen). Ink is fed from the barrel into the feed when the pen is held upright.

2 - The feed

This is the clever part, where the ink flow is controlled from the reservoir to the nib. Once the ink passes into the feed, this delivers the ink from the barrel to the nib in a consistent and steady flow. The feed is actually made up of several parts but to keep life simple, it covers the elements that take ink from the reservoir and deliver it consistently to the nib to apply to the page.

The most noticable part of the feed are the fins. They serve an important purpose in controlling not just the ink flow but also the flow of air. The fins help collect ink as it flows and stop too much ink flowing at once. They also allow air to flow back into the barrel – if you think of inverting a bottle of water, the liquid will flow out in an irregular way due to the air trying to get back into the bottle as the liquid flows out. A fountain pen will allow air to flow steadily back in to replace the ink flowing out. The nib may also have a small air hole in it for this purpose.

3 - The nib

And so to the nib, the most obvious part of a fountain pen. It is the nib that delivers the ink to the page and as expected the nib has several key elements to it. Along the nib there is a fine slit or gap, and this allows ink to pass in a steady flow to the tip of the nib. The two sides of the nib are known as tines.

The line that you can see on top of the nib, created by the gap between the two tines (the metal prongs) of the nib, this takes the ink from the feed and delivers it to the tip of the nib. This is why it is very important that these are aligned and not too close together or too far apart, otherwise the ink will not transfer properly.

Also note the small hole usually just above the slit, this allows air to flow into the pen so that the ink can come out.

The tips of the tines are where the ink finally gets to meet the page, as it pulls along the surface it should draw more ink out, creating a smooth line when you write, and the shape of this tip also affects the style of writing that is possible, it might be a fine ball or square ended for an italic style, there are so many different styles to choose from.

What is an ink cartridge?

Ink is either available in bottled form, or comes in a cartridge. These deliver a preset amount of ink in a sealed unit. Typically a cartridge will hold around 1ml of ink. This is compared to a bottle of ink which can vary from around 30ml to 80ml.

Cartidges also vary from manufacturer to manufacturer, and many pens will only take the set cartridge from the same manufacturer (e.g. Lamy fountain pens will only take Lamy T10 ink cartridges). Some pens will use a universal cartridge though.

The cartridge will fit inside the barrel and plug into the feed.

What is an ink converter?

Bottled ink is a far more economical way of buying ink, and to get the ink into the pen will depend on the pen itself. If it is a demonstrator pen then the ink will sit directly inside the barrel. However most pens cannot take ink directly into the barrel, and so you will need a converter to let a fountain pen work with bottled ink.

The converter is essentially a refillable ink cartridge, and it fits into the feed inside the barrel as with a cartridge. However it will normally have a plunger that allows ink to be drawn into the converter. This is done when the pen is dipped into the ink in a bottle.

In summary

Almost all modern fountain pens use these key parts, although how they look might differ slightly, and we hope this will help you understand the purpose behind them. Take a look at our fountain pen page to see some of the variety of pens on offer.

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