Most beginners kick off learning calligraphy with an understandable question: “Should I start with a pen that dips into ink, or do I start with one of those pens that already has an ink cartridge in it?” (Meaning: a fountain pen.) For a lot of people, it’s logical that a fountain pen is simply a more convenient version of a dip pen. In some ways, it is, but the two writing instruments differ in a lot of ways. Today, we’ll talk about those differences to help you determine which type of pen will best meet your needs.
What is a Fountain Pen?
Fountain pens were invented in Egypt centuries ago. The invention came about because writers needed something more convenient and less messy than the standard dip pen. Fast forward thousands of years, and we now have the modern day fountain pen. Basically, you’ve got a nib that connects to a feed. That feed receives ink from a cartridge, and a barrel holds everything together.
You can find a vast variety of fountain pens at different price points. Different colors of cartridges and jarred inks for fountain pens abound! People mainly use fountain pens for everyday writing. (I also love them for illustration.)
What is a Dip Pen?
A dip pen is simply a pen that you dip into ink. People used to turn to the dip pen for everyday writing, but it was largely displaced by the fountain pen. Today, dip pens are mainly used for calligraphy, and they are markedly fussier than fountain pens. You’ve got to hold the pen a certain way, play with the viscosity of your inks, and choose the right nib for your project.
Dip pens are usually straight or oblique. Most dip pens can accommodate several different types of nibs, which have varying degrees of flexibility. While you can use a dip pen for everyday writing, they’re not ideal for the task. First, most nibs are too flexible to enjoyably write, say, a grocery list. Second, the act of constantly having to re-dip can be tiresome. Due to their nib flex and the ability to switch up inks on a whim, dip pens are ideal for calligraphy.
Fountain Pens Versus Dip Pens
While most people compare fountain pens to dip pens, it would be more fair to compare fountain pens to everyday pens (like gel pens). That’s because fountain pens are typically used for everyday tasks: writing letters, signing papers, that sort of thing. You can tell when text was written using a fountain pen because of the vibrant ink color, delicate look, and slightly irregular stroke widths.
In contrast, people usually use dip pens to write calligraphy. Other major differences between fountain pens and dip pens include:
- Ability to remove a nib – Dip pen nibs are disposable and therefore easily switched out. Modern fountain pen nibs are prized for their durability, and you very well could go a lifetime without needing to replace the nib.
- Ink type and viscosity – You can use fountain pen inks with dip pens, but only if you add gum arabic to thicken the ink up. You cannot, however, use dip pen ink in fountain pens. The binder in the dip pen ink will gunk up the fountain pen and potentially ruin it.
- Nib flexibility – Both fountain pen nibs and dip pen nibs come in a range of different flexibilities. In modern times, fountain pen nibs tend to be stiff to ensure lifelong practical use. Dip pen nibs can be any range of flexibility you want them to be, which provides the beautiful contrast that we appreciate in calligraphy.
Writing Calligraphy With Fountain Pens: Yes, It Can Be Done
As with most things, there are no absolutes when it comes to fountain pens. Yes, there are fountain pens available that you can use to write pointed pen calligraphy. Those fountain pens might be vintage models, which were created in the era when Spencerian script (a beautiful handwriting style) was prevalent. Today, those pens are expensive collectibles. It’s worth noting that flexible fountain pen nibs were largely phased out because they’re not very hardy. When it comes to nibs, you almost always trade flexibility for durability.
There are also modern fountain pens that accommodate pointed pen nibs, such as the Osprey Scholar. (You can read my review of that pen here.) “Frankenstein” fountain pens such as the Scholar are nice in theory because they allow you to create pointed pen calligraphy without constantly dipping your pen in ink. However, pointed pen nibs weren’t designed to last longer than a few months with intense use. Unfortunately, switching out the nibs in a pen like the Osprey is a whole production that needs to take place regularly. It can also be tough to create calligraphy with a fountain pen because you can’t play with the ink’s viscosity. Fountain pen ink needs to be thin in order to freely flow, which can result in some feathering on certain papers.
Remember, too, that it can be tough to switch out ink colors in a fountain pen. You need to flush the previous ink color before you can write with a new color. That’s another reason I don’t love fountain pens for calligraphy. If you’re writing with a dip pen, you can change your ink colors on a whim, and you can use paint-like inks — such as Bleed Proof White — that simply wouldn’t flow through a fountain pen.
Everyday Writing With Dip Pens: Yes, It Can Be Done
Some people enjoy everyday handwriting with dip pens. With the right nib, ink, paper, and environment, dip pen handwriting can be very pleasant! When it comes to writing with a dip pen, you can’t be in a hurry: you’ll need to dip your nib in ink regularly, swish it off with water/wipe it off every once in a while, and have a decent desk setup available (ink, art water).
If you choose to create handwriting with a dip pen, it’s best to write with a thin ink like iron gall. A non-flexible, thin nib like a crowquill is best. You’ll need to be picky about your paper (which often is the case with fountain pens, too) to ensure that the ink doesn’t feather. A Rhodia pad is a great choice, and you can learn how to pick out other nice papers here.
I don’t profess to be a fountain pen expert. Like many people who dabble in fountain pens, I have one fountain pen that I love (the Pilot Falcon), and I almost exclusively use that pen. If you want to connect to people with considerable fountain pen knowledge, try perusing the Fountain Pen Network or Azizah Asgarali’s Gourmet Pens blog. There’s also a lot to learn from this Wikipedia article!
I love creating pointed pen calligraphy, which is why I wrote this article in the first place. So many people who want to get started with calligraphy write to me asking if they can use a fountain pen instead of a dip pen. I understand the appeal of that swap because fountain pens seem much less fussy! But the truth — and what I hope this article explains well — is that the two writing instruments are far from interchangeable. Yes, there are exceptions, but for the most part, those who want a luxurious handwriting experience should try fountain pens. Those who want to create pointed pen calligraphy should try a dip pen. And those who want the best of both worlds? Get both types of pens!
If you have questions or input, please feel free to contribute them in the comments! I hope that this article helps to clear things up for you or just gets you to thinking about trying out a new writing instrument. Thanks so much for reading, and have a great weekend!