Explained: Fountain Pens vs. Calligraphy Pens

Pens are a large world. But these days, most of the pens bought for school or business and are far from fancy. In fact, they are designed to be cheap and tossed away when done. But then there is this other side of pens with old fashion nibs called fountain pens or calligraphy pens. They are both used to make a beautiful script, so are they the same?

The difference between fountain pens and calligraphy pens is primarily found in the nib, the pointy end dispersing ink. Fountain pens tend to have pointed nibs and store ink inside the body of the pen. Calligraphy pens, or dip pens, generally have broad and flat nibs that must be dipped into ink.

Fountain pens and calligraphy pens have different uses and histories. Sketch artists will probably favor fountain pens, for example. Where a calligraphist or scribe will use dip pens, i.e., the pen must be dipped into the ink. While a painter working with ink might make use of both styles of pens as well as brushes.

Difference Between Fountain Pens and Calligraphy Pens?

The easiest way for a beginner to tell the difference between a fountain pen and a calligraphy pen is to note if the pen requires being dipped into ink or not. However, due to crossover products, this method is not a perfect method to differentiate the two. But because fountain pen ink is different than calligraphy ink, these crossover products are not always well-loved. Yes, the world of pens is complicated but intriguing.

Fountain Pens

The fountain pen is the more commonly encountered pen when it comes to writing with elegance. These pens are often a common gift to those graduating from school or university or making a significant professional achievement.

The main reason the Fountain pen is the preferred elegant pen of the professional world is convivence. They are easier to carry around and straightforward to use, especially the ones with cartridges.

The Three Main Components of the Fountain Pen

  1. Nib. Nibs are the part of the pen that touches the writing surface, typically paper. They are generally designed in Germany or Japan. The nib works by using capillary action through its small slit. At the top of the slit will be a tiny hole, known as the “breather hole.” Nibs are produced in a range of sizes and impact the width of a line.

Fountain pen nibs are commonly made of gold or steel and come in three colors: gold, black, and “silver.” The nib’s “springiness” and “flexibility” determine the amount of line variation that can be achieved. However, even modern, flexible nibs are firmer than what was used in the past.

The Goulet Pen Company has a YouTube video that provides an overview of various nibs and the difference between German and Japanese styles.

  • Feed. This part of the pen feeds the nib the ink. It also allows air to flow back up the pen. A poorly made feed will leak or provide an inconsistent flow. For it is the feed’s design, with its fins and grooves, that determines the wetness and flow of ink to the nib. While nibs have not evolved much, the feed component has changed with technology and materials available, such as plastic.  
  • Ink Reservoir. This is found in the main body of the pen. This is the piece that is continuously evolving as new innovations emerge. There are many variations and systems to this part of the pen, but they fall into three main groups:
    • Cartridge. A cartridge is a sealed tube, usually plastic, that sits in the pen. They are disposable, so when it runs out, you refill by putting a new cartridge in. This is the easiest and most common method to keep ink in the reservoir. However, it is also the most limiting as you can only use inks provided by the cartridges.  
    • Converter. A converter is essentially a reusable cartridge. This has the advantage of less waste and allows for more choice of ink. However, some people don’t want to be bothered by keeping spare ink around or the hassle and potential mess of refilling a cartridge.
    • Piston. A piston system is where the pen is refilled directly into the reservoir. In a manner of speaking, the converter is built-in. The pen is refilled by unscrewing the top of the pen, allowing ink to be sucked in through the nib and taken into the reservoir. Some people find this trickery and messier than using a converter. Other people find this the most fun.

JetPens Youtube channel provides a video demonstration of the fountain pen filling systems, including working the piston.

Calligraphy Pens the Dip Pens

Calligraphy pens traditionally require being dipped into a jar or well of ink, hence their other name, dip pens. Some people delight in this practice, and others find it messy and impractical.  

Calligraphy pens are essentially a handle that can be interchanged with a variety of nibs. The ability to change out the nibs makes dip pens more versatile than many fountain pens with built-in nibs.

Calligraphy Handles

Calligraphy handles, or nib holders, come in a variety of options and price points. However, they fall into two general categories: straight holders and oblique holders.

Straight holders are straight, which is the case with most pens. These holders are more versatile in the art of calligraphy, as certain letter styles require the pen to be held in different manners. Thus, a committed calligraphist or scribe often favors a straight holder. (Although, let’s be honest, they own many holders because this is their art, trade, and passion.)

Straight holders are, however, harder to use when starting out, as traditional styles of calligraphy require a slanted nib. To achieve the necessary angle in the letters, the wrist needs to be held in a certain way; this can be uncomfortable for some people and downright difficult if you are left-handed.

Straight holders come with a variety of ways to fix the nib to the handle. Popular mechanisms are:

  • Ferrule is made up of metal prongs that “hug” the nib. The advantage of these is that the prongs are flexible, allowing a wide range of nibs to fit. The disadvantage is the prongs can become bent or break due to rust.
  • Hole is a hole that you need to insert the nib into. It can be a bit tricky to learn to use these at first. If you scroll down this post, you can see an example.
  • Ring Groove has rings, like a tree, which the numb is fitted into. The rings can even be made out of plastic.

Oblique holders have a straight handle but the nib is an angle, like a side car. They are considered to be more comfortable and are a huge boon for left-handed scribes. This is because the pen holds the nib at an angle for you, rather than have to kink your hand. These pens also aid in reducing the pressure of the nib to paper. Too much pressure is bad for the nib and can rip the paper.

While often held up as a beginner tool, they are excellent for scripts such as Copperplate or Spencerian, which needs a consistent slant. They are also useful to simply have if your hand is cramping and need a break without taking a break.

The nib in an oblique holder is held with a flange: classic, bullock, and various forms of a universal holder. Both the classic and the bullock are curved metal, but the bullock has an extra slit. The universals have a mechanism, such as a screw, that allows you to widen or narrow the flange to fit the nib. Some oblique holders come with a plastic flange, which many do not recommend.

Calligraphy Pen Nibs

Traditionally, calligraphy pen nibs fall into two categories: pointed and chiseled.

Pointed nibs have prongs that come together in a sharp point similar to a fountain pen nib. However, calligraphy nibs are not made to last for years and years, which allows them to be made of springer steel that provides greater flex.

Chiseled nibs have a flat, squarish edge that is sometimes rounded. These produce thicker strokes with little pressure. Certain styles favor these nibs, such as Roman, gothic, and Celtic scripts.

Cleaning Your Nibs

A fountain pen’s nib is rarely changed. Some fountain pens don’t allow the nib to be changed at all. But calligraphy pens do go through nibs, and when a new one arrives, it needs to be cleaned. This is because manufacturers coat nibs in a layer of oil to protect them from rust while in storage. If this oil isn’t removed, the ink won’t coat the nib evenly, leaving blank patches.

Methods Used to Clean Nibs

  • Fire. Yes, some use a lighter and burn the oil off the nib. It is fast, efficient, and can quickly ruin your nib before you’ve used it.
  • Nail polish remover takes about five seconds. It can tarnish your pretty nib, however, and it smells.
  • Potato method: popping it into a potato for fifteen minutes, then rinse and dry. However, you need to be careful when both inserting and removing the nib from the spud.
  • Toothbrush and toothpaste method will get a nib clean in about 30 seconds. Just make sure you’ve blocked the drain so your nib doesn’t accidentally take an inkless journey without you.
  • Washing up liquid also takes around 30 seconds and keeps them looking sparkly.
  • Window cleaner will also do the job. It can smell a bit and may not be the eco-friendliest choice, but it does the job.

Glass Dip Pens

Glass dip pens are not a true calligraphy pen, but they do need to be dipped. Despite surging in popularity in the last few years, they are not new, invented in Italy in the 18th century. The pens are gorgeous and are a work of art all on their own. They do break when dropped, however.

People enjoy how smoothly they glide across the page and how long they hold ink before needing another dip. They do not respond to pressure like a calligraphy pen, however. So while they can be used in a number of ways, both for writing and in various art, such as painting, they cannot produce the various strokes you could achieve with a calligraphy pen.

Difference between Fountain Pen Ink and Calligraphy Ink?

Fountain pen ink is different than calligraphy ink. If you accidentally use fountain pen ink with a calligraphy pen, it isn’t a big deal, although you might find it thin and not achieve the same line quality. But if you put calligraphy ink into a fountain pen, the pen will clog. Don’t do it.

Fountain pen ink is thinner and has fewer particles. It is often dyed, so it is water-based, although there are pigmented fountain pen inks available. The ink is made to produce a consistent flow through the pen’s mechanism without clumping or clogging the pen.

Calligraphy inks are almost always pigmented and contain many particles, which can settle to the bottom of the container. Thus, it is recommended to give the ink a bit of a shake before each use. As the calligraphy pen has no reservoir, it needs the thicker, heavier ink to stick to the nib to produce strong and consistent strokes.

Again, fountain pen ink won’t hurt your calligraphy pen; it will simply slide off too easily to be of much use. But calligraphy ink will ruin your fountain pen.

History of Fountain Pens and Calligraphy Pens?

Nothing is simple in the world of pens, even their history.

History of Calligraphy Pens

Dating the first calligraphy pen is difficult because even when calligraphy began is debated. After all, before the printing press and typewriters, writing was writing, and some people did it better than others. But it wasn’t always considered an art.

Even who began writing first messy, as four different places came up with a system on their own: Mesopotamia, Egypt, China, and Mesoamerica. There may be even more ancient writing systems we simply don’t know about. But writing is not new. In Egypt, the first evidence of a complete sentence dates back to 2690BC.

Nobody even knows when Chinese writing began, there is evidence of characters on tortoiseshells and bone that date back to the 18th-12th century BC. Chinese calligraphy has been a true artform for an incredibly long time, but the traditional implement is a brush, not a pen.

So who started using quills, the root of modern calligraphy? They don’t know. They do know quills came after reed pens, which they think began in the 4th century BC in Ancient Egypt. They also know that there are Dead Sea Scrolls that were written with a quill that dates back to the 2nd century BC. But the concept doesn’t seem to have emerged in Europe until 600 AD, beginning in Seville, Spain.

History of Fountain Pens

Fountain pens are a newer technology to calligraphy pens, so their history should be simple. Yet, despite the French’s first patent to Petrache Poenaru, a Romanian, in 1827, it is believed he was far from the first.

Leonardo da Vinci is thought to have made one around 1500. In the 17th century Daniel Schwenter, a German, made one by placing one quill inside the other and corking it. But it was Ma’ād al-Mu’izz, who lived in Northwest Africa, who was first in 973. He was fed up with dipping pens and wanted one that could hold its own ink without spilling. Disappointedly, nobody knows what the pen looked like or what technology was used for it to function.

After Petrache Poenaru came Lewis Edson Waterman, who in 1883 invented the capillary feed so crucial to today’s version of fountain pens. A decade later, in 1893, George Safford Parker patented the bent feed, which was tweaked to be patented in 1894 was the Lucky Curve feed, which prevented leaks.


Fountain pens and calligraphy pens are different. But it isn’t about which one is better than the other, but what the owner wants to achieve. Convince and the type of line all matter when selecting pens of any nature. However, nobody said you had to pick from one or the other. There is no reason you can’t enjoy both.

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