When a friend gifted Casey and me a set of engraved fountain pens, I thought, ‘This is great! Now I can try my hand at some calligraphy.’ Despite my cluelessness, I was eager to tame my new gentlemanly tool, so I got to practicing.
But the pen seemed stubborn. It made the same-sized strokes over and over again, no matter how much pressure I applied or what angle I turned the nib. Was it me or the pen? After emerging from the rabbit hole of fountain pen research, I’m sharing my enlightening findings with you.
Can you use fountain pens for traditional calligraphy? Whether a fountain pen can do traditional calligraphy or not depends solely on its metal nib. To create the line variations of calligraphy, the nib must either 1) be flexible or soft; or 2) have a broad (or cut) edge. Without these specialized nibs, a fountain pen could only make faux calligraphy.
Aren’t Fountain Pens and Calligraphy Pens the Same?
For the longest time, I thought they were. I’ve always assumed an iconic metal nib was the identifying mark of a calligraphy pen. Hah! Leo, you silly amateur.
Fountain pens and calligraphy pens are different because they’re not interchangeable. While certain fountain pens CAN write beautiful, authentic calligraphy, these aren’t strictly classified as “calligraphy pens”. Let’s clear up the confusion.
First, let’s consider one thing in common between fountain pens and calligraphy pens that got me all confuzzled:
Both use a metallic nib. The hallmark of elegance, this thin, tapered piece of gilded metal at the end of the pen holder comes in various shapes and sizes. It has tines, which are the two sides of the nib divided by a slit down the middle. This design allows ink to flow via capillary action.
Secondly, the differences. There are several more of these and they have to do with the build of the pen, as well as the durability and shape of the nib.
Fountain pens have an INTERNAL reservoir of ink whereas most calligraphy pens are dip pens. Most calligraphy pens are straight dip pens, meaning they must be refilled by dipping the nib into an inkwell (the nib itself contains a small reservoir). Their holder is merely an extension to guide the nib and lacks any type of ink feed.
So, dip pens – which are what the majority of calligraphy pens are – come only with a nib and holder, while fountain pens come with a nib, a holder, and an ink cartridge within the holder.
The durability of the nib. The tines of a calligraphy nib tend to spread relatively wide apart. While this is great for line variation, it wears down the nib, meaning you’ll have to replace it regularly. This is a major reason why most serious calligraphers use dip pens. Their disposable nibs can easily detach and be replaced.
However, a fountain pen nib is often much more durable and costly because of being made from higher quality metals. But this also means most fountain pen nibs must compromise on line variation due to the rigidity of the material.
The shape of the nib. Since standard fountain pens are designed for everyday use, their nib is often tapered to a relatively fine, sturdy point for uniform lettering. It has little flex.
On the other hand, the nib of calligraphy pens is either softer and more flexible, or broad-edged (flat-tipped). The whole purpose of these shapes is to enable you to use more line variation when writing. More on this below.
How To Tell If Your Fountain Pen Specializes in Calligraphy
Although calligraphy pens are highly precise, specialized styluses, fountain pens themselves could also write gorgeous calligraphic scripts. Before scrutinizing your fountain pen to see if it’s got that special touch, though, you need to understand a general rule all calligraphers follow.
Here, examine this sample of script:
All the upstrokes and flourishes are thin while all the downstrokes are thick. See that? This is the cardinal rule. It’s this contrast between thin upstrokes and thick downstrokes that adorns calligraphy with its sophisticated charm.
To create good contrast between the upstrokes and downstrokes, your stylus must be able to apply ink in varying thicknesses. As used several times already, the official jargon for this is “line variation”. Brush tips, flex/soft nibs, and broad-edged nibs are all viable options for creating line variations.
If your fountain pen can achieve these contrasting strokes, then congratulations! You have one whose nib is specialized in traditional calligraphy work.
What if yours can’t produce line variations? Then you have a monoline pen, which isn’t designed for calligraphy. Monoline pens can only apply a uniform stroke of ink, regardless of nib pressure or direction.
Ballpoint, gel, and the majority of fountain pens are considered monoline pens because of their unyielding stub nibs. The dual fountain pens gifted to us, while fancy, nonetheless utilize such.
It’s All About the Nib
The only factor that distinguishes a standard fountain pen from being a specialized calligraphy pen is its nib. To write traditional calligraphy using a fountain pen, it either needs to have 1) a flexible or soft nib; or 2) a broad (or cut) edge nib.
What are they? Flex and soft nibs are a type of fountain pen nib designed with a non-rigid structure, much like those of disposable dip pens. Their tines can likewise split apart more easily, thus allowing more line variations.
There are an array of flex and soft nibs available. Flex nibs tend to have tines that split further apart than soft nibs. Enthusiasts endearingly call the more flexible nibs “wet noodles”.
How to use flex/soft nibs. With these, you control the thickness of your strokes via the amount of pressure you apply. Again, the rule of thumb is thicker, heavier downstrokes and thinner, lighter upstrokes. Not only does this technique beautify your lettering, but it also preserves your nib from damage.
Broad (or Cut) Edge Nibs
What are they? Broad (sometimes referred to as cut) edge nibs have flattened or rounded tips rather than pointed ones, which sort of resemble the edge of a chisel. Their purpose is also to create specific line variations, but more so based on angles rather than on pressure.
How to use broad edge nibs. Unlike flex and soft nibs, which largely rely on manual pressure to produce line variation, broad edge nibs rely on angles and stroke direction.
For example, by turning and maintaining your nib at a 45º angle on the paper, your strokes would be at their thinnest if made along that same angle. On the other hand, they would be at their thickest if made perpendicularly.
What If You Only Have a Regular Fountain Pen?
Even if your fountain pen isn’t equipped with a specialized nib for traditional calligraphy, it can still produce gorgeous faux calligraphy! What’s that?
Faux calligraphy is an embellishing technique that utilizes monoline pens to give the illusion that the lettering was made using a calligraphy pen. It’s an excellent alternative to the real deal, looks fantastic, and beginner-friendly. I encourage you to check out Lindsey Bugbee’s no-fuss, easy-to-follow tutorial on faux calligraphy.