How to Test a Fountain Pen Before Buying It And Other Life Skills

Testing your fountain pen
Fountain pens aren’t only about looks. Aside from a comfortable grip, heft, and length, what’s important for you to notice is way the nib and flow of ink interact with how your hand moves across the paper. With practice and attention in the beginning, you can end up with a pen so attuned to the way you write, it quietly moves out of the way so you can focus on the writing and not on the instrument. Retail shops and pen shows are both great venues to try out pens and compare nibs. Another way is through pen meets, where you can enthuse over inks and pens and paper with people like yourself who otherwise have no one else to talk to, or who have braved the puzzled stares of supportive friends too many times. So how do you figure out which fountain pen is right for the way you write? (Aside from “oooooh pretty,” because we’ve covered that part way too often over the years.)

Name that scribble

If your name is Jennifer or Jafar, you’re in luck. The overhand arc of a cursive capital J and the sag, pinch, and swoop of a lowercase f can expose any potential difficulties with a nib. It’s second nature for many to scribble our names when we test pens in stores, or play with what our friends bring to meets. (Jeffrey also works, John not as much.)
Writing sample with directional arrows for cursive capital J and Q, lowercase f and m
Writing sample with directional arrows for cursive capital J and Q, lowercase f and m
"Jennifer" and "Jafar" written in cursive
Writing sample using names
Writing sample using names like Jennifer, Jafar, Jeffrey, with directional arrows
For those of us not blessed with such stroke variety in our names, there are other options. I do not recommend “The quick gray fox” or any sentence that uses all the letters of the alphabet; I mean, yes, sure, it’s a free world, but I find jumping over lazy dogs awkward and unflowing.

Swirls, loops, and waves

You can mimic writing strokes without writing any words. An undulating, unbroken line going left to right, down one rule, then right to left shows you how well the ink flows from the nib to the page. Figure 8’s are a classic, simple shape sequence. To get the best feel for a nib, draw figure 8’s in several sets, completing each at increasing speed. You can also draw sideways figure 8’s, doing one set from bottom to top and the next from top to bottom.

Unbroken waves and figure 8's drawn on paper
Unbroken waves and figure 8’s
Clockwise and counterclockwise ovals on paper
Oval loops, clockwise and counterclockwise, height x and 2x
Horizontal figure 8s on paper
Horizontal figure 8s, top to bottom, bottom to top
Vertical figure 8s on paper
Vertical figure 8s, left to right, then right to left (expect your brain and hand to stutter when going opposite what you’re used to)
Waves drawn on paper with fountain pen
Intestines? Ruffles? Snakes?
(Observe where the ink pools – normally that’s where your pen slows or stops before continuing)
Waves drawn on paper with fountain pen
More intestines, ruffles, or snakes

Exercise your vocabulary

Some words test nibs and ink flow more than others. I prefer the multisyllabic, sometimes the archaic, festooned with descenders and ascenders. I also like complicated capitals: B’s and Z’s and curly Q’s.
gallimaufry hallucinating (while) defying zigzag, atrophying
Capital letters written in cursive with bright rose ink
Bs and Zs and curly Qs

Other Life Skills

Writing with fountain pens teaches you patience (because ink must dry) and politeness (because borrowed pens must be returned). It also teaches you to ask first.
Written on paper: "Ask if twist or pull BEFORE twisting or pulling"
Ask if twist or pull BEFORE twisting or pulling
To practice restraint.
Written in cursive on paper: "Assume your hand is heavier than you think it is"
Assume your hand is heavier than you think it is
And to save the best for later.

And now it’s your turn

Try these the next time you test a pen, and let me know what you think.