If you’re looking for a way to cut down on your single-use plastic items, why not swear off disposable pens and discover the old-school delights of the fountain pen; fountain pens feel better in the hand, improve retention, and are perhaps the most eco-friendly writing tools available for your home or office.
Disposable plastic pens first became widely available in the 1960s, replacing fountain pens and pencils, and their use has skyrocketed since then. Disposable pens are very difficult to recycle because of their many components and recycling companies generally won’t take them; so up to 1.6 billion of them end of in landfill each year, according to the EPA.
How to Kick Your Disposable Pen Habit
You’ve already given up on plastic straws and replaced them with reusable glass or stainless steel ones. Why not take the next step? Now is the perfect time to kick your disposable pen habit and invite the reusable joy of the fountain pen into your life.
I bought my first fountain pen back in 1989—a blue-marbled Pelikan that cost me $110, an outrageous fortune at the time for a freelance journalist. But guess what? I still love this pen and, after nearly 30 years of use, it writes even better than when I first got it.
A fountain pen is a pen that can be refilled with ink from a bottle. (Many also take pre-filled plastic ink cartridges, which you will want to avoid if you want to reduce your plastic footprint.) A good fountain pen will last decades—even as long as a lifetime—with a minimal amount of care.
Relaxing for the Hand & the Mind
Writing with a fountain pen feels different than writing with a ballpoint or gel pen. Fountain pens don’t require much pressure for the ink to flow. You may find that your hand glides across the page with little effort, which is relaxing to the hand and to the mind. Fountain pens change with how you write over time. The nib, or tip, of a fountain pen wears to your particular writing style, so it feels even better with age.
Fountain pens feel better to write with–and they’re better for you. According to researchers at UCLA, writing by hand resulted in better retention and memory than those typing out notes. Fountain pens are better for the environment and will also help you keep your memory sharp.
Fountain Pen Basics
You don’t need to spend $100 to give fountain pens a try. Today there are many quality pens available for under $40 and lots of good ones for under $20 (and even under $10) that will last for years. I recommend my favorites below.
Parts of a Fountain Pen
All fountain pens have a cap, barrel (or body), ink reservoir or converter (for pens that also take cartridges), feed, and nib. Different pens may have different ink filling mechanisms. The ink flows from the reservoir through the feed and out of the nib, which can be made of materials ranging from steel to gold. Nibs may come in Fine, Extra Fine, Medium, Broad, Flex or other sizes that produce corresponding line widths. For example, a Fine nib will make a fine, narrow line, a Medium a middle-sized line, and a Flex will widen depending on how much pressure you put on the paper. Generally, the wider the nib, the more flexible it will be and the more ink it will lay on paper.
To change your ink color, you first have to flush your fountain pen with water until it runs clear (use distilled water if you live in an area with particularly hard water). You can buy small vials of sample inks online for $1-2 to try out colors. When you’re ready, a couple-ounce bottle of really good ink costs from $6-20 and will last you for years.
Most fountain pens do not leak, but there is always the possibility of a leak, so be aware of ink on your hands while wearing your best white work shirt. Different inks and paper dry at different rates, so watch for smearing when you write as you learn the ropes.
Don’t leave a fountain pen sitting unused for months (or years) with ink inside of it. The ink can dry up and clog up the pen’s feed. If you know you won’t be writing for a while, it’s better to empty your ink, flush the pen, and set it aside for later.
If you are flying with a fountain pen, place it in a separate pouch or bag to protect against the risk of leakage. While I’ve flown many miles with mine and have yet to have a leak, it’s better to be safe than sorry.
Goulet Pen Company has an excellent Fountain Pen 101 YouTube series, including sections on the best pens for lefties and pen cleaning and maintenance.
What’s the Right Pen for You?
The only way to know which fountain pen is right for you is to try one. Search for “fountain pen store near me” to find one that has a wide array of samples you can try. Take note of how pens differ in their weight distribution, how they fit in your hand, and how the ink flows. Do you prefer neat, small letters or bold, broad lines? Try a fine or extra-fine nib for small lines and a medium, wide, or flex nib for wider lines. Does the pen feel scratchy? Try out a larger nib.
There are many decent starter fountain pens available for under $40. My personal favorites are the LAMY Safari ($30), a wet and smooth-writing German-made pen that comes in a variety of fun colors; the Pilot Metropolitan ($20), a Japanese pen available in metal retro pop designs; the Jinhao 51A ($8-15) and the Jinhao Shark ($4), both of which are very smooth and durable and come in lots of fun colors (and shark fins!).
Whether you use pens to take notes during meetings or to write in your journal at home, fountain pens are a delight to use—and they’ll help cut back on your plastic footprint, improve your retention, and brighten your day.
Pia Hinckle is publisher at The FruitGuys.