Fountain Pen Parts
A fountain pen is composed of many parts. Let's take a look at those parts.
The Parts of a Fountain Pen
The parts of a modern cartridge/converter fountain pen, such as the Parker Sonnet illustrated below, are as follows:
The nib is the part that writes. Usually made of steel, 14k gold, or 18k gold, and tipped with some hard metal. Shiny. Nibs are complex enough to deserve their own page.
This is the regulator that provides even ink flow to the nib. The feed was the thing that separates L. E. Waterman's 1884 pen (usually credited as the first practical fountain pen) from previous attempts. Usually made of plastic or ebonite (hard rubber).
Not all fountain pens will have a collector. The collector acts as a giant ink trap, with the purpose of making the pen start writing more reliably.
The section joins the nib and feed to the barrel.
The main body of the pen. Usually some filling system lives inside.
Modern cartridge fountain pens use a disposable ink cartridge that plugs into the back of the section.
Modern cartridge pens are often fitted with converters, which go in the same place as the cartridge but incorporate some proper filling mechanism to allow the use of bottled ink. This "converts" a cartridge pen into a bottle-filling pen.
The cap covers the nib and section when the pen is not in use, and prevents the point from drying out too quickly.
There are loads of filling mechanisms out there, although modern pens are generally either cartridge/converter or piston fill. Read more about filling mechanisms.
The shiny bits can be done many ways.
Gold has historically been the preferred shiny substance for everything. Gold purity is designated by karat. Pure gold (well, 99.9% pure) is marked 24. Less pure gold is marked by the fraction of pure gold. The most common are 14k (often marked 585, since 0.585 is very close to 14/24) and 18k (often marked 750, because 0.750 is 18/24). Different countries have different standards regarding what may be advertised as "solid gold;" in Europe it is usually 18k, while the standard is 10k in the USA and 9k in the UK. Note that pure gold generally cannot be used for parts as it is too soft, which is why 14k or 18k gold is used.
Gold plate is the most common trim for the shiny bits on modern pens. A thin layer of gold (in the microns range) is electroplated onto a base metal, often steel or brass. This produces nice shiny objects, but after a number of years of constant use, the plating will start to wear off, exposing the base metal. This doesn't look so good.
Gold fill, sometimes known as rolled gold, is a more durable means of applying gold to a base metal. Here, sheet gold is fused to a base metal and hammered out. The gold layer is substantially thicker than electroplate (a few orders of magnitude), often thick enough to engrave without exposing the base metal. Sometimes, but not always, you'll see markings on the gold filled portion indicating how much gold. For example, 1/10 14k indicates that 1/10 of the mass of the thingy is 14k gold. Gold fill must be at least 1/20 (rolled gold may be less) and the most common types of solid gold are 10k, 12k, and 14k.
Sterling silver is 92.5% pure silver (the remainder is usually copper or some other cheaper metal) and is often marked .925. Silver is used in expensive modern pens as well as vintage overlays. It's shiny.
For extra extravagance, you can find pens using vermeil, which is gold plate over sterling silver. Expensive. Also shiny.
You can make pens out of all sorts of things. Some of the more common constructions for modern and vintage pens are described below.
- This is a fancy way of saying plastic. Modern plastic is ideal pen material: lightweight, durable, easy to manufacture, and so on. Many top-end pens are simply plastic, but we can't call it that because the marketing folks think that makes it sound cheap (yes, the Montblanc "precious resin" is just a high gloss injection-molded plastic). Plastic does have an unfortunate tendency to scratch, however.
- Lacquer over Brass
- The barrel is made from machined brass, which is covered in many layers of thin lacquer (which is basically paint, y'know). You can make some really pretty pens this way. The brass construction makes it rather heavy but very durable. The lacquer can chip under abuse, though, and that really ruins the appearance.
- Stainless Steel
- Making the barrel out of stainless steel has the advantage of being very durable without being excessively heavy, and it stays pretty for a long time if you happen to like the look of stainless steel. Steel pens (especially Parkers) are sometimes called "Flighters."
- Cellulose nitrate (also known as Radite) was used extensively in the 1930s. It is an early plastic that can produce some pretty spectacular patterns. It does have an unfortunate tendency to discolor or burn more easily than modern plastics and cannot be injection molded. Modern celluloid is usually cellulose acetate, which does not have the more unfortunate features of cellulose nitrate. Some Italian and Japanese penmakers still make celluloid pens, many of which are quite pretty.
- Hard Rubber
- Early (before the 1930s) fountain pens used hard rubber for the barrels. At the time, it was lightweight and easy to machine. Hard rubber is extremely prone to discoloring in light and heat and is not as durable as modern plastics. The choice of colors (black, red, or red ripple, basically) is also very limited. With the advent of celluloid and plastics, penmakers got the heck away from hard rubber.
- Overlay on Hard Rubber
- Some high-end early hard rubber pens feature a metal (usually silver) overlay on the body. These pens look expensive. These pens are expensive.
- Sterling Silver
- Making an entire pen body out of sterling silver is a way to make an expensive pen.
- You usually see this in kit-made pens advertised in local flea markets and online (as "handmade wood pens"). Wood is turned on a lathe to make a hollow cylinder, to which generic sections, end caps, and clips are attached, with the ubitquitous generic "Iridium Point Germany" nibs. Major brand name manufacturers almost never make pens out of wood.