Flexible nibs are what constitutes calligraphy
Calligraphic writing techniques are based on flexible, pointed nibs to achieve the transition between thick and thin strokes by changing the amount of pressure you apply to them.
(There are techniques that call for a slanted, broad nib, where you change the angle of your writing instrument, but those are not covered here).
Pressure applied on downstrokes means that the tines spread and let more ink onto the paper.
So calligraphy is all about the flexibility of the nib.
Fountain pens are usually not flexible, there are however flexible models, for example Noodler’s pens. These very inexpensive pens are the only ones I’d recommend for beginner’s practice, they are very sturdy and you don’t have to be afraid to break them due to the price. You can also take them apart entirely for cleaning or for mounting spare parts.
If you want to spend a ridiculous amount of money, search for Waterman Wet Noodle pens – those are antique pens with a gold nib you can only purchase from specialized pen dealer or collectors, and due to their age (100 years and more) and their rarity they are really expensive.
I use a Waterman pen from time to time when doodling around on my couch for different type design projects, it’s wonderfully convenient and they write great, but for calligraphy projects and especially for client work I always come back to the traditional dip pens that sit at my desk.
One more thing about fountain pens is (especially when referring to the Noodler’s models), is that they do work for calligraphy practice, but those pens are far, far away from being as flexible as a dip pen.
With certain Waterman pens you can theoretically achieve similar flexing to your dip pens, but they’re also very easy to break if you apply too much pressure, and given their price tag, that’s not desirable. So if you’re a bit of a klutz like me or know you usually apply a lot of pressure while writing, go for the Noodler’s pens instead. The Ahab and the Nib Creaper are good models to try out.
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Using flexible fountain pens for practice
You can use flexible fountain pens for practicing calligraphy – with a few restrictions.
I found them helpful in the beginning when I struggled with everything at once – dipping, ink flow, letter shapes, keeping a straight line, avoid getting ink all over the place and over my hands. Using a flexible fountain pen to practice the letter shapes and get a feeling for calligraphy helped me a lot – you don’t have to dip every few words and the ink flow is steady and you get less ink globs.
That said, you can of course practice your letterforms and keeping your lines straight with a regular pen, you can even create “faux” calligraphy with them by manually adding broader downstrokes at the right places. I’ve done this too a few times in the beginning and I sometimes do it when I’m lettering instead of creating calligraphy, but I found the additional step of having to go back and fix your downstrokes too time-consuming. I preferred using a fountain pen at that stage, even if they have certain limitations.
Limitations of Flexible Fountain Pens
The downside of “flexible” fountain pens, and especially the Noodler’s models, is that you have to exert a lot more pressure on them than on regular dip pens. After a few hours of writing and practicing, I usually had to stop because my hand hurt so much. These days, using a pen holder and nibs, I can write all day and my hand won’t be tired.
Dip nibs are far more flexible, even the harder nibs (like the Nikko G which works great for beginners), and they probably also can produce thinner lines – all in all their flexibility is far greater.
Also keep in mind you’ll only ever have one nib on your fountain pen, not the variety of literally hundreds and thousands of different nibs to choose from.
That said, you can produce beautiful calligraphy with a fountain pen when using certain writing styles. It doesn’t work with every style, but you can achieve good results.
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Differences between fountain pens and dip nib pens and shifting to dip nibs
The writing experience between fountain pens and dip nib pens is quite different.
Fountain pens are a lot more silent, and usually way more forgiving when you push the nib into the paper – you absolutely can’t do that with a dip pen.
The tip of dip pens is usually fine and sharp. That’s why you shouldn’t exert any pressure on your upstrokes or they will catch on the paper. Dip nibs are more scratchy. They’re practically supposed to be loud. Don’t think you’re doing something wrong when you’re used to the silence and the low resistance you’re used to from fountain pens.
When shifting from fountain pen practice to dip nib practice, keep in mind that you’ll have to pay attention to a few more things from now: you’ll actually have to dip them in ink, make sure the ink doesn’t splatter all over the place, pay attention to the ink flow – I’ve covered those in my “Beginner’s Guide to Calligraphy”.
Sometimes it’s a bit of trial and error, but you’ll find a good nib-ink-paper-combination after a short time.
Taking good care of your fountain pen
Even if you don’t use it for calligraphy all the time, a flexible fountain pen is still a good writing instrument you should properly take care of.
One thing you have to know is that fountain pens need different ink, you should never use India ink or Sumi ink in them, or any kind of acrylic-based ink – or it will clog them and possibly render unusable. Be very careful to clean the fountain pen frequently and don’t leave in any kind of ink for a long time (more than a few months), as this can potentially destroy its inner workings. The Noodler’s pens are very maintenance-friendly, you can take them apart and rinse in water entirely.
There are many beautiful shades of fountain pen ink available which you can choose from, just keep in mind that these are usually neither water-resistant nor lightfast. When writing something you want to put on a wall, you should use an ink that is lightfast, or it will fade quickly.
Flexible fountain pens are a great way to try out if you like calligraphy, and for everyday writing I prefer them over normal pens or biros any day. Signing documents with a fountain pen feels much more official, and I like the smooth flow you can achieve when writing with them.
All in all I like having the variety for different writing purposes.