When I bought my first fountain pen twelve years ago, I was plunging into a completely new world of writing. Because I’d only used ballpoint pens before, I encountered problems for which I had no names. Fountain Pen Basics are posts for new fountain pen users who are learning the ropes of their pens. The series will introduce you to fountain pen terminology by looking at the solutions to common fountain pen problems.
There are a few banes of the fountain pen world. None are as bad as the new fountain pen that’s just been removed from the box and fitted with a new cartridge (or filled with the writer’s favorite ink), applied to a blank sheet of paper…only to have the pen’s crisp lines disappear into a tangle of tiny, fuzzy lines. This phenomenon is known as feathering.
In the graphical parlance, feathering simply means a fuzzy or indistinct edge. For the fountain pen, feathering happens when the ink is absorbed by the paper and spreads through the paper’s fibers to create a ragged edge. The form of feathering that is most common is a slightly blurry edge with wispy capillary lines running off of the edge at random. On a very rare occasion, this kind of fuzziness is fine. When I am drawing grungy calligraphy letters, I don’t mind the extra random edges created by the pen. Most of the time, however, feathering ranges from being a nuisance that detracts from the pleasure of using a fountain pen to making my handwriting downright illegible.
Chances are good that if you’ve chosen to write with a fountain pen, it’s because you admire the crisp, dark lines that the ink makes on the page. The idea that these crisp lines can become fuzzy is a drawback bad enough to make you think twice about using a fountain pen. I know I certainly had second thoughts when my second fountain pen turned out to be a feathering maniac.
What can you do to stop feathering?
There are three aspects at play whenever you make a mark on the page with a fountain pen: the nib, the ink, and the paper. In past articles, I talked about nibs. Nibs can be wet writers or dry writers. A “wet writer” is one that puts a lot of ink down on the page. Wet writing pens tend to have more feathering problems because more ink flows onto the page when you make a stroke. A “dry writer” is a nib that does not put down as much ink. A dry writer is usually less prone to feathering, but has the drawback of being more scratchy on the page–or sometimes, with the wrong ink, prone to skipping. Dry writers often make lines that look very sharp on the page. Generally speaking, medium to broad nibs are wet writers, and pens on the extra-fine and fine side are dry writers. If you are looking to buy a new pen that avoids feathering, researching “dry writers” could save you some heartache down the line.
However, it’s likely you already own a fountain pen–so the nib is already a fixed quantity. (A nib can be “adjusted” by a nibmeister who is experienced with grinding and flexing nibs to alter the ink flow, but that is a pretty advanced solution.) That means the two variables that you can control are the ink and the paper.
So let’s talk ink for a moment. Even if you have the driest of dry writers for a nib, how the ink flows through the pen will affect how it writes. Inks have a range of flows. A good flowing ink will set down color on the page well. An ink that flows excessively will put down too much liquid and cause feathering. An ink that has a poor flow may skip, or clog a pen. Finding an ink that has a good flow is an ongoing task. Not all inks play well in all pens.
When I first started using fountain pens, my favorite inks were Levenger inks that were on the poor flow side. The inks would dry quickly, required a lot of cleaning, and often clogged my nibs. I was a meticulous nib-cleaner. I didn’t mind the extra rinses I had to put my nibs through. It seemed worth it for an ink that was dark, lustrous, and didn’t feather. What I didn’t understand was that all inks have different characteristics. I didn’t realize that I could have found an ink to match my pens that wouldn’t feather and wouldn’t clog my pen after every refill.
Two of the inks that have given me the least amount of feathering (or clogging) problems are Waterman Black and Waterman Blue. These inks come in three different kinds of refills: bottled ink (used with converters, pistons, or other filling systems), Waterman cartridges which are double-length and fit into Waterman fountain pens, and standard cartridges (which are small and fit into all pens that are fitted to take standard cartridges). Because of their wide variety of refills, and their easiness to use in pens, I usually recommend these inks first.
If you are new to fountain pens and have a feathering problem: first try Waterman ink.
Next, let’s talk paper. Once upon a time, papers were manufactured to be used with fountain pen inks. They were surfaced to react well to ink, and their rag content was compatible with the juicer dip pens that would often be used side-by-side with internal feed fountain pens. Today’s paper is generally geared towards many different needs. Cheap office paper is generally used for copiers or printers. Most legal pads and other jotting surfaces are designed to stand up to the tips of ballpoint and gel pens. Think paper and expensive paper don’t necessarily equal “great writing experience” either; many expensive papers and many thick papers are designed to be absorbent. Aquarelle papers are lovely, thick, and have an interesting texture. But aquarelle paper is designed for watercolors; fountain pen ink feathers like crazy on its surface. The brands generally considered to be “fountain pen friendly” brands are Rhodia, Quo Vardis, and Clairefontaine. Papers that have a high cotton content are generally considered better for fountain pens. Papers made from bagasse (sugar cane waste) are often cited as a great surface for pens that prevents feathering but may show ink through the opposite site of the page (this problem is also known as bleedthrough). Onion paper (airmail paper) has also been attested to as an anti-feathering paper for wet writers.
Dry writers (or wet writers with the right ink) can overcome some of the issues associated with papers that aren’t generally considered fountain pen friendly. I regularly use Fiorentina journals to keep track of my daily schedule. Some of my wetter-writing fine and medium nibbed pens feather like crazy on the paper. So much so that I sometimes can’t recognize my own handwriting. This is a common headache for small handwriting and feathering ink. Calligraphy on this paper? Completely out of the question! However, a dry writer like my eight-year-old Waterman Hemisphere (fine nib) loaded up with Waterman Blue will produce a crisp, clear line on the Fiorentina paper. Moleskine is often cited as a fountain pen unfriendly brand, but their Folio series journals feature extra-thick pages that have proven to be feathering-resistant with pen and ink combinations that will feather on other, more fibrous papers.
What can you do about feathering without too much stress or money? If you’re experiencing feathering problems, I suggest starting with a feather-resistant ink like Waterman Black or Blue. Rinse out the nib, let the pen dry, load up some new ink and try it out on a range of different papers. Copier paper, journal paper, planner paper, bagasse paper, cotton rag resume paper–whatever kinds you already have on hand. Give each paper type a whirl. If feathering is still a problem, it may be time to try more expensive “fountain pen friendly” brands (or perhaps time to research dry writing fountain pens). For the most part, I think most pens’ feathering issues can be solved by trying inks whose reputations are for feather-free writing.
When you’ve had a chance to stretch your wings, and are looking into experimenting with ink brands and colors that have different flow properties, that’s likely when expensive papers and other fountain pen paraphernalia will make its way to your writing desk. For those looking to venture into different inks, stay tuned for next week’s Ink Spotlight where I will review Private Reserve’s line of inks.