October 27, 2006
Tacticity: The Fountain-Pen -v- Ballpoint
A post today regarding some of my thoughts about Fountain-pens and Ballpoints. When someone moves from a ball-point (which most of my generation have been using their whole life) to a fountain-pen, often their comments range from “smooth” to “better feel” to “more responsive”. Another item that short-term users of FP’s experience is that of paper-quality. As I mentioned before, I never realized how bad paper quality had become in this country until I picked up a fountain-pen. Besides the mere ink/paper combination issues, there is also a tactile issue with the FP nib points. A sharp fine (F or XF) fountain-pen nib is what many call “toothy” on rougher paper. I’ll come back to paper briefly towards the end of this discussion…
The Mechanics and Tribology Of A Nib
In specific, about the tactile feel of a fountain-pen: The nib is comprised of two tines which have a very small vein running between them. This vein in conjunction with the feed and collector is what gets the ink from the pen’s reservoir to the nib-point. Often (especially in the more expensive pens) the nib is made from a single sheet of 14k or other similar type of gold. Gold is quite soft, and coupled with the length- the tines become something reminiscent of a cantilever. Since these are semi-flexible cantilevers, we can expect a response from the nib which is softer and more responsive to paper topology. Now, FP users are probably screaming at me- I’m not describing what we call “semi-flex” or “flexible” nibs here. I’m merely pointing out that there is a flexibility difference between the ball-point and the fountain-pen nib.
As well as the cantilever like tines of a nib, we also have the difference between what I’ll call one-dimensional writing and two-dimensional writing. If you have a ball handy, snag one- anything will do a golf-ball, tennis-ball, a squash-ball, whatever… actually-not everything will do… a football, being non-spherical won’t work. Put your hand flat on the ball, and move forward, backward, etc… rolling the ball between table/floor and hand. Watch the contact point of the ball with the surface you’re rolling against. If you were to start the ball on a logo for instance, the logo moves when rolling, correct? As well, at any point in time, the ball is in contact with the surface at (for all practical purposes) a single point. This point moves- eventually coming back in contact with your hand as you roll past 360°. What you have just observed is how a ball rolls around on a surface. This is exactly how your ball-point rolls around as well! The ball is merely encased in a point which allows the ball to roll, and allows ink to coat the surface of the ball. [Those of you with finger-paints, coat the ball and then roll it around - preferably on a hard-wood mahogany floor... Just kidding!] A fountain-pen is seriously different than this. Imagine taking a tube- say a toilet paper tube or a straw, and cutting one end of it at an angle. This is a very crude approx. of a fountain-pen. Those of you who know your math will know that the end of this tube will be an ellipse- that is, non-circular. I’ll get to that in a second. Now, place that flat cut edge on the same surface as your ball… and drag it around. Left, right, up, down… anything rolling? nope- anything changing contact with the surface? nope! What you have there, my friend is a large area of contact that you are sliding across a surface. Did you notice how much harder it is to slide if you apply the same pressure you did on the ball as on the tube? [Especially easy to notice on a carpet...] The tube grabs and snags the surface sometimes, unless you use a smooth surface and a light touch! This is exactly like the difference between a ball-point and a fountain-pen. Crude, yes, but similar.
Now back to the ellipse of that cut-surface… it’s not exactly the same width as height, right? If you’re unsure of this, snag an ink-pad, or perhaps some ketchup, and dab it into the ink- and then on a piece of paper. You don’t have a circle, because we cut it at an angle. Now, when you drag, you’re dragging the length or the width across the page (or something in between). Since the length of these are different, depending on how you drag it, you get different widths of lines! Interesting, eh? Remember back to the ball… no matter how we rolled it, the contact area of the ball always stayed the same… with your little fake fountain-pen (tube) this is *not* the case! In the extreme cases- Calligraphic fountain-pens, this difference is very pronounced. That is why some lines in characters made with them appear as skinny lines, while others thick. [There's another way of doing this, but I won't discuss that here today.]
How Paper and Ink Plays a Role
Now, a few comments about ink and paper. We have already noticed that the tube sliding across a rough surface is harder to work with than a ball rolling across that same surface- hence, we know that a smoother paper is going to feel better with a fountain-pen than a rougher paper. But, there is also differences in the ink. In a fountain-pen, the ink needs to flow readily from the reservoir to the feed to the nib-point. It must be very very smooth and very liquid. In a ball-point, you want the ink to stick to the ball so that you can get it onto the ball, and roll it onto the paper. Something a bit like paint on a paint-roller. If the roller were as smooth as a ball-point’s steel ball, and the paint was as liquid as water- you’d never get anything on the wall, as it would all run down and off the roller. The same goes with the ball of a ball-point. If the ink is sticky, it’ll stick to the ball, and then to the paper. Remember, we’re not actually sliding anything onto the paper (like a paint-brush)- we’re rolling it on… so it must be sticky. [This is not the case with a roller-ball... which means I have some more thinking to do here.] This sticky thick ink is even more pronounced in the new gel-ink pens. Ever see the ink moving in the ink cartridges? Nope! It’s quite thick, and I suspect (without busting one) quite sticky. So, a fountain-pen’s ink is liquid like. Who cares? Well, the paper cares… if the paper was like glass, do you think the ink would get anywhere? It’d just sit on the surface (if it came out of the fountain-pen at all). To get a nice line, you need to have a slightly absorbent paper. Too absorbent, and the line thickens (draws more ink out of the nib than you want). As well, if the paper is made from rough fibers, without any refinement (try a newspaper), you’ll get lots of ink running along these fibers, making your writing look “fuzzy”… this is called “Feathering”. Since ink from a ball-point doesn’t really flow that much if at all, we don’t have to worry about ink-”flow” into the paper fibers, or along the paper-fibers… hence we can often write on surfaces that aren’t very absorbent, and also on paper that is very rough and very fibrous. Of course there are limits to everything, but this is the general gist of things. So, a fountain pen really wants a smooth paper, with mild absorbency. As well, the lubricity of the ink plays a roll in the tactile feel as mentioned above. Sliding across the page, there is a liquid layer of ink that buffers the nib-point from the topology of the paper… lower the viscosity, or add surfactants, and you have a slippery ink- which will lay a smoother line. Of course there are tradeoffs in formulations, which I can only speculate on…
So, we’ve seen over this post, how a fountain-pen provides more tactile feel on the page. As well, visually the ink will act differently on the page, giving more visual feed-back as to paper absorbence. Ink flow plays a major role as well. Finally, the contact-area of the nib to the page provides not only tactile feel (topology) but also line-width variation- all of which I like to call two-dimensional, or even three-dimensional writing. [Topology will provide a third dimension here.]
All of this above provides the user with a more expressive and tactile experience when using a fountain-pen. In this article, I also haven’t touched on pen-designs, the beauty of a gold-nib, variation in ink-color, type, and even scenting. All of these add to the aspect of using a fountain-pen to write. Visually, the color is immediately noticed as different than a ball-point. Many users of fountain-pens utilize various colors of ink, as well as often mix their own ink colors. This leads to another level of personalization and expressiveness to the simple art of writing – creating a much more complex and enjoyable experience for the writer.