What's the Difference Between Fountain Pens and Ballpoint Pens

When is a pen not just a pen? Most of us have experience writing with a pen. Usually, this is a ballpoint pen. It's totally understandable if anyone under the age of 40 have never heard of a fountain pen before. As a fine writing purveyor, it is our duty to illuminate the modern world with the light of our pen knowledge. In this article, we discuss the origins and differences between the common ballpoint pen and the en vogue fountain pen.

A Brief History of Fountain Pens

History has seen countless versions of the fountain pen, made by creative and innovative people striving to improve humankind's ability to communicate. Each iteration was better than the last, and each became closer to the fountain pen as we know it today. From the caliphs of 9th century Egypt, to Leonardo Da Vinci, to Alonso Cross and Lewis Waterman, the basic concept of a gravity-centered reservoir pen has been tried and tested for over a thousand years. Earlier versions of the fountain pen often look quite similar to those we are familiar with today, with their long-lined barrels and iconic pointed nibs, but there are striking differences in material, mechanism, and usability.

Parts of a Fountain Pen

In its simplest sense, a fountain pen is composed of three main parts: the nib, the barrel, and the ink. These work in tandem to create a smooth and fluid writing experience. The barrel is essentially the body of the pen, as it contains all of the instrument’s working parts in its casing. Ink is a fountain pen’s lifeblood, as it allows the writer to leave their mark on paper or on other mediums. It is inserted into the barrel via one of several methods, depending on the mechanism of the fountain pen (see image), and flows out through the nib. The nib is truly the heart of the fountain pen. To use a common idiom, it is "where the rubber meets the road." The nib precisely directs the ink so that the writer can create markings and maintains a consistent ink flow to allow for long term writing without having to dip the nib in an inkwell. For more details, check out our article on how fountain pens work!

What is a fountain pen nib?

Fountain pen nibs are what makes this type of pen so distinct and recognizable, and for good reason. The nib is made of metal, sometimes gold, and stands out as the "bright and shiny" attractive accent of the pen's design. The complexity and variety of nibs makes the feeling of writing with a fountain pen smoother and richer than any other writing instrument.

Part of what makes each fountain pen so unique is that it can be fitted with a number of various nib sizes. Most fountain pen brands offer sizes that range from extra fine (EF) to broad (B), but some specialty pens can include calligraphy style or flexible point nibs. A variety of nib sizes allows the writer to tailor their instrument to their writing preferences.

How to fill a fountain pen

While it does garner the same attention as the fountain pen nib, the type of filling mechanism in the pen is just as vital to the writing experience. Fountain pens have a plethora of options when it comes to filling mechanisms, each with its own benefit. Among the most common is the cartridge mechanism, which has the benefit of convenience. It simply requires an insertion into the pen. The converter mechanism is often compatible with cartridge-compatible pens, but is a bit of a messier mechanism. However, unlike cartridges, the converter allows for use of bottled ink. Similarly, the piston mechanism uses suction to uptake bottled ink into the pen. But while a converter must be inserted into a pen, a piston-fill allows for the ink to be taken in directly into the barrel. Learn about more fountain pen filling mechanisms here.

With the myriad of possibilities available for both nibs and ink filling, fountain pens can be made truly unique to suit their user’s writing needs. The ability to mix and match in such a customizable way is what has given fountain pens such a dedicated following, even in today’s digital age.

A Brief History of Ballpoint Pens

Relative to the fountain pen, the ballpoint pen was invented much more recently. The earliest recorded version of it was created around 1888 by John Loud, but the ballpoint as we know it was not invented until the 1930s. László Bíró, the inventor of the modern fountain pen, created the ballpoint pen to be suitable for use with quick-drying ink for practicality and convenience, and a worldwide frenzy to popularize and capitalize on his invention soon followed. Read more about the ballpoint pen’s fascinating history here.

Parts of a Ballpoint Pen

As anyone who has ever disassembled a ballpoint pen will know, this pen is primarily made up of a barrel, ink cartridge, and, if it is retractable, a spring and thrust device. Surprisingly, the construction of the ballpoint pen is similar to the fountain pen. The barrel serves the same purpose of encasing all of the pen’s moving parts, and the ink cartridge similarly functions to create markings on paper. The most obvious structural difference between the two is in the retraction mechanism, which is much more commonly found in ballpoints than fountain pens. This feature contributes to the ease and convenience that the ballpoint pen has become so renowned for, as the user has no need to keep track of a stray cap.

How to Tell if a Pen is Ballpoint or Fountain

Simply put, ballpoint pens and fountain pens can be differentiated most easily by the type of tip they have. When the pen is uncapped, observe the point at which the ink flows out. If the nib is a miniscule cone shape with a tiny ball at the end, it is likely a ballpoint, though it may also be a rollerball pen (see how to tell the difference between ballpoint and rollerball here). Alternatively, if the nib has a larger “body”, with a gently curved metal surface and visible inscriptions, that’s a fountain pen!

Beyond just general appearance, though, you can tell the difference between a ballpoint and fountain pen from the way each of them writes. Because ballpoint pens use an oil-based ink instead of a fountain pen’s water-based one, the feeling of writing with the ballpoint is far less fluid. In addition, the visual impact of ink on paper is much more pronounced when using a fountain pen as opposed to a ballpoint. The colors tend to be more vibrant, and the ink lines more pronounced. This is all a result of the fountain pen’s more consistent and flowing ink, which is not compatible with the ballpoint pen’s functional mechanism.

Fountain Pen vs. Ballpoint Pen: Why Does it Matter?

While the differences between both of these equally remarkable types of pens is often very obvious, what is less clear is why this distinction even matters. Why exactly should one care what type of pen is in their hand, so long as ink is put to paper, one way or another?

Ultimately, it comes down to why you write. Writing can be artful, thoughtful, and even meditative, the flow of ink an extension of the hand. It can be something of style and beauty, even something historical. By these criteria, a writer is far more likely to gravitate towards a classic fountain pen. On the other hand, writing can also be something of necessity, something that requires accessibility and convenience. It can be done with style, but in a way that does not require the writer to be so aware of the way their hand pushes into the paper. For a more widely common, practical writing experience, convenience-driven writers tend to lean towards using ballpoint pens.

What people often forget, however, is that it doesn’t have to be one or the other - fountain or ballpoint. There is a time and place for both, and room in our hearts to embrace both tradition and modernity. After all, there will never be a lack of ideas to put on paper - it’s just a matter of choosing the proper tool for the job.