A brief introduction to the care and maintenance of fine fountain pens
Pen Stuff: “Write” Thinking for Fountain Pens
Brief History of the Fountain Pen
The modern fountain pen with self contained ink supply was invented in 1884. The fountain pen became a staple of society until the ball point pen was invented in 1947. This limited the sale of fountain pens in the U.S.A., but not in Europe. The fountain pen has recently made resurgence in popularity in the U.S.A. mainly due to technological advances making the fountain pen easier to use and the pen is less likely to leak.
Many people are now longing for the nostalgia of the hand written note. Nothing makes you feel better than to receive the personal touch of a note that someone took the time to sit and write.
Why a Fountain Pen?
Many people wonder why they should use a fountain pen. Fountain pens offer an expression to a person’s handwriting. Through a change in pressure of the pen to the paper, you can achieve a variety of lines, from thick to thin. The ball point and roller ball will not give you this variety of line.
Many people also believe that fountain pens improve their penmanship. The basic nature of a fountain pen forces the user to write a little more slowly, hence creating neater, more legible handwriting.
Unlike a ball point or roller ball pen, a fountain pen allows for more choices when it comes to ink colors and shades. With a ballpoint or rollerball, blue is blue and black is black. That is not the case with fountain pen ink.
Writing with a Fountain Pen
The proper manner to hold a fountain pen is in the triangle created by your first two fingers and your thumb. The nib of the pen should be up, so that you may see the engraving (if any) on the nib; the black portion of the nib (the feed) should be down. The fountain pen nib is a piece of metal, either steel or gold or titanium, which is split down the center. On the underside of the nib, on both pieces of the split, is a half ball of iridium. If the fountain pen is held properly, both sides of the tip of the nib should hit the paper at the same time, allowing for a smooth feel and a consistent flow of ink.
There are two different ways to handle the cap of a fountain pen. Probably the most common manner is to post the cap on the back of the pen, aligning the clip with the nib. If the pen is held properly, the clip will be out of the way of your hand, and the cap will help with the balance of the pen in your hand. If the fountain pen feels uncomfortable in the hand, you may decide to use the cap in the “European” style, setting the cap on the desk as you write. Rather than setting the cap down, many people may decide to hold it in their non-writing hand.
Picking a Bottled Ink
Ink should always be chosen by color preference, not by brand. You should only use ink that is designed for fountain pens, and you should NEVER use India ink. India ink contains a lacquer that will seize the mechanism in a fountain pen and cause permanent and irreversible damage.
If you choose to use bright colored inks, such as pinks, purples, and reds, use them in a dedicated pen and do not mix ink colors. In other words, pick a pen and use that color only. Bright colored inks have the tendency to stain the barrels and converters of fountain pens. Some ink varieties we prefer would include: Sheaffer, Black, Blue and Blue –Black. We find these inks to be consistently less problematic.
Filling a Fountain Pen
Cartridges for fountain pens come in a variety of shapes and sizes. Some brands, such as Sheaffer use full-sized cartridges that fill the entire barrel of the pen.
Fountain pen brands such as, Levengers and Waterford, use mini cartridges, when using a full-sized pen that requires a mini cartridge also known as a standard European ink cartridge, you should drop one cartridge, narrow side down, into the barrel, and plug the other cartridge narrow side up into the rear section of the nib. This piggy-back system serves two purposes: you have a spare cartridge when your pierced cartridge runs out, and it creates a snug fit for the cartridge you are using.
Note: Certain pens that use the mini cartridges do not use the piggy-back system and will only accept one cartridge.
Converter or Piston
A pen that fills from a bottled ink requires a little more care than a cartridge pen, however, it is not as intimidating as most people would think. Most converters operate using a piston system. This requires a knob to be turned counter-clockwise to move the piston forward, immersing the entire nib into a bottle of ink, and then turning the knob clockwise to draw the ink. Once the converter or reservoir is filled, you should lift the nib out of the ink, turn the piston knob counter-clockwise to bleed out two or three drops, turn the pen nib up, and then turn the knob clockwise again. Bleeding the pen will allow for the normal expansion of liquid that occurs within a fountain pen due to environmental changes.
When cleaning the nib after filling your fountain pen, you should always use a paper towel or a cotton cloth. Never use a tissue; this may leave particles of lint in your nib causing ink flow inconsistencies.
Cleaning a Fountain Pen – Personal or Professional
Absolute Best: Remove the nib from the feed and section. Place all parts including cap in an ultrasonic cleaner. Then take the filling system apart and lubricate all moving parts. Gently brush the feed and then reassemble the pen taking care to set the nib square on the feed.
Hint: By leaving the cap on the back of the pen and cleaning it last, you can use it as a guide to reposition the nib in its original slot or key.
Note: Most modern converters and pistons can be disassembled with the right tools and “know how”. This does not include a hammer!
Best: We have found it is best to use an ultrasonic machine (jewelry cleaning machine) with a mixture of three parts water to one part sudsy ammonia. Do not let the water get hot. Do not clean any part of the pen that is celluloid in this solution. It is advisable to rinse before and after with cool tap water. Allow all parts that will come in contact with ink to completely dry.
Hint: In a pinch Windex, with Ammonia works as a cleaning solution straight out of the bottle.
Note: Ultrasonic jewelry cleaning machines may be purchased in some of the major discount stores, normally in the jewelry department.
Second Best: There is a regular monthly maintenance procedure that you should follow with your fountain pen. It is recommended that you flush your fountain pen with cool, clear water on a monthly basis. The easiest way to flush a pen that has a converter or piston is to draw clear water as you would ink, expel the water, and repeat this until the water coming out of your pen is clear. It is a repetitive process that may take a little while, but it is necessary.
You should also do the flush whenever you change ink colors or brands. You can also remove the converter, clean that part on its own by filling and emptying, and then run cool water from the tap through the back of the pen blowing through it until the ink color is gone. Remember to blow dry or air dry the nib section and converter completely.
Hint: When you blow through the pen keep your head deep in the sink to avoid splatter. If the water you expel from the fountain pen doesn’t lose color after persistent flushing, and your pen is NOT made of celluloid, you may use a solution of 3 parts water to one part sudsy ammonia. Allow your nib section to soak in this solution for about 30 minutes, and then flush with cool water. Fountain pen ink is ammonia soluble and this solution will break down any dried ink that cannot be loosened with plain water. Be advised: Celluloid is also ammonia soluble, so DO NOT use this solution if your pen is celluloid. When in doubt, just use water.
Hint: Clean out the cap of the pen too. If you do not and ink is present in the cap, it might flow down on the nib and make the pen appear to be leaking even if the ink appears to be dry on the inside of the cap. Moisture (evaporation) from the ink in the pen will hydrate the ink in the cap after filling and capping.
We suggest a thorough professional cleaning once a year or for extremely clogged pens. This allows you to get the pens back into top working order. This type of cleaning usually involves the complete disassembly / reassembly and cleaning of the pen nib, cap and convertor. Check the web or inquire with your dealer for cleaning services. Some manufacturers may also offer this service for a fee.
Hint: Send in several pens to amortize the shipping cost. Service charges may vary if extensive repairs are needed.
Ink Removal from Hands and Fabric
When it comes to getting ink on your hands, there are several options that you have to remove it. Amodex is a product available on the market that will remove fountain pen ink from skin and many fabrics. It has a lotion consistency that is gentle on your skin, and works like a dream! Soap and water is always an acceptable way to remove ink from hands. It may require some scrubbing, depending on the water resistance of the ink. In a pinch, when neither Amodex nor a sink are available try spritzing your hands with a little Windex. The ammonia in the Windex will help to remove the ink.
Hint: Ballpoint ink dissolves with alcohol. Amodex claims their product will also remove ball point ink, blood and rust.
Fountain Pen Storage
Filled fountain pens should always be stored nib up, as they would be in a shirt pocket. You should never store a fountain pen nib down…GRAVITY WORKS. Filled fountain pens should never be stored for an extended period of time. When you fill a pen, consider it a commitment to use it. Storing a pen that is filled with ink could cause the ink to dry in the pen, creating flow problems and possible piston damage.
If you plan on storing your fountain pen for an extended period of time, you should always empty the pen and flush it with cool water before putting it away. This will ensure that the barrel is clean and there is no ink inside that can lock or freeze the piston and create a problem that may need to be resolved by a professional repair.
Hint: A pencil cup or a glass flower holder, sometimes referred to as a flower frog are great ways to temporarily store pens that have been inked.
Pen questions and answers 3-30-2009
Q: How do I store a piston-fill or converter filled fountain pen that I may not use for a while?
A: Flush clean and dry the pen so that all ink is completely removed. When this is not possible or time does not permit, quickly clean the pen with cool water to remove as much ink as possible and then fill the pen and leave it filled with distilled water. This will prevent the piston from seizing when stored for long periods of time. This will also prevent having to send the pen in for repair and a complete strip-down and cleaning.
Q: Which lasts longer, fountain pen , a roller ball refill, or a ball point refill?
A: A fountain pen filled from a bottle will last the longest. A rollerball refill will last an average of 30 legal size pages. A ball point refill will last an average of 300 legal-size pages. The fountain pen is the most economical because a 2 oz. bottle of ink will typically last almost a year. So, next time someone comments on your latest fountain pen purchase, just tell them that you are being economical!
Q: How often should I clean my fountain pen, and how do I know when it dirty?
A: It is best to clean a fountain pen at least once a month removing all the old ink from the feed and fill system, however, if you are using red, purple or green inks in the pen it is probably best to clean it twice a month. As to knowing when it’s dirty, reduction in the quality of writing is a good indication, dried ink on the feed or nib would be another. Remember to let the pen dry before refilling because water and ink do not mix well.
Q: What is the best method for cleaning a fountain pen?
A: The best method is to have your pen professionally cleaned but if you find yourself short on time, try this: Mix a solution of 50% Windex and 50% cold water. Never use hot water. Fill pen with cleaning solution and then empty. Repeat this process until the pen appears to be ink free, then flush with cool water. Shake excess liquid from the pen by wrapping the nib in a paper towel and shaking downward like a thermometer.
Q: I am considering a writing instrument as gift. What is the best type of pen to give? How do I choose between a fountain pen, roller ball or ball point pen?
A: Choosing a pen as a gift can be quite easy if one applies a few simple rules. It’s probably not a good idea to give a fountain pen as a gift unless the person is a fountain pen person or has asked for one. People tend to have personal preferences for nib sizes and styles of nibs i.e. fine, medium, broad or stub.
Roller balls write great, but the refills tend to last for only about 30 pages. Ball point pens can write up to 300 pages with a Parker style refill (Waterford RF/26). If the pen takes a Parker style refill, it will also take a gel refill.
Check the guarantee and reputation of the company with the salesperson; you may be surprised at what you will find.
Finally, see what refill the pen takes. The more universal the refill, the easier it will be to find.
Q: What is the best paper to use with a fountain pen?
A: The best paper to use is a high cotton content rag paper in a smooth finish. Choose a brand of paper that’s a little thicker than normal fax paper or the cheaper legal pads. We have found that both fax papers and inexpensive legal pads have a tendency to wax up and clog a fountain pen. Most are made with recycled paper that contains some amount of wax.
Q: What is a capless roller ball?
A: Created in the late 80’s to be a substitute for the fountain pen, roller balls as a class, have been extremely successful. There are two basic types of roller balls, capless and non-capless.
Capless refills are used mainly in twist or click-action pens but are sometimes used in capped pens as well. This style of refill will not dry out when exposed to air, so they do not need a cap to protect them. Some of the capless refills like those used in Waterford Kilbarry RF/33 (Schmidt P 8126) will interchange with Parker style ball point refills (Waterford RF/26).
Non-capless refills fit a majority of the capped roller balls out there, Waterford RF/36 or Schmidt 5888 or 888. For the most part, the cap slows the evaporation of the ink, so it becomes very important to keep your pen capped when not in use. This is the system used on all Waterford and Levenger capped roller ball pens.
So, what is a roller ball?
A: In its simplest form it is a steel or plastic tube filled with water based ink similar to that of fountain pen ink. It is delivered to the paper by means of a smooth free spinning ball. The ball is usually steel, or in some cases, ceramic. The roller ink is delivered to the ball by a series of tiny inline discs or a fiber type wick, unlike a ballpoint that has divots in the ball (like a golf ball) and a paste-type ink. A ball point spins picking up the paste ink and deposits it on the paper in little dots that form a semi solid line.
The roller ball is clearly the easiest and smoothest writing instrument to use out of the box. They are renowned for their dark line, smooth feel, and quick writing when new and fresh. The quality will diminish considerably as they get older or used.
The average life expectancy of the roller ball is approximately 30 legal pages. You might refer to roller balls as the sport cars of pens; they go fast on the paper but use a tremendous amount of fuel.
Some interesting variants of rollers include Gel Rollers. They use gel ink in a roller refill instead of the normal water based ink, this seems to last longer, and tends to be a bit more water resistant. The Pilot G2 which is a standard Schmidt 5888/888 style European refill is also a gel roller in colors that will fit a number of standard pens like the Waterford and Levenger capped roller balls. The colors available are black, blue, red, green and purple.
When using any capless refill, great care needs to be taken, as these have a tendency to wick in your pocket, even if they are closed. The tiny fibers in the seam of your pocket can stick up and become lodged in the tip of the pen. If these fibers make contact with the roller ball they will wick and form a stain on the fabric.
It is recommended that when purchasing a roller ball you give consideration to the cost of the refill. A standard Schmidt 5888 (Waterford RF/36) sells for far less when compared to that of a branded refill and yet they are basically the same refill. Check to see what refills fits your roller ball pen. You do not always need to purchase the same brand as the pen. Keep in mind; Schmidt makes 80% of the refills out there, mostly under private label. A majority of manufacturers use some type of Schmidt refill that are either capless or non-capless.
Q: What is a brand dedicated refill?
A: Brand dedicated refills refer to refills designed to fit one brand of pen only. A good example of this is the Sheaffer or Lamy fountain pens, ball points and roller balls. You may have some wiggle room here but be very careful if using a different brand of refill the wrong refill can easily damage the pen.
Q: What is the proper way to fill a piston filled pens?
A: The process is pretty straight forward; here is a step by step guide.
1) Turn the piston knob at the bottom of the pen counter-clockwise until it comes to a stop. Do not force it. Make sure the nib of the pen is facing down and over a sink, just in case the pen has ink in it. Do not return the ink to the bottle as this may contaminate the bottle.
2) Place the nib in the ink bottle, submerging the nib up to and including about 1/16 of an inch of the nib section. This will keep air bubbles from forming in the pen; gently turn the piston knob clockwise until it stops. Lightly tap the nib on the inside of the ink bottle to remove loose ink.
3) Remove the pen from the ink and let out 2 to 3 drops of ink (slightly closing the piston) by turning the piston knob counter-clockwise. Blot and wipe the nib to remove all visible ink using a lint free paper towel, or cloth. Do not use a tissue.
4) Point the pen nib upward and reopen the piston by turning the piston knob clockwise. You might hear a slurping sound as you fully open the piston. This is the overflow from the feed going into the piston reservoir. Omission of this step is the main reason pens appear to leak. The feed is full of ink from filling that expands into the cap and then down onto the grip section. This is why it is important to bleed the pen.
The above information also applies to converter filled fountain pens.
Q: How do I replace my ball point refill?
A: All ball point caps unscrew counter-clockwise allowing the ball point pen to come apart into two pieces. The cap or top contains the mechanism and the body or bottom part of the ball point the refill and spring (do not lose the spring). Remove the ball point refill from the body and check to see if matches the new refill. Insert the ball point refill into the body making sure it clears the spring; try pressing the end of the ball point refill down to see if it easily protrudes through the writing end of the ball pen. Simply screw the cap of the pen back in place (clockwise) and test for function.
Note: Not all ball pens unscrew in the middle, some come apart at the tip while others come apart at the clicker end, if you are unsure please ask.
Q: How do I replace the lead in my mechinal pencil?
A: Mechanical pencils are normally found in three lead sizes: 5mm, 7mm and 9mm.
9mm mechanical pencils load through the front end. Turn the lead advancing knob clockwise until you hear an audible click or a tiny brass finger appears; be careful, the brass finger often looks like the lead fragments you are trying to remove. This tiny finger is designed to clear the last remaining piece of lead from the pencil, allowing the lead cup to hold the new piece of 9mm lead in place. After all the old lead is removed, retract the pencil mechanism counter-clockwise until you feel it stop. DO NOT FORCE.
Place a new piece of 9mm lead in the front of the pencil and gently push it in as far as it will go. It should go in all the way. Now turn the lead advancing knob clockwise until approximately 3 to 4mm of lead appears. Gently press the tip with the lead sticking out against something hard. This will seat the lead into the lead cup preventing it from falling out.
Many 9mm mechanical pencils have storage for additional leads in the rear under the eraser.
Twist action 5mm and 7mm load internally. Simply pull the cap straight off to expose the eraser and clutch mechanism. At this point, you will need to unscrew the pencil clutch counter-clockwise and remove it to expose the lead holding tube. The clutch will normally have the eraser mounted on top of it but in some cases the eraser may not be present. The lead holder tube will have an end cap or plug on its end, most are black but white is not unheard of. Remove this plug, and insert no more than five pieces of the correct size lead in the hollow tube. Replace the plug or end cap and continue to pump the spring loaded end cap. Be sure to give the end piece or plug a chance between pushes to pop back out. Continue this pumping action until lead begins to show at the writing end of the pencil. What you are doing by continuously pumping the spring loaded end cap is priming the lead through the pencil mechanism. Make sure the piece of lead showing is a full piece of lead and not a broken or a short piece. In some cases the end piece will have a needle or short metal pin at one end and this pin will always be located at the side facing into the tube. This is, used for clearing jammed or compacted broken leads from the font tip of the pencils lead holder. Screw the clutch clockwise back into its original position and then slide the cap back into place. Test for function.
Pump action L-tech and Clipper pencils load in much the same manner as the 5mm and 7mm previously described with several noted exceptions. Remove the eraser cap cover located just above the clip. Remove the eraser; this will expose the lead holding tube. Insert five pieces of the correct size lead (NOT MORE THAN FIVE PIECES) in the hollow tube. Replace the eraser and end cap. Test for function.
Q: How do I clear a lead jam?
A: To clear a lead jam on a twist action 5mm and 7mm mechinal pencil simply pull the cap straight off to expose the eraser and clutch mechanism. At this point you will need to unscrew the pencil clutch counter-clockwise and remove it to expose the lead holding tube. With the clutch removed, gently tap the tip of the pencil on a hard surface. Now the entire lead holding mechanism can then be removed with ease through the back of the barrel. Once the entire lead holding mechanism has been removed from the pencil, unscrew the front end of it. These usually unscrew just above the knurled ring near the tip. Be very careful. There is a tiny gusset located in the tip.
Remove the provide pin located in the back of the lead holder. If one is not provided use a small sewing needle to remove the broken or crushed lead blocking the hole in the tip. Be very careful not to lose or damage the rubber gusset. If you knock it loose, finish the clearing of lead and reinsert the gusset small side facing out. Screw the tip back onto the lead holder and reinsert the lead holder back into the barrel. Screw the clutch clockwise back into its original position and then slide the cap back into place. Test for function.
When testing any 5mm or 7mm mechinal pencil for function it is important to protrude enough lead through the tip in order to verify the lead is not a short or broken piece. This can be accomplished by clicking or twisting the clutch as one would in normal use until you are satisfied the piece is intact. To retract the test piece of lead, hold the clutch in the open position either by holding down the clicker or holding the cap twist in the open position a quarter turn clockwise. While holding the clutch open, push the lead back into the tip in a slow deliberate manner.
Only use the manufacturer’s recommended brand of lead. Lead is known to vary in size (diameter) between different manufacturer’s brands. This can cause the mechanical pencil to malfunction or jam.
The heart of any mechinal pencil is its tip. If the tip is accidently damaged the entire pencil will cease to function, facilitating the need for repair.
Q: What can be learned from repairs?
Lesson learned, the hard way
We recently received a beautiful blue piston filled fountain pen sent in for repair. The first thing noticed was a reddish crust on the nib; this by itself is not abnormal if the pen has been sitting for a period of time. In fact it had not been. In the letter that accompanied the pen, the customer stated the pen had poor ink flow and the piston was very stiff.
At this point we dissembled the pen to discover the nightmare within. The pen was filled and badly stained with a coral like material that would not dissolve with any of the pen cleaning solutions normally used. In addition to this, the nipple on the back of the nib section was soft to the touch almost in a gel type form; this piece is made out of a rock hard plastic. We chipped away at the dried ink with a sharpened stick for hours and eventually we were able to get 98% of the dried ink out. The clear section of the pen was stained a lovely pink color and air would not pass through the nib section after three hours of ultrasound cleaning.
So what the heck is going on here? We called the customer and questioned him about what inks he used. We thought India Ink, and guess what? We were wrong. He had been using several colors of ink in the reddish family. He had also used brand X, brand Y and brand Z inks. Now he had not used them at the same time but he had not cleaned the pen thoroughly between brand and color changes. Talk about your chemical reactions! In order for this customer to repair his $495.00 fountain pen he will need a feed, nib holder, body and piston head. One final note…It is noted on some ink bottles not to mix ink colors.
Please heed this expensive lesson.
1) Use red, green, purple and yellow inks only in a dedicated pen for each color. These inks will stain. Do not inter mix these colors with other colors. Completely remove the old color and allow the pen to dry before refilling with the new color.
2) Do not mix brands or colors, unless the manufacturers say you can.
3) Clean your pen thoroughly and allow it to completely dry any time you change colors or brands of ink.
4) When in doubt, do nothing and ask a professional or the manufacturer.
5) Clean your pen thoroughly at least once a month and allow it to completely dry.