Troubleshooting fountain pens

It's a fact that fountain pens can be as cranky and recalcitrant as their owners. It is well to remember, however, that ballpoints can also give similar problems, but they usually get thrown out when they do. We expect more from a fine pen, but don't always get it. This page contains advice on some common problems you may encounter in using fountain pens, some of which I've garnered from experience and others I've learned from those who knew (and still know) more than I. Along the way, we'll look at some popular fountain pen myths.

It is frustrating to spend lots of money on a nice fountain pen, only to find that it doesn't write very well. The problem may well lie with the pen itself, with the ink, or with the way you use it or maintain it. Before we look into some of the specific problems, you might give some thought to the top five pieces of standard advice usually given to novice fountain pen users:

Okay, so you're doing good on all of the above, why is the pen still misbehaving? Your problem most likely falls into one of the following categories:

Standard advice #1: technique

Don't worry, we're not talking about your having to relearn how to write the alphabet or anything like that (although you may find that your writing will change -- one hopes, for the better -- as you continue to use your fountain pen over the years.

Writing with a fountain pen requires slightly different technique than writing with a stylus-like instrument (such as a ballpoint or pencil). A bit more deliberation is needed, and a more careful application of pressure. If you're new to fountain pen writing, it may take you a couple of weeks or so to develop the necessary touch or "chops".

It may help to visualize your pen as a brush with two bristles; you are painting ink onto the paper, rather than pushing it into the paper (as with a ballpoint). Just as jamming the brush onto the canvas isn't likely to produce an attractive result, bearing down too hard or in an uncontrolled fashion with a fountain pen won't give you the best performance.

Most older fountain pens, when in good repair, are very easy to get the hang of; newer pens can be more difficult for a couple of reasons. Most fountain pens made today have much larger nibs (tips) than their ancestors. This is particularly true for stub or italic-point pens. These pens make for nice bold signatures, but are inherently more difficult to use. They MUST be held at the proper angle at all times during writing. You will be able to determine this angle as you write with the pen, and you will naturally adapt to it. If you have trouble adapting, consider trading the pen on one with a finer point (or find out if your pen's maker has a point exchange program you can try; most of the better firms will allow you to exchange points within the first few weeks of use for a very small fee).

Myth #1: Fountain pens have to be broken in

Some people say that pens have to be "broken in" before they really write acceptably, but this seems like nonsense to me. I've seen new FPs for less than $50 that wrote readily and constantly straight out of the package, and "working Joe" pens in the 20s, 30s, and 40s could also do this,

I can't think of any excuse for a name-brand "shirt pocket queen" to require some mystical and indeterminate break-in period. It seems to be to be some kind of excuse for not finishing pens properly at the factory. I have a couple of fairly expensive pens that have been "breaking in" for several years now, with no sign of improvement.

If you have a scratchy nib, you can get some benefit by writing on extremely fine grit sandpaper (might be tough to read later, though).

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Standard advice #2: paper choice

Contrary to popular wisdom, fountain pens do not require ultra-expensive, fancy paper; most standard business and writing papers will work fine. However, it will pay you to know what kinds of problems you might experience with the wrong kind of paper.

First, a brief review of paper terminology.

  • Paper is made from a mixture of wood pulp and plant fiber or "rag" (usually cotton). High-rag papers (such as 100% cotton) usually work well with fountain pens, not so much due to the lack of pulp as to the fact that these expensive papers are usually finished with more care than cheaper papers.
  • "Bond" is a term applied to almost any good writing or office paper (it originally denoted an everyday paper of high enough quality for printing bonds).
  • The terms "laid" and "wove" refer to decorative textures that are embossed or watermarked into the paper; they seldom interfere with pen writing.
  • A little natural texture or "tooth" doesn't generally affect the writing (and may actually help in some cases), although pressed (smooth) or "calendared" or milled (smoother still) papers may be even better for fountain pen writing.
  • Better papers usually have a watermark, which is formed by a "dandy roll" in the paper mill that embosses a design in the wet paper; when the paper is pressed and dried, the watermark remains as a minute thickness variation that is most visible when lit from behind. Usually a paper maker won't bother to watermark inferior papers, although the lack of a watermark doesn't necessarily mean that the paper is inferior.
  • The thickness of paper is measured indirectly as the basis weight, which is the weight in pounds of one ream (500 sheets) of the paper in its original (pre-trimming) size (in SI units, basis weight is given in grams per square meter). 20 lbs. (75g/m2) is the standard weight for office paper, with weights of 24 to 80 pounds being common for other applications.
  • Some luxury papers have an unfinished or raveled "deckle" edge to give them a handmade appearance.
  • Strong chemicals are used in the manufacture of paper; in some cases, free acids can remain in the finished product and cause the paper to yellow or become brittle with age. For archival writings, choose an "acid free" or neutral pH paper so you won't have problems.

If the paper is too thin or not dense enough, or is high in pulp (wood fiber) content, the ink can bleed across the paper making your writing look fuzzy. In extreme cases, the ink can bleed through the paper completely and actually soak into sheets underneath.

High-pulp papers have very short fibers, which can often get picked up in the pen points (like hair in a tweezer), eventually forming giant fuzzballs which further distort your writing. These fuzzballs have to be removed by gently wiping the pen with a lint-free cloth. If you continue to experience this, and if the pen seems to write well on other kinds of paper, you should probably stop using the offending paper. Cheap, high-pulp papers used for wrapping (such as butcher or Kraft paper) or in inexpensive drawing tablets (such as are often sold for children's drawings) may not work well with fountain pens.

In my experience, decent-quality Xerographic bond paper (five to ten bucks a ream at any office-supply house) will work just fine for fountain pens (many of the first-generation cheap recycled office papers tended to bleed, but I think these types have gotten better over time). Most of the better spiral or composition notebooks (such as the stitch-bound marble-back comp books common here in the U.S.) also work well. Many good bookstores carry bound journals, some of which are better than others (the one I am using in the office at the moment is handsomely bound and inexpensive, but the paper does bleed a bit).

Slick or coated papers, such as those sold for first-generation inkjet printers, or used in magazines and greeting cards, often don't allow the ink to be absorbed into the paper and so the writing is slow to dry and easily smeared or rubbed off altogether. However, you can at least leave a mark on these papers with a fountain pen, which is often not possible with a ballpoint or pencil (which depend more upon friction between the paper and point). I have even had some success in marking on viewgraph transparencies with fountain pens (although you have to leave plenty of time for the ink to dry before you handle it).

In the old days, charge card vouchers used to be made of very nice vellum or onionskin-like papers that worked well with fountain pens (although often you could not apply enough pressure to make carbons). More and more, these documents are printed by small thermal or dot matrix printers onto cheap two-part tape which can bleed when used with a fountain pen (not to mention that you still can't get a very effective copy with the average fountain pen). This may be the occasion to use the proffered cheap ballpoint.

Myth #2: You can't use fountain pens on airplanes

Yes you can! Fountain pen makers spent a lot of money on promotions to put this old canard to rest back in the 40s and 50s, but it persists to this day.

The lower cabin pressure on an airplane at altitude can cause a problem if you have a pen with a significant amount of air in the filler (i.e., the pen is less than completely full). The air can expand and cause ink to leak out the point. If the pen is completely full of ink, there will be no expanding air pockets and no leaks.

Make sure that the pens you plan to use on board are clean and filled all the way before you board (this eliminates air in the filler, which can expand and cause mischief).

Pens that you plan to check or carry on, but not use in flight, should either be completely full or completely empty.

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Standard advice #3: filling the pen

Most expensive new pens use piston-style fillers, either built into the pen or in the form of a cartridge converter. These are a bit trickier to fill than the typical sac (lever filler) pen. For one thing, if the pen is dry, it may take a couple of attempts to get the ink reservoir to fill completely (you can't get a good vacuum with the slow-moving piston). For another, you MUST bleed off a few drops of ink after filling in order to "prime" the feed. A great deal of skipping or poor-starting problems can be traced to leaving out this important step. Sac pens, for whatever reason, usually do not require this treatment. I have a page entirely devoted to filling instructions, where you can find specific instructions for your own pens.

Many people are a bit impatient to get on with life, and tend to pull the pen out of the ink bottle before the suction is fully relieved, resulting in incomplete filling. When you fill a sac pen or pneumatic pen (like a Sheaffer Vac-Fil), make sure you leave the point inside the ink bottle for a good ten count, to allow the pen to fill completely.

What kind of ink are you using? You can read an entire page about inks, so I won't repeat myself here except to say that you should only use fountain pen inks in your pen. Other inks may result in leaks or seepage, and in poor writing performance (blots or skips).

Myth #3: Fountain pens wear to fit the user's hand

This story is true, but not to the extent that many people like to believe.

The nib of a fountain pen is made from a very hard material (usually iridium or a similar metal) that is supposed not to wear. However, in years of use, the pen will develop a smooth, flat spot corresponding to the user's normal writing position. If another user with a slightly different angle tries to use the pen, the flat spot will not be placed exactly right, and the pen won't write optimally.

The most extreme case occurs when you are right handed and use a pen that a leftie has been writing with for a long time (or vice-versa).

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Standard advice #4: capping the pen

Even the best fountain pens will dry out if left uncapped for more than a few minutes without writing, necessitating new ink to be "pumped" up from inside the pen before you can get back to writing. For this reason, you should cap the pen if you stop writing for any lengthy period (more than a minute or two).

Another capping-related problem can lead to leaks. You should always cap your pen with the point upward, lowering the cap onto it (rather than dropping the pen point-down into the cap). Why? How could this possibly make any difference? Well, you've probably noticed how easy it is to flick a drop or two of ink loose from the point by shaking the pen. Imagine , then, that you dislodge a small drop of ink every time you drop the pen into the cap. After a while, you can accumulate a great deal of dried ink in the cap, which can be instantly rehydrated by condensation inside the cap and lead to "sweating" or what many people (somewhat mistakenly) believe to be leaks. The pen is not really leaking in this case, it's just the user's capping technique that leaves something to be desired.

Myth #4: Fountain pens won't make carbon copies

So, who does anymore?

Actually, if you have to work a lot with carbon paper, or even carbonless forms ("NCR paper", pick a good pen with a very rigid nib that you can bear down on without damage.

Most modern pens have fairly rigid points. Among vintage pens, the key word to look for is "manifold nib"; these were designed to take pressure and write through multi-layer duplicate forms.

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Standard advice #5: cleaning

Obviously, you need to clean out your pen if you plan to change ink colors. Even if you stick to the same color, however, your pen can benefit from an occasional good flush to remove dried ink from the feed channels.

There are three good solvents to use for cleaning fountain pens: water, hydrogen hydroxide, and H20 (all available at your local kitchen or bathroom tap). If the job is really dirty (such as a pen that hasn't been used in quite some time) you can use a touch of ammonia or surfactant cleaner (Formula 409 or Fantastik) in the water if repeated flushing with plain water doesn't do the trick.

The basic procedure to follow in cleaning a pen is to repeatedly fill the pen with cool tap water (not hot water, as it can damage some pens) until what is ejected from the pen runs completely clear. This is very easy to do with sac pens like lever fillers or aerometric fillers. It is somewhat more difficult with piston-filler pens (which make up the bulk of today's non-cartridge fillers). You can speed things up if you remove the point from the pen, but this may break fluid seals or void warranties on more expensive pens (such as Montblancs or OMASes).

Try to avoid soaking older (pre-1960) pens in water for an extended period. Some of these pens may survive or even benefit from the experience, but others are made from materials that will discolor or even absorb water and swell up, problems that are very hard or impossible to fix.

The usual piston-fill converters supplied with most convertible pens can often be disassembled for speedy cleaning. Unscrew the chrome ring at the rear (knob) end, slip it off, remove the rear seal (a small plastic washer), and withdraw the piston by pulling straight out. You can then clean out these parts at your leisure and leave them to dry overnight.

When cleaning, don't forget the cap. Flush it out until you see no color in the water running out. I find an otic (ear) syringe to be an ideal tool for this purpose; you can find these at the drugstore, often sold with earwax removal kits. Leave it to dry overnight so that there is no liquid water remaining (otherwise you tempt fate in the form of leakage).

If you use a converter with your convertible pen and fill from a bottle, you will get most of the benefits of a thorough cleaning every time you fill, since the feed will be repeatedly flushed with fresh ink.

Myth #5: You have to get a pen with a gold point

Gold does not corrode or oxidize easily, and it is very elastic and pliable and stands up well under chemical attack. These characteristics make it a good choice for points. But not an indispensable one.

A good steel point, with a nice hard nickel plating, has all of the functional (if not the aesthetic) advantages of gold at far less cost. Unless you plan to use really horrendous old ink formulations (that you shouldn't be using anyway), a steel or gold-plated steel point will do nicely, thanks.

Skipping

Skipping results when the feed is unable to supply ink to the point in a volume great enough to keep up with your writing. Possible fixes include widening the feed channels or loosening the fit of the point against the feed. These are jobs usually best left to an experienced pen tech. More often, however, a good cleaning will take care of this problem. Another possible solution is to look for a thinner ink (Sheaffer Skrip fits this bill, as does Parker Quink).

Flooding

Flooding results when the feed supplies too much ink to the point. You could have the point adjusted to fit more tightly against the feed (once again, a job for a professional), but a less radical solution would be to find a thicker ink (Parker Penman is one example, although Penman has been known to stain pens due to its high pigment concentration).

In some pens, the ink flow will get very heavy just before the pen runs out of ink altogether. So, the obvious solution here is to fill the pen.

Poor starting

This is a very common and annoying problem that seems to be endemic to new pens, particularly ones with large nibs (broads, italics, stubs, obliques, etc.). Generally, these pens will work better if you start writing on a downstroke. Bearing down hard on the pen will probably not make it write any better, and could damage the pen (besides which, gouging your words into the paper defeats the purpose of using a fountain pen in the first place). What do you do, then?

  • Make sure you cap the pen if you stop using it for more than a minute or two.
  • Refilling the pen may charge up the point with lots of ink, temporarily solving the problem, but the problem is likely to return very quickly.
  • You can try wetting the point against your tongue, or getting the pen started by writing on scrap paper before you do any important writing (such as a signature).
  • If you have a piston fill pen (or converter) you can crank in the piston a bit to put some additional pressure behind the ink, but this is unlikely to be an adequate fix.
  • Ultimately, the solution may be to try a new point (see your dealer).

Many new pens have very large cap vents, which are required by law in many countries (to reduce the risk of choking or suffocation in case the cap is lodged in a child's throat). These vents, which are often placed closer to the point than the small holes you find in vintage pen caps, may allow the point to dry out between uses, resulting in what appear to be poor starts. Getting a technician to plug some of these extra vents (this can be done reversibly, with wax) may give good results.

Blotting

Blotting is very similar to flooding, and using a thicker ink may help get rid of the problem. However, most blotting comes from pens that are just about to run out of ink, so filling the pen might be a good thing to try.

Scratchy writing

Some pen points, like those used in dip pens or artists' pens, are naturally scratchy. No good fountain pen should be so. Scratchiness is usually caused by a roughened, broken, or misaligned nibs (remember, the nib is the little lump at the end of the point, not the whole point itself).

Look at the nib under a strong magnifier. It should look like a single ball or lump of metal with a cut down the middle (that's what it is!). If you see anything obviously wrong, you should give the pen over to an experienced tech for repairs. Nibs can be straightened and aligned, or if broken, new ones can be welded in their place (the price of the repair could exceed the price of an inexpensive, non-collectible pen, but you still may wish to choose this option).

If the nibs aren't broken, they may just be rough. To smooth them, go to an auto-supply store or woodworking shop and find the finest grit sandpaper you can (#1500 or finer). Take out one sheet, and put a small drop of water in the center. Put the pen point down in this drop and carefully write circles about 1/4 inch (5mm) in diameter on the sandpaper, turning the pen a bit to make sure all sides get smoothed. After no more than ten seconds or so, try the point out on paper; it should be greatly improved. You can try a couple more rounds with the sandpaper (but only a few seconds at a time; you don't want to remove any more material than strictly necessary).

Needs to be refilled too often

You'll normally get anywhere between a full day and a week of steady writing from one fill of the pen (it depends, of course, on how much you write during the day). If you don't, something may be wrong.

First, make sure you're not being impatient when you fill the pen.

If not, then the pen may simply have a very small ink supply (not unheard of, even in very large pens) due to a small or short sac. You can have a new, larger sac fitted to fix this problem.

Some pens will seem to fill even when they have ruptured sacs (the Sheaffer touchdowns being a good example). Ink is taken into the pen through the sac, where it leaks into the insides of the pen, possibly causing internal parts to rust. You'll have to get these pens rebuilt.

Leaks into the cap (or elsewhere)

Leaks that come from anywhere other than the business end of the pen aren't good news. They may be due to a broken sac, or to cracks in the barrel. Some pens, like the Sheaffer Vac-FIl, have a wet seal in the back which can leak over time. These are all professional repairs.

Leaks from the front of the pen may be caused by a broken, misaligned, or loose-fitting feed. In newer pens, such as the Montblanc Meisterstück series, the nib and feed assembly screw into the front of the pen, and this joint may be loose or the internal ink seal may be broken or leaky.

Pens that tend to blot or flow heavily may let out drops of ink even while the pen is safely capped; if this happens, you can have the point and feed adjusted to reduce the ink flow, or you can use a heavier ink.

Possibly the most common cause of what many people think of as leaks (although technically they aren't really leaks) is ink inside the cap. Dried ink inside the cap (from improper capping habits, usually) can be liquefied by condensation of water vapor inside the cap (this might happen if you take the pen out of your warm pocket and wave it around in freezing weather, for example). The best thing to do in these cases is to make sure that the cap stays absolutely clean and dry inside. If you do have an "accident", clean the cap thoroughly and allow to dry completely before again using the pen.

This file last posted on:
2005-Jan-20 17:50:26 CST
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