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Construction of a fountain pen

If, like me, you are fascinated by how things get designed and made, this page should be of interest. I'll break the typical fountain pen down into parts, and then spend a bit of time on each part. The photo below, courtesy of my parts box, shows you what these parts look like.

Typical sac filler pen (c 1940) disassembled.

The point

The pen's point is, of course, what the thing is all about, and its construction was the most involved and highly-skilled process in the manufacture of most pens. Points were also called "pens" back in the days of dip pens.

Early fountain pens used gold points (as did higher-quality dip pens of the same period) but not just for the sake of luxury: gold is highly resistant to corrosion and chemical attack and could therefore tolerate various kinds of ink much better than the steels that were available in those days (some early inks were quite corrosive). The gold was typically prepared as a sheet that might vary slightly in thickness from one end to another (a thinner “heel” helps the point to “set” better in the section, and puts more material at the writing end where it improves strength). Several points would be stamped out from this sheet, and would then be formed (rolled) imprinted (with maker names, hallmarks, etc.), possibly “masked” or plated with a contrasting color metal (like rhodium or palladium), and polished.

Next, craftspeople would electrically weld a tiny bead of iridium or other very hard material onto the writing end of the point; this bead, properly known as the “nib” (or “nibs”, since there will be two of them once the point has been slit). The nib is very important, as it bears the brunt of the writing; it must be very hard so as not to wear out under continued friction against paper. The quality of the weld was critical in order that the iridium would not simply fracture or snap off under continued use of the pen. Incidentally, although nibs are often generically referred to as being 'iridium', they may in fact be made from other materials such as ruthenium, or alloys of such elements (Parker used an eight-part alloy on some of its pens, which they called 'octanium'). Less expensive pens make do without such exotic tipping; they may have a blob of steel on the end, or (for really downmarket pens), some sort of folded sheet steel arrangement.

After tipping, the points were then run under high-speed carbide saws to make a thin, clean slit about halfway down from the tips. A “breather hole” might be drilled or stamped into the point at the end of the slit, mainly as a stress relief to keep the slit from spreading into a full-length crack (some breather holes are of fanciful design, like keyholes or hearts). The breather hole may not actually be required for 'breathing,' since many pens get along just fine without it.

The feed

That rather nondescript (usually black) thingy that you see under the fancy gold point is known as the “feed.” You likely wouldn't think so to look at it, but the feed is probably the most important single part of the pen. Without an effective feed, even the finest pen made from the best materials will drip and leak constantly or else not give up any ink at all.

The feed has the difficult job of balancing the delicate forces of atmospheric pressure and capillary action to promote the controlled exchange of ink (going out of the pen) with air (going into the pen). The feed must also guide the ink down through the slit and between the nibs (and not out the sides of the point). Finally, the feed must be able to store or “buffer” excess ink not needed for writing so that the pen does not blot or flow too heavily.

On older (and newer) pens of quality, the feed is often made from hard rubber or vulcanite; this material can be shaped and adjusted under heat to make it fit well under the nib, so as to promote good ink flow. Less expensive pens usually make do with molded plastic feeds, which can be just a functional but are not as easily adjusted. The plastic should be of a type and finish that is easily wetted so that it won't impair flow (not all plastics are suitable for this purpose).

The Waterman multi-channel feed was the granddaddy of virtually all modern feed designs; the later Waterman 'spoon feeds' included little spoon-like cavities (invisible from the outside) that could hold excess ink. More familiar to many are the “comb” feeds used on pens like the Pelikan 800 (and the pen shown at the top of the page); the comb slits serve much the same purpose.

Tests of ink flow within the feed (don't ask me how they did them) have shown that the fluid pressure varies in a “zigzag” fashion over time as you write, indicating that you are actually pumping ink from inside the pen as you write. Careful design and execution of the feed channels (including variation in their depth) is required to reinforce this pumping behavior as well as to deal with excess ink flow that may happen during long writing sessions.

Also, we should include in this discussion the collector units found on Parker pens like the 51 and 61; these are essentially gigantic ink buffers that actually envelop the small points and feeds of these pens to provide a good ink supply just where it is needed.

The section

The section is quite literally the linchpin of the typical fountain pen; it holds together all of the pen's various parts, including barrel, sac, breather tube, and (of course) the point and feed; it sometimes also has the threads or detents to hold the cap in place. It's also the place where your fingertips fall when you write, so it is sometimes called the “grip section” or just “grip”.

Most vintage-pen sections (like the one shown above) are simple plastic or hard rubber sleeves; the point and feed are press-fitted inside the section (where they must be carefully adjusted or “set” to provide for good writing performance). The sacs were fitted to a reduced-diameter “nipple” at the rear of the section. The section was then either screwed or press-fitted into the barrel.

In more modern pens, the point and feed may be combined into a single unit that is threaded to be screwed into the section; this facilitates removal of the point for thorough cleaning (although some pens, like the famous Montblanc 149, have a fluid seal that can break if you remove the point, and that must then be renewed).

In the 1930s, Parker and other makers introduced sac-less pens with translucent barrels; these allowed you to see how much ink remained in the pen at any point. Makers who couldn't summon the technology to create such products could often offer a reasonable compromise in the form of the “ink-view” or “visulated” section, which had a translucent portion that could at least tell you when you were just about to run dry.

The filler

The internal ink supply is what makes a fountain pen a “fountain” pen, as opposed to a dip pen. Of course, you have to be able to replenish that ink supply when it runs low, and this calls for a filling system. I have another page devoted to filling systems, but we'll review the more important ones here.

Eyedroppers

On the oldest fountain pens, you removed the point and section and used a long glass eyedropper (usually provided with the pen) to transfer ink to the barrel (which was a big empty vial). Since these pens frequently leaked at the section joint, Waterman introduced an important variation in the Safety Pen, a pen whose point could be retracted into the barrel so that a tight-fitting cap could be screwed on. Safeties remained in many penmakers' inventories (particularly in Germany) well into the middle of the 20th century, the choice for conservative users not yet converted to the self-filler.

Sac fillers

Around the turn of the 20th century, penmakers began to develop “self fillers” that could be refilled cleanly and without an eyedropper or other external device. The first of these was probably the Conklin crescent system. While the crescent itself did not last long (even Conklin dropped it sometime in the 1920s), the use of an internal soft-rubber sac did catch hold, and was used by most makers through to the very end of the classic fountain pen era in the 1950s.In addition to the Conklin crescent, several other types of sac fillers emerged in the early decades of the fountain pen era, the two most popular being the button and the lever.

Parker devised the button filler, in which a button at the end of the barrel was pressed to compress a “bow” spring inside the pen, which moved a pressure bar to collapse the sac. Some experts believe that the button filler (as found on the early Duofold) is the most efficient of the sac-fillers. Parker (and other makers) used the button fill until well into the 1950s.

The most widespread and successful sac-filler design, however, was the Sheaffer lever filler, in which a lever was pulled away from the pen to move the pressure bar. Although Sheaffer gamely fought for its patent rights on this innovation, it was nevertheless soon adopted by other makers (including the one responsible for the pen shown above) and remained in use through the end of the 1950s.

Plunger fillers

The sac pen has a couple of problems: first, the sac must be much smaller than the inside of the pen (to make room for the lever, pressure bar, etc.), so it does not make effective use of this inside space; second, the sac could harden and rupture if ink were allowed to dry inside it for an extended period. And so, many makers began to pursue different ways to eliminate the sac.

The plunger filler was the first truly sac-less self filler; to use it, you unscrewed a knob at the end of the barrel and pulled a piston up to the back of the pen; then, you put the point into the ink and shoved the piston back in place. The descending piston creates high pressure in front (which expels any remaining ink), and a vacuum in the back; when the piston gets close to its resting position, it enters an increased-diameter section inside the barrel that breaks the vacuum and causes ink to be drawn into the pen.

Plunger fillers were pioneered by Onoto De La Rue in England, and were also found on the Conklin Nozac and Sheaffer Vac-Fil pens of the 1930s, and are even seen today on some modern pens like the Visconti Skeleton. Plunger fillers require a good rear seal (to prevent leakage and to preserve good vacuum during the filling stroke), and the plunger rod itself must be of a good non-corroding design. Sheaffer plunger pens, in particular, suffer badly with age and are often not economically restorable (i.e., the cost of refurbishment would exceed their trading value).

Piston fillers

The piston filler is a feature of many European brands. It is now credited by many historians to an associate of the multitalented Croatian inventor with the very apropos name of E.S. Penkala; Pelikan in Germany apparently got the rights to use the design on its very first self-filling pen, and the first popular piston-filler, the Pelikan 100. The system remains most closely identified with German pens. You may read more about Mr. Penkala here and here.

In the piston filler design, you twist a knob at the back of the pen, which contains a differental screw gear that pushes a piston down to the front of the pen; reversing the twist moves the piston back up, drawing in ink as it travels.

The effectiveness of the piston filler depends upon a tight seal for the slow-moving piston; early piston pens used cork, which worked fine when new but which dries and shrinks over time, rendering the pen unfillable (such pens can be re-corked by an expert). After World War II, makers switched to synthetic elastomer pistons that are much more durable.

Today, fine pens that do not use cartridges are most often piston fillers (e.g., Montblanc 149, Pelikan 800), and even most cartridge converters sold today are of the piston design.

Vacumatic fillers

The sacless design most celebrated among collectors is probably the Parker Vacumatic system, which was used on most of its top-shelf models from the early 1930s to the late 1940s.

In a Vacumatic pen, the entire barrel serves as a reservoir; the back of this space is sealed by a soft rubber diaphragm (looking something like a mashed-in nipple from a baby bottle), secured to a short spring-loaded plunger. To fill the pen, you removed a blind cap and tapped the plunger several times; each tap reduced the space inside the barrel, and allowed ink to be drawn into the pen through a breather tube as the diaphragm returned to its original position.

The Parker Vac was the first really big commercial success among sacless self-fillers, although competitors liked to sniff that it wasn't really sacless (since its diaphragm could petrify just like a sac).

The Vacumatic system wasn't widely copied at the time, perhaps because of patent protection combined with the relatively high cost of manufacture. However, at least one modern pen, the Ancora Demonstrator, has used the Vac system, updated with more modern materials and machining techniques.

Cartridge fillers

Most pens sold today, particularly those at lower price points, are filled by inserting factory-filled ink cartridges. Waterman's French subsidiary JiF-Waterman gets credit for the first practical disposable cartridge (around 1938), but the notion of a removable ink vial goes all the way back to the glass-cartridge Eagle pens of the early 20th century.

The typical cartridge is a sealed plastic capsule holding a milliliter or so of ink; to fill the cartridge pen, you simply unscrewed the section from the barrel and then pressed the cartridge into place in the back of the section.

The use of cartridges greatly simplified the manufacture of the fountain pen, since no elaborate filler mechanisms were required. This suited the technical and economical conditions of the postwar pen market, and also gave pen makers a profitable new business in selling cartridges.

As each maker began to move to cartridge filling in the late 1950s and early 1960s, they tended to create their own cartridge designs that were not interchangeable with other brands. Happily, today, the industry has more or less standardized on the so-called “international” or Montblanc cartridge, which is most commonly found in the “half” size but is also available in longer versions. These are the cartridges (sold under many brand names) that you'll be most likely to find in office supply stores, drug stores, etc. Some more established firms like Parker, Sheaffer, and the major Japanese brands, continue to use their proprietary cartridges.

Cartridges are a very expensive way to buy ink (compared to bottles), and the color selection in cartridges is rarely as wide as for bottled ink. Therefore, most makers offer so-called cartridge converters, which fit in place of the cartridge and allow the pen to be filled from a bottle. These tend to fall into two types: those with a rubber sac contained in a metal jacket (Parker and Sheaffer both used this approach), and those with a small piston filler mechanism (by far the most common today). Many newer pens are too small to use converters, however, and can only use a single short International cartridge.

The barrel

The pen's barrel is the portion that extends back from the section; it's the part that rests between your thumb and first finger as you write. Most pen barrels are made of some form of plastic (a term I use to describe celluloid, casein, Bakelite, and perhaps even hard rubber, as well as more modern cast or molded plastics; all of these are hardened polymeric resins and so fit a reasonably broad definition of “plastic”). Many newer pens (like the Parker 75 or the Sheaffer Intrigue) have metal barrels, usually made from brass or steel, perhaps enameled, lacquered, epoxy-coated, or layered in precious metals.

In some pens (like the Parker Vacumatic), the barrel serves as the outer wall of the ink supply; in others, it secures the springs, levers, or buttons that operate the sac filler. In cartridge/converter pens, it is mostly just a decorative cover for the works inside.

The cap

The cap is an essential part of a fountain pen. Without it, you'd be taking a risk putting the pen in your pocket or in any other sort of case or container; ink can be bled out of the pen whenever the point comes in contact with any surface. The cap also slows down evaporation from the point and helps keep the pen in ready-to-write condition between uses. Also very importantly, the cap protects the point and feed from damage.

A pen's cap is often made from the same material as the barrel. Or, for reasons of contrast, it might be made from another color of plastic (as with the Pelikan 100 and its many descendants), or from metal (e.g., the Parker 51).

The very earliest pen caps (found on eyedropper pens) were slip-caps; that is, you simply pulled them off and pushed them back on, they held their place through friction between the parts. The fit depended upon a certain tightness between barrel and cap (but not too much, or else the cap could be cracked). Over time, this fit could be degenerated as the parts began to wear, making the caps very loose.

By the turn of the 20th century, machining techniques had improved to the point where penmakers tapped threads onto the barrel and inside the cap to allow the cap to be screwed on. This was not an airtight fit (and wasn't intended to be such), but it could keep the cap in place with reasonable security, and the tightness of fit wasn't as critical as it was for slip caps. With very few exceptions, most makers went over to threaded caps and retained them until well after the second world war.

The Parker 51 of 1941 became the first pen to go back to the old slip-cap design, but with a difference: the cap contained internal clutch springs that cinched tight with a raised metal band between the pen's barrel and section; this cap stayed closed far more securely than the old slip-caps, and even most threaded caps. Wearing was not an issue with this metal-to-metal contact, and the 51's caps and barrels also did not require tapping of threads (which allowed Parker to retain the sleek profile and to save a buck or two on labor). Nowadays, apart from very expensive or traditionally styled pens (like the modestly-priced Pelikan 200), most fountain pens now use some form of slip cap. Most of these have some sort of snap closure to keep them even more securely in place.

Most pens actually have two caps: the "outer cap" which is what you can see, and which usually retains the cap on the barrel (through slip rings, threads, etc.), and the "inner cap" which fits tightly inside the outer cap and makes a tight seal around the naked point. The inner cap on many pens also helps secure the clip. Inner caps are among the toughest parts to get loose from some vintage pens, because they were put in to stay and because you don't have much leverage to turn them. Usually, a fairly expensive tool called (surprise) an "inner cap puller" must be used for this job.

A cap may have a decorative part on the end, like a button or a jewel. This is usually called the "tassie" or "derby" (the nomenclature is rather fluid here). In most cases, the tassie is simply an easy way to seal the end of a cap that has been made from tube stock; it can carry brand identification (as with the Pelikan 800) or decorative detailing (like the 'pearls' on the Parker 51 or many 1950s Conway Stewart pens). It can also solve the problem of how to hold the clip in place (as with the washer clips found on many pens including the Parker Duofold and the Montblanc 149). In the pen at the top of the page, the manufacturer has simply sealed off the top with two layers of flat celluloid, lathed off to provide a pleasing profile — simple and inexpensive, but not unattractive. There are, of course, many pens that don't have tassies at all; the most famous of these are the baguette-shaped Sheaffer Balance pens.

Most plastic caps on vintage pens have cap bands; these are metal bands that fit tightly around the cap near its mouth. They do, of course, provide a bit of flash to the pen, but they also serve a practical purpose: they reinforce the cap at its most vulnerable stress point, and can prevent lip cracks (or can stop them from spreading). Sometimes, these bands were made extra large to hold nomenclature or customer engravings, and some makers used several bands in a distinctive pattern as brand or model identification (Conway Stewart was especially given to varying bands to differentiate among very similar-looking models).

The clip

The clip is the metal (usually) part that secures the pen in your pocket when you're not using it. Early fountain pens were not automatically fitted with clips; these were factory options (e.g., on Waterman pens) or might be fitted “aftermarket” by a jeweler or stationer. Even today, some pens don't have clips (most often these are exotic limited edition pens not intended to get stuck in your pocket next to your cardkey and your sunglasses). If a pen has a cap, the clip will most likely be attached there; otherwise the clip is usually attached at the end away from the point (the Namiki Vanishing Point retractable fountain pens being a notable exception).

Clips are usually made from stamped sheet metal; they can be secured to the pen or cap with rivets (as with the early Waterman pens) or can be internally sprung and held in place by the inner cap (e.g., Sheaffers). Parker pioneered the “washer clip”, in which the clip is attached to a metal washer that is sandwiched between the cap and the derby (the complex and distinctive clips of the Eversharp Skyline are an elaboration of this design). Very cheap pens used clips with bent tabs that gripped the cap like a staple (such clips are easy to dislodge).

Many vintage pens have ball-end clips that make it easier to hang the pen on a pocket. Some pens (such as Wahl-Eversharps) actually had rolling balls for this purpose. Over time, the “ball” became less prominent and ended up as a rounded lump or folding of metal underneath the straight-sided clip.

Some pens (like Conklins and Lamys) are designed to let you “open” the clip like a sprung clothespin or an alligator clip to make it easier to use. Other Lamy pens have “disappearing” clips that hide out of sight while the pen is in use.

The clip is the part of a pen that most people are most likely to see as the pen sits in your pocket. Many makers therefore used the clip to convey brand identity; the most elaborate of these among common vintage pens may be the ornate “blue diamond” clips found on Parker Vacumatics and 51s. Pelikan pens are famous for their clips, which look like elongated pelican beaks.

The clip could, in some cases, actually play a role in operating the pen; the old J.G. Rider safety pens from the 1910s and 20s had an unusually long wire clip that was used to pull the point and feed out of the pen in order to fill it. Many fine ballpoint or rollerball pens use the clip as an integral part of the retraction mechanism (see the Lamy Swift).

Clips can often be used as a means to date a vintage pen; Sheaffer Balance pens from the 1930s look quite a bit alike, but there were several subtle changes of clip style through the decade that have been fairly well chronicled.