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 (or fitted with a new refill) 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 gathered 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 well on all of the above, but why is the pen still misbehaving? Your problem most likely falls into one of the following categories:

The Standard Advice

Standard advice #1: your writing 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 a paintbrush onto a 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 (although controlled pressure variation used with a nice flexible point will give your writing a handsome "shaded" effect).

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.

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Standard advice #2: your paper choice

Contrary to popular folklore, 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.

If the paper you write on 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 point (like hair in a tweezer), eventually forming giant fuzzballs which further distort your writing. These fuzzballs have to be removed by gently wiping the nibs with a lint-free cloth. If you continue to experience this problem, 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). These papers have been perfected over the years to work well in dry-copier machines, laser printers, etc., and the characteristics that suit them for their main use also make them good for fountain pens.

Most of the better spiral or composition notebooks (such as the traditional stitch-bound marble-back comp books common here in the U.S.) also work well, as do better-quality legal pads (particularly the ones with heavy 24-lb paper). Many good bookstores carry bound journals, some of which are better than others. The notebooks and pads made by the French firms Rhodia and Clairefontaine are an ideal, if somewhat expensive, choice for fountain pen writing; you can find them at Pendemonium.

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). Modern inkjet paper is basically ultrawhite heavy bond paper coated with silica to keep the inkjet ink from bleeding; it seems to set off the colors in fountain pen ink very well, although the ink doesn't get taken up by the paper as quickly, and can take longer to dry.

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.

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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 and expel air bubbles. 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).

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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). This will slow down (but not necessarily halt) the dryout process.

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.

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Standard advice #5: cleaning the pen

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 chemicals 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 may be the case with a pen that hasn't been used in quite some time) you can use about 10-20 per cent household ammonia in the water. I used to advise the use of surfactant detergent cleaners like Formula 409 and Fantastik, but it was brought to my attention that these often leave a residue behind and so are not suitable for use in fountain pens, where cleanliness is vital to adequate ink flow. It's best not to use any solvent at all, even if it takes you a bit longer to get the job done.

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, particularly those made from hard rubber or casein. These pens may 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. 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 a generous flow of fresh ink.

There are a couple of tools you may find useful in cleaning: an otic (ear) syringe, usually a blue teardrop-shaped soft rubber bulb often sold in ear-wax removal kits; check your local drugstore. Also, next time you're at the dentist, get something more out of the experience than an aching jaw: ask the dentist or hygenist whether they can spare any of their inexpensive plastic irrigators; these look like hypodermic syringes, but have long curved tips with tiny openings, and they can deliver a very fine jet of water at very high pressures, just the ticket for dealing with caps or converters. You can also find these at Ink Palette if you are too shy to mooch off the dentist. Finally, you may find a can or two of "canned air" (used for dusting photographic or computer equipment) to be useful for blowing most of the liquid water out of cleaned parts.

If you are a true obsessive (or if you like to restore lots of pens), you may wish to forego the purchase of one or two pens and spend the money instead on an ultrasonic cleaning tank (I have gotten good results with the modestly-priced and perfectly-sized Branson B200). You fill this unit with water, drop your pen or parts thereof into the basket, and press the button; a powerful ultrasonic vibrating element causes the water to vaporize (or "cavitate"), and the resulting torrent of invisibly small bubbles scrubs everything nice and clean. Ultrasonics are especially good for cleaning points and feeds during pen refurbishment. Although you can buy jewelry cleaning solutions for use in these machines, I' get pretty good results with plain tap water (I usually run the tank empty for one cycle in order to "de-gas" the dissolved gases from fresh tap water). Again, do not soak hard rubber or certain plastics, even for the short cycle that most of these machines run. Celluloids, modern plastics, and metals should do just fine.

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Troubleshooting specific problems

Skipping

Skipping (writing with missing or partial strokes) often 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.

Another cause of skipping is misalignment of the nibs or tines, which cause balky behavior and varying ink flow depending upon the direction of your stroke; the nibs will require realignment to put them back in shape.

These are all 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). Also see my tips for poor starting.

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 (try Pelikan 4001 or some of the Private Reserve colors for a start).

In some pens, the ink flow will get very heavy just before the pen runs out of ink altogether (the lack of a "backstore" of ink in the pen increases the capillary flow). So, the obvious solution here is to fill the pen.

Poor starting

Some pens may write wonderfully, but require a "jump start" of some sort when you first put point to paper. This is a 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?

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 round pressure vents you find in vintage pen caps, may allow the point to dry out between uses; this results in poor starts. Getting a technician to plug some of these extra vents (this can often be done reversibly, with wax) may give good results.

Blotting

Some pens may let out big drops of ink without provocation and at the wrong times; this "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. Make sure you allow a few seconds before taking the pen out of the ink, so that it will fill completely.

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 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 for an old favorite. Be sure to describe to the technician exactly what you expect from the nib.

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. This ink may also leak out through joints in the barrel. 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 wear out and 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. These are also jobs for a pro.

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.