(This page revised July 8, 2014)
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As a new (or not so new) fountain pen user, you’re bound to have questions about the best way to take care of your pens. If you think of your pens as if they were children or pets, you’ll realize that there are as many “health” regimes for pens as there are authorities on pen care. Now, I don’t claim to be an authority, but everything suggested in this article is something I do (or avoid doing) for my pens, and I have what I consider sound reasons for my choices. Obviously, you should choose a regime that seems reasonable to you.
Fountain pen ink is a solution. To the chemist, a solution consists of a fluid in which other substances are dissolved (the solvent), and the dissolved substances (the solutes). The solutes are actually reduced to the molecular level, the same as the solvent, and all the different molecules are mixed up evenly to create a uniform fluid. The solvent in fountain pen ink is distilled water, and the solutes are dyes, wetting agents, and mold inhibitors. Because it’s a solution, fountain pen ink contains no solid matter at all. This is an important point to remember.
Any ink designed for fountain pens is safe for use in your pens, but some inks contain more dye than others do. Some inks, especially the very highly saturated “boutique” brands, may contain so much dye that the water cannot hold all of the dye in solution; in these inks, dye can actually come out of solution and fall to the bottom of the bottle as solid material. Inks that do this in the bottle can also do it in your pen, and the result will be a clog. You will learn to recognize these inks by experience; if you ever have to shake or stir a bottle of ink because there’s a little sludge at the bottom, you’ve found an ink with too much dye. I recommend avoiding such inks, but some of them are so attractive in appearance that avoiding them just may not be in the cards for you. I also recommend against evaporating less-saturated inks to achieve denser color; this practice produces the same result as introducing too much dye in the first place. When you have a clog of this type, soaking the clogged part (usually the section assembly) in J.B.’s PERFECT PEN FLUSH or a 1:10 solution of clear household ammonia in water (1 tablespoon — 15 cc — of ammonia in 2/3 cup — 158 cc — of water) should remove the clog, but it’s possible for enough dye to build up that the pen will need to be cleaned mechanically. If you are using a clog-prone ink, you should avoid storing pens that are filled with ink for more than a week or so.
CAUTIONNever soak casein! Casein pens have hard rubber or acrylic gripping sections, and it is perfectly safe to soak these parts; but soaking can destroy casein barrels and caps.
Another concern is staining. Some inks stain more than others. There are two reasons for differences in staining: highly saturated inks stain more than less-saturated ones, and certain colors — notably violets — stain more than others. The least staining ink in use today is vintage Skrip Washable Blue; but the supply of this ink is obviously very limited. In general, blue and black inks stain less than other colors, while violets and reds stain the most. If your pens have transparent sections or barrels to allow viewing the ink supply, you might want to avoid inks that stain severely. I use a violet ink, but I restrict it to one pen, a Parker “51”, which does not have a visible ink supply.
Because fountain pen inks in bottles can fade or change color over time if they’re exposed to light, you should store your inks in a covered box or a drawer or cabinet. And this might surprise you because manufacturers include mold inhibitors in their product, but some brands of ink are also susceptible to growths of mold. Mold growing in an ink bottle will very quickly start growths of mold in your pens, as shown to the left. Keep your bottles tightly sealed except when you’re actually filling your pens. If you discover a scum or sludge of mold in one of your ink bottles, discard the ink. Before reusing the bottle, sterilize both the bottle and the cap by boiling them in tap water for five minutes. Pens that have mold in them must be disassembled so that all parts exposed to ink can be disinfected with a fungicide. (This is usually a job for a professional.)
Other inks and ink-like fluids (India ink, acrylic artists’ inks, watercolor paints, correction fluid, etc.) are suspensions, not solutions. These fluids contain finely ground pigments that are still in the solid state, floating (suspended) in a liquid vehicle, and you should not put them in your fountain pens.
The solids in these fluids cannot flow smoothly through the tiny capillary ink fissures in a fountain pen, and they will inevitably clog the pen. Sometimes you can soak a clog out using a commercial pen flush, an ammonia solution, or a solvent designed for this purpose, such as Koh-I-Noor’s “Rapido-Eze” pen cleaner for India-ink clogs, but it’s also possible to find a clog that cannot be soaked out. In this case, it’s necessary to disassemble the pen, soak the interior parts to loosen the clog, and then remove the clog mechanically by “flossing” the ink fissures with a thin sheet of brass or other tool. Some of these fluids, such as correction fluid (“white-out”), contain solvents that will actually damage your pens. (I mention correction fluid specifically because a client once sent me a pen that had been filled with it. Correction fluid is not white ink!)
Health and Hygiene
Although they require very little routine care, fountain pens are not entirely maintenance free. Like any mechanical device, they will perform better if they are clean. And because their working parts are mostly on the inside, that’s where they need to be kept clean. As I said earlier, ink is a solution, with no solids in it. But the dyes and other solutes are solids if they’re not dissolved in water. And because there is always some evaporation in a filled pen, even if it’s capped, the ink inside gradually becomes more concentrated, and the dyes can precipitate out (come out of solution) to clog the ink fissures. Or the ink can even dry out completely, leaving serious clogs behind. The photo to the left shows a major clog, one that left the pen inoperable. This means that it’s a good practice to flush and refill your pens once a month or so. The Parker 61, which relies on a good capillary flow for its filling, is especially sensitive to excessive solids in its interior. As with staining, some inks, especially the more intensely colored modern “boutinque” varieties, are worse about depositing solid matter on your pens; reds are notorious in this regard. A pen that is used with red ink will frequently show a build-up of solid matter around the nib and feed.
You should also flush a pen thoroughly when changing inks, even between colors of the same brand. Although most inks are chemically compatible and will not clog or damage your pen when mixed, you will find that changing inks without flushing can result in some strange and wonderful colors. (By “wonderful,” I mean you’ll wonder where that color ever came from!)
In general, you flush a pen by emptying it and then repeatedly filling and emptying it with cool water or, for more thorough cleaning, water in conjunction with a commercial pen flush. In actual practice, the task is usually a little more complicated, especially with pens that have a secondary ink reservoir. The Parker “51”, with its patented collector, was the first pen with this feature, but it is not alone; most pens made today have a large number of fine comb cuts on the part of the feed that is concealed within the section, and this area functions as a collector by holding a significant amount of ink.
One of the most effective ways to clear a pen of ink or water after you have expelled as much as the filling system can push out, is to wrap the nib end in several thicknesses of tissue or paper towel and shake the pen down vigorously with strong “flips” of the wrist, as you would shake down an old-fashioned mercury medical thermometer. Shaking in this way acts like a centrifuge, forcing the ink out through the nib and feed, and into the paper. To clean a pen, therefore, empty it and shake it down; then fill and repeat, using water, until all you get out is clear water.
A question that comes up frequently enough to be in a FAQ is “How do I empty my pen?” For most pens, you simply cycle the filling mechanism. The key to emptying a Parker Vacumatic is patience. Press the plunger very slowly, slowly enough to take several seconds for a full stroke, until a drop of ink — not bubbles — appears. You can now finish the stroke a little less slowly but still not quickly. Release the plunger, wait a couple of seconds for the ink to settle, and repeat the process until you cannot get a real drop to appear. The Vacumatic-filling “51” is particularly reluctant to yield up its ink, and it will usually disgorge only a few drops per plunger cycle. Most “51”s require a significant number of plunger cycles. When you cannot extract a drop regardless of how slowly you press the plunger, shake the pen down as described earlier.
Cartridge/converter pens are convenient to fill, and they are also really easy to flush. If you don’t already have an ear syringe, visit your local drug store and buy one. This is a rubber bulb, sized to fit comfortably in the hand, with a “snout” that fits reasonably well into the cartridge receptacle on most pens. (It will actually fit onto the nipple in many pens.) Fill the syringe with water, remove the pen’s cartridge or converter, and force water through the pen with the syringe. (If you’re removing a cartridge that isn’t yet empty, it’s perfectly all right to reuse the cartridge; just be sure to keep its open end upward and to cover the opening in some way to keep dust and other foreign materials out while you flush the pen.) If the syringe isn’t a good enough fit, clamp your fingers around the joint between syringe and pen in order to prevent as much spray as possible. Do this over a sink or in the bathtub, and rinse away any mess afterward.
You can also use an ear syringe to flush a capillary-filling Parker 61, but you will need to modify the syringe by cutting off part of its nozzle. Cut off enough that the remaining opening fits snugly over the pen’s capillary cell case (the Teflon-coated metal cylinder inside the barrel). See the illustration to the left. Fill the syringe with water, insert the cell case into the opening, and immerse the nib end of the pen into a sink partially filled with water. Squeeze. To refill the syringe, release while the nib remains immersed; this draws water backward through the pen. Then remove the syringe, empty it of its inky water contents, and refill with clear water. Repeat the squeeze/release cycle until the water you drive through the pen is essentially clear. Then remove the syringe and blow through the pen into a wad of paper towel to eject the last remaining water. (If the pen has been allowed to dry out completely, it’s a good idea to leave it soaking in cool water, filler end downward, overnight, and then repeat the flushing procedure.)
To keep the outside of your pens clean, you can use any good non-abrasive cleaner and polish, such as Flitz Metal Polish, which works quite well on nonmetallic surfaces, too. Apply the polish and buff it off using a clean dry rag made of 100% cotton flannel. Synthetic fabrics, such as acrylics or polyester, can be harder than the pens themselves, and these fabrics can scratch. Simichrome Metal Polish, although it is well known and widely available at antique shops, motorcycle shops, and many other locations, is not recommended for ordinary maintenance because it is abrasive. Brasso, a widely used household polishing product, is more abrasive and chemically harsher; never use it on your pens.
Hard at Work
The pen or pens you carry from day to day need to be handled with a certain amount of tender loving care.
When not actually writing with your daily carry pen, you should keep it capped. This will protect its nib from accidents and also keep the nib area from drying out. (Different pens can be left uncapped for differing lengths of time before their nibs will dry out, and you can experiment to learn how your pens behave in this regard.)
Like people, pens can be harmed by sunlight. Sunlight and other types of light with a high ultraviolet concentration, such as the light from an arc welder, are called actinic light, and they can damage pens. Hard rubber pens, especially, do not respond well, as you know if you’ve ever seen a once-black hard rubber pen that is now more or less brown or olive green. But any fountain pen can heat up when left in sunlight, and this can cause the air inside the pen to force ink out through the area around the nib. If the pen is capped, the ejected ink can fill the cap, making a mess when you uncap the pen to use it.
If you’re a very busy person, you will be tempted to drop your pen into your purse, messenger bag, or briefcase — wherever you keep your papers as you rush from meeting to meeting. Don’t. Take the extra few seconds to clip the pen into your shirt pocket, your jacket pocket, inside the placket of your shirt, or even inside the neckband of your blouse. Riding around where it will be banged and jostled can damage the finish of your pen, and it can also cause the pen to leak into its cap.
Rest and Relaxation
When you take a pen out of your rotation, what do you do with it? 50 years ago, you’d have pitched it into the desk drawer with your letter openers, paper clips, and other assorted hostile objects. But not today.
The best place to store pens is a pen cabinet lined with suede or felt or cotton flannel — or, at a minimum, a sturdy pen case designed to protect them from being jostled and banged around. Some velvet is made of nylon, which can actually scratch some pens, so unless you’re certain that the velvet in a case you’re considering is natural, don’t use it. Inexpensive pasteboard boxes with dividers, while attractive because they allow you to store a large number of pens cheaply, are not really such a good idea, especially if they are made of recycled materials. The pasteboard of which they are made can contain tiny bits of abrasive materials, which will of course damage your pens.
Do not store your pens in sealed plastic bags. (In fact, I recommend you avoid plastic bags altogether except for very short-term use.) Most bags are made of plastics that exhale chemicals (called “outgassing”), and they can damage the surface finish of your pens. Flush most pens before storing them, and store them dry. Pens with cork pistons, such as early Pelikans, should be kept filled to keep the corks from drying out.
You can store pens horizontally or vertically. If you store them vertically, I recommend placing them nib upward. If your pen cabinet has a glass window in its top or front, do not locate it where actinic light can fall on it. If possible, place the cabinet in a well-shadowed place; if you cannot do this, consider having the glass replaced with glass that blocks ultraviolet light.
When you take your pens on vacation, you really don’t want them spitting all over you or the interior of your luggage. For this reason, it’s best to ink only the one or two pens that you will actually carry while you’re on the train or airplane. Fill your “carry” pens completely, and carry them nib upward when they’re not in use. And don’t try to use them during the period when your plane is climbing to altitude. The cabin pressure is being adjusted at that time, and your pens will be much more likely to spit, blob, or flood then.
Pens that are going along for the ride, to be used while you’re writing the Great American Novel in your Adirondack mountain retreat, will travel more happily if they’re empty. In a strong pen case is the best place for them to be; but you can also wrap them in tissue and pack them in hard plastic tubes of the kind sold for toothbrushes. You can also use the two-part tubes that some pen dealers ship their pens in, or you can even cut several lengths of PVC plumbing pipe. (Schedule 20, the lightest PVC pipe, is plenty sturdy for this use.) Wrap the pens in tissue or paper towel to keep them from rattling around in the tubes.
If you need to carry extra ink, the best way is to seal it in a zip-lock plastic bag and pack it in the bottom of your carry-on luggage. Entrusting bottles of ink to the tender mercies of airport baggage handlers can be a recipe for disaster. Given the exigencies of today’s security-conscious airport environment, however, you might prefer to put your ink in your checked baggage. To do this with a very high degree of safety, ball the zip-lock bag up in two pairs of athletic socks (or three or four pairs of dress socks) before packing it toward the center of your suitcase.
Three now-withdrawn Private Reserve colors (Candy Apple Red, Tangerine Dream, and Hot Bubble Gum) used dyes that form a sludge when mixed with other inks, and if you have been using one of these inks it is critical to get every trace out of the pen before using any other ink.
The information in this article is as accurate as possible, but you should not take it as absolutely authoritative. If you have additions or corrections to this page, please consider sharing them with us to improve the accuracy of our information.