(This page published August 1, 2014)
This article is a revised and extended version of one that first appeared in the December 2005/January 2006 issue of Stylus magazine.
When people send pens away for repair, the two most common nib problems involve scratchiness and flow issues. In this article, I’ll discuss flow — or, actually, the lack of it. Of the five principal causes of flow failure, some you can address, others you can't. Here they are, starting with three that you can do something about.
Wetter Is Better — Usually. Different inks can flow through a fountain pen differently, sometimes dramatically so. The pen itself influences this, too: some inks will balk in one particular pen and work in the rest of your stable, while some will flow in one pen but not in the rest. And some will flow always and everywhere. I’m not going to give you an exhaustive list of good inks here, but I will drop one name: Waterman Mysterious Blue. There is much more information about inks in Inks: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.
The best-known flow-crazy ink is Private Reserve Tanzanite, dubbed “the Ex-Lax of inks” by many of its users. They praise it for its ability to flow in pens that don’t work well with any other inks — and for its ability to “open up” a pen that has grown balky. The real problem in this latter case is cleanliness, not the previous ink or the pen itself, but it’s good to have a “go to” ink for situations like this.
But Tanzanite is so free flowing that it can outrun even a pen that’s adjusted for a fairly dry line, and there’s a good chance that excess ink will end up looking like feathers on your paper or a tattoo on your hand. The solution for this situation is to look for an ink that doesn’t flow quite that well. The vast majority of inks on the market flow reasonably well through most modern and vintage fountain pens.
Cleanliness Is Next to Godliness. Put simply, if you don’t keep your pen clean, it will likely quit allowing ink to flow. I mentioned pens that grow balky; some pens just grow progressively dirtier. Not with “dirt” dirt, but with dried ink, paper fibers, and other junk — possibly even mold or “Slime in the Bottle,” (SITB) — the sediment, mold, and other miscellaneous gunk growing in the ink itself that I discuss in detail in Ick! What Is That Stuff?
Most users should flush and refill their pens every two to four weeks; the more you use a pen, the less frequently it needs flushing. (This seeming contradiction comes about because the more ink you run through a pen, the more foreign material it loosens and takes with it.) To flush a pen, empty it into a sink or other place of disposal — not back into the bottle, where any contaminants it contains can pollute your whole supply. Then fill and empty the pen repeatedly using cool water, never harsh solvents such as Formula 409 or Simple Green. When the water comes out perfectly clear, you’re ready to refill with ink. (To clean a pen that has gotten balky, use INDY’S IDEAL PEN FLUSH or, if you can’t get J.B.'s, a solution of 1 tablespoon clear household ammonia in cup of water; then finish with plain water.)
There is much more about general pen care in Care and Feeding: How to Pamper Your Pens.
Wash That New Right Out of Your Converter. Some brand-new cartridge/converter pens flow poorly or stop flowing because the converter manufacturer left a residue of mold-release compound on the inside surface of the converter. An oily fluid, mold-release compound allows plastic parts to pop out of the mold when they’re made. It doesn't get along with ink because it resists water, which in turn causes ink to bead up in the top end of the converter. A quick flush with J.B.'s, as described in the preceding paragraph, usually solves this problem.
Pilot has taken a different approach to the problem by including a gimmick to disrupt surface tension inside the converter. When you look at a Pilot CON-50 converter made after about 2012, you will see a small metal thing inside that looks like a stovepipe hat. That little hat is the gimmick, so don’t try to take it out in the mistaken belief that your converter (or your pen) is falling apart.
Anatomy Lesson I: Blood Flow. If the reservoir were the heart of your pen’s circulatory system, the feed would be the artery and the nib slit the capillary. Capillaries are very tiny. If the pen’s capillary is squeezed closed, ink can’t flow. If it’s spread too widely open, capillary action can’t pull ink from the feed down to the paper. Either way, the pen won’t flow.
Many new pens arrive in customers’ hands with the slit too tightly closed, and these pens often go back for nib exchanges or, when the buyers tire of the hassle, to a nibmeister for flow adjustment.
The converse problem, a slit that’s spread too wide, usually results from too much writing pressure. All nibs will spread if you push hard on them, but not all of them can return when you let up. If you write heavy-handedly, get the firmest nib you can find, with a relatively broad tip, such as a Waterman Edson. If you have a feather-light touch, then you can indulge in flexible nibs, needlepoints, and other exotic delights. Maybe a vintage Waterman No. 7 will earn a prominent position in your pen cup.
Another problem associated with capillary action is flow stoppage because the nib is too far from the feed. In general, the nib should lie very closely on the feed. Small adjustments can be made to adjust the overall flow, but if the nib and feed are too far apart, more than about the thickness of an ordinary sheet of writing paper, capillary action can’t get a grip, and ink won’t flow. This problem is also often associated with too much writing pressure, and a nib that is damaged in this way is said to be sprung.
Discovery of either of these problems usually indicates that your pen needs repair.
Nib Adjustment in One Easy LessonAlthough I don't list this as one of the three things you can do something about, you can try to adjust the flow if you're good with your hands and patient enough. In the following discussion, "down" means "toward the feed" and "up" means "away from the feed."
If you go too far in either direction, move the tines in the other direction as described above and start again. Nib adjustment is a finicky procedure, but it’s a procedure that is very much worth learning.
To reduce flow, hold the pen in both hands, with the nib pointing away from you and the pen rotated so that you can see the top surface of the nib. Put an index finger under the feed, behind the breather hole, to support it. With that hand's thumb, press downwards on the tine on that side just firmly enough that it flexes downward just far enough that its tip passes under the other tine’s tip. There will often be a click associated with this movement. Release, change to your other index finger and thumb, and do the same thing to the other tine. Examine the tines using a good magnifier (10× or thereabouts) to see that they're even. See the image to the right for the correct way to check alignment. If the tines are aligned, give it a try. If not, you'll need to tweak one tine. Find the down tine and tweak it up as described in the procedure for increasing flow. Check alignment again, and repeat if necessary.
To increase flow, hold the pen in both hands, with the nib poining away from you and the pen rotated so that you can see the feed and the bottom surface of the nib. Put an index finger on the nib, approximately at the breather hole, to prevent the nib body from being pushed away from the feed. Place that hand’s thumbnail on the bottom surface of the nib, right at the end of the feed, and press the tine on that side up (away from the feed, remember, so that you are actually pressing downward) just a tiny amount. Release, change hands, and repeat the procedure for the other tine. Examine the tines using a good magnifier (10× or thereabouts) to see that they're even. See the image to the right for the correct way to check alignment. If the tines are aligned, give it a try. If not, you'll need to tweak one tine. Find the up tine and tweak it down as described in the procedure for reducing flow. Check alignment again, and repeat if necessary.
Anatomy Lesson II: Breathing. A fountain pen is a controlled leak. Ink leaks out, and air enters to replace the ink as it’s used. Unlike ink, whose flow is buffered (smoothed out) by the feed, air does not flow smoothly and continuously; its flow is like a series of burps. As ink leaves the reservoir, a partial vacuum builds up. When outside and inside air pressures differ sufficiently to overcome the ink’s surface tension, a bubble of air passes into the reservoir.
If a pen’s feed isn’t designed just right, the air burps can be insufficient to balance the ink flow — and the pen's feed starves. You’ll be writing along and suddenly there’s a skip; an instant later, the pen writes again. The natural assumption, that more ink is needed, is wrong. Fixing feed starvation involves trying a different feed, in the hope that manufacturing tolerances will be sufficient that you’ll get a good one, or having a nibmeister modify the feed by changing the geometry of the air channels.