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January 2008: More Fountain Pen 101, Part I

Extra Fine Points Index  ]

BY DON FLUCKINGER • Lately, readers — one, in particular, who graduated with me in high school 20 years ago — are stuffing my email box with fountain pen “101” issues.

I’m happy to answer them, but it’s a classic opportunity to write a Frequently Asked Questions list and tell future emailers to “read the FAQ” here, and send me any followups I didn’t address in it. Without further ado, the actual questions and my actual answers, edited down.

Lately, readers are stuffing my email box with fountain pen “101” issues. Extra Fine Points

I don't know what to buy. At the market I saw junk by Sailor, but I bought a really nice Lamy. What's good?

Whoa! Japanese doesn’t mean junk. Sailor makes some nice pens, as does Pilot. The Pilot Capless is an all-time classic design that’s been made since 1964; I have two of them. Not saying the ones you saw were classics or not cheap, just saying they might not have been junk. I think you might be judging the book by its cover (or looking at knockoffs).

Do I have to use Lamy cartridges?

Your Lamy likely takes something your pen dealer should know, called Standard International Cartridges.

It also came with a twisting, ink-sucking device that I can dip into bulk (right word?) ink.

Bottled ink is what you call it. You call the ink-sucking thing a converter. Before the modern era, when men were men and women were women, most pens had bladders inside for ink (“ink sac”). Some had a piston that you screwed up and down with a knob on the back end of the pen. (Some still do, in fact.) This is similar, kind of a removable piston. You can get replacements for $5-ish if it breaks.

Can I use any ink for this pen? How about the bulk one-liter inks that I buy for my inkjet?

You can use whatever the [bleep] you want in the pen.

That is, if you consider it disposable.

After years of field testing, Richard and I have concluded that Waterman and Diamine are the best ink choices, and that is mostly what we use in our pens. Other inks will work, but stay away from India ink and other nasty substances that weren’t meant specifically for fountain pens (like your inkjet ink).

I bought a bottle of Waterman ink today. More than $5! It's small — like 2 ounces of liquid. Is that normal?

Yes. On the upside, if you use up that ink faster than 6mo to a year, you probably spilled it and you should learn to cap the bottle sooner.

Why doesn't ink dry or thicken in the nib?

It will. Rinse out with cold water (no hot, no soap, pump several loads through the converter) when it runs out of ink before you put it away. Dry the cap and other parts (air dry for a day) before putting it away.

Is this ever an issue?

Yes, if you don’t do the simple above procedure when you’re storing an out of ink pen.

Will dirt get in there?

If you write around sandblasting equipment or use it to dig crud our of your shoes, I suppose it would.

Does my pen need any maintenance? It is not the smoothest writing thing in the world — with a cheapie does one just "suck it up?" Surely a $20 pen isn't worthy of any tuning, right?

Great questions! No maintenance except water flush above. If this turns out to be your all-time awesome pen forever, I wouldn’t hesitate to get it tuned.

I would advise you don’t do that until you buy another dozen or so pens. Play the field — and maybe this one will drop down on your priority list. In that case, you’ll likely decide to suck it up. You also might find that you’re writing wrong with it now and as you investigate ways to hold the pen or turn the nib slightly, things work out better. Also, test drive a good pen, and you’ll know what smooth writing is and understand what you’re aiming for.

Is there something I can do myself to tune it?

Under no circumstances should you attempt this.

And sometimes it seems like the ink starts right away but sometimes not. Or maybe that was just right at first when it was fresh out of the box.

It could be caked with stuff, it could be slow-flow and in need of adjustment, can’t tell from your email. Flush it with water, well, and try it again.

Will it leak all over me if I take it on an airplane? I hope that is a myth because I travel a lot.

The physics of cabin air pressure affects fountain pens. To ensure no troubles, travel with the pen completely empty or full. If you travel with it full, keep it nib up (like in your pocket). Following these rules, I’ve had no issues. The worst thing is an almost empty pen with a few drops in the system: The plane goes up, pressure comes on, and splat!

Even so, if you don’t open the pen in-flight in such situations, bad things are unlikely to happen — just remember to rinse the inside of the cap in the hotel room and dry it out, as well as the part of the pen called the section that the cap covers because ink will have splatted on it.

Next Month: The FAQ concludes.

Freelance writer Don Fluckinger lives in Nashua, New Hampshire, and is the son-in-law of Richard Binder. His articles have been published in Antiques Roadshow Insider, The Boston Globe, and on the collectibles Web site. Please note: Any opinions stated in this column are Don’s alone and do not necessarily reflect those of Richard Binder or this Web site. Don Fluckinger
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