Latest Update: Added a link to Smoothing Scratchy Nibs.
I’m still only really starting out with learning to maintain and repair fountain pens, so I’ll start this out with a warning: take care in following my advice. I’m not a real expert, I just play one on the Internet. Whilst I’ll only give advice here that I’m pretty sure won’t cause any damage, you’d probably do well to check carefully before trying any of this out on an expensive pen. If you’re not confident in any of this, it’s best to leave it to the professionals.
That said, I started by picking up some cheap old pens, and trying things. My first repair was a Sheaffer Snorkel, and it went well – it’s now my main pen, in use many times every day. And, I appreciate it even more, knowing that I took a fifty-year-old pen and made it work again.
Oh, and before trying anything out, see the Gotchas section at the bottom – it contains a few things that I know you can do to damage your pens.
Most of the advice here is stuff I’ve learned from the great people at The Fountain Pen Network – any errors are probably due to me misunderstanding, though, not their fault.
Most fountain pens don’t really take too much looking after. If the pen is working, it will usually stay that way as long as it isn’t badly abused.
- Some fountain pens are safer than others when flying. The way things are heading, though, nibs will soon be classed as deadly weapons, so it won’t matter.
- Some fountain pens will tend to lose a bit of ink into the cap if they’re shaken about. It’s not a common problem, but I’ve got at least one pen that works just fine, but usually has a few drips on its nib when it’s spent a while bouncing around in my bag.
- See our page on fountain pen inks.
Only use ink intended for fountain pens. There are plenty of other types available, and most will block up a fountain pen’s feed. India ink, drawing ink and calligraphy ink are all usually bad for fountain pens. Fountain pen ink is a solution of dye, other inks are usually a suspension, containing small particles of colour, which get stuck in a fountain pen’s feed, blocking it up. If you do manage to block the feed, you can usually flush it out with water (possibly with a little ammonia, but make sure you flush that out again thoroughly if you do need to) or soaked. Beware of soaking rubber or casein feeds, though – they can be damaged by soaking in water.
Any ink sold as fountain pen ink should be fine.
It’s a good idea to flush the ink out of a pen with water every few refills, or when changing colours – especially if you’re going from one brand of ink to another. It’s a rare problem, but there have been cases of different inks causing reactions and making sediment when mixed, blocking up pens.
Ink will only take a certain amount of dye before the dye starts to come out of the water, with unpleasant effects. Most fountain pen ink has a pretty large safety margin, so a lot of water can be lost to evaporation before the ink becomes dangerous. A saturated ink doesn’t have as much safety margin. They are usually still perfectly safe to use, but you need to be a little more aware of what you’re doing, and don’t leave it in a pen that’s not going to be used for months.
Noodler’s Eternal Black is a saturated ink, but it’s also one of the most popular inks with fountain pen fans, and is my personal favourite too. I like it a lot and recommend it, but remember to flush it out of a pen you’re putting back in the drawer and may not come back to for a while.
If you use saturated inks, you probably need to flush the pen out with water a little more often than you otherwise would.
Toothpaste is useful stuff for this. It’s slightly abrasive, so it will help polish up plastic pens, and with enough effort, even buff out very minor scratches. It takes a lot of work. As with everything else, seek specific advice before trying this on any expensive pen. I’ve not seen any bad reactions on any of the pens I’ve tried this on so far, but they can be made from a great variety of different plastics and rubbers.
I usually polish up with toothpaste and toilet paper first, then rinse with damp toilet paper. After that, a microfibre cloth is the best thing to give the plastic parts a good clean. I have enough microfibre cloths around to be able to use one for the first polish with the toothpaste too, which can help.
Some people use a
If you want the plastic to look nice and shiny afterwards, TurtleWax does the job nicely.
Cleaning Out Ink
Before switching colours, or putting a pen away for a while, it’s a good idea to clean any ink out of it. The general trick is just flushing it through with tap water, by repeatedly filling and emptying it. With a converter filler, you might find it easiest to clean the converter outside the pen too, and if you have plenty of time, soak the section for a while. Ink that won’t come out with flushing will often be cleared out by ‘flicking’ the pen, nib outwards – the redecoration in the bathroom can be a bonus too 😉 Wrap the nib end in tissue before doing this for less splattered walls, or just tell visitors that it’s supposed to be like that.
- John asked at The Fountain Pen Network about cleaning out piston fillers, and got lots of good advice and explanations, including a fantastic response from Wim, about half way down the first page.
People who do a lot of this sort of thing can buy a special centrifuge for spinning the ink out of their pens. Those who can’t justify that kind of expense have been known to improvise quite splendidly.
A blocked feed can usually be freed up by soaking overnight in water (not hot water), but this depends on what the feed is made from. Rubber won’t like being soaked, certainly. Most modern pens use plastic, but if it’s an old pen, don’t risk it until you find out.
Another recommendation I’ve heard a couple of times is using Parker’s Washable Blue Quink ink. It’s a very weak ink, and helps clean other ink residues out of a pen. Can be good stuff to put through a pen after first restoring it or bringing it back into use.
Nibs are generally a fairly tricky part to work on, and I really wouldn’t try too much with an expensive pen. I know I’ve said that about most of the advice here, but I even occasionally follow it here.
Nib design can vary a lot, but the general idea is a split down the middle of a bit of metal. The split usually has a little hole cut at the top of it, and there should generally be a very narrow gap all the way down its length. The gap will be very narrow at the tip, and should usually be a little wider at the top (the end nearer the pen).
Tweaking the gap needs to be done very carefully and gradually, as it should normally be a fraction of a millimetre at its widest.
If this gap is too wide, ink may not flow at all, or if it does, it might flow too fast. If it’s too narrow, or closed up completely, ink may flow too slow, or again, may not flow at all.
You can usually increase the separation of the tines (the two halves on each side of the split) using a fingernail – push one tine up with the nail, then use the same nail to push sideways against the other tine, pushing it outwards. Then repeat for the other tine.
The other trick I’ve used is with a folded index card. Fold a third of the card over the top of the other two thirds, so you have a card with a ‘step’ half way along it. Put the pen tip down on the thicker half, and slide the nib sideways along, until just one half of the nib drops off the doubled-up part. Then, push back the way you came, pushing that half of the nib against the folded over edge. You can’t put a lot of pressure on this way, as you’re pushing against the edge of a bit of paper, but that also helps keep you from overdoing it. Turn the card around to do the other half of the nib.
If you need to decrease the separation, you need to use fingernails again, this time lifting one tine, and pushing it gently across the top of the other one, crossing them over a little.
The most common problem, though, is just bits of fluff or paper fibres in the split. The ideal thing to clean it out is a bit of mylar film, but a spare bit of 35mm film can do the job. I’ve actually used paper for this, but that could make things worse. I’ve had success with Filofax paper – it’s very thin, and doesn’t seem to lose fibres easily. Whatever you use, the easiest way is usually to insert it where the hole is cut in the nib, then slide along the split to the tip, pulling any ‘bits’ out with it.
One other problem is a nib where the bottom of the tines of the tip are too rounded – rather than the bottoms of the two halves almost touching in the middle, the two halves are split in a curve, like a bum. I’m sure you can imagine a cross-section diagram of a bum, and imagine where the ink comes from. The cheeks touch the paper, and if they’re curved too much, the ink is held too far from the paper. The usual result of this is that the nib will be slow to start, but work ok once the ink is flowing. Pause at the start of each stroke, and it will usually work just fine.
The solution to this is filing down the curved parts, to flatten them out, but this is something I haven’t tried so far. You need the right stuff to file them down with, and I don’t know what that is, so don’t try this without seeking better advice.
Again, any nib tweaking really should be left to a professional, but if you really want to play, just make sure it’s a pen you can afford to break without being too upset about it.
If you have a pen that works ok, but the nib is a bit scratchy, a gentle polish can be enough to transform the way it feels and writes. The best thing to use seems to be a nail polishing buffer. I picked one up at the supermarket, but anywhere that stocks beauty products will probably have them. This isn’t a nail file – it’s just a polisher or buffer. The one I have, and others I’ve heard of people using, have one side split into rough and smooth abbraisive, and the other side is for very gentle polishing. Even the ‘rough’ abbraisive is actually fairly gentle.
Depending on how much smoothing is needed, start at either the rough or smooth abbraisive part, and work on down, just rubbing gently, and drawing ‘o’ and ‘8’ characters. Keep testing on a bit of paper. You shouldn’t need to enpty the ink out first, but if you don’t, you’ll make the pad all inky. Just wipe it with tissue when switching sections, so you don’t transfer all the ink to your hands or the table.
Many people have said that brown paper grocery bags can be just rough enough to polish a nib on, too, but we get our shopping in plastic bags over here in the UK, so I haven’t tried that.
- For a lot more on this, with some very helpful pictures, see Smoothing Scratchy Nibs – a very useful guide, with more information on much of what I’ve described here, not just smoothing and polishing.
- Any chemical cleaners could react badly with the plastics used in a fountain pen.
- Many oils can react with the rubber used in the sacs in vintage pens. Only pure silicone lubricant is safe, but beware of what’s sold as silicone lubricant – they sometimes contain other ingredients that could be bad.
- Some old pens are made from
casein, a sort of plastic made from milk protein. Casein absorbs water, so soaking a pen or feed made from it will ruin it.
- Glues can cause lots of problems. Some will react with plastics or rubbers in the pen, and even if they don’t, they could make any future repairs impossible. The stuff to use is
shellac. I bought a small bottle of this stuff from Cathedral Pens. Any pen repair suppliers can probably sell it. Alternatively, try somewhere that supplies stuff for furniture repairs – it’s also used in the french polishing process.
- A couple of Platignum pens I’ve picked up were pretty much impossible to get apart. I finally gave up. It turned out that they’re not supposed to open – they’re capillary fillers, and just get dunked in a bottle of ink for a few minutes whilst they soak it up.
Having replaced the sac in a Sheaffer Saratoga Snorkel, I can definitely vouch for the fact that the prices quoted by most professional pen repairers are very reasonable. The job took me many hours, including lots of posting photos and getting lots of help, and involved ordering parts. Plus, one unfortunate slip could have turned my new pen into spare parts for someone with better skills. Considering many professional repairers would have done the whole job for less than Â£20, doing it myself just wasn’t worthwhile financially. I’m very glad I did it, though – I’ve learned a new skill, and enjoyed the process. I also now have a pen that’s around fifty years old, that I brought back to a working condition myself – that makes it much more special to me.