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  • Writer's pictureDaniel Ouimet

Fountain Pen Won’t Write?

If you’re reading this article, the next five sentences will sound at least vaguely familiar. You once cared for your beautiful new fountain pen with the deference due a fine writing instrument. But, just like your New Year's resolution gym membership, familiarity and laxity conspired to nurture disregard. Your fountain pen languished for months. Then, just when things couldn't be bleaker (for your pen), some serendipitous household cleaning and organization precipitated a reunion. Inspired to craft multiple missives, you were relieved to discover your fountain pen still contains ink — a semisolid ink.

Fountain pen converter pump with dried ink
Neglected fountain pen goop

Chances are the wretched state of your fountain pen was caused by evaporation. The same process that dries your neighbor’s unmentionables on laundry day can desiccate an unused fountain pen. This is because fountain pens use ink comprised of pigments and water. When a fountain pen goes without regular use and cleaning, the water in the expensive "water-based" fountain pen ink evaporates leaving a viscous goop. This is readily apparent in the fountain pen's built-in filling system or converter pump (see above). Not so apparent is the crud clogging the internal workings of your pen.

The part of any fountain pen most vulnerable to clogging is known as the feed. This portion of a fountain pen is normally black and held in a tight embrace with the curved metal writing tip or nib (see above). The feed is an intricate little piece of plastic or ebonite consisting of a post, a narrow channel, and a series of small fins. The feed's post connects to the ink reservoir (cartridge or converter pump) inside the barrel of your pen. Ink moves from the reservoir through the post and narrow channel to the fins visible behind the nib. The fins are there to help hold and deliver a consistent flow of ink to the nib despite variation in your writing speed. These pathways through the feed are intentionally very fine to enable the movement of ink by capillary action but makes the feed susceptible to clogging. This is very similar to a tree's susceptibility to wilt when a fungus invades its xylem tissue blocking water movement by capillary action.

Fountain pen nib section soaking to release ink
Nib section rinse, soak, repeat

What to do?

Sometimes a clogged fountain pen can be fixed by just cleaning the nib section sometimes called the grip section or just section (see left; floating). This level of cleaning is appropriate for monthly cleaning or when ink flow isn’t as consistent as it used to be. Begin by separating the nib section from the pen barrel. Next, remove the cartridge or converter pump attached to the nib section post. Now the nib section can be rinsed at the sink in tepid water. After this initial rinse, place the nib section in a clear glass of tepid water. Let it soak and change the water until it is no longer colored by ink. Mandarin orange ink can be seen seeping from the nib section above. Once the water remains clear, remove the nib section and let it dry for 24 hours. Reassemble the fountain pen and hopefully you're good to go.

Flushing a fountain pen converter pump of old ink
Flushing a fountain pen converter pump

If your fountain pen still isn’t shipshape (or you want to change ink color), you can try flushing the pen. Separate the parts of the pen as before, give the nib section an initial rinse in tepid water, and then let it soak. While the nib section is soaking, draw tepid water in and out through the built-in filling system or converter pump and into a clear glass (see right). Once the water remains clear, reattach the nib section and repeat the process of drawing tepid water in and out through the nib section. Stubborn ink may require extended soaking.

Pulling fountain pen feed free of nib and section
Grip nib and feed with towel to pull free

If your pen still needs more attention, the nib section can be disassembled. The metal nib and feed are held in the grip section by a tight friction fit normally. Some manufacturers use a collar, so don’t proceed unless you’re sure your pen uses a friction fit. Use a soft cloth to grip the metal nib and feed (see left).

Fountain pen nib and feed separated from section
Success! Notice the fins and post on the feed.

Attempt to pull these pieces straight out from the grip section. In my experience, they are stubborn. I usually have to gently move the metal nib and feed side to side while pulling. Once they do finally come out be sure to examine the now open end of the grip section. This end has a distinct shape that will require you to orient the metal nib and feed correctly for reassembly.

Fountain pen nib, feed, section, and converter pump soaking
Feed, nib, section, and converter pump soaking

The metal nib and feed can be soaked in tepid water. Very stubborn ink might require a commercial product intended for cleaning fountain pens. I’ve also used a home solution of 1 part ammonia to 10 parts water.

Even if you never disregard the care of your fountain pen, they tend to accumulate tiny bits of paper, dried ink particles, and ordinary household dust. Your fine writing instrument will benefit from regular use and cleaning.

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