Basic Pen Care: Tips, Tools, and Techniques—even for making your own ink!


If your pen skips—a very common problem—it might just be clogged. Fountain pens need to be clean to work right, and fountain pen ink will eventually dry and clog the very tiny capillary channels that funnel the ink to the nib.

So cleaning your pen regularly is a good idea. And this task doesn’t have to be difficult: “When you change the oil in a car,” says Mauricio Aguilar, a vintage pen expert in Little Rock, Arkansas, “you don’t disassemble the entire engine. You don’t have to take a pen apart to clean it.”

There are all sorts of tips in the Internet for cleaning a fountain pen, and some call for special solutions of ammonia and water or even (gack!) bleach and water. Don’t do this; it will probably ruin your pen. I stick to the safest solution: Never clean a pen with anything but water. If you live someplace where the water has a lot of dissolved minerals, use distilled water.

To do this, follow the same procedure you use to fill the pen, but instead flush the water in and out repeatedly, until the water coming out the tip is close to clear. Do it at least once a month and you can avoid most problems.

If the nib is badly clogged, it’s not too difficult to take the nib assembly out and clean the pieces individually. Some screw in, but most will simply slide out if you grab them firmly but gently (used a clean cloth, not your fingers, which contain oil and salt, both of which are fountain-pen enemies). Soak the pieces in water, overnight if you need to; put the nib back on top of the assembly; and slide back into the pen.

The best way to avoid clogs is never to leave a pen with ink in it unused for more than a week. Even the best ink will start to congeal in the nib fairly quickly. Some say fountain pens should only be stored upright, but I’ve never had a problem leaving them on their side. Just remember: If you aren’t going to be using a pen for a while, clean it out with water before you put it away.

If your pen still skips, you may just need to change your ink. Classic fountain pens have a quirky personality, and they don’t all like the same types of ink.

I mix my own ink, pouring different colors and brands together until I get a color and texture that I like. I’ve learned over the years that some inks are just naturally stingy; they produce a thinner, dryer line, which is fine with most pens (and avoids ink bleed-through on cheaper paper). Others are free flowing and wet, much better for finicky pens.

Fortunately, fountain pen ink is fairly cheap, so you can experiment a bit. I’ve had great luck with Private Reserve, which comes in a wide range of colors and tends to be pretty wet. The same goes for Diamine and Aurora inks. In comparison, Waterman and Sheaffer inks are more stingy. For some reason, my Montblancs never write well with Montblanc ink; go figure.

If you really want more ink flow, or if your favorite ink isn’t working with your favorite pen, you can buy something called Acrylic Flow Improver. The tiniest drop, just a few ccs, in a bottle of ink will make a dramatic difference. So go easy—unless you want ink pouring out of your pen and getting all over your hands, your clothes, and anything else nearby.

© 2020 Tim Redmond, all rights reserved. Under exclusive license to Craftsmanship, LLC. Unauthorized copying or republication of this article is prohibited by law.

Published: December 10, 2017