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Caring for a Fountain Pen

A fountain pen can outlast several generations of owners, if looked after.  We are, in this modern context, not well trained in looking after our stuff; either it breaks and we get a new one, or the manufacturer offers an upgrade and we get a new one.  Therefore, when getting a fountain pen, whether new or vintage, one has to consider looking after it in a more conscious way than most other possessions.  For the most part, this in nothing very onerous, as most of the regular looking-after of a pen is less of a bother than polishing a pair of shoes or ironing a shirt.

Feeding

First and foremost, your pen needs to be fed; a pen with no ink in it is of little use.  There are a lot of inks you might use, and some which you really should not, and this is such a large matter than I’m giving inks their own page.

A fountain pen is like a hummingbird; pretty, and restricted to a liquid diet

Like most sensible people, a pen does not really like to be entirely empty.  Apart from pens which take cartridges, it is best to refill a pen before it is entirely dry, and failing that as soon after it goes dry as possible.  Once a pen empties, there is nothing to keep the feed moist, and the ink that remains there will dry out.  This puts down a layer of ink solids in the tiny channels of the feed, not all of which will necessarily lift out the next time the pen is filled, and the more often this is repeated the closer to clogged the pen will become.

The other problem with letting ink dry in the pen is that as the water evaporates, the nastier elements in the ink concentrate and begin to attack the inner components.  The rubber sacs that act as reservoirs in many vintage and some modern pens become petrified as a result of this mistreatment, and the fumes generated in the process can also damage the pen’s barrel.

For any pen not drawing its ink from a cartridge, I advocate refilling on a schedule.  The intervals between fills are governed by an individual’s use patterns, and could be anything between a day and a week; as mentioned elsewhere, if it is regularly scheduled, it becomes an item of habit.  I don’t suggest leaving a pen alone for much more than a week, as the seals on most caps will admit some air, and the ink will start to concentrate and possibly precipitate its solids in the channels.  Fountain pens want to be used, and will reward neglect with contrariness.

Cleaning the Inside

My main mistake as a pre-teen fountain pen user was to never put anything but ink through my poor school-day Sheaffer cartridge pens.  I can hear now shouts of, “Just a second… isn’t ink supposed to go in pens?”  Indeed so, as oil is supposed to go in engines, but every three months or so one should probably do a little cleaning to ensure performance.  Ink is basically water with colour in it, and the colour tends to stick to the tiny interior parts of the pen, until eventually it stops coming out.  As mentioned in the previous section, the process is hastened by letting the pen dry out, but even a regularly re-filled pen eventually needs a flush.

Depending on the filler, flushing can be easy or hard.  In general terms, the more pronounced a jet of fluid you can shoot out of the pen, the more easily flushed it is.  The exception to this is the Snorkel, whose peculiar filler can shoot a remarkable pressurized column of fluid which misses altogether a lot of the interior passages of the feed.

Hard or easy, for most sorts of filler the process is the same: work the filler several times to draw in clean water and expel old ink chunks.  I find it useful to have one vessel of water to draw from and an empty cup to expel into, as a very dirty pen can render clean water into weak ink in pretty short order.  The water should be no warmer than room temperature, to avoid deformity and discolouration in the parts of the pen that contact the water.  The urge will certainly arise to use warm or even hot water, and I beg you to resist.

To assist in cleaning, where the pen is seriously clogged, one can employ a solution of 10:1 by volume of water and ammonia.  That’s more water than ammonia, and when I say ammonia I do not mean a coloured, scented commercial window-cleaning preparation under any brand name.  I mean common household ammonia and if this is not available where you live (I hear it is difficult to get in the UK) water and persistence is a better substitute than a window-cleaning fluid.  There’s stuff in those formulae, and some of it should not get on the inside of your pen.

If using the ammonia solution, be sure to rinse the pen thoroughly with water.  While the solution is not much more chemically unpleasant than many inks, it’s still not a good idea to let it sit in the interior of a pen for any length of time.

One can also find, with a little application of search engines, commercially prepared pen-cleaning solutions; Rapido-Eze is probably the most internationally available, but there are others.  These are somewhat more expensive than the home-made ammonia solution, but they are also generally a little more effective at knocking lumps of ink free.  As with the home-made stuff, rinsing after use is wise.

This is actually a better use of it than sticking it in your ear.

In the case of the more sedentary fillers, you may need to resort to special tools.  Cartridge pens can be easily flushed with a little device found in most drug stores which may be described as either an ear syringe or a baby nasal aspirator.  It’s like a small version of a baster, and the long outlet on it fits over most cartridge nipples.  This allows a huge amount of water to be blasted through the feed.

The same drug-store item can also be used for cleaning at least one sort of capillary-filling pen.  By carefully trimming back the outlet on the bulb to fit snugly over the tail of the Parker 61′s filler housing, it is possible to force great gusts of water through that otherwise intransigent reservoir.

For the other sort of capillary pen, and for briskly clearing of fluid from the inside of a Parker “51″ or any other pen with a very complex set of baffles, the truly industrious can make a centrifuge for themselves out of a salad dryer.  I direct the truly industrious to the publicly-available instructions at the Fountain Pen Network.

 Once the flushing is complete, you can re-ink the pen unless getting it ready for a long-term rest.  Some people get very concerned if there is any sign of residual water droplets in the pen, but the volume of water that amounts to relative to the volume of ink is so small as to make no perceptible difference in the writing.  With a freshly-cleaned cartridge pen, the first sentence of writing might be a little pale from dilution.  If one is seriously concerned about this, leaving the pen sit to dry with its cap off overnight usually takes care of the matter.

Cleaning the Outside

Just what are you doing with your pen?  The outside should, in a perfect world, never get any dirtier that the inside of an recently-laundered dress-shirt’s pocket.  If you find something objectionable on it, I suggest starting with a dry cloth of the sort used to clean glasses, and if that doesn’t get rid of it then try moistening the cloth with water.  For the most part, pen barrels are non-permeable, and won’t pick up much in the way of uck; one is mainly concerned with avoiding scratches.

If something really sticky and awful does get on the pen, don’t just go after it with a bottle of Fantastick or a clothful of Ajax.  There are three principles to follow; first, keep in mind that some filler mechanisms (levers, in particular) penetrate the barrel, so if one dunks the pen in any sort of cleaning fluid, that fluid can get inside and go to work on parts that really don’t want to get wet at all.  Second, the barrel material itself my have serious objections to one chemical or another– I go into this in more detail in the Anatomy department.  Third, no pen welcome abrasive cleansers.

If whatever is on the barrel resists a damp cloth, up the ante very slightly– try a bit of human saliva rather than water on the cloth (you have a ready supply, and can always make more), or the oils from your skin (the sides of the nose are frequently good reservoirs).  Make sure to read that page about what pen materials can stand as well at the notes about intolerable substances below, and if abandoning things that come out of your own body, try to stick to stuff you wouldn’t hesitate to put into it.

Sensible Exercise

As I mention earlier, it is an easier task to keep the pen clean if it is in regular use.  A pen is for writing, and unless it’s some amazingly rare exemplar or in extremely feeble shape, there’s not reason you shouldn’t write with it.  However, as there is a difference between a bracing walk and marching to relieve Fort Zinderneuf in human exercise, all writing surfaces are not equal.

Pursuing the Foreign Legion motif for a moment, sand and other abrasive materials should be kept off the writing surface.  The paper itself is also worth considering.  I will admit, quietly, that for writing on newsprint, a ball-point is superior to a fountain pen– but cheap calls to cheap.  Because the tines flex in the act of writing, even in a very stiff pen, the point can act like a pair of tiny tweezers, picking up fibres from the paper.  On low-cost, loosely-knit papers like newsprint, this can build in short order into a notable pad of inky fuzz of the tipping– while the effect does occur in better papers, such fibres as are picked up are usually redeposited again shortly afterwards.

Of course, if you can get good stuff, why not use it?

I should mention at this point that elite-grade, hand-laid 100% linen paper, while nice, is not required.  If it’s paper you’d put down an inkjet printer, you can use it for writing on, and even inexpensive notebooks can have decent paper in them.  I pursue this point a little further in the contemplation of inks.

Storage

If you have more than one pen, or are about to go on a polar expedition, you will want to put your pen up in storage; at the risk of repeating myself, a pen doesn’t like to be left sitting about full and unused for long periods.  Preparing a pen for storage is simplicity itself– simply flush it as outlined above, and don’t refill with ink.

What you store your pen in is a matter of some consideration.  As I mention in the History chapter regarding celluloid, pens can be the source of the fumes that lead to their own destruction.  If you have neglected cleaning a rubber-sacked pen, you may find more pens than that one having their colour ambered.  If you have a celluloid pen which is breaking down, it may catalyze other pens to sympathy.  The more concentrated the fumes, the more pronounced the effect, and it does have bearing on the value of a vintage pen (especially in the latter case).

There are two solutions to this.  One is to invest in a refrigerated steel vault filled with pressurized nitrogen and suspended on magnets, thus keeping the pens safe from fingerprints, fire, earthquake, oxidation and very nearly entropy itself.  This is a valid option, but somewhat inconvenient if one is taken with the urge to actually write something and is also perhaps a little expensive.  The other route is to merely find some kind of box with a loosely-fitting lid and rig it with trays that will keep the pens from rolling into one another.  A hole or two in the bottom of the box is also not a bad idea, since the notion is to let air exchange happen between the box and its environment, thus preventing the build-up of unwanted fumes.

Temperature is also a consideration in storage.  Many pens made of thermoplastic (which can an adverb of sorts as well as a noun, remember) will deform at high temperatures, and celluloid pens can become readily combustible.  By “high” temperatures, I mean what a closed car or a poorly-ventilated attic can manage on a summer day.  Direct sunlight can also cause mischief of this sort, and will also discolour most pens.  In this respect, pens and wine might be considered in the same family; to be kept in a cool and reasonably consistent place.  My pens live in an unairconditioned basement, and the difference between summer’s highs (about 25°C/77°F) and winter’s lows (19°C/66°F) seem acceptable to them.

Things to avoid

Many pens don’t enjoy prolonged exposure to direct sunlight, either.

While the materials pens are made from are relatively robust (how else might they last for decades?), they are not utterly invulnerable.   Vampires are made of relatively robust materials, too, yet they do poorly when presented with a couple of sticks lashed at right angles or some specially-prepared water.  While pens (fluid-sucking aside) are not very much like vampires, they are also well advised to steer clear of some seemingly mundane things:

  • Alcohol:  Unlike many pen-users (Ernest Hemingway springs to mind), fountain pens quite dislike alcohol.  Wood or grain, it attacks many of the materials involved in fountain pens, rubber especially.  Want to dissolve some rubber?  Leave it in alcohol.
  • Perfume:  While we hear of romantic letters written with scented inks, this is generally not a wise line to pursue with a fountain pen.  Perfume is made largely of two things.  One is alcohol, which I’ve already mentioned.  The other is fragrance, which is often in the form of a volitile oil.  Both are given to turning rubber to goo, which is bad news in a pen.  Herbin makes a line of scented inks that don’t actively attack pens, if one is desperate for that sort of expression.
  • Petroleum Jelly (aka Vaseline):  When I come to speak of how to do repairs, I mention with some regularity “pure silicone grease”.  This is not a household item (although it can be had in the plumbing section of a big-box hardware stores), and there will be a temptation to supply a substitute from what’s at hand.  Vaseline seems to be a fine option, as it too is somewhat lubricating and quite resistant to water.  However, it attacks rubber and modern plastics, softening the latter in a quite irreparable way.
  • Baby Power:  Similar to Vaseline in the temptation– I will say “apply some talc” at various points in the repair tips, and one thinks of things of that sort.  Baby powder was once talcum, but that is no longer the case.  It is primarily corn starch in modern formulations, and unlike the slight dessicant action of the true talc it will absorb and retain moisture; the gooey mess this produces is why I used baby powder on my son exactly once.  A damp gooey mess inside a pen tends to lead to the death by rust of metal components found in various fillers.  There are also perfumes involved in baby powders, which will do their mischief as described above.
  • Teeth:  What sort of Freudian obsession is it that drives people to gnaw on their pens?  There is almost no pen material that won’t take a dent from a human tooth, and it is not an attractive amendment.  Likewise, anything which might be thought of as “gritty” is a potential threat to the finish of a pen.
  • UV Light:  Black hard rubber pens start to go pale very quickly if left exposed to strong light, and most pens will discolour eventually.  I suspect but can’t confirm that UV may hurry the crumbling of celluloid, too.

Fixing What’s Broken

This is a relatively complex area, and one which calls for its own subsection.

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