Fountain Pen Problems




Introduction: Fountain Pen Problems

About: I miss the days when magazines like Popular Mechanics had all sorts of DIY projects for making and repairing just about everything. I am enjoying posting things I have learned and done since I got my first ...

Fountain pens float effortlessly over the paper when everything is working as it should. That is one of the reasons why people who prefer fountain pens really like them. But they can be difficult when something is not as it should be. They can be scratchy. Ink flows poorly or not at all. And, they may put out too much ink, even in the form of a sudden blob of ink that runs over a document and onto clothing. These problems are not inherent to all fountain pens, but occur in pens needing a little tender care to keep them in sound working condition. Fortunately, all of this is much easier than a person would think.

The pen shown is from a Classic American kit sold by Woodcraft.  The pen is reminiscent of a Parker Duofold from the late 1920's and early 1930's.  The color pattern is very similar to one used on Duofold pens. 

Step 1: Making It Flow If Dried Out

A couple of Instructables advise soaking the nib and feeder (the section) in cool water for a day or so to remove old dried ink from the ink flow path or capillary system. Actually, a good flushing of the capillary system like this is advised every month. Another good practice is to add a little moisture to ink held in the nib and feeder that may be partially evaporated after a few days of non-use. Get a drop of water on your fingertip and touch it to the slit between the nib's tines.  If the pen has been sitting unused for more than a few days, add two or three drops of water,  Let it soak in. If you do not write with the pen immediately, the water can mix with the ink under the nib more thoroughly. Do this once a week and as necessary.

In more severe cases, as when ink has been left in a pen during several weeks of non-use, cup your hand under a faucet and fill it with water. Quickly dip the whole section into the water in your hand and remove it. Cap the pen and carry it in your pocket for an hour or so before using. If the writing is light in color, touch a facial tissue to the nib and feeder a few times to remove excess water or watery ink.

Fountain pens like to be used regularly.  If you are not going to use a pen for a while, empty the ink from it and flush the pen with water until no discoloration from ink appears.

Do not mix inks from different manufacturers.  They sometimes react with each other and form chunky, gelatinous material that clogs the ink passageways.   Use fresh ink that has been tightly capped or fresh cartridges.  Purists fill the air space in an ink bottle with an inert gas like nitrogen before putting the cap onto the bottle.  They do this to keep the ink from oxidizing.

Step 2: Smooth a Scratchy Pen

A magnifying glass of about 3x to 5x is a big help when tuning up a fountain pen. The drawings below are a little out of proportion for the sake of illustration. They show a fountain pen as viewed from the end of the nib. The left portion shows a pen with properly aligned tines. The two halves of the iridium ball are aligned and the pen will write smoothly. The pen on the right may have been dropped or mishandled. For whatever reason, the halves of the iridium ball at the tip of the nib are out of alignment. The pen will scratch  as it moves across the paper. With your fingernails press down on the high side and upward on the low side. Check your progress often with your magnifying glass. If the nib is stamped from steel, it should respond well to pressure from your fingernails. If it is a springy steel, it is designed to flex with varying pressures from your hand and add expression to the varying width of your strokes. Springy steel is also more difficult to press into a new shape. (The blue center is ink waiting to flow.)

Any fountain pen will write more smoothly as you use it and the nib becomes more polished through contact with the paper, as well as wearing in to the pattern of your hand and your writing. Exceptions are attempts to write on poor paper ill suited for a fountain pen and some cheap pens with poorly constructed nibs.

If the pen is hard to start writing and needs extra pressure, but then writes pretty well with normal pressure, the problem may be that the slit between the tines is uniform until the area at the iridium ball.  If the nib is bent so the tines spread from one another at the ball, ink is not available to the paper where the ball touches the paper.  Examine closely with a magnifying glass.  Carefully squeeze the two halves of the ball with a thin nose pliers until the slot between the tines is uniform again.

Step 3: Space Between the Tines

This Waterman pen let too little ink flow. One day I put my finger on the upper side of the nib and pressed down against a hard surface a bit. It was just enough to spread the slit between the nib tines a little and the ink flows as it should now.  Be careful when doing this, though, lest the space between the nib and the feeder increases too much.  See step 8.

The Wahl Eversharp pen company once made a pen with an adjustable slot between the tines.  This controlled the amount of ink available to flow onto the paper.  In effect, it made one nib function as a medium or a fine point.  See also step 6 for bringing the tines closer together.

Step 4: Distance Between the Tines

The proper distance between the tines depends somewhat on the viscosity of the ink you are using. Different pen makers specify different inks because they design their pens for a certain viscosity of ink. Some inks may be too thick to work properly in some pens. I sometimes add a little water to thin the ink so it flows better in a particular pen. The proper distance between the tines is about the thickness of a piece of copy paper. If you use a feeler gage, 0.003 of an inch is about right.

Step 5: Another Way to Spread the Tines

The tines on this Parker were a bit too close together. The nib is springy. The nib assembly unscrews from the section. The nib does not slide away from the feeder as on most pens, but is attached to it with tabs. A jeweler's screwdriver can be used to push the tabs away so a feeler gauge can be used to spread the tines a little. In this case I chose to use a feeler gauge rather than merely pressing on the front of the nib.  But, trying to spread the tines by twisting a feeler gauge in the slot can result in making a "V" at the tip between the halves of the iridium ball.  See step 2.

Pens have their individual personality. A friend gave me another pen just like this one, but for the color. This pen needs a little pressure to make sure the pen does not skip when crossing a "T". The other pen does not skip under the same conditions.

Step 6: When the Tines Are Too Far Apart

A local stationery store had a Namiki Vanishing Point fountain pen on display for customers to try. Someone unfamiliar with fountain pens pressed hard on the point when the ink had dried and splayed the tines badly. The owner later gave that pen to someone who worked in the store. He and I talked about what he could do. Rest one of the tines on a hard surface. Move a round steel rod over the other tine along the length of the nib's slot. Turn the pen over and repeat on the other side. Use some pressure. Check the results as you go. This is called burnishing and with it you can move the tines back to their proper clearance.

Step 7: Feeder to Nib Clearance

Fountain pens operate on the basis of a controlled leak. Key to this is the right amount of contact or clearance between the nib and the feeder. You should be able to pull a piece of copy paper between the nib and the feeder while feeling a fair amount of drag on the paper. When the nib and the feeder do not properly fit one another, several problems occur. Ink does not flow, or the pen leaks. The pen may be hard to start an ink flow.

Step 8: Restoring Proper Nib to Feeder Fit

Feeders are usually made of plastic. In vintage fountain pens from the 1920's and before they were often made of hard rubber. The good news is that both of these can easily be reshaped with heat. Some use an alcohol burner. I find it much safer to use very hot water.

Fill a measuring cup with a couple of inches of water. Place the cup into your microwave and heat the water until it begins to boil. Remove the cup and hold the nib and feeder in the water for 15 seconds. Remove the pen from the water and press the feeder against the nib. Use moderate pressure. Hold the pressure on the feeder until you are certain it has cooled. This could be about 15 more seconds. If you do not get it right the first time, you can repeat this process as many times as needed.

Step 9: Scratches or Nicks on the Feeder

It is important that there be no grooves on the top of the feeder where it fits against the underside of the nib, or air will leak into the system. You can paint any unwanted grooves with clear fingernail polish. When it is nearly hardened, place a piece of paper on top of a flat hard surface, like a glass table top. Turn the feeder over and move it across the paper while holding the feeder down against the paper. Twist the pen as you move the feeder across the paper. The paper will provide a little bit of an abrasive surface to make the top of the feeder smooth.

My wife gave me this Diplomat pen one year for Christmas. She said she got a really good deal on it. I could never get it to write. I thought too little air was able to get back into the reservoir (a cartridge), so I made a big mistake and cut a small groove from the channel in the feeder to the outside. Later I had to fill the small groove with fingernail polish and use paper on a hard surface to smooth it. Then I had to fix the real problem, which was a poor feeder to nib fit (see the previous step). Now it is one of the better pens I own and a pleasure to use.

Step 10: For Left-Handed People and Others

This is a Namiki Vanishing Point fountain pen. When the nib is extended for writing, the pocket clip comes between the user's thumb and first finger. Left-handed people tilt a pen a little, and that makes using a Namiki Vanishing Point pen difficult. In the days when fountain pens were very popular, it was not uncommon to have a point ground for a left-handed user. You can still get pens made for left-handers. Lamy makes one. I used a very fine knife sharpening rod to grind the point so it works much better for my left-handed writing. I held the pen as if the surface of the sharpening rod were a piece of paper and moved the pen as if I were writing. Check what you have done often with a magnifying glass. The disadvantage of grinding on the point is that the surface of the point is not as smooth, even though this improves somewhat with use.

See the second photo. Namiki produced a revision of this pen with a fatter barrel. It is easier to hold, but I do not have one. I went to the local hardware store and bought a short piece of 1/2 inch ID clear vinyl tubing. I cut about 1 1/4 inch from what I bought and slipped it onto the pen where I hold it. That seems to work quite well for me, although I may need to remove it if I want to use the pocket clip.

Step 11: Other Concerns for Left-Handers

I have a Schaeffer pen that came with two flats molded into the section. This may be ideal for a right-handed person, but it almost ruins the pen for a left-handed person. I painted over the flutes with clear fingernail polish and let it dry. I added several layers until the section was built up and I could shape it as if the flutes never were there. The pen is easy for me to use, now. (See the yellow rectangle for where the fluting was. You can still see a little irregularity on the surface of the polish.)

Many of the things I learned and described in this Instructable came from my own experience. Some came from Frank DuBiel's "Fountain Pens: The Complete Guide to Repair and Restoration." Some came from: > Masterclass.

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276 Discussions

I was so happy to come across this. I enjoy writing with my calligraphy pens but often have trouble with them, the foremost problem being lack of a continuous smooth flow. After reading this I have come to realize that not using them often enough might be my biggest mistake. I realize that a calligraphy pen may not be the same as a fountain pen, one has a ball shape at the end of the tip and the other doesn't but am assuming that the care for both is similar. Thank you for this info. I am going to put this knew knowledge to work for me.

1 reply

Thank you, Amy. If your pen has an ink reservoir, its delivery system would be very similar to that found in a fountain pen. I am glad to have been helpful.


7 months ago

Thank you so much I thought it was the ink, bought new ink still no writing with my beautiful fountain pen. Cleaned the nib and voila, I'm writing again. Will keep this in my favs. Merry Christmas!!!

2 replies

A very Merry Christmas to you, too!

Thank you for looking. I am glad your pen is working well again. By the way, I went against warnings and mixed two different brands of ink. Gelatainous strands began to form in the ink after a while. Those do not flow through a nib at all.

Thank you for this. I have a Parker fountain pen (my first real one) and I have not used it for a while and it didn't work. Going to try some of these and see if I can get it working

Thanks for your Guide! I had a Black Pilot Metropolitan pen that I loved very much but hadn't used in months. Being the idiot I am, it was also filled with ink during those months, which dried. I gave it a proper clean out, but it refused to write properly, quitting and leaving only scratches in the paper mid sentence. I resigned myself to simply having my ink bottle handy and using it as a dip pen until I had time to get it properly fixed. (this worked well-ish) Well just now had a spare few minutes, and your guide is the first I came across. I skimmed the comment section and started to get the idea that the problem was a bad nib-feeder fit based off of similar accounts. Sure enough, I followed your instructions(and poured myself a bit of tea while I had hot water) and now it writes better than before. Thanks a lot for your helpful and insightful guide.

1 reply

Thank you for your comment. I wish I could say the information about nib to feeder clearance was my own, but it was borrowed as I indicated. I am glad it was useful to you. It is such a great feeling when something did not work, but you are able to make it work better than ever at little or no expense.

Thank you for this! I discovered the day before an exam that I'd left my pen in my bag throughout the month-long university holidays (bad move, I know) and it had dried up. The dipping in water trick seems to have worked, as did the paper for fixing the nib-to-feed skipping issue I'd been having. Thank you for saving my academic career!

1 reply

Thank you for your comment. Welcome to Instructables. You are the first to claim I saved your university career. You sound smart and resourceful enough to have made it without me. I wish I had thought of the things you found helpful, but I borrowed them from someone else and assembled them in one place.

Hello. My pen will twist clockwise and counter-clockwise, but it won't open at all. I tried soaking it in warm water, but it didn't do anything. Is there a way I can fix it?

4 replies

Does it pull apart rather than unscrew? I am unsure if you are trying to unsere the cap from the barrel, or the barrel from the section, or the nib and feed from the section.

It is supposed to unscrew. I can't unscrew the barrel from the section. This problem occurred after few days since I've changed the ink.

How many days elapsed between changing the ink and failure to unscrew? Does your pen use a cartridge or does it draw ink into a bladder of some type? One possibility is ink leaked, got into the threads, dried there, and acts like a glue holding the threads. Another possibility is the section was simply screwed into the barrel to tightly.

About a week passed, the pen uses a cartridges. I have tried putting the pen in water so that it would dissolve the ink, but even once the ink came out, I still wasn't able to unscrew it. I can twist the section both ways, but it doesn't do anything, it just twists but doesn't unscrew.

I am glad. Thank you for the report.

Thank you so much for the tips! I'm new to writing with a fountain pen and after not using it for a couple weeks, my pens were no longer working. This was the first post that Google found for me and I can't wait to try your technique. I'll definitely be cleaning my nibs more thoroughly from now on!

1 reply

After years of using black ink, I opened a bottle of dark blue ink I had bought on a close out sale. To my surprise, it can go for a long time without the pen being used and the ink still flows. That would not be the case with the black ink I have always preferred. So, there is a difference in inks, too. In general though, fountain pens like to be used (and cleaned) often. Thank you for your comment.