I love choices in my hobbies. The learning, research and relationships created by reading and studying the different choices are what make a hobby fun to me. Fountain pens subscribe to that thinking perfectly. One of the reasons it took me so long to embrace fountain pens is the enormity of options in this style pen genre. One of the choices is how does the pen hold the ink supply. Ink dispensing through a nib is pretty universal but how you fill the pen and the ink reservoirs come in a variety of flavors. Today I wanted to share what I have learned in this big field. This post is probably more geared to the fountain pen novice and it is by no means an exhaustive description of all filling systems. Please forgive my repeated use of TYPICALLY and USUALLY as I know there are exceptions to everything I describe in the fountain pen world. Additionally the advantages and disadvantages are my opinions based on my experiences so please do not accept them as absolute imperialistic knowledge.
Last disclaimer: My interests are more modern pens than vintage. There is much wider host of filling systems in the vintage arena but that is beyond my knowledge level.
Cartridge is the style I remember in grade school with my Parker. The standard, short and international variants are still very popular today. Usually cartridge and converter are interchangeable and typically a cartridge pen comes with a new cartridge to start you writing quickly. Installing a cartridge is really simple by taking the pen apart, make sure you have the cartridge facing the correct way and push it down with a faint POP or snap to know you got it seated on the feed section. Depending on the pen the ink starts to flow quickly and you’re on your way.
A cartridge typically gets one fitting on the section then you throw it away after it runs dry. Some like the simplicity of the cartridge and this may be the answer to enjoying a fountain pen even if bottled ink is a little intimidating at first.
The cartridge is very convenient for travel. Leakage in an unused cartridge is extremely unlikely. The biggest drawback is ink color choices available from cartridge ink suppliers. Not to fear though when you have a favorite pen that uses cartridges just empty your first cartridge, flush it out and refill the cartridge with your favorite bottled ink using a syringe like this set up .
- Advantages: Convenient, simple, inexpensive, can be refilled with bottled ink
- Disadvantages: Limited colors and brand choices, not universal for all pens
In modern pens the converter is probably the most popular for a manufacturer to offer. From a manufacturer’s standpoint they can make a single converter fit multiple pens in their own line and they are interchangeable with a cartridge. For the cost of the converter a manufacturer gives the user the choice of bottled ink or the simplicity of cartridges. Personally I think it should be pen law that manufacturers include a converter with all of their converter / cartridge pens.
Filling a converter pen is easy but does require some attention to avoid a mess of ink. Start with dipping the whole nib of the pen in a bottle of ink and turning the plunger mechanism a couple of turns. Remove the nib from the ink bottle and wipe off the excess and you’re ready to go. My suggestion is to always perform this filling in the kitchen near easily accessible running water and a non-stainable surface. Don’t ask me how I know this is best. You may hit a challenge with this type of fill when your bottle of ink gets low. The nib may not get completely covered in ink when dipped which is usually required for a good fill.
The fitting and seal of a converter must last, and seal, much longer than a disposable cartridge. The converter supplied with my Faber-Castell Ondoro, for example, doesn’t have real threads but it does require a bit of a twist to get it seated. It builds confidence with me even if it may technically not make the seal any better. After every fill it’s probably a good idea to give any converter a little push onto the feed just to be sure it’s still seated and it didn’t work loose while you were filling it.
Some converters work smoother than others. Most converters need to be manufactured relatively inexpensively so they do not add a lot to the price of the pen. Most use a coarse thread to move the plunger up and down so the overall length will still fit in the body of the pen and hold a reasonable amount of ink. These coarse threads can be easy to turn, or stiff, depending on the manufacturer. I try to stay away from stiffer action models because the constant turning required for a good flush can be taxing on the wrist. I don’t like removing the converter for every flush because I’m paranoid of compromising the seal. So how many times have I had a converter leak due to not sealing, ok none. I admit I am paranoid of ink bombs.
The biggest disadvantage to converters is ink capacity. Due to the mechanism and hardware required to make it work the actual reservoir for holding the ink is small. This is more of a problem with broader and wetter writers where a lot of ink is dispensed.
- Advantages: huge choice of colors and brands, user replaceable, usually can be interchanged with a cartridge in an out of ink emergency
- Disadvantages: more time consuming and requires a bit more care to fill, ink bottle running low can be a challenge, small ink capacity.
Piston fillers are probably my favorite. They are typically smoother than a converter as they are an integral part of the pen instead of an accessory that has to be made more economically and universal, They’re biggest advantage is usually the whole pen body can be used as an ink reservoir minus some room at the tail of the pen for the piston mechanism.
Filling is identical to the converter with two slight disadvantages. With a converter and a near empty bottle of ink you can always remove the converter from the pen and fill it by itself then put it back in the pen. Additionally, in a pinch, you can substitute a cartridge for the converter until you get back to your ink bottle. With a piston filler it can be a lot of tipping and leaning of partially filled bottles and when you run dry its bottled ink only.
- Advantages: Ink capacity, smooth mechanicals
- Disadvantage: Typically not user serviceable, more expensive, requires bottled ink, ink can stain sensitive pen bodies
These are really a variation on the piston filler except they use the physics of vacuum to fill the ink reservoir. Like a piston filler the body of the pen is usually the ink reservoir. Examples of vacuum fillers are the Visconti Homo Sapien and the TWSBI Vac 700.
Capacity is comparable to a piston filler of the same size though the vacuum can take a little finesse to get a 100% full fill. When using a vacuum fill I recommend another party standing by when you fill the pen and ask them to hold the ink bottle that you are filling from. When the rod is fully depressed and the vacuum advances there can be a small jolt of the pen in your grip. That makes me nervous with an open full bottle of ink.
One thing I love about the vacuum filler is they are quicker to flush clean because you can pump them quickly without the wrist cramp twisting of the converter or traditional piston fill. Sometimes it’s hard to get a full fill but two or three tries usually is enough.
- Advantages: Easy and fast to fill, easy and fast to flush, cool to watch, large ink capacity
- Disadvantages: Can take some finesse and practice to get a 100% fill, not designed to be user replaceable, some require a loosened knob to allow air in and keep the ink flowing, ink can stain sensitive pen bodies
I have not tried an eyedropper yet. The name comes from the way you fill the body of the pen with ink using one of these:
Commonly referred to as an eyedropper. Filling can also be performed using the syringe as described earlier to refill an ink cartridge. Many enjoy the biggest advantage to eyedropper which is ink capacity. The whole pen body can be used as a reservoir and there is no room for any type of plunger system like the piston filler needs in the pen body. The drawback is the care that is needed to make sure the threads stay sealed and filling is a careful exercise that could benefit from three hands to keep the ink going where it’s supposed to. Popularity of the eyedropper concept is also enhanced by some pen enthusiasts that modify a converter cartridge pen to an eyedropper. This one’s not for me as I’m generally a messy fountain pen filler even with the simplest of filling systems described above.
- Advantages: largest ink capacity, few parts to break, flush and clean is easy
- Disadvantages: requires reliable sealing of threads, requires more care and attention filling, ink can stain sensitive pen bodies
Here is a nice infographic from Goulet Pens describing a lot of what I’ve shared. There are many other styles of filling systems including the bulb sac, the Menlo pump and others that are predominately in the vintage pen area. There is a host of better choices on the internet for vintage fountain pen knowledge outside of my little space here but I hope this post was helpful for those new to fountain pens and wondering about the modern choices.
What is your favorite filling system? My favorite is a toss-up between the vacuum fill of the Visconti line and the great piston fillers made by Bexley and Pelikan.
Remember: Write something nice……
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