Fortunate are those whose favored writing instruments always work well right out of the box. There’s nothing more off-putting than excitedly opening that long-awaited parcel and inking up your new fountain pen, only to find that… it would not write, or the experience itself is unpleasant.
Aside from the process of breaking in your new fountain pen which has been discussed in a previous post, we at EndlessPens would like to help you enjoy your writing experience by discussing a few common problems encountered with using fountain pens, as well as some tips on how to solve them yourself.
FAIR WARNING : You will need patience, a light hand, and a discerning eye (and a loupe, when necessary). Background knowledge of the parts of a fountain pen and how they work will likewise help you pinpoint the source of the problem and focus your attention. In addition, even though most fountain pens are built to last, some of their components are still delicate enough that you might damage them if careful handling isn’t employed. Furthermore, the smallest adjustment can yield significant results. Take note as well that some fountain pens do come with a warranty from the manufacturer, and tinkering with your pen might void said guarantee.
REMEMBER : Check the results each and every time before repeating the steps. Evaluate your progress after each step and repeat only if necessary. Some methods have potential risks for further damage, therefore always proceed with caution. If you are not comfortable with the method suggested, do not attempt it. That being said, let us now tackle these issues one by one.
Problem 1 : Scratchy Nib
Nothing goes against the grain for a fountain pen user quite like a nib that drags on paper. Scratchiness is that sensation you get when the nib of your pen, instead of dancing across the page, seems to stumble and trip along the way. There is that sharp feeling of the tip catching on the paper, and quite possibly also damaging its surface. This is different from feedback, which is the satisfying experience of the fountain pen nib skating across the page and working with the paper’s texture, each loop and swirl of your handwriting relayed back to your fingertips without a hitch. Feedback is typically experienced with finer nib widths. A properly tuned nib should not leave marks on the paper.
You will need a loupe or magnifying glass, about 5X - 10x magnification at least to zoom in on that fountain pen nib. There are several causes of a scratchy nib:
Cause #1 : MISALIGNED NIB TINES
Look through the loupe to examine the nib, with the point towards you, and then view from the opposite sides. If one tine is higher than the other, there is misalignment. This can also be felt when you run your fingernail across the top of the nib from one tine to the other. Another tactile clue pointing to misaligned nib tines is by making diagonal lines on paper in different directions. If there is more drag on the paper in one direction compared to the others, then one nib tine is lower. Take note, however, that upward strokes are naturally not as smooth as downward ones.
Cause #2 : DAMAGED or DEFECTIVE NIB POINT
If the fountain pen nib tines are aligned yet the nib feels scratchy, use your loupe to check if the nib point is smooth. It does happen that new nibs have dents or surface irregularities such as burrs that catch on the paper surface.
Problem 2 : Inconsistent or Dry Ink Flow
Flow in fountain pen parlance pertains to the movement of ink through the pen. Hard start refers to the difficulty of getting the fountain pen to begin writing immediately. Skipping is when the pen does write, but with missing or partial strokes. Fountain pens and inks work together primarily through capillary action and gravity. Proper air flow is likewise needed in order to displace the ink and help it move through the feed channels and nib. Adequate contact between the nib point and the surface of the paper should also be taken into account. Other elements in play include the nature of the ink and quality of the paper being used. If any of these factors are affected or deficient, hard starts, skipping, or a too-thin and muted line of ink is experienced. Check the ink supply and attachment of the cartridge or converter to the section as well. These are the common factors leading to insufficient ink flow:
Cause #1 : BLOCKED NIB and/or FEED
Anything that impedes the movement of ink through the pen, as well as the air needed to displace it, will hamper proper flow.
Cause #2 : MISALIGNED NIB and FEED
As mentioned previously, anything that impedes the mechanics of capillary action and air movement through the nib and feed will cause deficient ink flow.
Cause #3 : NIB SLIT ISSUES
Proper capillary action requires a narrow enough space for the ink to flow adequately, not too tight and not too wide. Check the nib once it is clean and dry by holding it up against a light source and examine the slit. The nib slit should narrow towards the nib point, but the tips of the tines should not be touching each other, allowing for ink to flow through. If the tips of the tines are too tight or the space between them is wider than that near the breather hole, then ink cannot flow naturally. In reality, these differences can be quite subtle, so a loupe might be needed for better visualization.
Cause #4 : BABY’S BOTTOM
This issue (so named as the shape of the nib point resembles a baby’s bottom, slightly rounded in between the nib tines’ inner edges) points to a hindrance to adequate ink flow from the nib point to the surface of the paper. As capillary action dictates that a liquid can reach only up to the narrowest point of a channel, any gap between the surface of the nib as it touches the paper will prevent the ink from naturally flowing out onto the surface. Once the ink molecules manage to reach the paper’s surface, the absorbency of the paper fibers coupled with the ink’s surface tension allows the ink to eventually flow. However, once the nib point is lifted off the paper for a few moments and put down once again, the ink would have retreated back upwards from the tips of the tines, resulting in a skip on the next pen stroke.
It is still possible to solve this problem. However, the process entails more advanced techniques that might require the skills of a nibmeister. These are the temporary solutions for baby’s bottom that you can try for the meantime:
Problem 3 : Leaky Pen or Excessive Ink Flow
When the flow of ink is not regulated properly, the results include wetter and wider lines that take too long to dry, increased feathering or bleedthrough on the paper, burping, and leaking into the cap and barrel itself. Here are the usual causes of leaks and excessive ink flow:
Cause #1 : HEAT
This is often overlooked since it isn’t readily noticeable. Temperature affects the air inside the fountain pen at any given time. The warmth from our hand, as it continues to hold the pen, prompts the air to expand within the reservoir and channels of the feed. You might notice that as you use your pen, the ink flows better, but it can reach a point when it starts leaking, since the increasing air pressure within the pen is pushing the ink out. Holding your pen upright will allow the excess pressure to escape. For eyedropper fountain pens, and those with built-in piston and vacuum-filling mechanisms, topping up the ink to minimize air pockets can also help prevent leaks and burping.
Cause #2 : SPLAYED OR LOOSE TINES
See NIB SLIT ISSUES above.
Cause #3 : TOO WET INK
Knowing your fountain pen’s particular quirks is part and parcel of your journey. At times, two pens of the same model and same nib width will give you different experiences. Therefore, knowing how wet a specific fountain pen writes will help in matching it with an appropriately drier ink. It will entail some trial-and-error but that is part of the charm of these writing instruments.
Cause #4 : AIR LEAK
Unrestricted ink flow from an air leak within the fountain pen’s system can be attributed to several factors that are tied to its components. These include the nib and feed, as well as the reservoir.
We hope these suggestions will be helpful as you try and tweak your fountain pen to your satisfaction. Just keep in mind that caution is always paramount.
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Written by Lekz Umali
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