Lessons learnt

18 07 2020

This tale spans several years, and at least tentatively seems to have a happy ending.

Years ago, I was in Vicotria on the island, and perusing an art shop. I forget the name, but they had all manner of pens, inks, papers and other goodies. At that time I was dabbling in calligraphy (one of many times I’ve dabbled in it but never got above ankle-depth unfortunately). With dip pens I’d acquired somewhere in life’s great meanderings and some bold calligraphy inks from J. Herbin I’d picked up at Paper-ya on Granville Island.

Image Source: J. Herbin

These were naïve days, well before the only slightly more educated days I now pass, with respect to fountain pens, dip pens and inks. My calligraphy dabblings with dip pens weren’t “bringing me joy”, and I saw a relatively cheap fountain pen in the shop that offered a broad (B) nib. It was a brand I’d never heard of – “Pen & Ink”, and the pen was simply called “Sketch”. It was aimed at pen illustrators and there were various nib widths available. Looking back, I possibly over-paid at what I recall was around CAD $30. The other day I saw my local art shop stocks the same pen for CAD$23, several years later. No matter – it was what I wanted at the time (cheap access to a B nib) and it was there when I wanted it. I’ve since learnt that the brand is from “Art Alternatives” and is actually an employee-owned company distributed exclusively by MacPherson’s. The current packaging brands it more forcefully as Art Alternatives, and downplays the “Sketch” model which is etched into the pen lid.

Pen & Ink Sketching Fountain Pens – Rileystreet Art Supply

Image Source: Riley Street (not where I bought it)

It came with a cartridge, a converter (branded oddly Faber-Castell) and a cute faux-leather wrap to store it in. So back to the naïveté …

I had calligraphy inks, a fountain pen which I was much more accustomed to using, and we were now off to the races… I’d found dip pens fraught with usage issues and scratchiness and figured that a B nib in a fountain pen might at least let me continue to explore “fancy writing”.

So innevitably I got bored with quick foxes and “Happy Birthday”, let alone the EXTRA pain there was in swapping inks with the converter over just cleaning a dip pen nib. Bored at last, I gave the pen a last clean out and put it away.

Fast forward a decade or thereabouts and my love of fountain pens resurrects (can’t attest to whether there was a full moon). I recall I had one pen with a B nib, and dug it out of the drawer. I inked it up with FOUNTAIN PEN INK (note the subtle emphasis?!) and found it to be less than stellar at writing.

So I started to educate myself with such weightly and knowledgable sources as YouTube and various Google discoveries. Ouch! So though it is not 100% – by and large, if an ink is pigmented (i.e .has solid colour particles – like paint) it should not be used in a fountain pen. There are a few notable exceptions, such as “shimmer” inks, but even these come with dire warnings about vintage pens and recommendations of fastidious cleaning.

What we normally think of as fountain pen inks use competely soluble dyes for their colour, which is why they can sometimes have issues with saturation. The light passes through a dye/ink, bounces off the underlying paper and comes back to us as a composite of the filtering effects of the ink, its thickness and the colour of the paper. A pigmented ink (or paint) is more opaque and reflects directly. Its perceived colour then is less impacted by the colour of the underlying paper.

So – calligraphy inks are typically pigmented, and can have rich colours (or even textures) because they are largely independent of the underlying medium. These pigments though… are not water soluble. Instead, they are held in suspension (in the UK, water based house paints are generically called emulsion which is actually the technical term for these suspensions). Unless you’re very careful (and I would add – lucky!) at least some of the pigment particles will remain behind after even the most thorough of pen cleanings. These may then dry to a pretty hard-wearing solid. If it’s in the converter, it may be reasonably benign. Most of us don’t have that kind of luck, and there’s a high likelihood you’ll end up with deposits left behind in the feed (the plastic/ebonite bit that manages ink flow to the nib), which these days typically has lots of tiny little fins that can catch the particles and allow them to dry… and be hard to shift. Particles may also settle/dry on the nib itself.

Pretty much any of these places will modify the physics of the flow of any subsequent ink to the nib… and basically bugger things up. The general advice to remedy the situation is lots of patience (“does not compute”) and lots of luke warm water and washing up liquid – specifically “blue Dawn”, because it’s gentle on baby ducks if nothing else. I’m beginning to think Dawn sponsor all these pen DIY sites.

So I began. Sure enough, over the space of a few hours/days, first the recent “proper” ink flushed out of the pen, and then gradually I began to see remnants of the bright orange J. Herbin calligraphy ink I’d used all those years ago. One of those (typically blue for some reason – Dawn influence?) ear cleaning bulbs is a great aid, and can really get some water pressure through the pen section, feed and nib, to safely dislodge loosened particles.

Image Source: Amazon

With seemingly no end to the slow expulsion of orange pigmented particles, I got more bold. I read that often the nib/feed could actually be removed from the section for additional cleaning (or indeed to swap the nib for a different width). This isn’t recommended generally, but since this was a cheap pen, and plainly didn’t work anyway, I had little to lose.

The little I lost first was a couple of the fins on the feed. These got bent as I struggled to free up the feed/nib. Then I read that gentle heat could help loosen components up. I didn’t feel comfortable using a hair-dryer (the most common recommendation), so I opted for hotter water than I’d been using thus far. This worked and I managed to removed the nib and feed… and a substantial amount of yet more orange pigment. I could now see that the feed was indeed covered in dried-on orange pigment and as well as the fins, the very fine channel along the top of the feed was clogged, essentially guaranteeing the nib would get no ink.

More soaking, but no improvement. I read that a weak solution of household ammonia can help dislodge ink too. The only thing I could find in my local supermarkets was window cleaner (also blue… hm, trend now firmly established). This had no noticeably better effect than warm soapy water… and on reflection may have made the plastic feed more brittle.

I don’t possess an ultra-sonic cleaner – often used for jewellery, rings and the like – so I went to the next best thing… a toothbrush.

You remember the “does not compute” comment above? Yeah, patience and me are not well acquainted. One brush too hard, and I snapped off the thin plastic tube at the rear of the feed which brings the ink initially from the ink reservoir to the feed’s many intricate fins and channels. This may not actually have been fatal, but it was excuse enough to draw a line under my attempts and change tack.

As a side-effect, all the hot water baths had dislodged whatever adhesives were used in the pen’s manufacture and I could now totally disassemble it, right down to the trim pieces which I discovered now unscrewed.

I carefully dried all the pieces and put them in a used Altoids tin, labelled “needs fixing”, and began looking online.

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Fully disassembled – note remaining stubborn orange stain on trim and broken feed

I discovered an online shop in the UK called Loft Pens. They make hand-turned beautiful, reasonably priced fountain pens, but also sell Jinhao brand fountain pens… and several accoutrements such as converters, replacement nibs… and feeds! I pulled out my broken feed and sure enough, it looked like a close fit for a “Jinhao number 6”. Given the price of the pen, I wouldn’t at all be surprised if it wasn’t actually a Jinhao or similar component anyway. I ordered the feed and a couple of other odds and sods… and waited. And waited.

And waited.

In the end, I contacted Loft Pens who very quickly refunded me, and suggested I re-ordered since it would seem the order had fallen into the COVID mail void. This I duly did, and reset the wait clock. A couple of weeks later, the original order turned up! I contacted the customer-caring folks at Loft Pens and offered to refund them back for the refund (if you see what I mean), but have yet to hear their preference. I underline that the delay was not of their making, and they behaved impeccably throughout.

So… now I theoretically had all the bits to rebuild Steve Austin my pen.

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Broken feed and new feed from Loft Pens

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Re-assembled, ready to ink up and try…

First attempt was a little unsteady, if I’m totally honest. I’d foolishly “gone for gold” and tried it with some Noodler’s Pushkin. It’s a lovely green colour, but I’m discovering, can be a bit temperamental. It’s supposed to be one of their forgery-resistant inks so I think it’s got odd things in it. It began well, a lovely so called “wet” line and quite happily wrote a side of my notebook without issue. I was right on the verge of declaring problem solved when I got a series of “hard starts”. A quick check showed there was still ink in the converter, so I was back to failure mode. Oddly, the pen still wrote “reversed” (nib upside down), so I had a pleasantly diverting hour or two tuning my nib as the tines weren’t quite aligned and I vaguely suspected this might be the issue (ignoring the fact it had written perfectly well for a full page of writing to that point). Eventually the converter ran dry, so I cleaned everything (lesson learnt for sure! I do this every ink refill in every pen now), and tried a bit of Parker Quink.

This is well known as a lubricated quick-drying trouble-free (if slightly boring) ink. I actually quite like the shade of Quink blue and was very relieved to drain out the fill onto a couple of pages with no issues at all. I really do think the issue is now resolved (essentially by replacing the clogged feed), and I’ve regained another fountain pen to the stable.

So – what did I learn in all this?

  • Not to use pigmented inks in a fountain pen!
    • India ink is a big no-no, by the way: it’s essentially a suspension of soot in water.
    • Iron gall inks can corrode the metal parts of a pen even though they say they’re for use in fountain pens, by the way – different issue.
    • Winsor & Newton inks contain Shellac which is similarly death (or at least a solid wounding) to fountain pens.
  • J. Herbin make lovely inks (including a scented range safe for fountain pens) – but be sure to get the ones for the writing tool you intend to use. They do ranges of metallics and shimmer inks, but not all are suitable for fountain pens.
  • Modern mass produced pens have a lot of plastic components and can often be disassembled right to the ground with patience and a little gentle heat.
    • I wouldn’t recommend this for vintage or expensive pens, but it can be educational if you have a pen you don’t mind risking.
    • Even so-called disposable fountain pens like Pilot’s V-pen (currently CAD$3 at Walmart) can be disassembled when empty and refilled with an ink of your choice. There are others like Zebra and Uni-ball. Cheap but quite servicable steel nibs from these Japanese vendors.
    • Another little “hack” – you can gently wipe the plastic barrel of these cheap pens with acetone/nailpolish remover and the printing will come off, leaving you a clear view of the ink level inside… basically a cheap demonstrator eye-dropper.
  • Cheaper pens likely have Chinese components and you may be able to find replacement parts from generic sources.
  • Not all fountain pen inks behave the same – try Parker Blue/Blue-black/Black Quink or a similarly old/boring ink such as Waterman’s or Pelikan 4001 to make sure it really is the pen and not the ink before you start taking things apart. Modern inks have way more complex chemistry than blue/black from older brands.
  • If you find yourself cleaning pens often, consider a cheap ultra-sonic cleaner. They dislodge the most stubborn of ink by creating minute bubbles to “scrub” the inaccessible parts of the pen.
    • Too much, too long can damage some components and materials, so be mindful of this if dealing with delicate or vintage pens.




Fountain (pen) of (my) youth

11 05 2020

Odd day. Can’t remember exactly when “lockdown”, such as it is in BC, began, but I’m into week four of a five week furlough from work, so it’s at least that long. I’m treating it as a dry run for retirement. Love the extra time for reading, gardening, teasing Mrs E. and generally discovering vitally important things I haven’t used in years to fix.

As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, I ended up on a random investigation of fountain pens, inks and associated accoutrements today. Along the way I cleaned and revitalised a cheap fountain pen by “Pen & Ink” which now works great, though the nib is a little broad for my current tastes. The outside of it had become tacky and I read that rubbing alcohol was a good way of removing the tackiness. The brand I used was 70% ethanol (wood alcohol – don’t try using it in cocktails!) but I think some brands are isopropyl alcohol. “Test on a less visible area” being the usual warning in case it melts everything.

Anyway, it worked great on my particular piece of soft plastic. So much so that I also used it on the rubbery grips of the Canon film camera I recently bought second hand. Big fan of alcohol now. (As if I wasn’t already…)

As for the pen innards, I flushed it many times with the rubbing alcohol and then near boiling water to remove residue of old dipping pen ink I’d erroneously filled it with a while ago. (It’s not water-soluble like fountain pen ink is and can contain solids and corrosive chemicals). I have to say the slow, painstaking repetition was quite cathartic. I put a little Lamy Amazonite (kind of teal/turquoise) ink in it to test, and it works lovely and smooth now. Its “medium” nib is a bit broad though for my current tastes.

Flushed (as it were) with this success, I felt nostalgic for the first fountain pen I ever used/owned when I was 11. A present from my parents, it was a Parker 45, as a fountain pen was the required writing instrument at my High School, a traditional grammar school in the UK. I’d looked for this pen several times before but wasn’t entirely sure I hadn’t “purged it” a là Maria Kondo. Perhaps the joy I felt sure it would spark now might not have been the case some time previously.

I even perused a UK vintage fountain pen site to see how much a replacement would be. £55 is the answer – though that was an all-metal body with a stainless-steel nib. Mine was black, with a rolled gold nib. I remembered it well!

After looking in all the obvious places, I suddenly felt inspired to look in the desk drawers of my nest-flown “arty” daughter. It’s not quite as creepy as it sounds – she’s lived abroad for several years now, and she does still have quite the stash of art supplies in her old room.

Boy, did I hit the mother lode! Not only did I find my old school pen (we’re talking 1975 vintage here!), but another lovely fountain pen I was given as a thank-you for being my friend’s Best Man back in the UK. This one is a lovely sleek élysée (ironically, despite the Es acute,  a German company – now defunct). There’s a great write-up here.

Looking in my “calligraphy tin” I discovered the bodies of no less than 3 Parker 25’s and a very particular Peugeot edition of a Creeks n Creeks (Stypen – French) “stubby”. This is so short it can only take the short ink cartridges common in schools. No option of a convertor to take ink from a bottle.

Armed with a little collection now of less than clean fountain pens, I spent a very pleasant few hours purging all manner of colours of ink from their crevices with near-boiling water and rubbing alcohol.

Now… if only I could remember how to write!

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Creeks n Creeks Peugeot special élysée – Series 60 Parker 25 Pen & Ink – sketch Parker 45