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Skeleton of a primer for a budding hobbyist

A Smug Dill



N.B. Seeing as the blogging facility is under-utilised, and this is arguably on-topic for a fountain pen hobbyist forum, I'm going to use this ‘article’ as a place for an openly visible, partial brain dump that I can and will come back to edit from time to time, without being constrained by a narrow and strictly limited window of opportunity after initial posting.


A dear friend of ours, to whom we've made a habit of giving fountain pens, bottled inks, and other paraphernalia over the past couple of years — whenever we had the opportunity to meet up every few months, what with busy lives, lockdown restrictions, and all that — has recently ‘graduated’ in the hobby to ordering pens, ink, and even an inkwell of her own initiative. Bravo! My wife and I are so pleased to see the interest we sparked take hold.


However, not being someone who routinely spends time scouring blogs and forums, or shopping online for the next thing of mild interest to buy, our friend is finding the breadth of the hobby, even just in terms of the nouns and concepts, a little overwhelming to grapple with on her own. (She still refers to an ink converter as the ‘thingie’, trying to explain the differences and difficulty she had filling her new TWSBI, because an integrated piston-filler is still somewhat foreign to her at this point.) She's been looking up some things online on her own; but, of course, there is a steep learning curve that many of us deep in the hobby have long since forgotten.


While I'm more than happy to send her links to articles and discussion threads from time to time all year round, or spend hours discussing various aspects of the hobby when we do meet up every so often, I think it might be helpful for me to send her a logically more organised primer. I may even end up hand-writing it in a fountain pen friendly notebook for her; some things are better illustrated with physical artefacts of ink on paper, instead of digitised images hosted somewhere ‘in the cloud’ and linked to or embedded in posts online. It would also help if there's a single ‘place’ for collecting a bunch of links to online material I'd like to show her as ‘reference’ and/or examples.


So, I'm going to use this space as a whiteboard for planning what I'll cover in the primer.


Just to be clear, while I'd love to see your comments about what you would do or write if you were doing something similar for a personal friend who shows sufficient interest in fountain pens, I don't intend this to be a collaborative effort to produce a (or ‘the’) guide as a common resource to be made readily accessible to everyone online — as a tutorial, reference, or even just entertainment as many of us enjoy seeking out by browsing review sites and such. Nor am I planning on ‘publishing’ my end product; it is being written for my friend (and this particular friend), and so it'll inevitably have my spin on things, as well as take into account what I know of her use cases and preferences. Brands such as Parker will get a ‘good’ kicking; American brands will get no love in particular; Kaweco will get ridiculed for its antics trying to fight Moonman; and ‘vintage’ pens as a subject area will get all the coverage of, ”I avoid them,” (which is a statement of fact of what I do, not a recommendation, if my understanding of English grammar is correct). I know some Internet denizens just love to see that kind of ‘published’ statement of personal opinion or choice as unwelcome provocation, as if what they themselves like ‘deserve’ equal and/or positive representation at every turn by someone else not even writing with them and their ilk remotely in mind.



Major sections: Inks; Pens; Papers; Paraphernalia; Techniques; The Rest



Types: ‘standard’ dyestuff-only inks; iron-gall inks; particle inks (including carbon inks, pigment inks, and shimmer inks); inks that should not be put in fountain pens

Usage and handling: flow (‘wet’ vs ‘dry’); lubrication; drying time; aptness to smear or smudge after drying
Intrusive characteristics: feathering; show-through; bleed-through

Permanence: lightfastness (including, counter-intuitively, fading when in a closed book not continuous or continually exposed to light); water resistance (and versus waterproofness); ‘bulletproof’-ness and treatment with alcohol, ammonia, bleach, etc.

Presentation characteristics: spreading; shading; sheen; shimmer (none of which is assumed to be desirable for all unspecified use cases)

Other characteristics: colour-shifting; multi-hued; nib creep; ink crud; pH value; mixing; biocides

Concerns: staining (types; how to remove); SITB



Status: In current production; modern versus ‘vintage’

Names of common parts: essential elements that makes a pen a fountain pen (nib, feed, reservoir, handle); parts on the cap (finial, clip, cap ring and trim) and barrel (including gripping section, end finial, piston knob, blind cap)

Body materials: resin; celluloid; ebonite; aluminium; brass; steel; sterling silver; wood

Cap types: screw-caps; snap-caps; slip-caps (and desk pen holder cones); magnetic closure; capless (knock or twist mechanism)

Sealing effectiveness: porosity of cap material; holes by design and physicals gaps in construction; inner caps

Filling mechanism: cartridge/converter; (integrated) piston-filled; vacuum-filled; eyedropper-filled; captured converter; sac; (note agitators); (note corrosion of exposed metal components, e.g. piston rod); methods: create a vacuum vs direct deposit

Nibs: material; finish (can affect wettability and flow); tipped vs untipped; number of tines (and hence slits); width grades (and ‘Japanese’ versus ‘Western’); open, hooded, semi-hooded ‘fingernail’; types of grinds (nominally round-tipped; Stub; Italic; Zoom; Fude de Mannen; Waverly; Architect; Concord; Posting; Naginata Togi; long knife; art); elasticity (‘nail’; soft; flex); broad tip vs round point; manufacturers (Japanese ‘Big Three’; Lamy; Pelikan; Aurora; JoWo, Bock, and Schmidt; others)

Feeds: material; ink and air channels; fins; wick; cartridge piercer; priming the feed

Interchangeability and interoperability: nib sizes (and that the ubiquitous ‘#6’ doesn't actually mean anything); length, curvature, notch, cutouts; removable, threaded nib units vs friction-fit straight into the gripping section; keyed vs round housing; converter ‘standards’ (‘international standard’; 2.6mm-bore; 3.4mm-bore; Aurora, Parker(3.2mm?), and Lamy; Schmidt K1, K2, K5, and K6; Japanese ‘Big Three’; Cross; other); how some pens would not accommodate all ‘international standard’ converters with thick rims at the mouth or metal collars; beware of splitting the mouth of the converter!

Ergonomic and practical concerns: step-down; weight balance; posting and ‘postability‘ of the cap; burping; faceted gripping section; slippery gripping section; rubberised gripping section; disassembly and servicing

Problems, diagnostic procedures, and ham-fisted/broad-based solutions: (directional) scratchiness; hard-starts; skipping; railroading; unexpected colour dilution; variability from unit to unit; clean and flush before first use; fluctuation in ink flow due air return as bubbles; ‘air lock’ and blockage



Tomoe River FP (not a recommendation)



Cleaning: bulb syringe; flushing liquids; ultrasonic cleaners; drying aids such as a repurposed salad spinner

Pen storage: boxes, cases, folders; chrome-tanned leather?

blotters and blotting paper







Obtaining line variation

Changing wetness of ink marks by varying writing speed (and/or pressure, of course)

Nib tuning: flow adjustment; tine alignment; smoothing and grinding

Servicing of filling mechanism: disassembly; lubrication; reseating of the piston (if necessary, cf. many HongDian pens) to maximise ink reservoir capacity


The Rest

Commentary on particular brands: flow adjustment; tine alignment; smoothing and grinding

Commentary on particular retail channels: Amazon; eBay; AliExpress; Taobao; particular independent retailers


Parking Lot

To find a logical place for: ‘wet’ as an overloaded adjective, as applied to flow, pens, ink, lines on the page, etc.; ‘dry out’ as a verb, in pen usage while uncapped and in storage while capped; ‘feedback’ as logically separate from scratchiness




Recommended Comments

That looks pretty good. You might want to add wood as a material (with its weakness of staining) and mention urushi. And under ergonomic considerations, the size of section (slender pens vs chunky pens), and shape of section, and 'disturbances' such as the Lamy 2000 'ears' and Pilot Capless clip getting in the way might be worth mentioning.

Also possibly a general section on things you can do yourself with a bit of care, with a bit of practice, and things that are strictly "don't try this at home" and require sending to a repairer or to the manufacturer.


Your friend is lucky. I wish I'd had a guide like that when I started out in the mad world of fountain pens!

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Thanks for your input! Yes, not putting wood in the list of body materials warranting a mention was an oversight. I love pens with wooden bodies, but my main concern, or chagrin, is that I have not come across a wooden-bodied pen with a wooden cap that seals well. Actually, there is one, but it isn't really wood per se: the Pilot Custom Kaede's maple body is resin impregnated. All other wooden pens I have can dry out while capped and undisturbed; that includes several Platinum #3776 models.


The primer is really only meant to help her make sense of some of the things she may come across or read online. If she wants to try a Pilot Capless (Vanishing Point and/or Décimo; I don't have a Fermo) for size, so to speak, or play with a pen of some particular description, she's welcome to borrow some pens from my 300-strong personal fleet. Nothing beats hands-on experience with the actual writing instrument; she just needs to know what interests her, what concerns her, and what to ask for.


As it was, she didn't know about iron-gall ink, or that TWSBI Blue-Black is iron-gall, or that the clear plastic wall of a demonstrator's pen body can get stained or stuck with some rather clingy particulate matter, and so now she isn't quite as thrilled with her first pen purchase (which I didn't know about, until she shared a photo the day she received it). So I do want to arm her with some considerations to keep in mind.

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Hi Smug Dill,


Nice project.  If it were me, I'd cover stuff like:

- nib types available, i.e. styles, materials (SS vs gold), flex vs nails;

- filling systems (I love the "thingie" comment) and how once can use them in practice (e.g. fill cartridges with a syringe);

- pen body materials and their consequences (pen not balanced of too heavy and big for the hand);

- and, whilst you've made it clear that you do not like vintage pens, a discussion of these beyond "I don't use them" is worth mentioning, e.g. different materials no longer in use.  Which ones are available at reasonable cost.  Perils of ageing plastics.


I look forward to following this.


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Dang. You are a great friend!


One comment as a relative newcomer would be within the cleaning section: issues/differences in cleaning vacuum filler, piston filler in addition to cartridge/converter. I just cleaned out my Pilot 823 and while it wasn't particularly difficult I was a little paranoid about the drops of water that I could not get out. Perhaps this is something you are already including.


Anyway, great project and very thoughtful of you. I know it's a project for a friend, but I would love to learn from your experiences and positions. I don't care for politics of the various types; I like to try to read as many positions as possible and then make my own decision, for the good or ill. Ha!

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@Texas42 Thank you. I myself have recently had the experience of cleaning out a Wing Sung 699, in which the iron-gall ink has been sitting for six months. No damage to the metal piston rod (whereas, in a Wing Sung 3013 vacuum-filler, it would have been corroded, turned green, and contaminated the ink in mere weeks), but there was a ring of colour at the far end of the barrel that wouldn't budge, and I found it impossible to unscrew the filling mechanism to clean the interior wall of the ink reservoir. I'm not sure whether that is the case in the Pilot Custom 823, but thank heavens the nib unit on the Wing Sung 699 screws out, so after soaking that ring of stubborn stain with a commercial pen cleaning solution, putting that part through an ultrasonic cleaning cycle, then gave the pen a huge amount of physical shaking, most of it came off, and the last little bit of sludge was mopped up with a narrow strip of filter paper (stiff enough to slip through the gap between piston plug rim and reservoir wall, to make it all the way to the end of the barrel, and then slid around the inner perimeter).


Given this friend of ours was a ‘clean freak’ (but I think she's much more relaxed these days), I probably wouldn't recommend to her any demonstrator pens. I think she's learnt a lesson about that with the TWSBI demonstrator she bought anyway; her telling me about the unwelcome surprise of how difficult it is to clean the pen everywhere that she could see, and her questions about the tools and lubricant that came in the pen's retail package, were what prompted me to think she needs a primer of sorts to clue her in on so many bits and pieces of information seasoned hobbyists take for granted.


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I'm new to fountain pens, too. I had a Sheaffer fountain pen back in fifth grade. Its tendency to leak and imperatives of laundry day forced a transition to Bic pens. The fascination with fountain pens I had back in fifth grade returned a few months ago and I've had a revelation.


Sailboats and pens have a common philosophical touchpoint.


If a task is hard or makes the sailor look clumsy, that's the boat's way of saying there's a better way.


Fountain pens have nuances in the way they work. A bad habit may just be a signal there's a better way.


For instance, almost every review of Opus 88 pens shows an agonizing half hour of begging the fates to get the pen to start writing when filled with a dry feed. I finally bought an Omar to see if the pen was getting a fair representation.


Dry nib, dry feed, mine starts instantly after a refill, no problem - but there's a trick.


A pen that loads ink through the feed is primed as a side effect of filling it. It's common to prime a cartridge pen by squeezing the cartridge. For some reason, reviewers don't notice there's something similar to be done with Opus 88's. Fill the pen with an eyedropper, then hold it nib-down over an ink bottle. Retract the plunger a quarter inch and push it forward. Repeat, maybe once more, to get a drop of ink to come out of the feed. The plunger doesn't seal against the interior of the reservoir but it will create enough turbulence to move a little ink.


Wipe the nib with a paper towel and wick excess ink off the feed. It's ready to write as soon as it touches paper.


One of my first pens was a TWSBI Vac 700R. Lovely pen except it ran dry after a page or so. Once again, then cure was pretty easy.


The valve at the bottom of the plunger in vacuum pens is a one-way valve. That's so if the pen is nearly full you can still retract the plunger against a column of ink. As the plunger is pulled out, ink will flow through the plunger valve, moving from behind the plunger to in front of it. When you press the plunger in, the one-way valve closes. It forces ink in front of the plunger out the feed and pulls a vacuum behind it.


All cool but I created a problem that caused the pen to run dry.


The valve is open to ink flow if it's in the process of being pulled out. It's closed to ink flow if it's in the process of being pushed in.


If I unthread the plunger cap two turns, the valve is being pulled out. A gap will remain between the metal plunger and the stopper and ink can flow.


If I unthread the plunger cap three turns and then turn it one turn back in, the valve is now in the process of being pushed in. The gap is gone, the valve is closed, and the pen will run dry.


Either way, the plunger cap is two turns out. If it's two turns out but on the way back in, the pen will starve for ink.


Once I discovered that, no more trouble.


I'm also proud to say that I've never had so much as the tiniest drop of ink stain on my fingers. The cheap disposable latex gloves I bought haven't been so lucky, but I'm ink stain free. 🙂


Apologies for a long post from a newbie. Fountain pens capture my imagination.


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A Smug Dill


12 minutes ago, Amontillado said:

I neglected to mention the Opus 88 line are all eyedropper pens.


That's not entirely true. My Opus 88 Shell pen is cartridge/converter-filled. There was a Opus 88 Heart Sutra limited edition fountain pen that is also c/c-filled. (In retrospect, maybe I shouldn't have taken that out of my shopping basket, when I had the chance to buy it.)


14 minutes ago, Amontillado said:

I never had any luck with just waiting for the Opus 88 to get primed from pointing downhill.


Giving the nib and feed an enema of just water, then shaking off excess water and soak up a bit more by standing it nib point down on a paper towel, before screwing the gripping section back onto the freshly filled barrel on an Opus 88 eyedropper-filled model, can help the ink flow start more readily.


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Thanks - I’ll try that next time I empty the tank, which will probably be in about a week.


Learn something new, always a good day.

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Hi Smug, what a wonderful gift! Just saw this and unsurprisingly, it looks quite thorough.  I think it would be helpful to include:


ink storage - all those little vials!

most suitable uses for the different nibs relative to purpose and/or personal writing style

including assessment of portability (e.g. I love the Taccia 8-pen kimono wraps as they protect, are easily portable, and are beautiful.  A wooden display box is not portable.)


Helpful websites - like FPN ;)

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maybe the following (once she's comfortable)

-How to tell if a pen is wet or dry. How to remedy with out doing things to the pen (using dry or wet inks).

-how to clean a pen safely

-vintage versus modern and pros/cons  (celluloid is flammble)

-the joy of an inexpensive pen with a broad or stub nib: shimmering inks, sheening inks, no fear of ruining something super collectable/rare/vintage

-a bit about paper and how inks can look different on different surfaces (e.g. sheen on Tomoe River etc). Heck for that matter how inks look different depending on nibs. I have a vintage waterman that is flexy. almost every ink I put in it lays down about 3-4 shades darker.




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I know that this is a bit of a zombie post, but I would recommend adding something about how different cleaning materials might react with different pen materials (ammonia, isopropol alcohol, etc).

It would be unfortunate to see a beautiful pen damaged or dissolved by cleaning with the wrong supplies (especially since you mentioned that your friend was a "clean-freak".



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I got my first real fountain pen on my 60th birthday and many hundreds of pens later I’ve often thought of what I should’ve known in the beginning. I have many pens, the majority of which have some objectionable feature. If they are too delicate, or can’t be posted, or they are too precious to face losing , still they are users, but only in very limited environments..  I have a big disliking for pens that have the cap jump into the air and fly off. I object to Pens that dry out, or leave blobs of ink on the paper, or leak, or don’t fit in my hand well, or many other things that I would probably have to ponder about before I could list them.


So my advice is to find out what one objects to.  My chess game and my pen collecting both benefited by my learning the strategy of avoiding making bad moves. Eliminating bad moves makes it more probable that one will find the good one.

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5 minutes ago, adamselene said:

So my advice is to find out what one objects to.


Alas, one cannot know “good” without some idea of “bad” against which to contrast; and, as one of my former bosses (back when I was in my twenties) used to say, “on the scale of good to bad…”, it's a spectrum, not a dichotomy. Whereas subjectively acceptable (or tolerable) and unacceptable may well be a dichotomy to someone, and finding whether the threshold or cusp between them lies takes experiencing many degrees of less-than-ideal, especially if the decision is somehow influenced by factors other than performance, e.g. effective price (including but not limited to “discount” from the retail price in one's local market), as well as understanding the scope of one's use cases.

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1 minute ago, A Smug Dill said:


Alas, one cannot know “good” without some idea of “bad” against which to contrast; and, as one of my former bosses (back when I was in my twenties) used to say, “on the scale of good to bad…”, it's a spectrum, not a dichotomy. Whereas subjectively acceptable (or tolerable) and unacceptable may well be a dichotomy to someone, and finding whether the threshold or cusp between them lies takes experiencing many degrees of less-than-ideal, especially if the decision is somehow influenced by factors other than performance, e.g. effective price (including but not limited to “discount” from the retail price in one's local market), as well as understanding the scope of one's use cases.


Agreed.  And I think it’s good to be aware of this early on and think about at the point of buying rather than rationalizing a purchase..

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5 minutes ago, adamselene said:

I think it’s good to be aware of this early on


It is the reason why I'm so keen on the idea of a personal library — of pens, nibs, inks, paper products, etc. — and spent so much money, as well as time and effort, to “build” it for myself (because I can't simply remember everything, especially as I'm getting older fast) and my wife, so that we can “know”; and, instead of just disposing of what displeased us, or even just not good enough to be “given the time of day” against competition from >500 other pens and >500 other inks for our attention, I keep those things around for reference, and would of course make them (along with their “betters”) available for our friends to try out if they're so inclined.


Even so, that is the sort of thing I unapologetically do not believe for one moment ought to be available and/or accessible as a community resource, especially to those who are disinclined to “pay for (intangible) intelligence” of which material possessions would be unacceptable, intolerable, or “waste of money” to acquire for themselves at their own expense.

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