Fountain Pen Basics: Feathering

When I bought my first fountain pen twelve years ago, I was plunging into a completely new world of writing. Because I’d only used ballpoint pens before, I encountered problems for which I had no names. Fountain Pen Basics are posts for new fountain pen users who are learning the ropes of their pens. The series will introduce you to fountain pen terminology by looking at the solutions to common fountain pen problems.

There are a few banes of the fountain pen world. None are as bad as the new fountain pen that’s just been removed from the box and fitted with a new cartridge (or filled with the writer’s favorite ink), applied to a blank sheet of paper…only to have the pen’s crisp lines disappear into a tangle of tiny, fuzzy lines. This phenomenon is known as feathering.

In the graphical parlance, feathering simply means a fuzzy or indistinct edge. For the fountain pen, feathering happens when the ink is absorbed by the paper and spreads through the paper’s fibers to create a ragged edge. The form of feathering that is most common is a slightly blurry edge with wispy capillary lines running off of the edge at random. On a very rare occasion, this kind of fuzziness is fine. When I am drawing grungy calligraphy letters, I don’t mind the extra random edges created by the pen. Most of the time, however, feathering ranges from being a nuisance that detracts from the pleasure of using a fountain pen to making my handwriting downright illegible.

Fountain Pen inkChances are good that if you’ve chosen to write with a fountain pen, it’s because you admire the crisp, dark lines that the ink makes on the page. The idea that these crisp lines can become fuzzy is a drawback bad enough to make you think twice about using a fountain pen. I know I certainly had second thoughts when my second fountain pen turned out to be a feathering maniac.

What can you do to stop feathering?

There are three aspects at play whenever you make a mark on the page with a fountain pen: the nib, the ink, and the paper. In past articles, I talked about nibs. Nibs can be wet writers or dry writers. A “wet writer” is one that puts a lot of ink down on the page.  Wet writing pens tend to have more feathering problems because more ink flows onto the page when you make a stroke. A “dry writer” is a nib that does not put down as much ink. A dry writer is usually less prone to feathering, but has the drawback of being more scratchy on the page–or sometimes, with the wrong ink, prone to skipping. Dry writers often make lines that look very sharp on the page. Generally speaking, medium to broad nibs are wet writers, and pens on the extra-fine and fine side are dry writers. If you are looking to buy a new pen that avoids feathering, researching “dry writers” could save you some heartache down the line.

However, it’s likely you already own a fountain pen–so the nib is already a fixed quantity. (A nib can be “adjusted” by a nibmeister who is experienced with grinding and flexing nibs to alter the ink flow, but that is a pretty advanced solution.) That means the two variables that you can control are the ink and the paper.

So let’s talk ink for a moment. Even if you have the driest of dry writers for a nib, how the ink flows through the pen will affect how it writes. Inks have a range of flows. A good flowing ink will set down color on the page well. An ink that flows excessively will put down too much liquid and cause feathering. An ink that has a poor flow may skip, or clog a pen. Finding an ink that has a good flow is an ongoing task. Not all inks play well in all pens.

When I first started using fountain pens, my favorite inks were Levenger inks that were on the poor flow side. The inks would dry quickly, required a lot of cleaning, and often clogged my nibs. I was a meticulous nib-cleaner. I didn’t mind the extra rinses I had to put my nibs through. It seemed worth it for an ink that was dark, lustrous, and didn’t feather. What I didn’t understand was that all inks have different characteristics. I didn’t realize that I could have found an ink to match my pens that wouldn’t feather and wouldn’t clog my pen after every refill.

 

Fountain Pen Ink Bottle;
Waterman Blue Fountain Pen Ink

Two of the inks that have given me the least amount of feathering (or clogging) problems are Waterman Black and Waterman Blue. These inks come in three different kinds of refills: bottled ink (used with converters, pistons, or other filling systems), Waterman cartridges which are double-length and fit into Waterman fountain pens, and standard cartridges (which are small and fit into all pens that are fitted to take standard cartridges). Because of their wide variety of refills, and their easiness to use in pens, I usually recommend these inks first.

 

 

If you are new to fountain pens and have a feathering problem: first try Waterman ink.

Next, let’s talk paper. Once upon a time, papers were manufactured to be used with fountain pen inks. They were surfaced to react well to ink, and their rag content was compatible with the juicer dip pens that would often be used side-by-side with internal feed fountain pens. Today’s paper is generally geared towards many different needs. Cheap office paper is generally used for copiers or printers. Most legal pads and other jotting surfaces are designed to stand up to the tips of ballpoint and gel pens. Think paper and expensive paper don’t necessarily equal “great writing experience” either; many expensive papers and many thick papers are designed to be absorbent. Aquarelle papers are lovely, thick, and have an interesting texture. But aquarelle paper is designed for watercolors; fountain pen ink feathers like crazy on its surface. The brands generally considered to be “fountain pen friendly” brands are Rhodia, Quo Vardis, and Clairefontaine. Papers that have a high cotton content are generally considered better for fountain pens. Papers made from bagasse (sugar cane waste) are often cited as a great surface for pens that prevents feathering but may show ink through the opposite site of the page (this problem is also known as bleedthrough). Onion paper (airmail paper) has also been attested to as an anti-feathering paper for wet writers.

 

 

 

Hemisphere Fountain Pen Black Chrome Trim;
Waterman Hemisphere

 

 

Dry writers (or wet writers with the right ink) can overcome some of the issues associated with papers that aren’t generally considered fountain pen friendly. I regularly use Fiorentina journals to keep track of my daily schedule. Some of my wetter-writing fine and medium nibbed pens feather like crazy on the paper. So much so that I sometimes can’t recognize my own handwriting. This is a common headache for small handwriting and feathering ink. Calligraphy on this paper? Completely out of the question! However, a dry writer like my eight-year-old Waterman Hemisphere (fine nib) loaded up with Waterman Blue will produce a crisp, clear line on the Fiorentina paper. Moleskine is often cited as a fountain pen unfriendly brand, but their Folio series journals feature extra-thick pages that have proven to be feathering-resistant with pen and ink combinations that will feather on other, more fibrous papers.

 

What can you do about feathering without too much stress or money? If you’re experiencing feathering problems, I suggest starting with a feather-resistant ink like Waterman Black or Blue. Rinse out the nib, let the pen dry, load up some new ink and try it out on a range of different papers. Copier paper, journal paper, planner paper, bagasse paper, cotton rag resume paper–whatever kinds you already have on hand. Give each paper type a whirl. If feathering is still a problem, it may be time to try more expensive “fountain pen friendly” brands (or perhaps time to research dry writing fountain pens). For the most part, I think most pens’ feathering issues can be solved by trying inks whose reputations are for feather-free writing.

When you’ve had a chance to stretch your wings, and are looking into experimenting with ink brands and colors that have different flow properties, that’s likely when expensive papers and other fountain pen paraphernalia will make its way to your writing desk. For those looking to venture into different inks, stay tuned for next week’s Ink Spotlight where I will review Private Reserve’s line of inks.

Ink Spotlight: Private Reserve

Last week, I wrote about one of the most vexing problems for new fountain pen users–feathering. Feathering is an indistinct or fuzzy line caused by ink seeping into the paper fibers. Often feathering will look like tiny little lines branching off of your letters. Bad feathering may make it impossible to read your own handwriting. The opposite problem is skipping. Skipping happens when the ink does not flow off the nib well and causes blank/dry patches when writing. These problems are often encountered by new fountain pen owners, and they may wrongly think it is a problem with the pen, rather than a mismatch between the pen & ink. This week, I am spotlighting one of my favorite ink brands, Private Reserve and talking about the good & the bad associated with its use.

Ink Bottle;Private Reserve ink has a dual reputation in the fountain pen world. On one hand, it is often touted as one of the great boutique brands with its wide selection of colors and its ability to mesh well with all kinds of fountain pens. Private Reserve inks have a good flow, don’t often cause dry patches in writing as some of the more sluggish inks, like Levengers, do. PR inks are often on the wet side of inks, and thus find themselves at home in dry writers, fine-nibbed pens, pens that have “nail” nibs. Best of all, Private Reserve inks are saturated with dye, and they look rich and full-bodied on the page. On the other hand, Private Reserve is often cited as one of the more prone to feathering inks. Its generous flow often leads to blobby, indecipherable letters on poor-quality paper. Ink aficionados point out that Private Reserve inks are high maintenance and require constant care and cleaning.

So where does that leave Private Reserve? Is it a good ink to try with your fountain pen?

When you should try Private Reserve

When I first started using fountain pens, I expected them to be as easy as using ballpoints–but with richer and darker inks. My taste ran towards very dark inks. Black was my preferred color. Rich blacks seemed to be the most elegant color, applicable to all kinds of serious-minded writing. I also wanted to dabble in dark blue, deep purple, and burgundy inks.

My starting pens were dry-writing Parker Vectors, and I used them with Parker cartridges. I was sorely disappointed when I found my black inks coming out watery and pale and my navy blues barely-there. Parker fountain pens use a proprietary cartridge shape and these pens did not come with converters. I couldn’t even imagine that I could use an ink of my own choosing.

A year later, I received a Waterman Carene for Christmas, complete with a converter. It was a fine nib. It seemed to write on the average side–neither dry like my inexpensive Parkers nor wet like my medium nibbed Pelikan demonstrator. I bought a bottle of Levenger Ink to complement the new pen. The blacks were finally dark! But the ink often turned to sludge in my feed, and I was rinsing out the nibs every week. The ink was rich in dyes, but it skipped if the pen was left uncapped for more than ten minutes. The hassles of cleaning, maintaining, and faithfully capping a fountain pen seemed more than I was willing to bear for an ink that would skip at its pleasure. I was thinking of giving up on fountain pens.

Finally, on the recommendation of a few pen message boards, I tried Private Reserve ink. I ordered Ink Bottle;Velvet Black and Tanzanite in bottles (at the time, they didn’t sell refill cartridges). I filled up the converter with Velvet Black… and was excited to see the ink flow right out of the nib onto my journal page without skipping. The ink was perhaps not as dark as Levenger’s Raven Black, but the ink didn’t show faded or streaky lines as the Parker Quink did. And the ink felt silky as I laid it on the page. It was a marvelous experience. The Tanzanite was a lightish purple on the blue side of the spectrum–not as dark as I’d hoped it to be. Later, I tried multiple inks from the brand: Spearmint, Black Cherry, Electric DC Blue. Of the three, Black Cherry was my favorite. It was another rich, dark color. It wasn’t quite the dark burgundy color that I had been mixing myself from Levenger Raven Black & Crimson Red. But the Private Reserve ink still held a good color. Even better, I had now found a new line of inks that I was excited to sample.

While Private Reserve was considered a “high maintenance” brand, I was flushing my pen nibs with room temperature water whenever I changed inks rather than whenever the ink dried on the pen nib with the Levenger (sometimes daily). The brand’s reputation for being finicky, I felt, was relative to experience. A fountain pen owner/user is likely to want to get their hands dirty–unscrew nibs, learn about feed systems, put in the time and care (which will never be 0 minutes) per week to maintain a superior writing instrument. It did not seem like a hassle to have to pay attention to a pen’s nib or feed system. Or if a clog developed, soaking it in water for an hour before allowing it to air-dry. Private Reserve was an ink for fountain pen lovers; and an excellent jumping-off point into the world of fountain pen inks.

When you shouldn’t

In more recent years, my taste in inks changed. Now I am more excited by subtle earth colors in fountain pen ink, as well as incredibly vivid chartreuse and crimsons in acrylic ink (for dip pens only!). No longer are my go-to pens dry writers like the Parker Vector and the Waterman Hemisphere; instead, I favor average/wet writers like the Namiki (Pilot) Prera. Instead of tight, crisp lines, I am more interested in pen-and-ink combos that feel smooth on the page.

My journal of choice is a thick Fiorentina journal. In the past two years, the company’s paper quality has declined from “fountain pen friendly” to a low-grade fibrous paper. The quality of its pages seems to be on-par with copier paper. The problems I encounter with this kind of paper are smearing as I moved my hand over still-wet ink and feathering.

A little over a year ago, I discovered Private Reserve had formulated an Ultra Black Quick Drying ink. I hastily bought a bottle and filled up my newest vacuum-filler pen (a Hero 100) with a generous amount of ink. The ink did as advertised: it was the blackest-of-black inks and dried so quickly that I had no smearing troubles. But to my dismay, the Ultra Black feathered wildly on the Fiorentina paper. The Hero 100 is an average-to-wet writer, and Private Reserve’s standard flow made for blotchy, unreadable handwriting. I filled another pen, a Rotring Core with an extra fine nib, with Ultra Black. Feathering again. I tried my tried-and-true Velvet Black and Black Cherry. They, too, feathered badly on the page.

So I tried a different journal, one I used for archival purposes. I opened a Moleskine A4 Folio. All of the pens wrote beautifully and crisply on the thick pages (I daresay that Moleskine’s reputation as fountain-pen unfriendly is undeserved).

Now I was faced with a dilemma. I was frightfully in love with my Fiorentina journal. It was an irreplaceable part of my creative process. Private Reserve inks were feathering in every pen I threw at it, right down to my driest writers. I felt like I was beginning to waste time with all of my ink experiments, as all of my Private Reserve inks displayed terrible blotchiness on the fibrous paper (further experiments with other brands Noodlers’ Ink, Pilot ink turned out badly on the paper. So far, only Waterman ink has produced crisp lines on the paper–but further tests await).

Fountain Pen Ink Bottle;The stalemate was finally broken when I decided that, rather than seek the perfect fountain pen that would write flawlessly with Private Reserve Ultra Black, I would simply use pens with the non-feathering Waterman Ink or ballpoint pens.

Final Evaluation

As an ink explorer, I urge all adventurous fountain pen users to try Private Reserve if they have never used the ink before. Private Reserve is one of several large boutique ink makers and is often the gateway to a richer world of inks. It was my third brand foray, and it opened my eyes to how writing with fountain pens could be. Starting with one or two of Private Reserve’s more well-reviewed inks could unlock an entire brand if you like how it works with your pen/paper combination, or if you are willing to explore more fountain pen friendly papers. If you are locked into a wetter-writing nib, or if you’d prefer to use ballpoint-grade papers (like Fiorentina journals or legal pads), it is likely that Private Reserve inks won’t do as well for you.

My highest recommendation is to those who write left-handed, those who want an ultra-fast drying ink, those who write with dry nibs, or experience skipping problems with their current ink. If any of these problems have you at wit’s end, Private Reserve may be the brand that salvages your relationship with your pen.

Fountain Pen Basics: When a New Pen Clogs

When I bought my first fountain pen twelve years ago, I plunged into a new world of writing. Because I’d only used ballpoint pens before, I encountered problems for which I had no names. Fountain Pen Basics are posts for new fountain pen users who are learning the ropes. The series will introduce you to fountain pen terminology by looking at the solutions to common fountain pen problems. Previous entries in this series have covered feathering and skipping.

December is the month for new fountain pen users. Many receive a new fountain pen—maybe even their first fountain pen—as a gift for the holidays. As they soon discover, caring for a new fountain pen is slightly more involved than uncapping a rollerball, or clicking a ballpoint’s refill into place.

Fountain pens fresh off the manufacturing line often have grit or industrial resins in the feed system–the intricate system that feeds ink from the refill (or ink reservoir) to the tip of the pen. During the first inking (inking is when a pen is filled with ink, and then brought into contact with paper, usually drawing lines or circles to stimulate the flow of ink through the feed), these leftover industrial particulates may partially or fully block the flow of ink. This blockage can cause the pen to skip or to fail to write at all.

Whether or not a new pen has these obstructions in its feed is a guessing game before it is inked. I’ve received several fountain pens that worked like dream during their first inking; I have also bought many pens that had to be flushed several times to remove blockages. I have encountered blocked feeds on 200-dollar pens, and extremely smooth fresh-out-of-the-box writing with ten-dollar pens. And sometimes blockages simply vary by nib. Of the two Cross C-Series nibs that I’ve owned, one had a nasty clog that took a couple of flushings to remove entirely. The other nib I ordered directly from Cross (a replacement for the original after it had been damaged in a fall) worked like a dream out of the box.

 

Cross Bailey Fountain Pen Red Lacquer Medium
Cross Bailey Fountain Pen Red Lacquer Medium

 

If you are eager to jump into writing, let me not dissuade you from inking up your new pen and testing it on paper. If the pen is being inked for the first time, it may take a few good strokes of the pen to draw ink from the reservoir to the nib. If a minute or two of drawing lines across the paper hasn’t pulled the ink to nib—or the ink is coming out unevenly—then it’s time to follow a few steps.

 

1. Identify the type of pen.

There are a few different types of pens. What type of pen you have will affect how you care for it. Most fountain pens are hybrid converter/cartridge pens. If the pen came with a refill or a small glass or plastic plunger that you snap or screw into the pen, then it is a converter/cartridge pen. If the pen has a permanently attached refill, that has what looks to be a sac and a metal area to depress, the pen is a vacuum filler. If the pen has a single large body with a screw at the end that pushes a large, permanently attached plunger up and down the body, the pen is a piston filler. If the pen has a body that unscrews but has no cartridges or converter, then the pen may be an eyedropper filler. The vast majority of pens are converter/cartridge pens. Vacuum fillers and eyedroppers are rare in modern pens. Stipula carries two of the more well-known eyedropper pens (the Passaporto and the Bon Voyage). If you are unsure of what kind of pen you own, check the small manual that comes in the box, or search online for instructions on how to fill your specific brand & model of pen.

 

Image result for stipula passaporto pen
Stipula Passaporto Pen

 

2. If you’ve already attempted to ink the pen, remove the refill or the ink from the reservoir.

If you’ve already filled the pen, remove the converter or cartridge if it is a converter/cartridge pen. If the pen is a piston filler or vacuum fillerempty the ink by completely depressing the plunger/button until all of the ink has emptied through the pen nib back into the bottle. If the pen is an eyedropper, unscrew the pen reservoir and pour the ink back into the bottle.

3. (Optional) Dip the pen.

This stage is optional, but it may help you identify if the problem is a clog or the nib itself. Dip the tip of the nib into ink (or if you only have an ink cartridge, squeeze a little ink onto the nib). Blot the pen if there is too much ink on the nib with a piece of thick paper (to blot a pen, quickly touch the nib to the thick paper a couple times). Now write a few words or sentences with the pen, until the ink runs out.

This step allows you to ascertain two things about the pen. One: if the ink flows smoothly from the nib onto the paper, then you can rule out clog/skipping problems with the nib’s tip. Two: with the generous flow to the nib from the dip, you can feel how the nib writes when it is fully saturated with ink. This allows you to decide whether or not you may want to get your pen adjusted if the ink flow to the nib is insufficient after flushing.

photodune-2409849-fountain-pen-xs4. Flush the feed system.

For a cartridge/converter pen, unscrew the nib section from the pen. The nib section is usually the nib, plus the part of the pen that you grip when you write. Most nib sections unscrew at or near the threads (the grooves where a cap screws on, or on pens without a screw-on cap, where the cap clicks on to the pen). With the refill removed in a previous step, you should see the collector (the narrow “straw” that inserts into the refill or converter to pull the ink into the feed). Take the pen to a sink. Turn the water on to a gentle trickle. Run water through the collector. Pour a small dollop of dish detergent (like Dawn) into a container and dilute it with a little bit of water. Pour this diluted dish detergent through the collector, and flush it under the stream of gentle water for a minute or two. If the pen has been previously inked or dipped, make sure that you flush the pen until the water runs clear (and is no longer tinted from the residual ink in the feed).

For a piston or vacuum filler, keep them away from water unless you know how to disassemble a nib feed (a more advanced technique than this post will cover). If this is one of your first fountain pens, I suggest that you flush the feed with ink. Insert the pen nib into a bottle of ink and draw ink into the pen, then empty it immediately. Repeat this step once or twice to make sure that ink is flowing into and out of the pen freely.

Flushing a pen is more art than science. If you think that you are flushing your pen incorrectly or incompletely, don’t hesitate to reach out to other fountain pen owners for help.

5. Allow the pen to dry.

cartridge/converter pen needs to be allowed to dry after flushing with diluted soap & water. I usually rest my nib sections (still unscrewed from the barrel) on a paper towel for an hour. Some pen owners like to let their feeds dry overnight to be assured that the nib is completely dry. Piston and vacuum fillers do not need to dry.

When you can be reasonably sure that the nib is dry (gently touch the nib to the paper towel to see if moisture continues to be drawn out of the pen), screw the nib section back onto the pen barrel.

 

 

Fountain Pen Ink Bottle;

 

 

6. Choose an ink & fill the pen.

If you only have the cartridge or ink that was gifted with (or came bundled with) the pen, use whatever ink you have on hand. I prefer to ink new cartridge/converter pens up with Waterman Black, as it performs well in almost all pens, and eliminates the ink as a factor in pen skipping. For piston and vacuum fillers, I use J. Herbin’s Perle Noire or Aurora Black.

7. Test the pen.

Now that you have a flushed pen, inked with your ink of choice, time to test the pen. Start by drawing lines with a firm pressure across a disposable sheet of paper—preferably of the kind that you plan to write on most frequently (for me, this would be Rhodia). The pressure should draw the ink through the feed. After a few seconds (or at most a minute), the ink should begin to flow from the nib.

8. Determine if the nib needs further adjustment.

Write a paragraph. Judge the ink flow against what you would expect from the pen and/or from the dip test you performed earlier. Is the nib scratchy? Is ink being delivered consistently to the page, or are there patchy spots in your writing? Is the ink flowing easily? Did you prefer the ink flow during the dip test?

Some nibs only require a flushing to work beautifully; some nibs take a while to “warm up” and become smooth based on how you write. Part of the charm of the fountain pen is that each pen is an individual—unique based on how the nib was made, and how your writing will shape the nib. My rule of thumb is to always give a pen a whole page before I judge whether I need to take extra steps to get it writing to my preferences.

9. If problems are encountered, flush a second time and/or seek help.

It is likely that flushing the nib removed your problem. Most skipping problems on new pens are caused by manufacturing oils and other debris. However, if you’re still encountering problems, it’s likely that you’ll need some more advanced troubleshooting.

Some pen nibs are considered problematic writers. Montegrappa pens, for example, have a reputation for needing advanced tweaking/adjustment. Asking other pen owners for their advice is the first step to take if you encounter a problem that simple flushing doesn’t solve. Many problems are well-known to experienced pen collectors, and they will be able to steer you towards the proper remedy.

The Wonderful World of Waterman

If you know fine pens, you know Waterman. Poetry, movement, and design define the Waterman brand, and those concepts are evident in each piece produced from the pen powerhouse. These fine writing instruments are skillfully made in France and creatively echo the genius of the brand’s founder, Lewis Edson Waterman. Waterman invented the world’s first reliable fountain pen in 1883. With unique personalities and traits, no two designs are alike. Designed to accessorize your imagination and make writing a pleasure, only the best craftsmanship is used to create these beautiful pieces. The collections include rollerball, ballpoint, and fountain pens, many of which can be customized with personalized engravings.

In its latest limited edition collection, Waterman has done it again. The Ombres Et Lumieres series is magnificent. In true Waterman fashion, this collection is a nod to the brand’s French heritage. Anyone who has been to Paris, or seen pictures, knows why it’s called the city of lights. Paris illuminates beauty and sophistication like none other. The elegant black and white motif of the pens reminds us of the nighttime Paris landscape. It’s eternally chic, breathtakingly beautiful, and one of a kind- just like the newest additions to the Waterman family.

In addition to the Ombres Et Lumieres, Waterman also offers the best quality pen refills. It’s hard to find exact matches for ink refills, and we are experts at that here. We offer everything from Waterman ballpoint pen refills to the harder to find Waterman fountain pen ink refill bottles. You have your choice of eight iconic Waterman colors to choose from to keep your writing interesting.

Maybe you’re new to the wonderful world of Waterman. A great place to start is with some of our best sellers. These include the ballpoint and rollerball pens from the Hemisphere and Expert collections. These fine writing instruments are classic statements of simple luxury. They exude classic luxury without drawing too much attention. They make great gifts for someone special or a treat for yourself.

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