At some point, all seasoned pen collectors come across a defective pen. Some encounter this pitfall sooner than others.
If a pen enthusiast receives a lemon early on in their journey, it could destroy any potential for long-term enjoyment of the hobby.
Plus, getting a dud pen is extremely costly if you aren't careful of where you buy from.
Receiving a broken pen
Fountain pens (even luxury ones) are not immune to the occasional defect right out of the box. It happens, even with the most reliable brands.
Pens might come with cracks or flaws in the material, faulty filling mechanisms, missing parts, or a bent nib, to name some problems that might evade quality control. On a couple of rare occasions, I even saw a nib that had no slit down the middle!
Receiving a dud is painful. The hurt one feels is multiplied by the cost of more expensive pens.
You would think that spending more on a premium pen brand would assure the delivery of a flawless piece. Shockingly, not so.
When you shop for pens online, like most of us do, there’s not much you can do to avoid the random chance of receiving a defective pen. Buying a pen in person at a store or pen show is ideal for avoiding lemons.
For pen shopping online, be sure to purchase from a reliable seller that has a return policy and a reputation for strong after-sales support.
The nib is the delicate heart of the fountain pen.
While a pen’s nib might not be obviously defective, there could be problems that go undetected until you put ink in the pen.
Here are common nib problems that plague pens priced both cheaply and dearly alike:
- Skipping: when writing doesn’t produce a consistent stroke. Ink seems to starve as the pen regularly misses parts of letters or words
- Hard-Starting: The nib hesitates to start a writing word or letter. After a quick scribble, it will start writing. But, it will stop again after lifting the nib off the paper for a moment or two.
- Baby’s Bottom: The overpolishing of the nib’s tip will look like a baby’s “bottom” through a magnified jeweler’s loupe. Hard starts can be a symptom of Baby’s Bottom.
- Ink dries out between cappings: Writing is possible. But, after capping the pen and letting it sit for a few hours or over night, and the nib is not flowing, yet, there is still plenty of ink in the pen. This might be more of a cap flaw than that of a bad nib. Also, if you are using a vacuum-filler with a shut-off valve, make sure you open the shut-off valve from time to time to allow more ink to be fed into the nib.
- Excessive Scratchiness: While one would expect some nibs (extra-fine, I’m looking at you) to have tactile feedback, a nib can be overly scratchy if the tines are misaligned or the nib was not fully polished. A tell tale sign of super-scratchiness is seeing paper fibers stuck between the tines.
To navigate these problems, be sure to test your pen as soon as you receive it. Dip test it and write for about an A5 sized sheet of paper. Then, if all is well, fill the pen and test it some more.
The reason why you should test it as soon as you get it is because most retailers have a return policy window. If you wait to try it after the return window expires, it will be more difficult to return the pen if there’s a nib issue.
There isn’t much you can do to avoid a bad nib, aside from buying the pen in person and test writing it on the spot. Again, being able to shop at a pen show or at a pen shop is ideal to avoid going home with a bum nib.
If you come across a nib problem and the return period expires, you do have a couple of options: either you could seek warranty service from the pen manufacturer or a nib meister.
Putting the wrong ink in your fountain pen.
Inks are not as benign as you think.
Some inks have a reputation for being finicky with fountain pens. India ink, or any calligraphy ink with shellac, is 100% a bad idea.
If you put an ink meant for calligraphy dip pens into a fountain pen, the thickness of the ink could seize up the feed and stop it from writing. Inks that are acidic on the pH scale could also cause damage to a fountain pen’s filling mechanism or the material.
For example, I destroyed the diaphragm on the pump piston mechanism of my Edison Menlo fountain pen by loading it with Noodler’s Ink. I did not heed the advice of the Edison Pen Co owner, Brian Gray, to avoid boutique inks in this particular pen. Thankfully, he was merciful and fixed my pen. Lesson learned.
If you enjoy writing with demonstrator pens (especially clear ones), you should be careful about your ink choices in that they do not stain your pen. Avoid super-saturated inks and any inks that have a reputation for staining. You can always check the pulse of the fountain pen community before acquiring a new ink to see if anyone had bad experiences with staining.
If you do encounter an ink clog or stain, I recommend using a pen flush. There are a few companies that make a simple formulation. Or, you could ask around the pen community for a simple formula you can make at home. If you can take apart the pen’s nib, feed, and nib housing easily, do so and rinse each part, gently brushing everything with a bottle brush or used toothbrush to remove any gunk or particles that the water didn’t wash away.
For more severe clogging, it would be advisable to seek a nib meister or someone who could restore your pen’s filling mechanism.
As a last resort, if your pen uses a fairly common nib (like a Jowo #6) and fills with an international ink cartridge or converter, you could replace either one of those if the ink clog is too severe for cleaning.
Misplacing or dropping your pen
Everone is subject to a case of the dropsies. Some more than others. While most pens can withstand small bumps, dings, uh-ohs, and whoopsie doodles, fountain pens just seem to always land nib-first on the floor.
Having a bent nib, as I mentioned earlier, could be a headache that only a nib specialist or a replacement nib can fix. And, it’s not usually a cheap fix.
I’m not going to tell you to be more careful or only take your pens out in a padded room. What I will advise is to always make sure your pens are capped when you put them down. Most fountain pens have a clip on the cap, which acts as a roll stop, preventing your pen from taking a leap from the desk.
Also, protect your pens as best as possible when traveling. Have a dedicated case or sleeve that fits securely in your bag, purse, or pocket. This will lessen the chances of the pen being scratched or banged around, causing damage to the finish.
Warranty service gone wrong
When something does go awry, having the manufacturer help make it “write” is a big relief.
When you buy a pen, you buy into the brand. If the brand is located half-way around the world and makes it difficult to send pens for service, it might take months to get your pen back.
To avoid warranty headaches, seek out reviews and feedback from other pen enthusiasts about specific brands. It’s important to know if the pen’s manufacturer is going to respond to your needs when you spend top dollar on their products.
In the last part of this “Pen Pitfalls” series, I’ll discuss fountain pen frustrations - minor issues that could kill the “penthusiasm” like death by a thousand cuts.