One of the most important aspects of using fountain pens is cleaning them. With regular and proper cleaning, your fountain pens should last for a very long time without any issues. Without regular and proper cleaning, you will likely experience skipping, ink flow issues and possibly even mold. If you’re new to the world of fountain pens, in this article I’ll show you everything you need to know about how to clean a fountain pen.
What You’ll Need To Clean A Fountain Pen
Cleaning a fountain pen might only take a few minutes or might be a multi-day process. It all depends on what kind of pen you’re cleaning, what kind of ink was used in it and how long it has been since the pen was last used or cleaned. In the next section I’ll cover the ways to clean various pens, but first you’ll need to make sure you have a few supplies ready.
The most basic thing you’ll need to clean a fountain pen is a container of water. I prefer a small glass jar, but anything that holds water, like a plastic container, will work. If you have a pen with a lot of dried up ink in it, you might need a bit of ammonia to loosen it up.
For more serious pen cleaning, you might want to invest in an ultrasonic cleaner. These can shake loose ink that is stuck in the feed, as well as help circulate water through the different pen parts. Another item that can help move water through the pen and feed is a bulb syringe.Finally, when you’re done cleaning your pens, you’ll need a safe place to let them dry. Before you get started you’ll want to find a flat surface you can lay your pens on like a countertop or even a cookie sheet (which I prefer so that I can move it if I need to), as well as some paper towels to help soak up the water.
How To Clean A Fountain Pen
One of the best things you can do to make your fountain pens easier to clean is to use and clean them regularly. Most fountain pen users will tell you that a pen that has just run out of ink is much easier to clean than one that’s been sitting unused for a month. Once ink dries up inside of a pen and the feed it requires longer to soak out, which means that multiple soaks or flushes may be required to completely clean it.
Another thing that you can do to help make cleaning your pens easier is to use inks that are not highly saturated. Of course, one of the benefits to writing with fountain pens is being able to use fun inks that have lots of sheen or shimmer. Unfortunately, those inks are often more difficult to clean out of a pen. If you prefer using these types of inks, you’ll probably want to limit the types of pens that you use them in to those that are easier to clean.
At its most basic, cleaning a fountain pen consists of rinsing or soaking the inky parts of the pen in water, which washes away the old ink so you can fill the pen with new ink. Some parts of a pen, like a converter, can easily be rinsed out and ready for fresh ink. Other parts, like the nib and feed, may require a bit of soaking before they are completely clean.
If you are simply refilling a pen with the same ink that you just had in it, there’s no need to go through the whole cleaning process. You can refill it with the same ink without any problems. Still, if you do always use the same ink, you should clean your pen every few fills just to keep it in top condition.
There are many different types of fountain pens and filling systems, and each requires something different to be properly cleaned. Before I discuss the different filling systems, let’s discuss the different pen materials you might come across. If you are unsure what material your fountain pen is made out of, consult the manufacturer web site or err on the side of caution and limit water exposure.
Fountain Pen Materials
Most modern and many vintage pen materials will not be harmed by water and therefore don’t require any special care when cleaning. Pens and pen parts made out of acrylic, plastic or metal will most likely be perfectly safe if they get a little wet.
There are some materials that should have limited or no exposure to water. These include hard rubber and casein, which are typically only found on vintage fountain pens, and any natural lacquers like maki-e or urushi. Limited water exposure is typically safe for celluloid, but warm or hot water can discolor it.
Any pen parts that have metal parts, such as caps, should also have limited water exposure. While it may be safe to rinse or even soak them, you’ll need to make sure that you have a way to completely dry them so that rust does not occur.
Cleaning Fountain Pen Nibs
The nibs of fountain pens can be some of the trickiest parts to get completely clean. The tiny channels of the feed can store lots of ink and may require multiple soaks and flushes to get clean. In my many years of using (and cleaning) fountain pens, I’ve learned a few things that I want to pass along to you.
With any fountain pen nib, you’ll want to soak the nib in water which will dissolve any dried ink, allowing you to flush it out. Sometimes this is easier said than done. My routine for every nib is to first fill and empty the pen with water the same way that I would fill it with ink. This forces water into all of the channels of the feed. I then soak the nib in water for a few minutes, remove it and hold the nib flat against a paper towel to suck out the inky water that’s inside and put it back in the water to soak. I repeat this, changing to clean water as necessary, until no more ink comes out of the nib onto the towel.
Let’s start with fountain pens that have removable nib units, such as Pelikan, Esterbrook, Kaweco, Bock or Jowo. Cleaning these is as simple as unscrewing the nib unit and soaking it in water until it is clean. The convenience of being able to only soak the nib makes these some of my favorite (and easiest) pens to clean.Another type of pen nibs that are very easy to clean are those found in pens that use cartridges or converters. These can essentially be treated like a removable nib unit. If the material will allow it, you can simply remove the cartridge and soak the section of the pen with the nib in it in water until everything is clean. If you are not comfortable soaking half of your pen in water, you will instead want to stand the pen up in water so that only the nib and a small portion of the grip are submerged. This will typically take longer to clean, as water will have to be circulated through the feed, which is contained in the grip section, as well as the nib.
You can speed up the cleaning process with removable nib units and cartridge/converter nibs by using an ultrasonic cleaner. The ultrasonic cleaner vibrates the water at a very high frequency, which causes it to circulate through the nib and feed much faster than just soaking alone. Of course, this only works with pens that can safely be submerged in water, so I wouldn’t recommend placing an entire pen inside an ultrasonic cleaner or using it with delicate or fragile pen materials.Another way you can speed up the cleaning process is to use a bulb syringe to force water through the nib of a cartridge filler. This is a great way to clean the feed if you don’t soak the entire section. Simply fill the bulb with water, place the tip into the pen where the cartridge/converter would normally go and squeeze. Be sure that you have a good seal, otherwise water might squirt back at you. If you do it correctly, water should be forced through the feed and nib, bringing the ink that was stuck inside with it. For fountain pens with fixed nibs that are not easily removed from the pen body, soaking them upright is about the only way to clean them. This includes piston fillers and most vintage fountain pen filling systems. You’ll probably have to fill and flush them multiple times with clean water before you get all of the ink out of the nib and feed. Please note, for pens with a joint between the section and the body, keep the water level below that joint so that water does not seep into the pen body.
Fountain Pen Filling Systems
As you may have noticed, there are numerous different fountain pen filling systems. This also means that there are many different places for ink to hide inside of a fountain pen. It is certainly true that some filling systems are easier to clean than others, but don’t let this deter you from a particular filling system. I’ve already covered how to clean the nibs and feeds of different fountain pens. Let’s now look at how to clean the ink storage area of different types of fountain pens.
Fountain pens that use cartridges or converters are some of the easiest to clean. With a cartridge, you simply remove the cartridge and pop a new one into a clean pen. If you want, you can always refill the cartridge. If you use a converter, you’ll need to clean it before refilling the pen. I have seen some people soak their converters in water, but I prefer not to do it that way. I repeatedly fill and empty the converter with clean water until I don’t see any more ink. Don’t forget to wipe down the open surface of the converter where there might be some ink, even after soaking. If there is residual ink after the fill/refill process, I’ll fill the converter with water and let it soak for a while. Fortunately, you can usually lay the full converter down due to the surface tension of the water.To speed up the process, some people will inject water into the converter using a small syringe. Think of it like a power washer for your converter that saves you from manually and repeatedly filling and flushing your converter. Other converters, like those for Sailor fountain pens, have very wide openings that will allow a stream of water from a faucet directly into the converter.
Pens With Removable Nib Units
While most pens with removable nib units are cartridge/converter fillers, some, most notably Pelikans, are not. For these fountain pens, you can simply squirt water directly into the barrel once the nib unit is removed. For this, I use a bulb syringe. With the piston at the back of the barrel I will typically squirt water into the barrel and then force it out with the piston. Doing this cleans the sides of the barrel. If you don’t have a bulb syringe, you can also fill the barrel directly from a jar of clean water as if you were filling it with ink.
Most modern fountain pens that do not use a cartridge or converter are piston fillers. This means that ink is sucked in with a vacuum created by a piston at the top of the pen and is stored directly in the barrel. These are also typically pens that do not have removable nib units (with a few exceptions). For these types of filling systems, you’ll need to repeatedly fill and empty the pen with clean water. Often, you’ll want to fill the pen and let it soak for a while. This will help clean ink out of the barrel and feed. Personally, I also soak the nib while I’m letting the inside of the pen soak instead of doing it separately. Be sure to gently rotate or shake your pen to clean the surface of the piston.
Fountain pens that store ink in a sac are some of the hardest to clean. This includes most vintage fountain pens that use a lever, vacuum or squeeze filling system. There are a few reasons why these sac fillers are so hard to clean. One is that you can’t see inside of the sac, so it’s hard to tell when it is completely clean. Another is that they are very hard to completely fill with water, as small pockets of air will almost always be present, so parts of the sac might still contain some ink.
What I usually do with my sac fillers is to fill them with water like I normally would with ink. I then turn the pen over so the nib is facing up and tap the pen with my finger a few times. The reason for this is to move any air that is stuck inside of the sac towards the nib. I then go through the empty/fill process again. The first few times you fill the pen with water you should notice air bubbles coming out when you empty the water from the pen. After a few times of filling and knocking out the air bubbles, only water without bubbles should be coming out. Now is when the cleaning really begins. As with any other fountain pen, I like to keep my sac fillers full of water and let them soak for a bit. You’ll probably find that cleaning them takes them longer than your other pens, but with a little work they will eventually be nice and clean.
One wonderful exception to the difficult to clean sac filling stereotype are Esterbrooks. Most vintage Esterbrooks have removable nib units, so even though they are sac fillers you can clean them exactly like you would any other pen with a removable nib unit! Simply remove the nib and squirt water directly into the sac until it is clean! This is just another reason why I love Esterbrooks.
How To Handle Hard To Clean Pens
While some inks and pens are quite easy to clean, others will take a lot more work. When you run into a situation where you can’t get all of the ink out of your pen, I’ve got a few things you can try to help speed up the process. Keep in mind, you should always try the basic cleaning advice that I gave above first. These suggestions should be tried after your pen has had an initial cleaning done to it.
Cleaning With Ammonia
While using any type of cleaners or chemicals on your fountain pens should typically be avoided, there are some occasions where you might just need to use a water/ammonia mix to loosen up some old, stubborn ink in your fountain pen. If you are unsure about if the material of your fountain pen will be damaged by ammonia, please do not use ammonia to flush your pen!
A basic ammonia pen flush is a 10:1 mix of water to ammonia. That means for every 10 ounces of water, you’ll add one ounce of ammonia. Once you have your mix ready, you can fill a pen with it and let it soak for a while. While you’re letting the inside of the pen soak, you should also soak the nib in the ammonia mix. This should help loosen up any ink that remained after the initial cleaning.
Once you’re done with the ammonia mix, clean your pen again using only clean water. You want to be sure to flush out any ammonia that might be in your pen before filling it with ink. Hopefully at this point the water is coming out clean and any ink that was in your pen has been flushed out with the ammonia mix and final water rinse.
Another great way to loosen up stubborn ink is to use an ultrasonic cleaner. While they can speed up the cleaning process for any pen, they can be invaluable if you have a pen with old, dried up ink in it. As I mentioned above, an ultrasonic cleaner vibrates water at a very high frequency. Not only does this help to force water into all of the channels of a feed, but the vibrations can actually shake loose ink that has solidified in the pen.
Earlier this year I had an experience that showed me just how helpful an ultrasonic cleaner can be when cleaning a fountain pen. I acquired a vintage Eversharp Skyline that someone had used white ink in. White ink is typically only made for dip pens, which means it clogged up the channels of the pen feed. I disassembled the pen and tried soaking the nib/feed assembly in water for a few days, but it just wouldn’t come clean. I put it in the ultrasonic cleaner, turned it on and was amazed when a plume of white ink came bubbling out! The cleaner actually shook loose most of the old ink, which allowed me to clean it up and restore the pen to working condition! While an ultrasonic cleaner isn’t always going to work miracles, it should be able to help clean up a pen with old, dried up ink.
When using an ultrasonic cleaner, you should only use it for the nib and section with the feed. Avoid placing your entire pen in an ultrasonic cleaner. If you have a pen from which you can not remove the nib or section, you can put just the nib into the water while the cleaner runs.
Letting Your Clean Pens Dry
Once you’re done cleaning your fountain pens, you’ll need to get the water out so that they can dry. There are a few ways to get the water out of your pen. First, you’ll want to go through the filling process a few times without any water. This should force out most of the water that’s still in the system. When I do this step, I hold a paper towel against the nib to soak up any water that comes out. You can stop at this step if you want, but I always take one more step.
After I’ve purged as much water as possible by dry filling the pen, I try to physically remove any remaining water by giving it a few good shakes. While holding the barrel of the pen in my hand, I grip the nib of the pen in a paper towel and gently shake the pen so that any water that is still inside (hopefully) comes out of the nib. If you do this, hold on to your pen tightly! You don’t want it to fly out of your hand and bounce off of a floor or wall. Again, you don’t have to do this if you’re not comfortable with it, but I find it always helps get more water out of my pens.
Next you’ll need a safe place for your pens to dry. As I mentioned, I like to use a cookie sheet and a few paper towels. The towels help absorb any remaining water and also give your pens a soft place to sit. The cookie sheet is portable, so if you end up cleaning your pens in the kitchen next to the sink, when you’re done you can easily move them to another room while they dry.
How long pens take to dry will depend on the type of pen and the climate you live in. I live in Denver, where there is hardly any humidity, so pretty much anything that is wet will dry overnight. If you live somewhere with high humidity, it might take your pens longer to completely dry.
It is very important to make sure your pens are completely dry after your clean them. If you are putting it away for storage, a wet pen can potentially get rusty or moldy. If you are using your pen immediately, water in your pen will dilute your ink and make it look different than normal.
Unfortunately, you’ll probably have a few pens that never quite dry inside. I have a Wing Sung 3008 that I’ve let set uncapped on my counter for up to 2 weeks after a cleaning and it still has little drops of water in the barrel. Since I don’t have many pens with clear barrels, this might be more common that I think, but I still find it a little annoying.
Keeping your pen clean is an important part of using fountain pens and can not be avoided. Not only is good pen hygiene helpful in keeping your pen writing as well as possible, but it is also a great way to help prevent potential mold and clogging issues. While some types of pens and filling systems are easier to clean than others, with regular cleaning they can all be cleaned with minimal time and effort. If you are finding that some pens are easier to clean than others, as well as that some inks are easier to clean than others, try switching around which pens and inks you use together until you find some combinations that make cleaning as fast and easy as possible.
Hi, my name is John. I’m a Colorado-born professional photographer who recently moved back to Denver after spending 3 years in San Francisco. I’ve been using and collecting fountain pens for over 20 years. I got my first one in college when I got bored taking notes with ballpoints and pencils. Since then I’ve bought and sold hundreds of pens, but have consistency in my love of Esterbrooks.