Tale of a Vandal Pen User: Eyedroppers, Part 1

Regular readers of PW know, all my core writing pens have been converted to eyedroppers. For the uninitiated, these pens were originally designed to use ink in the form of cartridges or converters (c/c). Instead the pens are inked by filling the entire pen barrel with ink.

The c/c system is the most common filling system today.  If you like to change ink colors, or rotate through a lot of pens, the c/c system is for you. Or maybe you just like c/c’s. A lot of folks do. As Stuart Smalley would say, “and that’s okay.” Cartridge/converter pens certainly have their place in my pen hoard. Not all of them are eyedropper (ED) pens.

Converters top to bottom: Platinum, international converter, Pilot Con-50, Pilot Con-70, Pilot Con-20
Converters top to bottom: Platinum, international standard, Pilot Con-50, Pilot Con-70, Pilot Con-20

The eyedropper concept is not new to fountain pens. Eyedropper pens have been around since the advent of fountain pens. You can even collect vintage eyedropper fountain pens.

Diverting Down Capacity Road

What’s the advantage of converting a c/c pen to an eyedropper style pen? If you’re a happy ink-color-changing sort, EDs will be more of a burden than a convenience. For those of us who write with a frenzy, the increased ink capacity of the pen is the obvious draw.  When I’m deep in story, far away from an ink bottle, an ED rarely interrupts the process. I need that!

My core writing pens include two Danitrio Sho-Hakkaku (aka Short Octagon), and three Edison fountain pens. All but one of these pens holds 3ml of ink. One, a custom Edison which joined the core earlier this year, holds a whopping 5ml of ink.

Edison Huron in Yellowstone Acrylic
Edison Huron in Yellowstone Acrylic – my first “eyedropper” pen, and the pen that changed the direction of my pen collection.

Don’t be fooled by a c/c pen’s large size: measure yourself how much liquid the barrel will hold. I was surprised once I started measuring the capacity of all my pen barrels. The average liquid capacity of a c/c pen barrel seems to be around 3ml.

Take care not to be taken in by the claims of “it holds a ton of ink” proclaimed among dear our pen friends. “A ton” is not even literally possible, ay? Also “huge” or “a lot” are not helpful descriptors. What is huge or “a lot” to one person is not to someone else.

Me, I prefer a measurement whenever possible. At the very least, I implore the reviewers of you out there to fill a pen from a 5ml ink sample bottle and tell us your results! Even approximate measurements are better, IMHO, than “huge” or “a lot” or “a ton” proclamations.

Several years ago, when I first began looking for a high ink capacity fountain pens, many people suggested I look at piston filling pens. Many piston pens do hold more than an ink cartridge or converter, but not always that much more. It depends on the converter or the type of ink cartridge. According to the Wiki on the fountain pen, a short international cartridge may hold .75ml of ink, and a long international cartridge may hold 1.45ml. I don’t mean to be obtuse about cartridges. I rarely use them.

The current production Sailor Realo holds 1ml of ink which is more than a Sailor converter (.7ml), but less than a Sailor ink cartridge which holds 1.7ml . The Pilot Heritage 92 piston pen holds 1.2ml; more than the Pilot Con-70 converter at 1ml, and the Pilot Con-50 .5ml to .7ml.  A Pilot cartridge holds 1ml of ink.

The TWSBI 580 piston pen holds 2ml. Earlier TWSBI piston models hold from 1 to 1.5ml.

A vintage Sheaffer Oversize Balance plunger filler can hold 3ml of ink. The Pilot 823 vaccum-filling pen holds 2.2ml.  The TWSBI  Vac 700 holds 2.3ml. The 1st generation of the Conid Bulk filler is 3ml.

An Edison Pen standard international converter holds .7-1ml. An Edison bulb-filler holds 2.5ml, the Beaumont pneumatic 1.1ml, and the Menlo pump filler 1.7ml. An ED’d Edison pen will hold from 3ml to 5ml of ink.

How important is ink capacity, really?

It’s only as important as you deem it, ay?

If you use broad nibs, wet nibs, crazy nibs that eek out a lot of ink, the .5ml of the Pilot Con-50 converter won’t last very long at all, and you’ll want to keep a refill bottle handy. If you use fine or extra fine or tiny-tiny UEF nibs, your .5ml will last much longer, and you can be brazen about refills.

I once figured out that my ink consumption averaged 50ml every five weeks. Let’s see, that consumption averages to about 1.4ml a day. That information was helpful in planning and budgeting ink purchases—how much ink do I really need to have on hand?

While I’ve figured out what works for me, there are frankly too many variables—type of paper used, type and point size of nib(s) employed—to be absolute about the capacity needed to garner you the most pages per fill.

I’ve meandered down an impossible path. Well, more like ran down, or hurled down, ay? Back to eyedropper pens…

Ink Burping

The only way to guarantee a fountain pen will never leak ink on you is to never ink the pen. Got that?

In five years of ED’ing several kinds of pens, I’ve not had any burping or blobbing of ink that many people are concerned about. The only issues with burping has been with vintage fountain pens (lever-fillers, piston, plunger). None of my modern ED pens have burped or blorpped, despite extreme weather conditions, and hauling the pens around in my backpack.

I’ve taken a modern eyedropper pen traveling by air, and written in-flight with such pens. No hay problema por  mí! As with any fountain pen you’re flying with, the key is to keep the ink reservoir full.  Don’t use the pen during take off or landing. During those times any air in your pen is expanding (take-off) or contracting (landing), and any fountain pen is vulnerable to burping ink. I wouldn’t advise flying with a inked vintage pen because the feeds are not as robust as modern feeds. Unless you like to live on the inky edge of pendom.

Feeds? What’s that, you ask? The feed is that funny thing under the nib,  feeding ink to the nib. Somethin’ like that. For terms you don’t know or understand, make use of a great resource on the web: Mr. Binder’s Glossopedia of Pen Terms.

As I understand it, the phenomenon of burping occurs near the end of your ink fill. A near empty pen has a lot of air in the barrel, the air somehow contracts and expands, the pen looses vacuum, the feed floods, and walla…ink blorp. Please refer to comments pen maker Brian Gray has made here,  here, and here discussing a conversation on the issue he had with Richard Binder.

I’ve no experience with them, but have heard that some of the very inexpensive ED pens might be prone to burping. I’m guessing they have poor feeds. Still I’ve read of at least one guy who had a burping Edison. How’d that happen?  If you do have a burping pen, the standard recommendation is: don’t let your ink fill drop below 1/3 of the pen.  I guess that works, or helps. Dunno. Me, I write until the ink runs dry.

Having experimented with several pens does not an expert make. All this blather means only that my pens are fine, and I haven’t met a burping ED pen. It’s all about encouraging you to forge ahead with your own pens to see what you like, and what works for you.

The Standard Precautions

Almost any pen that does not have metal inside the barrel or in the section (excluding the nib itself) can be converted into an eyedropper aka “ED.” Pens that are not good choices would be pens with feeds are made to maximize ink flow, such as in the black resin Namiki Falcon fountain pen.

Why are pens with metal insides not good ED candidates? The metal will be corroded over time by contact with the ink. (Especially true if you are using iron gall inks.)

Some folks just ignore the warnings, and ED their various pens with metal insides anyway. (Maybe they will chime in the comments section, and tell us their real world experience?) They are your pens, after all, to use as you wish. However, do not complain, or cry foul, or sell the pen to someone unsuspecting if your experiments fail.

You won’t harm your “ED friendly” pen by testing it in “eyedropper mode,” so you should brave forth, and try any pen you feel may be a candidate. Experiment  to find out what works!

The How To

Tools:  Silicon grease, applicator for said grease, a syringe or a glass pipette/eyedropper. When you take your pen out of rotation: a barrel brush for cleaning. Also you can use a tinier brush for the section if the nib unit removes easily.

Silicon grease is available from some of the online pen retailers, or from a hardware store in the plumbing section, or if you got one—from a scuba diving equipment shop.

tools: silicon grease, applicator (a former Q-tip), Danitrio eyedropper, a 5ml syringe w/blunt needle
Tools: silicon grease, applicator (a former Q-tip), a 5ml syringe w/blunt needle, and a Danitrio glass eyedropper.
top to bottom: barrel brush, section brush
Top to bottom: barrel brush, section brush

So what is this “conversion” of a c/c fountain pen? Conversion simply involves the following steps:

  • Remove converter or cartridge from your pen. Duh, right?
  • If you want to know how much ink your barrel will take, you can measure with water first. Water is always a good test because the worse you can do is splash water around. Just don’t leave handwritten pages around. *ahem*
  • If your pen has a removal, screw-in nib unit, you should add a bit of silicon grease to the threads of the nib unit. [In the linked video below, Brian discusses this at 5:08 minutes into the video. Check it out for a clear demonstration of greasing this piece.] Take very good care not to grease anywhere except the threads. You don’t want ink getting into the feed or onto the nib.
  • Next, remove section from the barrel of your pen. Lightly “paint” the section threads with pure silicon grease. Do not use anything else. Period. Pure means no additives in the silicon grease. Nothing else! Promise? Do not ask about alternatives. Okay, maybe plain and pure beeswax! Nuttin’ else. Just use pure silicon grease, unless you have an in with a beekeeper.
  • You want enough silicon grease to keep the ink from seeping from the barrel through the section threads.
  • Again, you want to be careful not to get silicon grease inside the barrel, or the section, or the feed, or on the nib. It’s a huge ordeal to degrease the feed!
  • Time to ink the pen:  Fill the pen barrel to below the threads inside the pen barrel. You can use an eyedropper, or a syringe. A syringe is nice because measurements in ccs or mls are printed on it.
  • Screw the section back into the barrel. If any silicon grease eeps through the section threads to the outside of the pen, wipe it off. Again, wipe away from the nib and feed! la-la-la-la!
  • To prime the feed of your pen, you can take the now-barrel-filled pen, and sit it nib down in your ink bottle for a few seconds or a minute. Then “swaddle” the nib as described here by Mr. Binder.
  • If you don’t want to prime the feed, you may have to leave your pen on its side or nib down for a minute or a few while the ink works its way into the feed.
  • What’s that—“prime?” It means having ink in the nib/feed at the ready to write.
  • Write away!
  • Okay, wait—there is an alternative to silicon grease:  it is called an o-ring. You may use that instead if you don’t want to mess with silicon grease. Take care not to over-twist on the o-ring like I’ve done more than once. You end up creating problems either by cracking your pen or splitting the o-ring.

There are several videos, including this one by Brian Gray of Edison Pen, instructing you on how to convert your pen to eyedropper mode:

I suppose Brian’s great video makes this post redundant and unnecessary. But I do like to wax on and on about turning pens into eyedropper filling pens, ay?

The great thing is the conversion is not even permanent. Not a real “conversion” at all. If at any time you want to limit your ink supply, you can pop a cartridge or a converter into your pen instead of filling the barrel with ink. Although if you use carts, I hope you refill them until you absolutely must add them to the recycling bin.

To See or Not To See

One concern some folks have about EDing their pens is whether or not they can see the ink through the barrel. Of course a pen with an ink window is a great idea, and will keep you informed about the pen’s ink levels. A see-through, translucent barrel also works.

For much of the time, I didn’t have a transparent or an ink window’d pen.  I found it pretty easy to learn when the pen’s ink supply was low: the nib started to write more dry. This is simple to pay attention to when you write for long periods of time.

If you only use your pens occasionally or to write notes, it may be difficult to know when the pen’s ink supply runs low;  it may take you a lot longer to learn your pen’s behavior. An ink window or transparent pen will better serve you; although one wonders:  do you even need an eyedropper pen?

Of all the types of filling mechanisms available, the c/c ED’able fountain pen remains my favorite. Easy to fill, easy clean, and no parts that break down requiring replacement or repair. The process is only as messy as you are.

Be brave. Take risks. Nothing can substitute experience.—Paulo Coelho 

For Further Study

Related PW Post from 2010 Dec 28: Thoughts on Ink Capacity

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2 thoughts on “Tale of a Vandal Pen User: Eyedroppers, Part 1

  1. Wow, lovely, long informative post with lots of links. Thanks for elaborating on a fountain pen specialty.

    I am planning to convert my Danitrio Takumi into an eyedropper just as soon as my order of ink arrives. (Shin-kai for the Nami-nuri design—see? Sea for a sea-themed pen.) Love how their pens are so eyedropper-friendly: no metal insides and plenty of room in the barrel. 😉

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    1. Jadie, is it? Welcome your comments! Thanks for taking the time.

      Very nice choice: Danitrio Takumi nami-nuri inked Iroshizuku Shin-kai!

      Some Danitrios do indeed have metal sections, and it seems at times to be hit or miss as to which ones. Many Takumis, in fact, do have metal sections, and there have been one or two I’ve coveted I passed on because of being unable to ED it. From experience: always ask about a metal section before buying—even if you’re buying the same model.

      Let us know how your experience goes with your Takumi, ay?

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