Masterclass 2

Tuning a Fountain Pen by Arthur Twydle

If a pen has been laid away for a number of years, the ink will have dried out in the nib and feed. The repair of such a pen MUST involve removing the nib and thoroughly cleaning the feed and section, and then reassembling it.

Manuals show you how to do this, but most have terrifying diagrams of methylated spirit heaters and potential flaming sacrifices of your recently repaired fountain pen. However, it really is quite simple to tune a fountain pen.


The first thing you must do to tune a pen is check that the pen fills properly, and that the ink actually goes in and comes out as it should. If you have an instruction leaflet do use it, because there are variations. For example, a Vacumatic requires 7 to 12 pumps; a lever or button fill requires 10 seconds immersion in the ink; an Onoto requires a firm, brisk down stroke, as does a Sheaffer Touchdown; a Parker 61 capillary is filled upside down and so on. After filling, the capacity of the pen can be measured by counting the number of drops of ink coming out of the pen. Normally this is between 15 and 30 for an average sized lever pen, but it can be up to 50 for pens like Vacumatics or piston fillers that use the barrel as the ink reservoir.

The next step is putting pen to paper by writing with the pen. If it is OK, you needn't go any further. A pen should write under its own weight, so you can also try the 'free weight test' in which you rest the pen in the crook of your thumb and first finger. As you move your hand, the pen should write under its own weight without any other pressure being exerted. If the lines are irregular and the ink doesn't flow continuously, or is too wet with a tendency to 'blob', then the flow will have to be adjusted.


Irregular ink flow can be caused by sac problems, dirt, pressure build up, leaks or cracks in the barrel or nib and so on. However, in 95% of cases the problem is bad nib/feed adjustment, and curing the problem is simply a matter of getting this right.

Firstly - the position of the nib to the feed must be correct and this is normally attended to during reassembly of the pen. If the feed is too far into the section, the ink will not reach the nib evenly. If the feed extends too far, the ink will flow too freely and the pen will blot. the correct position is for the shoulders of the feed to be in line with the shoulders of the nib. In other words, when looking at the nib from the front, the feed should not be visible - but only just.

Secondly - for even flow of ink it is essential that the feed should lie snugly against the nib. Check this by sliding a piece of paper between the nib and the feed. If the paper cannot be inserted, the adjustment is probably correct. But if there is a gap and the paper slides behind the feed, then the gap must be reduced by resetting the feed.

Most feeds are made of hard rubber or vulcanite, which becomes very flexible in hot water and can be easily adjusted towards the nib. I normally demonstrate this to repair students by taking an old feed and dropping it in boiling water for about 15 seconds. I then take it out and bend it at right angles to show how this flexible hard rubber feed then sets quickly in its new bent form.... and that is exactly what one does when adjusting the feed to the nib.

Simply immerse the nib and feed ONLY in very hot water (just off the boil) for about 10 seconds and then gently press the feed towards the nib and hold the pressure for about 10 seconds. The gap will have been reduced and the paper test should now show the feed is snugly against the nib. If not, repeat the warming and adjustment procedure until the paper cannot be inserted. You only need a gentle pressure on the feed. You will get the hang of it very quickly.

I usually complete the student demonstration by putting the bent feed back into boiling water and let the student observe how, with heat reapplied, the feed then reverts back to its original, unbent form. This is a significant demonstration because it shows that you can adjust and readjust again and again simply by heating. The methylated spirits heater is just another way of applying heat to hard rubber feeds. The feed is moved in and out of the flames until sufficient heat has been absorbed by the feed to soften it.

TAKE CARE. Not all feeds are hard rubber. Some are plastic and distort when exposed to open flame. Hot water or steam are recommended for these.

Thirdly - having adjusted the feed to the nib, any further adjustment necessary must be made to the nib itself.

Ink flow can be regulated by adjusting the prongs of the nib. A wider gap between the prongs increases the flow, Adjustment is simply by inserting a nib spacer ( a heavy razor blade or fine penknife) in the pierce hole and moving it gently towards the tip. This will increase the gap and consequently the ink flow.

New nibs are strong, and the iridium tip welded firmly in place. But older nibs are often brittle, and care must be taken not to break of the iridium. Have a good look at the tip with an eyeglass first and, if there is any risk, start from the pierce hole but stop short of the tip.

If the pen writes too wet, you will need to adjust the spacing in the slit, and the best, permanent way of doing this is to remove the nib and adjust the gap by flexing the prongs over each other (like crossing your legs) until the gap is narrowed all the way along the slit.

To carry out a slight adjustment without removing the nib - hold the pen in your right hand. Rest the side of one prong on a sharp, firm edge of your work bench. With your left thumb catch the upper prong and press over and down. This will cross the upper prong over the lower, and when you examine the pen point you will find the slit spacing has been partially decreased. Move the pen to your left hand and rotate the pen so that the other prong is laid on the bench edge, and repeat with your right thumb to cross the opposite prong.

Once the nib has been properly spaced this should correct the ink flow, but inspect the prongs to ensure they are perfectly in line at the writing surface. If they are not, the pen will not write smoothly so further adjustment may be required.

Fourthly - further roughness or scratchiness on old pens is normally attributed to the iridium pellet being worn flat. This can be improved by the use of rouge paper 0000 grade. Smooth the nib by drawing some figure eights on the dry paper with light pressure, rolling the pen between the thumb and finger at the same time taking off the hard edges of the flat. Heavy, or any adjustment to NEW nibs is not recommended.

If there is any roughness or scratching or the owner has a peculiar way of holding/twisting his pen at an angle or exerting pressure, then the nib may have to be smoothed. This is best done by the owner himself, holding the pen in his writing position and simply drawing figure eights on abrasive paper (grade 1000) followed by rouge paper. The improvement by such a simple process amazes most students.

Finally, you must appreciate that there is a difference between the more rigid modern nibs and the older flexible nibs.


© Peter Twydle 2012