Which Is The Best Filling System?

I expect I’ve written about this before but after all these years I’m entitled to repeat myself now and again!

I understand that many people – particularly those who like to try a lot of inks – enjoy what they regard as the convenience of the cartridge filler.  For myself, I have little interest in inks and I regard that system as an inelegant solution to the problem of getting ink into a pen.  It’s expensive and wasteful.  I appreciate that you can refill cartridges but I suspect that not many people do.  The converter option is a little better, but I still feel that it’s poor engineering that demands that you pull a pen apart every time you have to fill it.  Many converters seem to hold a very small quantity of ink, too.

Another relatively modern solution is the Aerometric, Parker’s improvement on the old squeeze filler.  At least it enables the use of bottled ink and it gives the pen a decent charge but, once again, there’s this business of pulling the pen apart to fill it.  I find that unsatisfactory.

I like sac fillers and I don’t see a lot of difference between the varieties:  lever fillers, button fillers, crescent fillers, matchstick fillers and various more esoteric methods.  They – allowing for the size of the pen – hold a decent amount of ink, are easy to operate and easy to service.  Over the decades inventors of sac filling systems showed a lot of ingenuity, though it might be said that none of these solutions are tremendously elegant.  They’re a little Heath Robinson and perhaps that’s part of the reason why we like them.

There is a variety of pens describe as vacuum fillers, not the best of descriptions as most pens fill by creating a vacuum.  There’s the Parker variety, essentially a bulb filler with delusions of grandeur.  In some ways it’s a good system, easy to use and giving a huge draught of ink but it’s complicated to service and in many cases has a comparatively short time between services.

The Sheaffer and Conklin versions are inferior copies of the De La Rue Onoto plunger filler.  Unlike the original, they do not appear to have been designed with servicing in mind.  That said, while they’re working they both provide excellent filling, easy to use and capacious.

I don’t know if anyone makes a basic bulb filler these days.  Langs and Mentmore made a variety of them in the 30s, some quite sophisticated and not all that different from the Parker vac.  When they were new they were probably good but as time and wear acted on them they suffered more and more from the major problems of many ink-in-the-barrel pens, blotting and leaking.  A big bulb filler holds enough ink to create considerable mayhem and that was probably the reason that they never became all that popular and were often a low-cost solution.

Another economical system that has been pretty well abandoned is the syringe filler.  Again, it may suffer from leakage problems and it’s clumsy, having a long activator filling most of the barrel when it’s extended.

What does that leave us with?  Well, there are Sheaffer’s various ink sac and plunger pens like the Touchdown and Snorkel.  They’re fun and they certainly have their adherents but as a filling system their limited capacity works against them.

Then there’s the good old eyedropper filler.  Well, it’s old.  I’m not so sure about good.  The system was pretty hastily abandoned the moment an alternative came along and that must tell you something.  There are many people today who delight in converting all sorts of pens into eyedroppers.  All I can say about that is that the pens are theirs and they’re entitled to do whatever they want with them.  I had a modern eyedropper once, a very large Indian Wality.  It was the worst pen I have ever owned, dripping ink every time you looked at it.  I’ve had Wality pens with other filling systems that were great.

Now we’re getting down to it.  There’s the piston filler and when it’s properly executed, as most German manufacturers seem to have managed so well, I think it’s one of the top two efficient, capacious and elegant filling systems.  The other one that I think is as good if not better is the Onoto plunger filler that I mentioned earlier. It’s one of the first self fillers and remains about the best.

I’ve probably missed a few systems, like the Parker 61 capillary filler.  Actually, that’s a good filling method, provided you don’t want to change the colour of ink you’re using.  If you do, you have to clean it out thoroughly, and that may well occupy a day or two of your time.

Naturally, I don’t expect everyone to agree with me.  In fact, I’ll be delighted to hear your counter-arguments provided they are backed up with reasoning and evidence.  “You suck!  Cartridges are great!” doesn’t really count as a cogent argument.


9 thoughts on “Which Is The Best Filling System?

  1. That’s a great piece Deb on a subject, which as you suggest provides endless opportunities for what is sometimes referred to as a “full and frank exchange of views!”

    I am an Onoto enthusiast; for original thought and efficacy it is hard to beat.

    However, I should just like to put in a word for the Waterman’s Ink-Vue system. I once rebuilt a small Lady-size Ink-vue and was amazed to read in the Pen Repair Manual that the small Ink-Vue holds marginally more ink than a long Onoto! The full-size version holds an amazing quantity. I know that they are rather fiddly to repair, requiring their curious sacs (which are fortunately available!) but one cannot but admire the efficiency of this attarctuve design.

    1. I had forgotten about the Ink-Vue – indeed, an estimable pen. And there’s also the various versions of the Swan Visofil, though again I think they suffer from rather difficult and time-consuming servicing.

  2. yes, thanks for an interesting article, and as with many such debates, you can come at this one from the point of view of both collector and writer, so the subject is inexhaustible, and both camps have their valid points.
    As with most technical issues, there’s a great deal to be said for simplicity – any pen which requires the services of an expert to refurbish, or special tools to get at the filling system should it need attention is going to score low with a writer. But of course they fascinate people like us, and were a ploy by manufacturers who were always looking for ways to create an impression that their pen was better because of some new system that offered advantages – which wasn’t the case, often.

    I think the simplicity of a plain sac and lever fill takes a lot of beating, but if I was a writer then I can see the appeal of cartridges too.

    Although it’s not correctly a filling system so probably I shouldn’t mention here, but there were earlier C20 patented systems ……… one from TdLR and I think another from Parker, which were designed to carry water and ink pellets separately within the barrel. Used often on active service, when both were combined to provide liquid ink – provided your water hadn’t disappeared!

    thanks again Deb.

    1. I agree. I think there was a form of “arms race” among the various fountain pen manufacturers especially during the 20s, 30s and 40s. As you say many of the “improvements” were illusory.

  3. The correct answer would have to be that there is no *best* system.

    I have fountains pens in all of the above varieties and could not decide which one to award that title with, as all systems have their place and use — and limitations. As with everything in life the solution that works best for you has to be evaluated based on your usage and the actual circumstances. The pen lover’s joy in that lies in the conclusion that there is so much use for all these different systems that you simply _need_ more than one pen. Or two. Or three …

    Vac fillers (like my Pilot Custom 823) have mostly a huge capacity of ink but do not clean out easily, hence these are perfect for pens you like to write with for longer sessions.

    Sac (lever: Wahl Oxford) fillers of all sorts also hold a good lot of ink, but which drives me crazy is that there are very few that allow you to know how much ink is left. And these also do not clean out as well as I wold like it. For longer writing that is okay, esp. when you are near your bottle of ink.

    Cartridge/converter is nice if I like to change inks (a lot!) and do not need that much ink or are able to refill whenever needed. Cartridges and converters work better when there is a little agitator ball inside, usually I refill cartridges with a syringe and have no problem with that as I often use ink in/from sample vials that could hardly be put in a pen otherwise anyway. Try to fill a vac filler from a 2 ml vial. Harhar, good luck, y’all!! My children use modern KaWeCo Sport fountain pens and believe me: A small ink capacity is not the worst thing. ;D (You mentioned the possibility of calamity yourself and you are soooo right.)

    The two old eyedroppers I own (Lieber Safety Baby size BHR and Dia Safety BCHR, both from ca. 1925) do please me a lot, I love to use them and I love to fill them with eyedropper pipettes, but for me that is just a thing to do at my desk. These pens would probably be a hassle to operate on the go, so the limitations of this filling system, let alone the screwing in and out of the nib, are obvious.

    Eyedroppers (like a KaWeCo Sport or a Noodler’s Ahab) are also fun, but out of fear of breakage or leakage I would not toss these in my purse or a backpack. I never had a leakage or problems with their writing, but still the huge amount of ink in the barrel startle me.

    So: All in all I personally would agree to your tendency to prefer the piston filler (I have some vintage KaWeCo Sports and modern Pelikans) slightly over all the others as it allows you to fill your pens as much or as little as you like, provided there is an ink window that lets you know how much ink is already in the pen because sometimes I only fill in enough to have a full feed when I want to test an ink. In the case of Pelikan the nib section can easily be screwed out so it is easy to clean the pen as thoroughly as you like to.


    1. Actually, I don’t disagree, Julie. I do enjoy almost all filling systems but it makes a better debate if I pretend that I don’t!

      Cleaning out pens is a dreadful task with even the best of them because ink is so persistent. As you may imagine, restoring and write testing pens as I do, I spend far too much time trying to clean pens!

    2. I am primarily a Mabie Todd collector and think the lverless quite a good filling system if installed correctly. However, for simplicity, good capacity and longevity I like the Parker Aerometric filler. I often find myself restoring 1950s Duofolds with this system and find that is intact and requires no attention apart from flushing out and polishing the metal sleeve. The pliglass sacs seems not to deteriorate at all. The pens are perhaps not very distinguished although beautifully made, but the nibs are splendid, especially the Maxima.

      1. Hi David,
        We are much in agreement! In that article I commented on the fact that you must remove the barrel to fill the pen but that’s not really a big deal. Those Newhaven Parkers are very good pens indeed, closely comparable with today’s Pilots like the Custom 912 which costs rather more!

  4. I enjoyed Julie’s contribution – thanks. Perhaps our comments or preferences, whatever they may be, overlook the reality of pre 1960s, when ownership and use of f.ps. was commonplace, for the simple act of daily writing – rather than our current overly collectible nature of wanting to own many different filling systems. I doubt that folk then owned more than one or at the most two, f.ps., and perhaps it was more down to simply their affluence which dictated whether they bought a Parker with an aerometric system or a cheaper lever/sac filler type.
    Pre 1918 or so, maybe you didn’t get the option – if you wanted a f.p. it had to be an e.d.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.