Filling Systems

It could be said that filling systems don’t matter at all. If the nib is the right size and shape, if the grip is comfortable, if the ink flow is good, what does it matter where the ink comes from? They all work, after all.

Ink-in-the-barrel systems like eyedroppers, piston and plunger fillers have the benefit of holding a lot of ink and not needing filled very often. But is that always a benefit? Those who like to try lots of inks might not think so. Each of these types of pen has the possibility of dropping a blot of ink now and then.

Sac fillers come in for a lot of stick. Some of that, doubtless, isn’t really down to the filling system, but to their age. There aren’t many modern button or lever fillers around. With these systems you’re always at the mercy of the repairer or your own skills. Sacs can be sensitive to some inks too but to be fair, anything is likely to be sensitive to some modern inks!

The cartridge/converter filler is held in considerable contempt by some, especially those in the vintage camp. Such a pen doesn’t really have a filling system – it’s just a shell awaiting a receptacle of ink. They are the modern equivalent of the safety razor of yore that would only accept one kind of razor blade. Not many converters work well. If you try to fill the pen with the converter in place you usually get just a few millimetres of ink! If you fill the converter, then insert it into the pen you have the king of all hard starters. There are ways around this problem but they’re finicky. At one time c/c pens were cheap because the makers knew they would make their money on the ink and to ensure they did, made their cartridges the only ones that would fit the pen. Many still do today but the pens are no longer cheap. Some – not all that many – take the International cartridge. Others prefer to make money by ensuring that as well as a cupboard full of chargers we have a drawer full of cartridges.

So it’s all bad with the c/c fillers, then? Not entirely. I’m writing this with one, my Waterman Carene with an International cartridge. C/c pens are popular with people who like lots of inks because they have the benefit of not holding much ink. Whether filled by cartridge or converter, they are probably the easiest pens to flush thoroughly.

There’s no objective ‘best’ filling system. It’s down to what you like and how you use your pen. Personally, partly because I’m not really an ink-head, I admire some filling systems over others; the Onoto plunger system and the ingenious Ford Patent filler outshine everything else for me. Even among lever fillers, the swing bar system used by Waterman, Conway Stewart and some others strikes me as a far better way of operating a lever filler than the less efficient J-bar. I could go on, but you get the idea. Some pens just met the engineering challenge of self-filling better than others – and some pens just met the challenge of making squillions for their company better than others.

17 thoughts on “Filling Systems

  1. I’m increasingly inclined to favour syringe-filling (modern eye-dropper, I suppose) anything I can. Most ink bottles defy convenient filling, and most fill systems don’t help much. I love my Pelikans, and I appreciate the simplicity of repairing sac systems, but I wonder whether there’s some new approach on the horizon to upset the apple cart of what we’ve grown accustomed to.

  2. In the old days of plane travel, I used to do a lot of flying and writing ✍ I used to make a point of landing and taking off with an empty pen, for “convenience” 🙂Filling from a bottle was always a pain in the backside, especially when the inevitable turbulence hit 🤪 I used to take a few cartridges that I could use and — wastefully 😔 — discard for the flights. Other travel considerations also meant that I routinely used a cartridge when I would be away from my desk for a few days or more.

  3. I think there is more to filling systems than capacity. There is also convenience, as you’ve talked about with cartridge/converters, ease of use, repair/replacement, and how time consuming it is to clean/maintain them. For history buffs, the interest-value of experiencing the pros and cons of vintage filling systems that are no longer available today is another element. Apart from eyedroppers, it’s hard to beat the ease of cleaning cartridges and converters for re-use, especially if a syringe is used to quickly clean out both the converter and the cartridge, and they are easily replaceable at low cost.

    I enjoy both vintage and contemporary fountain pens, but I’ve found some of the vintage filling systems to be a joy to use, particularly the pneumatic/sleeve-filler. I can see why others fell by the wayside, though, when competing with newer, easier-to-use systems.

    Bottom line, I don’t think there is a “perfect” filling system because everyone is different. Some people just want to pop in a cartridge and go; others enjoy the process of filling and, later, cleaning the pen. More important is the overall design/functionality of the pen and the nib/feed system.

    (Personal opinion: I don’t understand the hatred of c/c systems and the favoring of piston fillers espoused by many fountain pen enthusiasts. I have many piston-filler pens but if I were given a choice of an equally well-made pen with a piston filler and a c/c system, I would take the c/c anytime! Filling and cleaning piston fillers is tedious and time consuming and most do not have substantially better ink capacity.)

    Just my two cents!

  4. Deb. One wonders if perhaps the ‘safety’ pen filling system wasn’t the best evolution of the concept.
    Ok, they require filling with a syringe or equivalent, but they hold quite a bit of ink, don’t suffer from the ‘expanding air’ blobbing, and seal efficiently against leaks even in aeroplane situations .
    And, they can handle almost (!) any ink.
    I have several, and notwithstanding doing the seals on one of them, they have never let me down.

    1. Despite having sold a few, I’ve never owned and used a safety pen so I find your comments interesting.. Why don’t they suffer from blobbing like other ink in the barrel pens?

  5. Deb. One factor that seems to differ from using a similar period eyedropper , is the handling of the barrel ( upright ! ) necessary to get the cap off , then having the whole ‘innards’ exposed to equalise the pressure , before winding the nib up to seal it.
    Given the more steps required to get nib to paper, I’m guessing that the trapped air, then may have stopped expanding which is the cause of blobbing.
    Disclaimer: my experience in Aus, may differ in Iceland…😬

  6. Deb…I’m gonna put up another candidate; The Glass cartridge .
    These things hold heaps of ink, are easy to fill ( ok with a syringe again !) and theoretically last for ever.
    The tricky bit is replacing the rubber boot that holds them in, but it’s not that hard !!
    I have a brace of these waterman pens from the 40s , and once up and running they are superbe pens ,and most of mine came with exquisite soft flexible nibs.
    Great blog 👍🏻🙋🏻‍♂️

    1. A good choice, Rob, with that big cartridge. I had my own method for restoring the cart. I may have written about it. I don’t remember. It’s a very long time since I had those. Are the glass carts still available?

  7. Deb. The glass cartridges are pretty thin on the ground.
    Usually I’d say the only way to get them would be in the pen one had bought….if one was lucky.
    However, I chanced across a seller, a couple of years ago , selling whole boxes of ten, long and short , unused, with most having at least half of their original ink .
    So I bought a few boxes !! What a score !!

  8. Deb, if anyone reading these entries needs some, there’s a seller on eBay.France, that is getting rid of 5 boxes of 10 cartridges.

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