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Let’s Reevaluate Converter

Filling Fountain Pens

Brian Gray, Edison Pen Co.
September 25, 2014

This article stems from many conversations that I’ve seen on the fountain pen forums as well as my customers asking me which filling system is the best decision for them.  A lot of people will fall in love with a new pen that they just saw.  They love the looks of the pen, they love the style, the material, the nib, the clip, the shape….they love everything about this pen!  It really does it for them!  But then they find out that it’s a converter filling pen.  The next comment sometimes is….

Too bad.  I hate converter filling pens and won’t use them” 

…or…

“I only use piston fillers.  I’ll buy this when they make it into a piston filler”  Or you can insert any other filling system in place of “piston”.


Dare I say that the comments above are a little closed-minded, or perhaps naive?  If this person just found what could be their perfect pen, but won’t buy it due to the converter filling system, then I feel that they are not understanding the full story.  Of course, everyone is entitled to their own preferences and tastes, but allow me to continue, and I’ll explain more.


I see these comments so frequently that I feel that it’s time to obtain some perspective on converter filling pens.  Don’t get me wrong…the above comments are not incorrect, or bad in any way.  While I won’t denounce these comments, at best they might be naive, in my humble opinion.  After all, fountain pens are very subjective to each user, and everyone is entitled to what they like.  Trust me, I’m not going to make an argument that converter fillers are better than any other filling system.  But I do feel that there are too many sweeping generalizations out there regarding converter filling pens, and that consumers need to reevaluate and better understand the benefits and disadvantages of them to make the best decisions.  There are a lot of advantages to converter filling pens that I feel are oftentimes forgotten.  There are also disadvantages that I’ll discuss.


Before converter filling pens emerged, the fountain pen was in an amazing age of its development.  The ballpoint had not come out yet, and the fountain pen was the writing instrument of choice amongst the general public.  The first filling system used in fountain pens was the eyedropper filler, where you simply poured ink into the barrel with an eyedropper, replaced the section, and you were done.  But this sometimes created a mess and had some other minor inconveniences.  So pen manufacturers began to invent creative methods to integrate systems so that fountain pens could fill themselves, hence the term “self-filling” fountain pens.  They began to incorporate ink sacs to hold ink, along with very inventive ways to compress this sac such as lever fillers, button fillers, crescent fillers, pneumatic fillers, snorkel fillers, and many more.  


Fountain pen manufactures then saw ways to utilize the barrel as the reservoir along with a breather tube for filling.  This required multiple compressions to fill the pen, such as bulb fillers, Vacumatics, Dunn fillers, and others.


Besides sac filling pens and the pens using breather tubes, there were also piston fillers, syringe fillers, capillary fillers, along with many many others.  The pen companies were inventing as many ways as they could to make a better filling, more interesting, and more marketable fountain pen.  This innovation in filling systems is still happening today, though not quite the same as during this Golden Age.  


I’ll explain the following in more detail below, but once a fountain pen is filled, all filling systems are identical in how they work to put ink on the paper.  So what did the companies focus on to differentiate themselves?  Primarily innovative ways to fill their pens.


There have been so many interesting methods invented to fill fountain pens, that volumes of books, numerous articles, and many websites have been dedicated to chronicling their development as well as their construction.  Numerous books have been written that do nothing more than catalog all of the thousands of patents that were filed for fountain pens and fountain pen filling systems.  During this Golden Age, pen companies tremendously expanded the ways to fill fountain pens.  They bragged about how their systems had larger ink capacities, decreased mess, filled more efficiently, along with many other marketable advantages.  Some of these marketing claims were legitimate advances in the fountain pen, and some were outright laughable malarky!


But remember that these innovations were merely improvements made to how the ink got into the pen.  Once the ink is inside the reservoir, then every pen was (and still is) based on the same principles to get the ink to the paper.  The pen holds ink in a reservoir, and then moves the ink to the tip of the nib as the user writes.  Whether you are considering the amazingly complex Sheaffer Snorkel, or one of the earliest and simplest of Waterman Eyedroppers, the only functional difference between those two pens (or any filling system) is how the ink gets into the reservoir.  After this, they both use the same dynamics of capillary action through the feed and nib to get the ink to the paper.  Since the inception of the fountain pen, hardly any changes at all have been made to feeds and nibs, while filling systems have radically changed.


So how did the modern converter filling fountain pen evolve from all of this?  Converters came into being as an adjunct to cartridges, which came into wide use beginning in 1953.  Eversharp was working on a cartridge/converter pen when Parker bought the company in 1957.  The Parker 45, which was introduced in 1960, was the result. The purpose of this innovation was to offer the user a choice between cartridges and a self-filling design in the same pen.  Essentially, the converter came to be as (and still is) a removable and replaceable piston unit.


So this leads me back to the comment above, “I only use piston fillers.  I’ll buy this pen when they make it into a piston filler” 


Well, it’s not exactly a huge leap to say that a converter filler in many ways is a piston filler!  The only difference is that the piston filler that this person is referring to has a piston unit that is integral to the body of the pen in most cases.  The converter filling pen fills with the same principles as the piston filler, except that the ink capacity is probably smaller, and the converter (piston unit) is removable on the converter filling pen.


To illustrate this more, let’s look at various pen models that are piston fillers.


Below is a typical Montblanc 149 disassembled.  This type of setup is what most consumers think of as a piston filler.  It has a piston (1) that seals the internal portion of the barrel (2), which serves as the ink reservoir.  The piston unit and reservoir are integral to the body of the pen.  The pen fills by twisting the blind cap, which retracts the sealed piston.


(photo courtesy of Steve Light)


Now let’s take a look at a Tibaldi Divina.  This pen uses a piston unit (1) and reservoir (2) that is is totally separate and not integral to the body, but most people don’t realize this.  You can disassemble a Tibaldi Divina, and you’ll see that the piston unit is not integral to the body.  It attaches to the nib housing in a similar way that a converter does, and is completely removable and replaceable upon disassembly.  Does this mean that this pen is not a “true” piston filler?  Of course not.  Any pen fan considering how this pen fills will call this pen a piston filler, even though the piston unit attaches to the nib in a nearly identical way that a converter does and is not integral to the body in a similar way that a converter is also not integral to the body of the pen.



And then of course, here’s our traditional converter filling pen.  It works on the exact same principles as the above pens with a piston (1) moving within a reservoir(2), but the converter (piston unit) is removable and replaceable.  However, as opposed to the pens above, you will disassemble the pen by unscrewing the section to fill it.  The other two, you will not.


So when it comes to the differences in filling the pens above, the converter pen will require you to remove the section and twist the converter to fill the pen.  The two piston fillers above do not require any kind of disassembly to fill.  Just insert the nib into your ink well and twist the blind cap.  I think that this detail of twisting the blind cap is where most people differentiate between a piston filler and a converter filler.  But is this difference enough for a pen fan to abandon a converter filler?  Well, this is for each of us to decide and there’s no wrong decision.  I will admit that there is a certain “cool” factor that I find appealing when it comes to not disassembling to move the piston.  There will also be a difference in ink capacity.  Each of us can decide which is best for us after we have all of the information.


Now please don’t get me wrong, I’m not touting a benefit of any of these pens over the other.  They are all excellent systems for filling fountain pens.  Remember that fountain pens are all personal, and your taste will dictate what you will buy.  I’m only illustrating how there are very little functional differences between piston fillers of various kinds and converter fillers.  I’m also pointing out the naiveté of saying “I hate converter filling pens.  I only use piston fillers.”  

Let’s discuss the benefits of converter filling pens. 


1.
  Price.  As a pen manufacturer, I know what I’m talking about when I say that it is a lot less expensive to engineer a pen around a converter filling design.  This cost savings and relative ease of manufacturing lead to a less expensive pen that performs as well as any other more expensive pen.  Remember my comments about how the only difference between various filling systems is how the pen gets ink into the pen.  Once the ink is in the reservoir, the playing ground is equal for all pens, and converter fillers will generally be less expensive with no disadvantages when it comes to utility. 


2.
  Ease of repair.  The converter filling system is completely isolated from the rest of the pen.  What does this mean?  It means that only the nib, feed, housing, and converter are involved.  Got a leak?  Got a poor feed?  Got a bad nib?  Did you allow the ink to dry, completely clogging the feed?  Well guess what…the rest of the pen is not involved in this problem in any way.  With converter filling pens, these problems absolutely have to be isolated to either the nib unit or the converter.  So this means that if you want to fix this problem, one of the best options is to merely get a new nib unit and/or converter!  Unscrew the old nib, screw in the new nib, install the converter, and you are back in business.  Most nib units are selling for around $25 for a steel nibbed pen, and most converters are selling for $5.  So getting your messed-up converter filling fountain pen back in working order will cost you around $30 in most cases.  Of course, if your pen has a solid gold nib, the cost of replacing it will be higher, but you can still easily and inexpensively replace the feed, housing, and converter, but then keep the gold nib.


And you most likely won’t even have to send the pen off and pay to have it repaired.  You are back in action with a simple at-home repair.  As long as you are comfortable unscrewing a nib (which is easy, and every fountain pen fan should know how to do this), then the repair is very easy to do at home.  If you are unsure about how to do this, have a search around YouTube and you’ll be happy to see how easy this is.


The only exception to the above is if the pen manufacturer does not use threaded nib units.  In this case, you might be pulling the feed and nib in order install the new units, but this is still something that can happen at home in many cases.  However I will say that in these cases, I recommend that you possess some basic tine alignment skills, as removing nibs in this way almost always requires some tine re-alignment.  Here is a great video where I give a tutorial on tine alignment and nib smoothing.

To illustrate this point of a converter filling system being non-integral to the rest of the pen even more, try this sometime just for fun….  Remove the converter from a converter filling fountain pen and unscrew the nib.  Then attach the converter to the nib unit alone and fill it. Guess what?  You just made a fountain pen!  See pics below….

…well, technically this might be a fountain pen, but realistically, it’s not.  Of course, I don’t recommend using your nib units and converters this way.  It certainly is not comfortable to write with, and there’s nothing to keep the converter from bending and ruining the feed nipple, but I think that you get the point.  A converter filling fountain pen can stand alone as it’s own self-contained fountain pen with the nib unit and converter only.  So if you have a problem, you can simply replace these components alone and fix any issues related to the writing qualities of the pen, which is the huge majority of reasons related to fountain pen repair.


What happens if the o-rings on your piston filler that has an integrated unit begin to corrode?  What if the seal is no longer any good?  What if the threads that move the unit are blocked or gummed up?  What happens if you left the pen dormant long enough to completely clog your feed?  Are these easy repairs?  Is it a repair that can be done at home by most consumers?  Not really.  You’d be sending the pen off to a repair person in many cases.  This is not a huge deal, however.  The pen is completely salvageable, but this is worth consideration.


What happens when the latex sac or diaphragm on your pen begins to stick, or maybe you used a harsh ink that corroded it?  What if your feed is clogged?  Same deal.  These aren’t always repairs that you can do at home unless you have pretty decent repair skills, so you are sending it off in many cases.  Again, not major, but worth consideration.

And finally, the last point that I’ll mention in regards to repair is cleaning.  It is incredibly easy to give a converter filling pen a very effective and forceful flushing by using a bulb syringe as I outline here.  By using a bulb syringe, you can get a converter filling pen amazingly clean of all ink in a very short period of time.  Many non-converter filling pens can only be cleaned by filling and emptying repeatedly (barring complete disassembly, which is not always feasible to do at home).  While the filling and emptying method works fine, it’s not nearly as forceful, fast, or effective as using a bulb syringe.


3
.  Reliability.  The modern nib manufactures have been engineering their nibs with feeds and housings that are intended specifically for converter filling pens for many years now.  There’s a good reason for this.  They are reliable.  In fact, when I engineer a new filling system within the Edison product line, my only recourse at this point in time is to alter the housings and feeds that are intended for converter filling pens!  I am forced to create alterations of these setups in special ways to accommodate them for our Pneumatic, Pump, and Bulb Filling pens, and will continue to do this for future novel filling systems.  Also, I want to be clear on the following….I’m not saying that converter filling nibs and pens are more reliable than other filling systems.  I’m only saying that they are indeed very reliable.


4
.  Compatible with cartridges.  Your converter filling pen will most likely also accept cartridges.  The biggest benefit to cartridges is that you can very easily transport your ink supply with you.  If you are traveling, you might not want to bring a bottle of ink with you.  Cartridges are a perfect transportable and non-messy method to bring ink with you “on-the-go”.


5
.  Convertible to Eyedropper.  Most converter filling pens can be transformed into an eyedropper.  While the converter has the disadvantage of a smaller ink capacity, most converter filling fountain pens can be made into an eyedropper, which is the largest ink capacity possible in a fountain pen.  You simply add some silicone grease to seal up the housing and section threads, and bingo….you have an eyedropper filling pen with a huge ink capacity.  Of course, please consult the manufacturer of any specific converter filling fountain pen to make sure as to whether or not they recommend this.  If there are metal components within the interior of the pen, these could foul the ink.  Or if there is a blind cap on the pen, it might need to be sealed as well.  With Edison Pens, all converter fillers can be made into eyedroppers, as you can see here.  If there is a blind cap on the pen, email us, and we can discuss an easy procedure for sealing it.  


It is worth mentioning that Eyedroppers do have disadvantages which are quite manageable, however.  One is the potential for mess due to the need of an eyedropper pipette to fill the pen.  Another is the potential for the pen to “burp” the very last couple of drops of ink.  I will discuss this phenomenon in a future article, but if you are unsure of this burping, simply fill the pen when you are around three quarters empty (don’t allow the ink levels to get low) and you’ll have no problems.


In summary of the advantages of converter pens, please don’t get me wrong…I’m not putting down any non-converter filling system, or touting converter filling pens as being superior.  After all, the Edison Pen Company sells plenty of non-converter filling pens, and my personal favorite filling system is not a converter filling pen.  If these non-converter filling pens were not worth standing behind, or had serious disadvantages, we would not sell them.  I only want people to have all the information to make the right decision in each situation.  Every filling system has its advantages, disadvantages, and their place.

What are the downsides of converter filling pens?


1
.  Smaller ink capacity (most at .7mL if you completely maximize the fill.  Usually .5mL is the capacity with a normal fill).  This will depend on which system you are comparing it to, of course.  Generally speaking, however, converter filling pens will have a smaller ink capacity than most non-converter filling pens.  Whether or not this is an inconvenience is for you to decide.  Personally, I’ve never once thought to myself “Wow, that pen ran out of ink fast” when using a converter.  Even with one of my favorite super-wide 1.9mm italic nibs that puts out a ton of ink, it’s never been a bother for me.  And if ink capacity is really a concern to you, then most converter filling pens can be made into an eyedropper filler as discussed above, which is the largest ink capacity possible in a filling system.


2
.  Although this is rare, it’s possible to wear out the fit between the converter and the feed nipple where it attaches.  If a user repeatedly removes the converter every time that they fill the pen, this seal can wear over the years.  For this reason, I don’t recommend removing the converter to fill the pen.  Only remove the converter when you are going to use a cartridge or if you are performing a very thorough cleaning of the pen.  Although I’ve only seen this happen a few times ever, it’s worth mentioning.  However, don’t forget how easy it is to replace the converter and/or housing if this occurs. 


3.
  For me personally, the most significant downside to converter filling pens is that strictly as a filling system, they are common and pedestrian.  I will freely admit that I sometimes feel this way about them.  Since every modern nib manufacturer today is manufacturing their nib setups aimed at being converter filling pens and they are easier to manufacture, they are everywhere!  They aren’t nearly as “sexy” as a plunger filler, a Snorkel, a Vacumatic, a nice piston filler, or many of the others filling systems that came to be in the Golden Age.  Remember when I said that converter fillers are not my personal favorite system?  The Vacumatic (or what we call a Pump Filler within the Edison product line) is my favorite. 


When I fill one of our Pump Fillers, I love it.  It’s so neat to watch the ink come up the breather tube and then spill into the reservoir.  This is what I’ll call the “cool factor”, and this will definitely have an effect on my interest in a pen!  Of course, a portion of what makes a pen wonderful is its strict utility, but another huge factor is the overall aesthetics.  Watch the Pump Filler below fill up and try and tell me that’s not cool!


So in the end, converter filling pens definitely fit the utilitarian needs of a fountain pen fan.  They are less expensive, they are reliable, they perform well, they accept cartridges, they can be made into large eyedropper fillers, pretty much all of us can perform repairs on them at home, and they are very easy to clean.  From a utilitarian standpoint, they are wonderful!  But of course, utilitarian needs are not the only factor that comes into play when we buy fountain pens.  


If utilitarian needs and budget were the only factor in buying pens, then none of us would spend more then $30 on pens!  After all, a well tuned Lamy Safari can provide the same utilitarian experience and write with the same qualities as a super-expensive pen, no doubt!  If you are speaking strictly utilitarian, then there’s no text that an inexpensive pen cannot write than an expensive pen can!  If utilitarian needs were the only factor, then Edison would sell no Pump Fillers, Pneumatic Fillers, Bulb Fillers, Overlay pens, or Urushi Pens!  Not only that, but we would have no ambition to continue engineering more filling systems that are “cool” and fun!


To take this even farther, if we were truly buying fountain pens strictly based on utilitarian factors, then we wouldn’t even buy fountain pens!  We’d be buying pencils or Bic ballpoints!


To summarize, converter filling pens definitely have their place when it comes to the simple and less expensive utility of a fountain pen without compromising performance.  I feel that pen consumers need to be more aware of when they fit the bill perfectly, and went it’s time to step up to something more exotic and “cool”, along with the benefits and disadvantages of each filling system.  


How much of your needs are utilitarian in nature, and how much “cool factor” do you want in your pen?  There’s no wrong answer to this question and hopefully the information within this article will help in your decision when considering which filling system is right for you.


Please note – this article, as well as every article that is published on the Edison website is intended to help fountain pen consumers make the best decisions when it comes to choosing fountain pens.  By no means am I claiming that the information above is authoritative.  If you feel that I’m factually incorrect with any information within this article, feel free to email me or leave a comment.  I’m always striving to share and receive the best, most accurate, and most useful information that I can within the fountain pen community.