Fountain pens can take on ink
either from a bottle
. The vast majority of high end or vintage fountain pens
use only the bottle, drawing ink into the pen
through the nib
. Most low-to-medium end pens take
from either a cartridge
, or a converter
that allows the use
of a bottle. Both options have advantages and disadvantages.
Bottles of ink are just what they sound like: a glass jar of
ink. Typically they have about two ounces of ink. Some have a
pocket inside to make filling easier as the bottle starts to
empty. Glass is used, as plastic is porous, causing the water in the
ink to evaporate, leaving just a dense concentration of the dye
that gives the ink color.
Cartridges are purchased from the manufacturer full of ink, and
sealed. Inserting the "cart" into the pen breaks the seal, and ink
A converter ships without ink, and is inserted into the pen. Then, the
nib is put into a bottle of ink, and some mechanism is used to draw
the ink into it. Typically, it is either a piston (my preference) or
a bladder that is compressed and released, creating a vacuum.
The principal advantage of the cartridge is convenience. There is no
mess, bottles of ink, or cleaning after the the pen is filled
(typically wiping the nib). Also, extra cartridges can be carried
quite easily on a trip. In fact, most Cross pens (save for the
Matrix) can hold two of their cartridges (one in use the other as
Cartridges have a few disadvantages. Many pens have proprietary
cartridges, so they are only available from the manufacturer. There
is an "international" cartridge (Waterman, Cross and Lamy use
them). This is less of an availability issue (most major brands can be
found at Staples or the like) than a flexibility issue. If the
manufacturer doesn't make the color you want (or you don't like their
ink for some reason), you are out of luck. Fountain pen
collectors tend to obsess over the ink they put in their
Also, relative to bottled ink, cartridges are more expensive. A card
with five cartridges may run $5; a bottle (which holds about ten
"cards" worth) is about $10.
Some people get around the flexibility and cost disadvantages of the
cartridge by using a syringe to refill an empty cartridge. While
that gets the job done, it strikes me as defeating the purpose of the
cartridge. You still have the mess potential of a bottle, and, with
the seal already broken, they aren't really transportable. Unless the
pen simply cannot take a converter (Cross Matrix, I'm looking at you),
I wouldn't use this method.
The key advantage of the bottled ink is choice. You can use
whatever ink you want in your pen, so long as it is designed for
fountain pens (metallic ink, scented ink, and india ink are not
suited for use in fountain pens). There are even some companies that
only make ink, producing some dramatic or unique colors.
Also, you can pull water into the pen, to clean the
feed. This should be done periodically, as well as when you change
colors. Use just water--no detergent. Cartridges do not offer this
There is an intangible benefit to using a bottled ink. You get a retro
feel by pulling ink from a bottle, they way the did when fountain pens
were really the only game in town. It is the continuation of a
tradition, as well as taking a more active role in the use of your
pen. I think of it as the difference between buying a bag of Folgers a the grocery store, and buying just the
beans at your local roaster, and grinding them
I feel that bottle-fillers and converters work better than
carts. Maybe because the act of filling primes the feed. Or
perhaps that there is not that bit of plastic still in the cartridge
after the seal is broken getting in the way.
There are some disadvantages to the use of bottled ink. First, there
is the mess. When dealing with the bottle of ink, there is the
obvious potential for knocking it over and spilling ink
everywhere. Even if you avoid that, there seem to be occasional drips
of ink here and there. I seem to discover these when I rest a moist
hand on my desk, then lift it up to a surprise. No matter how careful
you are, you still have to blot the ink off the nip after
filling. In almost ten years of collecting fountain pens, I've managed
every one of these scenarios.
Also, bringing a spare ink supply along is much more cumbersome than
with a cartridge. Either the whole bottle has to be brought along, or a
travelling ink pot. Either way, there is an increased chance of a
mess, and another thing to drag along.
Finally, though the bottles seal up OK, problems develop with old
ink. As noted earlier, water in the ink can evaporate out, leaving a
concentration of the dye. This can clog the pen. Also, mold can
grow in the ink. How long this takes depends on the ink, the
bottle, and the conditions it was stored in. There are some collectors
who only use ink from the fifties.
Generally, you don't have to make a choice. The vast majority of pens
produced today use a cartridge/converter system. Use the converter for
most of the time, but have a cart on hand for an emergency. I even
keep an Altoids box at my office with various cartridges for when I
run out of ink.
Among collectors, bottle-fill only pens are held in the highest
esteem, followed by the use of the converter, and finally the
cartridge. All are seen as preferable to using a ballpoint pen.
Please note that almost all manufacturers of fountain pens put in
a statement that their pens are engineered to work only
with their ink. This is seen by most as either a way to sell more ink,
or a legal disclaimer, in case someone tries to use India ink or paint
or blood or some other thing not suited for a fountain pen. Though I
personally do not match ink to pen, I recommend that you look at the
instructions that came with your pen, and use your better judgement. I
do not take responsibility for any problems that may arise from not
matching ink to pen.
The Zoss Pen list: http://www.zoss.com
Bottles of ink on my desk