Unlike ballpoint pens, fountain pens contain a lot of detail and expensive craftsmanship in the
nib. Thus, nearly all fountain pens are designed to be refillable. A number of
different refill mechanisms exist, including
piston fillers, sac fillers and lever fillers, but most low end fountain
pens use ink cartridges.
Fountain pen ink cartridges date back to the 1950s. Some
early models were made out of glass, but various plastics quickly
became the material of choice. Some manufacturers experimented with refillable
cartridges, but these were messy and unpopular; disposable cartridges quickly
became the norm.
Advantages and Disadvantages
Cartridges are considered by some to be more convenient than
bottled ink. This depends a lot upon the pen's filling mechanism —
whilst a good cartridge pen is less prone to mess than a bad bottle filler, a
modern piston filler is very clean. Cartridges may also be easier to carry
around than some ink bottles.
There are downsides to cartridges too. They are typically
more expensive than bottled ink and are available in fewer colours and styles.
The ink flow from cartridges tends to be slower, which can be a problem with
some nibs. Also, pens designed to take cartridges carry less ink than a
dedicated sac filler of similar dimensions.
Sizes and Manufacturers
Cartridges come in different sizes. Some pen manufacturers,
including Aurora, Lamy, Parker and Sheaffer, use proprietary cartridge
sizes. Others, including Caran d'Ache, Conway Stewart, Montblanc,
Pelikan, Rotring, Yard-o-Led, more recent Waterman pens and most cheap
unbranded European and Chinese pens, use the international cartridge size.
The international cartridge is not a specific documented
standard. Nor does it have an agreed-upon name — it is also called
European (usually by American pen manufacturers), Standard and Universal.
There are two sizes of international cartridge, sometimes called short (38mm
in length) and long (72mm in length). Some pens will take both long and short
cartridges, and some will only take short cartridges. Some pens are also
designed to accept a spare second short cartridge stored in the barrel.
The international format is also used by many specialist ink
manufacturers, including J. Herbin, Private Reserve and Diamine, for some
of their more popular colours. Although this increases the amount of choice
available to cartridge pen users somewhat, it still does not match the variety
available in bottled form.
Note that Waterman long cartridges, which are sold as
"Large Size Standard Cartridges", will not work in many non-Waterman pens;
non-Waterman large international cartridges will, however, work in modern
Using an incorrectly sized cartridge (for example, attempting
to use an international cartridge in a Parker) can lead to leaks. In some cases
it can also lead to the pen being damaged. Most manufacturers will not honour a
warranty claim if the damage has been caused by using the wrong type of
Close inspection of ink cartridges will show that there are
two popular styles of opening. Some manufacturers simply use a very thin piece
of plastic, which is punched through by a special connector inside the pen.
Others use a small ball (ever so slightly wider than the cartridge opening)
which is initially lightly glued to the mouth of the cartridge; when inserted
for the first time, the ball is pushed back into the cartridge's body.
In theory, the ball style is slightly less prone to making a
mess when the cartridge is removed and held upside down — the ball should
fall and block the opening, rather than relying upon surface tension to hold
the ink in place. The ball style also requires less effort to insert, reducing
the chances of a messy accident. In practice there is little difference between
Most ink cartridges are sold in small plastic or cardboard
boxes known as cards. However, J. Herbin cartridges come in attractive
brushed metal tins.
Recently, fountain pen manufacturers have started to use
cartridges even in higher end pens — many customers prefer the
convenience of cartridges despite the associated disadvantages. To please the
more serious pen users they include special converters which allow bottled ink
to be used. These converters are shaped like an ink cartridge, but include a
piston which allows the cartridge to be filled up. This does not provide the
increased capacity of non-cartridge pens, but it does allow far more flexibility
when choosing an ink.
A number of generic converters for international fountain
pens are available if the manufacturer does not provide one. These will work in
most pens which can take long cartridges; pens which can only take short
cartridges usually do not have enough room in the barrel for a converter.