Monday, March 8, 2021

Some Recent Questions Among Fountain Pen Users

I’m not super active on fountain pen social media platforms, though I am around and reading posts and responses. I tend to ignore a lot of the stuff that doesn’t specifically deal with Karas Pen Co, but recently I’ve been intrigued by a lot of the posts with interesting questions and many of the assumptions posing as answers to those questions. I’ve pulled a few from the last week that really grabbed my attention, and I’ll discuss them here for a variety of reasons.

A recent post on a major fountain pen Facebook group warned users of removing their converters to clean and refill their pens. This post was put up by Richard Binder, who many consider THE gatekeeper of fountain pen knowledge. Binder has a TON of knowledge in almost every facet of fountain pens so I’m not going after him in terms of his reasoning behind this post, I’m merely citing my personal preference AND the reasons behind the way I clean and fill by converter pens. Here’s a breakdown of the argument and recommendation stated by Mr. Binder: some people remove their converter to clean it before replacing it and filling it with ink. He doesn’t do that and he doesn’t recommend doing that due to the damage that can be caused to the plastic adapter on the converter, nib unit piercing tube, and feed capillary tongue. He did show a badly damaged converter and nib unit receptacle.

This isn’t really my response to him, rather it’s an explanation of how I fill, clean, and assemble my pens with converters and why I do these things. Firstly, I don’t fill my pens through the nib unit, rather I fill directly into the converter. I prefer this method specifically because it allows a more complete fill and minimizes the air inside the converter. I realize this requires manually saturating the feed once the converter is attached, but I don’t mind this process. I also clean my pens this way, removing the converter to clean it separately and using a bulb syringe to squirt water through the nib unit.

To be fair, I have not cleaned nearly as many pens as Mr. Binder, but I’ve cleaned a LOT of them in my time working for Karas. I’ve also assembled a ton of pens. I have only twice seen a converter with a damaged plastic converter adapter (the area that connects to the nib unit). Once was on my own pen and was due to being left on the pen too long resulting in the plastic “learning” the larger diameter of the nib unit piercing tube and no longer fitting snugly, in fact, the converter simply fell off and couldn’t be used on any pen. The second was a customer’s pen and his was due to improper cleaning which allowed the ink to collect to a point where the plastic became brittle and snapped off.  

I have seen many more damaged nib unit piercing tube and feed capillary tongue. I can’t speculate to all of the reasons why they were damaged; however, the feed capillary tongue is easily snapped off when improperly removing the nib and feed from the collar or improperly reinstalling the nib and feed into the collar. Most of the damaged nib unit piercing tubes I’ve seen have been due to lack of cleaning and the buildup of ink on these parts. It is my supposition that ink buildup can cause this type of plastic to become brittle over time. Then at some point when installing a converter or more likely a cartridge, too much force is used and the nib unit piercing tube is deformed or in some cases completely snapped off. Some nib manufacturers have better designs on their nib units than others, but all nib units are susceptible to this.

My final remarks are as follows. First, clean your pens often. Don’t allow ink buildup on any of the plastic parts, and use warm water and mild detergent to clean these parts (this is specific to modern pens, consult an expert on vintage pen cleaning techniques). Second, do some research on inks and the pH balance of the inks you are using and find inks that lean more pH neutral. If you’re using a pen that doesn’t completely disassemble like ours do, then take extra care when removing, cleaning, and reinstalling parts. BUT a converter is a $5 dollar part if you need to replace it, and in our case, if you send us a pen to repair, we’ll normally replace damaged plastic parts like the nib unit for free. Damage to nibs can be costly, but in 99% of the pens sent to us we’ll repair or replace parts for no fee (unless negligence or misuse are evident). In principle, if you clean your pens often, I tend to agree with Mr. Binder in that you probably don’t need to disassemble everything, but I also know that if you disassemble all the pieces the cleaning time is dramatically decreased. Exercise care when disassembling and assembling your pens, but I’m still going to continue to fill to my converter directly and trust that I have yet to see enough examples of this type of damage to warn me off of this method of filling and cleaning my pens.

Another question that comes up a lot is in regards to nib manufacture and pricing. Before I worked for Karas I probably voiced a similar question about why companies didn’t make their own nibs and why flex nibs weren’t more readily available. Now that I’ve been involved in the process of sourcing nibs for a number of years, I understand a lot more of the peculiarities that exist where these questions are concerned. First and foremost, nib manufacturing on a large enough scale to be considered anything other than boutique, if not bespoke, would require a rather large investment of money. On its surface, nib manufacturing seems rather straightforward. You need some stamping machines, a rudimentary design that can be placed on the nib, some slitting machines, and a way to attach the tipping to the nib. In reality, there are quite a few hurdles to accomplishing this endeavor. Stamping nibs out of raw material is easy enough, and a design that can be then stamped into the pens is just as easy. However, special tools are required for nib slitting and especially for nib tipping. Not only that, but those machines and tools are no longer in production.

In 2017 and 2018, we invested in the initial phases of research and development towards a goal of manufacturing our own nibs. We spent time designing and stamping out some prototype nibs. Contacted companies that used to manufacture nib tipping machines, sourced tipping material. Researched alternative methods of tipping a nib, sent numerous samples out to companies that made devices that would replicate the tipping machines. And ultimately, we abandoned the project in late 2018. Our conclusion was that we’d never be able to manufacture steel nibs cheaper than what current third-party (Bock, JOWO, Schmidt, etc) sell their bulk nibs for. Setting aside the initial investment in machine, design, and development costs; the raw cost of materials would be nearly as expensive per nib as we are paying to have them made by another company.

This ties directly into nib pricing. There are often a lot of questions as to why modified nibs, custom ground or altered-for-flex, are so expensive. The assumption by many is that a nib that has been modified should have only a moderate increase in price. Custom nib grinds can run anywhere from $30 to $75 dollars depending on the nib grinder, type of grind, type of nib, etc. Altered-for-flex nibs cost in the range of $150 dollars for a steel nib. These price increases to a $20 dollar nib are seen by some to be vastly more than they should. They fail to take into account the fact that ALL of this work is done by hand, requires specific skills that are not easily attainable, require specific tools, and currently, the demand is far higher than the supply. It can take hours to create an altered-for-flex nib and get it tuned and writing correctly. Even a skilled nib grinder takes quite some time to grind a nib bit by bit, testing as they go, until the nib is to the correct width and writing well. The price reflects the time, effort, and skill of the artisan working on the nib. Lastly, the market can bear the price, which can seem frustrating but as long as there are abundant consumers willing to pay the price, it won’t come down.

I have several more questions, but we’ll end this post here and hopefully, I haven’t caused all kinds of issues with these statements. I just felt like putting a bit more effort into answering and addressing some questions I found interesting that could be applied to Karas Pen Co and our pens. 

1 comment:

  1. Any chance you'd ever reconsider and think again about making your own nibs in house? That would be such an addition to the pen world. We have so many great small pen makers now, but pretty much everybody has to go with Bock or Jowo for the reasons you lay out, so all that variety and artisanal innovation comes down to different holders for the same nibs. Nothing wrong with those nibs, of course, but it'a a shame that those big 2 are all that's available. Would it be viable for you from a business standpoint to do small batches of in-house nibs and charge more for them while keeping Bock as your default option? American-made nibs by a small company with machinist know-how would really change the landscape of the pen world!