Using Steel Pens: Part 5 – Pen Prep and Bits and Pieces

For the final installment of Using Steel Pens, I’ll address a few things not covered under the other entries. The first one is one is a key activity you need to do before you use your new steel pen.

Steel Pen Prep

Traditionally, steel pens were given a coating to help prevent rust. This coating was often shellac based, and the coating also prevented ink from flowing well down the pen. Before you use a “new” pen you must prepare it. Discussions on how to prepare a nib properly sometimes lead to religious wars. You’ll find advocates and opponents of some of these, but they’re all time-tested.

  1. Toothpaste and Toothbrush: this is a newer technique where you use standard paste toothpaste and a soft brush. Basically, you just scrub the nib with the toothpaste, rinse well and dry thoroughly.
  2. Alcohol: If the coating is really shellac based then alcohol is the solvent for shellac. I’ve seen suggestions of vodka, but that’s just a waste of good vodka. (or even bad vodka) Regular isopropyl or any medicinal alcohol will work. Wipe vigorously and dry off well (because even strong alcohol often has some water in it). This is a mild process which doesn’t work with every nib, and often needs a bit of rubbing.
  3. Saliva: This is an old technique that was especially popular with students. You stick the nib in your mouth and suck on it for a while. I’m not sure how this deals with the shellac, but the proteins in your saliva do leave a coating that works quite well to allow the ink to flow. I did this for a little bit until I learned about some of the metals they used in vintage pens as a first coating on the bare steel, including mercury, silver, aluminum, etc… I abandoned this technique after that.
  4. Potato: Yes, a potato. This is one that had been passed around as rather odd and often questioned, but then I found a reference from 1882 (below) that talks about this as a standard practice in Germany. I’ve since found out that several professional calligraphers swear by their potatoes, especially if you have an already prepped nib that needs a retouching. It seems that raw or cooked both work. potato
  5. The last line mentions the last technique I will talk about, Fire: This is probably the most controversial technique. What it entails is using a flame to burn off the coating while not damaging the pen in the process. There is a lot of justifiable fear of this technique as fire and delicate, thin pieces of steel do not necessarily go together. The risk comes how steel is prepared to be a pen. The steel in the pen needs to be strong enough to spring back when bent, but soft enough to actually bend and flex without being brittle. What you don’t want to do is change the nature of the steel while burning off the coating. There is a way to do this safely. The advantages are that this is fast and very effective. You can also easily do this while on the go, like in a coffee shop. The risk is damaging a valuable nib. Should you decide to try, here’s how you can safely prep a nib with fire.

The main thing is that you want to heat up the nib enough to soften the coating, but not enough to damage the steel’s temper. The way to do this is to keep the flame focused on the center of the body of the nib, where the steel is thickest, and away from the tip, where it’s thinnest.

First, put the nib in a holder (you don’t want to be holding in your fingers while getting it hot). Next, using a common lighter, move the pen over the flame, keeping to the center and away from the tip. Hold the nib over the flame for the count of “one-one-thousand”, move it off for the same amount of time. Move the pen over the flame again for the same way, then taking a tissue, napkin, paper towel, cloth, wipe the underside of the pen. The quick heating should have softened the coating, and the wiping should remove it. If the ink still doesn’t flow right, try it again.

Particularly thick pens can tolerate more heat, very fine and delicate nibs need more care. If you follow these steps, and be careful, you can use fire to prep your pens.

As you use your pens, should you get oils from your fingers on the underside of the nib you may find your ink not flowing like it should. If this is the case then you may have to do a minor version of your prep, like sticking it in a potato, pass over a quick flame and wipe. Or, sometimes, just dipping the pen in an iron gall ink and wiping it off will solve the problem.

Ink Wells / Ink Bottles / Ink Pots

So, you’ve got some cool inks. You’ve mixed up your walnut ink, found some fountain pen inks that work, you may have even mixed up some Gouache. Where do you put it?

The key criteria for an effective ink container include: the right depth, the right width, good sealing to prevent or at least slow evaporation.

With steel pens you need the ink to be deep enough to be able to dip the nib at least half-way into the ink, which can be quite a way for longer nibs. It’s even better if you can dip it all the way, but choose not to. You also don’t want to have to constantly refill the ink well in order be able to use it.

If you have something deep enough, you now need to make sure the opening is wide enough. If you use a straight pen you need to make sure the opening is wide enough that you don’t get ink on the holder as you dip the pen into the ink. But width plays the greatest role when you are using an oblique holder or oblique nib.

The pen in an oblique holder sticks out even further than from a straight holder. You need a wider mouth when using an oblique holder. It’s as simple as that.

So, you’ve found something wide enough for your oblique pen, deep enough to fit your long Falcon, now let’s talk about evaporation.

In the old days, when everyone wrote with dip pens, in schools and offices where people wrote all day long, it was someone’s job to refill ink wells pretty much every day. They would top off ink wells to account for use and evaporation. Part of this was because older ink wells were not terribly air-tight. This is the problem with old, especially flip-top inkwells. They may look really cool, but unless you’re using up an inkwell worth of ink on a regular basis, you may want to just use this for decoration and get yourself something that seals well.

Old ink bottles in which they sold ink can work, but not all were wide enough. Even something like an old Sheaffer Skrip ink bottle with the little filler cavity at the top, can work but doesn’t work for longer nibs.

After trying a bunch of different options, I’ve ended up using only Jumbo Dinky Dips. These are small, clear plastic, screw-on jars. John Neal Books, among others, sells them along with wooden bases into which they fit very snugly. I use a four-jar one at my desk. The wooden base keeps the jars level and stable, with never a problem of tipping over.


For my portable ink needs, I have an airtight lunch container into which I can put eight dinky dips. I then carry a separate single-hole wooden base. This works beautifully for me. I never have to worry about tipping an ink bottle over on one of those wobbly cafe tables. And I can fill up the extra space with a couple of small napkins for wiping down my nibs after use.


Pen Cleanliness

This is actually a very simple topic. Keep your nibs clean. Period. There you go.

Sumi ink and some calligraphy ink may require a more intensive cleaning regimen, perhaps with alcohol (often sumi inks use shellac in their formulation). Iron Gall, walnut and fountain pen inks just require a good wiping off. You can dip them in water before wiping, especially if you tend to leave ink on your nib until it dries off, but I’ve never found that to be essential.

Of course, I’m rather on the obsessive side and I wipe off my pen if I stop writing for any length of time. One reason is that I don’t have a pen rest, so just setting my pen down will inevitably result in it rolling somewhere and getting ink where I don’t want it. The other reason is that wiping off my nib right away gets me in the habit so I never leave ink on my nib to dry. It doesn’t happen. As a result, my nibs last quite long. I don’t have scientific measurements to prove that this lengthens the life of my pens, but they do seem to last longer than anecdotal accounts from others.

All I know is that I keep my nibs wiped, I don’t have ink all over my desk (or lap), and my pens seem to last pretty well even though I use iron gall ink regularly. So, there you go. Keep your pens clean and your pens will take care of you.


Topics in the “Using Steel Pens” series of posts:

7 Replies to “Using Steel Pens: Part 5 – Pen Prep and Bits and Pieces”

    1. Thanks! It’s also great for a “refresh” if you get oils on the nib. Just be careful with hard potatoes and delicate nibs. A slightly old potato, or a slightly cooked one will work as well and not damage a fragile nib.

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