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:

Using Steel Pens: Part 3 – Holding your pen

The earliest steel pens were what are called Barrel Pens. Basically, a sheet of steel was bent into a tube, the seam where the two sides came together served as the slit, and the rest was filed away to form the shape of a pen.

Some of these early metallic pens were mounted permanently on a handle, in other words, when the pen was worn out, you threw the whole thing away. In the very earliest time some stationers offered pen repair services, like you used to do for quills. (quills would need to be re-cut into the proper shape pretty frequently, and it was a somewhat specialized skill, but that’s for another post)

One of the main improvements in the very early years what the invention of the slip pen, what we think of today as the dip pen nib. This is smaller, cheaper to make (less steel), and easy to change. You can use it in different kinds of holders to fit your hand and writing style. (as well as your fashion sense should you wish)

The holder is a fairly simple piece of equipment. It’s basically a stick with some way of holding your nib on one end. (or both ends, in some cases)  They can be made of all kinds of material, but wood was the most common. they can be plain or they can be fancy. But they basically come down to two shapes: straight and oblique.


The picture above shows a selection of different holders made in different materials. The one on the top is an oblique holder. It’s so-called because it holds the pen at an oblique angle, while the straight holders hold the pens straight out. See, I told you they weren’t complicated.

The oblique holder is mainly used for decorative writing. What that funny angle does is it keeps the pen pointed at the proper angle to the line of writing and, when held properly, with the proper orientation of the paper, keeps both tines of the pen down on the paper spreading evenly. This gives you not only a nicer line (both sides are smooth, no jagged edges from one tine dragging more than the other), but also helps keep those delicate decorative writing nibs from springing the tines. (Springing is when the tines of a pen don’t come back together like they should, either from being spread so far they strain the metal, or they get crossed enough from poor pen positioning they don’t come back properly)

Over the years when steel pens were the main form of writing, the vast majority of holders sold were straight. The advantages of holding a pen at an oblique angle were recognized pretty early. I’m not sure when the first oblique holder was invented, but according to the Saturday Magazine in 1838, the first oblique pen, a type of steel pen where the whole nib is in a zig-zag shape and the top points off at an oblique angle to the heel, was invented by Morden and Brockeden in 1831.


The oblique holder keeps that position better, and in skilled hands, can be tweaked and adjusted to fit small nibs, big nibs, and even the angle can be changed with just changing the brass flange that holds the nib.

The downside of an oblique holder is that you’re generally limited to shorter nibs. Ideally, the tip should not extend past the center axes of the holder itself. A straight holder can use pretty much any nib that fits in the end.

That said, there are always exceptions. There are even master penmen who use straight holders with tremendous skill for decorative writing.

For straight holders, the main thing to consider is comfort and/or style. Some people like thinner holders. A lot of early holders where thin, like the one second-from-bottom in the image above. These were much closer to the size of quills which people were used to.

All holders, regardless of the material, need some way to hold the nib. There are cheap plastic holders which just have a circular slit molded into the tip and hopefully your nib’s heel is the same basic arc as the slit. Most holders, though, fall into two main categories, the inner spring tip, and the slip fit tip.

holders tip

On the left is the inner-spring tip. These are most common today, and you can even buy the tips by themselves and make your own stick. (both the top and bottom holders are modern, turned examples) With the inner spring you see the four (sometimes three in older versions) steel flanges. The pen slips in between the flanges and the inner wall of the steel insert. There’s no single way to position your pen, but I tend to prefer to have the heel of the nib straddle one of the gaps between the flanges as you see in the picture.

The second type, seen on the right, is what I call a slip fit. In this case there are just two flanges and a projecting outer case. The nib slips between these flanges, which act as springs to hold the nib tightly against the outer casing.

There are other types of holding mechanisms out there, but most are pretty obvious, and usually only found on older holders.

For really large nibs you may need to look for a special holder. The Esterbrook Mammoth Falcon is one great example of a pen which doesn’t fit normal holders. Esterbrook made a special holder just for it, and others also made larger holders that can hold one, but they are few and hard to find.

When buying a vintage holder, the key thing is this holding mechanism. The main thing you want to look for is rust. If there’s rust, pass it by. Otherwise, it’s just a stick, and there are only so many things that can be wrong with a stick.

And that brings us to the one and only piece of advice for these holders.

Don’t get the end wet!

When you dip your pens, dip them no more than half-way up the body of the nib. Try very, very hard not to dip them up to the rustable part of the holder. If you have a modern holder you like and that rusts, you can most likely buy a replacement end insert. If it’s a vintage holder with some other kind of insert, or a special size one, then you have a bit of trouble on your hands.

Fortunately, there are cheap holders out there that work as well as super-expensive ones. Look for ones that are fun, like the small celluloid pen with the enameled copper insert in the middle of the picture above. Or you can try for the funky ergonomic pens people are carving these days. This is where you can express your taste and style (or lack thereof) and show off to the world, or even just yourself.


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

Using Steel Pens: Part 2 – Choosing the Right Pen

Let’s start with the core of the dip pen system: the pen or nib.

The Right Pen

Choosing the right steel pen out of the thousands of different variations made over the last 180 years can be simple, or can be an opportunity for exploration.

You must first start with your intended use. There are three main uses I’ll cover. If you can think of others, let me know in comments.

General writing.

For about 80 years you had two main choices for writing things down: pencils and dip pens. Pencils are their own sub-world, one which has grown in interest lately, but one which I will set aside for the moment.

For most people, when they needed to write a letter for pleasure or business, when they needed to record an entry in a store’s ledger, write out an order on a bill head, record a marriage, birth or death, or any number of a thousand things people write on a daily basis, they would have reached for one of a thousand different styles of standard, daily-writing steel pen.

These daily writing pens come in many styles, sizes and degrees of firmness. But generally, they are easy to write with, which means not too sharp nor too flexible, will hold a decent amount of ink and will be fairly durable.

The vast majority of vintage pens you encounter will fall into this category. The 048 Falcon, already mentioned in an earlier post, was one of the quintessential examples of an every-day pen. Esterbrook’s 788 spoon pen was another popular style. Some of my other favorites include the Eagle E840 Modern Writing, or one of the smaller stub pens, like the Esterbrook 239 Chancellor or the Hunt 62 Vassar (or x-62, the silverine version of the 62).

Any of these pens work wonderfully for writing letters, paying bills, writing in a diary, or whenever you need to just write something down without fanfare or flourish.

I am not aware of any modern steel pens being made with this purpose in mind. All of the modern nibs currently being made that I’m familiar with are geared towards one of the other two uses: decorative writing, or drawing. Of course, I’m willing to be corrected.

Many are aware of what decorative calligraphy looks like, but few have seen examples of every-day kind of writing. Here are two examples: the one on the left was written with a small stub (a Hunt X-62), and the one on the right is with a pointed pen (Eagle E840 Modern Writing).

flex vs stub

Decorative Writing

Also known as Calligraphy, this form of writing is more specialized with its own criteria for a good pen, depending on the style.

Traditionally, pointed pen calligraphy fell into a couple of camps with Copperplate or Engrosser’s script and Spencerian as the two most widely-known types, each with multiple variations.

To see some wonderful examples, there are a lot of older sample books out there for perusal. One example is the Portfolio of Ornamental Penmanship on the Internet Archive.

Portfolio of Ornate Penmanship-24

Pens used for decorative writing generally have a much greater range of flex and tend to be softer (easier to flex) than general writing pens. They are also often very sharp to make very fine hairlines (the thinnest part of a line). This can make them very difficult to manage for beginners. It is often better to start out with a slightly stiffer, less sharp pen, like one of any number of modern nibs like the Zebra G.

Some vintage general writing pens can be used for decorative writing if you are writing small, and the pen is particularly flexible, like the Esterbrook 453 Business and College pen.

TIP: Generally, any vintage pen marked “College” will be relatively flexible and able to make a decent flexed line. Most US and many European nibs marked “EF” will also make thin lines with some decent flex.

Because there are many people who still use steel pens for decorative writing, there are a lot of resources out there that talk about good pens for this use, like the IAMPETH’s article on “A Look at Fine and Flexible Nibs.”

Pointed pen calligraphy has also seen a surge in interest with the rise in so-called Modern Calligraphy and the spread of Pinterest. (A good source for information on the modern style is Postman’s Knock.) Modern decorative writing will often use the same kinds of pens as the more traditional forms, with perhaps a bit more tolerance of thicker hairlines, depending on the style.


Pen and ink drawing and sketching go back further than steel pens, but since their advent, many artists have discovered the ability of these tools to deliver clear lines, line modulation (thick and thin) in the same stroke as well as durability.

Cartoonists, especially, have been drawn to the steel pen. There’s the famous story of Charles Schultz, the creator of the comic strip Peanuts. He would only use the Esterbrook 914 to draw all of his strips. The 914 is just the Radio Pen version of the #14 Bank pen. (Esterbrook’s Radio pens have nothing to do with the invention of Marconi, but “Radio” refers the silvery coating added to the nibs that supposedly helps prevent corrosion).

The story goes that when Esterbrook announced it was going to stop making these nibs in the early 1950’s, Schultz went out and bought every box he could find. As a result of these stories, these pens can bring a premium price, while the even better quality early #14’s go for regular prices. (look for one with “R. Esterbrook & Co’s” as the imprint, and at least avoid the ones with Made in USA on them, they’re later ones and generally not quite as flexible)

Many modern nibs are made for comics/manga artists. These nibs, like the Zebra G, the Tachikawa G and others, are made in Japan and marketed directly at manga artists, but they can be quite good nibs for writing as well.

Some of the smaller vintage nibs are also explicitly labeled as Artist (like the Hunt 100), Drafting, or Mapping pens. Mapping pens tend to be extremely sharp, very fine and delicate pens. The 354 and 355 Art & Drafting pens by Esterbrook are two examples of these kinds of pens. Some people do use these pens for very small calligraphy, but the tines are so small that while they are soft, and flex easily, they cannot flex far, so the shading is minimal. My late father-in-law, a geological engineer used 355’s for drawing his maps.


The experts at decorative writing all say to start with a beginner type of nib and get comfortable with it and familiar with the motion of flexed writing. You can then move “up” to more difficult pens (usually sharper and softer with more flex) as your control gets better.

If you’re just interested in general writing, or you want to see if you like drawing with steel pens, then my recommendation is to get a selection of pens and try out a bunch until you find what seems to work for you. Fortunately, these types of vintage pens tend to be the least expensive, at least compared to the high-end calligraphy pens. (you can get a box of Esterbrook Falcons for the cost of one Gillott Principality, or 5 Spencerian #1’s)

But of course, a pen without a holder won’t do you much good, so the next installment of this series will look at the next essential tool for using steel pens.


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