11.12.2010

The Cartridge Vs. The Converter


Many times you will hear of a fountain pen commonly offered with the cartridge / converter filling system. This means that the fountain pen can either accept disposable ink cartridges or use the refillable, screw-type converter that can draw ink from a bottle. My intention of this article is to pit the both of them in bloody battle and see who would triumph gloriously.

Just kidding, but I did want to discuss the advantages and disadvantages of using either method of filling your fountain pen. This information is especially useful for first-time fountain pen owners, so listen up. You don't want to get ink all over your nice sweater before Thanksgiving Dinner, or on the Turkey, for that matter.


Cartridges are, by far, the easiest between the two. They are fully supplied with ink, so when you pop that sucker into the front section of your fountain pen and hear the satisfying snap of the insert being pierced, you know you are moments away from writing the Great American Novel, or signing your expense reports, or writing a passive aggressive note for the noisy neighbor upstairs.

No mess filling your pen, but it does take a few moments to get that ink into the feed and to the point. To juice the process, I usually like to give the ink cartridge a gentle squeeze with my thumb and forefinger to get the ink down faster. Removal is as easy as taking out the empty cartridge and throwing it away.

The big negative with going the cartridge route of filling your fountain pen is that they are disposable, hurting the environment and your wallet at the same time. Buying box after box of cartridges isn't as cost efficient as getting bottles of ink. Also, there hardly is as much of a color variety as there is with bottled ink. Most manufacturers will simply offer the blue, black and blue-black, while their selection of bottled inks will have every color "under the rainbow."


Converters are the modern compromise between the traditional bottle-filling systems of old with the industrialized notion of interchangeable parts. Without going into a whole historical tangent, the converter's purpose is to allow the user to fill their fountain pen in an old-fashioned way without having to worry about delicate pen repair down the road. You simply insert the converter in the same manner you would a cartridge. Seat it properly into the front section of the pen. Then, submerge the nib and feed into your bottle of fountain pen-friendly ink. Screw the black knob clockwise to draw ink up through the nib into the converter's ink chamber. Screw anti-(counter)clockwise to expel the contents (air, ink or water) out of the converter. This may take several twists up-and-down to get the proper suction, making sure all of the air is removed from the converter and that you are drawing up only ink. Filling via converter is a process that takes several tries to get a handle on it and novices are sure to get their fingers inky at first. Heck, I still get inky sometimes.

There are two main "draws" with a converter : one is the actual process itself. It may be nostalgic for some, while many also experience a sense of being deliberate and caring for your writing implement. With so many of our modern consumer items being disposable, it is a nice change-of-pace to actually take the time and fill your fountain pen, getting it ready to meet the day's tasks head-on! The second point is that it is more cost-effective to fill from an ink bottle than it is to continually buy cartridges. By the time you are buying package after package of disposable ink cartridges that last a few months, you could have had a whole collection of modestly priced ink bottles to last you a few years. There are online communities like Fountain Pen Network that encourage ink swapping or ink sampling, which would mean getting small 2 mL samples of different brands, hues and formulas of ink to find one that you really would love to get a bottle of.

The intimidating part of using the converter over a cartridge is the potentially messy process. The closest activity I can relate it to is changing the oil on your car. It is far more satisfying to do the job yourself, but you need to take time and get a little messy to accomplish. Taking the car to Lube 'N Go will be more expensive, but far less effort involved. If the oil came in different colors, which would change the colors of your exhaust, now we'd be much closer to the experience of filling a fountain pen.

Bottom Line - Most pen manufacturers offer both the converter and one ink cartridge with the purchase of a new fountain pen for the same reason that both Jiffy Lube and Advance Auto Parts are around. There are people who prefer to be more hands on, while there are others who want to keep things simple. It really depends on the effort of the individual. Not that I'm saying people who use ink cartridges are lazy, they just would rather concentrate their daily efforts elsewhere. People who like filling their fountain pen with a converter want to invest themselves into their writing instrument and are willing to take the risk of getting ink on their hands because it is part of the charm, the very reason why they selected a fountain pen to write with in the first place.

27 comments:

  1. I think you neglected to mention the biggest disadvantage of cartridges: they're often incompatible between different brands of pens! Sheaffer cartridges are different from Parker cartridges, which are different from International cartridges, etc. It may not matter with your first pen, but if you get several pens of different brands, then keeping them supplied with cartridges can turn into a headache. Bottled ink, by comparison, will work in just about anything.

    I've also had a lot of difficulty getting a pen started writing after putting in a cartridge. Then you have to write out the whole cartridge or end up wasting part of it. I really don't find them convenient at all.

    However, you should also note that the pen's nib and feed must be wiped after filling from a bottle. It only takes a second, but it can be a problem if you don't have a paper towel or tissue handy.

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  2. Tony,

    Thank you for adding that. When I was writing, I was imagining the international size cartridge that fits in a majority of fountain pens, but you are right! There are so many brands that offer proprietary designs on their own cartridges (ie Lamy, Sheaffer, Cross) and if you decide to branch out into other brands, you will be upset to know that you have to buy new ink cartridges to fit that model.

    PS - I just filled two of my piston-filling pens now and got a tiny bit of ink on my fingers after wiping the ink off the nib. Love it, though.

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  3. I knew I couldn't be the only one to see a mental/ emotional benefit in the "old fashioned" way. For the few moments while I draw that ink into the converter, I forget about email, texts, cell phones, and all manner of electronic intrusions in my life.

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  4. I'm new to fountain pens, this article and comments helped to fill in a few gaps about converters and cartridges; I know the cartridges are easier but I just love the idea of using converters with ink bottles.

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  5. Fiona,
    Thanks for dropping the comment. I'm really glad the article was informative to you!

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  6. Lovely article, agree with all of your points :-)
    I started using a converter to save myself money but I now love the process, it is like caring for your pen. I should also add that I have a cheaper cartridge pen for out and about, filling from a bottle is definitely an at home job.

    And yes, I get a strange satisfaction from getting ink on my fingers!

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  7. Laura,
    Thanks for the comment. Score one for the converter crowd!

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  8. I just got a converter for my new parker pen and have filled it up for the first time (is a pump one). Was tricky at first, but eventually got the hang of filling it. So satisfying when done, and the pen is amazing to write with. Save money on ink, plus feel that lovely satisfaction ^^

    And this pen is MINE - considering people have managed to break my last four fountain pens, and the two before were 50p from tescos and eventually gave up :p

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  9. I just got a converter for my new parker pen and have filled it up for the first time (is a pump one). Was tricky at first, but eventually got the hang of filling it. So satisfying when done, and the pen is amazing to write with. Save money on ink, plus feel that lovely satisfaction ^^

    And this pen is MINE - considering people have managed to break my last four fountain pens, and the two before were 50p from tescos and eventually gave up :p

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  10. I think you neglected to mention the biggest disadvantage of cartridges: they're often incompatible between different brands of pens! Sheaffer cartridges are different from Parker cartridges, which are different from International cartridges, etc. It may not matter with your first pen, but if you get several pens of different brands, then keeping them supplied with cartridges can turn into a headache. Bottled ink, by comparison, will work in just about anything.

    I've also had a lot of difficulty getting a pen started writing after putting in a cartridge. Then you have to write out the whole cartridge or end up wasting part of it. I really don't find them convenient at all.

    However, you should also note that the pen's nib and feed must be wiped after filling from a bottle. It only takes a second, but it can be a problem if you don't have a paper towel or tissue handy.

    ReplyDelete
  11. I'm new to fountain pens, this article and comments helped to fill in a few gaps about converters and cartridges; I know the cartridges are easier but I just love the idea of using converters with ink bottles.

    ReplyDelete
  12. I use cartridges in my Pilot Vanishing Point because the process of filling it is too lengthy and the converter holds less than half the ink that a cartridge does.

    My other pens are filled from a bottle though. I admit that I prefer bottled ink over cartridges. But in the case of my VP, I don't have the patience to extract the nib section every time only to get a fill that lasts barely more than a single day.

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    Replies
    1. At least one pilot vanishing point should be in one's fp collection but different pens have different ink volumes in the converters. You can always tailor your pen usage based on on ink volume for long or short writing periods. I use my pilot custom heritage 92 as my work pen as this pen holds an enormous amount fo ink and perhaps my other pens like the vanishing point for leisure writing. Just a thought!

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  13. I find that the converter for my Parkers don't hold as much ink. What I've begun to do is refill the empty cartridge with a syringe and bottled ink. I get better performance, at a fifth the cost of the ink.

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    Replies
    1. I'm happy to see I'm not the only one who uses a syringe to refill the cartridges. I've been using a fountain pen for two years and I'm just now learning about converters.

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  14. is the ink quality the same if it is from the same manufacturer?

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    1. You choose the ink you want. I have been very happy with Noodler's Brown, which is bulletproof; and for a more affordable permanent ink, Hero brand Black, Blue, and Blue-Black ink are also very nice.

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    2. What about "piston fill" !? These pens can hold an enormous amount of ink and are in a class of their own.

      Much fav: Pilot Custom Heritage 92 clear demonstrator.

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  15. This was a very helpful article. I'd never heard of converters before, and the cost of cartridges was limiting me to using my pen once a year. Not a very happy thing... So now I know how I can happily write all day long without blasting my wallet to pieces! I'll be sure to follow this blog now... :)

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  16. Good comments. I like cartridges best. No mess and holds more ink. I am curious about the difference in ink quality. I use my pens for everyday tasks at work. Im left handed and find the fountain pen comfortable and it enhanced my penmanship.

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  17. Another pen you might be interested in is the Pilot V-Razor fiber tip pen for $1. It utilizes the same tip as the $160 Parker 5th Technology Pen. The fiber tip pen utilizes the same principle as the nib of a fountain pen, both using liquid ink. The V-Razor ink dries fast on paper, which is a plus for lefties. Cheers. . .

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  18. How long does an average bottle of in last?

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  19. I am new to fountain pens. For me- using a converter is a bit messy- I always end up with ink on my fingers. I bought a boat load of multi color cartridges from Pilot. I have a Pilot Metropolitan and a Namiki Falcon.

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  20. Another tip I read somewhere: wipe the top of the ink bottle before filling your pen and it reduces the chance of ink on your fingers (or the heel of your hand).

    Also, with Parker pens, go for the deluxe converter with the screw piston. Their standard one uses a lever that doesn't work very well.

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  21. QUestion to FP enthusiasts? I have encountered certain convertors and nipple units that leak at the junction.SOme are firmly attached like the Lamy al stars however certain brands like Shaeffer or Parker tended to leak for me. Ive posed this question to the fp community and nobody has ever given me a straight answer as I know this must happen to other people as well. I will only purchased piston fill pens or pens with firmly attached convertors. Please inform.thanks.

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  22. Can I take out my convertor every time I fill it...It eases the process of filling the pen up!

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