Brass Pens : Everything You Needed to Know

Unlike the smartphone and the personal computer, brass writing instruments are built to last a lifetime, if not longer. Instead of buying a new one every 2-3 years, pens are meant to be lifelong companions that can age along with you.

In this post, I share the reasons why pen enthusiasts are drawn to brass pens. In the accompanying video, you'll learn how to polish your brass using common household ingredients. If you prefer the tarnished look, you'll find a simple, at-home experiment to show you how to age your brass pen overnight. Plus, learn an interesting fact about brass that will give you some peace of mind when lending your pen to someone.

As the Roman poet Horace wrote, "More durable than brass my monument shall be." Human beings are the only creatures (that we know of) endowed with awareness of mortality. All of us know we're going to die someday. With this knowledge, we attempt to build monuments to outlast us so we may never fully die. We create art and contribute to a greater cause with the hopes that our deeds will live on. Our tools, like the humble pen, can remind us of this grander scale in a symbolic way.

A brass-bodied pen, like the Y Studio Classic Revolve brass fountain pen, has the durability to last a lifetime, if not longer.

Why is brass used in pens?

Brass is an alloy of copper and zinc. For pen manufacturing, brass has a relatively low melting point and is more workable than other metals like bronze or zinc. It is corrosion resistant and has a heavier weight than other common pen materials like resin and aluminum. Depending on how much zinc is present, the color of brass can range from a reddish hue to a muted golden yellow.

A brass fountain pen conveys luxury status through its golden, metallic shine and hefty feel in hand. Many pens use brass as the base of the design, which is then finished in lacquer. The Y Studio Classic Revolve collection, for example, uses the same brass base with 4 different color lacquers.

Then, you have the "raw" brass pens that are not lacquered or varnished. They usually arrive with a polished shine or might appear slightly dulled and tarnished. This is part of the wabi-sabi charm of owning an all-brass pen.

To quote Leonard Koren, who wrote a book on the topic, "Wabi-sabi is exactly about the delicate balance between the pleasure we get from things and the pleasure we get from freedom of things."

A writer has the option to cherish their brass pen by routinely polishing it to a bright shine -or- you can let it develop a patina over time and let the pen age as you age. A third option that I experimented with: distressing the brass to give it a vintage look.

How to polish a brass pen

But before we get all "mad scientist" on a few brass ballpoint and fountain pens, I want to share a few ways you can remove tarnish from brass. It is natural for brass to patina over time as it reacts to the oxygen in the air and the oils from your skin. Even a brand new pen can exhibit a slight darkening, also called toning, right out of the box.

To remove tarnish, I'm going to show you a couple of methods using materials you can find at home as well as a product made for this specific purpose.

As with any of the cleaning & aging tips I'm about to share, try this at your own risk. Be sure to use gloves, protective eyewear, and work in a well-ventilated area to stay safe. Goldspot does not take responsibility if you harm yourself or your pen.

Believe it or not (you can see the video for proof), you can use ketchup to remove tarnish with surprising effectiveness. It doesn't have to be "fancy" ketchup, either. As with any cleaning method, test it on a small area of the pen first. Coat the desired area of brass with ketchup. Let it sit for a minute. Then, clean it off using a paper towel.

Yes, this method does leave your pen smelling like ketchup. So, you might want to rinse it off after you're finished polishing the pen.

The second cleaning method has a more pleasant, minty smell. Toothpaste contains microabrasives that can polish your pens and your pearly whites. Using an old toothbrush you reserve for cleaning, brush the toothpaste on a small area of the brass ballpoint pen. Gently brush the surface until you start to notice the lightening of the tarnish. Then, wipe down the pen using a polishing cloth or paper towel.

To prep pens for their beauty shots, our photographer will use Tarn-X and a Connoisseur's jewelry polishing cloth. For this method, be safe and use gloves in an open area. Follow the directions on the bottle. Apply the Tarn-X to a cloth and wipe down the pen. After the pen is completely coated with the tarnish remover, use the polishing cloth to buff the pen to a bright shine.

Removing tarnish on a pen using ketchup.

Removing tarnish on a pen using toothpaste.

How to age brass pens

Usually, brass takes a long time to darken and develop a patina. If this type of aesthetic is more appealing to you, then never worry about polishing it. Let's say you don't want to wait the months or years it may take to develop the patina. I'll show you a shortcut using inexpensive, household ingredients. Please remember to be safe and try at your own risk.

My subjects for this experiment are a Retro 51 Raw Brass rollerball pen and a Fisher Space Pen Bullet Raw Brass ballpoint pen. If your pens are not brand new, out of the box, clean the brass surface with a little dish soap and water before proceeding. Make sure they are clean and dry.

I disassembled the Fisher pen, removing the front section, refill, and spring. For the Retro 51 pen, I removed just the refill and spring. At the time, I thought using tape would protect the clip and top disc. As you'll find out, I was wrong.

Using protective gloves, I applied a mixture of distilled white vinegar and salt to a paper towel. Then, I coated each pen part by rolling it in the towel. I placed each pen part in the middle of an empty, plastic to-go food container. Then, I filled several plastic shot glasses with ammonia and put a lid on the container.

I left the container outside overnight. After a couple of hours, I noticed the colors started to change. Out of curiosity, I wanted to see just how far I could take it. Taking out the pens after 18 hours - the results were dramatic and ...slightly disturbing.

The brass turned shades of dark brown, black, and light blue. Immediately, I noticed the Retro 51 clip did not survive the aging process. Good news, though - the patient was saved thanks to a clip-ectomy. It required a pair of spark plug pliers and an ample amount of patience and hand strength.

The surface of both the Fisher and Retro 51 brass ballpoint pen became gritty with texture from the layers of patina. To smooth out the rough areas and create a distressed look, I used a piece of sandpaper and the polishing techniques mentioned earlier. With enough polishing, it is possible to lighten the brass and reverse the effects of the patina.

It is worthwhile to note: the inside barrel threads of the Fisher pen became crusted and needed to be polished to properly screw on the front grip section. Polishing was also needed on the threads of the Retro 51 where it connects with the nose cone.

If I did it over again, I would have checked hourly and removed the pens as soon as I saw the desired blue coloration. I would have also removed the clip from the Retro 51 pen.

How to customize your ystudio pen

In addition to the brass patina changing the complexion of your pen, Ystudio invites you to remove the lacquer of the Classic Revolve brass fountain pen by including a piece of 600 grit sandpaper with the pen.

To remove the lacquer, rub the faceted barrel and cap of the pen on the flattened piece of sandpaper until the desired effect is achieved. The lacquer isn't easy to remove, so you'll need some patience and a little elbow grease to style your pen. Fair warning, you won't be able to undo the process. Once the lacquer is sanded off, there's no putting it back on!

On the particular pen pictured in this article, I removed the front section with the nib and rubbed the the cap and barrel on the sandpaper. Going facet by facet, I removed the lacquer to create a subtle transition of golden brass that radiates from where the cap and barrel meet. Now, the brass fountain pen is truly one of a kind!

Are brass pens antimicrobial?

Now that my hands smell like a bag of pennies, I'd like to share with you the bonus fact that raw brass pens are also antimicrobial. Studies show while pathogens are capable of living on other inanimate surfaces for days or months, the brass' copper content kills them in hours.

So, if you're going to lend a pen to someone, and have concerns about transferring germs, a brass pen will eliminate most of those microbes naturally, without the use of disinfectant chemicals. To be extra careful, you'll want to leave the pen untouched for a few hours after the person last used it. Plus, wiping it down with soapy water won't hurt, either.

To demonstrate the amazing qualities of brass pens, I picked out some of my favorites that we regularly offer on the Goldspot Pens website, including the Fisher Space Pen Raw Brass Ballpoint Pen and the Retro 51 Tornado Rollerball in Raw Brass that we subjected to the patina experiment. There are plenty of other great brass fountain pens and other writing instruments out there, so we created a page on the Goldspot website where you can browse our entire brass pen selection.

We hoped that you learned something fun and useful to further enjoy writing with your favorite pens. Do you own a brass pen? Do you let it patina or polish it up? Let us know in the comments.