Guide to Piston-Filler Fountain Pens

In the evolution of the fountain pen, there were many attempts at inventing the perfect way to load ink into the pen. There was the eyedropper, the safety, the crescent-filler, and so on. First patented in 1923, the piston-filler has stood the test of time as the most prevalent internal filling mechanism made today.

In this article, we invite you to explore the piston-fill fountain pen - how it works, how to use it, the advantages, the disadvantages, and how to clean it. We'll also guide you toward the best piston-filler fountain pens you can find on the Goldspot website.

How does a piston-fill fountain pen work?

A piston-fill fountain pen is like a syringe you can write with. Both items have a synthetic piston head that seals the fluid chamber from the rest of the filling mechanism. This seal is important, as it needs to create a vacuum to draw the ink into the body of the pen. Instead of pulling up on the plunger of a syringe, a piston-fill fountain pen relies on the twist-action of the piston knob.

To achieve the twist-action, the piston rod has grooves that thread into the body of the mechanism like a spindle screw. Turn counter-clockwise and the piston advances, forcing air (or ink) through the nib & feed. Turn clockwise and the piston retracts toward the back of the pen, drawing in air (or ink) through the nib & feed.

How to fill a piston-filler fountain pen?

  1. Unscrew the piston knob counter-clockwise to draw down the piston toward the front end of the fountain pen.
  2. Submerge the nib in ink to where it meets with the grip section.
  3. Screw the piston knob clockwise to draw the piston back, creating a vacuum to suck ink into the pen.
  4. Repeat if necessary to achieve a fuller fill.

What is the difference between a piston-fill fountain pen and a piston-converter?

As we stipulated at the beginning of this post, the piston-fill fountain pen is the most prevalent built-in filling mechanism. In general, the most common filling mechanism today is the cartridge converter. Still, the converter operates using the same design principles as the piston fountain pen with some notable differences.

The piston converter can draw and expel ink by twisting the knob in the same way. The main difference is that the converter can be attached and detached from a fountain pen. It can be replaced if broken. A converter also has a smaller ink capacity, generally holding about half the volume of a typical piston-fill pen.

What are the advantages of using a piston-fill fountain pen?

So, why are piston-filling fountain pens considered to be more valuable than a cartridge/converter? Let's take a look at the advantages:

  • Piston fillers can hold more ink volume. One could write longer between fill-ups.
  • Piston fillers are more ecological and economical when it comes to ink consumption. Since they rely on bottled ink only, the writer can pay a lower cost per ml of ink compared with using disposable ink cartridges.
  • The piston mechanism is built-in so you can't possibly lose parts to fill the pen.
  • Since this mechanism was invented during the golden age of fountain pens, it's considered to be more traditional and has nostalgic value.

One major potential downside of a piston mechanism is that, if it breaks, it will be a costly repair. If a converter breaks, it could be removed and replaced with another. Since converters can be detached, they're also easier to clean than piston-fill pens.

How to clean a piston-filler fountain pen?

Speaking of cleaning, we recommend cleaning a piston-fill fountain pen each time the pen either runs out of ink or the ink color is changed. To clean a piston-filler pen, simply fill the pen with water instead of ink. Flush out the water and repeat until the water runs clear. Watch the video on this page for more detailed instructions.

Some piston-fill fountain pens, like the Narwhal Peter Draws pen, are capable of being disassembled for a more thorough cleaning. Using a wrench, the piston mechanism can be unscrewed from the back end of the barrel. We caution everyone to disassemble a piston mechanism only when necessary. If repeated rinsings won't get out stubborn ink stains or ink gets behind the piston seal, then disassemble it. If the piston is sticking or difficult to operate, then disassemble it and put silicone grease on the piston head. There's no need to disassemble the piston for routine cleaning.

Best Piston-Fill Fountain Pens

Now that we know the reasons why a piston-fill fountain pen is desirable to a pen enthusiast, here are examples of great piston-fillers that our customers enjoy.

TL;DR - Here's our shortlist of pens to explore:

First, you can't go wrong with the original. The tried and true Pelikan piston-fill fountain pen is a great place to start. They are a bit more costly than other pens that you'll see here, but they just plain work the best. Vintage Pelikan piston-fill pens are still sought after in the collectors market because they are so reliable. Since 1929, Pelikan has built a reputation for piston-fill fountain pens of exceptional quality.

Pelikan's entry-level, piston-filler is the Classic M200 or M205 fountain pen. It's slightly undersized compared to other piston-fill fountain pens. Yet, it has a lightweight and well-balanced feel in hand, especially with the cap posted on the back. The M200 Golden Beryl has a smoky, translucent body with a golden shimmer throughout.

Pelikan fits a stainless steel nib unit that can be easily removed by unscrewing it from the front section. With the nib unit removed, you can easily access the inside of the barrel for a thorough cleaning.

As I mentioned, Pelikan is priced higher than other comparable brands of fountain pens. As you'll find over time, the quality justifies the cost. The Classic M200 or M205 can usually be found at prices of $150 and up.

For a more economical option, let's look at the Narwhal Original fountain pen. Since 2019, Narwhal continues to impress the pen community with their affordable, piston-fill fountain pens made of exciting acrylic resins. Made in collaboration with YouTube celebrity artist Peter Draws, this Narwhal "Peter Pen" fountain pen has introduced many starting pen enthusiasts to their first piston-fill fountain pen.

The Narwhal original fountain pen does have a removable piston mechanism as well as a removable nib unit that takes a little more torque to unscrew than the Pelikan nib. Unlike the Pelikan's proprietary nib, the Narwhal uses a #6 steel nib that could be replaced with a Jowo if you please.

At a starting price of $50 for the black or plain demonstrator models ($60 for the Peter Pen mentioned here), the Narwhal Original is an excellent first foray into writing with a piston-fill fountain pen.

Onward and upward, pen friends. Higher ink capacity is one of the main draws of piston-fill fountain pens. For the best piston-filler in terms of ink capacity, look at oversized pens like the Pelikan Souveran 1000, the Scribo Feel, and the Penlux Masterpiece Grande. Each of these pens can carry approximately 1.5ml of ink, which is about twice the volume of an international ink cartridge.

Made in Italy, the Leonardo Momento Magico also has a generous 1.5ml capacity with a piston mechanism that can be removed with a special tool made by Leonardo. The pen isn't oversized and it comes in at a comparatively affordable price under $200. Like the Narwhal and Pelikan, the Leonardo Magico's #6 size Jowo stainless steel nib unit can be unscrewed from the section for swapping or cleaning. Plus, the Magico has a window to see the remaining ink in the pen.

We saved the best for last - a pen that truly transcends time. The Lamy 2000 is a piston-filling fountain pen you buy for life. Just by looking at the pen's sleek, space-age design, you would think it was invented in the last 10 years. Try 56. Lamy introduced the 2000 fountain pen in 1966 and it's captivated writers ever since.

The Lamy 2000 is a Bauhaus-inspired design executed to perfection. The strong, arching lines of the pen's profile are adorned only by a spring-loaded, metal clip. The material of the pen is a blend of fiberglass and resin called Makrolon. It has a warm, matte textured feel in the hand. Pulling off the snap cap reveals a brushed stainless steel front section, 14kt gold hooded nib, and a thin, translucent ink window.

For the purposes of our piston-filling discussion, the Lamy 2000 checks all the boxes. Not only does the 2000 have an ample ink capacity of over 1ml and a buttery smooth 14kt gold nib, but its hooded design allows you to draw ink from the bottom of an ink bottle or sample vial with ease.

To top it all off, the Lamy 2000 is one of the most affordable, gold-nib fountain pens with a street price of just a shade under $200 USD for the black Makrolon finish. A stainless steel version and limited edition styles are also available at an additional cost.

In summary, the piston-filler fountain pen has stood the test of time and continues to be the choice filling-mechanism for many 21st Century writers. It has noteworthy advantages over the typical cartridge/converter pen that make it more useful and desirable to pen enthusiasts. There are plenty of piston-fillers you can find on the Goldspot Pens website at various price ranges to stay within budget. We hope the suggestions above serve as a guide post for your fountain pen journey. If you have any questions as you shop, please feel free to contact us.