Cleaning Pens for Lettering

I’m preparing to do some hand-lettering for my next signed print using Faber Castell TG1-S technical drawing pens. My first task is to clean the old dried-out ink from inside the four pens I’m going to use. Back in the day when I lettered everything by hand, I rarely had to clean these pens, I kept them working correctly through constant use. Even ten years ago when I was doing two-thirds of my lettering work on the computer and one third by hand, the ink would still flow through them for a few months at a time. Now, when I’m lettering nearly everything on the computer, these pens sit neglected on my drawing table while the ink inside slowly dries and cakes, making them unuseable. So, yesterday I spent about an hour at the kitchen sink cleaning them. I try to do this when Ellen isn’t home. India ink won’t stick to or stain our steel sink and Corelle countertops, but the sight of inky mess everywhere is not for the faint of heart.

Turning the tap on a trickle, lukewarm, I take the first pen apart under the flow. The point-puller (6) screws over the end of the pen point  (2) and one continues screwing until the point lifts out of the point body  (4). Then the wire cap  (3) pulls off the back of the point and the wire (1) pulls out of the point body.

This will probably make more sense in the picture above, where the pen pieces are shown in order. Also shown in this pic is the ink reservoir, which pulls off the point body after it’s unscrewed from the pen shaft. The pen cap (5) and the pen shaft are the only parts that don’t have to be cleaned.

To loosen caked ink, long toothpicks (8) are handy, I usually go through a few of them. The other essential tool is lots of paper towels. In addition to wiping, the corners are rolled into points (7) to insert into the insides of the pen point, the wire cap, the point body and the ink reservoir. If the ink is dry and hard, it will take multiple cleanings with these tools to get all or most of it out. The wire is the most easily damaged part of the pen, if you bend it, chances are very good that the ink will never flow through that pen point again, so I handle it very carefully. Fortunately not much ink sticks to it. The hardest part to clean is the inside of the point (upper left in the picture above) especially the steel shaft where the wire passes through a tiny tunnel to the tip of the point, allowing the ink to flow around it and out the tip. If dried ink is inside that tunnel, the only way to get it out is to insert the wire, VERY carefully, into the tiny hole at the outside tip of that metal shaft, essentially running the wire the opposite way through the tunnel from which it usually goes. I’ve lost a number of pen points doing that. If it succeeds and goes through, I then blow air into the point, pushing any dried ink out of the point. After rinsing, I fill the point with water and blow on the wider plastic end of the point. If water squirts out of the point’s steel tip, I know the tunnel is clear. If not, I repeat the process until it is.

The final test is to fill the ink reservoir with fresh ink, put the pen back together, and see if the ink will flow through. To get the ink started I tap the end of the shaft on the drawing board a few times, then shake the pen, point down, over some paper a few times. Inside the pen point, the wire should be felt moving up and down through the point like a tiny plunger. If it won’t move, there may still be sticky ink in the point somewhere. Several minutes of tapping and shaking should get the ink moving, and when the first ink shows at the pen tip, I test the pen on the paper. If the ink is flowing smoothly, an even line emerges with no skips or gaps, and the pen is ready to use.

Tomorrow I’m going to find out how rusty my hand-lettering skills are…

8 thoughts on “Cleaning Pens for Lettering

  1. Whalehead King

    It’s with pens like this that I learned to draw. Digital work was a figment of the future. I never cottoned to doing things on the computer and still do everything by hand: a dinosaur. The skills we learned aren’t applicable unless we take the time to practice them. Impractical? Perhaps, but the results give so much satisfaction when we pull it off.

  2. susan

    how well I remember those pen-cleaning days! Like whalehead, I never transitioned to computer lettering either, and just threw away all my precious pens when the work (and ink!) dried up for good.

  3. Mia

    I cleaned my TG1-S exactly like you describes above and it maybe works for larger dimensions but my .18 died. I mean, how do you use a thin wire like that to clean? It’s completely impossible. And how do you put the wire (plastic) in the thin shaft? Even more impossible.. I think my pen is cleaned now but I can’t put it together. My fault I didn’t think before I followed unknown instructions…

  4. Todd Post author

    Sorry to hear about your pen. I did say in the article, “The wire is the most easily damaged part of the pen, if you bend it, chances are very good that the ink will never flow through that pen point again, so I handle it very carefully.” And the smaller the point size, the more delicate the wire.

  5. Pingback: Todd’s Blog » Blog Archive » A Chris Ware Page Examined

  6. Jim

    Back in art school, the Staedtler-Mars rep came to our school to demonstrate proper care and cleaning of technical pens. He let us in a secret… you don’t need ultrasonic cleaners, or their expensive cleaning fluids. He recommended using full-strength “Mr. Clean”. Just dismantle the pens as you describe, and soak all the parts in a cup of Mr. Clean overnight. Then carefully wash the parts with an old toothbrush (to clean the channels), and cotton swabs (to clean inside the nib parts).

    I’ve been following his advice ever since, and my old pens still work like new.

  7. Steve Hawkins

    A bit late to seeing this, as only found while looking to see if anyone knows how to get replacement wire. I bought a Marsmatic 0.18 6 months ago from ‘The Online Pen Company’, and it seemed to be good, and stronger and more precise than my cheaper Chinese tech pens. I didn’t use it for a while after the initial job I was doing (fine fibre tipped versions are totally worn flat after a thousand words or so!), but have a small ultrasonic bath, which usually clears tips in seconds, so wasn’t expecting trouble. Surprised to find all my other pens soon working but no luck with the Marsmatic.

    Eventually had to resort to opening up the needle unit, though I’ve done this many times before I got the u/s. The way to get the shuttle out without risking pulling it, is simply to clean as much ink out in water first, and then uncap the shuttle, and, holding it over a beaker of water, vibrate the nib unit with an electric toothbrush without the brush. Similarly it will drop out with the vibrations in the u/s bath.

    I too usually poke the wire back down the needle point to clean from both directions. the hole is actually much bigger than you think, as your fingers are much more sensitive than your eyes. If you get a ‘helping hands’ stand with croccodile clip arms and a magnifying glass attached, you’ll see that on the good pens, the point actually has a tiny bowl in the end, which guides the wire in once you can see it properly. Still only poke small prods at a time so as not to bend the wire, and if it doesn’t go right away, put a silicone rubber hose the same diameter over a syringe or over an adaptor on the kitchen tap, and back flow water through the tip till you can poke the wire through. If you have a torch with a laser setting, you can shine it inside, and see if a red dot shines through onto a white surface.

    The trick to getting the shuttle wire back in is to just gently rest the shuttle and wire in the needle holder, while it’s horizontal. Then gently tip it up vertical, and touch the side with the vibrating tip of your toothbrush. if you’ve cleaned it properly and the wire is the right size, it will soon drop into the needle without any forcing.

    Unfortunately, for me, on this occasion: when I took the cap off the needle holder, the shuttle fell out WITH NO WIRE ATTACHED! I was sure I had not done anything to break a wire, so had a closer look with the laser, and was shocked to find it shone right through: there was no wire!
    Just to be certain it hadn’t some how come off in the ultrasonic bath, I filtered the inky water through a fine filter, and found no sign of any wire.

    I’d been sold a dud, and, because the instructions tell you not to disassemble them, if the pen writes, you are unlikely to get out a hand lens to see the tip of the wire, until it’s too late! I wrote to explain all this to the company, and ask for a new needle unit or a source of the right type of wire, and they just said it was too late to complain, and I shouldn’t have taken it apart anyway!

    Talk about buyer beware. Looks like my best bet is to buy more cheap fine Chinese ones to swap the cleaner wires out with the more expensive ones. Unless you guys might know where to get a supply of the right wire (I tried opening up a 3 amp fuse, but that wire is too thick and bendy for 0.18.

    Hope this gives you some more tips.

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