Fountain pen manufacturers introduced ink cartridges as a way to counteract the threat posed by ballpoints, which had offered a less messy way to refill a pen by eliminating the possibility of knocking over an ink bottle, dripping ink on your clothes, etc. Eventually, the “cartridge/converter” filling system became the default, with most modern fountain pens shipping with a sample ink cartridge alongside a converter that you can use to fill from an ink bottle (though lately many companies have been omitting the converter altogether, forcing you to buy it separately).
Cartridges often go ignored by die-hard fountain pen lovers. There’s definitely an attitude out there among certain segments of the pen community that if you use ink cartridges, you’re not a “real” fountain pen user. Heck, some people believe that if you use a converter, you’re not a real fountain pen user, because the only “real” fountain pen is one that features an integrated filling system like a piston. While I’ve been guilty of thinking like this in the past, I’ve long since changed my tune, especially as I’ve been traveling more for work. While I still opt for the converter most of the time, mainly because I have a huge collection of bottled inks and I enjoy the variety they offer, I do keep a steady supply of cartridges handy. Here are a few of the reasons that I sometimes prefer to use them:
They take up no space and are easy to change on the go. When you’re on the road, it’s quite easy to grab a matchbox-sized pack of Kaweco cartridges and stick it in your briefcase, as opposed to sealing an ink bottle in a plastic bag and worrying about leaks, breakage, and TSA inspections, among other things.
Cartridge inks are typically safe and low-maintenance. A general rule of thumb is that if an ink is made by a pen company (especially one that makes expensive pens), it’s probably safe to use in most, if not all fountain pens. With a few exceptions, most widely-available ink cartridges are made by pen companies because they need to have a refill to include in the box with a newly purchased pen. If you use ink cartridges made by the same company that manufactured your pen, I can almost guarantee you there won’t be a problem, and if there is the pen company will have to make it right.
Cartridges are inexpensive. Sure, on a “per milliliter” basis, ink bottles offer you the best bang for your buck, but when was the last time you finished an entire 50ml bottle of ink? If you’re not someone who journals or takes extensive notes, a $4 pack of cartridges might last you a very long time, even though you’re “paying more” for the ink itself.
For all the advantages, there are also some annoying things about ink cartridges, including many that keep me coming back to my converters and ink bottles whenever it’s practical:
Cartridges lack variety. While companies like Diamine, J. Herbin, and Monteverde release many of their inks in cartridge form, for the most part the range of colors available in bottles dwarfs the selection available in cartridges.
Difficulty cleaning and changing colors. Cartridges are convenient if you’re traveling and don’t mind using only a single color of ink for a few days to a week. If you’re a serial color-changer, however, cartridges can be a bit of a pain because there’s no easy way to flush the pen in-between ink swaps, unless you travel with a converter or bulb syringe.
You create plastic waste. One of the reasons that I’m drawn to fountain pens is because they don’t generate the large volumes of plastic waste that cheap disposable pens do. (I know it’s a drop in the bucket, but I do what I can.) Unless you refill them with a syringe and reuse, ink cartridges are thrown out once they run dry, going to the landfill along with your spent ballpoints.
Nostalgia. Let’s face it. Filling a fountain pen from a cartridge simply isn’t as fun as filling from a bottle, and doesn’t give you that same “nostalgia fix” that you get from inking up a pen, knowing you’re doing it the same way that people have done it for more than 100 years.
To sum it up, cartridges aren’t my favorite way to ink a fountain pen, and I would never consider using them exclusively, but they do have their place. I make it a point to have a steady supply of cartridges on hand to give me options when traveling, because they make a much cheaper, easier, and less messy alternative to traveling with an ink bottle or something like a traveling inkwell. Fountain pen ink cartridges are also widely available, and most of our site sponsors keep them in stock, including Pen Chalet, Vanness Pens, Anderson Pens, Goldspot, and Appelboom.
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