I’m gonna be the Devil’s Advocate here because I feel the need to set the score right for cartridges. Pretty much everywhere you go, any blog or article on fountain pens will tell you to move to converters.
While I admit there’s a great joy in the process of using a converter, the usual arguments given for using converters over cartridges are that they are more environment-friendly, they save you ink, they let you use custom color inks, and they cost less in the long run.
Those arguments though only hold true if you use cartridges in the basic way they were intended — which is as one shot refills that you buy over and over. And sadly, most people only ever use cartridges in this way, with the same old boring blue and black ink they came with. As a result, most people only treat them as emergency refills that you carry in case you run out of ink.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. Let me explain five good reasons to use a cartridge over a converter, and this can only be done when you use a syringe that you can buy cheap at any drug store to refill them with ink.
1. You Waste Less Ink
Most people think that you save on ink when you use a converter. This is simply not true. When refilling with a converter, you dip the nib into the ink bottle and fill it up with the converter’s suction method. This results in a lot of ink on the nib and perhaps the grip of the pen, if you dipped it in too deep. You end up cleaning this with some tissue or blotting paper, and the capillary action of the ink on the paper often means you even draw some ink out from the feed and not just from the nib. Anyone who’s used converters can attest to the amount of ink they’ve wiped off their pens over the years.
You get absolutely none of that wastage when using a syringe to refill a cartridge. Your syringe deals with liquids in very exact proportions. As long as you don’t overfill the syringe and draw up too much ink, there is very little wasted ink going from the bottle and into the cartridge. After filling it up, you’ll have a small amount of residual ink left in the syringe — but I’d wager it’s a lot less than the ink you end up dragging out of the bottle and wiping off your pen every time you go for a dip.
2. You Get More Ink Capacity
Most converters and cartridges are roughly the same size, but when it come to liquid milliliter capacity a cartridge will have more capacity than a similarly-sized converter. This is because the cartridge has nothing in it but empty space for the ink, and maybe a small metal ball to swirl the ink with. A converter will have all sorts of contraptions in it — a piston lever, a screw cap, or a rubber bladder can easily take up a lot of that space. It’s not uncommon to see converters where half the length is just the screw.
And if less ink space weren’t enough, when you actually fill up the converter you almost never get it 100% full, more realistically you only get about half of the capacity filled up with ink, due to the inherent difficulty in drawing the ink up into the reservoir. So you end up with far less capacity, and that leads to point number 3.
3. You Refill your Pen Less Often
Because converters have less capacity, you have to fill it up far more often. I can go for weeks on a single cartridge, but a converter tends to need to be replaced weekly, even daily depending on usage. Some people go through a converter fill in just hours, depending on how wet their nibs are. It’s definitely a lot less convenient to have to keep re-filling our pens, but that brings up point #1 again: the more you refill your converter, the more ink you waste from needing to wipe the nib. All that wasted ink accumulates and compounds over time.
And that’s not to say anything about the time savings you have not needing to fill up the pen and all clean your converter all the time.
4. You have More Ink Flow Control Options
This is not a very scientific observation, but I’ve found that cartridges in general have less ink flow than converters. That is, a converter will give you a more wet flow of ink, while the cartridge will be more muted. This could be a pro or a con, but the fact of the matter is if you have a very wet ink and nib combination, you may be able to mitigate it and get just the perfect ink flow if you switch to a converter. Likewise, if you have too dry a writer and keep running out of ink while writing, a converter over a cartridge may help the situation.
It’s all about having more choice and more options; almost any pen and ink will have perfect combinations that write better, and changing the converter or cartridge just affords you more fine tuning to control your ink flow. More choices is always better; if you confine yourself to only using converters you may miss out on some perfect writing combinations for that pen and ink that just never seemed to work together.
5. You’ll have less Ink Stains on your Fingers
Now this may actually be a con for some people. I know I wear the ink stains on my fingers with pride, but for those that like to maintain a clean, spotless appearance, cartridges can be a god send. A lot of the ink stain problems on our fingers results from the refilling of the ink from the bottle that gets caught on the grip near the nib. In addition, the wetter flow of ink from a converter means you are more likely to get nib creep and ink coming out of the feed and pooling in the cap onto the grip.
Over the years I’ve found this problem is mitigated when using cartridges. And for sure refilling with the syringe is a lot less messy than using the converter.
6. They last Longer
Converters don’t last forever. Neither to cartridges, actually, but as they don’t have any moving parts, there’s a good bet that your cartridge will last the entire lifetime of your pen. Whereas a converter will stop working after a few of years of good service, your ink cartridge will more than likely outlive your pen. And a well-kept fountain pen lasts generations. At the most, your syringe might stop working, but syringes are significantly cheaper and easier to replace than a converter.
Most fountain pen enthusiasts have written off the humble cartridge in favor of converters, but I find this is a huge disservice to cartridges. In the same way that some people eschew both cartridges and converters altogether to go with the eyedropper approach, cartridges used in an out-of-the-box fashion by using them in conjunction with bottled ink and a syringe for refilling eliminates all the negative arguments against them, and makes them more ideal in some situations compared to a converter.
They even save me money; I’ve never actually bought a cartridge, but I use and re-use the ones that came with the pen. For those of you who have gone the converter route, you may want to take a look back and discover a different way to enjoy your pens and inks.