My New Favorite Tool: An Introduction to the Automatic Pen

A few years ago, my girlfriend gifted me a collection of vintage calligraphy pens. In that collection was an automatic pen and up until about a month ago, it sat in my art bin unused. I’m still kicking myself for not ever picking it up because it’s an incredible writing instrument.

As you might know, I’m a big fan of the Pilot Parallel. I’ve written about it again and again. I’ve been using it nonstop for months now to push my blackletter calligraphy to the next level. Then one day, just a few weeks ago, I asked myself why I haven’t tried creating blackletter using other tools? Parallels are great, but like any tool, they do have their limitations.

If you’re hooked on the Parallel like I am, I challenge you to put it down and give the automatic pen a go.

The Automatic Pen

Automatic pens, like the Parallel, consist of two parallel pieces of stainless steel. But instead of being fed from a fountain cartridge, the pen is meant to be loaded with ink manually (similar to a traditional calligraphy nib). The space between the two pieces of steel act as a reservoir and are connected to a handle.

The reservoir can be loaded with whatever kind of pigment you want. For calligraphy, ink or gouache is traditionally used. Depending on the pigment, it might take a little effort to get the consistency right, but that extra effort is totally worth it.

What’s so Great about Automatic Pens?

Since the automatic pen sources pigment from a reservoir and not a fountain cartridge, you can load it with whatever you want. And depending how hard you press, you can control the pigment flow. This is something that you cannot do with a Parallel. With an automatic pen, you are able to write with any color on any smooth surface and achieve vibrantly opaque strokes.

And since the reservoir requires frequent reloading, you have the opportunity to mix or swap colors on the fly. This is another thing that cannot easily be achieved with a fountain pen.

Automatic pens also come and a variety of different sizes and tip styles (Images taken from Paper & Ink Arts):

Automatic pen tip sizes
Automatic pen tip styles

Fun fact! The 5 line split tip automatic pen used to be used by composers to create templates for their sheet music:

Sheet music


Automatic pens aren’t a large investment. And if you take a minute to rinse and clean them after every writing session, they’ll last for many years even with intense use.

How to Use Automatic Pens

Automatic pens aren’t difficult to use, but I want to share a few tips that I learned from my own experiences that will help you get up to speed quickly.

1. Wash before first use

When you get a new automatic pen, it comes from the factory with some sort of resin or finish on the tip. I’m not sure exactly what it is, but it affect your ink flow. Wash the tip with soap and water before your first use and you’ll be good to go.

2. Have a water vessel

Having a vessel to shake out any leftover pigment when you switch colors is much easier than making trips to the sink.

3. Write with the slotted side down

Write with the non-slotted side of the pen facing upward

Write with the non-slotted side of the pen facing upward.
Write with the slotted side of the pen facing downward

Write with the slotted side of the pen facing downward.

You’ll notice that once side of the automatic pen has these vertical lines. That’s the side you want touching the paper. This allows the steel to flex more optimally to regular the flow of your ink. It might be helpful to mark the holder handle with a sharpie to indicate which side has the slots. When you dip the tip in ink, they can be difficult to see. I’ve also noticed that the slotted side tends to match up with the text on the handle. So if you write with the text facing downward, you can be assured you’re writing properly.

4. Remove excess ink from the tip

When you dip the pen, the reservoir will get filled. However, the outside of the tip will also have excess ink on it. This can impact the sharpness of your lines and cause splotching. To avoid this, I keep a couple sheets of bunched up paper towels that I dab the tip into after every dip before putting the tip to the page. This removes excess ink allowing you to have crisp lines every single time.

Note: You can also load the pen with a brush. I personally find this to be more tedious. But if you decide to do so, you can avoid this step.

5. Use thicker paper

If you use thin paper, it’s more likely to warp, especially if you’re using larger size tips. The amount of ink that gets point on to the page tends to be much more than that of a fountain pen.

Warped paper

An example of thin paper getting warped from the ink.

Give automatic pens a go (you can get them from Paper & Ink Arts here). They’re a blast to play with and if you’re into the chisel styles of calligraphy, they’ll open up a whole new world if you’re only accustomed to fountain pens.

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