Why Do Pens Stop Working When They Still Have Ink?

I hate it when a perfectly good pen stops working. While I can (grudgingly) accept it when I use a cheap pen—really, what can you expect for something that costs a dollar?—I expect more from a supposedly quality pen from a good brand.

So why do pens stop working when they still have ink? It depends on the type of pen. Ballpoints, rollerballs, and fountain pens use different kinds of ink and ink delivery systems. Once you know how they work, you can trace the cause if they skip or stop working completely.

Ballpoint pens

As the name implies, a ballpoint pen has a rotating ball that is typically made of brass, tungsten carbide, or steel. This ball is connected to the ink reservoir.

When you move the pen against the paper, the ball rolls and pushes the ink to the pen tip while simultaneously sealing the ink reservoir. This prevents air from getting into the pen and drying out the ink.   

Protecting the ink is especially important for ballpoint pens. That’s because it uses a special quick-drying oil-based ink. On the upside, the ink doesn’t smear, and can be used on even thin paper without fear of “bleeding through”.  However, the ink has a tendency to congeal and clog.   

If a ballpoint pen doesn’t work, it’s usually because of these reasons:

  • Air bubbles got into the ink reservoir. A faulty ball can fail to keep out all air. Once this happens, an air bubble can essentially plug the reservoir.
  • You stored the pen upside down. Gravity helps push the ink towards the tip. If you store the pen with the tip pointing up for a long period of time, gravity will pull the ink down.
  • The tip is clogged. Ballpoints use a very waxy, oil-based ink. This can dry up and clog the tip, especially if you leave the pen uncapped. Some brands may also have an ink formula that’s more prone to clogging.

Luckily, these problems are relatively easy to fix. If it’s an air bubble (you can tell by looking if there are gaps in the ink reservoir) take the ink reservoir out of the pen’s plastic barrel. Hit it against a hard surface. Keep doing this until the air bubble disappears. You can also try shaking the pen.

If you stored the pen upside down, then just flip the pen over so the tip points downward. Leave it for a couple of days, and allow gravity to do its work.

If the tip is clogged, you just need to clear out the dried ink. You can rub the tip with cotton soaked in rubbing alcohol or try heating it with a lighter. If your pen cartridge has an uncapped end, you can try gently blowing the other end—the forceful ink flow may push out any congealed ink.

If all that fails, try scribbling with the pen while applying more pressure. Sometimes, that’s enough to get rid of the clog.

Rollerball pens

Waterman Expert Close Up
Waterman Expert Rollerball Pen

Rollerball pens also use the same ball mechanism as a ballpoint. However, it uses water-based ink that is thinner and flows more easily. That’s why you can get rollerballs with very fine tips and can get a very clear line even if you don’t apply as much pressure.

If ballpoint inks have a tendency to congeal, rollerball pinks have a tendency to dry out. If a pen suddenly stops working, it’s probably because:

  • You left it uncapped. Not only does this dry out the ink in the reservoir, but it can cause the ink to clog in the tip.
  • You dropped the pen. This usually happens with rollerball pens with very fine tips. The impact can deform the tip or the ball. If it can’t roll properly, the ink won’t flow. Or, it no longer seals the ink reservoir, so the ink has dried up.
  • You have less ink than you thought. Rollerballs actually use more ink than ballpoint pens, so you may actually have run out of ink without realizing it.

You can use the tips for unclogging ballpoint pens on rollerballs too. However, I’ve found that it’s much harder to revive this type of pen. Since the ink is water-based, once it dries up it’s practically game over.

Fountain pens

A fountain pen has four components: the ink reservoir, feed, collector, and nib. The ink flows from the reservoir through the feed. The collector controls the ink flow out of the nib, so it doesn’t flood out all over your paper.

Fountain pens use gravity and capillary action. I won’t go into the chemistry too much, but basically, the ink draws itself out of the tube because of adhesion (sticking to the sides of the tubes) and cohesion (the ink molecules are attracted to each other).  

Fountain pen inks flow very well—that’s one of its advantages. But if the pen won’t write even after you’ve refilled it or inserted a new cartridge, this can be because:

  • The ink needs time to flow down. If you’ve just installed the cartridge, it may take time for the ink to go through the feed and collector.
  • The nib is clogged. Unlike ballpoints and rollerballs, fountain pen nibs have tines with very small gaps. As you use it, these gaps can get clogged with paper fibers or dried ink. Since the pens rely on natural gravity and capillary action, even a small obstruction will slow down or stop the ink flow.
  • The nib and feed are misaligned. This can happen after you reassemble the pen after cleaning. So just double-check if the slit of the feed is centered, and gently push the nib and feedback into place if it is not.
  • There is a change in air pressure. Fountain pens are sensitive to air pressure, which is why they won’t work in an airplane.
  • The nib or collector is faulty or broken. This can be caused by factory defects, mishandling, or an accident like dropping the pen with the tip down.  

You can prevent or fix a clogged fountain pen by cleaning and flushing it regularly. Do this at least once every three weeks, if you use the pen often. When you store the pen, make sure that is always capped with the tip pointing up.

If the problem is a brand new cartridge, you can either gently squeeze the cartridge, or just give it time. Put the cap back on the pen, then point it upside down and allow the ink to naturally flow down.

Get back into the (ink) flow

These tips can help revive a pen that has stopped working even if it still has a lot of ink. That’s assuming the problem isn’t that it’s just a bad pen with bad ink—in which case, the solution is to buy a better pen.

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