Cheap British Pens

My last post, you may remember, was about the colourful 30s/40s Platignums. It is impossible now to know why they were chosen by their first owners but it can be confidently said that now they are not being bought for their writing qualities!

1920s and early 30s Platignums are thin on the ground nowadays. They were almost the equivalent of today’s throwaway ballpoints. Of those that survive by far the best are the hard rubber models which are not subject to the shrinkage which affects the celluloid ones.

Most Platignums I see are post war, and with one or two exceptions are generally worthless due to poor quality plastic and nibs. The exceptions are a 1960s 14 carat nib model which is less subject to shrinking than most others and a Waterman-licensed version of the X-Pen. The rest aren’t worth much, with caps that no longer fit properly, missing cap rings and barrel distortion. Platignum made an attempt at the school and calligraphy market, and the steel nibs produced for that purpose are acceptable. The nib unit thread fits only Platignum pens.

The market for calligraphy was dominated by Osmiroid. Their nibs are excellent, still sought after by calligraphers to this day. Though the pens supplied for use with the nibs have not survived so well, many are available second-hand very cheaply. The 65 sac filler is especially subject to distortion and shrinking but it isn’t difficult to find a good piston fill 75. Osmiroid nibs fit Esterbrooks, rather better quality pens, and many German piston fill school pens will accept those nibs. The later Osmiroid system included a section in the nib units and these are less adaptable.

I know one or two collectors who have developed quite complete sets of post war Platignums. One might think it a rather eccentric collection, but it is fair to say that these inexpensive pens sold in far greater quantity than more expensive pens like Conway Stewarts and Mabie Todds. Being such a large part of the fountain pen market in its latter days, it would give an unbalanced view of the use of pens at that time if they were to be excluded.

Osmiroid, like Platignum, worked with schools ‘to improve handwriting’. Perhaps the intention was also to sell as many pens as possible but perhaps one should not be too cynical.

Osmiroid doesn’t attract collectors at all, but their very large range of excellent nibs attract users to this day. As fountain pens began to be replaced by ballpoints, several small, short-lived manufacturers, some from Italy, established a brief place among cheap pens used in Britain.

Fancy Platignums

When Mentmore created its sub-brand Platignum in 1929, the intention was to provide an inexpensive pen with a steel nib. Mentmore regarded its steel nibs as the equal of any gold one and so they may have been, for a time, but those nibs have not lasted well nor, indeed, have many of the pens. To be fair, they were not alone in that. A combination of the steel and the inks of the times destroyed most such nibs over time.

The first Platignum owners were probably quite well-served and the pens were good value for the small amount of money they cost in comparison with the market leaders. Countless children went to school with a Platignum and it was not until later, the nineteen-fifties and sixties, that they became the subject of subsequent complaints.

There was a period in the thirties and perhaps into the forties when pens made from very beautiful celluloid were issued under the Platignum name. At first it was only the pen and pencil sets in very decorative boxes that were seen as collectable, especially in America. A very colourful collection could be amassed for little outlay.

However, as it has become ever more difficult to make complete collections of more expensive pens, these brightly-coloured Platignums have attracted more attention as individual pens. There can be problems with shrinkage and loose cap rings so it is worth searching for the best examples.

Thanks to Richard Dorkings for photographs.

Conklins and Chronicles

I was asked to identify a Conklin. Not at all my area of expertise so I pulled out the wonderful The Chronicle of the Fountain Pen (2007) by Martins, Leite and Gagean and worked my way through the years until I found something resembling the pen I had been asked about. In my journey through the book I saw so many, many gorgeous pens.

Conklins were an excellent brand, especially those made in Toledo, though some of the Chicago ones have lasted well and are attractive. Of course all the other pens I passed over while searching caught my eye and slowed the search!

The Chronicle is a masterwork, the best coverage of the Western pen world that there is, and organised in such an accessible way. It is, I would say, not nearly well enough known. In my opinion it far outdoes many of the better known works. If it has a fault, it is that Japanese, Chinese and Indian pens are not well covered but that is a failing shared with almost all fountain pen reference works.

Someday someone will bring out a compendious volume of Eastern and Far Eastern pens. It is eagerly anticipated and much overdue.

Swan Feeds

I sold an eyedropper pen recently with Mabie Todd’s version of the spoon feed, not unlike Waterman’s and equally efficient. Though Mabie Todd experimented with the over-and-under feed and improved it over the years, the spoon feed was noticeably better, giving good ink delivery. It was also much less likely to drop a blot.

Good though they were, those feeds were not produced for long. Mabie Todd’s R&D came up with the superior ladder feed, so good that it lasted as long as the company.

Bent and Buckled

I had been casting my line in the waters of eBay and I landed a few. Of those so far delivered a small lot of three are pretty rough, so will keep me occupied for a while. There’s a BHR Mentmore, thoroughly faded, that has the worst broken nib I have seen for some time. I think I have a replacement. The Swan, the reason I bought the lot, is good but has a Blackbird nib. Again, I’ll have a replacement and a spare Blackbird nib is a precious thing indeed.

On the subject of precious nibs I bought two small Swans with No. 1 nibs. They’re both broad so capable of being stubbed. I’ve done that before and though it’s quite onerus I will consider it.

Perhaps the worst of the lot was a Swan Eyedropper 1500. The cap has a crack – nay, a chasm – in the lip and it has been fitted with a horrid little Warranted nib. That one will keep me out of trouble for a while. There are one or two more to come. They will be the last purchases for a while given the industriousness of the virus. I have no wish to go to the Post Office because I’m sure I’ve seen the critter lurking there eyeing me and sharpening its teeth.

Goodwriters Sales Site Closed

Well here we are again, with Covid Mark II spreading like wildfire! As during last spring, I must decide what to do for the best. Given that we are in full lockdown, I’m not sure whether the police would look kindly upon our trips to the Post Office to despatch pens. More to the point, given my husband’s poor health and the virulence of the virus, I think those are trips we don’t want to make. I have four pens to send out today and they will go but that’s the last.

With great regret I shall close the sales website. It will be temporary and I hope it will be of short duration. I hate having to do it and it isn’t about the money. I enjoy the activity and the friendly discussion about pens that often precedes a sale. I will still provide as much information as I can here in the blog and Eachan will be available in Fountain Pen Geeks and Fountain Pen Network. It’s a nuisance but not a disaster.

Beware! Hot!

When I wrote my recent post about favourite tools I left one out because I didn’t want people to buy this tool and start using it without due consideration and practice.

I’m talking about my heat gun, one of the most used of all tools for me. No pen is ever taken apart without dry heat and none is reassembled without it either. That’s why it’s many months, probably years, since I’ve broken a pen. Having said that I’ll be sure to break one now!

Mine is a generic Taiwanese 300 watt heat gun. The temperature is not variable, just ouchy hot! It may be the most helpful of my tools but it would also be the most dangerous to pens in the wrong hands. Its main use is section removal but it can help with many other tasks. It removes bite marks in hard rubber in a trice. It can also destroy any pen equally quickly.

I’ve been using this heat gun as my main means of freeing up difficult pen parts for a long time but I do remember plastic suddenly and catastrophically warping. The best way to set celluloid on fire is with a naked flame but a heat gun can do it too. A split second too long and you instantly have a firework spreading liquid plastic everywhere. You don’t want that, I promise you.

Clever people will tell you at what temperature shellac softens and various plastics will sustain damage. That knowledge is completely irrelevant in the real world. Instead, it takes lots of practice on cheap pens and sacrificial broken parts to work out how long to deploy your heat gun and at what distance. I’m not going to try to tell you because your heat gun will be different from mine. All I can advise is to constantly rotate the pen as you apply heat.

There are some who fear the heat gun but are happy to use a hair dryer. Well I have news for you! A hair dryer is just another heat gun. Some of them get pretty hot too and can damage pens if used unwisely. However you apply heat, you will damage pens as you learn. Just make sure you don’t do your learning on that precious rarity.

Some people loosen things by soaking them. Some people will do anything.

This Blog

This blog began on October 3, 2010 and there are 1,312 posts. Some of them will be brief or humorous entries but it’s still quite a few. When I began writing it I was conscious that while the US brands were well-served online there was little about British pens apart from Jonathan Donahaye’s wonderful Conway Stewart site. Our find brands like Mabie Todd, Summit, Wyvern, Mentmore and the rest remained in obscurity. I wanted to provide some searchable information, however brief and unscholarly, about the British brands. To some degree, at least, I have succeeded in that aim.

WordPress includes a page of statistics and I can see how many people use the search feature every day to find out about pens and repair procedures. That’s exactly how I hoped the blog would work once it had some content. It’s so nice when something works out!

As I’ve said before, I’m restricting myself to restoring Mabie Todd pens. I’ve explained that there are several reasons for that but one is that there are additional claims on my time. I will, of course, continue to write about anything interesting that comes my way. If you come across something I haven’t written about before, or attracts your attention for any reason, I’ll be pleased to write about it if you care to send me details and photos.

A large part of my pleasure in the blog is your comments and the discussions we have had. I wonder if there’s anyone still reading who was here at the start. Of course there are a great many who have subscribed but have never commented. Those I don’t know, of course, but I’m grateful for the presence of all of you.

This blog won’t end as long as I’m capable of battering at a keyboard but it may be less active than it was. See you around!

Blackbird 5241

Prices are high just now. It’s hard to find a decent Mabie Todd pen at a reasonable price. I shouldn’t be too downbeat about it, though, as I managed to capture this marbled green Blackbird during Christmas week. It arrived today, and a charming little pen it is.

The Blackbird was a pen for everyone but it was especially a school pen. This model was launched in 1943, during the dark days of war. Troubled times even for a child. It may have accompanied its young owner in evacuation, to live with strangers and attend an unfamiliar school.

This range of Blackbirds was known as “austerity pens”, part of the restricted models permitted while much manufacturing was diverted to munitions production. Quality remained as high as ever, with close attention to detail such as the black discs closing off cap and barrel and the tiny Blackbird image on the clip.

Despite its nearly eighty years the pen is in very good condition. The green marbled pattern remains as bright and contrasty as ever and the chrome plating is good.

The nib is medium and semiflexible.

The Ultrasonic Cleaner

I have a James Products Ultra 7000 ultrasonic cleaner which I’m told was the most popular one in the UK. I don’t think it’s available now. It cost around £35.00 when I bought it maybe ten years ago.

I use it with water and a German cleaning solution that comes highly recommended. To be honest, I don’t find it all that useful and I don’t use it much. I would rather use fine brushes and cotton buds to clean the feed and section. I wonder if it actually achieves any more than a quick soak with cleaning fluid would do. Where it is more useful is with oxidation and rust remover on the odd occasion that I come across an accommodation clip with a little rust. Again, it’s possible that it is the rust remover rather than the ultrasonic process that does the job.

My cleaner might be more useful if it could be set to run for longer periods but the maximum, so far as I remember, is five minutes, then you have to re-set the thing. From past experience I can say that five minutes does not make much impression on a nib and section unit that is thoroughly clogged with old ink. Perhaps a 30 minute setting would be more effective and convenient.

The larger ones used for carburettor cleaning certainly do a very good job but they are quite expensive and have a large footprint. Honestly I’m not at all sure that these small ultrasonic cleaners are really a necessary part of the restorer’s toolkit.