A Mentmore Diploma

We all know what Mentmores are like, don’t we? The Diplomas are rather staid and old-fashioned, well-made but with nail-like nibs. They’re the Morris Miners of the British pen world.

Except that’s not always true. Take this beauty. The only other pen I can remember wearing this livery is the Watermans of the 1930s and it was known as Steel Quartz. Beautiful as it is, that’s not the best thing about this pen. It has a delightfully flexible nib. It needs no pressure at all to induce considerable line variation. It’s an unexpected treasure.

More generally, I think it’s fair to say that Mentmores are both underestimated and undervalued. They have the odd problem. Several models have poor gold plating. Others can have a tendency to slight shrinkage in the caps. It’s usually not enough to affect how the cap screws on but it can leave the cap ring loose. Not the worst fault in the world, but annoying.

That aside, Mentmore has much to be admired. If you like inflexible nibs – and many do – then the Mentmore is up there with Parker in nib quality. Given the large amount of tipping material that Mentmore applied to its nibs, it may be even better, in the sense that it is even more durable. Mentmore was not parsimonious with the gold and made big, sturdy nibs. As is the case with Parker, it’s rare to find a cracked Mentmore nib. Especially in the pre-war years Mentmore experimented with filling systems and in this regard they were the most adventurous British pen manufacturer.

After World War II, when fountain pen sales were beginning to fail in the face of the increasing reliability and popularity of the ballpoint, Mentmore didn’t lose their nerve. They brought out several new models that reflected the changing shape of fountain pens. They produced ballpoints of their own and innovated there as well.

I think that the better quality Mentmores are of the sleepers of the British fountain pen market. Their day will come.

Re-blacking Again (and again and again and again…)

There is discussion of restoration materials, namely re-blacking and waxes, in Fountain Pen Geeks. I would continue posting there, but what I have to say on the subject is (as you might expect) a little long-winded for a board comment.

As a restorer, I believe that one should do the minimum necessary to a pen to bring it to good working condition and an acceptable appearance. If you want old pens that look like they came from the factory yesterday, try another restorer. I don’t do that kind of work.

Re-blacking is irreversible, no matter which method you use. Even Syd Saperstein’s Potion No 9, which does not remove any material, cannot be fully reversed. It will wash off smooth surfaces, but removing it from chasing and the marks a pen acquires over decades is very difficult or actually impossible. Methods that depend on removing the oxidised layer will also remove detail of chasing and imprints. Then, of course, it will oxidise again. So what do you do? Remove more surface layers?

If you have a common and inexpensive old hard rubber pen that has turned absolutely yellow with oxidisation, and you have no intention of selling it, then it seems to me that there is no great harm in using the latest product to come on the market to re-black it. It apparently removes very little material and it may make your pen more appealing to you for a time. It may fade again. After all, some black hard rubbers are more prone to fading than others. It may, for all we know, dissolve into a puddle of goo some way down the road. We don’t know the long-term effects of any of the current products. By time we do it may be too late.

My strongest word of caution is: don’t re-black uncommon and/or expensive pens. We have a duty of custodianship to our pens and to the hobby. Old pens are important historical artefacts and should be treated as such. That’s not to say don’t write with them, or keep them in a glass case but it seems sensible not to coat them with chemicals whose ultimate effect we don’t know. Black hard rubber is very durable and, left alone or conserved with the minimum of intervention, these pens will last a very long time. Using inappropriate substances on them may, in the long term, destroy them.

Most oxidisation is not unattractive. Careful hand polishing will make most hard rubber pens look good. That’s all that I do with the pens that pass through my hands.

I don’t have much to say about the use of waxes. I don’t believe they have a place in pen restoration. All, so far as I am aware, have been shown to contain chemicals that are, at the very least, dubious. Some attack metals. All seal the surface of the pen which doesn’t seem all that clever a thing to do. They are very, very hard to remove. They produce a wholly unnecessary gloss. Why do it?

Over the last decade I have seen the supply of old pens begin to reduce. Nobody is making any more old pens! We must look after those we have and that includes using a minimum of chemicals and only those we know to be trustworthy.

Waterman 52 (Again)

I’m sure I’ve written about the Waterman 52 before but as it’s a superb pen it’ll do no harm to eulogise it again.

Its immediate ancestor was the Waterman 12, and when the company brought out their lever filler it became the 52, the five denoting the lever filling system and the two for the size of the nib.

When you find a black one these days it’s usually quite faded and if it’s chased the pattern is well-worn.  This one has retained its original blackness and the chasing is sharp.  Perhaps it wasn’t used very much because it had a damaged nib.  The pen is US-made but it now has a Canadian flexible stub nib, a real beauty.

52s as you may be aware, came in a variety of guises.  There was the plain black hard rubber, then the chased version, like this one.  Rather rarer and more desirable are red hard rubber versions and the lovely ripple hard rubber in different colours.  If you wanted to spend a bit more you could have various cap and barrel bands and the most expensive models were encased in gold or silver overlays.

I like hard rubber.  It’s a great material and I’m grateful to Waterman for sticking with it as long as they did and making so many pens from it.  It didn’t do the company any good though, as the public wanted patterened celluloid by the 30s, and Waterman sales went into decline.  By the time they changed they had lost market share and they never quite recovered from it.  They made a celluloid 52 – same shape and size and same nib but for me it lacks the character of the hard rubber version.

The Waterman 52 was not an expensive pen when it was new.  Rather, it was a good quality pen for everyman.  Now as David Isaacson noted in his excellent blog* a couple of years ago, it has become an expensive pen.  This is due to the mistaken belief that all Waterman 52s have flexible nibs.  Some do, most don’t, but even a faded and battered example will cost you considerably more than a good one would have done a few years ago.

Pen prices are rising across the board, but the present high demand for pens with flexible nibs has distorted the market.  Various modern manufacturers are offering what they describe as flexible nibs but so far none of them approach vintage pens in that quality.  I really hope that someone comes up with a very good flexible nib soon, so that we can get back to a situation where the only people chasing vintage pens are those who really want vintage pens, not just a flexible nib.  I even hear of people putting vintage flexible nibs in modern pens.  For me that’s just desecration.


Sales Update

It’s been a while since I’ve updated
But pen repair’s gone unabated
So hie thee to my site with haste
Where you’ll find pens for every taste!

Selsdon Ballpoints

I bought a bunch of pens in a lot. There was nothing terribly exciting in it but it was cheap. There was a Waterman CF, a pen that I like, a Queensway with a stub nib and two Selsdons. I like Selsdons though their pens are often low-cost and it shows. They made some fairly decent ones too along with usable pencils. They appear to have experimented with plastics with some success. Selsdons generally restore well.

When the batch of pens arrived, the Selsdons were ballpoints! The seller hadn’t chosen to mention that and the pens were closed in the photographs. I considered returning them but I’d paid so little that I could bear the disappointment over the Selsdons.

Anyway, they proved quite interesting. According to the accompanying bit of paper, these ballpoints were made in 1948. That’s early days for ballpoints and they were not particularly reliable then. When I opened them, they were a mess of ink which had leaked out of the refill into the barrel. The refill is at least twice as wide as any modern one.

Though there is no money in it – ballpoint collectors are few and far between – I would love to bring these old ballpoints back to working condition. I’ve ordered a couple of refills that look as though they could be adapted to fit.

They are very like the fountain pens of the day in appearance, with their tapered barrels and gold coloured caps, held by a clutch ring. They actually look quite elegant, though I suppose they didn’t work well for long, based on the leaking in the barrel.

It didn’t take long before ballpoints began to assume a distinct shape of their own. It was in the 50s, I think, that Mentmore invented the clicky ballpoint with a point that came out and in of the barrel operated by a button on the base of the pen. Then Bic and Staedtler reduced the ballpoint to its absolute basics and gave the world a ballpoint that was made to be thrown away when the ink was used up. That doesn’t seem such a good idea now, in this polluted world.

I expect that Selsdon ballpoints were moderately expensive and the company expected that they would be treasured by their owners for years, replacing refills fairly frequently (they are quite short). Perhaps they were.


I read a review today about an Osmia. It was a good review, well written and nicely illustrated, but it raised an issue that always bothers me. The piston mechanism of the pen is metal which adds considerably to the weight. The reviewer equated weight, or “heft” as he put it, with quality.

It’s a recent idea to regard weight in a pen as a sign of quality. If heavier is better, then cheap Chinese pens must be best of all, composed as they are of lengths of brass tubing.

Frankly, this thinking makes no sense to me. Producers of writing instruments, whether fountain pens, mechanical pencils or even ballpoints, have never aimed for increased weight until recently. To my mind, as someone who has used fountain pens for decades, often for many hours at a time, the nearer to zero weight a pen is, the better. The best pens I have ever used have been hard rubber or celluloid Watermans, Wahl Eversharps, Onotos and Swans. The heaviest thing about them was the ink they contained.

Personally, I’m inclined to believe that the preference for a heavy pen indicates that the owner values other aspects of the pen over its writing qualities, and doesn’t actually fill a lot of pages. Indeed, it’s only since the fountain pen ceased to be one of the main ways of getting words on paper that weight has been seen as an indicator of quality.

The other main writing instrument until recent times was the wooden pencil. Millions of clerks filled millions of ledgers with all the indicators of business from production to sales and most of them did it with wooden pencils, sharpened until they were no more than a stub. So far as I’m aware, it was not a common complaint that pencils didn’t weigh enough, or that they would write better if they weighed more.

I’m aware that I may be falling behind the times, but I dislike heavy pens. I find them tiring, and from a purely practical point of view, they offend my sense of efficiency and good design.

Your mileage may vary of course.

Mechanical Pencils

I often buy mixed lots of writing instruments for the sake of a pen among them that I particularly want. Then I am left with various odds and ends of pens that have little value and the usual collection of old mechanical pencils. In a way, I’m surprised that they’re not more of a collector’s item. They seem to me to be a perfect example of the small object of desire: often beautifully finished, technically interesting and quite low cost.

I am gradually learning a little about them and I can usually load a new lead if I happened to have the right size. Sometimes it goes wrong though. Yesterday I prepared to load a new lead in a Parker Duofold pencil. Before my astonished eyes it fell apart and nothing that I could do would induce it to go together again. Most disappointing.

I don’t think I will ever go out of my way to buy vintage pencils but I must continue learning about them because they so often appear in mixed lots. If any among you has the skillz, I would love a tutorial on mechanical pencils.