The Conway Stewart Italic

Here’s one you won’t see often – a Conway Stewart Italic. This pen went into production in 1958, which was a peak period in Conway Stewart’s post-war business. The strictures and shortages of wartime and the subsequent era of difficult recovery were over. Their new torpedo-shaped design was selling well and they were expanding the model range.

 

The pen is similar in shape and dimensions to an 85L, but the metallic blue clip stud and medium cap band with milled edges indicate that this is something special. The nib is special, too. First of all, it’s a thing of beauty. Then, in use, it’s a pleasure to write with. Unlike more modern italics which are often sharp-edged, this one is quite stub-like, a little rounded at the corners and on the leading edge of the nib. It’s quite easy to write cursively with it, something that can be difficult with, say, the Sheaffer No Nonsense Italic. It gives very considerable line variation.

So far as I’m aware, this pen was only available in black and various herringbone colours. It wasn’t a very big seller, as it anticipated the vogue for calligraphy by quite a few years. As a result, it’s decidedly uncommon now, which is a pity, as it’s an exceptional pen.

 

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Tools: The Inner Cap Puller.

Most people wouldn’t even consider a pen with a broken clip. Even when it’s otherwise fine, that’s such a serious fault that the pen ceases to be an object of desire. If it has a washer clip and you can find a replacement, the job’s pretty straightforward and the pen goes from junk to jewel in a matter of minutes. If it’s one of the several types of inserted clip that penetrates the body of the cap, it’s quite another matter. Some Swan clips are heat-inserted straight into the plastic. They can be removed and replaced without special tools – other than a heat source – but it takes time and care and success is not guaranteed. Worse still are those that are held or covered by the inner cap, because you have to get the inner cap out of there, and that can be very tricky. Help is at hand, however, in the shape of the Inner Cap Puller:

Most pen repair tools can be picked up in any hardware store but there are one or two that are specialist, and this is one of them. As there is a low volume of sales and it’s a high-precision tool, it doesn’t exactly come cheap, but a few repairs that otherwise couldn’t have been done will pay for it. There are a couple of versions out there. Mine came from Tryphon Enterprises, who sell a wide range of pen repair tools and consumables and are very helpful and obliging people to deal with.

Even with the puller, removing an inner cap isn’t a trivial business. It was doubtless mechanically pressed into the cap, it’s been in there a long time and it will be encrusted with decades of ink. All that adds up to a great reluctance to come out. Removal needs extended and perhaps repeated soaking, heat and a lot of care and patience. A pen cap is a very fragile thing and the force that a puller can bring to bear is considerable. Breaking a good cap will really spoil your day.

Inner caps themselves are generally not interesting, being just short cylinders of plastic. They’re useful, though, in that they provide the means by which screw caps close securely, they may hold or protect the clip and they reinforce the cap. Sometimes, especially in Watermans, they’re made from sections of scrapped pen barrels, and you may be surprised to fined a marbled-pattern inner cap hidden away inside your pen.

Inserted-clip repairs can be among the most difficult restoration tasks, but successfully done, it brings a pen back from a fate as a spares donor to one that someone will be proud to own, and that’s very satisfying.

The Mabie Todd Swan 1500 Eyedropper Pen

By the time the 1500 came along – probably around 1910 – Mabie Todd had been making fountain pens for quite a while. There seems to be real confidence and assurance with this model. No longer was the company trying to get a pen to work reliably and well. That has been done, and now it could concentrate on meeting the various needs of users, so the pen was presented with all the possible nib options – fine, medium and broad, oblique and stub, flexible, semi-flexible and, less usually, firm. Though the rest of the pen was British made (with the exception of a period during World War I, when production switched to America) the nibs were still made in New York.

1500s are perhaps the most commonly seen eyedropper pen now, and that gives an idea of how successful this model was and how well it was made. It remained in production for at least a decade, and survived competition with more technically advanced pens at the end of that period. Quite simply, its reputation was so high that people saw no reason to change. It remains a perfectly practical pen to this day and because of the superb quality of the nibs it is an especial pleasure to use.

By this time, other manufacturers had begun to drop the over-and-under feed. Though it successfully delivered ink from the barrel to the tip of the nib, it didn’t regulate it well. Too much or too little ink might arrive on the paper, and blobbing was a problem. The 1500 doesn’t suffer from these deficiencies. Perhaps the inclusion of the twisted silver wire at the back of the feed helps to regulate flow, but a well-set-up 1500 writes as well as any pen fitted with a spoon or ladder feed.

Like most pens made at that time, the 1500 is a slender pen. Most of its original purchasers would have been used to dip pens, so this would not have been seen as a disadvantage. The lack of a clip, however, was a nuisance, and Swan addressed this lack with the Swan Metal Pocket and a range of after-market clips. Though the slip cap fits securely, I suspect that clipping the pen to a pocket was never a very comfortable solution and there must have been accidents. It was only with the introduction of the Safety Screw Cap this issue was finally dealt with.

 

The 1500 comes in several guises. The most common version is the simple black chased hard rubber model, but more expensive 1500s had gold-filled barrel bands or even full overlays. This is the pen that helped to establish Mabie Todd’s early British market dominance, and it is said that fountain pens were referred to as Swans, in the same way as all vacuum cleaners were known as Hoovers.

For me, a flexible 1500 is one of my daily users. It requires no noticeable pressure to invoke a broad down-stroke, and transports me back to the days when light upstrokes and heavy descenders were just how people wrote, rather than a calligraphic technique.

The Dickinson Croxley

Several British pen brands were made by (or for) large stationery companies. Despite being a secondary enterprise for these manufacturers, quality was generally as high, or higher than that of the dedicated pen makers. John Dickinson was and remains one of the largest paper manufacturers, establishing paper mills at Croxley in 1830. They were long famed for their Croxley Script paper, which is no longer made, and the excellent Basildon Bond and economy Lion Brand which are still available. Gradually, over decades, they expanded into other related areas, going into fountain pen sales in the late nineteen thirties. Their pens are high quality writing instruments. They sold well and are common today, though they are somewhat underrated by buyers.

There is some doubt about how Croxley pens were produced. I have read that Dickinson established their own pen factory at Croxley, but this is disputed by others who say that the pens were made by De La Rue or Conway Stewart. The pens that De La Rue made for other companies tend to look like their own product range and usually the quality is not especially high. Looking at Croxley pens, one would have to say that there is no reason to doubt that they could have been made by Conway Stewart, but there’s no compelling evidence that they were, either. All I can say is that Croxleys are very well made, with parts that fit together securely and no distortion of the plastic. The plating of the metal parts is very good, better than that usually seen on either Conway Stewarts or non-Onoto De La Rues. The well-stamped nibs are excellent, often medium but not infrequently broad and usually with some flexibility.

Croxleys were only made for a short period and the product range is small. The earliest one I have seen is very much an example of the Standard British Pen (of which more on another occasion), straight-sided with a large BHR clip-screw, a ball-ended clip and a straight lever, looking very much like a Summit or a Mentmore Autoflow. The Croxley most usually seen is quite similar, but it has a handsome arrow clip which is echoed by an arrow-shaped lever. A balance-shaped pen with a smoothly curved clip and an arrow lever was also made. The pens come in black and the usual range of marbled patterns. There is also a plain-but-handsome desk-set which turns up once in a blue moon.

Lack of variety probably limits their appeal to collectors but they are durable and handsome and, above all, they are writers’ pens, up there with Swan, Waterman and Onoto in terms of writing pleasure.

Quality – Some Preliminary Thoughts.

The issue of quality in fountain pens – or anything else – can’t be covered in a single blog post, so I’ll be coming back to this subject again. For the moment, though, I would like to tackle some of the mistaken ideas about quality that I often see, mostly arising from the various coffee-table books that purport to recount the history of the fountain pen.

The worst one, I think, is the confusion of quality with bling. Many of the illustrated fountain pen books show page after page of pens with precious-metal overlays, portrayed as the best exemplars of their kind. I believe that to be wrong-headed. Quality in a pen resides in fitness for purpose. A plain black hard rubber Waterman 52 is a better pen to use than one that has had a filigree or solid metal overlay applied. It has its original weight, balance and thickness and it will handle as it was designed to do. I understand, of course, that for many collectors the overlay pen is more desirable, and due to the inclusion of precious metal and admirable craftsmanship it is a more valuable object. That’s not an issue of quality, though, it’s an issue of opulence. I’m not disparaging anyone’s wish to own an object of great beauty for the beauty’s sake; I’m just making the point that opulence has no bearing on quality.

Another point of confusion is the long-held practice of assigning pens, by manufacturer, to first, second and third-tier quality. It must be clear to anyone who thinks about it for a moment that this has never worked and yet it persists. Almost all manufacturers, present and past, make a range of pens to suit different pockets and purposes. Many manufacturers have suffered declines in quality, only to rise again later. Most manufacturers produced some pretty awful pens when they tried desperately to compete with ballpoints at the same time as cutting costs. It’s easy to produce some amusing paradoxes by following the “tier system” with regard to particular pens. Belmont must have been a better manufacturer than Parker, as the top of the 1930s Belmont range is undoubtedly a more sound and enduring pen than Parker’s Parkette. If the only Waterman you’d ever seen was an economy-model Taperite, would you have any hesitation in consigning the brand to the third tier?

In truth, each model of pen must be taken on its own merits. We can all make the quality evaluation with the pen in our hands, and those of us who buy older pens have the opportunity of adding the final dimension to quality: durability. If it’s still a good-looking pen that works well after seventy or eighty years, its quality is proven. For myself, I’m happy to accept that, for example, Macniven and Cameron produced some of the best and worst pens ever made, as did De La Rue and Parker. There are no tiers.