Reblacking Revisited

I’ve touched on the subject of reblacking black hard rubber pens before, but today I’m going to rant.

I’m a conservative restorer. I don’t try to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. I produce restored pens for people to use, but my pens must also be in a condition acceptable to a collector. Not only do serious collectors reject reblacked pens, some, in recent times, have even given up collecting BHR pens because of the spread of the practice of reblacking.

I buy pens wherever I can, but mostly my choices are made on the basis of photos. Unless it’s an exceptionally good photo, you can’t tell that a pen has been reblacked. The minute it’s in your hand, of course, you are in no doubt. The most common reblacking agent is Syd Saperstein’s Pen Potion No9, which is only marginally better than black shoe polish. It does not come anywhere near replicating the original appearance of a black hard rubber pen. The best thing about Potion No 9 is that it is reversible. It can be removed. Trouble is, old pens have lots of surface imperfections that the potion penetrates, making it really difficult to remove the coating completely. It can be done, but it often requires hours of work. I could leave it, of course, but then I would be colluding in the fraud on the end buyer perpetrated by the person who reblacked the pen in the first place.

If you buy a faded black hard rubber pen and choose to reblack it, that’s your business. The pen is yours and neither I nor anyone else can tell you what you may or may not do with it. However, if you subsequently decide to sell it, there’s an ethical duty on you to declare that this is not a pristine pen that has retained its original colour, but a pen that has been artificially blackened. Worse still are the people who routinely reblack pens, not for their own pleasure, but to fraudulently sell them as having retained their original black colour. They never (or at least never in my experience) make it clear that these pens have been reblacked. It may well be that there is a subset of users and collectors who will be perfectly happy with these pens. There are others of us who don’t want them. It is only fair that we should be informed.

My own view is that reblacking should never be done. Even when it is carried out with the best of intentions, it will ultimately lead to someone taking ownership of a pen that is not what he or she believes it to be. Mostly, it is not done with good intentions, but purely to line the pockets of the unscrupulous. Aesthetically, it is not an improvement. All the reblacked pens I have seen have uneven colour, the machined patterns have soft edges and you can see brush strokes. Every one, without exception, and I test every black hard rubber pen I buy for reblacking. If it’s there, it comes off. So far, not a single reblacked pen would have fooled me – or anyone else.

My view will not prevail, of course, but I think the minimum the hobby should accept is disclosure, and disclosure in a permanent fashion that is attached to the pen. After all, there is another reblacking agent, Giovanni Abrate’s G-10, which was brought to market in 2007 and rapidly removed from general sale following an outcry of concern from the hobby. It was, I believe, then made available to one American restorer who will reblacken any pen and who has resisted requests for disclosure. I don’t know whether any of these pens have come my way or not. Unlike Syd’s potion, this stuff is irreversible and undetectable by normal means.

All of which, of course, has us doubting the validity of any shiny, black BHR pen we see. And that’s a problem.

Waterman No4 Keyhole Nib

There are times when a couple of pictures say all there is to say!

Pen Books – Frank Dubiel: Fountain Pen Repair and Restoration

The much-loved “Da Book” ( Fountain Pens The Complete Guide to Repair and Restoration) has been around for a long time now. It was first published in 1995 and the most recent, revised edition came out in 2002. As in any other activity, things have moved on in pen repair, and in some cases there are better repair methods now than when Frank was writing. To some extent, this book has been superseded by Marshall & Oldfield’s Pen Repair. Also, I think Frank’s devotion to the use of a naked flame rather than a heat gun or hair drier raised eyebrows even when this book was new! That said, there’s a wealth of useful information in here. If you concentrate on repairing British or European pens, you may feel this book is not for you, as most of the pens discussed are American, but there’s much general advice on all sorts of topics, and explanations of techniques that can be applied to the repair of most pens.

It’s a brave thing to be a pioneer, and that’s what Frank was. He opened the door to a whole generation of pen repairers and to great degree set the standards on what was and was not acceptable. As first in the field, you take the chance of setting yourself up to be knocked down, and the surprising thing is how well his judgement has endured. Yes, there are some practices outlined here that many of us might find fault with now, but for the most part, Frank’s methods and ethics hold good.

When Frank began this work, there was very little around to assist the pen repairer. There were some company repair manuals but they often provided little help, as they referred to spares parts and sub-assemblies that were no longer available. Open-minded and inventive, Frank developed repairs using parts and materials that are on sale everywhere. He was undaunted by the most difficult of repairs.

It’s a good many years since Frank went to The Big Repair Shop In The Sky, but he’s still fondly remembered by those of us who benefitted from his generosity. He was active in the usenet pen group; indeed for years he was the usenet pen group. Often a little testy with those who asked questions without having first checked the archives for an answer, he freely shared his experience with all, and it was rare indeed for Frank to be stumped by a technical issue. He had strong likes and dislikes. He was very much a Sheaffer man, and he had an undying hatred (I never understood why) for the inoffensive Onoto cut-off valve.

Frank’s untimely death in 2003 was a great loss to the fountain pen hobby, but at least his book survives. If you repair pens or only want to understand them this book’s essential. It’s still available from Tryphon Enterprises priced at $20.00.

Macniven & Cameron 308

Plagiarism has always been rife in the fountain pen industry. Sometimes it was mere emulation, but often the copying was close enough to lead to litigation. Perhaps no pen gave rise to as many copies as the Parker Duofold, both in the USA and abroad. Here’s a strange example:

This is a Macniven and Cameron Waverley 308. It ticks just about all the Duofold boxes – size, proportion, milled clip screw, cap ring placement, even a Duofold-type blind cap on a pen that doesn’t need one because it’s a lever filler. Closed, it’s almost a lapis lazuli two ring Duofold of around 1928. Once you see the nib, of course, the game is up!

It’s strange that they should have copied the Duofold so closely, then made it instantly clear that it was a Macniven and Cameron by using their unique and characteristic leaf-shaped nib. They did make pens with more conventional nibs but chose not to use one here.

The biggest surprise about this pen is that M&C would choose to emulate anyone else. Always an individualistic company, they usually did things their own way, with little reference to what the rest of the industry was doing. Perhaps the chance to cash in on the Duofold’s popularity was too tempting, but pride made them use their own nib.

I came very close to keeping this pen. I admire lapis lazuli, the quality was impressive, the size and balance was right. And I love that Waverley nib! It was the nib that decided me against it, though, in the end, Unlike all the other Waverley nibs I’ve had, this one was rigid, perhaps in the best Duofold tradition. I couldn’t write well with it, so it had to go.

My apologies for the quality of these photographs. When I took these I was experimenting with artificial light and reflective metal foil. You can see how well it worked – all harsh contrast and heavy shadows. Oh well.

Under Pressure

Pressure bars. Or, as some people call them, presser bars. I always thought that was a spelling mistake but… well… they press, so one’s as good as the other. If I’d been prepared to do this right, I would have had the full complement of pressure bars, of which there are many, but this is what I have. Conspicuously absent are the Swan Leverless angle bar and Parker’s anchor bar. The rest are really just variations on the theme of these three.

Exciting, aren’t they? Well, no, perhaps not, but for anyone interested in how their pen works, pressure bars aren’t entirely dull either. On the left is the slide bar, which you’ll find in most Conway Stewarts and some Watermans and Eversharps. In the middle is the j-bar which you’ll find in most other lever fillers, and on the right is a button bar for, as you’d expect, most button-fillers.

Slide bars are tricky to fit the first couple of times, then you have the knack of doing it. They slip onto lugs on the bottom of the lever and work very efficiently, because they descend completely flat on the sac. Sometimes these lugs can become flattened or break off, and it’s often suggested that a j-bar be substituted. Don’t do it! This is a bad repair. From a collector’s point of view, it makes the pen non-original. Practically – and more importantly – it can damage the pen. Waterman lever boxes have a tendency to break anyway, and if you add the stress of an inappropriate j-bar, the box is sure to crack. Similarly with Conway Stewart levers, which are notoriously fragile. They will deal with the resistance of a sac, but a sac and a piece of sprung metal is likely to prove too much. Certainly, there are Conway Stewarts that have j-bars – all Dinkies (so far as I know) 12s, 14s, 15s, 36s, 475s and 759s – but they were designed to resist the additional pressure. It’s far better, faced with a lever with broken lugs, to replace the lever. I know that’s a pain but you’ll thank me in the long run. Really. You will.

J-bars in their own place are absolutely fine, and many excellent pens use them. They might not be quite such efficient sac squeezers because the bend at the end can mean there’s an short length of sac that’s not fully compressed, but it’s marginal. They can suffer from metal fatigue and weaken or break and need to be replaced. The modern replacements you can buy, I find, are rather rigid and hard to flex. I don’t use them, but salvage j-bars from scrap pens. Try to find a j-bar as similar as possible to the broken one, and take care in lining it up.

Button bars are very efficient, because, again, they move parallel to the sac and squeeze it flat. In theory, all pens that use button bars should have screw-in sections to resist the downward pressure of operating the filling system. In practice, many are friction fit and none the worse for it. Obviously, if the joint between the section and barrel becomes too loose, this would be a problem, hence the glued sections we sometimes find. Friction fit is cheaper to make than threaded, so many go with it. Wishing to reduce costs by replacing threaded sections with friction ones, Parker developed its clever anchor bar, a three-piece pressure bar that hangs from the button opening and so applies no pressure on the section. It’s also very efficient in getting ink into the pen. You’ll find it on Televisors and some Duofolds.

Finally (for brevity!) there’s the Leverless angle bar, a sort of Neanderthal among pressure bars. It’s a non-springy hunk of metal that rotates and gathers up the sac, wrings it out and squashes it against the barrel wall. Efficiency of Leverlesses depends greatly on how well they’re re-sacced, and even a well-fettled Leverless will draw less ink than an equivalent lever-filler, but again, it’s at the margins.

The Standard British Pen

In my last post, about the Ingersoll pen, I mentioned how British-looking it was. Most British pens are pretty instantly recognisable as such, from the beginning of the thirties right up to the fifties, though of course many took new forms in the post-war period. By the latter end of the twenties a Standard British Pen was developing, and thereafter we see it among the output of most manufacturers.

It’s straight-sided or only slightly tapered. Lever and button fillers both conform to the pattern. The clip is a washer type and it’s retained by a black hard rubber clip screw. Sections are also BHR and more often than not they will be either slightly stepped or concave. There will be either a ladder feed or some version of the spoon feed, always made from BHR. Almost all the common pens of the period conform to this pattern. Think of, for example, the Conway Stewart 286 or 475, a Stephens Leverfill or a Mentmore Autoflow. Though the filling system was different, even the De La Rue Onoto of the period had the same profile. In the fifties, Mentmore, Summit and Stephens were still producing pens like this, though they had more modern-looking models and some others, like Conway Stewart, had transformed their range except for the odd anachronism like the 388.

Why, when pen manufacturers elsewhere were enjoying success with more adventurous shapes of pen did the British trade remain so loyal to this pen type? The answer must be, simply that that was what the market demanded. The traditional shape sold. There were exceptions, of course, pens with visualated areas, and the odd rebellious baguette-shaped pen like the short-lived Croxley example. Then there was the biggest exception of all, the exception that proved the rule golden: Mabie Todd. They never produced a Standard British Pen, though they came close with some of their early Leverless pens. Not quite, though. Those pens had a washer clip of sorts, but it was manufactured as a unit with the clip. For the most part, Swan used inserted clips of one kind or another, and from the thirties on their pens were distinctly streamlined.

The Ingersoll No30

Ingersoll pens can be thoroughly confusing. For a start there were two American pen makers called Ingersoll, one producing the bakelite twist-filler dollar pens, the other Redipoint pens. US Ingersolls not infrequently found their way across the Atlantic and sometimes appear in eBay listings. Then there was a UK Ingersoll pen company, apparently independent of its US namesakes, producing very British-looking pens.

It has to be said that most British Ingersoll pens seem to have been aimed at the lower end of the market, often with steel nibs. I pass on these, but there are also occasional Ingersolls that are very much better quality, like this Ingersoll No30.

This is a big pen – 16.7cm posted – in an especially richly-coloured mottled hard rubber. The shape would suggest that it’s a mid-thirties pen, and it bears a strong resemblance to a variety of no-name hard rubber pens common at that time. The milled clip screw, especially, looks similar.

The barrel and particularly the section, with its pronounced step, look very like those of the MHR Burnham of the time. Perhaps the Ingersoll company bought in its pens from one of the majors, and Burnham looks like a likely candidate to me, though I have seen Wyvern suggested as a possible manufacturer of their later pens. All this is speculation. What is important, I think, is that beauty can appear in the most unexpected of places. It’s a pleasant surprise to find that a company I would normally give little consideration to produced such a gem as this one.