I’ll Be Back!

There will be no new updates for a few days, but don’t worry, I haven’t lost interest in the blog.  I’m going into hospital tomorrow and will have surgery on Friday.  I’m not sure when they’ll let me come home or when I’ll get back to the keyboard.  Shouldn’t be long, though.

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Mabie Todd Swan SM112B-84 Snakeskin

There was a vogue for snakeskin and lizard-skin patterned celluloids in the latter part of the 1930s. Several manufacturers issued their versions of these reptile patterns in many different colours. Generally, the lizard-skin variety is the one made up of smaller blocks. These patterns were popular in Swan pens, and snakeskin appears in several models across the range.

This is one of the smaller Swans, an SM112B-84, measuring 11.6cm capped and bearing a No1 nib. It’s a thoroughly Art Deco pen with its Empire-style stepped clip. The clip is also unusual in being of the washer type, a method rarely used on Swans. The cap and barrel ends are black, and there’s a white Swan image on the cap top. The green of the pattern is especially intense. All in all, this is a jewel of a pen. It’s not just ornamental, though. The semi-flex oblique stub nib is a delight to write with.

These snakeskin Swans are not rare, nor even particularly uncommon, but they are much sought after for their beauty and make a good price. They can have their problems. The celluloid was not totally stable and some of these pens can be distorted in the middle of the barrel, giving a gaping lever slot. Almost always, the plastic has shrunk a little, gripping the section fiercely. It can take many applications of moderate dry heat to free the section up. Patience is the watchword: too much heat will distort the barrel and too much force will break it. The section is black hard rubber, so soaking is not advised. Dry heat works better anyway.

These gem-like pens are well worth the additional effort needed to restore them.

The Mabie Todd Swan Calligraph

I had a talk with the data recovery people this morning, and it seems that the cost of restoring my image archive might not be quite as expensive as originally estimated. So I have all my fingers crossed at the moment, which makes it a little difficult to type… I’m sending them the disk today, and will wait with bated breath to hear whether the data can be recovered, and whether I can afford to have it done. Watch this space!

Anyway, back to the fountain pens! The Calligraph was a late model by Swan and it’s a little confusing in some respects. One would expect that a pen called “The Calligraph” would have a calligraphic nib. Mostly, they have perfectly ordinary fine or medium nibs; rarely they will be italic, as this example is, and sometimes they are oblique.

The Calligraph comes in two main forms. The earlier (and better) one is a lever filler, and the nibs usually have a large “C” surrounding the round breather hole. This is a good pen, and it’s the Calligraph you want to buy. The later one is a version of a button filler – the pressure bar is activated by turning the rotating button on the barrel end. It’s a good filling system, though finicky to repair. The problem with these pens is in the nibs, which are prone to cracking. They’re easily recognised: they have a D-shaped breather hole and a deeply-impressed Swan image on the nib. They’re not really bad pens but they’re not up to the previous Swan standard. I wouldn’t go so far as to recommend avoiding them, but you would be better off with the earlier, lever-filler version of the Calligraph, especially if you’re lucky enough to come across one of the few with an italic nib.

Data Death

Wherever you live, you probably heard the oaths and imprecations from here today. This morning my current backup hard disk died, instantly and irrevocably. That’s two and a half years of fountain pen photos that have become unavailable to me.

It’s not a financial loss. My business files are fine, because I back them up to CD as well. The photos have no real earning potential for me. Mostly, I use them for this blog and as illustrations to questions I answer in the pen groups. It would cost £280.00 to recover the data, and it just isn’t worth it. I would have no return on that outlay.

Those photographs were a wonderful reference, though, and I’m really going to miss them.

It does make me consider my backup policy, which I felt was a sensible one, but it clearly wasn’t enough because it has let me down. Realistically, how many backups of backups of backups do you need before you can say your data is safe?

The Conway Stewart 73

The late fifties to the early sixties was the period of Conway Stewart’s greatest post-war success, and the choice they offered buyers then was positively bewildering. Unless the buyer went with a model in mind, it would take some time to work through the various colours, patterns, trim levels, sizes and shapes.

This model, the long and slender 73, is an exceptionally beautiful pen with opulent gold trim and a black stud to finish off the cap. It’s not particularly common today, and with its quite large No4 nib it was probably one of the more expensive pens. It sometimes turns up in a set with the No23 pencil.

Those that I have seen have either been black or hatched in burgundy, green or blue, like this example.

Though it’s largely lost to us now, the relationship between the various Conway Stewart models must have been obvious to the company at the time. Now we’re left to grasp at straws. For instance, the No 23 pencil was also paired in sets with the No36 pen. It has similar trim to the 73 with its narrow/medium/narrow cap bands. It’s about a centimetre shorter than the 73 and it’s noticeably thicker. In fact, the 73 looks like a stretched 36. Did the company make the 73 to be a more elegant and expensive alternative to the more popular 36?

I don’t know and I don’t suppose I ever will. It’s just part of the pleasant puzzle that was the Conway Stewart product range.

How Do I Find A Flexible-Nibbed Pen?

I’ll be discussing British pens in this context; finding flex nibs among American pens is different and I’ll leave that to someone else. Demand for flexible nibs never went away in Britain, and while there are many manufacturers who turned out firm-nibbed pens flex remained available until fountain pens began to go out of fashion in the mid-twentieth century. So there are plenty out there, but how do you find them?

I think the only way you can be sure that you get a pen with the degree of flexibility that you want is to look for sellers who provide writing samples, or who give a good description of the writing characteristics of the nib. That said, there are areas of pen production where you’re more likely to be successful. Old pens, for a start: most eyedropper fillers and very early lever-fillers are more likely than not to show an appreciable level of flexibility. Flexibility was expected in a pen in those days. That’s just how people wrote. This old Wyvern 14B eyedropper’s nib is one of the most flexible I’ve ever had.

Most Conway Stewart nibs (Duros excepted) are slightly flexible. Looking back over the records of the hundreds I have sold, perhaps two in every hundred Conway Stewarts are really flexible. This broad No36 and the fine 85L were exceptionally flexible. Looking at them, you might just have guessed that the broad might be flexible but the fine looks like any other Conway Stewart nib. Its appearance gives no clue to its performance.

That’s a large part of the problem: appearance is no guide to nib performance. You would expect that any nib with long, slender tines would naturally be flexible, and sometimes they are, but equally often they’re not. This beautiful Swan Minor nib gives little variation.

Counter-intuitively, those nibs with high shoulders and short tines are quite often super-flexes, like this Swan Minor No2 and this Leverless L205.

English Watermans of the nineteen-forties and fifties are about 50-50 flexible and firm. Most of those giving line variation are semi-flexible but some are really exceptional, like this 502.

As so many of the nineteen-thirties Watermans are of Canadian origin, it’s worth including them here. Many will have the flexibility you’re looking for, particularly the Waterman Junior, which is very often a full flex nib.

If you must have a flexible-nibbed pen – and their popularity seems to have taken off now – concentrate on the earlier pens, the Swans, the Blackbirds and the Watermans. Flex doesn’t always have to come at a high price, and many of these pens can be bought quite cheaply.

The Waterman 3

Waterman have had their ups and downs over the decades, but their moderately-priced flat-tops were very popular in Britain in the 1930s. They can be a bit confusing, because similar-at-a-glance pens appear from the USA, Canada, England and from Jif Waterman in France.

This one is a Waterman 3 made in Canada, and is typical of the Canadian output with its box lever and riveted clip. The colours are outstanding and the beautiful fine No3 nib has great flexibility.

Many of these pens have flexible nibs, and though they weren’t expensive when new, they have proved durable and they restore well.