The Slippery Slope: The Onoto K2 And The Conway Stewart 150

These pens have something in common: they were made by companies in decline. Their dates of production are different, the Onoto being launched in 1955 and the Conway Stewart some eight years later, but the position that their respective companies found themselves in were quite similar. Sales were falling inexorably. Costs needed to be cut in a desperate attempt to regain market share and both companies also made an attempt to turn out a product that was more in tune with the the times.

In introducing the K series of pens, De La Rue threw the baby out with the bathwater. Whatever this K2 may be, it’s not an Onoto, that elegant pen with its plunger filling system. It’s something quite different. That said, despite some faults the K series are good pens. Their piston filling system is generally in excellent working condition today without any servicing. The gold plating is very good, the clutch still closes the pen firmly, the ink-view area of the barrel is still clear and it writes well. These pens were a limited success, but it wasn’t enough to save the company. De La Rue, after all, was not entirely dependent on pen production and they pulled the plug when the profit and loss statement said it was time.

The Conway Stewart 150, I would maintain, is still a respectable pen but it contains the seeds of decline. At first glance it’s little different from its illustrious forerunners of the fifties, but when you handle it you feel the difference. The pen feels a little slippery, a little waxy. Gone are the glowing celluloids and caseins; this is injection moulded plastic. No doubt it was the right decision from a cost point of view, but self-coloured pens don’t have quite the attraction of the patterns that made Conway Stewart what it was. There’s no lever. Now you have to screw off the barrel to find a metal squeezy device, the Conway Stewart Pressac filler. This, like the shape of the pen, is an attempt to emulate the Newhaven Parkers, but this isn’t like Parker’s Aerometric filler. It’s an older technology and you can squeeze away all you want, you’ll never fill the sac. Unlike the Parker, this system has no breather tube. It’s just a squeeze-filler like the Macniven & Camerons of 45 years earlier. In other respects it’s not too bad. The gold plating is, perhaps, not as good as the Onoto’s but that was always how it was. The nib is conspicuously small, but it’s still gold. On my example, the softness of the plastic has allowed a groove to develop around the cap where the clip was allowed to spin. However, it’s still quite a sound pen that would give good service.

Onoto at least got a clean, relatively quick death. The coup de grace was administered in 1958. Conway Stewart staggered on, turning out poorer and poorer pens until it ground to a halt in 1976.

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A Wartime Mabie Todd Swan 1500

I wrote about the Swan 1500 before, back here: http://wp.me/p17T6K-1Q but this one is a little different.

 

This is the pen made in America for the British market during the First World War. They turn up from time to time and, if this leaky vessel I laughingly call my memory serveth me aright, there was a discussion on this subject in FPN only last week. My guess would be that the pens were imported from the American parent company because, with so many young men being sent overseas, demand for pens was at an all-time high so that correspondence could be kept with absent loved ones. It may be that, as in the Second World War, domestic effort was transferred from making pens to munitions manufacture. It does tell us, though, that in 1914 the British and American arms of Mabie Todd still worked closely together, and it may well be that the relationship remained stronger than has previously been accepted for decades thereafter.

 

The pen itself is a thing of beauty, slender and elegant, and in this instance, unfaded and with all its imprints and chasing fresh and crisp. Add a Swan Metal Pocket to clip into the inside pocket of your black tail-coat over your pin-striped trousers and you could be the Man From The Ministry, ready to send another few thousand soldiers over to fertilise the fields of Flanders with a single stroke of this very pen.

 

This pen is original in every respect with its New York nib and its over-and-under feed. Often, when 1500s arrive on my bench, they have ladder feeds. Whether, at some late stage, ladder feeds were installed at the factory, or whether they were retrofitted some time later, I cannot say. The 1500 writes splendidly in its original trim, but the ladder feed does make employing the flexibility that most of these pens offer rather easier. The ink flow keeps up better.

 

Note that the nib size is imprinted on the barrel. That means they made them in the factory as fines, mediums, stubs etc., rather than having the retailer fit the nib the customer wanted, as happened later.

The Big One – The Swan Leverless 2060

This is the big one. Though it is said that there are No 9 nibs, and therefore one would expect that there should have been pens that would accommodate them, and there certainly are a few No 8 nibs, most of us will never see a bigger Swan than this, the Leverless 2060. It’s true that some earlier Swans were longer, but the girth of this pen together with the lump of gold that is a No 6 Eternal nib give it an unequalled presence. The 2060 had a short and constricted production run and is therefore comparatively uncommon. There’s a story to this one.

By 1939 the Swan range had undergone a redesign. They had become shorter and thicker.

They were streamlined with a flat top and they carried a form of washer clip under a black cap top dressed off with a gilded Swan logo. The barrel imprint had the Swan logo to the left of the four lines of information. This is the “Type A” imprint. The Leverless range contained, as well as the highly-esteemed plain black businessman’s pen, an array of lizard skin designs in blue, green, garnet and pearl grey. They all carried the “L” designation in the form L—/–, L212/87 being the blue lizard, as an example. Mabie Todd had a superb range of pens, and I think it can be said that this was one of the great high points of the company’s history.

In September 1940 the main production facility at Harlesden was bombed. Production stopped for a time until premises were found at Golden Lane, and enough equipment was scraped together to resume manufacturing though at a lesser rate.

These pens bear the “Type B” imprint, where the swan sits centrally, and their identification is truncated to four digits, as with my 2060. Production of these pens, and the cheerfully coloured lizards, continued throughout 1941 and 1942, in what seems like a minor but worthy act of defiance against the horrors of the Blitz and the increasing austerity of wartime. In 1943 the Board of Trade began licensing pen production and these models disappeared.

A Rant And A Portion Of Another

I had a hard day yesterday editing pen photographs and writing pen descriptions. By the time I was sleepily drawing towards a halt, Avast! (the anti-virus software) informed me that it had an update it wanted to install. I allowed that to happen and it wanted to reboot. As I was nearly finished I didn’t allow it to do so, and shut down the computer. This morning when I booted up, the upgrade began again. Next time I looked, it had frozen. After a bit of fiddling around I got it going again and it tried to slip an installation of Google Chrome Spyware onto my computer. I prevented it, and in revenge it slammed my internet connection shut. I could neither browse nor download email. I decided the easiest way out of the problem would be to uninstall Avast! Would you believe Avast! doesn’t have an uninstaller? I shut down Avast! and went online naked and unprotected to find a way out of this impasse. Seems the game is that you download an uninstaller from Alwill Software (the makers of Avast!), drop down to Safe Mode and run the uninstaller from there. How many light years beyond acceptable behaviour is that? I’m now the proud possessor of two wasted hours that might have been productive and I’m running Avira Antivir instead.

Die, Avast!, die.

Now that you know that, you may understand that this was the wrong morning to ask cretinous questions. An “Unanswered Question” had appeared on one of the pens I am selling today. I opened it up and found:

can you tell me if nib is medium, fine or extra fine?

also, can you tell

me how flexible the nib is? if not clear, permit me to explain:

the point of the pen has a slit right down the middle of it all the way to

the. it divides the point into two sides, called TINES. if you hold the pen

as if to write with it, pushing the point against a solid table surface and

push only as hard as you would push a toothbrush against your tooth, the

two tines will probably spread apart a little bit. use a ruler to measure

how far apart they spread. done. then tell me that measurement! thanks for

all your trouble,

I fought off the impending infarct from sheer rage. The description of the pen gave an indication in words of its characteristics, i.e., medium semi-flexible, and there was a writing sample to illustrate for the slow readers. Some days you can take it, and some days your personal container for condescension by the terminally stupid is already at ‘full’. Suffice it to say that the unnamed potential buyer will not be buying that pen, nor will he/she or most likely it be buying any other pen from me. Ever. In this lifetime or any other.  You can ask a question that is unlikely to be capable of being answered or you can condescend to me from your throne of arrogance, but not both.  I have 743 feedback, all for restored pens.  It would appear likely that I would already know my tines from my elbow.

Just to explain this a little further, I’ll repeat some things that I’ve probably said in a previous discussion of pen nib characteristics. I’m not of the school of Bobo Olsen, which appears to believe in about 45 different gradations of flexibility, and another hundred or so minute differences of pressure that it takes to induce them. Frankly, if that’s today’s flexibility orthodoxy, call me a heretic. These are the grades: hard as a nail, semi-flexible, flexible and very flexible. I’m not getting into a discussion of snap-back because how quickly the tines will close after a broad stroke is at least partly down to how educated the hand of the user is. I have seen others do magical things with nibs that were pretty bland for me. The point being that many of the attributes of nibs that the more dexterous among us enjoy don’t always come from the nib itself. I won’t put myself in the position where I praise a nib as the latest wonder of the world only to cause disappointment when it doesn’t work in the same way for the buyer. I’ll tell you what I can objectively see, but I won’t sit with a flexed nib in one hand and a ruler in the other measuring off the eighths of flexion. That’s a fine way to destroy a 70 year old nib and I refuse to abuse them. There are few enough left.

 

Onoto The Pen

Sad to say, and much to my own disappointment, I’ve never been in a position to list every Onoto made (as I try to do with Swans and Blackbirds). I think I may have written about an Onoto once before in this blog and that’s all so far. This is because when I decided to switch to pen restoration I limited the number of kinds of pens I was prepared to fix to reduce the costly spares holding. However, when you buy pens in lots as I do, anything can turn up, and I recently ended up with a very shabby Onoto. I’m not really up on these pens and I can’t say for certain, but I believe it might be an Onoto Minor dating to around 1938. I should have taken some photos when I got it but of course I didn’t, but I can tell you that the shaft was broken off the blind cap, it had no clip and it was generally decidedly the worse for wear.

I passed the pen to the estimable Eric Wilson ( http://eckiethump.webs.com/contactdetails.htm ). As always, the turnaround was very fast, the work was superb and copious notes were provided on what had been done on the pen. Here it is, now:

It’s a beautiful middle-sized pen and the lattice-work celluloid barrel is what really sets it off. The point of that, of course, is to show the ink remaining in the pen, and with the wonderful Onoto plunger filling system even a little pen like this holds about a bucketful. On lengthy consideration, I think I would have to say that the 107-year-old plunger-fill remains the best filling system there is. It’s so satisfying to immerse the pen in ink, push that plunger down once and know that you have taken on enough ink for the next fortnight. Or in my case, a month, because I don’t write much.

 

There can be no doubt that Onotos were the top of the league of British pens. I hugely admire them and I try always to have one of my own. My particular preference, as you might guess, would place 1930s Swans above Onotos, but that’s just me. They are among the best pens ever made.

Mentmore Ink-Lock Vacuum Filler

The ink-in-the-barrel pen has always seemed like a good solution, mostly because it has the potential to have great capacity. The original ink-in-the-barrel pen was the eyedropper, but manufacturers wanted to add a self-filling ability. The grand-daddy of them all is De La Rue’s Onoto plunger-filler, which dates back to 1905 and remains, in my opinion, the all-round best of the ink-in-the-barrel pens. It wasn’t until 1925 that another came along, Chilton’s Pneumatic Filler. Parker’s Vacumatic* followed in 1933 and Sheaffer produced the Vac-Fill, virtually a revamp of the Onoto system, in 1935. Last – and least known – is the Mentmore Ink-Lock in 1938.

 

The name Ink-Lock doesn’t refer to the filling system but to a patented method of shutting off the ink when the pen was capped. There are also lever filler and button filler Ink-Locks. This ink-in-the-barrel filling system was given its first outing in the Platignum Visi-Ink. Pressure in the barrel is reduced by forcing air out through the feed channels by squeezing a bulb, thereby drawing ink in. This is repeated several times until the pen is full. In principle, this method is less like the superficially similar Parker Vacumatic and more like the Chilton.

“My!” you’re thinking, “How clever Deb is to have sussed all this out by her little self!” The truth, sadly, is that when presented with this strange pen that didn’t want to come apart I cried a little and stamped my foot. Then I sent it to the estimable Derrick Purser:

( http://www.classicpenengineering.co.uk/index.html )

who puzzled out the workings of the pen, manufactured some parts that were missing and also provided me with information on the filling method. Much kudos to Derrick!

 

Mentmore Ink-Locks are far from common, and I would even go so far as to say that this version is somewhat rare. Why? Not because it was a bad pen, far from it. I suspect it was a misfortune of history. The pen was produced not long before World War II, and I suspect that it was dropped in favour of the simpler designs like the Autoflow as war shortages began to restrict the industry. However, we still have this pen to remind us that Mentmore was once the most innovative of British pen companies.

 

Mentmores of this period usually have a family resemblance to one another, but the Ink-Lock breaks the tradition. It has a most un-Mentmore-like washer clip of a vaguely arrow-shaped design held by a stud. The feed, too is quite unlike the usual Mentmore feed. The combination of a narrow and a medium cap ring is unique among the company’s output, as, I believe, is the very attractive brown/pink/red marbled celluloid.

*I suppose that the withdrawal of air as a motivating principle is especially obvious in all these pens, hence the names like Vacumatic, Vac-Fill and Pneumatic Filler. However, it is worth mentioning that these pens are no more dependent on the vacuum principle than the less complicated lever filler or the more efficient piston filler. All self-filling pens use vacuum. Prove me wrong.

Whining, Excuses And A Promise To Do Better

The pen restoration and sales seem to have swallowed my life whole recently. Some time ago I found that the most I could reasonably do was twenty pens a week and that somehow became a target which I’ve aimed at – not always successfully – ever since. Each pen takes a minimum of two hours, which may seem a lot, but there’s much to be factored in: purchasing, paperwork, assessment, repair and restoration, testing, research and description, photography, listing and despatch. That’s fairly demanding for a decrepit restorer no longer in the first flush of youth nor the peak of good health. Something has had to suffer and it has been this blog. Neither lack of interest nor a shortage of things to write about caused the falling-off in blog entries recently. I just couldn’t find the time.

This wasn’t the way it was meant to be. Switching to restoring pens rather than collecting them was to be a way to see and handle all the wild, weird and wonderful pens that would never have come my way otherwise. The other side of that was to write about them here, and get more information about (mostly) British pens out here on the Web where it’s freely available to all. For a long time the only good information on British pens was Jonathan Donahaye’s admirable Conway Stewart site. All the major American manufacturers like Waterman, Parker and Sheaffer were comparatively well-represented on the net, but I remember how I used to despair over the absence of useful data on almost any British pen. The situation has improved with the arrival of the excellent websites on Burnham and Summit, but there is a long way to go. So for the foreseeable future, and until the plenitude of British brand websites makes me redundant, I’ll carry on adding what I find to this blog. It may be – sometimes at least – short on hard information and long on speculation, but it may provide a starting point for someone in their quest for knowledge about that odd pen that they found.

I think the method must be to firmly scrap the target. If I fix twenty pens that’s wonderful. If I only fix five, that’s equally wonderful. At least I’ll have time to do more in this blog.