Swan Mystery Material

I had always assumed that all the colourful pre-war Swans were celluloid but it seems it is not so. I sent this pocket-size jade lever filler to Eric Wilson to have a crack in the cap lip celluloid welded. Eric gave it a try but, to his surprise, couldn’t because it’s not celluloid!

So what is it? At that date the most likely alternative would be casein. It may be casein but I’m by no means sure that it is. With the application of a little heat, casein gives off an unmistakable cheesy smell that indicates its origins. I hope none of the neighbours were looking in my kitchen window as I alternatively heated and sniffed the pen – they might have got the wrong idea! (Watch out for that Deb! She’s a pen sniffer, y’know…) Despite my best efforts, I could detect no dairy smells from the pen. It smelled of nothing, in fact.

The other test for casein is its reaction to water. I’m not going to dump this pen in a glass of water – that’s a test too far – but I’ve never seen a Swan pen with the craquelure that afflicts casein pens that have been exposed to a mixture of humid and dry conditions. Admittedly, some caseins are more resistant to this failure than others – Burnhams show it more than Conway Stewarts, for instance – but given the right – or wrong – conditions, all will show it to some degree.

If it’s not casein, and though I can’t be absolutely positive the indications are strong that it’s not, then what is it?


10 thoughts on “Swan Mystery Material

  1. If you ever find out what is it please let me know!
    I think Mabie Todd used this unusual material mostly with green pens. I have a jade combination Swallow and when I gave it to a friend to weld the cracked cap there was no chance to weld it as well, so it makes me suspect it might be the same substance.

    1. I won’t discount it because anything’s possible but there are a couple of problems with it being bakelite. First is that with very few exceptions the pen trade rejected bakelite as a material for pens because of its fragility. Second is I see claims of pens being made from bakelite in eBay quite often, and they invariably turn out to be something else. Some sellers assume all pre-war plastics are bakelite, and if you look at this seller’s feedback he reckons he had a bakelite Belmont too. I think that Pencraft is thoroughly faded celluloid.

    2. It’s possible that it’s catalin an offshoot of Bakelite, which according to this article is tougher than Bakelite due to the additives.
      Molded phenolics, by virtue of their filler material, are opaque, stable and very tough. They are resistant to chips and cracking.
      There’s an easy test using Simichrome Poly to be done on an inside surface. Use maybe a Q-Tip and rub it. It will show yellow.
      Also, when heated carefully, the smell is unmistakeable, but you probably already know about that.
      I did it a lot when I was restoring older shaving brushes.
      Good luck

      1. I had a bit of Simichrome laying around so I did a small test on an hidden surface of my pen and the swab didn’t turn yellow.
        At least we know what this pens are not made of…

    1. It has evidently been around long enough, but I don’t know whether PVC was ever used in this way. I’m afraid this is one for someone more knowledgeable about plastics than me.


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