Not Soaking Again!

I see that the hoary old nonsense about soaking pens has arisen again.  Yesterday, in two groups, there were separate soaking questions.  A quick look at my spreadsheet tells me I’ve repaired 278 pens this year and a couple of thousand in the preceding five years.  I didn’t soak any of them.

What is it that people expect from soaking pens in water, water and soap or water and ammonia?  What they are likely to get is a damaged pen.  Black hard rubber, casein and some celluloids react badly to soaking in water.  I’ve heard it said, as a sort of excuse, that it is only the black hard rubber pens that have been exposed to sunlight that will fade on immersion in water.  There is doubtless some truth in that, but considering the age of most black hard rubber pens, it’s a fair bet that most of them have been exposed to sunlight at one time or another.  So don’t plunge them in water, look for another way to do things.  First choice would obviously be a solution of unicorn’s tears and virgin’s blood but as neither of those substances are readily available – at least where I live – it’s probably better to try something else.

The something else that I use is heat.  It invariably works.  Admittedly, there is the risk you will melt your pen – that’s why we constantly tell novices to practice with worthless pens until they are experienced enough to tackle the good ones.  Judicious use of heat is no threat to your pen and works in two ways.  First it will loosen adhesives, whether they be of the intentional kind or the accidental sort, like an accretion of years of hardened ink.  Secondly they apply differential expansion, even where the two parts of the joint are made of the same material, because the outer one becomes hotter than the inner one and expands more.

This is fairly simple stuff and it should be evident that apart from the damage that might be done by using soaking in water to the materials the pen is made from, there’s also the problem of metal inside the pen.  Pens were designed to hold ink in a fairly restricted way so that it doesn’t do any damage while being available for writing.  By comparison it easy to fill the pen completely with water, in a way it was never intended to be.  However, it is rather harder to get it all out again.  There may be a fixed pressure bar in there.  There will often be a circlip to retain the lever in place.  There are the inner parts of the lever itself.  If the clip penetrates the cap it, and its retaining parts, will also be rusted.  It may take a few weeks or months before the consequences of your actions become evident, but they will, believe me!

Finally, while water is a wonderful substance which forms a large part of each one of us, and without which we could not live for more than a day or two, it isn’t penetrating oil so it doesn’t get into the joints where other substances cannot go.  It isn’t very good at dissolving accretions of ink and, indeed, it doesn’t do any of the other magical things that its proponents fondly imagine that it will.  There are places where water is helpful – in the squeezy bulb for getting water through the section, on a cotton bud to clean inside a cap and even inside your ultrasonic cleaner when you’re using that in the correct way, i.e. not sticking a cap and barrel in there.

“Soak” is a term for a sleazy old drunk.  Think of it in that way and you might be less inclined to expose your precious pens to it.


5 thoughts on “Not Soaking Again!

  1. Dear Deb, please enlighten me here.
    I have just bought a small ultrasonic cleaner with which I have attempted to clean a few of my vintage pens. I was not aware until I bought it that it was actually meant to be filled with water, ini which you put whatever is meant to be sonically cleansed.
    I have not yet mastered the art of disassembling my pens (I haven’t even dared try), so I put the entire pen into the water in the cleaner, Hoping to get some old ink out of the feed, the nib and what other parts might be cleansed. But so, I understand this is not the way to do it? Because I don’t want the plastic parts of the pen, nor the ones prone to rusting, in the water?
    So the only way to do it is to (learn how to) take the pen apart and then ONLY put a few parts in the water?

    Please give me some advise here. I like to use my vintage pens, I don’t collect just to… collect.
    // Alex

    1. Hi Alex,

      I have an ultrasonic cleaner and, to be honest, I could have saved myself the purchase price. I use it very, very seldom. Frankly, there is nothing that you can do with an ultrasonic cleaner that you can’t do some other way.

      You certainly need to know how to be able to disassemble a pen, so far as it needs to be disassembled. You can mostly clear ink out of the section by forcing water through with a bulb. Should you actually need to take the feed and nib out, you will need a knock-out block. Then you can clean the interior of the section with cotton buds and any ink remaining in the feed can be cleaned using a small scrubbing brush. Old ink in the cap can be removed with cotton buds. If it is the type of cap that has a washer clip it can easily be disassembled for thorough cleaning. If there is anything else about this that you don’t understand, just ask.

  2. Hi Deb,

    In this article you mention a circlip. Would this be a thin brass ring with a gap in it, inside the barrel. I am working on an old Burnham button filler, and I found one inside the barrel. I wasn’t sure what it is for though: I wondered if it somehow kept the section in, as there was no shellac and the section will fly across my desk if I push the button now. Any clarification, no matter how little, will be enormously appreciated!


    1. Hi Lee,

      What you’ve described certainly sounds like a circlip, but it has no purpose in a button filler. I can’t imagine why it would be there and it certainly won’t help to keep the section in. Best way to deal with a loose section is to give it a coat of shellac and leave it to dry completely – at least 24 hours. That will thicken the section a little. If it still doesn’t fit, repeat. Do make sure however that it is completely dry, otherwise it will make the section difficult to remove on a future occasion.

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