Materials, Colours And Patterns

I’m sorry that I’ve been writing so little here recently. Life continues to be hectic and distracting and, to be frank, I struggle to find subjects for discussion when I have no pens passing over the repair bench. Any suggestions will be welcome!

Long ago – in the 80s – remember them? – I was a collector. It was mostly Conway Stewart, Swan and De La Rue. There was a strange notion back then that the best example of each model was a plain, black pen. They tended to be cheaper than the more colourful examples so I had drawers of shiny black pens.

It took quite a while, but it eventually came to me that colours and patterns had greater appeal. Gradually and expensively I began to replace my black pens with patterns, especially among the glorious Conway Stewarts.

I do enjoy the colours and patterns, and so, clearly, do most other users of fountain pens. In the early days it was plain black hard rubber, a machined finish or gold or silver overlay in wonderful finishes that have never been surpassed. Colour came with red or mottled hard rubber and Waterman brought in other colours in their admirable ripple finishes. The rosewood hard rubber that Wahl Eversharp produced was another beautiful pattern.

Celluloid transformed the market, both in the USA and Britain. Throughout the thirties, especially, colours and patterns were produced by particularly Waterman and Conway Stewart that were works of art. Parker’s thrift pens, too, were made in inventive and outstanding patterns. Waterman’s geological celluloids and Conway Stewarts wonderfully inventive patterns like Tiger’s Eye, Cracked Ice and Herringbone were, to my mind, the apex.

Which modern pens are most colourful and inventive? I’m asking because I don’t really know. There are some bright and beautiful acrylics around but I think that material lacks the subtlety and depth of celluloid and casein. I have no doubt that in time modern technology will come up with materials, colours and patterns as good as, or better than, our wonderful historical examples.

A variety of patterns gives the collector something to aim for and it gives the writer an opportunity to find an example that suits his/her taste and personality. There is more to the fountain pen than the practicality of good writing. A pleasing colour pattern warms the heart!

Nibs

I don’t have any reference materials to hand as I sit here in the hospital so I’ll just have to depend on memory.

The nib is the heart of the pen. You can have all the admirable filling systems you want, if the nib is so-so then the pen is too.

Which are the best nibs? Your opinion will vary according to how you write and what effect you want to achieve. Personally, I have found De La Rue nibs to be the best. They look rough and unfinished but whether firm or flexible they write wonderfully. After that, I think it would be a dead heat between Swan and Wahl Eversharp. A great deal of their success comes from providing a variety of nib types to suit the customer’s requirements. Strangely, that short-lived firm, Croxley, also provided very good nibs with the occasional real diamond among them.

In general terms, early nibs are better than later ones. If you buy an early 20th-century eyedropper, chances are high that the nib will be fully flexible. Once you get to the forties and fifties flexible nibs are quite a lot less common but they are still around.

One fallacy that is commonly believed is that you can visually spot a flexible nib. I’ve had Swan nibs that had long and tapered tines but were rigid and other stubby nibs that were fully flexible. The only way to know is to try them.

Flexibility isn’t everything, of course. Stubs and obliques are always appreciated. True italics are very rare or completely absent in British pens before the fifties unless they’ve been later reshaped – a wasteful and unnecessary act of vandalism. If you want an italic there are plenty being made today.

What about modern nibs? There are none, so far as I am aware, that have the full and easily attained and controlled flexibility of vintage nibs. That’s not to say there aren’t many good – or better than good – modern nibs around, particularly among Japanese pens. I’m fond of my Platinum 3776 which is a soft fine. Some line variation could be induced but that’s not what I appreciate it for. It touches the paper with some give, making it less tiring on the hand for protracted periods of writing.

No matter what your writing style (or styles) there is a perfect nib for you out there, whether vintage or modern. Finding that nib, though it may take quite a bit of time and money, will be a lot of fun!

From The Desk Of Deb

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My customers and correspondents include both writers and collectors and, so far as I can, I try to provide for both pen interests. I tend to favour writers a little because that’s the interest I came from myself. I’m not a collector but I have a big box of pens I like to write with. Of course my real interest is older pens and obviously that’s true of most of my customers as well. I try to ensure that my customers’ needs are well served by providing writing samples so that they have at least some indication of how the pen they wish to buy will write

Collectors, of course, don’t care how the pen writes. Though that may seem strange to those of us who buy pens to write with, it isn’t really. Fountain pens are one among many small, well made objects which attract those with the collecting bug. Coins, stamps, snuff boxes, Vesta holders, inkwells and desk-sets – all these things can make a splendid and interesting collection. Fountain pen collectors are knowledgeable about the minutiae of model changes and dates of their chosen manufacturer or area, and the wonderful books about the various brands could not be produced without them.

Some years ago, particularly on the Lion and Pen discussion board, there was a degree of friction between writers and collectors. Some – very few – of the collectors looked down on “users” as being in some way inferior. There were heated arguments about whether one should ink a “new old stock” pen or not. There were those in the collector fraternity who felt such a pen was spoiled in some way if it was loaded with ink.

I think those arguments are much less common now. Clearly collectors want the most pristine example of their desired pen, whereas those who want to write with the pen will mostly aim for one that is a little less expensive, and they are less concerned by a little evidence of previous use. That’s a generalisation, of course – there are all shades of collectors and writers!

Most – or even all – of what I have said so far applies to vintage pens. Many of those who buy older pens have no interest in current ones, but there is a whole other area of both writing and collecting in new pens.

The division between collectors and writers seems less clear in new pens. There are those who will make a collection of every colour of the inexpensive Lamy Safari and there are thousands who buy those pens only to write with. Some are collectors of the more expensive British, Italian, German and Japanese pens while others, again, lay out quite large sums of money on those pens to use them.

Then there is a modern phenomenon of the limited edition pen – surely aimed purely at the collector. For myself, it’s not an area I have any interest in but it should be said that it doesn’t only happen with fountain pens. Other collector areas, like ceramics, pocket knives and crystal have their limited editions too.  A thing I find amusing about some limited edition pens is that their numbers are as great as a total sales of many non-limited pens.

I buy some modern pens, mostly just to try and write about though I’ve occasionally found one so good that I’ve kept it, like my Vanishing Point or my Platinum #3776. There are some good things happening in the modern fountain pen world though in my opinion they have yet to match the wonderful nibs that were made pre-1970. There are strange things, too, like the huge pens that are made nowadays which have no equivalent in the pens made during the time when fountain pens were the primary means of writing. There were people with big hands then too, but they managed perfectly well with, for instance, their Pelikan 100 whereas now an 800 or 1000 is required. Few very large pens were made until recently and those that did appear, like the huge hard rubber Jewel of the 1930s, do not seem to have sold well if the numbers surviving today are a means of judging. The Swans that bore Number Six or Number Eight nibs were not exceptionally large pens – larger than those with smaller nibs, but not proportionally. So it was about prestige then and I feel that very large pens are the same today.