Sheaffers

As well as the varied products of our own thriving fountain pen industry, some foreign pens also sold well here. French pens didn’t seem to catch on. There were always some German pens around, mostly Pelikans. Most popular, though, were American pens. In order of popularity, I suppose, it went Parker, Waterman, Sheaffer, Wahl Eversharp and then odd examples of the rest.

My preference for these vintage pens runs a little differently. Sheaffer, Waterman, Parker would be my order, I think. I admire Sheaffer’s build quality and the ingenuity of their designs. Not that they got it perfectly right all the time: their Vac filler is an inferior copy of the Onoto plunger filler, designed to be disposed of rather than repaired when it inevitably failed. The snorkel is a complexity too far, only really coming into its own in large capacity pens with fine nibs because there’s so much technology in there that there is little room left for ink.

Those minor complaints aside, the rest is design and execution of the very highest quality. Their experiments with nibs were hugely successful. The variations of the Triumph nib are all a delight, both visually and practically. The later inlaid nib is elegance itself. Though, for the most part, Sheaffers are not pens for those who require flexible nibs, their other fine writing qualities are more than enough to compensate for the rest of us. I love a nail if it’s a nail that never skips or falters, gives just the right amount of feedback and always starts right away. That’s a Sheaffer nib! Even the little Stylepoint nib which was used on some of the Lady Sheaffers and other pens, though not as aesthetically impressive to my mind, is a splendid writer.

Sheaffer, of course, ceased to be Sheaffer in the end, passing through several hands and gradually losing the quality and identity that had made it a star of the fountain pen world for so long. The last new Sheaffer that I bought was an Intrigue. It disappointed. It was ridiculously heavy for its small size and it was poorly put together. The filling-system was unduly complicated and seemed designed to fail. Worst of all, it was a hard starter. It took a considerable amount of nib work to put that right. It was the first moderately expensive pen I bought that didn’t work properly out of the box (though there have been plenty since!) I didn’t keep it for long.

Thankfully, as other pens have become rarer, old Sheaffers are still quite common. Even the slightly more modern ones, cartridge/converters, are still splendid pens with great nibs, generally available at a bargain price.

I confess that I have no idea what sort of fountain pen comes out bearing the name Sheaffer these days. I rather lost interest as their products became more generic with little or nothing to make them stand out from the rest of the pack.

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Swan 1500

Our old pens are a part of history and some of them have a history of their own.

This Swan 1500 is around a century old, maybe older.  It was the high-tech, cutting edge writing instrument of its day, a very efficient eyedropper filler that could be relied upon to write when it was needed, and do it properly.

In the first twenty or so years that this pen was around technology was moving on.  Sac-filling pens of one kind or another came along and more efficient feeds were developed.  There wasn’t much anyone could do about this pen’s filling system, but some technician decided to upgrade the feed from the over-and-under type it came with to a simple spoon feed like those used by Waterman.  I say simple, but these new feeds were more robust and gave more consistent ink delivery than the old type.

Swan’s first new feeds were of this spoon type before they went on to the ladder feed they were to use until the end of the company, but I don’t think this is a Swan feed.  That old-time repairer from 80 or 90 years ago took whatever he had to hand and made it fit.

That gave the pen a new lease of life and it continued in use for a long time.  We can tell that by the level of wear on the pen barrel made by the constant infinitesimal abrasion of the pen’s owner’s fingers in use.

It’s quite likely that the owner didn’t change his or her pen for several decades.  Lever-fillers might be nice but this old 1500 needed refilled less often than they did and it wrote just as well.

Nowadays because they are no longer the primary writing instrument, the way we value our pens is different from how they were seen when they were an essential everyday tool of work like a hammer or a screwdriver.  Now we tend to appreciate pens for their beauty, their ingenuity or the flexibility of their nibs.  Then, a pen just needed to be ready to the hand and do the job it was designed for.

That’s not to say that people didn’t value ingenuity and beauty in pens decades ago; clearly they did, hence all the wild and wonderful methods that the 20s and subsequent decades saw in getting ink into pens.  All those dazzling overlays show that buyers made aesthetic as well as practical judgments when making a purchase but once all the attractions have been evaluated and the pen had been bought it became a wokaday tool.

It’s A Cat’s Life.

Smartie here.

She’s been fixing pens all day. I helped for a while. I knocked a Parker clip off the bench and chased it around the floor until I lost it. She didn’t seem particularly amused by that but I thought it was good fun.

Fixing pens is all very well but my dishes were empty. No cat food, no chicken!

Now I’m being told off for nose prints on the window. How can a person keep an eye on that miserable spaniel next door without getting nose prints on the window, I ask you?

It’s a hard life, being Deb’s cat.

The Camera Sometimes Lies.

I buy some pens on eBay. You may be familiar with the eBay layout – one or more photographs and a sentence or maybe a paragraph of description. Quite commonly these days, the phrase “the photographs form part of the description” is included. These are the words I dislike most in the pen world.

So far as I’m concerned the only things that form part of the description are the words the seller uses. The photos may have some use in identifying the pen if the seller doesn’t know the exact model, and they may give you some idea of the colours if it’s a patterned pen. Other than that, they’re as good as the seller chooses that they should be. Even with several photos a multitude of sins may be concealed.

As happened to me recently, a seller included the information that there was a slight crack above the clip. That didn’t seem too serious to me and I was confident that I could repair it. It was a good pen and I bid appropriately given the damage. I was content with the transaction.

However, when the pen arrived it had a severe crack in the cap lip, a thing that requires much more time and effort to repair successfully. Had I been aware of the lip crack I wouldn’t have bought the pen. I re-examined the photos in the advert. Though the pen was shot from a variety of angles, none showed the area of the cap that bore the crack. I have difficulty in believing that such an omission could have been accidental.

I immediately contacted the seller attaching a photograph of the lip crack. It was very easy to photograph – it wasn’t one of those subtle little cracks that you can only find with a thumbnail.

The seller made an offer of a partial refund which was enough for me to feel that I won’t be out of pocket, though a repair will take a lot of time. Of course, when I come to sell the pen I will make it clear that repairs have been made.

Apart from the few occasions when I can handle pens before I buy them, I am at the mercy of the seller’s description, whether I’m buying from eBay or elsewhere. Living in the northern tip of Scotland I don’t have the opportunity to buy stock at pen shows.

That’s just one example of why I don’t believe that “photographs form part of the description.” Photographs will show only what the photographer wants them to show.

People who buy from me are, of course, in the same position, which is why I give as detailed a description of the condition of the pen as I can. It’s very rare for me to miss flaws or damage but it has happened. Having to repay the buyer for the cost of returning a pen from overseas sharpens the powers of observation!

Conway Stewart Scribes

There are three sorts of Conway Stewart Scribe. All are the same shape and dimensions but there the similarity ends. The 330 and the 333 are black hard rubber pens, mass produced doubtless in the thousands. They appear to have been bought by companies for their clerks to use. Though they were built to a price, they are not bad pens. They have some nice engine chasing and they are good writers, like all Conway Stewarts. They remain low-priced because they are so common.

The other Scribe is the 336. These are casein pens in delightful colour patterns, some bright, others more subtle. They are not so common and some patterns are quite rare and therefore more valuable. As a writer, it’s no different from its poorer relations but as a collector’s item it’s much more desirable.

If you want to see photographs of these pens, go to http://jonathandonahaye.conwaystewart.info/index.html, Jonathan Donahaye’s site. Though Jonathan is sadly no longer with us, his site is still maintained though not updated. Research has moved on in the years since Jonathan passed away so not all the information is completely accurate but the photographs and basic dimensions remain a splendid resource.

The Burnham Chatsworth

I’ve written about the Boots Chatsworth before. The search facility will find it if you’re interested. Though this pen has the same name it’s completely different from the one I wrote about before.

Boots is a pharmacist that sells lots of other things. At one time it had pens made bearing their own name under the Chatsworth label. I’m pretty sure it no longer does. The pen I wrote about previously was a rebadged De La Rue, and therefore an extremely high quality pen. At some point in the 50s, the manufacturing contract was awarded to Burnham, possibly in a cost-cutting exercise.

Burnhams are very pretty pens, mostly because they used patterned casein which allows for greater colour depth and subtlety than even celluloid can provide. Unfortunately, the casein Burnham used appears to have been less robust and durable than that employed by – for instance – Conway Stewart. You will often find Burnham pens with the disfiguring craquelure that can spoil casein pens and, even worse, some of these pens begin to disintegrate. Years ago, I bought a large box of varied 1950s Burnhams. Many were good but others had fragmented, leaving small jewel-like pieces of patterned casein at the bottom of the box.

Perhaps Burnham bought a lower grade of casein or maybe it wasn’t seasoned long enough. Anyway, that’s the reason you see so little about Burnhams in my blog. I rarely buy them. However, when they’re good they’re good. This Burnham-made Boots Chatsworth is a fine example. Burnham had their own way of doing things. When they have gold nibs, like this one, they tend to be small to keep the cost down. Their sections screw in which makes their removal for servicing easier. Small though they may be, Burnham nibs are good. Size doesn’t really matter except aesthetically. After all, you only write with the last millimetre.

Though the Burnham was undoubtedly cheaper to produce than the De La Rue had been, it is still a great little pen of vastly higher quality than the very cheap items offered by the few stores – WH Smith comes to mind – that still stock own brand fountain pens.

Burnham casein may be an extreme example of fountain pen deterioration but it is a straw in the wind. Eventually, however long it takes, all our old fountain pens are likely to fail irrecoverably. Casein is especially subject to failure. Celluloid is tougher – or at least most celluloids are – but it ages too. Red and mottled hard rubber are brittle and subject to damage. Black hard rubber, as we know, oxidises. We can, of course, improve its appearance by removing a layer but it will oxidise again.

The general point I am making is that our pens, unlike some other antiques, will not endure forever. That makes them all the more precious. We are their custodians and we should give them the best care possible, especially avoiding unsafe polishes, cleaning materials and waxes.

The Abbey Pen

This rather handsome Mabie Todd pen is neither a Swan nor a Blackbird, nor yet a Jackdaw. It’s just “The Abbey Pen”. I’ve been unable to find any explanation for it and this is the only one I’ve ever seen.

Wyvern made an Abbey pen in the 30s but I think that’s just a coincidence of names. The Wyvern pen was at the lower-cost end of their production, and this Mabie Todd Abbey Pen would have been expensive, going by the quality of construction and the amount of gold-plated trim.

It measures 12.6 cm capped, but it is a useful size posted at 15.6 cm. When it came to me it had no nib but I have fitted a Swan number two flexible medium stub. It writes like a dream.