Re-blacking Again (and again and again and again…)

There is discussion of restoration materials, namely re-blacking and waxes, in Fountain Pen Geeks. I would continue posting there, but what I have to say on the subject is (as you might expect) a little long-winded for a board comment.

As a restorer, I believe that one should do the minimum necessary to a pen to bring it to good working condition and an acceptable appearance. If you want old pens that look like they came from the factory yesterday, try another restorer. I don’t do that kind of work.

Re-blacking is irreversible, no matter which method you use. Even Syd Saperstein’s Potion No 9, which does not remove any material, cannot be fully reversed. It will wash off smooth surfaces, but removing it from chasing and the marks a pen acquires over decades is very difficult or actually impossible. Methods that depend on removing the oxidised layer will also remove detail of chasing and imprints. Then, of course, it will oxidise again. So what do you do? Remove more surface layers?

If you have a common and inexpensive old hard rubber pen that has turned absolutely yellow with oxidisation, and you have no intention of selling it, then it seems to me that there is no great harm in using the latest product to come on the market to re-black it. It apparently removes very little material and it may make your pen more appealing to you for a time. It may fade again. After all, some black hard rubbers are more prone to fading than others. It may, for all we know, dissolve into a puddle of goo some way down the road. We don’t know the long-term effects of any of the current products. By time we do it may be too late.

My strongest word of caution is: don’t re-black uncommon and/or expensive pens. We have a duty of custodianship to our pens and to the hobby. Old pens are important historical artefacts and should be treated as such. That’s not to say don’t write with them, or keep them in a glass case but it seems sensible not to coat them with chemicals whose ultimate effect we don’t know. Black hard rubber is very durable and, left alone or conserved with the minimum of intervention, these pens will last a very long time. Using inappropriate substances on them may, in the long term, destroy them.

Most oxidisation is not unattractive. Careful hand polishing will make most hard rubber pens look good. That’s all that I do with the pens that pass through my hands.

I don’t have much to say about the use of waxes. I don’t believe they have a place in pen restoration. All, so far as I am aware, have been shown to contain chemicals that are, at the very least, dubious. Some attack metals. All seal the surface of the pen which doesn’t seem all that clever a thing to do. They are very, very hard to remove. They produce a wholly unnecessary gloss. Why do it?

Over the last decade I have seen the supply of old pens begin to reduce. Nobody is making any more old pens! We must look after those we have and that includes using a minimum of chemicals and only those we know to be trustworthy.


5 thoughts on “Re-blacking Again (and again and again and again…)

  1. well Deb, wouldn’t you just guess that there’d be some idiot responding to your thoughts – but nothing long winded:)

    We pays our money, and we then own a pen – it’s ours for a day or for eternity – but it’s ours and what we then do with it is our right solely – and possibly therein lies the crux of the issue.
    We’re all different – some leave well alone – others love to make their pens shine – and we must respect what others wish to do with their pens, even though we might not agree with their methods.

    Most collectors are obsessive – they love rarity, they love shine, they love tinkering – do they really care about what someone in 100 year’s time will think of their methods – almost certainly not. So there are two camps perhaps – the saviours of posterity who leave well alone and love simply the history – and then there are obsessive collectors who must have a shine at any cost.
    The most important part of a pen is its imprint – its identity – so please don’t erase that whatever else we do, but apart from that – if you’ve bought the pen then it’s yours, and you can do whatever you like, BUT I suspect that most pen collectors care enough not to wreck and a pen.
    I’d take a guess and suggest that more pens have been ruined/crunched by muppets who use pliers and forget to dry heat sections, then ever destroyed a pen trying to remove oxidation.

    So it’s up to people like Deb – folk we look up to – to provide the advice and guidance so that we don’t mistreat our pens, and let’s not forget that we need to enjoy our hobby too.

    1. I’m always pleased when someone responds to what I have posted. That’s part of the point of the exercise.

      I’m afraid I have to disagree with you, Paul. You say, “we pays our money and then we own a pen – it’s ours for a day or for eternity – but it’s ours and what we then do with it is our right solely.” Then you go on, “we must respect what others wish to do with their pens even though we might not agree with their methods.”

      I have never respected people who abuse pens whether they call themselves restorers or collectors. Of course, in law, you are entitled to buy all the pens you can afford and smash them with a hammer. I can do nothing about that but I won’t respect you for it, and I certainly can’t respect people who continue to use materials harmful to pens after it has been explained to them time, and time, and time again.

      You say that collectors love shine. I know a great many collectors and the most serious and successful amongst them are very far from loving shine. The very phrase would meet with their contempt.

      I agree that more pens have been destroyed by bad repairers and people who harvest gold nibs and throw the rest away – and they are still at it – but they don’t pretend to love and admire pens. Why in the world would we had to the total of destruction?

      I’ve been making this argument in various pen discussion boards for more years than I care to remember. I don’t believe that I’m on the winning side any more. The kind of people who regard themselves as collectors these days seem to have little interest in conservation. I can’t imagine why they bother to collect.

      1. sorry to hear you feel you’re not on the winning side any more – Deb ……… perhaps it’s an age thing – I rarely feel that I’m on the winning side of anything now. The obsessiveness of collectors rules their lives and the real history of antiques is ignored, and so much of our collectible social history is reduced to a mercenary motive for profit.
        I probably worded my second paragraph badly, and it gave the wrong impression I suspect.
        It really isn’t easy for younger collectors to grasp the ethos that we need to care now for antiques rather than use them as profit making item only – I love the social history in old things probably more than most. Think I was just making the obvious point that when people own something they are at liberty to take whatever action the see fit even though I wouldn’t agree with some of those ideas. In our free democratic society one group really cannot dictate how the others must treat their pens.
        Collectors come in all shapes, sizes and with varied motives, many of which I also don’t agree with, but I guess it’s live and let live.
        As long as we’re comfortable with our own motives then perhaps that’s enough.

        Doubt very much that I’d ever use the product of which we were speaking – I find few of them anyway, and I’ve recently been turning some BHR to make a section for a C.S. When cutting on the lathe it’s a foul material, and smells to high heaven. On the one and only badly oxidized e.d. that I renovated I seem to remember it was an unpleasant job all round, which is probably why the ease of use of the cream appeals to folk.

        You mentioned naptha – of which I know nothing – thought it kept the moths at bay in the wardrobe. If you have the time you might just give a brief word or two on that product please.

      2. To put things in perspective: do you think that the people fortunate and wealthy enough to own, say, a Kandinsky, would use dubious chemicals on it because it’s not bright enough? Lest you misunderstand me, I’m talking about how we value things and look after them, not how much money we have to spend.

        Naptha is lighter fuel. It’s safe to use on the interior of pens because it’s volatile and will leave no trace behind, unlike water, which is poison to pen innards.

  2. Sorry, not very good at perspective – but will tell you when I’m wealthy enough to afford a painting by Kandinsky :):)

    thanks for the info on naptha, which coincidentally I do have and use to remove surplus gold leaf after gilding on leather. Will give it a go on a f.p. thanks.

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