The First Repair

The first pen I ever worked on was a little Swan eyedropper. Looking back on it now, it might have been a 1500. I found it in a junk shop, one of those places that was piled high with other people’s worn-out dreams, stacks of furniture and old trunks, ornaments and knick-knacks that had served whatever purpose those things serve.

The pen was seized solid with ancient ink. You’ll have to bear in mind that I was as innocent as a newborn where pens were concerned. I would have a pen like that disassembled in two minutes flat now, but then I had no appropriate tools or knowledge.

A few minutes examination showed how it went together. Getting it apart was another matter. Despite being a girly I have strong hands from years of operating motor bike clutch and brake levers, but I couldn’t unscrew the section. I was savvy enough to know that ordinary pliers would cause irreparable damage so that was out.

It occurred to me that ink is a water-soluble substance, so I suspended the pen nib down in a jar with a couple of inches of water in it. It worked in a way. By the next morning the water was deep blue and when I applied some force I was finally able to unscrew the section. The downside was that the front part of the pen which had been a dark greyish green was now a nasty dull yellow. That was disappointing but I refused to be discouraged about it. After all, I wanted the pen to write with, not to impress anyone.

I couldn’t get any ink to reach the tip of the nib. It seemed that the section was still blocked with dried-out ink. I couldn’t really see how to get the feed out. The rear of the feed was pointed so it wouldn’t be a good idea to hit it. It looked like it would have to come out from the front. I spent the day alternately soaking the nib/feed/section unit and pulling on it. I wasn’t getting anywhere. It wouldn’t budge.

Then I had a brilliant idea! I took a set of pliers, ground the ridges off and wrapped the jaws in many layers of insulating tape. I seized the nib and feed with it and give a mighty pull. And the feed broke off. That was a bad, bad moment.

There were no Internet discussion boards where I could go for advice in those days, and everyone I knew was perfectly satisfied with their Bic ballpoints and regarded fountain pens as being as outdated as a horse and cart. All I could do was ponder on my experience and try to find a way forward. No blinding light of revelation came to me but I had learned that force is never the answer, pens (I didn’t even know what the material was that the pen was made from) didn’t like water and I had made my first pen restoration tool, imperfect though it was.

That might have been the end of that and I would have had to be satisfied with a Bic ballpoint like everyone else or laid out the huge sum that new fountain pens cost in those days. Fate intervened, though, as it so often does, and I went to a stationery store one day to buy that accordion-fold paper that printers used back then. The man who sold it to me was making notes with a truly ancient fountain pen. I admired it and we fell into fountain pen conversation. In the past, as part of his stationery business, he had serviced and repaired fountain pens. That work had dried up several years before. Not only was he happy to sell me some tools and spares (including sacs) but he gave me a brief tutorial on types of fountain pen and the methods of their repair.

From that moment on there was no looking back. I would like to say that I still have that first Swan, all these years later, but barrels, caps and nibs are too precious for sentimentality. It was used for spares long ago.

7 thoughts on “The First Repair

  1. This story inspires all of us to take a small step toward restoration, even if we fail. Thank you for sharing the spark that got you started. What year would this have been? What city was the antique store located in?

  2. stories with passion are heartwarming – they are everything:) I too remember ‘junk shops’ – the only trouble is that when I was 16 – 18, pens were not collected – justt think of the gems that I must have passed by when browsing such places:(

  3. What grieves me are the dreadful stories of pens being put in the skip when factories closed down. I have no doubt that they removed the nibs first but just think of all those glorious meant pens being consigned to the landfill. If I was a little fitter I would get out with a pick and spade.

  4. dump digging for bottles etc. was another interest I had in the dim distant past, and had some really good finds. Unfortunately pens don’t care for being in the ground in the same way as glass – sadly I bet they’ve all been crushed and ruined long ago, so better put your spade back in the shed:)
    Having said that, when I was metal detecting some decades ago, I found a Pullman pen from a chalk location – which may have helped to save much of the pens body. The plastic outer covering had deteriorated, but most of the innards and pen remained in vgc., especially the nib, which looked as good as the day it was made. The particular design of the Pullman pen, which provides for encasing the delicate parts, was perhaps the saving grace of this buried example.
    I sold it in recent times, and assumed I’d never see another example as they don’t pop up like most run-of-the-mill Brit. pens – and it’s true, I haven’t ………. but in recent months found a Pullman nib, on, of all things, on a German pre war Luxor ink view piston filler!!

  5. .. a really delightful story Deb. And, as with others, opened delightful memory banks to one’s first exposure to fountain pens and ink. The callous on one’s writing finger from school days may be less pronounced, but likewise remains a warm memory trigger, Thank you.

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