Shellacking the Section/Barrel Joint

I never thought the day would arrive when I would disagree with David Nishimura. For years his blog and comments in the fountain pen boards have influenced my repair practices and my writings. However, I find myself respectfully differing from him about shellacking sections, something he does himself and advises others to consider doing.

He begins from a comment made by Parker in one of their 1919 publications for agents. They advise applying shellac to a screw-in section to “prevent the customer from unscrewing it.” That, frankly, is one of the more arrogant comments I have ever come across, made no better by the fact that I have seen it repeated by another modern misguided “restorer.” Most will know to whom I refer. He is well-known for his bad advice in other repair respects!

It is amusing to note that Parker advise the use of a gas jet to heat barrel and section in the same paragraph. It emphasises the point that what was acceptable a century ago no longer is best practice. Nowadays we respect the customer rather more. The pen he or she has bought is their’s to do with as they wish. If, for instance, the pressure bar on a button filler becomes dislodged as a result of the pen being opened, that’s not a tragedy. A repair person can put it right and a lesson has been learned at a small cost. Perhaps it’s time that we learned the lesson not to treat customers like children. That’s a truly dreadful mindset.

Another reason given for applying shellac to sections is to ensure that heat is used to release them, thus avoiding the cracked barrel that may result from forcing a cold section. I’m not sure that I follow this thinking. I know of no repair person who would not apply heat to a section, glued with shellac or not. We all frequently warn against forcing a cold section in the pen boards, but someone who has never worked on a pen before, or read our advice, may well try to open the pen without heating the barrel/section joint. If it does not give way because it is shellacked, he or she is just as likely to grab a pair of engineer’s pliers and ruin the section altogether. You can’t legislate for ignorance.

David rightly says that celluloid loses plasticisers when heated and that should be done no more often than is necessary. This is an argument for sealing with something other than shellac, but most sections are gripped so tightly by the barrel that heat is almost invariably needed. After a pen has remained closed for the lifetime of a sac, it’s likely to need a little encouragement.

Where the section is a little loose in the barrel, David recommends sealing the section with shellac. I would certainly use shellac in this case, carefully building up layers of shellac to make the section fit properly, and curing it thoroughly before fitting. He also mentions that a section sealed with shellac will prevent the ingress of ink when the pen is inserted too far into the bottle when filling. Quite so, but this is not a problem I’m particularly concerned about. The effect of the ink entering the joint and drying there would be to hold the section in place more firmly – like shellac! Most joints, whether friction or threaded, are too tight to permit the ingress of ink.

All in all, I don’t see a case for applying shellac to the section/barrel joint. I have never done so, and thousands of pens later I’ve had neither complaints nor reports of problems because of my practice. As in all matters relating to repairs I would be prepared to change if the arguments presented convinced me. So far, that hasn’t happened.

My hands are not as strong now as they were when I began repairing pens. Then, I opened all but the most stubborn of pens with my fingers. I developed a degree of muscular sensitivity that allowed me to apply the correct torque to get the job done and cause no damage. It has taken years of careful work to allow me to even approximate that sensitivity with section pliers. Most sections, whether threaded or friction fitted are released with very little heat and slight pressure. That makes for a safe procedure for the strength of the pen material vastly outweighs the heat and effort required. Adding sealant to the section/barrel joint changes that. That’s most obvious with certain Waterman pens where an unknown glue was used. In many cases it’s far easier to break the pen than separate the parts. Use of shellac doesn’t cause that level of problem but it does mean that more heat and effort are required. I believe the application of shellac is unnecessary and it is increasing the risk to vintage pens, even if only slightly.

16 thoughts on “Shellacking the Section/Barrel Joint

  1. Well, I see no harm in using shellac for section, but I see no use as well. I usually do not use shellac for more than fitting pen sacs. Fit a loose section with shellac to me feels strange – as shellac never fully hardens, the fit will never really be tight. What I do in such a case – I apply a very thin layer of instant adhesive, like Loctite at the inside of the barrel. Leave it to dry and harden, try if the fit is better, if not add another thin layer. And if in the end you have too tight a fit, take off some of the Loctite using a sand paper.

    1. I’ve been giving your comment a lot of thought, Tom, and I cannot agree that shellac never fully hardens. It comes in a hard disk and is mixed with spirits which are very volatile and disperse rapidly leaving the shellac hard. You have only to scrape off dried shellac and watch it crumble and flake to be aware of how completely hardened it is.

      1. It is indeed, and sometimes solving that problem is difficult, although patience and heat usually are sufficient.

  2. Deb. I must just be lucky 🍀 I haven’t come across one shellacked section yet.
    I’ve run into ones that take a scary amount of heat to budge though !!

    And I totally agree . There’s just no need for it ! Except maybe to build up a super loose section with layers …CURED between coats like you say . But I haven’t done that yet either .

  3. I’ve never restored a pen, only “serviced” a couple, but I have to say I agree with this and never understood that advice. I have a couple of vintage pens I’m far too nervous to even attempt to open for fear of breaking them, and I suspect they have been shellacked.

    1. Thank you! You will be able to fix your vintage pens – dry heat cautiously applied, patience, detrmination and several repetitions as necesary. I use section pliers. If you don’t have a heat gun a hair drier will do. My email is there. Let me know how it and goes and contact me if you continue to have difficulty.

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