Nibs & Things

Most of my customers buy pens to write with. I also have a few who are collectors. Just because they collect doesn’t mean that they don’t write with those pens. Most do.

I see Swans in rare patterns and styles occasionally in eBay and if I am very, very lucky I’m successful in getting one now and again. Mostly I’m outbid. Collectors have sharp eyes and if a couple of them spot a rarity the price rockets beyond what would be sensible for me as a restorer to bid. There are restorer prices and collector prices, the latter often being very much higher.

I appreciate my collector friends. Within their area of collection they are the experts and many have vast knowledge of the whole field of British pens. Many are very generous with their hard-won knowledge, accumulated over many years.

Writers – sometimes the same people as the collectors – look for a specific nib. Many, usually at the beginning of their love affair with pens, look for that uncommon thing, the wet noodle. They have learned enough to be able to tell me that they want a fine superflex with enough flow to sustain those wide-open tines, and instant snap-back.

Among Swans and Blackbirds such a nib is almost a chimera. There are plenty of flexible Swans but I see a pen matching the description of a “wet noodle” once in a long, long time. My advice to those writers is to try Watermans and expect to pay a lot of money. I don’t price my pens by the behaviour of their nib; I have a very straightforward method that keeps the price down as far as I can but does not send me to bankruptcy.

Those who look for nibs of other specifications, the stub, the Relief and needlepoint (among other types) are more likely to find what they want, even if there is sometimes a wait. Mabie Todd produced a large range of nibs to suit their clients and those clients seem to have come to them often for the less than usual nibs.

In buying pens it’s often potluck with nibs. I depend on photos and descriptions and many sellers are not very good at either. Even when photos of the nib are clear and close up, it often depends on the angle: is that a stub or an oblique? Some people insist that long tines invariably mean flex; of course they don’t. I’ve had many pens with long tines that are completely inflexible and other short, stubby nibs with glorious flexibility.

I’ve had, perforce, to learn to repair nibs, to remove the bends and wrinkles from those that have been dropped and the vintage pens I deal with have been around long enough to have accidents. Nib straightening is a business that varies from the delicate to the brutal. I try to improve them quickly as repeatedly bending a nib will change its temper and behaviour. There’s a lot of tine-moving with my fingers. I have one of those useful microscopes that works with the computer and I use that to check the accuracy of my work. After that it’s the big bends and for them I am grateful for Laurence Oldfield’s nib tools that I use all the time. Sometimes nibs are very badly bent and wrinkled. With those I do my best but I’m not always successful. My little jeweller’s anvil gets set up in the vice and a plastic mallet is sternly applied through a protective sheet of rubber. It astonishes me how often this takes the very worst of the damage out of a nib. There will be more refined work to follow but it all depends on those first, well-aimed blows.

I love every part of pen work but especially getting nibs to write properly. It’s one of the main reasons I stick with gold-nib pens. Steel is not so malleable and my success rate with it is low. I try to ensure that those old nibs write as they should when they reach your hand.

Writing Rambling

It’s all about getting words on a page but I’m using a variety of tools to do that these days – or at least I’m trying to! I’m using a stainless steel Sheaffer Targa to draft this, an old friend I’ve had for more years than I care to count. The beautiful inlaid nib lays down ink with the merest touch, with never a hesitation or skip. I still think of it as a modern pen though Targas have been around since 1976. Not quite vintage, not quite modern.

I do most of my correspondence with a dip pen. I have a choice of nibs I’m confident to use: the Esterbrook Relief, the Macniven and Cameron Waverley and the William Mitchell “Pedigree” Round Hand. They all apply ink to the paper in very different ways and it takes a few lines for muscle memory to kick in and my hand adjusts to that particular nib. That isn’t limited to dip pens of course, the same thing happens with every fountain pen I pick up. As I’m sure I’ve said often before, I’m no calligrapher; I write as I write and the joy comes from producing my natural writing style using different tools. I celebrate my success in using the dip pen after all the years I thought I couldn’t write with it.

That celebration does not extend to the quill, or at least not yet. I see my friend Rob Parsons’ first attempt with a quill in Fountain Pen Geeks, an absolute wonder of beautiful calligraphy. Envy and jealousy are sins, I am told, and they’re certainly not good for the soul, so I carefully eject them from my mind and concentrate on the matter in hand. My first effort at cutting a quill resulted in a pathetic object, a miserable thing I didn’t even attempt to write with. But that’s okay. It’s a step on the road to mastery of that ages-old skill. I’ve read the instructions and watched the videos. It will fall into place soon and then it is down to muscle memory once again. When you get it right for the first time repetition comes easily.

Conway Stewart 85/Esterbrook Relief

Some time ago a friend gave me a Conway Stewart 85. It had belonged to his late father. It’s the simplest and commonest of 85s: it’s black. I wish I had known his father. I would have loved to ask why he chose black when 85s came in so many attractive patterns. It’s not like it was cheaper.

Conway Stewart prided themselves on their nibs but I find the ordinary Conway Stewart nib rather dull and uninspiring. Obviously that was not the case for Conway Stewart’s thousands of customers. I think it’s like modern Pelikans which people are happy with but I can’t use. It’s worth saying that Conway Stewart’s specialist nibs like the uncommon stubs and italics are great nibs. In pre-war pens especially there are very occasionally flexible nibs and they are superb too.

So that’s the long preamble! This pen sat in a drawer, unused, for at least ten years. Then circumstances gave me a spare Esterbrook Relief nib. During the period that Conway Stewart were producing Relief pens for Esterbrook, pens for the British market, Conway Stewart doubtless produced these nibs to Esterbrook’s design. The other possibility is that Esterbrook supplied them to Conway Stewart but I think that’s less likely.

Anyway I swapped the Esterbrook Relief nib into the 85. It fitted perfectly, of course, as it was intended for very similar pens. It rescued the 85 from the drawer and it is now in frequent use. I love oblique nibs. They flatter my writing. I think it avoids any hint of being Frankenpen-ish. That’s a word you won’t find in any dictionary.


I sent away for some goose feathers and they arrived yesterday. There are numerous guides to their preparation on YouTube which should allow me to make a good quill. I have a small, thin-bladed knife – a gift from a kind friend – which should be perfect for the cuts one must make to prepare the point. I’m looking forward to the challenge.

I used to have sight of birth, death and marriage registers dating back to the middle of the 19th century. At that time all entries were made by quill pen and they included the best handwriting I have ever seen. Every entry was a work of art. Clearly there was much more to that high quality of writing than the use of the quill, but it must have played a part.

Each registrar would have had the skill to cut his quill to suit his hand and the way he (they were all men in the early years) wrote. This, it seems to me, is a better way than adjusting your hand to the unchangeable metal nib later registrars used. The style and quality of the handwriting declined as the years went by.

For most practical purposes the metal nib, whether of the steel dip variety or the gold nib housed in a fountain pen, were short-lived Johnny-come-latelies in comparison with the many centuries when the quill was what writing was produced with. Were they an improvement? I think that they were, but some artistic quality may have been lost when the quills were laid away.

Boots “Dorothy”

Boots the Chemist provided us with lots of excellent pens over the years, most notably by Burnham and De La Rue. The De La Rue versions especially, are very fine pens with outstanding nibs.

This is probably the earliest pen, the “Dorothy”. I don’t know who made it – perhaps De La Rue?

It’s a typical early twentieth century eyedropper filler. The feed is of the over-and-under type.

I seem to have a vague memory of the “Dorothy” pen but we haven’t discussed it here before and I can’t find it in my notes. I think it just fell out of my head like so much else.

Thanks to Mario Kaouklis

Writing on Animal Skins

Aren’t we lucky that we can just pop paper in the printer or open a new notebook and begin writing away? It isn’t so terribly long since none of that was possible. Perhaps not in living memory but a little before that paper was an expensive item for the ordinary household and before that there was no paper available at all but that was okay because hardly anyone could write.

I suppose we are all aware of the medieval illuminated manuscripts crafted on vellum: gospels and books of hours, as devotional works were called. Classical texts from antiquity were recovered and were also copied, as were original works, religious and scientific. All of these had to be copied up by hand, mostly in monasteries though some scholars were famous for the quality of their handwriting. All this was done on parchment or vellum. Some say that vellum is processed from calfskin whereas parchment is made from goatskin or sheepskin. Others say the two names are interchangeable.

To make parchment you washed the animal skin, soaked it in lime solution, washed it again, stretched it out on a wooden frame, scraped off the hair with a hooked knife called a lunellum and cut it into rectangular sheets. Scribes kept a pumice stone to even out the gooseberried skin and perhaps a boar’s tooth to polish the surface so that the ink – made from oak gall – would adhere. They kept a different knife to scrape off any mistakes.

This may seem an arduous process but it is estimated that the English royal government alone produced thirty thousand documents a year by the 12th century. So far as I can remember I have never actually handled any parchment so I bought a small piece so that I would know what I was talking about (for a change!). It is a cream coloured oblong of a substance quite unlike anything else. The piece I have is goatskin and there are slightly darker areas where the animal was coloured. I expect that this would have been unacceptable for a monastery. The parchment scrap is stiff, thin and has a slightly dimpled appearance, probably the gooseberry effect mentioned earlier.

I didn’t want to sully my little piece of vellum with my scrawl so I asked my friend Hans, who is an immeasurably better writer than I am, to choose a quotation that he found appropriate and you see the result above. Hans said that writing on parchment was quite an experience; some parts were rough, others very smooth. The ink does not penetrate, rather it dries on the surface. He used walnut ink (which looks splendid!) and a John Mitchell 0661 nib. Who can say whether it would have been easier using a quill.

There’s more to say on this subject. Monks or scribes used materials that were produced in-house, as it were. No nipping out to buy a bottle of ink in those days (actually it isn’t easy now, either!). I may take this further in a future article but this is as far as my research has taken me.

Deep gratitude to Hans Gilliams.


Rob Parsons raised the issue of sacs, a more complicated business than it might at first appear. For years we were offered sacs that we were told were silicone but were actually PVC. Now the real thing is on offer. They are good sacs. Some people imagine that they are “better” in some way than latex sacs. This is not true. They have a purpose and their use should be limited to that. They are useful for celluloid patterns that are likely to be spoiled by a failing latex sac: jade, black and pearl, lapis lazuli and some others. The downside is that they provide more resistance to the mechanism than latex sacs and may apply too much pressure on levers and pressure bars.

Pliglass sacs look somewhat similar but are very different. They are used only in Parker Aerometric fillers such as the British Duofold and later Parker 51s. They have the wonderful property that few fail and and they are likely to last until the human race is no more. The few that do fail are the result of damage. They discolour but this is not a reason for replacement. Proper Pliglass replacements are available now.

Finally we get to latex sacs, by far the best solution for hard rubber pens or celluloid ones that will not discolour. They are very flexible and are therefore less demanding on filling mechanisms. They do fail through time and indeed it might be said that they begin failing the moment they are made. However this is a slow and imperceptible process. Latex sacs last a long time. As I said earlier I would expect this not to be a concern for eight to ten years. Many last much longer and I have heard stories of vintage pens being opened and found to contain a perfectly pliable original sac!

A concern was mentioned that the price of latex sacs is rising. The Pen Sac Company (the only manufacturer of latex sacs now) finally applied a modest increase in the cost of latex sacs few months ago. The price had remained at the same level for years and years. Because I use a lot of sacs I buy from the source and I don’t know what price rises have been applied by retailers. To be fair to them, they have to cover the import costs, as I do, and they are quite steep. I would say that they are only justified in raising their prices once in recent years, given that The Pen Sac Company only raised theirs once. How retailers charge for sacs is their business. Shop around.

I love latex sacs. They are much less bother than the alternative. Shellac fixes them firmly and never fails whereas you have to hunt around for adhesives for the other kinds and they are not always as reliable and easy to work with.

Finally, I regard The Pen Sac Company as the vintage pen hobby’s saint. The owners have restored old, failed machinery and made the production of all shapes and sizes of sacs possible. Without their determination to make restoration of old pens possible we would only have those vintage pens under glass, to be admired, not used. Way back when I started out in this hobby I didn’t know where to get ink sacs. There was no Internet to guide me and I had a splendid early Waterman with a wonderful nib. I could only use it as a dip pen. Thank you, The Pen Sac Company.


Some people don’t like sac-filler pens, that is lever-fillers and button-fillers. For someone who has only used cartridge/converter fillers I can kind of understand why that might be. It’s all about flushing and lever-fillers especially can be difficult in that regard. Button-fillers, if they are properly serviced, are the easiest to flush of all pens, so the problem really focuses on lever-fillers. I use them a lot but mostly I refill with the same ink, only flushing after the third fill. Then I accept that so long as I get enough water through the pen to ensure that there will be no residue settling in the sac and feed I’m confident to put it away. I only use blues and blacks in my lever-fillers.

Once you accept that routine or something similar there’s no real reason to dislike lever-fillers. There might be an aesthetic dislike of the lever breaking the pattern of the barrel but really? Isn’t that a little fussy? A continued prejudice against lever-fillers denies one some of the best fountain pens there are: 1920s Watermans, Wahl Eversharps, Swans, Conway Stewarts – there’s quite a list of glorious pens denied to lever-haters!

On the good side, they’re easier and quicker to refill than a converter and give an enormous range of inks less expensively than cartridges. Personally, I avoid the red end of the spectrum with my lever-fillers but there is no real reason why I should do so. I could assign a few pens to these colours.

Some people avoid sac-fillers because they don’t trust the sac. They’re quite right; the sac will fail. I find my sacs take an average of eight to ten years between services. That’s not a bad lifespan. It’s vanishingly rare for a sac to fail while the pen is in use. It’s usually when you go to fill a pen that has been out of rotation for a while that you feel some resistance when you lift the lever. The sac has gone leathery and it’s time to fit another, or if you don’t want to do it yourself, to send it to the pen mechanic of your choice. I don’t know what they charge for that nowadays – say £30 and a tenner for return postage. 40p a year for the joy of using your lovely flexy Swan? I don’t think that’s too expensive.

The lever-filler was the most common filling system throughout the glory years of the fountain pen for a reason – or several reasons. It was convenient for the user, taking seconds to fill without having to remove any parts. The cost of production wasn’t excessive, probably less than plunger and piston fillers. There were cheaper pens available: bulb and syringe fillers, but they were not so reliable, having a tendency to drop blots of ink just as you reached the bottom of the page.

I don’t expect this article to change the minds of those who are convinced sac-fillers are too much trouble. They will go on with their cartridge/converter fillers and piston-fillers. That’s okay. If they all changed their minds and decided to buy those lever-fillers after all it would just jack the price up. I’m happy to leave things as they are!

A Bonzo Box

I wrote about the Bonzo pen once before. The search box above right will find it. On that occasion I had the pen but no box. Rob Parsons has kindly given me photos of a box in superb condition.

There isn’t much humour in pen world advertising and presentation. These humorous Bonzo images in brilliant colours provide exceptional light relief.

Some Swan and Onoto advertisemnts are funny and Conway Stewart’s “Speedy Phil” image is a light-hearted one. I’m sure there are many more but I can think of none quite as bright and cheerful as Bonzo.

In contrast to the box, the Bonzo is a serious pen, elegant and well made with its inserted clip (though actually the one illustrated on the box is earlier and has an accommodation clip) . It is certainly the best pen that Mentmore produced during that period.

Record it!

Humanity has an inbuilt need to write. At first it was purely practical, I’m sure, those cuneiform blocks recording stock and sales but it wasn’t long before the need to comment on life, record events and tell stories intruded.

Whether it was reed pens and papyrus, animal skins and quills, steel pens and paper it served an undeniable need. Fountain pens were not so different from the dip kind, just a little more convenient. Ballpoints added whatever it is that ballpoints add. Machines began to intrude as people composed directly onto the typewriter, later the flatter keyboard that fed a word processor or spreadsheet.

It’s possible to make moral judgments about these methods of laying our thoughts on paper or onto blocks of computer memory but ultimately it’s just about preference.

For many years my preference was fountain pens alone. There’s enough there to keep you fascinated forever, each nib being different from every other and there’s the charm of vintage and modern filling systems.

As a child I failed utterly at writing with a dip pen, the lethally pointed nib catching in the surface of the paper, spraying ink where it shouldn’t go. A few other kids managed it, a mystery to me. I hate to be defeated and a few months ago I decided on a rematch. At first I seemed to be no better than I was at seven years old but quite soon the years of acquired manual dexterity kicked in. I was astounded that I was finally able to write with the feared and detested dip pen even if it was only with relief and round hand stubs.

Over the years the batches of fountain pens I have bought for repair and resale contained occasional dip pen nibs. Some I gave away, others I kept though I could not have explained why. I now have a cigar box of nibs of every possible shape. Every new nib I tried was a challenge to be persevered with until I had some form of scrawled success.

It has become another obsession. I enjoy the slower pace of writing with dip nibs, though many retain quite a few lines-worth of ink with each dip. All my correspondence with friends of the pen persuasion is done that way now, with India or IG ink. Dip pens lack the everyday practicality of fountain pens but hey, this is a hobby. What does practicality have to do with it?