They’re a Mystery to Me

I know I’m only the assistant but I think I’m the only one taking an interest in pens these days. The weather’s good and the humans are out in the garden every day.

They’re growing green leafy things and they tell me they’re going to eat them! The very thought gives me the shudders. Eating plants! Give me tin of Whiskas any time! I’ll never understand humans. They’re nice but very odd.

Graphology, Science or Pseudoscience?

The Victorians loved to enumerate and list everything and one of those ideas was graphology, the belief that a person’s personality could be inferred from their measured and assessed handwriting. It received a big boost when Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes was able to describe a writer’s character from a note or letter. The fact that Holmes was a fictitious character is neither here nor there… In more recent times companies have used graphology to decide whether or not to employ someone, using the services of graphology experts. Were they experts or “experts”?

Such things as the forming of letters, slope of writing and the size of writing form part of their discipline. I don’t know enough about graphology to to decide whether it is a reliable skill which amounts to a science or spurious nonsense like such other useless measurements as phrenology. My own writing varies enormously depending on the writing instrument, the ink and the paper. I have to find my best writing angle with each fountain pen and that influences how my writing appears. With some dip nibs my writing slopes but with fountain pens it’s usually vertical. The size varies a lot too and these are things a graphologist would use to deduce personality. Probably the form of my letters remains the same though this draft is done in a hasty scrawl, quite different from my written fine copy.

I don’t suppose that companies use graphologists nowadays as most young people are incapable of writing without keyboard, or so I am told. I have my opinion about graphology but what do you think? Is it science or bunkum?

Dickens on Writing

Sam Weller sat himself down on a box near the stove, and pulled out the sheet of gilt-edged letter-paper, and the hard-nibbed pen. Then looking carefully at the pen to see that there were no hairs in it, and dusting down the table, so that there might be no crumbs of bread under the paper, Sam tucked up the cuffs of his coat, squared his elbows, and composed himself to write.

To ladies and gentlemen who are not in the habit of devoting themselves practically to the science of penmanship, writing a letter is no very easy task; it being always considered necessary in such cases for the writer to recline his head on his left arm, so as to place his eyes as nearly as possible on a level with the paper, and, while glancing sideways at the letters he is constructing, to form with his tongue imaginary characters to correspond. These motions, although unquestionably of the greatest assistance to original composition, retard in some degree the progress of the writer…

Charles Dickens, The Pickwick Papers (1836)

Changing Preferences

I stole this subject from Fountain Pen Geeks. I think the original question was “How have your preferences changed?” My starting point as an adult was not chosen. I was made a gift of a Sheaffer Targa which had a firm medium nib. I used it for a few years and it was a great pen. Then I picked up an Onoto with a very flexible stub. That was the pen of choice for ages though I acquired lots of other pens both vintage and new. There’s so much on offer and every pen is different so it takes quite a while to work out what one’s preferences actually are.

I stuck with flex for quite a while though I began to realise that it slowed me down. It also covered a lot of sloppy handwriting. Eventually I went the other way and for years I only used firm fine or EF. That’s a configuration I still like.

Paper began to drive my choice of nib. I like paper with some texture – in fact I can’t abide absolutely smooth papers like Clairefontaine Triomphe. However the more textured papers don’t work well with fine nibs. I began using mediums more for correspondence though I stick with fine firms for drafts and note-taking. That allows me to use some of my older Conway Stewarts and my Osmia 223 which even has a little flex.

While I will never be a calligrapher I do enjoy playing with handwriting. For years I has eschewed the dip pen after early bad experiences with it. In the last few months I have tried again, initially with an Esterbrook Relief nib: no flex but lots of stub character. Since then I’ve tried other nibs. At the moment my dip nib of choice is the M Myers and Son Round Writer, a stub with lots of easy flex.

All that has developed over thirty-odd years. Some people may work towards that one pen or group of pens that become their lifetime choice. I think that I find something I like, stay with that for a few years then move on to something else and I probably always will. There will never be a lasting end point for me. A new thing will always come along and rock my boat now and again. And that’s a good thing!

A Swan SF230

This SF230 is one of the clipless ones; clips were an option when these pens were issued in the mid-twenties and it is surprising how many customers saw the clip as unnecessary, at first at least, though some appear with accommodation clips, indicating a later change of mind. It suggests that for many the pen remained on the desk only but it was increasingly carried by others.

This pen is in exceptionally good order, still as black as when new. It also retains its original lustre. This is how an SF230 looked in 1925.

We all have our favourite periods and pens. This decade is mine, Swans from 1925 to 1935. The SF range, together with the slightly later Leverlesses and the very handsome Eternals are the best of all pens for me. There’s something about the length, balance and weight (or lack of it) that suits my hand better than any other. I love its appearance too: the two barrel and one cap gold-plated bands and the inclusion of a mottled hard rubber piece at the top of the cap. I have an American friend who enthuses about these pens and it is the MHR that captivates him. The US Mabie Todd Company made somewhat similar pens but only the British ones added the MHR.

The nib is a correct New York one and it is as good as they always are. It’s so nice to have a century-old pen in this condition, especially the then new technology of a self-filler. That’s when all those eyedropper fillers that we enjoy were put away in a drawer for us to discover years and years later.

A Gold Plated Swan Ring-Top

I like gold plated Swans and I used to handle a lot of them but prices have gone insane on eBay. Sellers set a starting price equivalent to that of a solid gold pen. They don’t sell, of course, but I can’t buy them either.

This ring-top started at a reasonable price and the seller was well repaid for a pen that needed restoration and I got a pen at a good price for me. Smiles all round. It’s 9.9cm long, capped, exclusive of the ring. The wave pattern is attractive.

As with all pens the main thing is the nib and that’s what’s so good about this one. It has a fine stub, an uncommon type of nib.

Like many gold plated vintage pens, this one has a little ink damage at the edge of the metal. I wonder if modern inks are as caustic as some of the old ones.

Eric and The Ford

This is my husband’s Ford Patent Pen. I bought it for him as an engagement present fifteen years ago. It’s the standard size and it isn’t kept under glass. It’s in the rotation and we both use it. It holds a bucketful of ink. Unfortunately the rotation has become quite big in recent years and though I fill the Ford with water before I put it away, I’ve been horrified to find that it has dried out when I take it out to use it again.

I’ve twice been lucky and the introduction of a little water into the inner barrel got it going again. Last week, though, the Ford had had enough of my neglect and bad behaviour and it refused to draw ink. I’m a good enough repairer with the run-of-the-mill pens but there are some pens and some repairs that are beyond my skills and courage. The Ford was expensive when I bought it and it has been a good investment. It’s worth an alarming amount of money now and I’m not going to go fiddling with it so I sent it to Eric Wilson. It came back in a couple of days in perfect condition once again. Many thanks, Eric.

Whenever I’ve had a pen I couldn’t fix myself I’ve always sent it to Eric and I haven’t come across a type of pen that he can’t fix if it’s fixable. He’s the master of Onotos and probably the only person in Britain that fixes Wahl Doric plunger fillers correctly. Swan Visofils too. He even does arcane things like cracked nib repair and gold plating. I’m often asked to do repairs for others – something I don’t do – and I’m confident in sending those people to Eric as I know the work will be first class, they’ll get a good turnaround and it won’t be expensive. You can contact Eric at

We’re very fortunate in having such experts available to us today.

A Slender Dip Pen

I used to buy small collections of pens, often just for the one or two pens I really wanted. The result was an ever-accumulating pile of vaguely fountain pen-related odds and ends which I scrapped or gave away. I thought it was all gone, then I came upon a small stash the other day.

This was the most interesting thing, a small dip pen about 15cm long but very thin, too thin for any extended use except by the most supple small hands. It isn’t a toy; the shaft is beautifully marbled white celluloid, the ferrule is good gold plate with no brassing and the nib, I am sure, is gold though it doesn’t have a 14k stamp. The nib is Grieshaber, so American.

It’s not the only tiny dip pen I’ve seen. I’ve come across them from time to time. Once upon a time it must have been a thing, to use the modern idiom.

I made a writing sample but it isn’t worth adding here because I have such difficulty with as slender a pen as this. Suffice it to say that it is a Western fine with considerable flexibility.

A Mottled Hard Rubber Mystery

This beautiful and mysterious safety pen was shown to me by Rob Parsons. The tapering shape of the pen suggests that it is a late one. The mottled hard rubber is lovely as it always is.

Who made it? It has a superficial resemblance to Waterman pens and it has an 18k Waterman nib. There’s no writing at all on the pen and that excludes Waterman as the manufacturer even though the internal parts are very like those used by Waterman in their safety pens.

I’d be prepared to hazard a guess that the pen is French. Years ago, when I bought more internationally than I do now I bought several French MHR pens that were shameless copies of Waterman products. This may be another. The pens were always of the highest quality and I was never able to find out who made them. Nibs are changed often so they are an unreliable method of determining where a pen was made but I can’t entirely ignore the fact that vintage 18k nibs were usually French.

Thanks to Rob for sight of this unusual pen.

Still Here!

Apologies for my absence. It’s that time of year when other things demand our attention, sowing and planting and getting the garden in good order.

I’ve been buying and restoring pens too, though. It’s hard work to get decent pens at a reasonable price these days. I think a large proportion of pens go through eBay without attracting a bid because of the crazily high starting prices. I will have to look elsewhere.

Perhaps the most important part of pen restoration is assessing the pen when it arrives. Sometimes sellers miss things. A cracked cap or nib is too serious a fault to keep the pen. Other undeclared faults and blemishes can be the subject of negotiation with a reasonable seller.

One annoyance is bad packing. A pen arrived this morning covered tightly in layers of paper and plastic, held together with masses of sticky tape. It makes removing this mess so difficult that it endangers the pen. A few layers of bubble wrap and a strong container is all that’s needed.

Grouch over.