About the Sales Site

You may have noticed that the sales site is “Down for Maintenance”. There are some changes we have perforce to make and it is my intention that these will take no more than a week, less if things go well. If you have any questions contact me on redripple@btinternet.com.

Mabie Todd Jackdaw

Jackdaws are quite uncommon and when they do turn up it’s usually in a fairly battered state. They were school pens, after all, so it isn’t that their quality is less than that of other Mabie Todd pens; it’s just that they were in the hands of little school age horrors*. Indeed the quality is excellent. It’s only in the small nib and rather plain design that economy shows.

I have often taken this model of Jackdaw to be older than it really is because of the flat-top design. They look like twenties pens but were made in the mid-thirties. Most, of course, are quite colourful but this example is just plain black.

The Jackdaw shows that despite the tiny nib such a pen will write just as well as any other. Nib size has nothing to do with writing, of course. The bank manager will want to impress you with his huge No 8 nib but that pen doesn’t write better than your kid’s Jackdaw. Maybe the opposite, in fact, because a large, long nib can become awkward in smaller hands. The smallest nib of all is, of course, the hugely popular Parker 51.

The box is very decorative and is often saved for that reason. I always think that the bird illustrated looks more like a starling except for the white ring around the eye which does identify it as a jackdaw, The colours of the box are still strong after ninety years; they must have been very bright and attractive when new. The double-height “J” in Jackdaw is typographically adventurous as is the mixture of regular and italic typescripts. Sadly, the box doesn’t contain the original papers.

The pen isn’t entirely plain. There are two chased rings on the barrel and one on the cap. It is in very good condition. The only place where wear shows is on the lever, where the chromium plating has suffered. The condition of the pen suggests that it was the property of that rarity, a civilised child – or perhaps a thrifty adult.

The Jackdaw is a fine pen. Fortunate the child that was given one.

*Please don’t take my comments on children the wrong way. Many of my best friends are children. Indeed, I am assured I was once one myself.

The Glorious Nail

When I began using fountain pens again as an adult, it was with a Sheaffer, a medium nib and hard as a rock. Then I discovered flex and delighted in it for a few years. My writing is about legibility rather than beauty but line variation covers a host of sins.

However, I was trying to improve my writing and that was never going to happen so long as I hid behind line variation. In any case I know my own limitations and I have no ambition towards calligraphy. I missed the challenge of writing well with a firm fine – or as well as I can! I bought my first firm fine as an experiment but it just felt right. I’ve kept one or two flex pens and I have a few broad stubs. They’re good for signatures and for addressing envelopes. Everything else is done with a fine or an extra fine. I’ve moved from the flex to the firm camp – which is great as it opens the door to wonderful pens: Duofolds, Summits, Mentmores and the whole range of Japanese pens, vintage and modern.

It’s strange how the value of nibs has changed. Many flex nibs from the twenties and thirties flexed because the manufacturers wanted to save money and did so by using very thin grades of gold. The firm pens like the Conway Stewart Duro or the Swan Eternal were the expensive, prestigious ones. Also they were in demand for carbon paper and to reduce the number of warranty claims for cracked nibs by the heavy-handed. Those splendid nibs are the ones I see described as ‘nails’!

The demand for the ultra flex nib is very high these days. So many people want a vintage ‘wet noodle’. It really is a pity that the pensmiths of the early twentieth century did not anticipate this change that fashion would take a century later! Such pens are very rare indeed. The pens I sell are mostly firm or semi-flexible with the occasional full flex but only very occasionally something could meet any description of a ‘wet noodle’. The really very, very bendy flexes don’t really occur much in British pens. The Whytwarth safeties can sometimes be an exception. I’ve had Onotos that were very flexible.

What concerns me is what will happen to the semi-flexible and fully flexible nibs I sell. I know that in many cases they will be over-stressed and in others such pressure will be applied in the search for extreme flexibility that nibs will be cracked.

In truth, very few – vanishingly few – fountain pens can achieve the line variation that many dip pen nibs show with ease. That may be the best, and by far the cheapest, way to achieve the flexibility that is fashionable today.

If all you want is a fountain pen with a nib that will show the occasional broad-line flourish while mostly writing as the nib was intended to do, that can be done provided a little mechanical sympathy is applied so as to avoid stressing the nib to the point where a century old nib has its life shortened abruptly.

Short Silver Swan

Twice I’ve drafted posts about this little pen and twice they didn’t seem right so I shall try the “less is more” approach and just say that it was made in 1938, it is quietly understated and the chasing is subtle. And it is my heart’s desire.

A New Tallon

Do you remember Tallon pens? My husband remembers them from 60 years ago when he was at school. His parents bought him cheap pens because he constantly lost them but poor though they were, they never stooped so low as to force a Tallon pen upon him. Tallons were the utter pits.

A conversation a few days ago got me thinking about Tallon. I wrote about them once before, and not in the most complimentary of terms. I thought it was time to look at them again and searched online. Lo and behold, there’s a new Tallon! Out of curiosity I invested £1.29 in a Tallon fountain pen and ballpoint pen set with four cartridges. This is even cheaper than the Chinese. They may well be Chinese now for all I know, though they have a Coventry address. They sell a wide range of stationery.

What can I say about the pens? They’re sold in the usual no-frills bubble. The fountain pen works well but the ballpoint is rather feeble though it may improve with encouragement. Both pens close with a positive snap though this may not last, the platic being what it is. The supplied bright blue ink for the fountain pen is very good though it may well fade as many cheap inks do. The pens themselves are in the traditional flat top style, in the cheapest blue plastic. They’re not repulsive. The fountain pen has a Western fine nib, a little scratchy but it doesn’t skip and it always starts at once.

What more can I say? As pen sets go it’s not the most desirable. In fact it isn’t desirable at all but it works perfectly well. So that’s Tallon, a blast from the past and one of the great consistent survivors, almost as bad now as it was in 1960.

Of Letters and the Writing Thereof

I am fortunate in having several excellent correspondents. I am encouraged to try different papers and inks. It gives my pens another outing apart from the drafts of these blog entries. One beneficial result is that I have to work at keeping my writing as legible as possible.

I love good paper. I do use some modern paper, especially Vergé de France which has texture that I enjoy. I found Clairefontaine Triomphe too smooth, though it works well with dip pens. Much of the paper I use is old, from the time when all paper had to be fountain pen friendly. I was kindly given some sheets of Croxley Hammered, a delightful paper, sadly no longer made. Some of my old papers come with envelopes, others don’t. Some envelopes are so old that the gum on the flap is no longer sticky. But that’s okay, my little dispenser of craft glue does the trick.

The addressing of an envelope raises an issue. There is the concern that if the envelope should get wet, the address will be obliterated. One answer is to use waterproof ink but I have not found a particularly attractive ink of that type. There was a time I capitulated and used a gel pen for addressing the envelopes but I didn’t like that solution. Instead I use the inks that I like and give the address a good rub with beeswax which should protect it. At one time I used a candle stub but I think the beeswax is better and more appropriate.

We keep an old tradition alive. It isn’t so many years ago that letters were the main form of communication with far-flung relatives and friends. Letters in those days carried a heavier burden of emotion then than now. The need for letter writing has diminished but it is significant that now, when we write to each other because we choose to, not because we must, it gives the handwritten letter of today greater significance.

Apart from the letters written by my pen correspondents, I never see a handwritten envelope anymore, just ones with laser-printed addresses in window envelopes. There is a concern that the time may arrive when young postal workers will no longer be able to read cursive writing as it is no longer taught in all schools.

Our letters are, of course, more trivial than the letters of long ago, when eagerly-awaited letters arrived in the trenches of Flanders from dearly loved wives and mothers. And yet, our letters are very welcome too. It brightens my day when I see a handwritten envelope among the dull brown ones.

Caliarts Ego II

We are spoiled for choice these days. The days when you had to fork out a considerable quantity of beer tokens for a good piston filler are gone. This Caliarts Ego II came for around the price of two pints of foaming nectar (unless you frequent a very posh pub).

I’m not really tremendously fond of piston fillers. Usually I prefer a pen that doesn’t hold so much ink. That may seem perverse but even the nicest ink begins to pall a little after a fortnight. On the other hand (who needs to be consistent all the time?) it’s nice to have a good note-taker on the desk that you don’t have to think about. It just goes on and on.

Stylistically, transparent pens have absolutely nothing going for them. I usually avoid them but made an exception in this case in favour of cheapness and convenience. It really is convenient; the cap is the screw-on type but it only requires a turn and a half so it’s fine for note-taking. It is quite entertaining to watch the Eclat de Sapphir sloshing around in there.

Remarkably, considering the price, this Caliarts comes in a tin with a wee spanner, ‘O’ rings and a spare nib and feed unit! I chose fine as I usually do and it’s a very pleasant nib. You will have noted that the turn-button and tassie are bright red. The more conservative among you will have taken that as an indication that the pen should be filled with Diamine Cerise or some-such red ink but that’s not for me. I prefer a contrast. If I had thought about it I would have filled it with Woodland Green.

This isn’t really a review. I, myself, get annoyed with those people who have hardly binned the packaging the pen came in before writing what they call a review. I would prefer to give the pen six months of heavy use, then tell you about it. Even though Chinese pens are vastly improved from the junk they offered a decade ago they still have an unfortunate habit of disassembling themselves in a permanent fashion after a while. All I can really say by way of review for the moment is that the nib is very good indeed, the grip is comfortable and while the pen takes a small ocean of ink it doesn’t fill completely.

More Filling Systems

I didn’t cover all the filling system types in my previous post but that wasn’t really my intention. However, I might pick up some of the others now. There are several sac fillers that find other means of depressing a pressure bar apart from the usual lever or button. There’s the coin filler which has a slot in the barrel above the pressure bar. It’s of the right dimension for a common US coin. The match filler is similar; it has a small hole over the pressure bar for the insertion of a match. A variation of the match filler is the clip filler: the clip protrudes from the bottom of the cap and is the right size for insertion in the hole in the barrel.

A close relative of these is the crescent filler, too well known to need detailed description here. I would say that the various others were just step-gap measures, abandoned as soon as a way to circumvent Sheaffer’s patent lever filler could be found. The crescent filler was actually a competitor to lever and button fill pens. It attracted a strong following and remained in production by Conklin for quite a long time. There have been various Japanese versions. I like the crescent filler.

Rob reminded me of the glass cartridge pen. The first version was by Eagle. It was cheap and sold well. You exchanged your empty cartridge for a full one supplied by Eagle. Those pens have bad nibs and though one can find cartridges for them they do not seal well now. Waterman’s later version of the glass cartridge filler was much better. The pens themselves are excellent. Cartridges are still occasionally available though the seals have perished now. A new seal can be made using a normal latex sac. The cartridges are large and hold a lot of ink.

Another filling system that was moderately popular, especially in Germany, was the blow filler. A sac was fitted in the usual way but there was no pressure bar. There was a small hole in the end of the barrel. One blew into the hole and the pressure deflated the sac. The sac reflated with the pen in the ink. The system worked well enough and was cheap to implement but crouching with one’s face over an ink bottle was not a very popular way to fill a pen.

The basic syringe filler was another cheap method of filling an ink reservoir. The problem with it is that to achieve a good fill of ink would require a very long barrel! The simple squeeze filler doesn’t take very much ink onboard either. Parker’s improvement, called the Aerometric filler employs the addition of a tube which enables several depressions to be applied, each adding ink to the sac until it is full.

Again, the simplest form of bulb filler is inefficient but the inclusion of a vacuum tube allows the barrel to be completely filled. The Langs and Mentmore versions are very good pens. The addition of a metal depressor makes for a better action than squeezing the bulb. To my mind this makes for a better filling system than the over-complicated Parker Vacumatic.

Sheaffer’s Vac, Touchdown and Snorkel are two well-known to need explanation here. Others, such as the Onoto plunger filler and the Ford Patent Pen sophisticated version of the syringe filler were tremendous successes.

I’m sure there are others, old and new, that I’ve forgotten about. The Chinese have been producing various very good ink-in-the-barrel pens. I have one or two of those myself.

Filling Systems

It could be said that filling systems don’t matter at all. If the nib is the right size and shape, if the grip is comfortable, if the ink flow is good, what does it matter where the ink comes from? They all work, after all.

Ink-in-the-barrel systems like eyedroppers, piston and plunger fillers have the benefit of holding a lot of ink and not needing filled very often. But is that always a benefit? Those who like to try lots of inks might not think so. Each of these types of pen has the possibility of dropping a blot of ink now and then.

Sac fillers come in for a lot of stick. Some of that, doubtless, isn’t really down to the filling system, but to their age. There aren’t many modern button or lever fillers around. With these systems you’re always at the mercy of the repairer or your own skills. Sacs can be sensitive to some inks too but to be fair, anything is likely to be sensitive to some modern inks!

The cartridge/converter filler is held in considerable contempt by some, especially those in the vintage camp. Such a pen doesn’t really have a filling system – it’s just a shell awaiting a receptacle of ink. They are the modern equivalent of the safety razor of yore that would only accept one kind of razor blade. Not many converters work well. If you try to fill the pen with the converter in place you usually get just a few millimetres of ink! If you fill the converter, then insert it into the pen you have the king of all hard starters. There are ways around this problem but they’re finicky. At one time c/c pens were cheap because the makers knew they would make their money on the ink and to ensure they did, made their cartridges the only ones that would fit the pen. Many still do today but the pens are no longer cheap. Some – not all that many – take the International cartridge. Others prefer to make money by ensuring that as well as a cupboard full of chargers we have a drawer full of cartridges.

So it’s all bad with the c/c fillers, then? Not entirely. I’m writing this with one, my Waterman Carene with an International cartridge. C/c pens are popular with people who like lots of inks because they have the benefit of not holding much ink. Whether filled by cartridge or converter, they are probably the easiest pens to flush thoroughly.

There’s no objective ‘best’ filling system. It’s down to what you like and how you use your pen. Personally, partly because I’m not really an ink-head, I admire some filling systems over others; the Onoto plunger system and the ingenious Ford Patent filler outshine everything else for me. Even among lever fillers, the swing bar system used by Waterman, Conway Stewart and some others strikes me as a far better way of operating a lever filler than the less efficient J-bar. I could go on, but you get the idea. Some pens just met the engineering challenge of self-filling better than others – and some pens just met the challenge of making squillions for their company better than others.