Restoring

While others strive to push modernity ever further forward, we restorers are determined not to let the past slip away altogether. My husband worked with clocks, pocket watches, cigarette lighters and pen knives before settling upon fountain pens. All have a mixture of decoration and utility. All have become small objects of desire as the real need for them has withered away.

Mechanical clocks and watches have been superseded in so many ways: digital timepieces adorn walls everywhere. Who needs a pocket or wristwatch of any kind now that everyone carries a phone. Less and less people smoke; the traditional pocket or pen knife has come within the purview of the law; more than three inches of sharp metal can get you into a lot of trouble if you forget to take it out of your pocket before you leave the house. All of these things remain useful but not essential. Fewer and fewer of them are still made in the 21st century.

Vintage fountain pens are in this useful but unessential category. Most people, on the odd occasion when they write use a purely functional ballpoint, felt tip, rollerball or gel pen which costs little and has no pretension to beauty. Those rare people who recognise that a fountain pen has unrivalled benefits as a writing instrument can buy an excellent new German or Japanese one.

Whence, then, apart from eccentricity, does the wish for restored old pens come from? Are they in some way genuinely better than modern fountain pens? Every collector or writer with old pens will have their own answer. There can be little doubt that many old pens have better nibs than the modern ones, whether they be flexible or firm. There is the fascination of the history of the firms who created those pens for decades, and in the development of the models they produced.

Then there’s the other history, the periods of war and peace through which they were used. Who owned your old pen? Was it a parent, spouse or lover writing to a First World War soldier whose life hung in the balance from day to day for years? Did an ageing mother use your pen to write to an emigrant child she would never see again?

Even the most inexpensive of fountain pens was made with craft and careful design. At the other end of the scale, the fountain pens that are as much jewellery as writing instruments are works of art, comparable with Art Deco statuettes or Art Nouveau design. The materials from which those old pens were crafted: ebonite, celluloid, gold and silver to name but a few are held in higher esteem than today’s materials.

We restorers bring old neglected pens back to usable and appreciable condition. I do it simply because every one I repair, whether a century or half a century old, carries all those things with it, the history, the design, the beauty and the continuing practicality.

Re-Blacking (Again!)

If you’ve read my earlier comments on the subject you will be aware that I am not in favour of re-blacking. This is for practical and ethical reasons. Until quite recently there was no effective method of re-blacking that could be employed successfully on hard rubber pens with chasing. Potion No9 never really looked like the original black and was easily accidentally removed. If removed intentionally from a chased pen it always left many traces. Using abrasives worked to some degree but not on chased pens unless one was prepared to remove the pattern altogether. In recent times Mark Hoover’s mixture works quite well. It is messy and expensive and if you live anywhere but the U.S., importation will make it very much more expensive.

Ethically re-blacking any pen is reprehensible. You may say that you re-black only your own pens for your own pleasure in them and you will never sell them. I’m sorry to have to remind you (I hope it’s not news to you) that you won’t live forever, and then your heirs, probably not well versed in fountain pen lore, will sell them, unaware that they have been re-blacked.

Who buys a re-blacked pen? If they are sold without any declaration of what has been done to them, as they seem usually to be, the expert collector will spot them at several hundred yards, and it is the poor novice who is saddled with a faked-up pen. How will the expert know? Because he knows his pens. 1920s Watermans, for instance, like to change colour. One that has been cossetted and housed in cotton wool might survive coal-black. It will also have little in the way of evidence of handling and use, those micro-scratches and even scratches and dents that accumulate on a well used pen. It will almost certainly have lost some of its blackness. If you see a Waterman of that period, scratched up in the usual way but black as night, you’re entitled to be cautious and fear that it may be a pig’s ear posing as a silk purse and pass by on the other side.

It is true that there are some 1920s hard rubber pens that do not fade. They are not Waterman, Swan or Parker pens. If these pens are exposed to the normal measures of humidity and sunlight they will, to varying degrees, fade.

Some people like re-blacked pens, so where do the ethics come in? I cannot guess at the proportion of buyers who like re-blacked pens and I know there are many, like me, who would prefer not to have them. This affects sale prices. Is a re-blacked pen worth as much as one that retains its original colour? Probably not. Is the market perverted by the presence of undeclared re-blacked pens? Assuredly!

I understand from having had these arguments on the pen boards several times that not everyone shares my opinion and they believe that those ethics do not apply. They are just as entitled to their opinions as I am to mine, but their opinions are, of course, wrong!

Sailor Lecoule Revisited

I have a Sailor Lecoule. It’s a wholly delightful little pen, one of my favourites. I’ve had it around two years, possibly more. Though this is an inexpensive pen, what some would call entry-level, it has the wonderful Sailor nib, which is what makes it so good.

The other day I began writing with it and Hey Presto! I had ink on my fingers. I had a look through a loupe and there it was, a curving crack in the section. I hadn’t dropped the pen. It had no incident of any kind.

I’ve had it too long to return it. In any case I have no idea where it came from. I considered attempting to repair it but, really, that’s a waste of time. I’ve been telling people for ages that cracked sections cannot be repaired; I need to listen to myself.

The main job of a section is to retain the wedged-in nib and feed. Sections are under constant outward pressure. Usually that is not a problem. Most section are made with the strength to contain that pressure and a lot more.

I did a little research online and found that the cracked section of the Lecoule is a well known fault. I saw photos of Lecoule sections cracked in the same way as mine. What I didn’t see was any indication that Sailor are aware of the failure or are doing anything about it. Lecoules are still on sale.

Much as I loved my Lecoule all I can do is scrap it and retain the nib which may find a purpose one day. It would be foolishness to buy another without an acknowledgment of the problem by Sailor and an assurance that they have fixed it. I will be bereft without a Sailor but their other models are too expensive. Maybe I will set up a search in eBay. Sailor’s eighties and nineties models were a bit more robust.

A Silver Swan

If you took one model of a pen and produced it in different materials, it would be as different as one model and its successor. An example might be the Waterman 52, in black hard rubber, red ripple, silver or gold plated overlay and finally celluloid. Such a difference can be seen, too, in the ever-handsome late 30s Swan Leverless, shown here in silver, and as different a pen as could be from its celluloid sibling.

Already an elegant pen, the silver version is classic. Silver lends itself to fountain pen construction very well, being so malleable that it can assume any shape in the designer’s mind. Pure silver is very soft, nearly as soft as gold and for ornamental purposes a small admixture of copper is applied, commonly in the ratio 925/1000.

This model of Leverless was issued in 1938. The presentation date of this pen is 1944. It is imprinted, ‘HJM from David Mitchell,’ rather curiously making the donor more important than the recipient (could this have been an illicit romance?). The pen is hallmarked on the cap and barrel. It sports a wonderful stub nib, making it as delightful in use as it is ornamental.

Even more than gold or gold plate, silver is an ideal substance from which to make a fountain pen. I’ve had silver fountain pens which were heavy – Yard-O-Led comes to mind – but they can be quite light as is the case with this Swan. Silver takes an exceptionally lustrous shine and if the pen is constantly in use and handled, tarnish is kept at bay. It is because of this exceptional shine that silver is regarded as a precious metal, and has been from time immemorial. Like gold, silver was mined and worked so long ago that we have no first date for its use.

There are those who make a comparison between silver and bronze and regard tarnish as similar to patina, and value the tarnish for some imagined beauty. This is mistaken. Patina protects bronze and prevents any further oxidation. Tarnish eats into the silver and should be removed and kept away by whatever means possible. Given that ornamental silver is valued purely for its lustre, keeping pens in a tarnished condition seems somewhat perverse.

I hope HJM enjoyed his or her beautiful pen for many years. I know that its present owner holds his glorious pen in the highest esteem.

Many thanks to Paul for his excellent photos and for permission to write about his pen.

The Progress Fountain Pen

I was vaguely aware of the Progress Fountain Pen, a very uncommon Duofold-like button filler. I’d seen one, maybe two over the years. Then I was presented with these photographs which can only amaze and astound in their variety and beauty.

The origins of the Progress range of pens lie with Osmia and Valentine, of which Progress was a sub-brand. Though by no means all of the Progress pens are button fillers, it was a dispute over the patent for this filling system that caused Valentine to withdraw Progress completely. This wonderful array of models and patterns were all produced in a matter of months during 1932.

It would require a very much longer article to do justice to this brand. I’m privileged to have the opportunity to make them a little better known. Many different pens emanated from Newhaven over its decades of pen production, none more beautiful or fascinating than the Progress.

Many thanks to Simon for sight of his wonderful collection and permission to write about it.

What Do You Write?

I suppose there are few people who are entirely writers or collectors. I count myself among the former but I have many more pens of my own than necessity would demand. I do know one collector who never applies nib to paper but he is the exception, I believe.

But there is another question for those of us who write. Do you do anything useful with your pens? I wouldn’t regard writing out favourite precepts or quotes as useful; rather the reverse if I am truthful. Diary writing or journalling may or may not have a useful purpose, for the most part I would say it is useful. Re-telling your day may clear the mind and enable one to make sense of its events – a sense that might not be immediately apparent.

Letter writing, I would say, is of the first order of usefulness. Communication is often a pleasure, whether it be by text or email but a letter is a more considered communication, written at the speed of the pen.

There may be some among us who write creatively and use a pen to do so. That’s really admirable, I think, whether the result be published or just privately enjoyed. It’s what pens were made for, as we know from our reading of the great authors. Of course I write myself, though not at that level. Every word published here was drafted in a notebook. My writing falls between technical and, at times, creative. It is something I must do. I’ve written all my life and couldn’t imagine not doing so.

So, to reiterate the question: do you do anything useful with your pens?

An Inky Mystery

Fountain pen enthusiasts will know that ink potentially gets everywhere. I’ve found ink drops on work surfaces of course, but also beside the sink, on the kitchen counter, on the bathroom sink, and once on the toilet seat. It gave me pause. I mean, I know that we do live and breathe fountain pens in our house, but… ink on the toilet seat?

In any case, today’s ink mystery is this: My husband and I were getting things together for dinner which involved a messy extraction of barbecued ribs from shrink-wrap. I grabbed a paper towel from the roll in the kitchen to wipe off my hands and ended up with this (note: this was after I’d washed my hands… that ink isn’t going anywhere):

The ink was still so liquid that there was actually a drop under that fingernail. It was all over the paper towel where I’d wiped my hands, but only the left hand. There was no ink bleed-through on any other paper towels, no splashes on the countertop (a small end-section of a counter where neither of us would have set down a pen or parts), no ink on the paper towel holder, no ink anywhere except halfway down my left pinky finger and a tiny bit on the inside of my ring finger.

Gordon was dealing with the next rack of ribs after which he, too, came over to get a paper towel. He’s been working on some pens today so he was a bit inky already but when he looked at his hands, he had fresh ink spots as well.

We still can’t figure out where it’s coming from.

Sheaffers

I have always admired Sheaffer pens, especially the older ones. The quality is always supreme and they have been wonderfully innovative. On the downside, some of their innovations seem to have been for their own sake, to no practical benefit. The lever filling system was crucial to the practicality of the fountain pen. Waterman’s box lever was essentially a copy, containing just enough difference to get around the patent. Parker’s button filler was very similar, just applying the pressure to the bar from a different point.

I’ve had a few of those early flat-tops. Wonderful pens. I might go so far as to say they were the apex of Sheaffer’s development.

Another fine series of developments were the glorious Triumph nib and the inlaid ones that came later. I’m not sure that either is a practical benefit but both are beautiful, exceptionally so.

The improvements that were no improvement: I know that many people will disagree with what follows but I must tell it as I see it. The excessive tapering of the Balance is purely aesthetic. If it works for you, fine. I do like it but would much rather the flat-top. Sheaffer’s vacuum fill system is a poorly implemented copy of the Onoto plunger, not designed to be serviced when the seals fail. The modern ingenuity of repair people has overcome this failing but that does not change the fact that Sheaffer issued a pen with a very limited life. Following on that came the Touchdown and the Snorkel. Neither are really an improvement and both severely restrict the volume of ink in the pen.

The first new pen I had as an adult was a Sheaffer Targa, a lovely and practical pen which I kept for many years. Its one detraction was the cartridge/converter filling system which is at least an improvement on the earlier oddities. Throughout much of the earlier period Sheaffer continued to offer lever-fill pens as alternatives. I tried without success to get hold of a Triumph-nib lever-fill pen from the forties. I must have mentioned my search on one of the fountain pen boards with the result that a kind friend sent me this beautiful Triumph Lifetime Statesman. At least I think that’s what it is; there are so many similar pens. I love it dearly and will be eternally grateful for the gift. In the five years I have had it it rarely gets a rest.

I think it’s eleven years since the Intrigue was produced. It came with splendid patterns, a lovely nib and a novel filling system. I had to have one! When it arrived it was beautiful, living up to the images I had seen online. However, it was very heavy and the filling system was not at all well designed. It seemed worryingly fragile to me. It was a hard starter and it skipped. Very disappointing. I returned it.

There are other Sheaffers I have enjoyed for a time though I haven’t kept them. Various school pens come to mind and the excellent Nononsense. All were well made good writers. Since the company was taken over I haven’t found the more recent models attractive, but I’m very happy with my 1940s Sheaffer Triumph.

Cheap British Pens

My last post, you may remember, was about the colourful 30s/40s Platignums. It is impossible now to know why they were chosen by their first owners but it can be confidently said that now they are not being bought for their writing qualities!

1920s and early 30s Platignums are thin on the ground nowadays. They were almost the equivalent of today’s throwaway ballpoints. Of those that survive by far the best are the hard rubber models which are not subject to the shrinkage which affects the celluloid ones.

Most Platignums I see are post war, and with one or two exceptions are generally worthless due to poor quality plastic and nibs. The exceptions are a 1960s 14 carat nib model which is less subject to shrinking than most others and a Waterman-licensed version of the X-Pen. The rest aren’t worth much, with caps that no longer fit properly, missing cap rings and barrel distortion. Platignum made an attempt at the school and calligraphy market, and the steel nibs produced for that purpose are acceptable. The nib unit thread fits only Platignum pens.

The market for calligraphy was dominated by Osmiroid. Their nibs are excellent, still sought after by calligraphers to this day. Though the pens supplied for use with the nibs have not survived so well, many are available second-hand very cheaply. The 65 sac filler is especially subject to distortion and shrinking but it isn’t difficult to find a good piston fill 75. Osmiroid nibs fit Esterbrooks, rather better quality pens, and many German piston fill school pens will accept those nibs. The later Osmiroid system included a section in the nib units and these are less adaptable.

I know one or two collectors who have developed quite complete sets of post war Platignums. One might think it a rather eccentric collection, but it is fair to say that these inexpensive pens sold in far greater quantity than more expensive pens like Conway Stewarts and Mabie Todds. Being such a large part of the fountain pen market in its latter days, it would give an unbalanced view of the use of pens at that time if they were to be excluded.

Osmiroid, like Platignum, worked with schools ‘to improve handwriting’. Perhaps the intention was also to sell as many pens as possible but perhaps one should not be too cynical.

Osmiroid doesn’t attract collectors at all, but their very large range of excellent nibs attract users to this day. As fountain pens began to be replaced by ballpoints, several small, short-lived manufacturers, some from Italy, established a brief place among cheap pens used in Britain.

Fancy Platignums

When Mentmore created its sub-brand Platignum in 1929, the intention was to provide an inexpensive pen with a steel nib. Mentmore regarded its steel nibs as the equal of any gold one and so they may have been, for a time, but those nibs have not lasted well nor, indeed, have many of the pens. To be fair, they were not alone in that. A combination of the steel and the inks of the times destroyed most such nibs over time.

The first Platignum owners were probably quite well-served and the pens were good value for the small amount of money they cost in comparison with the market leaders. Countless children went to school with a Platignum and it was not until later, the nineteen-fifties and sixties, that they became the subject of subsequent complaints.

There was a period in the thirties and perhaps into the forties when pens made from very beautiful celluloid were issued under the Platignum name. At first it was only the pen and pencil sets in very decorative boxes that were seen as collectable, especially in America. A very colourful collection could be amassed for little outlay.

However, as it has become ever more difficult to make complete collections of more expensive pens, these brightly-coloured Platignums have attracted more attention as individual pens. There can be problems with shrinkage and loose cap rings so it is worth searching for the best examples.

Thanks to Richard Dorkings for photographs.