Which Is The Best Filling System?

I expect I’ve written about this before but after all these years I’m entitled to repeat myself now and again!

I understand that many people – particularly those who like to try a lot of inks – enjoy what they regard as the convenience of the cartridge filler.  For myself, I have little interest in inks and I regard that system as an inelegant solution to the problem of getting ink into a pen.  It’s expensive and wasteful.  I appreciate that you can refill cartridges but I suspect that not many people do.  The converter option is a little better, but I still feel that it’s poor engineering that demands that you pull a pen apart every time you have to fill it.  Many converters seem to hold a very small quantity of ink, too.

Another relatively modern solution is the Aerometric, Parker’s improvement on the old squeeze filler.  At least it enables the use of bottled ink and it gives the pen a decent charge but, once again, there’s this business of pulling the pen apart to fill it.  I find that unsatisfactory.

I like sac fillers and I don’t see a lot of difference between the varieties:  lever fillers, button fillers, crescent fillers, matchstick fillers and various more esoteric methods.  They – allowing for the size of the pen – hold a decent amount of ink, are easy to operate and easy to service.  Over the decades inventors of sac filling systems showed a lot of ingenuity, though it might be said that none of these solutions are tremendously elegant.  They’re a little Heath Robinson and perhaps that’s part of the reason why we like them.

There is a variety of pens describe as vacuum fillers, not the best of descriptions as most pens fill by creating a vacuum.  There’s the Parker variety, essentially a bulb filler with delusions of grandeur.  In some ways it’s a good system, easy to use and giving a huge draught of ink but it’s complicated to service and in many cases has a comparatively short time between services.

The Sheaffer and Conklin versions are inferior copies of the De La Rue Onoto plunger filler.  Unlike the original, they do not appear to have been designed with servicing in mind.  That said, while they’re working they both provide excellent filling, easy to use and capacious.

I don’t know if anyone makes a basic bulb filler these days.  Langs and Mentmore made a variety of them in the 30s, some quite sophisticated and not all that different from the Parker vac.  When they were new they were probably good but as time and wear acted on them they suffered more and more from the major problems of many ink-in-the-barrel pens, blotting and leaking.  A big bulb filler holds enough ink to create considerable mayhem and that was probably the reason that they never became all that popular and were often a low-cost solution.

Another economical system that has been pretty well abandoned is the syringe filler.  Again, it may suffer from leakage problems and it’s clumsy, having a long activator filling most of the barrel when it’s extended.

What does that leave us with?  Well, there are Sheaffer’s various ink sac and plunger pens like the Touchdown and Snorkel.  They’re fun and they certainly have their adherents but as a filling system their limited capacity works against them.

Then there’s the good old eyedropper filler.  Well, it’s old.  I’m not so sure about good.  The system was pretty hastily abandoned the moment an alternative came along and that must tell you something.  There are many people today who delight in converting all sorts of pens into eyedroppers.  All I can say about that is that the pens are theirs and they’re entitled to do whatever they want with them.  I had a modern eyedropper once, a very large Indian Wality.  It was the worst pen I have ever owned, dripping ink every time you looked at it.  I’ve had Wality pens with other filling systems that were great.

Now we’re getting down to it.  There’s the piston filler and when it’s properly executed, as most German manufacturers seem to have managed so well, I think it’s one of the top two efficient, capacious and elegant filling systems.  The other one that I think is as good if not better is the Onoto plunger filler that I mentioned earlier. It’s one of the first self fillers and remains about the best.

I’ve probably missed a few systems, like the Parker 61 capillary filler.  Actually, that’s a good filling method, provided you don’t want to change the colour of ink you’re using.  If you do, you have to clean it out thoroughly, and that may well occupy a day or two of your time.

Naturally, I don’t expect everyone to agree with me.  In fact, I’ll be delighted to hear your counter-arguments provided they are backed up with reasoning and evidence.  “You suck!  Cartridges are great!” doesn’t really count as a cogent argument.

The John Holland Hatchet Filler

The John Holland company was around for a long time producing writing instruments of one kind or another. The company finally stopped making pens in 1950 but continued selling other items until the doors finally closed in 1980.

The glory days, however, were in the first 20 years of the 20th century. It was during that period that the company experimented with a variety of filling systems. It is said that they did so to avoid Waterman’s lever filler patent. The first successful method is known as the saddle filler. A metal button on the barrel held a loop which surrounded a pressure bar and sac. Lifting the button brought the pressure bar to bear on the sac, to enable it to draw in ink. This was quite a successful and efficient filling method.

The next, and better-known method, is the hatchet filler, of which this is an example. At first glance it resembles a lever filler but the actual means of drawing ink into the pen is quite different.

Here the “hatchet” is shown elevated, ready to be pressed down on the pressure bar and sac as the nib is immersed in the ink. The hatchet is then released, allowing the ink to flow into the sac. The hatchet is then returned to its original position disappearing into the barrel.

Because space has to be allocated for the hatchet at rest, this method is not as efficient as either the saddle or the lever filler. In operation it resembles the crescent filler made by Conklin. In a sense it’s better, in that the mechanism is concealed and does not protrude but that’s at the cost of less ink being loaded at each fill.

After 1920 John Holland began to make lever fillers which did not stand out from the crowd of smaller fountain pen manufacturers. For a time they made strikingly beautiful fancy pens which have become popular and valuable but were not technically outstanding. The company is most remembered for the hatchet filler.


As well as the varied products of our own thriving fountain pen industry, some foreign pens also sold well here. French pens didn’t seem to catch on. There were always some German pens around, mostly Pelikans. Most popular, though, were American pens. In order of popularity, I suppose, it went Parker, Waterman, Sheaffer, Wahl Eversharp and then odd examples of the rest.

My preference for these vintage pens runs a little differently. Sheaffer, Waterman, Parker would be my order, I think. I admire Sheaffer’s build quality and the ingenuity of their designs. Not that they got it perfectly right all the time: their Vac filler is an inferior copy of the Onoto plunger filler, designed to be disposed of rather than repaired when it inevitably failed. The snorkel is a complexity too far, only really coming into its own in large capacity pens with fine nibs because there’s so much technology in there that there is little room left for ink.

Those minor complaints aside, the rest is design and execution of the very highest quality. Their experiments with nibs were hugely successful. The variations of the Triumph nib are all a delight, both visually and practically. The later inlaid nib is elegance itself. Though, for the most part, Sheaffers are not pens for those who require flexible nibs, their other fine writing qualities are more than enough to compensate for the rest of us. I love a nail if it’s a nail that never skips or falters, gives just the right amount of feedback and always starts right away. That’s a Sheaffer nib! Even the little Stylepoint nib which was used on some of the Lady Sheaffers and other pens, though not as aesthetically impressive to my mind, is a splendid writer.

Sheaffer, of course, ceased to be Sheaffer in the end, passing through several hands and gradually losing the quality and identity that had made it a star of the fountain pen world for so long. The last new Sheaffer that I bought was an Intrigue. It disappointed. It was ridiculously heavy for its small size and it was poorly put together. The filling-system was unduly complicated and seemed designed to fail. Worst of all, it was a hard starter. It took a considerable amount of nib work to put that right. It was the first moderately expensive pen I bought that didn’t work properly out of the box (though there have been plenty since!) I didn’t keep it for long.

Thankfully, as other pens have become rarer, old Sheaffers are still quite common. Even the slightly more modern ones, cartridge/converters, are still splendid pens with great nibs, generally available at a bargain price.

I confess that I have no idea what sort of fountain pen comes out bearing the name Sheaffer these days. I rather lost interest as their products became more generic with little or nothing to make them stand out from the rest of the pack.

Swan 1500

Our old pens are a part of history and some of them have a history of their own.

This Swan 1500 is around a century old, maybe older.  It was the high-tech, cutting edge writing instrument of its day, a very efficient eyedropper filler that could be relied upon to write when it was needed, and do it properly.

In the first twenty or so years that this pen was around technology was moving on.  Sac-filling pens of one kind or another came along and more efficient feeds were developed.  There wasn’t much anyone could do about this pen’s filling system, but some technician decided to upgrade the feed from the over-and-under type it came with to a simple spoon feed like those used by Waterman.  I say simple, but these new feeds were more robust and gave more consistent ink delivery than the old type.

Swan’s first new feeds were of this spoon type before they went on to the ladder feed they were to use until the end of the company, but I don’t think this is a Swan feed.  That old-time repairer from 80 or 90 years ago took whatever he had to hand and made it fit.

That gave the pen a new lease of life and it continued in use for a long time.  We can tell that by the level of wear on the pen barrel made by the constant infinitesimal abrasion of the pen’s owner’s fingers in use.

It’s quite likely that the owner didn’t change his or her pen for several decades.  Lever-fillers might be nice but this old 1500 needed refilled less often than they did and it wrote just as well.

Nowadays because they are no longer the primary writing instrument, the way we value our pens is different from how they were seen when they were an essential everyday tool of work like a hammer or a screwdriver.  Now we tend to appreciate pens for their beauty, their ingenuity or the flexibility of their nibs.  Then, a pen just needed to be ready to the hand and do the job it was designed for.

That’s not to say that people didn’t value ingenuity and beauty in pens decades ago; clearly they did, hence all the wild and wonderful methods that the 20s and subsequent decades saw in getting ink into pens.  All those dazzling overlays show that buyers made aesthetic as well as practical judgments when making a purchase but once all the attractions have been evaluated and the pen had been bought it became a wokaday tool.

It’s A Cat’s Life.

Smartie here.

She’s been fixing pens all day. I helped for a while. I knocked a Parker clip off the bench and chased it around the floor until I lost it. She didn’t seem particularly amused by that but I thought it was good fun.

Fixing pens is all very well but my dishes were empty. No cat food, no chicken!

Now I’m being told off for nose prints on the window. How can a person keep an eye on that miserable spaniel next door without getting nose prints on the window, I ask you?

It’s a hard life, being Deb’s cat.

The Camera Sometimes Lies.

I buy some pens on eBay. You may be familiar with the eBay layout – one or more photographs and a sentence or maybe a paragraph of description. Quite commonly these days, the phrase “the photographs form part of the description” is included. These are the words I dislike most in the pen world.

So far as I’m concerned the only things that form part of the description are the words the seller uses. The photos may have some use in identifying the pen if the seller doesn’t know the exact model, and they may give you some idea of the colours if it’s a patterned pen. Other than that, they’re as good as the seller chooses that they should be. Even with several photos a multitude of sins may be concealed.

As happened to me recently, a seller included the information that there was a slight crack above the clip. That didn’t seem too serious to me and I was confident that I could repair it. It was a good pen and I bid appropriately given the damage. I was content with the transaction.

However, when the pen arrived it had a severe crack in the cap lip, a thing that requires much more time and effort to repair successfully. Had I been aware of the lip crack I wouldn’t have bought the pen. I re-examined the photos in the advert. Though the pen was shot from a variety of angles, none showed the area of the cap that bore the crack. I have difficulty in believing that such an omission could have been accidental.

I immediately contacted the seller attaching a photograph of the lip crack. It was very easy to photograph – it wasn’t one of those subtle little cracks that you can only find with a thumbnail.

The seller made an offer of a partial refund which was enough for me to feel that I won’t be out of pocket, though a repair will take a lot of time. Of course, when I come to sell the pen I will make it clear that repairs have been made.

Apart from the few occasions when I can handle pens before I buy them, I am at the mercy of the seller’s description, whether I’m buying from eBay or elsewhere. Living in the northern tip of Scotland I don’t have the opportunity to buy stock at pen shows.

That’s just one example of why I don’t believe that “photographs form part of the description.” Photographs will show only what the photographer wants them to show.

People who buy from me are, of course, in the same position, which is why I give as detailed a description of the condition of the pen as I can. It’s very rare for me to miss flaws or damage but it has happened. Having to repay the buyer for the cost of returning a pen from overseas sharpens the powers of observation!

Conway Stewart Scribes

There are three sorts of Conway Stewart Scribe. All are the same shape and dimensions but there the similarity ends. The 330 and the 333 are black hard rubber pens, mass produced doubtless in the thousands. They appear to have been bought by companies for their clerks to use. Though they were built to a price, they are not bad pens. They have some nice engine chasing and they are good writers, like all Conway Stewarts. They remain low-priced because they are so common.

The other Scribe is the 336. These are casein pens in delightful colour patterns, some bright, others more subtle. They are not so common and some patterns are quite rare and therefore more valuable. As a writer, it’s no different from its poorer relations but as a collector’s item it’s much more desirable.

If you want to see photographs of these pens, go to http://jonathandonahaye.conwaystewart.info/index.html, Jonathan Donahaye’s site. Though Jonathan is sadly no longer with us, his site is still maintained though not updated. Research has moved on in the years since Jonathan passed away so not all the information is completely accurate but the photographs and basic dimensions remain a splendid resource.