Eyedropper Pens

There are eyedropper fillers and eyedropper fillers. They’re not all the same. I understand that there is a long tradition of their use in tropical and subtropical countries; India comes to mind. They had good reason to stick with them when the alternative was sac fillers. The temperature and humidity destroyed the sac in short order. Many modern Indian pens are eyedropper fillers. That’s what they’re used to and that’s what they like. Of course cartridge/converter pens don’t have the difficulties that sac fillers did but they hold very little ink whereas an Airmail with a small ocean of ink will serve even a very busy writer for a long time.

Here in the West there is no recent tradition of using eyedropper fillers. In fact, we dumped them as fast as we could when the first self filling devices came along. In recent years there has been something of a fashion for eyedropper fillers. People have even been ‘eyedroppering’ perfectly good pens.

None of these appeal to me in the least. Don’t have any, don’t want them either. I do have a soft spot for the old original eyedropper fillers, the ones made before 1920. They so often have glorious nibs and though they are invariably slender I love to use them. Those unaccustomed to their use complain about blots and blobbing but those difficulties are easily overcome.

Early fountain pens inherited style and decoration from dip pens. It didn’t stop there. Things like rope-work bands and intricate engine chasing were added. The rope-work didn’t survive long but the engine chasing was here to stay.

Technically, there were all sorts of problems to solve. Ink delivery could be imperfect with those slim over-and-under feeds. A twist of silver wire helped to lead ink into the section. A thin gold bar over the upper part of the feed delayed drying out.

Slip-caps fitting onto variously sculpted sections helped but did not solve the insecurity of such a cap! A bayonet fitting did but was fiddly to fit. Mabie Todd experimented with all those designs. The winner was the Swan Safety Screw Cap.

I always have one or two vintage ED fillers in my ‘collection’. I enjoy using them. Most are a little too slender for an extended writing session in my arthritic hands but I can write a letter with one. They’re mostly not fussy about ink and can use whatever comes to hand. They’re almost all a century old now. That adds to the pleasure of using them.

Many of the best ED pens are snapped up by collectors and remain under glass. That’s fine. Collectors probably get just as much pleasure from a pen they don’t use as writers do from a pen they do use. But I would encourage people to use them. That’s what they were made for and they do it so well.

Swan Minor No 2

The Minor was the economy Swan of its day, more expensive than a Blackbird but quite low on the price list. Today, of course, they’re much sought after for their splendid nibs, great flat-top shape and range of colourful patterns.

This one is black but it has the milled finish, just to be a little different.

The nib is a beauty, a fine/medium stub with lots of flex.

The Minor, particularly the SM2, is a pen that sits well in the hand, weighs very little and is robust enough to look this good after nearly 90 years.

Another Swan Leverless 4461

The last 4461 I wrote about had a No 6 nib shoe-horned in. The section and feed were correct so it may have been the factory making the best of what they had to hand. I thought it a real success. This is the 4461 as it should be, with a No 4 nib.

The very fact that Mabie Todd used black hard rubber at this date is an often-discussed puzzle. Here’s another one. Many of the BHR Swans of this date don’t fade easily, particularly the larger ones. I’ve had several around this size in shining, pristine black and they haven’t been messed about with any of the re-blacking preparations available these days. I’m not going to try to guess why this pen, like some others I’ve had, is so good. I’ll just enjoy it.

These pens were made without the brass threads of some of the lever fillers. I don’t really like the brass threads; they can wear their plastic counterparts and they change the balance of the pen, adversely to my mind.

With its narrow/medium/narrow cap bands and satisfying girth, this is a prestige pen, expensive and elegant without being excessive. It remains primarily a writing instrument and a very good one. It could be said of the larger Swans that their first purpose is to impress and I would find the uncommon No 8 nib awkward to write with. The No 4 nib is certainly big enough to be noticed but it doesn’t demand an uncomfortable writing angle.

Perhaps this pen’s owner moved early to Biro’s ballpoints and laid his fountain pen aside. There are very slight posting and capping marks, otherwise the pen is as it left the shop seventy years ago, complete with box and papers.


There is a very sweet and charming little cat who goes around in our street. A lady a few doors along belongs to her. She’s everyone’s friend and all the schoolchildren love her. Having heard that we were bereft of a cat she started visiting, popping in any open window or trotting in when I open the door for the postman.

Here she is sitting on the box that contains the most-used pen repair tools. She has applied for the post of assistant repaircat (part time). I think she’s got the job, don’t you?

A Swan SF2

Old things – old pens – have more than one value. There’s the monetary value, the pounds and pennies that one estimates an unrestored old pen to be worth. That forms the basis of a transaction but there is another value, a value that cannot be expressed so easily.

This pen was made around a century ago. Since then the wear it has accumulated may have been in one hand or several. Either way, this is a well-used old pen. The imprint and chasing are almost entirely gone. That means it was a real workhorse, appreciated for its usefulness for many years.

In the end, after many letters and notes, perhaps ledger entries in a workplace, the pen was retired to a drawer to be forgotten about. Maybe its owner died or perhaps the pen was replaced by the first of many ballpoints because most ballpoints are intended to be disposed of; they have so little value of either kind that they can be thrown away without a second thought. That’s the difference with this old fountain pen. However it stopped being used it was not regarded as trash to be thrown away.

So there it is: a well-worn Swan SF2, the receptacle of a century’s use and memories, ready to start another life. I’m sure it will provide excellent service for another hundred years!

Sales Site Open Again

That didn’t take long! The site is open for business again with one change: we only accept payment by PayPal now. Offering credit card sales has never been cost effective but we provided it as a service to customers as long as we could. The situation was brought to a head by changes within Worldpay/Cardsave, which were very poorly communicated by the company leading to a complete loss of confidence in it.

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.