Unique Again

Every now and again Unique becomes an issue again. It has a truly complicated history as this comment from Peter Greenwood makes clear:

“The relationship between the Union Pen Company and Unique is quite complicated. The Union Pen Company was one of many small pen manufacturers and appear to have developed a relationship with Unique in the 1920’s.

Unique, like Stephens sold their own brand of pens but had them manufactured for them. It wasn’t until the early 1930’s that Unique became a stand alone company and took on their own manufacturing facility which was actually owned by Union Pen Company, by now an associated company, so Union made pens for Unique and others and Unique sold pens.

It is also clear that Unique/ Union also outsouced production when demand was high. Lang’s being a strong contender as they also supplied nibs (at least prewar). I didn’t believe Altura/ Watermans were involved, as Lambrou had claimed until I found a Unique sporting a boxed lever.

It is quite possible that production was out sourced to Valentines as they would make small batches for anyone. Early in the war Eversharp entered the market and had pens produced by Langs and Valentine’s. What isn’t clear is whether Eversharp were procuring those pens themselves or if it was through Unique who produced most if not all their later fountain pens.”

As if that was not enough, Joao Mourato of Portugal sent photos of this gorgeous Duofold-like Unique. It carries a Parker nib. Nibs can be changed, of course, but not the Unique imprint on the barrel.

Isn’t that a beauty?

With thanks to Peter and Joao

Photos

You may have noticed that the photos I use in the blog are not always as good as those of the pens on the sales site. There is a reason for that and it isn’t entirely my laziness – though doubtless that plays a part!

When I’m photographing ten or a dozen pens at a time it makes sense to set up the light box and lights but that takes some time and effort and it really isn’t practical to do it for three or four shots of a single pen to accompany a blog article. They have to take their chance on a windowsill with the best light I can obtain on the day. There are, of course, various dodges I can apply with the camera and with software to ensure that you get some idea of the pen I’m writing about.

My previous light box setup was with two lights on tall tripods. It worked very well until it no longer did, because one of the lamps fell and broke the bulb. It was only then I discovered the bulb could not be replaced. I tried to find a whole lamp unit that would fit on the tripod but no go. Very annoying. I’m left with one good light and a tripod too good to throw away.

In the end I bought two table lights. These are quite powerful 60 LED lamps that light the setup quite well. They sit on extensible tripods, not the best idea in the world as the tripod legs prevent the lamp getting close to the light box. I may stop using the tripods and mount the lamps on small blocks instead.

So that’s the story. Continuing good photos on the sales site, I hope, and, as always, the best I can do on the blog.

Hard Rubber

The materials of fountain pens reflect the advances of science through the twentieth century and still do. The first, very popular material was vulcanite, ebonite or vulcanised rubber. Black, then as later, was the much-demanded colour. It was often the base upon which decorative metal overlays were formed, whether plated or precious metal. Chasing elevated black hard rubber to a more interesting finish and numerous patterns were developed.

Red, mottled and woodgrain patterns came with dyed rubber and Waterman’s flow pattern, called ripple, was immensely popular and appeared in other colours such as olive, rose and blue-green ripple. The only other company to produce a true ripple was Platignum.

Though it is a superb material, durable and warm to the touch, hard rubber had its faults and limitations; it accepted few, rather dull colours and exposure to heat, light and water could lead to fading and discolouring. Strangely, it is often the black hard rubber of cheap pens that resists fading most successfully while some of the most expensive pens such as Mabie Todd, Waterman and Conway Stewart often faded very badly.

Celluloid addressed these problems very successfully and began to replace hard rubber quickly. Waterman, notably, was slow to change as the ripple pattern remained popular for a time but in the end they too had to go with the fashion of the time.

That would have been the end of hard rubber as a pen material for a long time but strangely, almost inexplicably, Mabie Todd began using it again in the nineteen-forties. Was the company using up old materials they had in stock? Were they responding to the expressed wish of customers? The reason can’t be discovered now but some attractive torpedo-shaped pens were turned out in black hard rubber during the post-war years.

The story of vulcanised rubber doesn’t end there. Some European companies have occasionally experimented with hard rubber pens but its real popularity is in India where splendid pens are made in a variety of styles and colours, often produced to meet a customer’s specific requirements. These pens become ever more popular in the West.

On a personal note, despite having some failings as noted above, and though I appreciate the good qualities of other materials, I love hard rubber, both black and coloured, above those other, later materials. There’s almost always a hard rubber pen on my desk.

Tuppence’s Diary

Here I am again, Tuppence, the sweet and adorable pussycat of Goodwriters. I know that I came here as a part-time assistant pen restorer but I think there must be some changes around here. I see things as time goes by and I am forced to draw certain conclusions.

Time is not well used in this business. A little more efficiency in work is required; the application of some time and motion study. After all, I need fed (frequently) and stroked and scritched. These essentials are going undone while there are far too many interruptions to the efficient flow of work for cups of coffee, telephone conversations and feeding those pesky birds. Some of those things could be done more briskly, others could be eliminated entirely to allow for more scritch time.

Also, I should be properly fed here. Because I’m technically not the Goodwriters cat but “belong” to Joycie a couple of windows along, these humans make it a point of honour not to feed me – or at least not give me tins of cat food. They do give me an occasional slice of corned beef or saucer of tuna but really! Come on! That’s not enough for a busy cat and I can’t always be trotting home.

How difficult would it be to get some cat food for me? Also, there’s the question of sleeping arrangements. I’m sent home around 8 o’clock at night. That’s all very well but sometimes my daughter Karen is there and she bullies me. Who would have kids! I did once get to stay here all night when it was very stormy. The humans were not happy that I was scratching around all night. Cats are nocturnal! What did they expect?

All in all, changes need to be made. I’m sure that when they get the message the humans will be reasonable about all this. It’s common sense after all, isn’t it?

Nibs & Things

Most of my customers buy pens to write with. I also have a few who are collectors. Just because they collect doesn’t mean that they don’t write with those pens. Most do.

I see Swans in rare patterns and styles occasionally in eBay and if I am very, very lucky I’m successful in getting one now and again. Mostly I’m outbid. Collectors have sharp eyes and if a couple of them spot a rarity the price rockets beyond what would be sensible for me as a restorer to bid. There are restorer prices and collector prices, the latter often being very much higher.

I appreciate my collector friends. Within their area of collection they are the experts and many have vast knowledge of the whole field of British pens. Many are very generous with their hard-won knowledge, accumulated over many years.

Writers – sometimes the same people as the collectors – look for a specific nib. Many, usually at the beginning of their love affair with pens, look for that uncommon thing, the wet noodle. They have learned enough to be able to tell me that they want a fine superflex with enough flow to sustain those wide-open tines, and instant snap-back.

Among Swans and Blackbirds such a nib is almost a chimera. There are plenty of flexible Swans but I see a pen matching the description of a “wet noodle” once in a long, long time. My advice to those writers is to try Watermans and expect to pay a lot of money. I don’t price my pens by the behaviour of their nib; I have a very straightforward method that keeps the price down as far as I can but does not send me to bankruptcy.

Those who look for nibs of other specifications, the stub, the Relief and needlepoint (among other types) are more likely to find what they want, even if there is sometimes a wait. Mabie Todd produced a large range of nibs to suit their clients and those clients seem to have come to them often for the less than usual nibs.

In buying pens it’s often potluck with nibs. I depend on photos and descriptions and many sellers are not very good at either. Even when photos of the nib are clear and close up, it often depends on the angle: is that a stub or an oblique? Some people insist that long tines invariably mean flex; of course they don’t. I’ve had many pens with long tines that are completely inflexible and other short, stubby nibs with glorious flexibility.

I’ve had, perforce, to learn to repair nibs, to remove the bends and wrinkles from those that have been dropped and the vintage pens I deal with have been around long enough to have accidents. Nib straightening is a business that varies from the delicate to the brutal. I try to improve them quickly as repeatedly bending a nib will change its temper and behaviour. There’s a lot of tine-moving with my fingers. I have one of those useful microscopes that works with the computer and I use that to check the accuracy of my work. After that it’s the big bends and for them I am grateful for Laurence Oldfield’s nib tools that I use all the time. Sometimes nibs are very badly bent and wrinkled. With those I do my best but I’m not always successful. My little jeweller’s anvil gets set up in the vice and a plastic mallet is sternly applied through a protective sheet of rubber. It astonishes me how often this takes the very worst of the damage out of a nib. There will be more refined work to follow but it all depends on those first, well-aimed blows.

I love every part of pen work but especially getting nibs to write properly. It’s one of the main reasons I stick with gold-nib pens. Steel is not so malleable and my success rate with it is low. I try to ensure that those old nibs write as they should when they reach your hand.

Writing Rambling

It’s all about getting words on a page but I’m using a variety of tools to do that these days – or at least I’m trying to! I’m using a stainless steel Sheaffer Targa to draft this, an old friend I’ve had for more years than I care to count. The beautiful inlaid nib lays down ink with the merest touch, with never a hesitation or skip. I still think of it as a modern pen though Targas have been around since 1976. Not quite vintage, not quite modern.

I do most of my correspondence with a dip pen. I have a choice of nibs I’m confident to use: the Esterbrook Relief, the Macniven and Cameron Waverley and the William Mitchell “Pedigree” Round Hand. They all apply ink to the paper in very different ways and it takes a few lines for muscle memory to kick in and my hand adjusts to that particular nib. That isn’t limited to dip pens of course, the same thing happens with every fountain pen I pick up. As I’m sure I’ve said often before, I’m no calligrapher; I write as I write and the joy comes from producing my natural writing style using different tools. I celebrate my success in using the dip pen after all the years I thought I couldn’t write with it.

That celebration does not extend to the quill, or at least not yet. I see my friend Rob Parsons’ first attempt with a quill in Fountain Pen Geeks, an absolute wonder of beautiful calligraphy. Envy and jealousy are sins, I am told, and they’re certainly not good for the soul, so I carefully eject them from my mind and concentrate on the matter in hand. My first effort at cutting a quill resulted in a pathetic object, a miserable thing I didn’t even attempt to write with. But that’s okay. It’s a step on the road to mastery of that ages-old skill. I’ve read the instructions and watched the videos. It will fall into place soon and then it is down to muscle memory once again. When you get it right for the first time repetition comes easily.

Conway Stewart 85/Esterbrook Relief

Some time ago a friend gave me a Conway Stewart 85. It had belonged to his late father. It’s the simplest and commonest of 85s: it’s black. I wish I had known his father. I would have loved to ask why he chose black when 85s came in so many attractive patterns. It’s not like it was cheaper.

Conway Stewart prided themselves on their nibs but I find the ordinary Conway Stewart nib rather dull and uninspiring. Obviously that was not the case for Conway Stewart’s thousands of customers. I think it’s like modern Pelikans which people are happy with but I can’t use. It’s worth saying that Conway Stewart’s specialist nibs like the uncommon stubs and italics are great nibs. In pre-war pens especially there are very occasionally flexible nibs and they are superb too.

So that’s the long preamble! This pen sat in a drawer, unused, for at least ten years. Then circumstances gave me a spare Esterbrook Relief nib. During the period that Conway Stewart were producing Relief pens for Esterbrook, pens for the British market, Conway Stewart doubtless produced these nibs to Esterbrook’s design. The other possibility is that Esterbrook supplied them to Conway Stewart but I think that’s less likely.

Anyway I swapped the Esterbrook Relief nib into the 85. It fitted perfectly, of course, as it was intended for very similar pens. It rescued the 85 from the drawer and it is now in frequent use. I love oblique nibs. They flatter my writing. I think it avoids any hint of being Frankenpen-ish. That’s a word you won’t find in any dictionary.

Feathers

I sent away for some goose feathers and they arrived yesterday. There are numerous guides to their preparation on YouTube which should allow me to make a good quill. I have a small, thin-bladed knife – a gift from a kind friend – which should be perfect for the cuts one must make to prepare the point. I’m looking forward to the challenge.

I used to have sight of birth, death and marriage registers dating back to the middle of the 19th century. At that time all entries were made by quill pen and they included the best handwriting I have ever seen. Every entry was a work of art. Clearly there was much more to that high quality of writing than the use of the quill, but it must have played a part.

Each registrar would have had the skill to cut his quill to suit his hand and the way he (they were all men in the early years) wrote. This, it seems to me, is a better way than adjusting your hand to the unchangeable metal nib later registrars used. The style and quality of the handwriting declined as the years went by.

For most practical purposes the metal nib, whether of the steel dip variety or the gold nib housed in a fountain pen, were short-lived Johnny-come-latelies in comparison with the many centuries when the quill was what writing was produced with. Were they an improvement? I think that they were, but some artistic quality may have been lost when the quills were laid away.

Boots “Dorothy”

Boots the Chemist provided us with lots of excellent pens over the years, most notably by Burnham and De La Rue. The De La Rue versions especially, are very fine pens with outstanding nibs.

This is probably the earliest pen, the “Dorothy”. I don’t know who made it – perhaps De La Rue?

It’s a typical early twentieth century eyedropper filler. The feed is of the over-and-under type.

I seem to have a vague memory of the “Dorothy” pen but we haven’t discussed it here before and I can’t find it in my notes. I think it just fell out of my head like so much else.

Thanks to Mario Kaouklis

Writing on Animal Skins

Aren’t we lucky that we can just pop paper in the printer or open a new notebook and begin writing away? It isn’t so terribly long since none of that was possible. Perhaps not in living memory but a little before that paper was an expensive item for the ordinary household and before that there was no paper available at all but that was okay because hardly anyone could write.

I suppose we are all aware of the medieval illuminated manuscripts crafted on vellum: gospels and books of hours, as devotional works were called. Classical texts from antiquity were recovered and were also copied, as were original works, religious and scientific. All of these had to be copied up by hand, mostly in monasteries though some scholars were famous for the quality of their handwriting. All this was done on parchment or vellum. Some say that vellum is processed from calfskin whereas parchment is made from goatskin or sheepskin. Others say the two names are interchangeable.

To make parchment you washed the animal skin, soaked it in lime solution, washed it again, stretched it out on a wooden frame, scraped off the hair with a hooked knife called a lunellum and cut it into rectangular sheets. Scribes kept a pumice stone to even out the gooseberried skin and perhaps a boar’s tooth to polish the surface so that the ink – made from oak gall – would adhere. They kept a different knife to scrape off any mistakes.

This may seem an arduous process but it is estimated that the English royal government alone produced thirty thousand documents a year by the 12th century. So far as I can remember I have never actually handled any parchment so I bought a small piece so that I would know what I was talking about (for a change!). It is a cream coloured oblong of a substance quite unlike anything else. The piece I have is goatskin and there are slightly darker areas where the animal was coloured. I expect that this would have been unacceptable for a monastery. The parchment scrap is stiff, thin and has a slightly dimpled appearance, probably the gooseberry effect mentioned earlier.

I didn’t want to sully my little piece of vellum with my scrawl so I asked my friend Hans, who is an immeasurably better writer than I am, to choose a quotation that he found appropriate and you see the result above. Hans said that writing on parchment was quite an experience; some parts were rough, others very smooth. The ink does not penetrate, rather it dries on the surface. He used walnut ink (which looks splendid!) and a John Mitchell 0661 nib. Who can say whether it would have been easier using a quill.

There’s more to say on this subject. Monks or scribes used materials that were produced in-house, as it were. No nipping out to buy a bottle of ink in those days (actually it isn’t easy now, either!). I may take this further in a future article but this is as far as my research has taken me.

Deep gratitude to Hans Gilliams.