Checking In

Hello again! Sorry to have been off the air for a bit. My husband has been unwell. It’s hard keeping this one-woman show on the road when things go wrong. He’s on the mend now, though slowly, and I hope to be a bit more active here and on the sales site. A dozen pens have been sitting awaiting write-testing for a fortnight!

I have been gradually picking away at buying, though, and I managed to nab a few things. Ebay seems to have run into a sparse patch lately, with a shortage of exciting Mabie Todd pens. That’s not to say I haven’t managed to get a few but it has been hard work. Mostly it’s a list of black self-fillers and Leverlesses. I would be perfectly happy with them but some of my customers like a splash of colour.

Before I limited myself to Mabie Todd pens, I could buy some at auctions that accepted online bids. The costs were a little high but if I got a large lot of pens that didn’t matter so much. Of course it is rare indeed to find a large lot of Swans and Blackbirds so that’s out these days. But never worry! I’m a crafty buyer and there will always be something good on my sales site.

Swan Minor No 2 Italian Marble

There I was, complaining about the lack of colourful pens and I forgot about the Italian Marble Swan Minor I found. It has cleaned up beautifully and It is super flexy. I took some photos but I have yet to make a writing sample.

Is Italian Marble a thing or is it just a made-up name applied to these multi-coloured pens? Despite the splashes of red it’s one of Mabie Todd’s more subtle patterns, at least in low light, but let the sun catch it and it will knock your eye out! One of my favourite Swan patterns.

Black Pens

As you might imagine, getting the stock I want is never easy. The ideal pen for me is one that has been plucked from a drawer by a house clearer and never interfered with in any way before it arrives on my bench. Some people, though they don’t intend to repair the pen take it apart and remove the sac. Some do it well, others don’t…

If the price is low enough I will consider a restored pen. They’re sometimes “restored” pens. One that came in this week had a No 20 sac crammed into the barrel – far too big, should have been an 18 – and just placed on the peg without shellac. I understand the WES offers training courses. It might be an idea for some of those would-be restorers to subscribe.

We’re going through a spell at the moment where there are very few coloured Mabie Todd pens on offer. Plenty of good black pens but many customers prefer a bit of colour. I hope the supply will improve soon so that I can provide them with what they want.

When I began, I was a writer and a collector. Repairing and selling came quite a lot later. I collected Conway Stewart pens and I almost always bought black ones despite the huge range of patterns for which that company is famous. There were two reasons: black pens were cheaper and secondly the black pen was the best example of that model, showing the design clearly without the distraction of colour and pattern. I know it seems a little mad now but I was not alone; many other collectors subscribed to the same idea back then. Even twenty years ago there were still collections of gleaming ebony pens.

The drawers containing my own pens have many black examples. That’s mostly because the decision to keep a pen come from the writing quality, not the colour of the pen body. I’m writing this with a black pen, a 1950s Swan with the most gorgeous fine flex nib. I actually rather like black pens: they take a wonderful shine!

I’ve been selling pens for many years now and one thing that stands out for me is the fluidity of the market, both for buying and selling. It doesn’t encourage complacency, I assure you! My clients have become ever more knowledgeable and they demand good quality at all price levels – and rightly so! It is this sophisticated clientele that has enabled me to concentrate on Mabie Todd pens. Whether buying pens to write with, to add to a collection or both, the outstanding quality of Mabie Todd pens has a large niche of well-educated followers.

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.

McTavish

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!