My Best Tools That Aren’t Tools

A fountain pen restorer uses a lot of tools. There are tools one uses often and for many purposes, tools used for one purpose and only when needed, and a wide range of household items that become tools. Considering this during a recent evening at the bench, this Thought’s subject suddenly became apparent, but with a caveat: this is not the MOST IMPORTANT PEN TOOL LIST, the usual crowd of ultrasonic cleaner, heat gun, spark plug wrenches…real tools.  This is the other stuff.

  • My thumbnail. Always easily found, my thumbnail (although enthusiastically left-handed, I’m an equal opportunity employer) is my first tool in examining and cleaning any vintage pen. I believe strongly in using less force and less sharpness than I can, so my thumbnail is used to get under old sacs and dried shellac and pick at grunge spots on pens to safely see how easily they will come off, all in the belief that my nail isn’t going to hurt anything other than itself. In addition, it grows its own fresh working surface!
  • When the thumbnail doesn’t work, I switch to the short blade on my trusty Swiss Army knife, which is now dedicated to my bench. I know exactly how hard I can push with it, and the body of the knife is heavy enough to provide strong leverage. Finally, it maintains its edge since I don’t want it to be super-sharp. For sharp, there are numerous other options.
  • A scraper. I have many picks and scrapers, but always reach for’s D-14 scraper to remove sac residue from a Vacumatic barrel, to probe into the mysterious depths, to feel what is behind a pressure bar that I don’t want to pull out. Like my knife, it has an edge, but not a sharp edge that can easily damage a fragile surface or puncture a thin-walled barrel.
  • Shop ink. Years ago, I took Richard Binder’s advice and started using Waterman’s Florida (now Serenity) Blue as my shop ink. It behaves perfectly, has neutral pH, dries well, doesn’t feather on normal paper; most important, it’s always the same. I know how this ink works and should look, so when I encounter an unsatisfactory response from a pen, I know it’s the pen, not the ink. It also washes out of shirts. 
  • Hotel stationery. I’m not talking about the good embossed stuff…for testing a pen and nib, there is nothing like Marriott. I take every sheet I can, every stay. It’s great testing paper — not too good, not too full of fiber, similar to what the pen’s new owner might use. Many restorers use good paper for this purpose, but I need to know that the pen will work well in imperfect surroundings.
  • Small jars. You can never have enough. Ink bottles, hotel jam bottles, vintage 1 oz creamers, shot glasses, a small inkwell are all essential for standing just-shellacked sections, holding q-tips that had been dipped in silicone grease or Sheaffer sealant, standing just flushed pens in a bit of rag to wick dry, holding small parts so they can’t escape when you’re not looking. You always need one more than you have, and I have a half dozen within easy reach. When the urge to purge junk hits, don’t lose the little bottles.
  • Last in this list, rags! Although most of the shirts I wear in my shop have stains where my left hand lands when I forget to wear an apron, the rag that is always within reach catches far more ink, water, silicone, naphtha, talc, rosin, shellac and all the other stuff I use. For me, cut-up Jockey t-shirts are the thing, and by the time they appear in my shop they’ve long since become lint-free. It is important to keep these rags separated from ink wipers, because you don’t want to get restoration gunk on a good pen. Ink wipers are retired handkerchiefs’ final career options.

Stay tuned for the next Thought:  It will be Tim’s Most Important Pen Tool List.