Tim's Thoughts

My Best Tools, the Official Ones

Two Thoughts ago, I listed the eight tools I use all the time in fountain pen restoration that are not officially Pen Tools. Although the distinction is viewed by some as narrow, with this Thought I’ll address my most important official pen tools. None of these are secret, so I’ll also note good places to get your own. One caveat worth noting is that the items listed here are for basic vintage fountain pen restoration, not advanced repairs. This list is not more than the tip of the visible part of the restoration iceberg.

Where to start? Clearly, no one can approach vintage fountain pen restoration without space, time, and supper, but those will be saved for the philosophers to deal with. I’ll start with light.

  • Good light. A good worklight is mandatory. You must be able to see your work area clearly, without shadows or excessive glare.  I would recommend LED lighting, either in a work light that is on an articulated arm or from overhead. LED is daylight white, does not generate heat, lasts for years without changing a bulb, and is cheap to purchase. If you’re not ready to get all new fixtures, the Philips 60W equivalent LED bulbs that fit into a basic household fixture work well; get the 5500K daylight bulbs. I have three plain clamp-on shields (search Home Depot’s clamp work light; it’s the first item) and move them around to fit my needs. In addition to a good worklamp, you need a bright, small flashlight. Flashlights have changed significantly in the past couple of years, so get one of the small LED lights to shine directly into an open pen barrel. I find them far superior to the cheap little gooseneck lights.  Home Depot has Mag Light’s Solitaire miniLED lights for $10. 
  • Magnification. Pen work is fine work, and you often need to see it enlarged. First, strong magnification: to really see a nib’s point in detail, you need a loupe. This is one time to spend a little more money. The Belomo 10x triplet is widely available on Amazon for $30-$35, stay with 10x or 15x; 20x is hard to use and shows too much. Handheld illuminated magnifiers are great for pen shows, but not for repairs. Finally, for general work with small parts, I use an Optivisor, the grey gadget that fits over your head. It is far easier to use than a loupe and doesn’t disappear on the bench. An articulated worklamp with magnification is also a good way to go; you’ve seen all of the pros using them at pen shows. Don’t go antique for this unless you want to retrofit with LED, because now that they’re available for less than $100 in LED. 8 diopter (5x) is fine, because you’re working through a wide field. I don’t have one of those, because my Optivisor is fine for my eyes, but as my focus degrades I may be moving to one.
  • Precise measurement. If you’ve never owned or used a micrometer, it is a tool that measures distance with great accuracy by tightening a point to each edge for outside length, inside width, or depth. Years ago, I took Ron Zorn’s advice and bought the $20 General 142 outside micrometer (note that the use of the term “outside” is key here for measuring the outside edge), and use it all the time at the pen bench. This one is all plastic and measures in .01” and 64ths”. The 64ths are especially handy since fountain pen sacs are denominated in 64ths; I don’t know of another that shows 64ths. The plastic is also good because it doesn’t scratch a pen finish. This doesn’t pretend to be the best micrometer one can buy; its .01” accuracy is at best questionable, but for pen girths and sacs, which are needed far more often, it’s perfect. If you need greater precision, talk to me, I have that, too.  
  • Ultrasonic Cleaner.  These are wonderful gadgets that save hours, sometimes days. A USC sends a sonic wave through a water bath, and cleans anything foreign from whatever is in the bath (my daughter drops her jewelry into my unit every time she visits). In this case, a three-minute cycle will knock dried ink out of a section and nib, a process that can take hours, and a soak that long isn’t good for many gripping sections. It needs some care to not run for too long (I have a little digital timer next to mine to remind me), and works even better with a good splash of household ammonia and a few drops of Dawn dish detergent. There are many models readily available on Amazon in the $30-$50 range; be sure to get one with a removable top. The issue with USC units is that you have to empty them, and no home version that I know of comes with a drain. So, you need to turn it upside down into a bucket, which works, but not if the lid doesn’t come off, and especially not if the controls and circuitry are in the lid.  So, look for an inexpensive model with a removable top and controls in front. They don’t last forever; with frequent use expect to replace it every 2-3 years. Extend its lifetime by remembering to shut it off.  
  • Heat.  A reliable heat source is necessary for softening dried shellac or sealant, to separate barrels from sections. You need 140-160 degrees Fahrenheit, not less or more. This is another tool you can buy inexpensively, as long as you use it with great care to not let the pen parts get too hot. Heating a pen correctly is strikingly similar to cooking a marshmallow in an open fire: hold it close enough and turn to get it warmed steadily and evenly, but don’t hold it too close. (Celluloid, like the marshmallow, will ignite if it gets too hot too quickly.) I use the Nicole Multipurpose Heat Gun, Michaels or Amazon, less than $20. Note that 140 degrees Fahrenheit is right where your bare hand will feel seriously uncomfortable, so to loosen shellac remember that your hand and the pen are in it together; if it hurts it’s done, move both away from the heat. You’ll probably do well to get an inexpensive non-contact laser thermometer to measure 160 degrees when releasing rosin/sealant. Harbor Freight sells a little one that is fine, but I don’t see it listed in their website.  
  • Section pliers. In a former life they were called spark plug wrenches, but now they are now made for fountain pen use. They grip round and are used in a pair to separate pen gripping sections from barrels. Use these with some care, because they can provide enough leverage to smash a pen flat; the goal is to get a better grip than your bare hands can provide to gently twist and pull the barrel off the section. Buy from a pen supply provider like andersonpens.com; they’re usually $10-15 each and you’ll need two, one for each hand.
  • Reverse forceps. Essentially tweezers that are squeezed to open, not close.  You want ones that open at least 1/2″ to stretch a new sac overthe sac nipple. Avoid forceps with sharp ends.
  • Finally, there are supplies, and you need them all:  shellac, pure (unscented/unadulterated) talc, Sheaffer sealant, silicone grease, household ammonia, distilled water, Dawn dish detergent for the USC.  The first four come from the same supplier as your section pliers; the last three come from your grocery store, make sure they’re unflavored, unscented, and without additives. The smallest bottle of plain Dawn will last 10 years; I go through a gallon of the other two every six months.

This looks like a lot, and perhaps it is. However, with a little care, this will cost less than $250, which for me is a pretty minimal admission ticket to a hobby that is mindful, continually challenging, and deeply gratifying.