Tim's Thoughts

The Pen From Hell

Every so often a restorer has to experience a Pen From Hell. I must say, by way of preface, that since Timsvintagepens is not a repair service, Pens From Hell are relatively rare. But, when a friend passes me a nice looking Sheaffer Snorkel Crest and says “I got it at a flea market, can you get it working?”, I’m just not going to say “no, I don’t repair pens.” I answered that Snorkels are my least favorite pens, that they are from the 1950s, when no amount of American know-how was too much American know-how, that Sheaffer took a perfectly good Touchdown mechanism and added a spring-loaded skinny tube that is extended into the ink to fill the pen without getting the nib inky, all when a nib’s role in the universe is getting inky, and that Snorkels are often been described as the most complex filling system ever used, but sure, I’d fix it up for him.

So, I disassembled the pen into its many component parts — cap, barrel, blind cap, gripping section, nib/feed, two gaskets and o-ring, touchdown tube, snorkel sac protector, snorkel, and snorkel spring. Actually, that’s the parts list: the spring was MIA and the sac protector was broken. I’d never seen a broken one before unless the spring had rusted through it, but this one wasn’t rusty, just broken. I’m down two parts and it soon got worse. The nib unit and gripping section connector were not coming out of the gripping section without a fight. Getting the nib unit off these later Snorkels intact is often a challenge, because one is advised to not separate a Triumph nib from its feed as they can be tricky to get back together. I heated up the section to loosen everything, as one should, and the nib promptly fell off into my hand. The karma of this job was not propitious and not improving.

Moving on to restoration…first, with the nib unit now at least removed, the point holder gasket had to be replaced. It was a full month before I gave up trying to separate the gripping section into its two parts, to extract the gasket. No amount of nightly heating, soaking, or ultrasonic blasting would release it. In the end, the old gasket stayed in there, although it really, really shouldn’t. Since gaskets in any device create seals, there was a good chance the pen would not fill once reassembled, but I really had no alternative (prayer wasn’t working and I wasn’t quite ready for abandonment). Part swapping was also not an option: Sheaffer, in most of its models, made innumerable variations of what would seem to be identical parts, but finding the right combination to fit the nib unit and the barrel was too small a needle in a haystack I didn’t have.

I moved on, and pillaged the parts bag for a sac protector and spring. On to the o-ring: a key step in restoring a Touchdown mechanism is replacing the o-ring in the barrel.  That ring creates the seal that enables suction, which pulls ink into the pen when the tube is pushed in, and, like the nib gasket, is replaced as a matter of course. Generally that’s an easy job, but “easy” simply didn’t apply to this PFH, for the o-ring had been cemented over by a black epoxy-appearing cement! I chipped away at the mystery cement, only to find that the o-ring had also been cemented in place in its groove. Far too much time later, taking care to not pierce the barrel, it was all cleaned out and a fresh o-ring installed with silicone grease to keep it supple and help grease the Touchdown tube.

I reconnected the nib unit, using the correct cement for the purpose, and finally got it all back together. With some trepidation, and the words to describe my failure already forming in my mind, I extended the snorkel, and by some miracle it filled, and with that lovely upturned Triumph nib, writes quite nicely! Without having changed the nib gasket it might not fill forever, but in life one needs future challenges.

The moral of this story? It’s not recognizing that every pen carries Pen From Hell potential, because very few earn the description. The moral of the story is that at some point a Pen From Hell will land on every restorer’s bench, and the restorer better be able to embrace the process while still producing the results.