Vintage Pens — Where to Start?

At least once a month, I get an email from someone I’ve not met, noting “Your website has gotten me intrigued by the idea of restoring and writing with vintage pens, where do I start?” These messages often lead to frequent correspondence and new friends, and I truly enjoy both.

Although my first response is usually along the lines of “start with good pens,” this can often mean advising the writer to hold off on the pen he or she has begun to restore, because working on a 1930s lower quality pen is inexpensive but can very easily be highly problematic; or because that started pen is an heirloom, valuable, or too complex. Any of these leads too easily away from achieving a first, important success.

In my view, two vintage pens are perfect both for teaching oneself the rudiments of restoration and then enjoying writing with later: 1930s lever-filled Sheaffer Balances and 1950s Esterbrook Js.  Why these? Both are easily found with minimal financial commitment, very well made, and relatively easy to restore well. In addition, their construction is typical of thousands of vintage pens — there is always time later for other great pens of different designs. 

Lever-filled Balances were made for roughly ten years, the 1930s. They are found in a range of sizes and appearances but share the characteristics of thick, well-fitting parts as well as solid lever and pressure bar assembly. One is generally unlikely to open up a Balance and have a disintegrated pressure bar fall out in your hand; while this shouldn’t be an impediment for the experienced restorer, it’s a success spoiler for the novice. Finally, at least in my experience, reinserting a knocked-out Sheaffer nib and feed is a tight but sure fit.  

And the Esterbrooks? I have written a lot in these pages about the quality and satisfaction of using a J, and now their ease in restoration can be added to the list. The 1950s pens are very substantial, made of thick celluloid and stainless steel trim. Since their nibs are in interchangeable threaded units, the restorer must only remember to not put any pressure on the gripping section when there is no nib unit inside. The barrels usually separate easily with a little heat, and they re-assemble with ease. 

Once you have has been successfully disassembled the major parts, removed an ossified or goo-ified latex sac, cleaned the barrel of the sac’s detritus, inserted and cemented a new one, and re-assembled the pen, some of the hardest jobs of restoration have been accomplished with your first restoration, and enabled future successes with more complex pens to be within reach. Yes, you will need some basic tools but the financial investment is pretty small, relative to the countless hours of pleasure that vintage pen restoration produce. For me, I’ve never regretted taking on that challenge, which became a hobby that somehow evolved into a business. I’ve had a great deal of help along the way, so one way that I thank my customers and mentors has been to make it easier for others to get started.

So, if you have the itch to give vintage pen restoration a try, feel free to reach out to me. I’d be happy to help get you started and be at the end of an email or video call for advice or emergency intervention.