Why Some Pens Don’t Work For Me

I often describe a pen as “needing a right-handed writer”, and some pens need my wife or friends to write the writing sample. Why is this? Is it me or the pen? 

From my first using my first fountain pen in 1965, having received a Parker 21 for a present, I realized that the left side of my left hand was no longer covered in ink, contrary to the warnings of my teachers when they saw me using it in class and not the ballpoints that had become the norm. Years later, I learned that most left-handed writing is really very different from right-handed. 

The facts are that less than 10% of people are left-handed; that handedness is genetic, even apparent in fetuses; and that cultural biases against left-handedness have been very strong for hundreds of years, particularly in Asia. It would, therefore, make sense that fountain pens would have always been designed for the majority of their potential users, right-handed writers, even though right-handers write differently than left-handers. Left-handers do in fact need to be more selective with their nib, ink, and paper selections, because they use them differently. Right-handers pull a nib to write left to right, i.e. write under-handed, while a typical overhanded leftie pushes a nib to write left to right. It is only logical to connect the mechanical difference to writing performance with fountain pens. 

From the earliest use of cursive script, children have been taught to write with their right hands, and natural lefthanders were discouraged from writing left-handed. I can still see Miss Campbell standing over me in third grade, and have heard many similar stories, particularly from those brought up in schools with strong cursive teaching programs. Although it has mostly disappeared in recent years, left-handedness was viewed as a sign of the Devil in many cultures, so was discouraged in writing, eating, even shaking hands. Having a dominant right hand was considered standard in most cultures, and of course this was matched by the genetic results that turned out almost 10 times as many right-handers as left-handers or ambidextrous people. 

This, then, connects directly to fountain pen manufacture. I’m not knowledgeable about physics or metallurgy, but do know that the various elements of fountain pen nib design have worked pretty well for 130 years. How a pen is held in the hand and how writing is accomplished is therefore intrinsic to the mechanics of a nib; the nib would have been made to be pulled by a right-handed writer, rather than pushed. Thus, as culture shifted and left-handers retained their habits, one can guess that they learned to accommodate, as they did with scissors and knives, and probably learned early that some nibs just didn’t work for them.  From the view of manufacturers, for whom nib-making has always been an expensive part of a pen’s many component costs, there was never a need to create separate nibs for lefties, even for those companies that sold a range of different writing experiences in their nibs.

This is particularly true for vintage flexible nibs, which are well known to not work for lefties. American full flex nibs are very flexible because they bend up/down and open easily at the slit; calligraphy with these nibs means mastering the movement inside the nib as it moves along the paper. The up/down flex in the early American nibs responds wonderfully to under-handed writing, because they pull easily and well, but not for over-handed, which is why those nibs rarely work for left-handers. Similarly, traditional Italian nibs have longer, thinner tines than those of most other countries, so shade and flex because the longer tines do not have as much support from the body of the nib. Were they made this way to create shaded script? Or were they just made this way, and shaded script was the result? Was there a reason? I don’t know, but I am certainly curious to learn more. One has to wonder if the traditionally strict teaching in a predominantly Catholic country led to an even greater proportion of right-handed writers and to flexible nibs…but perhaps this chain is too far-fetched. 

Are there vintage pens for lefties?  None that I’ve ever seen, although in 1927 Waterman’s did apparently advertise a “ball-point tip” (not what we know as a ball-point today…), which emphasized what left-handers know: rounded nibs, rather than stubs or italics, fine to broad but not extra fine, and firmer rather than flexible nibs are generally better for us. Better paper works far better for a nib that is pushed than recycled paper. However, these aren’t firm rules, since most vintage fountain pens work well for both righties and lefties. The good news for me, as a pen seller, is that while there are many pens that do not work well for me but do for right-handers, these are the minority, and I’m fortunate to have people around me who are willing to write the writing samples I can’t achieve. So you know, I will always tell a potential pen buyer if I think that pen should be used right-handed. 

If any of you have a pen that has a nib tooled for a left-handed writer, I’d like to hear from you!    

The Restorer’s Challenge

When I first considered turning my small hobby shop into a restoration and sales practice, I consulted a number of prominent restorers.  One of those consultations was with Ron Zorn of Main Street Pens, with whom I spent the better part of a day in conversation at a Long Island Pen Show.  He told me a lot that day, but I am frequently reminded of his statement that “until I had repaired my first 7500 pens, I was not sure I could get my way through any pen I encountered”. Well, I’m not yet at thousands, and am still regularly surprised. This Thought is about the kind of surprise restorers face. 

My practice, as is noted in the home page, is not an open-to-the-public repair shop, partly because I have a full-time day job and can’t put any kind of deadline on projects, and partly I am not yet ready to succeed with every project that arrives in the mail.  However, when one of my oldest friends asked me to fix up and sell his small pen collection for him so he could donate the profits to charity, I agreed to do my best.  One of those pens, actually a pen/pencil set, has turned into the kind of challenge that I hoped to not see for awhile.

My friend lived in Paris for twenty years, so most of his fountain pens are French. This set is cream-colored, with very light wood-grained striping in the celluloid. It is a button-filler, as with so many French and Italian pens of the 1950s-1960s. The first challenge is that this is a No-Name; there is no brand identification at all. The chrome clip is similar to the “necktie” clips used by Bayard and Gold Starry, but different from both. I posted a query in the French fountain pen forum, and did not get any response that recognized the pen. So, I’m pushing ahead with a No-Name, and without name one doesn’t have model, submodel, approximate manufacturing date or confirmation of substances used.

The second challenge is that I’m not absolutely sure it’s made of celluloid. I think it is, but casein was still in use in France during the 1950s, particularly in lighter colored pens, and casein is both more fragile and dissolves in contact with water. I’m pretty sure it’s not a more modern plastic. Eventually I’ll shave off a little from the inside and drop it into water, see if it disappears. 

The third, and most significant challenge, is the repair. Upon removing the cap, the  circumferential crack around the threaded portion of the barrel could not be missed, since the broken piece separated the moment the cap was no longer holding it closed. I preserved the separated piece carefully and dismantled the rest of the pen. At least it fits right back on with no visible crack! How should I rebuild this pen? Assuming it is made of celluloid, I can probably solvent weld the broken piece back into place and shellac it firmly to the gripping section, but will that be able to take the strain of the button-filling pressure bar pushing against it? Or, must I reinforce the inside of the barrel with a sleeve turned on the lathe and fabricate a new gripping section to accommodate the extra space consumed by the sleeve? 

At this point, I only have doubts and questions, and don’t intend to start work until the questions are replaced by a plan. Writing this pen off is an option: since the goal is to benefit a charity, paying someone more expert than I to create a solution would be truly counterproductive. More to come in the future….

Selling the Oversized Sheaffer Balance? Really?

No, this isn’t a commercial for a pen that is listed in the For Sale page. Yes, I’m having some misgivings about selling the oversized Sheaffer Balance in Marine Green from the core of my collection, but I think this is a decision that will stay decided. I’ve owned this pen since the first year of my building a pen collection, most of which I have turned over in the intervening years as my tastes have evolved. Yes, there was a time when my collection boasted well over 75 pens (I don’t think it has ever reached 100 pens that I did not consider inventory), but for some years now that number has hovered around 50. 

Frankly, this isn’t the first time I’ve pulled this pen out to sell, but it is the first time its database status changed from “TME” to “Next Listing” and then to “For Sale”. I for sure didn’t decide to let it go because the pen suddenly isn’t as good; it’s a landmark pen, from the 1930-31 first years of the Balance, their largest pen of the style. It’s in great condition for a 90 year old pen, with only a little bit of missing plate on the clip and cap ring. It writes wonderfully, fast, firm, fine. It always gets oohs and ahs when friends look through my collection. So why am I letting it go? 

Every pen collector I know, really any collector, has a guiding reason for the collection, since gathering a collection involves discrete decisions to buy this object but not that one. Yes, pendom includes a few people who appear to simply buy it all, but even if their resources appear to be unlimited, they have motives that restrict their selections to brands or types or some broader collecting decision path. My smallish collection is guided by two rules: I love the pen and I use it. These rules were not set in advance; as every other standard I thought was in place fell away, these are the two that stayed. I generally favor vintage over modern, but not exclusively so since I now have a half dozen or so modern pens.  I hate cartridge/converter fillers, but have one. For me, it’s not an objective thing: it’s all in the writing experience and my more general love of vintage. So, once a pen is loved enough to land in my collection, if it gets regular use, it stays. If a couple of years go by without use, I generally conclude that although I love the pen, it deserves to be loved by someone who will use it. And, to quickly analyze the converse of not using pens I love, life is too short to use pens I don’t love.  

I keep asking myself why this Sheaffer has so regularly gotten passed over, and frankly I don’t have a good answer. Perhaps this is the key for many of our choices: if my choice is not in a predetermined order, how does the decision get made? I suspect the same is true for many reading this: it just happens. Most of the pens I’ve sold from my collection in recent years were sold because they weren’t getting enough use, and the responses from their new owners have described nothing but satisfaction and happiness, so I feel good about sending this one on to its next adventure, too!

An Admission

Looking at the pens in my three-pen everyday carry case this holiday week, I am ready to acknowledge publicly that all three are modern pens. This is pretty heady stuff for someone so devoted to vintage pens. No, I’m not preparing to rename my company “xxxx, formerly known as timsvintagepens”, because I do still love everything about vintage pens, from their variety to the complexity of their restoration to their histories. However, for some years, a couple of modern pens have captured a lot of playing time in my collection of 50, and then two recent additions took hold. The time has come for me to talk about my modern pens and why they fit in. (Note: pictures are in Tim’s Collection.)

First, for three years I’ve been carrying a 2014 Pilot Legance, a Japan-market pen that was given to me by a friend who abandoned New York for Paris. It has been my steady subway pen; speckled brown resin body, nice chrome trim, expressive and smooth medium Pilot nib. Like every Pilot I’ve used, it writes evenly to the last drop. No shaking or licking this nib; when it’s done it’s done. 

Second, my Lamy 2000, given to me by a pen friend for addicting him to pen restoration. It’s pretty close to design perfection: the fact that the piston filler joint is not visible until turned is the exclamation point for the rest of its virtues. It’s the one not in my pen case. 

Third, a bright orange, feather-light limited edition Sailor, with a Japanese fine nib. It was also a present from a friend who insisted that this was a modern pen that would earn its keep, even though it is orange. Its simplicity and very high quality manufacture, complemented by the enjoyment of writing such tiny letters, make this another effortless, maintenance-free carry. 

Finally, I don’t just accept modern pens as presents, I bought one. My fondness for vintage Auroras has often led me to look twice at the modern Aurora 88s. None hit me right until a few weeks ago, when one of the black polished resin 88s from a few years back appeared for the right price in an Instagram post of a pen seller I respect. In a word, it’s exquisite: a delicate, soft medium nib with long tines for perfect expressive handwriting. It feels wonderful in the hand, the deep black resin smooth and enticing. 

I don’t think it’s noteworthy that none of these is American; each has its own special character, and they’ve become special for me because of their individual attributes. Will these replace my vintage pens in daily use? Hard to say; I imagine the Pilot and Sailor may start alternating their pen case time with home desk time, so a vintage will fill it. The Aurora is still in its first fill, and may be in steady use for awhile. I’ll let you know!

Making Parts

Some months back, this space was devoted to my purchase of a vintage machine lathe for fabricating replacement parts for vintage fountain pens. Eight months later, after getting-to-know-you learning, restoration, repair, and experiencing the first steps, sidetracks, and culs-de-sac of machining’s very long learning curve, I have now produced my first pen part, the sac nipple for a 1930s Wearever. (For those readers who may not know, the sac nipple is where the latex sac in a vintage pen attaches to the gripping section. If it’s broken, the pen cannot fill or hold ink.) Since sac nipples are far from pens’ only point of failure, I’m preparing to move on to other parts, which are a bit more challenging to produce but, now that the first has happened, the others seem to have become achievable with care and planning.

Why does one need a lathe to make these parts? The simple answer is that lathes have created pens since they were no longer feathers! Lathes create roundness: inside, outside, or both; perfect concentric roundness around a perfectly located center. This is at the very core of any pen’s success; threaded parts and friction fit parts cannot enable the effective flow of ink unless they are perfectly round. Centered roundness cannot be achieved with handheld tools.

Thus, producing my own parts will be a major expansion of my capability as a restorer, because they are not currently available in any marketplace without cannibalizing another pen, and vintage pens, useful or not, are disappearing with time. My hope is that a year or so from now I’ll be able to revise my About timsvintagepens statement to include the fabrication of replacement parts. So, if you have a broken sac nipple keeping a pen from getting playing time, do let me know! For other parts, stay tuned!

On Selling Esterbrooks…

Over the past few months, after placing the large listing here and on the Fountain Pen Network, I’ve sold a lot of Esterbrooks. As usual, this has made me think about the history of what I sell and why a pen sells when another doesn’t. I continually find that selling Esterbrooks isn’t like selling any other pen, because the variety of available components gives the buyer choice in both how the new pen will look and how it will write, a choice that isn’t provided with any other pen. One person bought a red SJ, a grey J, a copper transitional J, and a black LJ, and the colors had to match the sizes. One man told me that the green J felt bigger in his hand than the blue one, so he wanted a second green. One customer wanted a grey to match her black, so she could mix the caps and barrels. And, this doesn’t even touch nib choices!

The curious question for me is whether, and to what extent, this kind of broad choice was what Esterbrook had in mind. Their background, their entire marketing experience, was about nibs and choosing the right nib for the right experience. You’re a secretary? Get the 1555 for Gregg! A lot of letter signing? Get the 2968 Broad! Doing the books? Get the 2550 Firm Extra Fine! On the other hand, I have never seen an Esterbrook ad that broadcasts the color choices. Was this simply a missed opportunity, and others were selling colors? Parker and Sheaffer certainly marketed their colors, so it wasn’t that no one found color important. Perhaps they decided their true strength was in the nibs, and that one had to buy a pen to get the nib, so maybe having to decide a color was thought to be a decision too many.

Another angle that occurred to me is that many magazines (and there were many, many magazines in the 1950s) had color pages and black/white pages. Perhaps the cost of buying a color ad was too high for the Esterbrook marketing budget, and it wouldn’t make sense to write up a green pen that would look grey in black & white, so the magazine placements might have influenced actual advertising spending, and thus the marketing itself.  

Clearly, I don’t have answers this time, only questions.  But this is what I’ve been wondering about. I’d love to hear your thinking, your wondering about this puzzle!

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 1960s, 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.

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.

Upping My Game

I know I said that this Thought would be my most important tools list, but that Thought got pre-empted by this Thought.  Next time…

In recent weeks my shop experienced a major change: I acted on years of frustration with my inability to restore pens that needed replacement parts, and bought a vintage machinist’s lathe. With the predestined introduction to Arnaldo, a master restorer of full-size production shop machinery who has become my mentor, I decided the time had come and started actively researching the national marketplace for a vintage American machine that would give me greater range and ability than a modern Chinese-made one. Within weeks, the stars aligned and a 1943 Logan 820 appeared locally on Craigslist, the pride and joy of a former instructor at NYC’s aeronautics high school that was being sold by his daughter. With Arnaldo’s knowledgeable inspection and approval, I quickly became its new owner. Yes, this is no desktop mini-lathe: it’s 54”x32”, 530 pounds of steel and cast iron, and stands more than 5’ high on its iron legs. Getting it disassembled, transported in our car, and reassembled in my freshly reorganized apartment shop was a major adventure and huge effort by Arnaldo and with the help of three muscular friends.  

The relationship between this large machine and fountain pens?  With incredible precision, it can cut (the correct verb is “turn”) any circular shape, inside or outside, from any shape of any material from hardened steel to ebonite, and can make threads, grooves, tapers, edges, and lips. With this capability, I hope to be able to fix pens I couldn’t handle before, manufacturing replacement sac nipples and gripping sections, sleeves to fit barrels, corks for piston pens, gap-filling washers, and tools for customers and other restorers. Although I am now the rawest of novices, still assembling cutting tools and associated paraphernalia, I expect to be turning my first trial product within the coming weeks.  Stay tuned!

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 Pentooling.com’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.