Tim's Thoughts


I’ve written before about my interest and growing practice of parts fabrication for vintage pens. Over the past year, I’ve been devoting time to focus on fabrication, because I’ve discovered that one can’t multi-task when in a project. The fact is that there are no easy fabrication jobs: every one requires planning, design, usually some form of prototyping, and focus. Why is it such a challenge?

Fountain pens, even the really old eyedroppers, are complex devices. They are ink reservoirs and a means to let just the right amount of ink out and air in to enable writing rather than dripping. More recent pens have filling systems that bring ink directly into the body of the pen or into vessels that fit into the pen barrel; additionally, they are designed to make the process easier or sometimes to just be modern and new. The link among all of these mechanisms is a chain of precise fit dimensions that makes everything work. 

Parts fabrication, in addition to presenting challenges in focus, measurement/observation, and machining, is usually either a specific challenge inside the pen or outside the pen, an attempt to either repair or replace. There is also new pen design and manufacture, but I’m not a pen designer — in addition to not having the designer’s eye or interest to create an attractive pen, my small shop does not have the space, electrical power, or running water to run the filtration, lubrication and evacuation systems that are fundamental for turning modern acrylics and resins. My 1943 Logan lathe is a wonderful, precise machine, but not for work that really needs a modern shop. So, I face the repair and replacement challenges, recreating a broken part’s dimensions to precisely replace it or creating space for an extra part needed to stabilize a repair by changing everything around it. This work is also closer to my character; my long professional career was generally spent making everything work behind the scenes. 

Although much of the normal fabricating work is in replacing sac nipples and sleeving cracked barrels, the excitement is in the big projects, of which a great example is on the bench right now, replacing a cracked hard rubber gripping section in a very early gold Parker eyedropper. It presents numerous challenges, from a cone that tapers down to the feed opening, a gently edged ridge at the top of the cone to seat the barrel, and a finely threaded top end that exactly matches the barrel’s connecting threads. Its interior diameter needs to be exactly right to fit the feed and nib. Luckily, a highly experienced engineer has signed off on the nine-step operational order, recommending with some seriousness that I prototype it in brass. 

Why would I want to do all this? The easy answer, for sure, is to say “it’s what I do”, but I’ll reserve that for after more completed projects. I guess a better, more accurate answer is that for some years I have been deeply envious of the few people out there who can stand at their lathes and produce parts that give broken pens new careers, and as my professional ambitions faded, the quest to take on this new set of skills found the forefront. I don’t know how far I’ll take this set of skills, because there is so much to learn. I have some confidence that this old Parker will make it back to life, and after that, we’ll see!