The Return of the Fountain Pen

Wahl-Eversharp Doric in Kashmir, c. 1931

Above: a Wahl-Eversharp Doric in the colour “Kashmir,” c. 1931, after a restoration.

FOR YEARS I’ve been restoring old fountain pens. As I’ve written elsewhere, I enjoy writing with this now anachronistic instrument — and in fact I’ve used a fountain pen for so long that they may not yet have fallen out of favour when I bought my first (a Sheaffer No-Nonsense) in the late 1970s.

About ten years ago I bought another Sheaffer at a flea market. This was my very first “vintage” pen, having up to that point only purchased a few fountain pens and only in retail stores. This old pen, a lever-filled Balance, didn’t work. I had no idea how it might be repaired or if it even could be repaired. So after a bit of futile fiddling with this mysterious object, I tossed it into the garbage, thinking nothing could be done.

Not long after this I searched “antique fountain pens” on eBay, and I quickly realized there were a lot of other folks interested in what I considered a peculiar fascination. Not only did I learn that vintage fountain pens were highly collectible and that a seeming large number of people were keen to spend wads of money to get them, I discovered there were others who restored pens for a hobby and in some cases for a living. One could even buy parts for old fountain pens. Never again would I throw away a vintage pen merely because it needed repair.

The first pens I restored were 1930s and 1940s Waterman lever fillers. Relatively cheap and abundant, they are also among the easiest to bring back to working condition. Most need only a new rubber sac to become daily users. Along the way I destroyed quite a few nice pens, usually by cracking the barrels during disassembly. In time I learned the tricks of the trade: how to distinguish hard rubber from casein and celluloid, working with friction versus threaded assemblies, removing shellac and old ink, removing sections and feeds and old sacs without cracking or otherwise destroying parts, and bringing back the vintage look and feel of an object that has had a rough ride of it over years and even decades.

I began with lever fillers, the most common type of pen and the one most of us associate with old fountain pens (think of the many gags you’ve seen in the movies, involving the lifting of a lever and the squirting of ink on some poor schmuck’s shirt). From here I moved on to button fillers and eventually pistons, and snorkels. My next attempt will be the restoration of Parker vacumatics,* which along with the snorkel filler and the Sheaffer vac-fil is one of the most challenging pen designs. To work with the lever filler one need in most cases only a bit of patience and a fresh rubber sac, whereas the restoration of some types of filling system requires specialized tools and experience disassembling old pens from the 1910s onward.

Pelikan 100, 1936.

Above: one of my “holy grail” fountain pens — a German Pelikan 100 piston filler, 1936, in black hardened rubber with a green striated binde and a fine flexible 14k gold nib.

By now I have restored many dozens of pens: Conway Stewarts, Onotos, Watermans, Parkers, Sheaffers, Wahl-Eversharps, Conklins and Esterbrooks — as well as some old no-name pens. Below is my latest restoration, a 1920s Swan Eternal E-44 mottled hard rubber lever filler with a beautiful #4 Swan nib. About a month ago I brought back from the grave (or rather desk drawer, to be more accurate) a Swan SM1/60. Swan Mabie Todds were along with Onoto de la Rue among the most well received of the British fountain pens. The Swan nibs were for some years made in New York, and are some of the best nibs (again, along with Onoto) I’ve found. The pen below is a very handsome example of the Swan Eternal line, which featured large nibs, beautiful gold “furniture” (clip, cap band, lever) and classic art deco styling. Here is the pen after complete disassembly (accomplished with the application of heat, to loosen dried up ink and to soften the hardened rubber barrel for crack-free removal of the section) and a bath in an ultrasonic cleaner:

Swan Eternal 44 Fountain Pen

Having cleaned and dried the pen parts and affixed the new rubber sac (in this instance a #20 sac with a bit of shellac applied to the section nipple to prevent leaking and slippage) I then re-assembled the pieces, again applying heat to soften the barrel opening for trouble-free insertion of the nib/feed/section assembly. Viola:

Swan Eternal E-44, Reassembled

Swan Eternal E-44

This, my friends, is no ordinary pen: it is an object of art which will be certain to bring pleasure for another 100 years. The restoration of a fountain pen is not only a hobby or a task, it is an exercise in bringing back into our disposable and technocratic world the simple and everyday objects of an almost-lost era of craftmanship, ingenuity and quality manufacture.

Addendum: Here is the restored Parker Vacumatic (standard model, c. 1944, in Emerald Green).

You can now buy my restored pens on eBay! I will be uploading many BEAUTIFUL VINTAGE PENS in the next few days (March 5-10, 2014).

Parker Vacumatic

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