Thursday, July 2, 2015

Measuring nib flexibility

Once buyers started bidding up pens with flexible nibs to unprecedented levels, sellers began to cash in by overstating the flexibility of their wares (related posts here and here). This has in turn renewed interest in establishing some sort of grading scale for flexibility.

Establishing any sort of standardized flex grading system will not be easy. At minimum, there would have to be one scale indicating the range of line width variation, and another scale indicating how much pressure is required to make the nib open up. Unfortunately, I can think of no practical way to prevent the first scale from being subjective and inconsistent. Maximum line width for a given nib will differ greatly depending upon whether it is pushed to its short-term limits or kept within its safe range for sustainable long-term use. And while photos can show when a nib is being pushed far into the danger zone, in most cases there is a large grey area which one has to navigate by feel, not by eye.

The second scale is another story. Instead of continuing to rely upon poorly defined labels such as "easy flex", "full flex", "superflex", and the odious "wet noodle", correlating the force applied to a nib and the resulting deflection would provide a precise and uniform method of grading.

Two versions of this approach have been proposed in recent years. The first, explained in this YouTube video, entails measuring the pressure required to make the nib open up to its maximum safe width. Quite aside from the issue noted above of determining that width, this method also fails to provide figures for comparison that are truly comparable. How is one to compare a nib that writes a 2 mm line with 250 grams of pressure with another that writes a 2.2 mm line with 280 grams of pressure? Perhaps both require the same pressure to reach 2 mm, but one just happened to have been pushed a bit harder. But there's no telling, since the measurements were not made at a standard angle of deflection.

Addressing this problem, another method fixes the nib opening at a standard figure of 1 mm, further specifying an angle of 45 degrees between pen and paper. This is a definite step forward, though it is still not as exact or comprehensive as might be desired. As a practical matter, it is more than a little awkward to press a pen down on a digital scale, holding it at exactly 45 degrees, gradually increasing pressure until the tines are exactly 1 mm apart at the tip, and simultaneously noting the scale's reading. Furthermore, if one were to graph nib opening as a function of force applied, the resulting curve could vary considerably from nib to nib -- two nibs requiring identical pressure to open to 1 mm could well require substantially different amounts of pressure to open to 0.5 mm, or to 1.5 mm. Finally, 1 mm may be more than is safe for some nibs, especially smaller ones.

For informal use, the 1 mm method is approximate but simple, requiring only the absolute minimum of equipment. With only a little more work, however, much better measurements are possible. The pen holding apparatus shown below was thrown together using scrap wood and miscellaneous hardware. The digital scale is a cheap Harbor Freight unit, with the nib tip resting on a square of sheet acrylic. The pen is clamped between guide rails set at 45 degrees, and pressure on the nib can be varied by hanging weights (not shown) on the pivoted support arm.

This setup, along with a measuring magnifier, makes it easy to determine the exact pressure required to achieve a 1 mm opening. Even better, it allows for a much more complete picture of a nib's performance. For example, instead of using nib opening as the benchmark and then determining the pressure required, pressure can be used as the benchmark and the resulting line width measured. This can then be repeated with multiple pressure settings -- 100, 200, and 300 grams would cover the essential range.

Over the next week or so I will record and report measurement results for various pens, including some dip pen nibs favored by calligraphers for their flexibility. The latter should offer an invaluable benchmark. I will also start to report test results for flex nib pens I list on eBay, which may push other sellers to provide similar data.

ADDENDUM: Antonis Zavaliangos commented on the issue of dealing with friction -- in particular, frictional resistance to the spreading of the tines. While the use of an acrylic surface will reduce that friction, my preferred method (as planned) is to adjust the pressure to a convenient benchmark with the nib on the acrylic -- 100g, say -- then to ink the nib, put a sheet of paper over the acrylic, set the nib on the paper, and pull the paper out from under the nib. That way the nib will have the opportunity to open up fully, as it might not in a static test. It will also be much easier and more accurate to measure the resulting line's width than to measure the gap between the tines at the very tip.

Friday, June 26, 2015

An Esterbrook I'd Like To Buy Back

Ever regretted selling a pen? This is one I would love to have back. It's a fully marked English-made Esterbrook Relief button-filler, the size of a streamlined Duofold Senior, basically a rebranded version of a Conway Stewart Duro. I found it in England in the mid-1990s at an outdoor antiques fair, and I've never seen nor heard of another one since. These are the only pictures I have of it, taken back in pre-digital days.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Waterman's "Safety Pockets"

Browsing in old fountain pen catalogs, one often runs across items that just don't seem to turn up in real life.  The leather pen carriers sold by Waterman and others provide a good example: they appear regularly in Waterman catalogs from around the turn of the century up through the 'teens, listed as "Safety Pockets" or "Vest and Chatelaine Pockets", yet many advanced collectors have never seen actual surviving examples.

I've owned these two for quite a few years. Both are vest pocket versions, as opposed to the chatelaine versions which have an inverted V-shaped suspension system, allowing the pocket to hang from a woman's belt.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Waterman date code?

When pen collectors hear "date code", they think of Parker. Other pen companies used date codes later on, but as far as I know, Parker was all on its own when it added a date code to its imprints from 1934 on. Yet the pen shown above, a Waterman/Aikin Lambert Vis-O-Pen, had what appears to be a date code, "38", on its plated stainless steel nib.

I confess that I have not paid a lot of attention to these economy-line pens, so this may be old news to others. Such codes do not appear on Waterman or Aikin Lambert nibs in gold.

UPDATE: Not a date code after all, it appears. Daniel Kirchheimer has pointed out to me that "38" is the base model number for the Vis-O-Pen line, and the number appears on all Vis-O-Pen nibs.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Another illustration of hard rubber cap manufacture

The cap on this Wirt slip-cap eyedropper nicely illustrates how such caps were made, as discussed here and here. Before vulcanization, the soft rubber mix was wrapped in sheet form around a mandrel. The edge of the sheet is clearly visible in the top image as a longitudinal break in the patterning. The view below shows how the end of the mandrel was covered with a disk of soft black rubber mix.

More painted pens (and pen parts)

More discoveries from the parts storehouse. The ringtop is unmarked, and appears never to have been completed, as neither lever nor pressure bar has been installed. The yellow spots are painted on. The cap may well come from the same source, and it too appears to be unused. The painted decoration is repeated on the other side in identical form.

Monday, May 4, 2015

Pen site upgrades

Posting here has been slow lately, and it's not entirely due to the much-welcomed arrival of spring here in New England. Much of our time recently has been spent on belated website upgrade work, in particular making the most popular pages more mobile-friendly. There's still much to be done, as the structure of some parts of the site goes back to its early days in the late 1990s. Paradoxically, in many cases the old code and the barebones layout of these pages work better on a small screen than do fancier and more stylish sites.

Please let us know if you have any requests or suggestions, and definitely let us know if you see something broken or missing!

Monday, April 6, 2015

OMAS selling gold nibs without tipping?

Over at the Fountain Pen Network there is a discussion of OMAS pens with solid 18K gold nibs and no hard tipping material whatsoever. The pens in question were special-ordered with rather broad italic nibs, so this observation doesn't apply to standard OMAS pens. Nonetheless, it seems bizarre that a company with such a heritage would be sending out what appears to be a major bodge. Armando Simoni must be spinning.

PS Looks as though this has been going on for a while. I can't believe people are buying these chopped-off nibs, let along paying a premium for them.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

More taper cap construction notes

We recently discussed the manufacture of hard rubber taper caps, and specifically how they were made by wrapping raw rubber around a steel mandrel, the rubber then being vulcanized in place. Since the unvulcanized rubber is dough-like, and not a liquid, there inevitably has to be a seam where the edges of the rolled-out rubber sheet meet. This seam is normally invisible after the cap has been vulcanized, turned or ground to final dimensions, and polished, though in some cases a telltale line of porosity can be seen -- usually on second-tier pens, where quality control apparently was not quite so strict. The seam can also become visible if the hard rubber ends up light-faded, as illustrated by the photo above (click to enlarge). In such cases, the rubber has proven more resistant to fading where it has been joined.

The first time I noticed this phenomenon was on the cap of a giant Moore safety pen in a Chicago pen show auction, long ago. At the time I could not decide if the line meandering down the side of the cap was some sort of manufacturing flaw or the traces of an extremely skilful repair. The answer only became clear years later, after seeing several other examples, reading more about how hard rubber caps were made, and finally putting all the evidence together. Once you start looking for that seam, you'll find that it's often visible but easily overlooked. This also applies to mottled hard rubber, where the seam may hide in plain sight in the material's irregular patterning.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

LT ≠ Louis Tiffany

The LT & Son mark is typically found on all-metal combos and pencils, and has confused pen collectors for as long as I've been collecting. Commonly misinterpreted as standing for "Louis Tiffany", in fact it has no Tiffany connection whatsoever, standing instead for Louis Tamis -- a prominent New York jewelry firm that is still going strong today.

According to the company's website, the firm was "Founded in New York in 1909 by Russian-born jeweler Louis Tamis . . . In the late '30s, Tamis met Paul Flato, a retailer with a keen eye for design, and their association produced money clips, pens and cufflinks. . . Louis' sons took over the company in 1948 and the company became one of the top high-end jewelry manufacturers in America."

Exactly when (or if) "& Son" became "& Sons" I have not yet determined. The listing above and the ad below both come from the same publication, Trade-Marks of the Jewelry and Kindred Trades, 6th edition, 1950, pp. 220 and 27, respectively.

Another question regards who manufactured what and for whom. A number of New York companies offered virtually identical all-metal combos and pencils in this era, including Louis Tamis, Edward Todd, Hicks, and Twinpoint. These combos and pencils are also found marked with the names of high-end retailers such as Cartier and Tiffany. Only Hicks and Edward Todd held actual pen and pencil patents, and on balance the evidence favors Hicks as the ultimate maker of all these writing instruments.