Sunday, June 26, 2016

Pen show frictions, Part 2: the Generation Gap

While clashing expectations regarding the nature of pen show commerce (see Part 1: retailer shoppers vs traders) appears to be the largest single cause of recent show-related frictions, other factors are in play. That the lines of division have been perceived in terms of age is not an accident -- though as we shall see, this is more a matter of correlation than causation. At American pen shows, the swap-meet style traders are predominantly older, while the buyers unfamiliar and uncomfortable with swap-meet style trading are predominantly younger. In part this is the natural result of new enthusiasts finding themselves in a collector-to-collector trading environment for the first time, but it is also due to the manner in which pen shows and the community of pen enthusiasts have evolved, which opened up a generation gap that persists to this day.

When I began collecting pens in the second half of the 1980s, organized pen collecting was still a new field. Just ten years before there had been no magazines, no guidebooks, no clubs, no shows. Much still wasn't known; of what was known, much was unpublished. With a bit of legwork, one could buy pens cheap at flea markets and antique shops, shows, and auctions -- pens that were then brought in staggering quantities to pen shows where they were quickly traded, sold, and resold.

Pen shows back then were virtually all vintage. The reason was simple: that's pretty much all that was available in the way of interesting and affordable fountain pens. There was next to no retail or restoration infrastructure. To be a pen geek entailed scrounging, swapping, and learning to do one's own repairs. And though I refer here to collectors and collecting, that doesn't mean that no one used their pens -- quite the opposite. Then as now, most pen collectors were both collectors and users, the big difference being that vintage pens were so affordable and abundant that most active collectors pretty quickly ended up with far too many for them all to be used. At that point, one would either have to stop acquiring (no!) or embrace the realization that even pens that one doesn't use can be enjoyable to own for different reasons.

Through the 1990s, pen collecting steadily grew. There were more collectors, more resources, more information. The pen market was strong, and interesting new pens were introduced, carving out a growing presence at pen shows. There were online forums, but the main action in pens was still face-to-face. What changed everything in the space of only a few years was eBay. By the end of the 1990s the old days were largely gone (in the USA, that is -- the changes took longer elsewhere). The pens that once could be found at flea markets, general antiques shows, shops, and auction houses, were now sent to eBay instead. The central exchange for pens fresh to the market had been the pen show. Now it was online. At the same time, eBay opened up pen collecting to an unprecedented degree, drawing in pen lovers worldwide with no previous contact with pen shows or other pen enthusiasts. eBay was like a full-time pen show, and in combination with online collecting forums, offered formidable competition to the world of shows and club meetings.

The immediate effects of these developments were dramatic enough; their long-term effects were greater yet. While a few collectors and dealers managed to keep up, most did not. Show organizers hired publicists to get their events mentioned in local newspapers and broadcasts, but did next to nothing to promote themselves online. Many pen clubs and collecting organizations were equally remiss. As a result, the first-generation collectors of the pen show era and the second-generation collectors of the online era failed to connect. Even if show organizers and club leaders had seen what needed to be done, however, the task would not have been easy. By the time pen collecting began to move online, many first-generation collectors were getting older and less active, and while most were fine with buying and selling on eBay, very few ended up participating to any significant degree in online forums (far more time-consuming, it should be noted, than monthly or bimonthly club or show attendance). This was especially the case for the more advanced collectors, first-generation leaders but virtually invisible online. Second-generation pen enthusiasts thus ended up relying on their online communities, where leadership was more a function of participation than of experience or depth of knowledge. Relatively few found their way to pen shows (the hassles of flying post-9/11 played their part, too) and when they did, they tended to stick to themselves and follow their own interests. In some cases this was constructive -- new attention to underappreciated brands and models, for example -- but in others, less so. Knowledge and experience that should have been passed on, wasn't. Friendships that could have been, weren't. And while eBay and the internet seemed to have rendered the pen market fully visible, this apparent transparency was an illusion that kept many from realizing how much of the picture they were actually missing.

One telling symptom of what was lost is the still-anomalous distribution of strength and weakness in the pen market. In any field of collecting, an episode of market weakness normally plays out in a predictable pattern, with demand for the very best pieces remaining strong, the low end holding steady, and the middle collapsing. Yet from the end of the 1990s into the early 2000s on, something very different happened in the vintage pen market: the high-end pieces went weak, with the mid-range holding steady and the low end strongest of all. Demand for certain brands and subfields also shrank -- typically the more esoteric items, including ephemera. This wasn't so much a natural change in tastes as a massive reboot. It was the commonly available items in the low to middle range that the internet generation had been exposed to; the rare and the esoteric remained too remote, inaccessible, and incomprehensible to make it onto their collecting radar, let alone their want lists. There were exceptions, of course. And the overall level of knowledge has steadily increased -- though it sometimes feels like watching the wheel being reinvented. More progress has come in the last several years, as social media platforms have allowed a comparative handful of advanced collectors to share and discuss notable items from their collections with the pen community at large. Meanwhile, more online collectors are making their way to pen shows, yet too often there is more parallel play than mixing and interchange.

So where do we go from here? The fact that this has become a topic of conversation strikes me as a good sign, and an opportunity to clear up misunderstandings and misperceptions. There is no shortage of good will in the pen community, which should pull it through (and together) in the end.

Pen show frictions, other entries: Part 1: retailer shoppers vs tradersPart 3: meet the older collectorsPart 4: users vs collectors

Wax on pens

I'm not sure how it all started, but in the past ten years or so it seems a significant number of enthusiasts have begun waxing their pens. While this may make some sense for pens with finishes that cannot take much polishing, or which are especially vulnerable to environmental exposure, there are many cases where wax is decidedly not a good idea.

Heading the list are pens made of celluloid or cellulose acetate. Both materials give off acid gases as they age, gases which can accelerate the aging process if not allowed to escape (more on celluloid storage here). Coating a celluloid or cellulose acetate pen in wax will prevent escape of those acids, trapping them within the material. The harder waxes favored for use on pens, such as carnauba, are also the least permeable, despite recent claims of breathability on pen forums (see Greener Donhowe, O. Fennema, "Water vapor and oxygen permeability of wax films", Journal of the American Oil Chemists’ Society, Sept 1993, vol. 70, issue 9, pp. 867-873).

Wax on hard rubber is a more mixed case. Protection from light and in particular UV will be minimal, so the main benefit would be to exclude moisture. Water will have no effect on pristine hard rubber, but exposure to light will eventually break down the crosslinks formed during vulcanization. This surface damage is often invisible until the rubber is exposed to water, at which point it will fade instantaneously as de-crosslinked material is washed away. Humid air can have a similar effect, though without the loose surface compounds being washed away. Instead, one ends up with an acidic crust, thanks to the free sulfur in the damaged surface. Waxing hard rubber that has latent surface damage (that is, exposure to light, but no exposure to water) would help prevent both fading and formation and release of acids.

Wax does change the look and feel of a surface, however, and waxes do inevitably break down, losing their ability to protect and turning cloudy or yellow. If the dulled wax is difficult to remove, this can be a serious problem. What seems wonderful for the first few years can become a nightmare after ten or twenty. For while polishing off old wax residue may be no big deal on a wooden table or a steel knife blade, it's quite another matter to get it off something like the delicate and irregular surface of Japanese maki-e lacquer work.

As important as knowing when and when not to wax, is knowing what wax to use. For a knockabout pen of no historic value it doesn't really matter. For something rare and significant, though, you'll want to approach wax selection like a conservator. Commercial products for household or automotive use would be disqualified immediately. You'll want to avoid waxes such as beeswax and carnauba, which are either acidic or prone to become acidic as they age. You'll also want to avoid polyethylene waxes, which under some circumstances can be almost impossible to remove (see Danal L. Moffett, "Wax coatings on ethnographic metal objects: justifications for allowing a tradition to wane", Journal of the American Institute of Conservation, vol. 35, no. 1, 1996, pp. 1-7, where removal required nothing less than immersion in hot xylene). A pure microcrystalline wax such as Cosmolloid 80H would be the conservator's choice, according to the current literature. I would advise against Renaissance Wax, which is a mixture of microcrystalline and polyethylene waxes. It is widely advertised as a museum-grade product, but what was museum-grade back in the 1950s when it was developed is very different from what is museum-grade today.

ADDENDUM: In this thread at FPN, users of Renaissance Wax report it discoloring hard rubber upon application. These would appear to be instances of solvents in the wax reacting with a surface layer already degraded by exposure to light, akin to how such surfaces can instantly fade when exposed to water.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Pen show frictions, Part 1: retail shoppers vs traders

The online pen community has been abuzz the last several months over frictions between older and newer participants at American pen shows. The lines of conflict have generally been framed in terms of age, or at least length of time involved with pens. There is quite a bit to be said about how pen collecting has changed over the years, and about the generation gap between those whose experience was rooted in pen shows and those who came into pens online -- but that is a topic for another post. Right now, I'd like to draw attention to a completely different issue, one whose importance has been almost entirely overlooked to date.

The modern American pen show is a hybrid event. There are old pens and new pens, collectors and users. Yet within these categories, there is more overlap than division. Where the differences are truly pronounced is along another divide entirely, one that most of us don't even give a moment's thought: the divide between those who set up as swap-meet traders, and those who present themselves as full-service retailers. Nearly all of the traders are amateurs, dealing mainly in vintage, while most of the retailers are professionals, their focus leaning towards the new. But it is not what they sell that is of primary significance: it is the mode of selling that is key.

At pen shows, traders and retailers get along just fine, as each understands what the other is all about. Where misunderstandings have arisen is when buyers come to a pen show expecting a retail shopping experience, only to run across exhibitors in full swap-meet mode. If the buyer is already familiar with markets of this sort, there's no problem -- but increasingly, that is not the case. The resulting clash isn't generational so much as cultural. This goes in both directions, for when buyers start demanding retail-style service from trader exhibitors, there can be pushback.

Let's pause for a moment for a closer look at the two market cultures. Shoppers expecting a modern Western retailing experience count on prices to be fixed and prominently posted, with items provided with descriptions and/or sales staff on hand ready to answer any questions. Buyer and seller roles are sharply demarcated. And though the shopper doesn't see it, prices are padded to factor in the cost of the customer services already noted, as well as 3-4% off the top for credit card or PayPal fees, and -- not least -- picking up the tab for any buyer blunders, such as breakage, handling damage, and returns of nondefective merchandise.

Collector-to-collector swap meets work very differently. Participants are equals, since virtually everyone both buys and sells. Pricing is flexible, bargaining is expected, and trading (bartering) is common. Not everything will bear a price tag, for a number of possible reasons: sellers may lack time or inclination (too much like work instead of a hobby); they may not be certain how much to ask (or even if they really want to sell); they may want to be free to adjust their asking prices on the fly (as when dealing with someone known to be a particularly hard bargainer, for example). Condition can run the range -- with pens, anything from straight out of an old desk drawer to fully and professionally reconditioned -- and sales are as-is and final. Though sellers are expected to disclose hidden and nonobvious defects, shoppers are also expected to exercise due diligence in inspecting prospective purchases and asking questions as necessary. Likewise, it's largely up to the shopper to ask about items of interest. Since shoppers are regarded as fellow collectors rather than retail customers, table holders typically give them space to look in peace rather than try to play the salesman: the eager attentiveness that many retail buyers expect can come off as offputtingly slick and aggressive in a swap-meet setting. And while most sellers will accept PayPal and some are set up for credit cards, the default payment method is cash or check, with prices negotiated accordingly.

How does all this play out? Let's take a look at some examples. Some of the conflicts illustrated here bring up issues other than the trader-retailer divide -- issues that we will discuss shortly, in further posts.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Celluloid storage and acid absorption

As celluloid ages, it emits a range of compounds. Some are benign, but as the celluloid begins to approach its expiration date, some rather nasty stuff gets released -- most notably, nitric acid. This in turn accelerates the process of deterioration, as well as attacking other nearby materials. For this reason, conservators recommend storing celluloid artifacts separated from each other and with ventilation. Keeping the temperature and especially the humidity low also slows the aging process. (see Julie A. Reilly, "Celluloid Objects: Their Chemistry and Preservation", Journal of the American Institute for Conservation, 1991, vol. 30, no. 2, article 3, pp. 145-162).

The release of acidic compounds begins well before any visible signs of material degradation, as has been demonstrated by wrapping old celluloid pens in litmus paper. Litmus paper, however, is just an indicator. It doesn't do much of anything to absorb or neutralize free acids. For that, elementary chemistry suggests the use of a mild base, such as sodium bicarbonate (baking soda) or calcium carbonate (lime). Museum conservators have indeed used calcium carbonate to trap acid gases, but as it turns out, far better options are available.

For pen storage, the best choice seems to be SPZ-grade zeolite, and in particular, MicroChamber papers. These papers are impregnated with high-absorption zeolite with an alkaline buffer, and can be used to line pen storage areas or to wrap individual pens. Standard-sized interleaving paper costs under $0.25 per 6.5 x 10.125 inch sheet, and can be bought through Amazon or directly from the manufacturer. Studies going back over twenty years show that these acid-trapping papers outperform calcium carbonate dramatically, both in thoroughness of acid capture and neutralization, and in retaining the ability to trap and hold acids and other atmospheric pollutants over time (see Siegfried Rempel, "Zeolite Molecular Traps And Their Use In Preventative Conservation" (Western Association for Art Conservation Newsletter, January 1996), Getty Conservation Institute, "Performance of Pollutant Adsorbents (2001-2003)", and the Conservation Resources website). I now have MicroChamber paper lining most of my pen and parts storage areas, supplemented by silica gel canisters to absorb excess humidity. Though standard-sized paper is what I have, 14-inch paper is required if you want to pleat it around the dividing ridges of a standard 12-pen slotter box. Finally, I have no financial stake in any of these products -- I am using them because all the sources I could find indicate that they offer the best protection option (noting that activated carbon filters are of comparable merit, though much bulkier).

NOTE: There are MicroChamber papers that also incorporate activated carbon. And as a Facebook commenter noted, one can also place strips of MicroChamber paper *inside* celluloid pens for additional protection -- though if the pen is to be used regularly, the paper will have to be cut and shaped carefully so as not to interfere with the filling mechanism. The greatest benefits would be with button-fillers and other pens with barrels that are tightly sealed.

Friday, June 17, 2016

Inner cap repair: adding a washer

Nearly every fountain pen with a screw-on cap is also equipped with an inner cap. The inner cap is a short tube, usually but not always closed at the top end, which seals off the nib when the pen is capped. The inner cap also provides a solid stop when screwing the cap in place, the section face ending up pressed firmly against the mouth of the inner cap. The inner cap often also serves to hold the clip in place, as is the case with the Wahl pen shown in the cutaway view above.

A damaged or distorted inner cap is easily overlooked, but can cause real problems. When an inner cap leaks or does not seal against the section, the nib may dry out and not write promptly when put to paper, while ink may make its way around the interior of the cap and onto the section and barrel. If the face of the inner cap is not square to the cap's axis, the cap will not sit straight on the barrel when screwed in place. And if the inner cap is too short or entirely missing, it may be possible to screw on the cap too far. This risks both splitting the cap if it is turned beyond where the threads end, and destroying the nib by bottoming it out against the inside of the cap top.

Since inner cap problems are so easily overlooked, and since they so often require a lathe to remedy, many dealers don't bother addressing them. We do; a recent example is shown below.

The pen is a British-made Mabie Todd Jackdaw, an economy-line model that ended up in Spain, where it was fitted with an elaborate Toledo-work overlay. Top-line makers such as Mabie Todd made sure that their pens' inner caps were problem-free, but in this case the maker of the overlay wasn't quite so careful.

The pen came to us unused, yet I immediately noticed that the exposed hard rubber cap lip appeared to bottom out against the shoulder of the barrel overlay, which is quite thick. If this was indeed the case, twisting the cap on tightly would compress and could crack the cap lip. And if the cap wasn't being stopped by the section coming to rest against the inner cap, as it should, there would be a gap there instead and no seal. But what if the overlay had been perfectly placed so that contact was made in both places simultaneously -- section and inner cap, cap lip and overlay? A quick measurement with the sliding depth gauge I use to ensure sufficient nib clearance was not decisive. If the contacts weren't simultaneous, they were very close

Next step was to back out the section a couple of millimeters, then to screw the cap all the way on so that the inner cap pushed the section into the barrel. Sure enough, there was a gap of just .025 inches. The cap lip was taking all the pressure, just as I had suspected.

What to do? The barrel overlay could not be moved, for its lever cutout was aligned with the recess in the barrel under the end of the lever. Instead, the inner cap would have to be extended. A washer was cut from hard rubber, inner and outer diameters matching those of the inner cap, .030 inches thick. It was warmed and then pressed into position against the inner cap's outer face.

The cap now seats on the inner cap, and not on the cap lip. There is virtually no change in exterior appearance, as the cap lip clears the barrel overlay by mere thousandths of an inch.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Nonproduction Watermans

Over the years I've seen several groups of unusual Watermans come to market from the estates of former Waterman executives and employees. The items shown above have such a provenance, though I bought them only recently, from an older collector. In many respects they resemble a group disbursed by the late Peter Stanton some twenty years ago, which included a number of clipless pencils with nonstandard features, as well as some interesting slender desk pens and a red and black Ripple 94 with a #7-style color band on the cap (which I still have, and need to photograph). Indeed, they may well have come from the same source.

From right to left, the items include: a completely unmarked 42-size safety, with Aikin Lambert-style feed and warranted nib; a slender smooth pencil, clipless; two clipless and unmarked Patrician pencils in black hard rubber; a 14 PSF cutaway demonstrator; and a truly odd pencil, whose oddness only became apparent once I opened it up.

Yes, this is a safety pencil! The mechanism is adapted from a small Waterman safety. It's all hard rubber -- no metal parts at all, and no imprints. The nose cone unscrews from the barrel, and when I opened it up I found a couple of extra pieces of lead inside. There's not really any lead magazine -- they were just floating around inside. The method by which the lead is held is also rather improvised, the propelling shaft being drilled and slotted at its end to hold and grip the lead.

And a bit more on the other items . . . 

The safety has a #2 New York nib, not a warranted as I first wrote. Initially I was under the impression that the packing unit housing had some distortion, as if it had been heated and then clamped, but upon looking more closely it seems the two flat spots may be intentional (when heated, the hard rubber did not spring back as it would if this were the result of pressure and heat).

Perhaps this was an experiment to see how rounded flats would look and feel, and if they would help provide more purchase for disassembly. Also worth noting is the surface of the pen, which looks as if it has a thin coat of opaque black lacquer. There are several spots where it seems to have worn away, allowing the hard rubber beneath to brown slightly.

The cutaway demonstrator is a 14 PSF. It's not all that early, as it has the flat barrel threads; the hardened sac is still in place, so I can't tell if the pressure bar is the later one-piece type -- though odds are it is. An interesting feature is the red-filled barrel imprint, which is likely original. Most standard production pens did not have their imprints filled, but one does sometimes find less common models with infill -- Signagraph pens being one example.