Saturday, April 20, 2024

A repair manual for early mechanical pencils

 Information on the repair of antique pencils is much more difficult to find than for fountain pens. The skill set required is different, and notably eclectic.

So it is with considerable gratitude that I am conveying the offer of a specialized repair manual by its author, Winfried Neu. He has asked that any interested collectors contact him directly for the pdf files at no charge, at novusneu (at)  Please put "Repair telescopic pencils" as the subject to keep your emails from being treated as spam. 

Tuesday, April 16, 2024

The Parker Wood Pen

The Parker Wood Pen is one of the most enigmatic of limited editions. Solid documentation is hard to come by, and most of what is known to collectors is hearsay. This is not surprising for a design that was reportedly squelched by Parker's top management before it was fully produced or marketed, as noted on Tony Fischier's page -- one of the few online references to discuss the Wood Pen at all. 

I recently acquired a small group of boxed Wood Pens and in one box came the letter shown below. Although undated, it must date between 1980, when Willi Sieberger became president of Parker's writing instruments division in Janesville, and 1982, when he resigned from Parker "for personal reasons".

This letter raises questions. If the Wood Pen really was launched by Parker Germany without authorization from Parker USA, how is it that Sieberger would be putting his name on a promotional letter such as this? Could it have been that Sieberger thought that his appointment gave him authority to produce such a pen, only to find out otherwise? The letter certainly suggests that even if the Wood Pen idea came out of Germany, it also met with the approval of the head of the writing equipment division in Janesville -- a German, but in charge of operations worldwide. It would seem the story must have a few more twists than Parker Germany simply going off on their own only to be reined in by Parker USA. I have been in touch with Tony Fischier about this question, and from what he understands the directive to kill the Wood Pen came from the very top: the Parker family, who felt the Wood Pen did not comport with their idea of a Parker. How this would be connected to Sieberger's sudden departure shortly thereafter is for now only a matter of speculation.

Another puzzle posed by the letter is the list of seven woods. Fischier's site lists and illustrates eight, and I know of at least two German sample sets of eight pens, all in one box. Confusingly enough, each of these sets has paperwork that identifies the woods used -- different paperwork, but each lists only seven woods! The presence of one additional wood (which would seem to be angelin or partridgewood) isn't that hard to explain, especially if very rare: likely as not it is a material that was tried out and then dropped. The difficulty is in reconciling the other seven. Cocus is to be identified with Jamaican ebony, which is fairly straightforward. "Grendailla" (sic) is a little tougher, since grenadilla is another name for the African blackwood that comes first in the list, but it seems what was meant was granadillo, whose bold striping is consistent with the pen shown second from the bottom in Fischier's photo. Quajak and guajak both refer to lignum vitae. The "rosewood from Peru" is not a true rosewood and is probably what Fischier's site calls redwood. That leaves the tough question of reconciling the violet wood (or purpleheart) in the letter with the cocobolo in the sample sets' paperwork and in Fischier's list. As I have yet to see a Wood Pen in purpleheart, which is quite distinctive, it seems most likely that this wood was dropped and cocobolo substituted. 

A more straightforward insight from the letter regards the observed mismatching of the woods used for pens and boxes. Nearly all Wood Pen boxes are of the same material, no matter the wood used for the pens inside. The letter specifies that all boxes were to be made of Pau Rosa wood -- a reddish tropical hardwood that has usually been misidentified as redwood by pen collectors. It is certainly possible that early on the intention was to match woods, but the extreme rarity of boxes in other woods suggests that the idea was abandoned by the time production started.

The letter is silent on what happened to the pens remaining after the project was cancelled. There is some evidence in the packaging of the pens, however, which is notably inconsistent. Most have been found without boxes and some without numbers; the cardboard outer enclosures are seldom seen and yet still vary in how they are marked. While it is possible that unsold pens were recalled and destroyed, the evidence suggests that at least some ended up being disposed of otherwise, likely to Parker employees or their friends.

And though the sample size is too small to be definitive, the Wood Pen packaging that I have been able to examine also points to the pens being released in 1981 rather than 1980. A couple of examples would be pen #426 whose sale and guarantee certificate is dated October 20, 1981, and pen #368 which came with a generic Parker instruction sheet with a copyright date of January 1981. If any readers have other Wood Pens with documentation of date of sale, please let us know about them in the comments.

ADDENDUM: I have been informed of another example of the letter shown at top, accompanying a Wood Pen sold on eBay which came with warranty cards dated August 1981. There also seem to be multiple examples of boxes with the plaque engraved "A. B. Cremer" and "000". My guess is that this is a made-up name (the initials "ABC" are a clue) used for salesman's samples. 

Monday, March 18, 2024

More on the overflexing of vintage nibs

I've been sounding the alarm about the abuse of flexible nibs for years now, and though others have also tried to spread the word, far too many irreplaceable vintage nibs are still being destroyed by being pushed far beyond their safe limits. The simple fact is that even very flexible vintage nibs were only meant to open up in routine use by a millimeter or so. 

A recent post by Otto Yang in the Facebook group Vintage Flex Fountain Pens rekindled the discussion in a big way. Otto shared a selection of 19th and early 20th-century handwriting in support of the observation that normal writing of the era was quite restrained when it came to line width variation, and that pushing vintage nibs to line width variations of 2 mm or more is far beyond what they were ever intended to handle. This was all well and good -- but things really blew up when, primed by this still-ongoing conversation, a seller was publicly called out for heedlessly posting in the same group an advertisement promoting the exact sort of extreme nib abuse under discussion. 

The pen community is small and congenial, and up until now the desire to keep the peace has prevented most such confrontations. Yet given that sellers have been given ample notice (though it may be that many never bother reading or otherwise participating in the groups in which they hawk their wares) such an intervention is long overdue. As long as sellers are allowed to brazenly mislead buyers about the capabilities of vintage nibs without being publicly challenged, the destruction of old nibs will continue. 

Monday, February 12, 2024

Erasers for vintage Eversharp pencils


When it comes to old writing instruments, the least standardized consumables must be erasers. There are some hard to find lead sizes, to be sure, but the number of different eraser sizes is mind-numbing. Nor is there any comprehensive list of what pencils take what size, though there have been efforts made.

Up until recently I was content to leave erasers to others. Then I stumbled across a hoard of 7mm erasers, which ended up listed for sale. Then I made a video on all-metal Eversharp pencils, part of which involved eraser replacement. So replacement erasers in those sizes (5mm and 1/4 inch) ended up in the catalog. Next came 5.5mm for Snorkels and TM Touchdowns. And now 8.5mm has joined the lineup, the size for the big Eversharp pencils with the exposed erasers, along with the variants with an eraser cover (two of which are shown at the bottom of the photo above).

Friday, February 9, 2024

Touring Waterman's Newark factory

New Jersey: A Guide to its Present and Past, 1939, p. 335

I'm afraid we are a little late to book a group tour of Waterman's New Jersey factory. Would surely have been interesting. Waterman left it not long after the publication of the entry above, moving its Newark  operations back to New York in early 1941 (an announcement that the move was pending appeared in the Brooklyn Eagle on September 11, 1940, p. 23). The Conmar Zipper Company and the Margon Corporation moved in shortly thereafter and stayed for decades. There are some reminiscences about Conmar posted in this Reddit thread; George A. Tice took the photo below in 1973. 

Margon was a major manufacturer of dolls and doll parts, notably heads and glass eyes. It seems that the building was only torn down in the mid-1990s after standing empty for several years.

Thursday, February 8, 2024

Waterman and Heath

It has long been known that Waterman purchased overlays from George W. Heath & Co. A number of early Watermans bear silver overlays with the Heath "H" mark, and though the mark is absent on later examples, the continuity of style and workmanship strongly suggests continuity of sourcing. The same pattern of marking is seen with other penmakers using Heath overlays, and it is reasonable to suppose that all eventually chose not to give their subcontractor free advertising -- especially as Heath began to manufacture and sell fountain pens under their own name around this same time. It is not known why the Heath mark only appears on the silver overlays and never on gold filled or solid gold examples, even though their common source is clearly evident.

Nearly ten years ago I wrote the following about Heath's operations from the mid-teens onwards:

While the company continued to offer items under the Heath name, by all evidence the bulk of its business lay in contract manufacturing. Quantity of surviving examples isn't always a reliable gauge of quantities produced, but in this case the contrast between the scarcity of Heath-branded pens and pencils and the size of the factory and workforce is too stark to ignore. I strongly suspect that Heath continued to be the prime supplier of high-quality overlays to the US fountain pen trade as long as overlay pens continued to be made. In particular, Heath was probably the maker of all of Waterman's overlays -- early electrodeposited fine silver examples a possible exception -- from around the turn of the century all the way to the end of overlay pen production at some point in the 1930s. Waterman often publicized its production methods, and in some detail, yet never in any of these accounts is there any mention of in-house manufacture of overlays.

This speculation about the company's later history must now be amended, as there is good evidence that Waterman was manufacturing overlays in-house by at least the beginning of the 1920s. This is found in the description of Waterman's newly completed and occupied factory in Newark, New Jersey, published in the American Stationer of March 26, 1921 on p. 11 (and subsequently republished in other periodicals, such as Pacific Ports, June 4, p. 158, and India Rubber World, August 1, 1921, p. 840). The factory was notable for both its size and the horizontal integration of operations, including ink production and the distribution of dealer display material. On the third floor was the "gold and silver mounting department" and on the second, the "chasing and ornamental mountings department" -- "mountings" being the contemporary term for what we call overlays (also used to denote trim bands, but in this context clearly referring to overlays as well). I have not been able to find any mention of such departments in earlier Waterman factories, but for now this should be taken as absence of evidence rather than evidence of absence. 

What was Heath doing at this time? In my 2014 post I noted that "The later history of Heath is particularly obscure, with many of the usual online sources unavailable in volumes postdating the 'teens." Yet it was clear that the company was moving in new directions in the early 1920s: 

The brothers were already diversifying . . . while they held a number of patents, the latest that has anything to do with writing instruments is US 1514965 (an extending pencil), applied for in 1922. All subsequent patents, starting with US 1605723, also applied for in 1922, are radio-related, and from the 1923 Newark city directory on, we find the Heath Radio and Electric Manufacturing Company ("radio parts and condensers") listed alongside George W. Heath & Co. at the same address. 

While the (possibly older) company letterhead still proclaimed George W. Heath & Co. "Manufacturing Gold and Silversmiths" as well as "Patentees and Sole Manufacturers of Heath's "Tribune" Pencils and Fountain Pens" in a receipt dated October 26, 1923, the company had also placed a wanted ad a year before in The Iron Age seeking to buy a screw machine -- a large investment and a clear commitment to automated mass production.

In retrospect, my interest in Heath's overlay work led me to underestimate the extent of their pen and pencil manufacturing operations. It should have been clear that Heath was moving into manufacturing in a big way in the 1910s -- mass production, not artisanal hand work -- and I have recently found further corroboration of how early this started in the April 19, 1911 testimony of Hobart W. Geyer in the legal battle between Waterman and the Modern Pen Company, appealed all the way up to the US Supreme Court. On p. 1419 of the record, Geyer is asked, "Have you been in any factory during the last three years?" to which he answers, "I have been in Heath's several times in that time." "What kind of factory is it?" he is asked, to which he answers, "They make rubber holders and they make mountings." On the following day another witness, gold nib maker DeWitt C. Van Valer, also mentions Heath's factory in an exchange recorded on p. 1517. "When were you in Mr. Heath's factory?" "Within the past year." "Mr. Heath is a comparatively new man in the manufacture of rubber holders, is he not?" "I think he has been turning holders to my knowledge for the last four years, and may have been turning them before that." This lines up with the change in how Heath's business was described in directories of the time, from chasing and gold and silver novelties to fountain pens and pencils. This also lines up with the expansion of Heath's workforce and the move to a new factory in New Jersey in 1912. The demand for hand-worked gold and silver was declining, not growing: it wasn't the traditional bench jewelers leaving New York for New Jersey, but rather the manufacturing firms that required ample floor space for large machine tools and multistep production operations.

At this point we can only speculate about what happened in the 'teens and early 1920s, as Heath moved away from handwork and Waterman brought overlay manufacture in-house. I have found no record of workers moving from Heath to Waterman, let alone a formal transfer of a whole department. But skilled workers in the pen trade often moved from company to company, as is shown repeatedly in the testimonies cited above. And with Heath and Waterman's Newark factories only a little over a mile apart -- neither unionized -- continuing cooperation at some level can by no means be ruled out.

Tuesday, January 16, 2024

Please stop calling them "Continental safeties"

Once upon a time and long long ago, American collectors would occasionally come across safety pens with fancy overlays like the one shown above. They knew that these pens were European but not much more, so borrowing a usage from the antiques trade they started to call them "Continental" -- the umbrella term for furniture that was neither American nor British, but from somewhere in continental Europe. You don't see antiques called "continental" as much nowadays; the trade is more sophisticated and less insular, greatly reducing the need for catchall categories of this sort ("oriental" or "Asian" is another, much less used now with increased ability to differentiate between antiques from China, Japan, Korea, etc). And yet "continental" persists among pen collectors, even though English-speaking collectors have known for at least thirty years now that these fancy overlays are distinctively Italian and not generically European at all. This may largely be force of habit among older collectors, with the continuing influence of classic reference books a factor as well.

Let us finally retire "Continental" -- it is misleading and obsolete. Let us give credit where credit is due and call these pens what they are, which is Italian. No other country had so many independent workshops making such a variety of overlays, nor can the characteristic style and elaboration of these Italian overlays be mistaken for the product of any other European country. Not that French and German overlays aren't also distinct in design and style -- which is all the more reason not to lump them all together under the same catchall name.

Sunday, October 22, 2023

Unpacking "made on original Parker machinery"

There is a misconception among pen collectors regarding the claim that certain aftermarket pen parts were made on original Parker machinery. While the claim might be narrowly true, the use of an ex-Parker buffing wheel or drill press isn't what is called to mind. Rather, the implication is that the aftermarket parts were made in exactly the same way as the originals and to the exact same specifications. If we are talking about plastic parts, this they were not.
These parts were machined, not molded. Parker made them using automatic screw machines, which were large and very expensive programmable analog machine tools that could be configured to produce all sorts of parts. The size and cost (even used) of such machines made them utterly impractical for a small shop, along with the difficulty and expense of setting them up. They were only suitable for large-scale mass production, and nowadays have been almost entirely replaced by digitally-controlled CNC machine tools. Even if one were to gain access to an ex-Parker screw machine, it wouldn't be any different from one that had been used to make bicycle or clock parts. The machine itself wasn't what made the parts so much as its programming. 

Friday, August 4, 2023

Plastic replacement cartridges for Eagle glass-cartridge pens


Eagle's glass-cartridge fountain pens are relics that I've always been content to regard as nonfunctional historic curiosities. A few years ago though after multiple requests for usable examples I adapted a few to use rubber sacs as simple squeeze-fillers. I only used pens missing their cartridge attachment nipples (originally soft rubber, they harden with age and sometimes crumble away entirely) which I replaced using hard rubber or plastic. A sac could just as well have been attached to an original hardened nipple, which would have been completely reversible. Nonetheless, I felt more comfortable installing sacs only on pens which already needed some degree of reconstruction, a few of which I already had around. Though the squeeze-filler conversion was less than elegant, implementing something closer to the original design was stymied by my inability to find a suitable modern replacement cartridge.

Completely by chance a small hoard of plastic storage vials came my way that turned out to be just the right size, requiring only to be shortened by 1/4 inch. Since their wall thickness is significantly less than that of the original glass cartridges, an original cartridge nipple is too small to fit.

The pen above was missing its original nipple so a new one of hard rubber was made to original dimensions. As an experiment, a retaining groove was cut so an O-ring could be installed to provide a seal. While the same could be done to an original nipple, leaving it intact would be far preferable. And, as I found out after further experimentation, far easier.

The section assembly above retains its original cartridge nipple. Rather than fit it for an O-ring, I cut a short ring from the end of a #14 ink sac and attached it with shellac. A smaller size sac was used so it would stretch to fit, its end wrapping around the end of the nipple slightly to create a rounded profile, allowing for easy insertion into the cartridge.

The photo above shows the same assembly with the cartridge mounted (though barely visible: I should have roughened or fogged the clear plastic to make it more visible). This adaptation is both cheap and fully reversible. If you try it, you will probably find that the rubber plug that the nipple is part of does not fit the section's metal outer shell tightly enough to prevent leakage. Since the material was originally soft rubber, when new it would have fit inside the metal shell like the cork in a bottle. Now that it has hardened, an ink-tight seal can be obtained using shellac or a product such as Captain Tolley's.

Please don't try mounting an original glass cartridge onto a nipple modified in this way. The glass is thin and sure to break. Instead, you could cut a slightly longer piece from a #16 sac, attaching it to the nipple with shellac and inserting the other end into the glass cartridge. A smear of silicone grease should keep the joint ink-tight. Make sure the sac is big enough; not all #16 sacs are identical, so it would be wise to pick one that is on the larger size.

The photo above should give you an idea of how this works, though I only had a damaged original cartridge handy (you can see the mouth isn't fully intact). The intact cartridge shown at the bottom of the photo below might have served, but it was stuck too firmly in place. 

NOTE: When cut to 2.75 inches long the new plastic cartridges fit Eagle barrels perfectly. So why are the original glass cartridges 1/4 inch shorter? The reduction in ink capacity is not a big deal, but that extra space at the end of the barrel could conceivably allow the cartridge to move far enough to come off the nipple. The answer is that these cartridges were designed to fit inside the barrel, filled and stoppered with a little cork plug, abutting the section nipple without being mounted upon it. 

The cartridge above has been emptied and cleaned, but the photo otherwise shows how these pens were originally sold, with a cartridge inside the barrel, sealed and uninstalled.

Sunday, June 25, 2023

Rendell and Fairchild revelations from the R. G. Dun collection

The R.G. Dun collection of 19th-century credit reports first came to my attention years ago with the publication of Barbara Lambert's A. T. Cross monograph (Writing History, 1996). Though housed nearby at Harvard's Baker Library it was only last week that I finally made my first visit. While I had been hoping to find new insights into the relationships between early manufacturers of fountain pens and pen parts, it turned out that the collection ends a few years too early to be helpful there. Where it proved to be most informative was in the span from the 1850s through the 1870s, the heyday of the dip pen.

As I am still learning my way around the collection -- the librarians have been unfailingly welcoming and helpful -- it will be a while before there are any proper writeups. Nonetheless, there have been enough fresh discoveries that it's worth sharing a few of them now.

The first entry in the Dun records that I have found for gold pen pioneer John Rendell is from 1855. His partnership with Leroy W. Fairchild was then less than three years old. While I had previously speculated that Fairchild had apprenticed with Rendell, it appears that Fairchild hadn't come to Rendell as a penmaker at all, but rather as a salesman and bookkeeper having been previously employed in that capacity by the stationery firm of William H. Arthur & Co. While the report praises both men only Rendell is described as "a practical pen-maker", while Fairchild's business and money management skills are cited as the mainstay of the business's success.

My previous efforts to find out when the Rendell & Fairchild partnership was dissolved were not successful. The Dun records, however, put the date of dissolution at the beginning of August 1857 with Fairchild buying out Rendell for $5400, partly in cash and with six months to complete payment. Rendell was to stay on as an employee for up to three years -- though as we know, he died only eighteen months later under tragic circumstances.