Wednesday, June 15, 2022

Improved plunger-filler packing seals


We have been selling specially-sized O-rings for plunger-filler ("vacuum-filler") packing unit repair for quite a few years, but not any more. Instead, we will be offering a significantly superior alternative, shown above. Instead of a simple donut-shaped seal, these incorporate two sealing flanges on both the exterior surface and in the central bore. Two sealing points instead of one is not only more secure, it also reduces friction while greatly improving lubricant retention within the seal. You can now order them here, or as part of our plunger-filler repair kit. For the present these are available only through our website, but we will be rolling them out in our eBay listings soon.

NOTE: We will continue to offer our original round-sectioned seals for the time being, as they are not only time-tested and cheaper, but are also somewhat easier to install. Though the new seals are more efficient, they must be installed in the packing compartment so that they are held snugly with no wiggle room. This may require reducing the outside diameter of the closure washer so that it can be seated all the way down against the seal. The older seals being round in section are much more tolerant of loose mounting.

Thursday, May 12, 2022

The Van Winkle Pen Company

It's not every day you see an early 20th-century taper-cap with a glass barrel. A patent application for this design was filed on October 24, 1910 and US patent 995307 was duly issued on June 13, 1911. The core part of the invention was the use of a metal tube between two barrel end pieces, over which either conventional pearl slabs could be mounted, or a glass tube allowing for insertion of printed advertising. This was the brainchild of Ralph F. Van Winkle, of Erie, Pennsylvania.

The patent date is imprinted at the end of barrel, next to the trim band. You'll also notice that there is a hole at the end of the barrel. Yes, this taper-cap is also a blow-filler. 

The ad below appeared in Commercial America, vol. 8, no. 4 (October 1911), p. 35.

Another Van Winkle product was the No-Dip Penholder, another blow-filling design -- basically a fountain pen for use at the desk, utilizing ordinary dip pen nibs.

This ad appeared in Commercial America, vol. 10, no. 1 (July 1913), p. 31. By this time the Van Winkle Pen Company had moved to Franklin, Pennsylvania, which is also the location indicated on our taper-cap pen at top. Unfortunately the company was out of business shortly thereafter. A brief entry in Geyer's Stationer of October 14, 1915, p. 11 reports the demise the previous week of R. F. Van Winkle of Franklin, PA from a brain tumor, noting that he had been in "poor health for more than two years, and because of this was forced to relinquish his business interests and retire to private life. The Van Winkle Co. was then disbanded."

Wednesday, March 23, 2022

John Holland and aluminum

One of the items in a recent eBay lot was the twist-pattern dip pen shown above. When it arrived, my initial reaction was disappointment: I had been hoping it would be silver, and possibly Gorham, given that maker's fondness for the twist. Instead, it was aluminum. It was even so marked.

Upon closer inspection, the holder end proved detachable -- one of those reversible plugs, allowing the nib to be stored inside the barrel.

And, lo and behold, on the previously hidden part of the plug, there was a familiar imprint: "JNO. HOLLAND". No disappointment here, after all.

I'd not been aware of aluminum being used by John Holland, and knowing a bit about the history of aluminum production (outlined here), I reckoned that this dip pen would date somewhere in the later 1880s or 1890s, with the imprint explicitly identifying the material as aluminum suggestive of the era when it was still something of a novelty. And indeed, a dive into Google Books turned up several references to John Holland's activity in the manufacture and sale of aluminum items in the 1890s. On p. 127 of the April 1895 issue of Aluminum World we find this listing:
JOHN HOLLAND GOLD PEN CO., CINCINNATI, O.—This concern makes a specialty of drawing aluminum tubes for penholders and similar class of work. They are also making an aluminum comb which is receiving a large sale. 
Mr. John Holland of the company, is noted for his researches in the metallurgy of iridium, and his discovery of the use of phosphorus as a flux in the melting and fashioning of the metal for gold pen-points. Mr. Holland has placed the same energy and business skill to his work with aluminum that he has already shown in his manufacture of gold and iridium work, and is doing a large business in this line.
On p. 153 of the May 1895 issue, there is the following ad. It would appear that the Star Aluminum Company was a Holland subsidiary. Note that "Star" was later used by Holland as a brand name for their fountain pens.

Following up with a search of Cincinnati city directories, it seems 1895 was the year Holland got involved in the manufacture of aluminum items. The 1896 issue of Williams' directory, whose annual publication date was in June, carried this ad on page 1813.

The 1895 issue, however, which would have been compiled the year before, lists only two companies under the heading Aluminum on page 1845, one for castings, the other for novelties, neither of them John Holland -- whose listing on page 779 makes no mention of aluminum articles.

ADDENDUM: At the 2022 Baltimore pen show I was able to take this quick picture of four Holland aluminum reversible traveling nib holders, courtesy of Scott Jones. Each holder has a different pattern.

Thursday, February 24, 2022

A Slender Maxima set: restoration choices and the preservation of history

This Parker Vacumatic set came to us from an old collection, assembled in the old days when vintage pens could be found in the wild in such abundance that most collectors soon gave up on restoring every single new acquisition. And like many such items, it was no longer exactly as it was when it left the factory. Which raised the question of how to proceed: whether to put the set back to its configuration when new, or to preserve its history of subsequent use and service.

So what was the set's original configuration? The pen's date code is worn away, but the Non-Stop repeater pencil's date code is for the second quarter of 1939. Wide bands identify both as Slender Maxima models. Striped screw-in end jewels and striped section plus the profile of the blind cap tassie would suggest 1938 production but would also be consistent with an early 1939 date. This would fit with the Blue Diamond clip and the date code of the pencil, not to mention the distinctive Streamline Art Deco box.

The nib, however, is a replacement of Major rather than Slender Maxima form, with a date code for the second quarter of 1941. It could have been installed at any point after then, though -- and one other clue suggests that it likely happened in the middle of the war years.

A Vacumatic made in 1939 would have left Janesville with an all-metal filler unit with an aluminum plunger. This pen's filler was replaced with a plastic unit, which could have been manufactured no earlier than 1942. 

Wartime (as opposed to postwar) dating was confirmed once the filler unit was removed, as it's all plastic, not just the plunger. All-plastic filler units turn up regularly in 51s and Vacumatics made during WW2, but by then Parker had standardized production and all models used the same small-size filler unit. It's rare indeed to find an all-plastic filler in a larger size, since they were only made as replacement parts for older models -- clearly in very limited numbers, given wartime production constraints. Our pen's replacement filler unit is at top, while a standard-sized unit is below.

Collectors tend to prefer pens as original as possible, so I initially reassembled this one with an all-metal filler unit from c. 1939-41, though with some hesitation. I knew the filler unit it had come with was something unusual, and told something about this particular pen's own story. Nor did it escape me that it was hardly consistent to replace the war-era filler while leaving the 1941 nib in place. After briefly posting the set for sale, however, Daniel Kirchheimer questioned me about these very issues, prompting me to return the pen to the configuration in which it had arrived at the shop.

Historical authenticity isn't always best served by trying to turn back the clock. For some of the most compelling stories old items convey only begin after they were sold and put to use.

Friday, December 10, 2021

A bronze-nibbed dip pen from 11th-century Ireland

There are not a lot of surviving medieval writing instruments, so this bronze-nibbed pen excavated last year at Caherconnell in County Clare is a big deal indeed. For the full story, I will refer you to the announcement from June 1, 2020 at the Caherconnell Stone Fort Facebook page, as well as a more recent article in the Independent of Ireland. There is also a video of a reproduction in use here, and a post about the reproduction project here.

The form of the nib is such that my colleague Andrew Midkiff has suggested that it might be a specialized ruling pen. Certainly the rolled metal sheet construction would have been much more demanding than that of a more conventional quill-pen shaped metal nib -- but unfortunately examples of medieval metal nibs are so rare that definitive conclusions cannot be deduced from available evidence.

Monday, December 6, 2021

An appreciation of stubby pens


Big pens may be the most highly valued, but there's much to be said for their slightly smaller stubby siblings. The full-length Senior may be the flagship of the Duofold line (whether in classic orange-red, or Mandarin Yellow as above), yet will it even fit in the average shirt pocket? For pocketability, give me a Duofold Junior: the perfect length, with a comfortable girth. No wonder that Pelikan adopted very similar proportions for their pens, from their original piston-filler through the 100, 100N, and 400 series and beyond. Waterman also offered shorter versions of their full-sized pens, with the most common being the 52V -- a stubby version of their standard 52 lever-filler. Bigger "V" models (the "V" standing for Vest Pocket) are harder to find, and correspondingly sought after.

Some time ago it struck me that while Duofold Juniors are pretty common, it's not easy to find examples in clean condition. These pens hit a popular price point, and were carried and used for years, indeed decades: real working pens, an exemplar of successful design.

Saturday, December 4, 2021

An unfinished Waterman nib

Unfinished nibs don't turn up that often. This one is a 1940s Waterman nib for a Taperite, which has been shaped, imprinted, and tipped, but hasn't had its slit cut or tip ground.

At first glance, it might seem that there is no tipping yet attached. The tip is visibly thicker, yet it seems to be all of the same 14K gold alloy as the rest of the nib, whether viewed from above or below. This, however, neatly illustrates how older gold nibs were often tipped -- and especially those with wider oblong tips.

Rather that welding a pellet onto the very tip of the gold nib blank, the tipping material was attached to the underside of the tip, enclosing the tipping material with molten gold. The tip was then ground, revealing and shaping the tipping material under the gold. Where the tipping would not have to be exposed to contact the writing surface, the gold was left intact, wrapping around the tipping for maximum support (a description of the process from 1912 can be found here). This is why the tipping on many older nibs is barely visible from the top of the nib -- which has sometimes led to the mistaken impression among those accustomed to modern fountain pens that the vintage tipping is worn down and not fully intact.

While the most dramatic examples of this are to found in early 20th-century stub and italic nibs from makers such as Waterman and Mabie Todd, the Sheaffer display from c. 1940 shown above also nicely illustrates another variation of the same basic procedure.

PS This is a good opportunity to point out that this method of nib manufacture can make it very challenging for a restorer to retip an older nib so that it looks 100% original -- or even to retip it at all. It's not widely appreciated that retipping that preserves an old nib's appearance requires the addition of gold to the tip before new tipping is attached (old retips were done without adding gold, leaving the retipped nib's proportions awkwardly shortened). It's also not widely appreciated that many highly flexible vintage nibs were thinned after tipping, sometimes leaving the gold of the tines so thin as to make attachment of new tipping almost impossible without burning holes in the gold.

Sunday, November 7, 2021

Grading vintage pens: why isn't there a standardized system?

The grading of vintage pens has been a topic of discussion for not just years, but decades. I've been meaning to post on this for nearly as long, but rather than writing up my own thoughts I will instead pass along some of the shared wisdom of the participants in a thread from May 2020 in the Antique Writing Instruments and Accessories Facebook group. Each paragraph below is a separate comment in that discussion:
"I'm rather dubious about the whole idea. The problem is that pens cannot be graded along a single scale. Unlike coins, which through normal circulation wear in a consistent manner, pens do not age consistently. One example might have extensive brassing but fine color, which another might have excellent trim but mediocre color. A single grade is insufficient description."
"What doesn't get mentioned when coins and cards are brought up is that the items graded then have to be slabbed. Otherwise there's no way of knowing if the assigned grade goes with the proffered specimen. No one is going to want pens (or pencils) that are permanently locked into a lucite block and cannot be handled."
"In any case, it is folly to think that any grading system could get any acceptance at all if introduced by someone with no knowledge of the field and completely unknown to it."
"I used to collect coins extensively, and at the time there were three different major grading companies that all might give different results. It was common for people who didn't like the grade they got to break them out of the slab and either resubmit them or send them to a different company to grade shop. I think we're just fine with what we have with pens."
"The bigger issue, frankly, is widespread overgrading. I'd love to see something done about that, both as a collector and as a conscientious seller. It's maddening to see the virtually unanimous praise in online groups and forums for sellers who are notorious for representing overpolished and obviously reblackened pens as pristine, but that seems to be the social dynamic -- where almost no one is willing to say anything bad about another group member, and where those who do speak out are excoriated and dismissed as bitter haters."
"The polishing and reblacking thing drives me absolutely insane. And that's even ignoring the claims some people make about their reblacking solution and polishes"
"Yes, anyone who tries to say "hold on, wait a minute" is trampled, and anyone without any backchannel access gets a completely distorted picture of what is what."
"This might be well-intentioned, but it's dead before it leaves the starting gate. Only a multidimensional characterization can provide the information needed to consider the condition (and, in turn, to feed into a calculation about the value) of a vintage fountain pen."
"I know there is a longing for a single grade, because it's so neat and lends itself to direct comparisons, sorting, etc. But it's misguided and wrongheaded. No collector of even modest education in the field would ever be satisfied with a single letter or number when desiring to know the condition of a pen. Never, ever."
"Having been involved in the discussion for 20+ years I think the best we can do is as complete a description as possible. There are so many variables that would go into grading you could call a pen average and a description could support that. Another pen could be exceptional but, the description would support that. Without the detailed description the grade would be useless. So a grading system is meaningless leaving one with as complete a description as possible."
"I think another factor with pens specifically is that the grade can and does change over time. Particularly with delicate plastics, the condition can change drastically over a couple of years. That doesn't happen in the same way with coins, for example"

Saturday, November 6, 2021

Japanese Jumbo repair notes

Japanese Jumbo pens were produced from the 1930s up through the 1950s. Although some were made to a very high standard with carefully applied urushi, gold filled trim, and solid 14K gold nibs, most were cheap novelties made for export (none was ever intended for use by the arthritic -- an odd and relatively recent American collector myth). Even these pens, however, were solidly made using massive chunks of hard rubber finished with real urushi lacquer. Their main weakness is their metal trim, which was given the thinnest of gold wash coatings, guaranteed to wear off with the slightest handling.

Most Japanese Jumbo pens are dropper-fillers ("eyedroppers"). Don't be fooled by the center shaft attached to the end knob; that is an ink shutoff valve design that is characteristically Japanese, without any piston seal at the end of the shaft to allow the assembly to work as a filling system. In most cases the original cork packing seal is no longer sound, and if the pen is filled it will leak around the shaft. To replace the seal, you will have to start by unscrewing the knob from the shaft. This is typically the most difficult step of the repair procedure.

The threads are left-handed and the joint is glued with a form of mastic. With a pointed tool, carefully chip the mastic away from where the shaft enters the knob. This will allow you to apply isopropyl alcohol to the joint so that it can soak in. Repeated applications may be necessary, or you can put a small bit of cotton around the joint and saturate it with the alcohol. Screwing the knob part way onto the barrel will keep the alcohol from evaporating too quickly. Denatured alcohol can be used, but will evaporate more quickly and is more toxic (don't let it get on your skin).

Heating the knob from the outside with a heat gun may be necessary. Once the area of the joint is only slightly pliable, gently twisting the knob very slightly back and forth can break the bond of the threads just enough to allow the alcohol to enter. You do not want to twist too far or too hard with the hard rubber heat-softened, as the shaft is easily broken in that state.

Once you have successfully unscrewed the shaft, you will want to clean out the barrel interior thoroughly. Then plug the shaft hole, stand the barrel upright, and fill it with a bit of water. What you are doing is soaking the threaded joint providing access to the packing unit.

Empty and dry the barrel, removing the plug. Take a triangular scraper and push it firmly into the shaft hole and turn it counterclockwise, unscrewing the threaded closure washer. Using the right amount of pressure may take some practice -- you want to use just enough to keep the scraper from slipping (more on the use of scrapers for this purpose here).

Since the basic design of the ink-shutoff dropper-filler as adopted in Japan was taken from the Onoto plunger-filler, it's not a surprise that the dimensions of both shaft and packing compartment follow the Onoto standard as well. Premade Onoto cork seals can be used in Jumbo packing units, or you can cut your own, or use O-rings. Clean out the packing compartment, put in a new seal, and reverse the above directions to reassemble. 

Paradoxically, the less common lever-filling Jumbos are not as straightforward to get working as the ink-shutoff dropper-fillers. I'm afraid I don't have a photo, but these pens originally came with a truly outlandishly shaped rubber sac big enough to fill up the cavernous barrel and also necked down enough to fit the tiny section nipple.

The pressure bar is one-piece -- a true J-bar by the term's original definition. The thing is, the lever's throw isn't enough to push the pressure bar all the way down to the far side of the barrel interior. It's not even close, even with the thick walls of the original sac. When new, these pens would not have been able to empty their sacs fully. And resultingly, would not have been able to fill their sacs fully, either. Not optimal, in that fountain pens are inherently prone to irregular ink flow when they have more air than ink in their reservoirs.

In order to get this pen working, I built up the diameter of the sac nipple with a short cutting from a trimmed sac, then attached the largest sac I could find, a #24 necked. I then glued in a spacer opposite the lever, allowing the pressure bar to flatten the sac rather than just push it aside.

Note that many if not most J-series Esterbrooks have a similar internal spacer, though the Esterbrook pressure bar is a far superior two-piece design and not a one-piece J-bar. This now allows the Jumbo to fill -- though it is still best considered a novelty item and conversation piece rather than a practical everyday writing instrument.

The Onoto tool and other spanners for threaded washers

The Onoto tool is a clever device that is not widely known in the pen repair community, especially outside of the UK. Its main purpose is to allow servicing of an Onoto plunger-filler's packing unit with the shaft still in place, allowing one to avoid having to remove the filler knob.

The two prongs are pressed firmly into the face of the hard rubber closure washer at the back of the packing compartment, allowing the washer to be unscrewed and the packing replaced (the procedure entails slitting the replacement cork seals, wrapping them around the shaft, and pushing them into place, stacking them so that the slits of the seals do not line up).

Not all pens with packing units with threaded closure washers have end knobs that are as much of a pain to remove as is the case with Onotos and their fiddly crosspins. In such cases it is best to get the shaft out of the way, allowing use of the ever-handy triangular scraper for turning the closure washer.

Below you can see the scraper being used to unscrew the closure washer of a Moore safety pen. Below that the scraper is being used to unscrew the closure washer of a Japanese Jumbo pen, where access is from the inside of the barrel rather than from the back.

Since the cross section of the scraper's blade is an equilateral triangle, the application of force to the closure washer is neatly balanced -- much better than with other kinds of blades. A triangular scraper can be used on even very thin washers, where the central hole is only slightly smaller than the washer's outside diameter.

For washers with different proportions, however, a more specialized tool is called for. The closure washers of Eversharp Doric plunger-fillers, for example, are comparatively large and have a very small central hole (they are also left-hand thread, though this does not affect the tool design). Because the hole is so small, there is very little leverage to be had using a scraper or any other tool working against the hole's periphery. It is all too easy to end up scraping away material without getting the washer to turn. Doric washers have two little indents on their face on either side of the center hole, which indicate that the original service tool relied on two matching points to apply the requisite turning force. I haven't yet made myself one, but a basic design would consist of a round rod long enough to reach through the barrel, its face with a center hole drilled to accommodate a pilot peg sized to fit the washer's center hole, and two holes drilled on either side to accommodate inserts of sharpened steel that would protrude just enough to bite into the surface of the closure washer.