Monday, July 31, 2017

The extraction of lever-filler pressure bars

While most pen repair techniques have been given at least basic treatment online or in print, there is still next to nothing publicly available on how to remove a spring-loaded pressure bar from a lever-filler. What is to be found is generally either unhelpful or dangerous: pulling on the long end runs an unacceptably high risk of breaking off the short end (a risk that increases rapidly with the age of the pressure bar, with old one-piece "J-bars" being almost certain casualties), while pulling on the short end is often impossible, as its end has dug itself into the barrel wall and cannot be grabbed.

Dislodging the short end is nonetheless the key to safe pressure bar removal. This is best not done dry, since there is usually accumulated dirt, corrosion, and ink residue present. A little naphtha applied to the short end with a long-necked applicator will make things much easier. The short end must then be lifted slightly off the barrel wall to break its bond, and to free its end from any furrow it has gouged there. This generally cannot be done by approaching it from the front; instead, a piece of wire bent into a right-angled hook at the end can be used to apply pressure from the back.

As shown above, there is enough clearance to the side to insert the wire with the hooked end vertical. It is then rotated, placing the the hook behind and at the bottom of the short end. This will work even with a flat-bottomed barrel with the pressure bar pushed all the way against the barrel's end. Once it is in position, pulling on the hook will lift the short end while dragging it forward. Sometimes this will be enough to carry the pressure bar forward a substantial distance, but more often the hook will pass under the short end with an audible snap, dislodging it only partially. Not to worry, though -- you are almost there! Clamp the barrel in a padded vise so you can use both hands. Put the hook back into place, this time also grabbing hold of the long end of the pressure bar (locking hemostats are ideal). Now pull the hook a short distance, just far enough to lift the short end so it doesn't dig into the barrel wall. Then, holding both hook and hemostats together so as to maintain their relative position, pull them and the pressure bar the rest of the way out of the barrel.

Another tool that is even easier to use, albeit not always suitable, can be made by flattening the end of a piece of spring wire into the form of a gently curved, round-ended chisel. Once inserted under the short end as shown above, the long end can safely be pulled to extract the pressure bar, the short end riding smoothly atop the steel wire. This tool works best when the short end of the pressure bar is wide and flat, leaving a gap between its bottom and the curve of the barrel, or in those unusual cases where the short end terminates with an upwards bend. It does not work at all well when the short end is narrow, thin, or otherwise shaped to made it hard to dig under.

An alternative technique is to use the hooked wire to lift the short end just enough that the chisel-ended wire can be pushed in place. In this case the hook is not pulled through the rest of the way, but is then pushed back, turned, and withdrawn. The pressure bar can then be extracted by pulling on its long end as described above.

The tools described here are shown below. Hooks of different sizes can be handy: small hooks are necessary when clearances are tight, but a hook that is too short can slip out of place when there is more room and may end up lifting the short end unevenly. Basic instructions on heat-treating hobby-shop music wire can be found here.

Note that the methods discussed apply only to pressure bars held in place by a simple bent end. Bars that are anchored by C-shaped metal split rings as shown below require a different approach, in which pulling on the long end must be avoided entirely.

Finally, a point of terminology: the term "J-bar" is an old one with a specific and still-useful meaning, denoting a cheap one-piece pressure bar of the sort seen at bottom and center below.  Two-piece sprung bars of the sort shown on top were not called J-bars -- at the time, they were consistently referred to as "pressure bars".

NOTE: The discussion here is deliberately restricted to the use of tools that can be easily acquired or made. For while I have also designed more sophisticated tools (which I may yet have commercially manufactured), there is a special elegance to a minimalist solution.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

1942 time capsule

Every now and then one runs across a hoard of new old stock pens, packed away decades ago. Sometimes they belonged to a salesman or a distributor, or were left over when a store closed. Behind each of these time capsules there's a story, but few are as poignant or compelling as the one behind the hoard shown below.

These items all came from an Oakland, California shop owned by Japanese-Americans who were interned shortly after America's entry into WW2. The family did not reopen the shop after the war. These leftover items remained in storage for some 75 years before being offered to us. Opening the package was a moving experience; some items were packed with bits of contemporary newspaper, and two letters from Waterman to their dealers were dated only shortly before Pearl Harbor turned everything upside-down. A good number of the items in the group were contemporary Watermans, stickered and mostly boxed. There were also a few older pens, including a few Waterman overlays and a couple of solid gold Conklins from the 1920s or early 1930s -- expensive and for most retailers, slow sellers. Most notable, however, was the large number of colorful Japanese-made celluloid Pilots, unusual enough but doubly so as export models with English-language labels, boxes, and instruction sheets. Cheap Japanese novelty pens were widely imported in the prewar era, most notably the now-ubiquitous stubby jumbos and glass-nibbed SPORS crescent-fillers. Better-quality prewar Japanese pens were another story, and any found in the wild in the USA were likely acquired by soldiers as war trophies or purchased during the postwar occupation. This hoard represents an exceptional case, with Japanese goods that would have found little interest outside of the Japanese-American community. In fact, the Pilots were far from cheap, with the prices penciled on the bottoms of the boxes running from $3.50 to $7 -- in the same range as the contemporary Watermans, which were mostly priced around $3, with a large Hundred Year priced at $8 (with the Watermans decidedly better made).

Some of the Pilots are conventional lever-fillers, but most are either plunger-fillers (US patent 2070461) or the distinctive nomikomi-shiki (呑込式) "easy-drink filler". The nomikomi-shiki pens have a special long-tailed feed and internal celluloid reservoir. They are filled using a special bottle with a central opening into which the pen can be inserted nib-first, sealing around the section. Bottle and pen are then inverted together, allowing ink to flow through the feed and into the pen's reservoir. Since the latter design was only patented in the US on January 17, 1939 (patent 2144296), the mention of the US patent in the instruction sheets helps narrow down the date of these particular examples.

Factory-new nomikomi-shiki pens must be exceedingly rare, so I made sure to make notes when taking one apart. The celluloid barrel is a slip fit over the section, not at all tight, but instead held by a thick, tacky transparent compound. The same substance holds and seals the clear celluloid reservoir housed inside the barrel. The reservoir is made of very thin material, and though it is threaded to match the threads on the section nipple, it is so loose that it can be pulled straight off, resistance coming almost entirely from the sealing compound. Using plain cold water on a cotton swab, I cleaned off the compound from the inside of the reservoir, only to find that exposure to water was enough to cause the material to open a crack along its longitudinal seam. Clearly, these pens should be preserved as relics, as they are emphatically not users! I did carefully measure the reservoirs, though, as it would be very easy to make new ones out of sturdier modern plastic.

I have been promised more information about the store and the family that ran it. When that comes, I am looking forward to publishing a much more extensive and comprehensive article about these pens and their singular history.

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Nibs, flossing, and shims

Once upon a time, not so very many years ago, nib flossing was virtually unheard of. Yet nowadays flossing is one of the first things recommended in pen forums when solutions to ink flow problems are sought. Perhaps this is a function of the recent popularity of highly saturated boutique inks, and novelty inks with paint-like particulates ("shimmer" inks, for example). Indeed, with traditional inks, even a badly clogged pen's nib slit is easily cleaned with an ordinary detergent solution, with no need to force thin sheets of plastic or even metal between the tines.

For flossing is not risk-free. Plastic can leave residue behind, and metal can scratch the inner faces of the slit, affecting proper capillary ink flow. This is not so much an issue with brass shim stock used on stainless steel nibs, but on gold it is very much a concern. There is also the risk to the integrity of the nib's tipping, most pronounced with gold nibs with very fine tips. For nibs like the one below, sheet stock used for flossing should be introduced into the slit from the back end, not the tip, and removed in the same way.

Sideways pressure can easily detach the tipping on vintage nibs such as this Parker Vacumatic
Where things have really gotten out of hand, however, is in the use of shim stock to widen the slit. It's no accident that experienced pen professionals avoid this method, favoring careful bending of the tines instead. In addition to the risk of tipping loss and scarring of the inner faces of the slit, using a shim to force the tines directly apart in a horizontal plane puts enormous stress on the metal surrounding the vent hole. This may not be such an issue with a modern nib, made either of tough stainless steel or of thick gold that is soft and without any springiness. But with a vintage gold nib, tempered and resilient, it is all too easy to start a crack from the vent hole which will only grow as the nib is subjected to further use.

Vintage nibs with stress cracks from the vent hole