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.