Saturday, October 3, 2015

Nib blocks for all

Our latest project is just in -- affordable nib blocks, made in clear acrylic. A nib block is an essential tool for pen repair, allowing one to straighten bent nibs against either a matching concave or convex surface, using an appropriately-shaped burnishing tool to apply the necessary pressure to straighten and counter-bend. Nib blocks have traditionally been made of tool steel, but vintage blocks seldom hit the market and newly-made blocks have only been made in very limited numbers, the expense of manufacture and finishing keeping their prices in the hundreds of dollars.

Some years ago, we bought a group of old nib blocks from a long-established pen repair service in England. Most were tool steel in various shapes, but a couple were made of acrylic. Though they had some superficial scuffing and scratches from decades of hard use, they were still as good as ever, which inspired us to use the same material for a new run of nib blocks, enabling them to be priced at a level affordable for every pen hobbyist.

In fact, while there are some applications where steel has no substitute -- hammering, for example, and heavy-duty burnishing for displacement and hardening of metal -- acrylic has the advantage of having just a slight degree of "give", just enough to allow one to use pressure to apply bending force, as when one wants to straighten by counter-bending. Metal doesn't allow this, which is why a strip of thin paper is sometimes laid over a metal block to provide that "give" that the bare block lacks.

The blocks are now listed in our website catalog here, at $25 each. They are also available on eBay. We'll be bringing some along to the next few pen shows we attend, which will be Madrid and Los Angeles.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Waterman five-color Ripple

When I was new to pen collecting, I heard of (but never got to see) Waterman Ripples in experimental colors, colors other than the standard red and black, Olive Ripple, Blue-Green Ripple, and Rose Ripple. So when I was offered such a pen at this last Washington, DC pen show, I counted myself lucky indeed -- not to mention thankful, since a number of fellow collectors kindly helped steer the pen my way.

The vivid colors seen in the photo at top were not clearly in evidence at the time. A better idea of what the pen looked like can be had from the picture immediately above. It looked like an odd Olive Ripple with streaks of green, though the section, protected from fading, gave some idea of the material's original appearance.

As it turned out, the pen cleaned up beautifully. In addition to the tan, brown, and green, there is red and a bit of black. It may seem nitpicky, but the patterning of the cap and barrel doesn't match especially well -- not so much in the shape of the rippling as in the balance of the colors. Nearly all multicolor hard rubbers use just two colors, for the difficulty of getting even and consistent patterning increases rapidly as more colors are added. This isn't so much of an issue for artisanal production or for items sold face to face. For mass-produced pens marketed primarily through print advertising and catalogs, however, too much variation in appearance causes problems. Although I cannot prove it, I do believe the desire for consistency of appearance was the main impetus for the move from the amorphous mottling of early 20th-century pens to the more regular woodgrain patterning of the 1920s, out of which Waterman in turn developed its "Ripple".

Our understanding of how Ripple hard rubber was made is still incomplete. It seems likely that the process involved extrusion of tubes, which were mounted on mandrels for vulcanization. Looking inside the mouth of the barrel, there is almost no patterning visible inside, just an even biscuit color. From my experience having had patterned hard rubber made, I would bet that the variation between cap, barrel, and section stock is no accident, and that this was the best matching that could be done with the material available. Indeed, with such an ambitious combination of colors, it is probable that much of the experimental stock was entirely unusable.

Restoration of the pen was conservative. The surface was gently cleaned with a fine abrasive paste, in a water-based medium, and the cap band was temporarily dismounted in order to remove a dent.. The only part replaced was the missing lever box, into which the original lever was mounted. Though they may not be visible in the photos, the imprints are strong, though there is no model number imprinted on the barrel end.

Sheaffer 18KP trim

It had been at least 20 years since I'd seen another, and very possibly closer to 25. I have only seen one other, and it's been so long I cannot remember who owned it -- though it wasn't any of the leading Sheaffer collectors of the present day, none of whom could recall ever having seen an example.

So what is this mysterious "it"? A Sheaffer with trim marked "18KP", "P" undoubtedly standing for "platinum" [see addendum below - D]. This set came my way this past weekend, sold out of a collection reportedly in storage for the past few decades. Clips, cap band, crown, and nozzle are all fully marked, and are yellow-tinged white in color. Paradoxically, the one example I had seen long ago had trim that to all appearances was gold. I recall the discussion that ensued, since the markings didn't seem at all consistent with gold or gold filled, while the color wasn't consistent with platinum. Perhaps the trim was mismarked, though it is possible it could have been plated by an owner who preferred the look of gold.

ADDENDUM: Another apparent inconsistency was the use of the18K mark with platinum, since platinum is normally at least 900 or 950 fine, but Daniel Kirchheimer has pointed out that the "P" must denote palladium, not platinum -- the mark therefore indicating 18K white gold.

Monday, August 31, 2015

California interlude

We had a fine time at the San Francisco pen show this weekend, and will soon be heading home with our purchases. It may take a few days to catch up once we do get back, but all should be sorted out by the end of the week. Thanks for your patience, as we've not been able to do much correspondence over the past several days.

Friday, August 21, 2015

A unique Moore self-filler

When I first saw this pen at the DC show, I assumed it was a Grieshaber. The knob at the end of the barrel, the chunky cap with a fancy extra-wide band, all are distinctive features of Grieshaber hump-fillers. So much so, that when I was informed it was in fact a Moore, my initial reaction was disbelief.

Yet the barrel imprint leaves no doubt about it, and though the nib seems outsized, it too is Moore-marked.

Whereas the Grieshaber hump-filler (produced under US patent 956895 of 1910) uses an end knob to lock the hump to prevent accidental actuation of the attached pressure bar, this pen's end knob turns in place to actuate a rotating cover plate. This Moore is a sleeve-filler, with a rotating internal sleeve akin to that used by Century, as covered by Mooney's US patent 879,296 of 1908 -- the difference being that Century attached the sleeve to a rotatable section instead of a rotatable end knob. And though I have not been able to track down a patent, I have been able to find a Grieshaber sleeve-filler with the very same arrangement, though with cap and barrel proportioned more conventionally. On balance, it seems certain that this Moore was made by Grieshaber, an experimental venture into self-fillers for a company built on safety pens.


I have collected Moores for many years, concentrating on unusual mechanisms and configurations. Models that others marvel at -- Twistouts, ink-pellet pens, stylographic safeties, safety-like sleeve-fillers with sliding sleeves, cutaway demonstrators -- I've seen and owned them all. This Moore, however, is something completely new to me, and a wonderful reminder of how many discoveries remain to be made in our field of collecting.

Monday, August 10, 2015

A most unusual English-market chatelaine Waterman


This pen recently turned up at auction, fresh to the market. Even at first glance it was something out of the ordinary, a short (11.1 cm) #2-size straight-cap with a silver overlay in a seldom-seen and uncatalogued pattern, with London hallmarks for 1903/4 and FDW maker's mark leaving no doubt about it being a genuine factory-original product.

The side-mounted suspension ring is also clearly original, as there is a break in the straight-line chasing leaving a smooth area for its attachment. Upon reflection, however, this arrangement didn't make much sense. Other early 20th-century pens designed to hang by a chain fastened to a pin -- Swans and Houstons, for example -- had the chain anchored to the cap, so that the pen could be used freely once uncapped. A short chain attached to the pen's barrel wouldn't allow the pen to be used without unfastening the clip. Furthermore, the barrel lacked a posting end, which would leave the user holding the cap in one hand while dealing with a dangling chain and pin with the other.

When something doesn't make sense, it's a good indication to take another look. The only way I could imagine this pen working would be in a manner analogous to the chatelaine pen carriers popular in Britain in this era, with the visible barrel acting as a carrier for a removable barrel inside. And sure enough, there was an inner barrel -- though it took some time and effort to extract it, as it was cemented firmly in place by encrusted ink.

The inner barrel, once revealed, turned out to be finely line-chased in the manner uniformly used by Waterman for the inner components of telescoping assemblies (most commonly, two-part caps). Once removed from the outer barrel the pen does appear a bit ungainly, as the inner barrel is markedly smaller in diameter than the cap. It is entirely functional, however, and the cap can be posted on the barrel end in the usual way.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Parker colored Bakelite pens

Today's second under-our-noses discovery was in another issue of Parkergrams, dated September 1918, also in the PCA Library. Key passage:
" . . .we are now making the Bakelite in a translucent barrel in two or three very beautiful colors. It has been practically impossible for use to get any more of the Ivorine [this casein-based plastic was imported from France], so we have developed two or three colors in the Bakelite. A very pretty shade of green, for instance, one or two shades in red and pink that are really very beautiful."

Green and pink Bakelite Parker eyedropper-fillers . . . has anyone found one?  I'll have to review my photos of the Parker Archives -- perhaps some of these have been sitting there, misidentified as Ivorines.

Mystery pen: Parker pneumatic-filler

Those of us who research pen history often bemoan the gaps in the available documents, yet one can still stumble across the most amazing things in documents that have been available for years. Today's discovery was in a copy of Parkergrams -- Parker's newsletter for dealers -- that has been in the PCA Library since the days it consisted of photocopies, probably a good 25 years if not more.

This entry, pencil-dated February 1917, announces a new pneumatic-filling economy-line pen, to be called the "Parker Finger Filler". The description of the pen is uncanny, as it sounds just like a post-1926 Chilton, though much too early. In fact, the only pneumatic-filling pen of such an early date that fits the Parkergrams description is the Bender, patented in 1906 and profiled here. Bender died in 1912, and it seems his pen company did not long outlive him. This could fit the Parkergrams statement that "We have at last perfected and acquired the patents covering a device that is entirely new in the way of a Self Filling Pen."

As yet, this is the only mention of the "Finger Filler" that I have been able to find. It is promised that "In the next issue of Parkergrams a further announcement will be made and cuts [engravings] shown of the pen." Unfortunately, the next issue in the PCA compilation is dated illegibly, and the one following is dated June 1917. Perhaps some mention may be found in the missing issues, but for now Parker's pneumatic-filler remains an intriguing phantom.

UPDATE: Richard Binder has pointed out that Julius Abegg's US patent 1,134,936, issued April 6, 1915, would be a more likely basis for the Finger Filler's design. The "nickeled metal tube" plunger described in the Parkergrams entry corresponds much more closely to Abegg's specification than to Bender's.

George Rimakis has also noted the survival of at least one experimental Jack-Knife Safety with an Abegg-style filling system, and has shared the photo below. This pen is a #5-size, so considerably larger than the three models mentioned in Parkergrams.

UPDATE #2: Dan Zazove has pointed out William Edgar Moore's patent, US 1,801,635, filed March 15, 1929 and issued April 21, 1931, assigned to Parker. Although I am baffled at how the Moore patent could have been approved, given that it is a virtual duplicate of Abegg's, it does complicate efforts to associate the pen shown above with any one patent.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Measuring nib flexibility

Once buyers started bidding up pens with flexible nibs to unprecedented levels, sellers began to cash in by overstating the flexibility of their wares (related posts here and here). This has in turn renewed interest in establishing some sort of grading scale for flexibility.

Establishing any sort of standardized flex grading system will not be easy. At minimum, there would have to be one scale indicating the range of line width variation, and another scale indicating how much pressure is required to make the nib open up. Unfortunately, I can think of no practical way to prevent the first scale from being subjective and inconsistent. Maximum line width for a given nib will differ greatly depending upon whether it is pushed to its short-term limits or kept within its safe range for sustainable long-term use. And while photos can show when a nib is being pushed far into the danger zone, in most cases there is a large grey area which one has to navigate by feel, not by eye.

The second scale is another story. Instead of continuing to rely upon poorly defined labels such as "easy flex", "full flex", "superflex", and the odious "wet noodle", correlating the force applied to a nib and the resulting deflection would provide a precise and uniform method of grading.

Two versions of this approach have been proposed in recent years. The first, explained in this YouTube video, entails measuring the pressure required to make the nib open up to its maximum safe width. Quite aside from the issue noted above of determining that width, this method also fails to provide figures for comparison that are truly comparable. How is one to compare a nib that writes a 2 mm line with 250 grams of pressure with another that writes a 2.2 mm line with 280 grams of pressure? Perhaps both require the same pressure to reach 2 mm, but one just happened to have been pushed a bit harder. But there's no telling, since the measurements were not made at a standard angle of deflection.

Addressing this problem, another method fixes the nib opening at a standard figure of 1 mm, further specifying an angle of 45 degrees between pen and paper. This is a definite step forward, though it is still not as exact or comprehensive as might be desired. As a practical matter, it is more than a little awkward to press a pen down on a digital scale, holding it at exactly 45 degrees, gradually increasing pressure until the tines are exactly 1 mm apart at the tip, and simultaneously noting the scale's reading. Furthermore, if one were to graph nib opening as a function of force applied, the resulting curve could vary considerably from nib to nib -- two nibs requiring identical pressure to open to 1 mm could well require substantially different amounts of pressure to open to 0.5 mm, or to 1.5 mm. Finally, 1 mm may be more than is safe for some nibs, especially smaller ones.

For informal use, the 1 mm method is approximate but simple, requiring only the absolute minimum of equipment. With only a little more work, however, much better measurements are possible. The pen holding apparatus shown below was thrown together using scrap wood and miscellaneous hardware. The digital scale is a cheap Harbor Freight unit, with the nib tip resting on a square of sheet acrylic. The pen is clamped between guide rails set at 45 degrees, and pressure on the nib can be varied by hanging weights (not shown) on the pivoted support arm.

This setup, along with a measuring magnifier, makes it easy to determine the exact pressure required to achieve a 1 mm opening. Even better, it allows for a much more complete picture of a nib's performance. For example, instead of using nib opening as the benchmark and then determining the pressure required, pressure can be used as the benchmark and the resulting line width measured. This can then be repeated with multiple pressure settings -- 100, 200, and 300 grams would cover the essential range.

Over the next week or so I will record and report measurement results for various pens, including some dip pen nibs favored by calligraphers for their flexibility. The latter should offer an invaluable benchmark. I will also start to report test results for flex nib pens I list on eBay, which may push other sellers to provide similar data.

ADDENDUM: Antonis Zavaliangos commented on the issue of dealing with friction -- in particular, frictional resistance to the spreading of the tines. While the use of an acrylic surface will reduce that friction, my preferred method (as planned) is to adjust the pressure to a convenient benchmark with the nib on the acrylic -- 100g, say -- then to ink the nib, put a sheet of paper over the acrylic, set the nib on the paper, and pull the paper out from under the nib. That way the nib will have the opportunity to open up fully, as it might not in a static test. It will also be much easier and more accurate to measure the resulting line's width than to measure the gap between the tines at the very tip.

Friday, June 26, 2015

An Esterbrook I'd Like To Buy Back

Ever regretted selling a pen? This is one I would love to have back. It's a fully marked English-made Esterbrook Relief button-filler, the size of a streamlined Duofold Senior, basically a rebranded version of a Conway Stewart Duro. I found it in England in the mid-1990s at an outdoor antiques fair, and I've never seen nor heard of another one since. These are the only pictures I have of it, taken back in pre-digital days.