Saturday, 13 July 2019

Guest post: Pens for New Writers – What to Look for in a Vintage Pen

I'm delighted to share this post with you from Simon Gray of Battersea Pen Home on the history of fountain pens and what to look for in a vintage pen. You can find out more about vintage fountain pens and fountain pen repairs at Battersea Pen Home.

Battersea Pen Home have specialised in servicing and repairing pens, ballpens and pencils since the mid 1990s. They were originally based in Battersea before moving to Epping in 2000.

They look after most makes of fountain pen including those now classed as 'obsolete' by their manufacturers. They were trained by Parker and Waterman back in 2002 as service technicians for their writing instruments and are also recommended by Sheaffer UK.

Pens for New Writers – What to Look for in a Vintage Pen

Many people buy vintage fountain pens because they find them inspirational. In a similar way that driving a classic car can force you to drive differently, using a fountain pen forces you to write differently. Writing with a pen is more challenging than using a word-processor; you can’t easily edit what you have written and so you have to find creative ways to make it work.

When buying a vintage pen, most people are initially drawn to how it looks; although how comfortable it feels in the hand and how smoothly it writes are what ultimately determine how much it will be used. Often the most important consideration is sentimental. Owning and using a pen that brings back memories of loved ones gives a sense of connection to things past and present that a biro or keyboard can never achieve.

Most vintage pens are susceptible for wear and tear, but don’t be put off. Most of the important components can be replaced and repaired, and once refurbished, pens can continue to work for many years with very little further intervention. Here are some tips for selecting the perfect vintage pen.

The term ‘vintage pens’ covers just about every instrument produced for the purpose of making marks on slate, skin, parchment or paper. One of the first pens capable of holding its own supply of ink was described by Nicholas Bion, a French instrument maker and author who lived in Paris around the turn of the 18th century. Little progress was made until the early 19th century when the number of patents connected with fountain pen design began to increase as new materials and production processes were developed.

By the late 19th century much progress had been made with the development of hard rubber which was cheap, resistant to chemicals ink and could be easily turned on a lathe into caps, barrels and nib sections – the main components of a pen. At this time, virtually all fountain pens were ‘eyedroppers’ where the ink was contained directly in the barrel rather than in an ink sac. Ink was transferred from the barrel through the feed and onto the paper by capillary attraction; hence ink only flowed when the nib touched paper.

The 1900s saw the development of the feed (the part below the nib) in an effort to regulate ink flow. Once this had improved, designers were freed up to focus more on the portability of pens with the 1910s bringing pen caps which screwed securely onto the main body of the pen rather than just being a push or slip-on fit. Screw-on caps meant it was safer to carry a pen in your pocket so the next stage was a multitude of clip designs to ensure the pen didn’t fall out of your pocket. Everyone today takes clips for granted, but in the 1920s a fountain pen clip was quite a new idea and frequently an optional extra at additional cost.

At the same time, progress has been made with improving the method of holding ink. Rather than the hard rubber barrel being the only reservoir, latex rubber ink sacs became available and reduced the possibility of leakage. Research and design then turned to filling methods with Conklin leading the field with its Crescent filler in 1901 and Parker developing a button filling system in 1914 which was still being used on their Duofold models as late as the 1950s. Sheaffer, Waterman and others focussed on lever fillers which again lasted through to the 1960s with several companies.

So, we are almost there with what most people would recognise as a fountain pen in terms of controlled ink delivery, a variety of filling systems and a basic design which was secure enough for the pen to be carried around in a jacket pocket. The final step was in materials development. Up until the 1920s, pens were made from metal (either solid or plated gold, silver etc) and vulcanised hard rubber which restricted the colour of pens largely to black, red or a combination known as a rippled finish.

All this changed from around 1924 with major developments in the manufacture of plastics principally in the USA and led by DuPont. No longer restricted to hard rubber, pen makers went into overdrive with pens appearing for the first time in colours such as lapis blue, jade green, pearl and black and many other combinations.

So, in terms of choosing a ‘vintage pen’ to write with, the mid 1920s is really the starting point as choice of colour, style, filling system, nibs begin to expand almost exponentially.

Many thanks to Simon Grey for the post.

You can find out more about vintage fountain pens and fountain pen repairs at Battersea Pen Home.