I think every fountain pen fan should try vintage pens. Here are a few basic thoughts.
Why Vintage? Because these are great pens, often at very good prices. I’m using the commonly accepted notion of “vintage” pens as being those manufactured at least 50 years ago. Fountain pens dominated the pen market before the 1950s, and pens from that era became icons. Vintage does not necessarily mean rare. In fact I’m assuming that most beginners just want a pen to use.
If you are interested in history, a vintage pen lets you hold a piece of the recent past. If you are so inclined, you could even immerse yourself in the minutiae of a particular pen’s history. If you are a design person, there are multiple styles to try, from an Art Nouveau-inspired Waterman overlay to the modern look of a Parker 51.
Vintage pens tend to be great writing instruments. Vintage nibs often have a certain character that differ from today’s more machine-made nibs; and I say this liking both modern and vintage pens. Vintage nibs offer a lot of variety beyond fine, medium and broad, and it is relatively easy to find a flexy or springy vintage nib.
The materials used in many vintage pens were standards in their day, but in modern pens tend to be priced at a premium, like gold nibs, ebonite feeds and celluloid pen bodies. Unusual filling systems also abound in vintage pens.
Don’t worry about price: a buyer does not need to pay an arm and a leg for vintage pens. Because so many fountain pens were made and sold before ballpoints took over, many are still around. That keeps prices reasonable for more common models.
One caution, however, is that vintage pens tend to be smaller and lighter than modern pens. The standard Parker 51 is a fairly large size, but a full-sized Duofold or oversized Parker or Sheaffer will be harder to find and more expensive than the smaller and slimmer versions.
Which? There are many choices, and the vintage pen you seek will depend on your taste and budget. For less than $50, an Esterbrook J is a classic lever-filler with a variety of interchangeable steel nibs. Also available at that price would be the Parker 21 and Parker 45. Stepping up in price you’ll find a large number of great pens with gold nibs. If you are here, you might be looking for a vintage Pelikan, a Parker 51 or Vacumatic, or a Waterman. If you like flex, I think the Eversharp Symphony offers great deals. Vintage Sheaffer pens can also be bargains: they combine attractive materials with interesting filling systems and very smooth nibs. Vintage Montblancs and Lamys are excellent writers, and the smaller and plainer vintage Montblancs are very reasonable.
Do some research, talk to people. Figure out what you want in a pen. Do you want an affordable pen with an oblique gold nib? Do you want a silver overlay pen? American pens from the 1940s? An oversized Vacumatic? A pen with a true flexible nib? Each type of pen has a characteristic writing experience, and the trick is to match what you are looking for with what’s out there and within your budget.
Who and Where? For the best start, I think beginners should look for restored vintage pens. Three great places to buy are a pen show, a store with vintage pens, or at a pen club meeting. You can see the pens in person, try them out and talk to the seller in person. A pen show has the advantage of volume and variety: dozens of dealers come, with multiple trays of pens each. A brick and mortar store will have a slimmer selection, but you may get more of the owner’s time and attention. At a pen club meeting, you can buy from or trade with fellow enthusiasts, and the prices can be very good.
The main advantage of any of those venues is the hands-on inspection before you buy. If that’s not possible, or you can’t find what you want, I highly recommend finding an experienced dealer or specialist in the pen you want. Find a good one – the sort who has a business restoring and selling the pen you like, and a solid warranty. Then talk to him or her. Be specific, but flexible. Set out your budget. Ask questions. Ask for advice if you need it.
By getting a well-restored vintage pen from a seller who cares about what he or she is selling, you should be off to a good start.
When you decide you want a vintage pen, if you’re careful and prudent you’ll research to find good restorers and dealers, or go to a pen show, aiming for one nice working pen.
If you are less patient and have less cash, you may find yourself saying, “I wonder what’s available on an online auction?”
I have done both. Doing the second led me to start repairing my own pens.
It all started innocently, with the Parker 51. It was the perfect pen for me. I wanted to get all the colors. But my pen funds were limited. So I went to eBay and bought handymen specials.
The aerometrics I purchased proved fairly easy to get working. But all my 51 vacs were problematic. None would fill, and some wouldn’t even open. To save money, I decided to try to repair them myself.
First up was a black 51 vac with a Lustraloy cap. This is probably the most common color, so it seemed the safest way to start. But it turned out to be a poor choice: the shell of this pen had been over-shellacked, so even the clutch ring was stuck in place. It took a lot of time and hot water to just get the pen open to start cleaning. Because I’d never done it before, I was fairly cautious at first.
But my tools were whatever I found in the house. I gripped the pen with some rubbery shelf liner that was lying around. To clean, I used ammonia and Koh-I-Noor Rapido-Eze, dishwashing liquid, some old toothbrushes, a bamboo skewer, and some glittery pipe cleaners I found in the kids’ craft box. However, when I looked at the gunky insides of that first barrel, and then at its gunky filler unit, reality hit. I knew to go any further I needed actual tools and supplies. I ordered a vac repair set from Woodbin, together with talc, barrel brushes and some replacement breather tube just in case.
Once I got the parts, I followed Ernesto Soler’s instructions to replace the black vac’s diaphragm. It wasn’t fast, and it wasn’t always easy, but it worked. I had fixed my first vacumatic filler. It was a great feeling. I decided not to finish this pen completely, but instead to start another, so I could compare two side by side. So I picked up the second 51 vac from the pile, this one a cedar blue model.
As luck would have it, each pen presented different problems. On this second 51, the blue one, the section came off easily, but the filler unit at the top of the pen was nearly welded on with a dried sealant that I darkly suspect to be Bondo. I did the best I could.
Then there were the internals. The nib/collector assembly of the black 51 was easily cleaned to like-new condition. But with the blue, even repeated elbow grease could not eliminate stubborn and persistent stains and residue on the feed and breather tube. I was pleasantly surprised, though, that the blue 51 fills and writes perfectly, just like the black one.
Another nice surprise came when the blue pen turned out to have its diaphragm intact and attached to the filler unit. Even better, with a gentle pull the diaphragm came off the filler unit in one piece. I’ve kept it for reference. Perhaps I will have it stuffed and mounted over the fireplace, like a very tiny marlin.
As with any project, it turns out that I didn’t need every tool I had bought, but I could have used some other things I didn’t know I needed. I could have used an inexpensive mini LED light, to see inside the barrel. And I tried to make do without a heat gun, but found that a hair dryer isn’t the best pen heating tool, at least not without an attachment that narrows the output of hot air.
I learned that pen repair takes a lot of time. Whatever an experienced pen repairer charges, he or she is no doubt underpaid. My friend Mike, who repairs pens, tells me it’s a labor of love, and after doing it myself, I don’t doubt that.
I started repairing the pens to save money. It turned out that buying the tools and the parts would have paid for professional repair of four 51s. I have since done four, so I broke even. Surely any professional is much more skilled than I and could have coped better. On the other hand, no one would lavish as much time and attention on my pens as me. And doing the work myself gave me something I couldn’t get any other way: hands-on knowledge of how the pens work. It was only by disassembling them that I got a real appreciation of the elegance of the vacumatic’s design and engineering.
Best of all, fixing my own pens was deeply satisfying. I am not a particularly handy person, so it feels like quite an accomplishment.
Next up are my Sheaffer Snorkels. I opened one up, and repairing it looks hard. I am looking forward to it.
“I’m a Parker man,” my friend said, showing me his Vacumatics. “My father was, so that’s what I became.”
Me, too, except for the “man” part. Parker is my favorite vintage pen brand, because my grandfather was a Parker man.
When I was young, in the 1970s, my grandparents owned a two-flat in West Rogers Park in Chicago. They rented out the first floor and lived on the second. Their apartment seemed very swank to me. My grandmother had hired a downtown decorator. Nearly everything was new and stylish.
Our family lived in the suburbs, in a typical family home. With four kids, fine furnishings were risky. So until I reached my teens, my grandparents’ apartment was my sole sustained encounter with gracious living. I always thought their living room looked like those rooms you could win on The Price is Right. But it felt that way, too: like a showplace. My grandmother and her decorator had chosen light colors: cream, gold and silvery green. To preserve that, my grandmother, a fastidious housekeeper, put permanent plastic covers on the sofas and chairs.
The plastic covers were obviously aimed at us kids, though nothing was ever said. So of course we felt uncomfortable on them. They were cold in winter and made your legs hot and sweaty in summer. Even my parents made fun of the plastic covers. But the dreaded plastic covers worked: the living room remained spotless, and my grandmother remained serene. We kids would perch carefully on a plastic-covered sofa until we could escape to the television room at the other end of the apartment.
Back then there wasn’t much television for kids, but the room had other attractions. When I look back through adult eyes, it’s clear that it was my grandfather’s refuge. The decorator hadn’t been allowed there. The watchword was comfort: leather recliners and metal t.v. trays. Attached was a home office converted from a wooden porch. We liked those rooms, because they felt like my grandfather.
Whereas my grandmother was kind and careful, my grandfather was more of a raconteur. He loved to entertain, to tease, and to argue about politics. He could be wickedly funny. I remember him greeting a teenage relative by pulling a coin out of his pocket. “Here’s a dime,” he said. “Maybe now you can call us sometime.”
He had started with nothing, coming to America as a boy with his older brothers and working early. He had done well, and never forgot where he came from. He was frugal with himself, but extraordinarily generous with everyone else, whether family, co-worker or customer.
He was a man who loved his cigars, and his little home office was where he could indulge that. The scent of cigars filled the air, and boxes of them were stacked on old metal file cabinets. We loved opening those boxes: the sharp smell, the neat rows of cigars, the old-fashioned artwork decorating the cardboard boxes, and the smooth cedar of the wood boxes. He gave us empty boxes to hold our treasures.
He had set his large wooden desk in front of windows looking onto the back yard. I can visualize the top of that desk, stacked with letterhead, ledgers, and business letters. I remember an old manual typewriter on a small table, and pens and pencils on the desk. Pride of place went to a single Parker Duofold fountain pen, a jade full-size model from the early 1920s. I felt entirely grown up sitting at his desk, inhaling the aroma of cigars, leafing through the letters and playing with the big Duofold.
I never asked him why he chose that pen, but in retrospect the Duofold was the perfect fit. It was made nearby in Janesville, Wisconsin, and my grandfather loved the Midwest. The Duofold was Parker’s top-of-the-line, and my grandfather enjoyed good quality things. He had bought it as a young man just starting out, and kept using it until the nib was bent, the barrel had discolored and the trim on the cap had loosened. My grandfather would have been proud of the pen, and of himself for being able to buy it. But when it was worn out, there was no need to get another. They had ballpoints by then, and those worked fine.
I was in high school when my grandfather died suddenly at the age of 75. My mother surprised me by giving me his Duofold, since I was the one who liked fountain pens. By the time the pen came to me, it wasn’t working, but it remained among my most treasured possessions. As I got older, I wanted to buy a modern Duofold, one that worked. But I used a computer. Times had changed for a young person starting out.
Years late, I have been able to buy two Duofolds, one vintage and one modern. I also have a number of other vintage Parkers. A few years ago I even had my grandfather’s Duofold restored. I was cautioned that the repair would cost more than the pen was worth. But of course, to me that pen is worth everything. It belonged to my grandfather, and we are Parker people.
The first weekend of May brings the annual Chicago Pen Show. This year I brought a camera.
First up was Bob Everett's vintage Sheaffers. Bob, whose father was a president of Sheaffer Canada, knew a lot about Sheaffer, of course, but he also was a pleasure to talk to. Which prompts me to say, right at the beginning, that the best thing about going to a pen show really isn't the pens. Of course, the pens are great. But the best thing is the people you'll meet. The sellers who specialize in vintage pens are first and foremost enthusiasts. So not only will you talk to really nice people, you'll learn a lot.
Bob had a nice display of pens for sale as well as Sheaffer ephemera and collectibles. And that's also a wonderful thing about a pen show: if you like vintage pens, it's like a giant store and a giant museum both.
Here is an example: Bob's display of the pins Sheaffer presented employees when they attained certain milestone years of seniority.
A tower of vintage Sheaffer ink bottles.
Some of his Balances for sale.
At the show, Bob picked up some vintage Sheaffer catalogues. My favorite pictures each pen in its actual size, so buyers would know exactly what they were getting. To me, that's an example of why the great old pen companies were so great: their desire to make the highest quality product filtered all the way down to the catalogue.
Nearby was Pendemonium, who are from Sheaffer's former home base of Fort Madison, Iowa, and are very involved with the Sheaffer Museum. Both online and at the show, Pendemonium sells pens, inks new and vintage, and interesting pen-related accessories like these.
Not to mention pen repair supplies.
Bob and Pendeomium are set up outside the main Pen Show entrance. After paying the small entrance fee, you step into the main part. It's a huge, windowless banquet room lined with tables along all four walls, with aisles of additional tables running down the middle.
Just to the left of the entrance is a great display of vintage ink bottles and ink accessories. It's put together by John Hinkel. He is an avid collector of ink bottles, but not, he'll tell you, of fountain pens. I only saw him briefly this year, but last year he very kindly took a lot of time to explain the highlights of his collection to my children. A lamp made out of a large ink bottle is a favorite of my daughter. We were all glad to see it, and him, again this year.
Here is a fun carousel of ink.
And here's a bit of ink-related paraphernalia
Moving along to pens, since I like vintage German pens I sought out Osman Sumer, who brought over from Germany cases of beautiful examples.
Here are just a few, mostly Pelikans
And a Montblanc. The wonderful fellow holding this up for me is a friend of Osman's from the Chicago area, Rob Alton. Meeting Rob provided me with the biggest non-pen-related thrill of the show. As we were talking, Rob mentioned that had been an actor. It turns out that he had played Juan Peron in "Evita" on tour, starting in 1980. I had seen the show, and him, back then twice. That brought back such happy memories.
Well, getting back to pens, here's that Montblanc.
Here are some more of Osman's pens.
And Osman's repair corner.
I tried, but I couldn't stay there forever. Luckily there were other great pens around. John Colton, for one, had beautiful Italian pens. I really liked seeing an Omas Paragon seven-piece set from 2000.
Ernesto Soler, of Parker51.com, brought Parker 51s, Parker 51 parts and other Parkers. Here are rows of very clean 51 sets.
I liked this: the Smart Set.
Here you can spot the plum 51. It may be easy in the photograph, but in the room light, the plum looked identical to the five burgundies.
And finally, Ernesto's tray of 51 demonstrators.
David Ushkow brought stunning Japanese and Italian pens. He also became one of my favorite people. Here is a Montegrappa Paolo Coelho.
A Dunhill Namiki.
Here he is cracking us both up. He kindly said I looked too young to have teenagers, which I can only attribute to the dim lighting, or to his natural sales skills So, of course, he's now one of my favorite pen sellers.
Moving around the room you see a huge number and variety of pens on every table. It is almost impossible to take it all in. Here's just one random example.
Though I'm showing mostly vintage pens so far, it felt like at least half the tables featured modern pens. Brian and Andrea Gray brought cases of Edison pens. Here are just a few.
They also were showing a sneak peek of a film about making Edison fountain pens. It really is in black and white. The bits I saw looked cool; when finished, it will be on the Edison website.
I have a weakness for Omas and Auroras, and the distributor Kenro brought a wide selection of new Italian pens to tempt. Here are a few Auroras.
This isn't my style or budget, but I have to show the Montegrappa Snake pen. Yes, it's all that.
And I won’t neglect the Montegrappa Chaos watch, designed to match the fountain pen.
I loved meeting Bruce Mindrup and seeing his table. First, he's a fellow Parker fan. Second, he's a psychologist, so I knew he could understand the pen fan. He asked if I collected fountain pens, bought them or played with them. All of the above, of course. Which he knew.
Here is Bruce's case of Parker Memorabilia
A closer look inside.
Vacumatics! Including a Vac desk pen!
Now here is an incredible collection. Alex Ziskind and his lovely wife (whose name, to my shame, I have forgotten) brought a stunning set of pens. And seeing them all together had extra impact, which brought home to me that a real collection is both focused and wide-ranging, with both depth and breadth.
Even the glare from the spotlights can't obscure these Montblanc Writer's Editions.
The next case held a variety of spectacular pens, from Namiki to S.T. Dupont to Montegrappa to Visconti. I can't show them all in one photo, but here are some.
And a few up close.
Here is Visconti's Christian Bible.
Forbidden City (blue).
A few of Alex’s Montblanc Writer's Editions up close.
Montblanc Year 2000 Golden Dragon. I loved the pearl in the dragon's mouth.
Alex Ziskind's collection was truly spectacular. We have to end here, because nothing can really follow that.
I would be the first to tell you that I’m not a fountain pen collector. I don’t buy for investment. I rarely pay a premium for rare colors, and I never hunt for them. I do not possess the desire to have all of a certain model, nor every color, cap, style or variation. I don’t care enough about the permutations of fountain pens over the years. I can’t remember the minutiae of fountain pen history -- even the model numbers of early Pelikans confuse me. I buy pens because I like how they look, I want to use them, and they are affordable. I generally only keep pens I like to use.
And yet, honestly, I wonder if I have reached the point that I’m fooling myself. I have a lot more fountain pens than I need, like many fountain pen aficionados. I have a lot more than I can use regularly. Then I have a small, but growing, number of pens that I bought knowing that I might never use them.
Let’s take the example of the Lamy Safari. I love these pens. A red Lamy Safari was the first fountain pen I bought myself, when both the pen and I were young. It is a cheap and cheerful pen and a reliable writer, and it comes in pretty colors. I have many nicer and more expensive pens, but at least one Lamy Safari is always inked.
I really have all the Safari colors I like. Even colors that cannot easily be obtained today. I have an orange. I have a lime green. And I have the everyday colors. I have some with the original black clips. But I do not have colors I don’t like. Neither do I have, nor do I care to obtain, certain rare colors that the true Safari collector fervently seeks. For example, I do not like the sought-after and pricey Savannah or Terracotta. I wouldn’t keep those if I could get them at the price of a current Safari. Which isn't going to happen. The prices for those two colors are shocking.
And yet. Last year I bought the 2012 “limited edition” apple green Lamy Safari, even though I didn’t really like the color in pictures. I figured I’d better get it while it’s available. And then when it arrived … well, I didn’t like the color in person either. It is just too bright for me. So it went into the pen case, unused.
I then fell for some Swedish special edition Safaris, with awesome red clips. I was thrilled and grateful that a helpful Swede on a fountain pen forum was willing to buy these on my behalf. And these were not your run-of-the-mill Safari purchases. Let me just say that the dollar does not go as far in Sweden as you’d hope, and there are VAT taxes to pay, and rather expensive shipping. It’s an expensive country, Sweden.
Who cares? Not me. I’m so happy to have the pens. The red clips are divine, and as far as I’m concerned, these Safaris are the best Swedish export since Robyn. But … it turns out that I haven’t actually inked my Swedish Safaris. They do make me supremely happy when I see them nestled in the pen case. (Note that I keep them far from the unattractive apple green Safari, as one would make sure that roses are not placed in a bouquet with nettles.)
I actually thought, for a moment, about passing the Swedish Safaris along to two of my kids. Luckily they didn’t stake their claims fast enough. So I could guiltily, but with relief, stash the pens away. Mine!
Still, I have to acknowledge that these two episodes nag at me. Buying more pens when you have enough to use is, in fact, the mark of a collector. As is the happiness gleaned from just looking at them. And the satisfaction of having to work harder to track down the rare ones. Not to mention the coup de grace: that I see no need to ever ink these pens. Not even my beloved Swedish ones. When I want to write with a Safari, I can happily grab one of the many I’ve already put into use and that could be easily re-purchased if lost.
I can plead some mitigating factors that show I'm still not really a collector. There were three special Swedish Safaris, and I only bought the two I actually liked. Not for money reasons, but because the third didn’t call out “own me." A real collector would have snapped up all three. A budding dealer would have bought multiple copies.
I suspect I stand at a crossroads here. I’ve tried most brands of pens I’m interested in and can easily afford, and I have a working knowledge of what's out there just beyond my price-range. I’ve tried every possible variant of nib, I think. I know what I like, in pens and nibs. And some pens I like very much.
The question at the crossroads is this: Do I go down the route of assembling an actual collection, with depth and breadth? Pens I will never use, but will just have. Is the hunt what I enjoy? Is a sense of completeness important? Do I want to reflect the historical sweep of a pen brand or two?
Or do I just continue to skim the surface, buying here and there as the fancy strikes and the budget allows? Then I’d be someone with definite likes and dislikes in pens, but one who owns a bunch of individual pens that she likes, rather than a collection. No expertise, no niche.
Either way, though, and most importantly, will I ever stop wanting to buy? Will I ever see a new limited edition Lamy Safari for $28 and let it go? Now that I have a surfeit of pens, a glorious plentitude, will I be satisfied?
I guess I’ll know at the end of the journey.
Here begins an occasional series of articles written by an enthusiastic, but thoroughly amateur, fountain pen user. I first fell for fountain pens when I was a student in the 1980s, but I didn’t start using them again until a few years ago. And then I made up for lost time. It must be like rekindling a high school romance years later, when you are older and wiser, have fewer insecurities and have a little more comfortable bank balance.
But, one day, Rick and I were lamenting about how hard it is to bring new people into the hobby. Serious collectors, who are looking for valuable investment quality pens, certainly have a path. And there are wonderful books, lavishly illustrated, about the history of vintage fountain pens. But the ordinary user, who may just have fallen in love with her first Lamy Safari and wants to try something else, really ends up catching as catch can. There’s no welcome wagon, no helpful packet of information dropped off at the door. There’s a lot of opinion and information out there, but it can be hard to sift through it all.
As a very important aside, let me say that I’m not trying to sell you anything. Rick Propas sells amazing fountain pens in the most honest way. I’ve bought many pens from him. I thoroughly recommend him. But the point isn’t to get you to buy those. And I don’t get a commission or payment of any sort. Everything I write about is something I paid for with my own money. If ever there’s an exception to that, I’ll say so clearly. My opinion is worth no more or less than anyone else’s, but at least it’s entirely mine; it’s not bought and paid for. When I was growing up in Chicago, the movie critic for the Chicago Tribune was Gene Siskel, years before he became famous. I remember him once saying that he liked to buy his own ticket to a movie he was reviewing. That way he could honestly evaluate whether a movie was worth the price of admission. I feel the same way.
Rick asked me to write for his website to bring a different point of view. I like that idea. And I really do want people to try and enjoy fountain pens. I must have a missionary streak.
But let me just emphasize this: everything I write is just my opinion, and I am no expert. I’m just a user. I’ve learned a little as I went along, from my own experience, and mostly from the experience of others. But my point of view undoubtedly, and firmly, remains that of the non-expert. Not the serious collector, but the simple user. Not the professional, but the amateur. Mostly, I’m passing along what I’ve picked up from those far more knowledgeable, sprinkled with my own idiosyncratic opinions about what I’ve used. I don’t expect anyone to agree with me, but perhaps some of what I say can be helpful or interesting for people starting down the same path.