Buying and repairing vintage UK pens

It seems my long strange trip into the world of fountain pens has led me to acquire a fairly large number of vintage English pens – Conway Stewart, Onoto, and Mabie Todd Swan, for the most part.  Virtually  all of the UK vendors, etc… that I have dealt with have been exceptional and in this little bit of rambling, I would like to share my experiences with them.

stylophilist

The Ebay seller stylophylist is Steve Hull has been selling off some beautiful Conway Stewart and other pens for some time now as well as parts lots on occasion.  Steve is a perfect gentleman who is exceptionally knowledgeable about CS, Onoto and other UK pens.  He has given me some tremendous advice and assistance, including recommending Brian Toynton (below) as a great repairer of UK vintage pens, among others.  Steve is very kind in that he always responds to my questions on a timely basis (no matter how dumb they may be) and shares his advice and experience freely.

Steve has co-written a number of books, including Onoto Pen Repair, the most recent of which is The Neptune Pen – A history of Burge, Warren and Ridgley.  I have a copy and it really is terrific.  Steve has been working on a new book, that is to be published very soon, on Conway Stewart that will be a must have for any CS enthusiast (like me – I have already started bugging him about where and when I can get my copy) and most likely of interest to any and all pen collectors.  The forthcoming book is The History of Conway Stewart:1905-2005, due for launch at London Pen Show, October 3rd 2010.

Funny thing though, Steve does not use any of his pens, rather he finds a Bic Cristal a great writer! Apparently Steve has no interest in writing – it’s really the history of the things that appeal to him!  Wow – all those fabulous pens, the temptation, etc…  Takes a stronger man than I am (no comments please!):~)!!

Penworkshop (UK)

Paul Baker sells pens and a great selection of tools, materials and kits on Ebay (penworkshop) and through the Penworkshop (UK).  I bought this beautiful vintage Onoto 1202 MINOR “brickwork” Fountain Pen, ca. 1938, on Ebay from Paul.  The picture below from Paul shows what a beauty it is but can’t fully capture its beauty.

He was exceptional to deal with and answered my questions promptly.  Paul was also kind enough to remind me how to fill Onoto piston fillers:

“To fill it you just unscrew the end and pull out the piston. Place the nib and half the section in the ink and then gently close the piston and turn the thread.  If there have been lots of bubbles in the ink you can be sure that the pen is full.
There is no need to test it by pulling out the piston again because this creates a vacuum which can break the back seal.

As I said, he also sells through his website and I have had reports of LPC members having similar positive experiences with him.  Make sure that you check out his website regularly as he is constantly adding new pens.

Paul and I have also been exchanging emails and I would like to share a great pen story that he passed along to me.

“Isn’t pen collecting wonderful – you never know what interesting item you will unearth next. This week I popped into an auction at Woburn and picked up the beauty which I have attached. It’s a fantastic sized pen measuring over 5 and a half ins closed. There is no maker’s name of any sort and I will have to do some investigating. 14ct gold Warranted nib. There is an imprint – James McLean 12 Woodside Terrace Glasgow 3 with the phone no Douglas 2420 on the cap top.
A couple of minutes on the internet reveals James McLean to be a high class bookmaker operating from the Woodside Terrace address in the 1920s. Was even able to confirm the Douglas phone number was his.  These beautiful pens were obviously given to his best clients. You had to have bank references to open an account with him. Wonderful piece of social history.  I may be a pen dealer but I love this sort of thing.  The maker could be just about anyone – Wateman? Onoto?  I have some pretty knowledgeable dealer friends who will probably be able to point me in the right direction on this.”

redripple52

Nope, not the pen but redripple52 (Deb S.), another terrific seller on Ebay who I was fortunate to deal with when I bought this Mabie Todd Swan 3260 with a semi-flexible broad nib (one of her great pictures from Ebay showing my pen is below).

I also exchanged several emails with Deb and one of the topics was the restoration of vintage pens, and in particular, whether to reset a nib.  Her very good advice was the following:

“Over the years I have learned to be very conservative in restoration, but checking tine alignment and making any necessary adjustment is something I do routinely as part of the process of refurbishment and write testing.

Most old pens have developed a variation between the axis of the feed and that of the nib from years of use by one hand.  If the ink flows freely, I leave well alone.  It’s only if the nib is radically misaligned with the feed, or if has been pushed in or pulled out too far that I will consider knocking out the nib and feed.  Realigning a nib and feed in a section to
which they have settled for sixty years or more is no trivial matter.  Many do it but few make an improvement thereby.  After the section pliers, the nib block must be the greatest spoiler of old pens there is (emphasis added by editor). I would caution you to think twice about having the nib reset, but it is your pen and you must do as you think best.”

Penamie

Brian Toynton sells fine vintage pens including Parker, Waterman, Sheaffer, Onoto and a number of less well known makes through Penamie.  While I have not purchased any pens from Brian, I was recommended to him for service of a number of leverless Mabie Todd Swans and a Swan eyedropper with an overfeed that needed to be reset. Brian was prompt in responding to emails and repaired the pens quickly for a very reasonable cost.  Brian can be reached through Penamie or by emailing him at brian-t@lineone.net.

Blue Upon The Plains of Abraham ink

Label from bottle of Blue Upon the Plains of Abraham - a Bulletproof ink by Noodler's

Introduction

I recently came across a discussion on the Fountain Pen Network concerning a new, custom Noodler’s Ink made for our friends Murtaza et al at Sleuth & Statesman, i.e., Blue Upon The Plains of Abraham (BUPA).  As you can see from the above picture of the label, the artwork is very detailed and draws on (no pun intended) the historical significance of this location, namely, the Battle of the Plains of Abraham (BOPA).  In fact, those of you who are more historically and/or artistically inclined may notice that the label is an artistic reproduction of A View of the Taking of Quebec, seen below:

A view of the taking of Quebec, 13th September 1759. (Library of the Canadian Department of National Defence).
A view of the taking of Quebec, 13th September 1759. (Library of the Canadian Department of National Defence).

A couple of nits about the label itself.  Obviously the Canadian flag is not historically correct.  I also must admit that I am confused by the meaning of the phrase “American Canadian Ink for Canada”.  I guess I could speculate a bit about that and maybe even rant; however, I have decided to let “sleeping dogs lie” in this instance rather than risk sparking a nationalist uproar.

History

Before I get to the ink itself, I think it would be interesting to review the history of the BOPA.  After all, it was only the most significant battle in Canadian history!  The actual Plains of Abraham (POA) was a large, flat piece of farmland on high cliffs to the west of Quebec City (and derive their name from a previous owner, Martin Abraham).  The BOPA was a battle fought between the French and English in 1759.  In less than an hour, the British troops led by Major-General Thomas Wolfe defeated the French forces commanded by Lieutenant-General le Marquis de Montcalm.  The French army retreated to Montreal and within a year had surrendered New France (Quebec). A few years later, France transferred its North American possessions to England.  Needless to say, had the French been successful in the BOPA, this blog might very well be written in French!

The Ink

Now, to the real reasons for you reading this blog entry – what is the story on the ink.

Cost and Availability

As I noted previously Noodler’s mixed up a limited number of bottles of this bulletproof ink for Sleuth & Statesman (S&S) in Toronto.  Unless you live in or around Toronto or plan to visit in the near future, you will have to email or call and have them ship the number of bottles that you require.  The cost of each bottle is around Cdn $25, including taxes, and shipping is extra (which will depend on the number of bottles and method selected).  Expensive, yes, but understandable in the circumstances – how else could S&S offer their customers a unique ink while recovering their costs and a small profit, if any, on such a small “batch” of ink (I thought that I read somewhere it was 50 bottles or so).

Performance of the ink

From what I have read, the ink has a strong magenta undertone that takes on varying and differing degrees of prominence.  It apparently can be so temperamental as to reflect those different undertones while using the same pen at different times!  Someone even referred to it as the Canadian “Baystate Blue” – not necessarily a particularly positive comment (to some people) but inaccurate, at least to the extent that the BUPA ink is labelled as being pH neutral – the Baystate line of inks are not.  On the other hand, it can very a very nice blue when the dyes stay mixed!

At our pen club meeting on Saturday morning, I test dipped the bottle with a Q-tip – the line that it laid down showed a variety of colours with a heavy magenta undertone; however, I did not see that special blue that I was expecting.  Perhaps it was because the ink was not as shaken up as it might have been (and that I can remain objective in my test dips and writing samples).

The first thing that I did on Sunday (after shaking the bottle a number of times) was create an ink swatch on Maruman grid paper with a Q-tip with ink from the bottle and then from the inside of the cap.  The results were much better than the first swab on Saturday, however, there is even a noticeable difference in these swipes.  When the ink is blue, it is a very, very nice blue; otherwise, I am not sure what to call it.

I then filled an old warhorse that I have, a Sheaffer Fashion fountain pen with a broad nib.  You can see the handwriting samples on first the Maruman and then the Whitelines paper.  In each case, the pen started skipping and then stopped after writing with it for a few minutes. When I chose to stop writing, capped the pen, and then tried to write with it again (less than five minutes later), the pen would not start – I had to pump the aerometric filler in order to restart the flow.  In my past experience with this Sheaffer pen, it has been a wet writer with a generous flow (I used it with Baystate Blue on a number of occasions without difficulty).  This ink felt very dry when writing on both paper samples, in fact, you could really hear the nib on the paper.  I could even tell that it was going to skip and stop, it was just a question of when.  The other thing I noticed on the Whitelines paper, was that the writing seemed to have a slight aura of magenta.

After leaving my desk and thinking about this for a bit, I thought it might be useful to try out this ink on some different paper (Rhodia reverse book this time) and using two glass dipping pens that I have.  What a disaster, as you can see below.  I tried both glass dipping pens with the same incredibly poor result – the ink either splatted off the pen or nothing, I could not write anything decipherable with it.  And there was clearly ink on the glass nib but it seemed to have dried almost instantly so that it was not able to flow from the glass nib to the paper.

Conclusion

This ink is incredibly temperamental – either the colour is not right or the colour is right but the pen is skipping and stopping.  I am going to have to decide if (and that’s a very big IF) it makes sense to invest some time trying the BUPA in different pens and on different paper to see whether there is a magical combination that works.

I applaud S&S for making the effort to provide their customers with a unique ink but it appears to me that something went wrong here.  I would love to see the test results for this ink and if they are positive, I would love to find out what I (and others) are doing wrong.  It should not be that hard, I mean, we are talking about fountain pen ink after all, not the formula for the fountain of youth.  I cannot believe that Noodler’s would put their name on ink that I can’t figure out how to get work in a fountain pen.