Thursday, January 3, 2013

Fountain Pens 101

When I started this blog I promised I was going to make some posts regarding fountain pen repair.   Since my last posting I began considering where I wanted to begin.  First I though I would start with my most recent repair, yet knowing there are a few people out there wouldn't have a clue of what I was writing about I though I'd begin with something a bit more basic.  Jumping straight into a topic that is considered esoteric to most is a great way to bring about confusion.  My focus in pens is mostly pre-1960s so this post is going to be looking at fountain pens in their most essential form dating from that time period and earlier.

Basic Anatomy

Below is a diagram displaying the form of fountain pen one is most likely to encounter if they pick up any pre-1960s pen.  This configuration was most commonly produced by pen manufacturers from the early 1920s to the late 1950s when cartridges became the preferred method of refilling a pen and before ball points took the public by storm.

Fig. 1  Esterbrook SJ: fountain pen in most basic form
Its most basic parts consist of the barrel or body of the pen and the cap to protect the nib or tip.  Other features should be common to anyone who has ever used a pen, such as the clip and cap band.  Although at first glance the cap band may appear to be merely decoration it is functional for it strengthens the lip of the cap and protects it somewhat from the stresses of use and posting (placing the cap on the rear of the pen while writing).  Some of the other features may leave a few scratching their heads, wondering why someone ever thought to put such things on a pen.  Why a lever?  Or what purpose does that little hole in the cap serve?  Well, no lever would mean no ink to write with- it is the means of filling the pen.  Lifting the lever depresses a thin bar of spring steel on the inside of the pen, which in turn flattens and forces the air from a rubber sac or bladder.  Allowing the lever to spring back into place while the nib is submerged in ink fills the pen, with the ink taking the place of the displaced air- kind of like an eyedropper.  Below shows what an ink sac looks like outside of a pen.

Fig. 2  Ink sac attached to pen section
So what about the little hole?  It's there for a good reason.  When the cap is removed from a pen a small amount of suction is created, which great enough can draw ink from inside the pen thus creating an ink blot.  Breather holes reduce this suction and make sure the ink stays inside where you want it until you are ready to write.

Under The Cap

Before one looks under the cap one must realize that most pens from this time period have threaded (screw on) caps.  Again there is a good reason this came to be, which will be touched on farther down. Attempting to pull off a threaded cap can strip the threads or crack the cap itself. 

Fig. 3 Nib and section
Other than the nib, the section is part of what makes the fountain pen functional, it holds the nib and gives the user a place to rest their fingers and also creates a seal against the inner cap- a sleeve fitted inside the pen cap.  Looking closely at the bottom of the section closest to the nib one can see that it is slightly flared and creates a flange.  When the cap is screwed firmly on the pen the section and inner cap meet, keeping air from getting in and drying the nib and ink from getting out and going all over one's pocket.  The section is where the pen comes apart when it needs to be opened for servicing (please do not attempt to do this unless you know what you are doing, it can be dangerous* for you and the pen if you follow the wrong directions.  Another post will touch on this soon, I promise).  Of course the nib is what does the writing and come in a wide variety in vintage pens.  There are extra fine, fine, medium and bold nibs.  Stiff nibs and flexible nibs and nibs made of steel like the one shown above, or 14k gold and 18k gold.  What is best all comes down to personal preference as there are simple steel nibs that perform better than some of the more expensive gold nibs.  The majority of quality vintage pens were fitted with 14k gold nibs.

Fig. 4  Underside of nib
Beneath the nib is the feed and as its name implies its function is to feed ink to the nib and air back into the pen.  Feeds in their most basic composition have channels carved in the top by which the ink travels, fins like in the photo above were a later innovation added to collect excess ink and prevent blotting (blotting usually isn't that bad of a problem no matter the feed in a clean and properly maintained pen yet it does happen).  They were machined from hydrophilic material like ebonite (hard rubber) and nowadays in most modern fountain pens injected molded from plastic and sometimes treated with a hydrophilic compound to make them channel the ink better (cost savings, not an innovation).

Nib tipping is added to the ends of the nib tines to make them more wear resistant, paper is abrasive and over time would wear away at the nib faster if it was not tipped, especially softer gold nibs.  Tipping is formed of very hard alloy called iridium and is welded to the nib separately during production.  Some steel nibs like the one shown do not have iridium tipping, instead the ends of the nib and rolled over and heated forming a smooth, durable surface.  Even though iridium tipping is tough it is not bullet proof, in other words it's possible to find vintage pens with their tipping worn away.  They will write scratchy but the tipping can be replaced by a restorer that specializes in nib repair, which in some cases is cheaper than trying to find a comparable replacement.

While this post only shows and speaks about the basics, I'd like to point out there are many other filling systems one can and will encounter once they start looking at fountain pens.  In the future I plan to make further posts highlighting some of these systems, which can seem overwhelming to someone who is just starting out.

Please feel free to ask any questions you might have.  I'll try to answer what I can or point you in the direction of someone who I know should have the answer.

*I say dangerous because there are some repair books and old out of date repair manuals circulating on the internet that advise the use of open flame or a heat gun to open pens.  The majority of pre-1950s fountain pens are made of celluloid which is highly flammable, so open flame and heat guns that can get hot enough to ignite celluloid are very dangerous.  Old materials can be fussy and if you don't know what you are doing you can cause irreversible or costly damage to them.  Then there are pens with threaded sections and friction fit sections.  Just do not do anything unless you are sure of what you are doing.

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