Sunday, March 30, 2014

Fountain Pens For the Beginner

Where to start?  This can be an overwhelming question when one considers the world of vintage fountain pens, or fountain pens in general.  There is so much to choose from, so much to take into consideration and also so much to be learned.  Believe it or not I was here once, over five years ago now, wondering what kind of pen I wanted and where I could even find that pen for a price I felt was fair.  Before I even acquired my first fountain pen I remember looking at them locked up in cases at antique shops pondering how I was ever going to justify buying something so expensive and knowing so little about it.  Knowing what I do now, I realize that all of those pens were way over priced for what they were and the condition they were in- dirty, unrestored, some of them inferiorly produced dime store models priced at $30.00 +.  This is why it is best to start out doing some research on what you are looking for.  I will admit that I didn't do that until I had my first pen in hand and again was washed over by that overwhelming feeling.  Luckily I did pick out a decent pen, in easily repairable condition for a fair price- and looking back on it now I really do realize what dumb luck I had because there are a lot of bad pens out there and some while not bad are just not a good place for the beginner to begin.  A word of wisdom to consider- just because it pen is vintage does not mean it is good pen, cheaply made pens were sold by the millions and although inferior in construction there are still many of them in existence today.  Purchasing one of these and having a poor experience with it is not the way to start out with fountain pens.

The Pen That Started it All- a Parker Parkette
My first ever fountain pen was this Parker Parkette pictured above, while nothing to write home about in terms of looks or condition it was a great place to start.  I found it at a flea market for $8.00 and the person who sold it to me cautioned me I would have to have it sent out for repairs, which of course we know is not the case.  That afternoon when I arrived home I started doing searches online about fountain pen repair and parts and I took it from there.  Much to my surprise, this little pen once back in working order proved to be a wonderful writer with a slightly springy, buttery smooth 14K gold medium nib.

Some Parkettes come with 14K gold nibs that rival some of the finest produced by the competition, such as Sheaffer.
The Parker Pen Company produced Parker Parkettes as a lower end pen throughout the 1930s and offered several different models over the years, with the pen pictured above being the most common.  It should be noted that some Parkettes came fitted with steel nibs, some of which are deceivingly plated with a gold-tone metal, in my experience these do not write as nicely as the gold nibs but don't let it stop you from buying the pen as they are still better than what comes fitted in other similarly priced models.  Parkettes are lever fillers, which are simple to repair and take a size 20 straight sac, the furniture it gold plated and prone to wearing.  Colors produced include green, burgundy, black, grey, grey with red swirls, copper and blue, with green, burgundy and black being the most common.  Deluxe models were made and can be distinguished from the standard models by their faceted shape.
Common pricing- up to $50, depends on condition, color and whether the pen has been repaired.

A Family of Esterbrook Js: T to B- Long J (LJ) in root beer colored icicle pattern, J in grey, J in green, Transitional J in black, Transitional J is red, Short J (SJ) in blue and SJ in copper.
My most commonly recommend pen for the vintage fountain pen neophyte is the Esterbrook J and there is a good reason for this.  All members of the J family use a nib/feed assemblage that are called Re- New Points, which are interchangeable and just screw out.  Most other fountain pens have friction fit nibs that have to be knocked out to change them and then different nib options are not always widely available and expensive.  Re- New points, all made of steel come in many different thicknesses and variations some of which are still readily available as new old stock.  So if you don't like the nib the pen came with you can always buy several others to try until you find one you like.  One unintended consequence of these easily removable nibs is they also make cleaning your pen really fast and easy.  Just screw out the nib feed assemblage and soak it in a glass of water, while flushing the pen without the nib.

Like the Parkette, Esterbrooks are all lever fillers making repair easy.  The furniture is stainless steel and very resistant to wear and brassing.  The pens themselves are made out of many different colors of celluloid- some of the most common colors are shown above excluding the pinstriped 'icicle' pattern, which much harder to find.  As you might have noticed, the J family includes several different models.  Introduced sometime around 1943 the Transitional model was the first, marking Esterbrook's transition from their earlier Dollar Pen to the J.  Transitional Js can be distinguished by their flat barrel ends, unmarked clips and the three ribbed jewel on top of the cap.  The standard J model came into being in 1948 and it features a jewel on the cap and a second on the end of the barrel.  These usually, but not always have a clip that is marked 'Esterbrook' and a lever with a rounded spoon shaped end.  Sometimes pens do come up featuring pieces usually associated with the earlier Transitional models, yet it nothing to worry about since it seems Esterbrook simply used up any remaining stock of old parts instead of throwing them out.

Js came in three different sizes, the standard model, the Short J and the Long J respectively know as SJs or LJs.  The standard and SJ seem to be the most commonly encountered when shopping for pens in the wild.  The SJ is slightly shorter and thinner than the standard model, while the LJ is longer than the standard it shares the same girth as the SJ- confusing right?  Some other pen people have attempted to come up with methods of determining between the three visually, but I find these methods largely useless especially if you are new to pens.  The best way of becoming familiar with the different sizes is by simply handling the pens- something that will come with time and experience.  And to make things just a little more complicated there is a lady's J model that is shorter than the SJ, but these are easily distinguishable by color- they only came in flat pastel shades and are not as common as other J models. There are many other variations that can crop up from time to time but I'm going to leave all of these out for sake of simplicity.
Common pricing- up to $60- dependent on condition, color, model and restoration status. (I usually seem to be able to find Js in the wild for between $4.00 to $20.00 USD).

Re-New Points removed from pens
If these pens are not quite what you are looking for I have a couple of more suggestions, these include the Parker Challenger, Parker Duofold Jr., Sheaffer School Pen (good for kids and clumsy adults) or the Sheaffer Balance.  The Parker Challenger is a mid range pen that Parker marketed in the 1930s falling in between the Duofold and the Parkette.  It shares the same button filling system as the Parker Duofold, making it easy to repair.  Same with most other pen the Challenger came in several different model variations with a standard, deluxe and royal model.  Standard and deluxe pens came in green, burgundy, black, blue and black with pearl flecks.
Common pricing ranges from $20.00 upwards to $200.00 depending on model, color and condition.

Parker Challenger Deluxe slim model, black with green/grey pearl flecks.
Sheaffer School Pens were marketed in the late 1950s to mid 1960s to children or adults looking for an inexpensive fountain pen.  They are cartridge filling pens that will require no repairs and take standard straight cartridges that are readily available in the US.  These came in blue, green, red and clear with a chrome metal slip cap.  Also they can be acquired very cheaply, sometimes at thrift shops and flea markets for as little as $1.00.  Despite the low price school pens are excellent writers and very durable.

Clear Sheaffer School Pen
Parker Duofold Jr. models can also be inexpensive, especially in green (which tends to discolor with age) and red.  To learn more about these see the Parker Duofold post.
Price can range from $20.00 up to $100.00 depending on condition, color and restoration status.

Like I mentioned at the beginning of this post there is a lot of information that needs to be taken into consideration when purchasing your first vintage fountain pen and it can sometimes be overwhelming.  Doing your research before hand can save considerable grief and disappointment and remember when just starting out you do not need to know everything.  Knowledge is something that will be gained with time and experience just like anything else.

Please feel free to ask questions or comment.  Changes are I might have answer or know someone who does.