(This page published September 1, 2023)
NoteThis is an adventure story, not an official repair article. I’ve included enough detail, however, that it might help someone in a similar situation.
The history of fountain pens is not a straight line. The different directions in which it has gone include a road less taken, that of the dip-less desk set. I’ve been fascinated by dip-less sets for a few years now, and when a new one comes my way, I just have to restore it. The set shown here is a World War II-era Sengbusch Handi-Pen set, which happens to push not only my dip-less desk set button but also my WWII historian button.
It is worth noting that this particular desk set was designed in 1942 and made during the war, while materials rationing and restriction were in full force under strict regulations laid down by the War Production Board. For that reason, it used no materials that were on the U.S. government’s critical war resources list except for the nib, which was necessarily made of metal (stainless steel). In particular, there is no rubber anywhere in the set.
NoteSome images on this page can be clicked or tapped to display magnified versions for more detail. When you mouse over a clickable image, the image will give a visual indication by growing a little, and the mouse pointer will change to a magnifying glass. On a touchscreen device, touch and hold your finger on the image briefly to see if it reacts. If it does, you can tap it.
You probably noticed that the photos above show what looks like a pristine desk set, all ready to put in the box and sell to the nearest business customer. We’ll get to that point, but when this set came in the door, it wasn’t anything like that pretty. So what did it need? Because its previous owner had not spent the time and effort to clean it out, it appeared to need complete disassembly and a thorough cleaning. And probably a replacement nib. Chances are, however, that even if the former owner had cleaned it, most of what it actually needed would still have been beneficial.
As you can see from the photo above, the nib was not sparkling clean. Although the pen clearly hadn’t been used for several years, there was a glob of ink on the underside of the nib that was still sticky. In addition, as indicated in the photo, much plating was missing where it hed been eaten away by the ink, and there was a row of deep pits across one tine, probably corresponding with the surface of the ink in the well. This all meant that a replacement nib was in order, and that meant that the pen needed to be knocked down. Gustav Sengbusch had internalized the fact that that nibs would need cleaning or replacement, and he designed the Handi-Pen to ease the task. Not all dip-less nibs are this easy to remove, but if you look at the Handi-Pen from the side, you’ll see a tab sticking out of the shaft under the feed.
That tab is the exposed end of a wedge that holds the nib and feed in place. To free the nib and feed for removal, I just pushed that tab into the end of the shaft (the penholder). Sengbusch suggested pressing the tab against the edge of a desk or a table, and that would work well in the typical office environment, but another easy thing to use is a screwdriver as shown here.
Having pushed the wedge in, I could simply slide out the nib and feed, and the wedge followed them with a quick shake of the shaft. I cleaned the nib, feed, and wedge in cool water, using a brush to clean ink out of the recess near the tip of the feed. In ordinary use, there will be no ink inside the shaft, but you never know, so I cleaned the hole in the shaft as well. A little polishing on the outside seemed like a good idea. I used Simichrome on a rag of pure cotton flannel to avoid scratching the shaft. I’m always careful to get all of the Simichrome off when I’ve finished. Any Simichrome that gets left behind will dry to leave a pinkish-white powder that’s really not all that atractive on a pretty pen.
Once the pen parts are all clean, it’s time to reassemble them. Here are the nib, feed, and wedge laid out in position for reassembly. The wedge has a notch in its back end (to the right) that fits over the tab on the back of the feed. To simplify realigning the nib with the feed, there is a dimple on the top surface of the nib, creating a bump on the underside that fits into a matching recess on the top surface of the feed. This pen needed a new nib, and as of this writing there is an abundant supply of Sengbusch Handi-Pen nibs available on eBay.
To reassemble the pen, I put the nib, feed, and wedge back together, inserted the assembly into the shaft, and pushed everything together. The nib assembly bound in place, leaving the tab end of the wedge exposed for next time.
The inkstand comprises two main parts: the base unit (discussed later) and the bottle assembly (shown here). When this inkstand was new, the bottle’s cap (the lower portion) was painted black, but corrosion by ink has destroyed most of the paint. There was dried ink on the side of the cap and on the small dome where it was suspended in ink, and of course the interior was coated with more dried ink.
The bottle is a three-part assembly consisting of the glass bottle, a ceramic cap, and a cork gasket. I disassembled them and cleaned each one thoroughly. I suspect that the gasket might originally have been glued to the inside of the cap, but it was loose, so I handled it separately, with due care for its fragility. Cleaning the gasket required soaking, with frequent changes of water so that clean water could draw the ink out of the cork. Here are the bottle parts after cleaning and drying.
When the bottle is filled and inverted, a drop of ink forms and hangs below the cap’s dome. The slot in the dome is not large enough to allow ink to flow freely, so that the bottle can be placed into the base without any spillage. Holding the bottle over the base unit’s receptacle as you invert it prevents any drips from messing up your Great American Novel. More later about how this works.
The base unit is an assembly of the glass base itself and a socket, made of glazed ceramic, that is held in place frictionally by a band of fibrous material and should not be removed. When I began working on the set, this is what the interior of the base looked like. That purple color and the bubbly look in the interior are dried ink. A lot of it.
The best way I have found to remove all the dried ink in an inkstand is to run cool water over the base. This involved running the water into the bottle receptacle and also into the mouth of the socket, and it took some considerable time. The photo here was taken near the end of the process; at the beginning, the entire floor of the sink was covered in what looked like undiluted ink. (If you take one of these on, you have been warned.)
Once as much ink as would readily come out was gone, I soaked the base for a couple of days, with frequent water changes. This process would not take so long for most inkstands, but this particular model has a plug of fibrous material, indicated by an arrow in the photo below, blocking part of the ink and air passages. This fibrous material seems able to absorb an infinite amount of ink. Getting it reasonably clean required all that soaking time and could probably have benefited from more soaking, but I ran out of patience.
The second arrow in the photo points out a small bump, or boss, in the bottom of the reservoir. When the unit is assembled, the dome on the cap protrudes downward just far enough that the ink drop that is trying to escape from the dome touches the boss. Once capillary contact is established, ink can flow out, and the base fills to the proper level. For this reason, it is critical that the interior of the base be completely clean.
And that’s all she wrote. Filled with fresh Waterman Mysterious Blue ink, this desk set is ready for months of writing without a refill. It’ll be a good idea to wash the ink off the nib and feed from time to time to prevent undesirable buildup, but that’s trivial compared to the amount of maintenance a fountain pen should have.