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Preserving Your Pens: Dos and Don’ts

By Richard Binder, Linda Kennedy, and Mike Kennedy

Reference Info Index | Glossopedia  ]


When a given pen is out of your rotation (i.e., uninked and not being used), it goes into a cabinet or case of some sort, and for a while it is out of sight and out of mind. It becomes, in effect, a museum artifact. And museum artifacts, if they are to remain in the best possible condition, need special treatment. Museums well know, and so should you, that not all artifacts need the same kind of treatment. Just as bones, fabrics, and bronze items have different requirements, so do hard rubber, celluloid, and plated metals. This article offers a little advice on what experience has shown is the best way to treat your pens so that they will be ready to jump back into service the next time you want them.

Things to Do

cabinet
  1. Store your pens safely in a dark place that is not humid and not airtight. The cabinet shown to the right is a steel map case that satisfies these requirements.

    Here are the reasons for this rule:

    • Light, especially sunlight (which is high in ultraviolet), can degrade the surfaces of both hard rubber pens and pens made of celluloid or other cellulosic resins such as cellulose acetate or Forticel (which Sheaffer called Radite II). If you store your pens in a cabinet that has glass panels or a glass lid, place the cabinet where no direct sunlight or other very bright light can fall on it. Even if it is a modern cabinet fitted with ultraviolet absorbent glass, infra-red radiation (heat) can still pass through the glass and "cook" the pens.

    Silica gel packets
    • If your location is humid and you do not use air conditioning or a good dehumidifier, consider buying small packets of silica gel to keep in your pen cabinet to help protect your pens by absorbing moisture.. How frequently you will need to replace them will depend on your situation. Excess humidity can damage hard rubber by hastening oxidation, and it hastens the corrosion of metal parts and the appearance of bloom on various cellulosic resins. What it can do to casein pens does not bear description in polite company. (Silica gel packets do not need to be thrown away when they’re saturated. You can “recharge” them by putting them in a microwave oven for 7–10 minutes on a defrost cycle.)

    • Airtightness will hold in the acids that all celluloid and cellulose acetate pens give off, and these acids will accumulate in the atmosphere inside the airtight cabinet and hasten decomposition of the pens.For very large storage chests, consider cutting a hole in the back side and installing a small computer fan for air circulation. If necessary to allow air to escape, apply small clear vinyl pads to the corners of cabinet lids to keep them from closing all the way. For pens made of celluloid or other cellulosic resins, consider an environmental preservative, either an alkaline buffer such as sodium bicarbonate or calcium carbonate, or a molecular trap such as zeolite. Research and accelerated aging tests have shown that molecular traps tend to work longer and more effectively than simple alkaline buffers. We recommend MicroChamber interleaving paper, which contains high-grade zeolite and are designed to separate sheets of ordinary paper to prevent chemical interaction between them. Unlike alkaline buffers, zeolite-containing papers can trap not only acidic molecules but also the non-acidic aldehydes that are a pre-acidic product of the decomposition process when pens are stored in an environment that is too warm. MicroChamber products are available from Conservation Resources International LLC. In the cabinet shown above, the white sheets set to the right are zeolite interleaving sheets. When the cabinet drawer is closed, the owner spreads the sheets across the pens to preserve them.

  2. Except for pens with cork shaft seals or piston gaskets, store pens emptied, flushed clean, and allowed to dry. For long-term storage of pens with cork seals or gaskets, fill the pens with distilled water only. There is more on this in item 2 in the “Things NOT to Do” list below and in Care and Feeding: How to Pamper Your Pens.

  3. Use only fountain pen safe inks. Any ink with pigment or other particulate material in it, even nanoparticle inks such as Platinum Carbon Black, can clog fountain pens. (Nanoparticle inks are nominally safe for fountain pens, but they require more frequent flushing than do ordinary inks that are plain solutions.) Not all inks said to be "suitable for fountain pens" really are; inks such as Winsor & Newton calligraphic inks contain particulate matter, as do all shimmer inks. If you absolutely require one of these specialty inks, expect to flush and thoroughly clean your pens at least twice as often as you would with a safe ink. Damaged feed Inks that are new on the market and have not established a years-long record of reliability and safety can have a great potential for destruction, and they should be approached wit great caution. Use them only in "throwaway" pens, and do not assume that because a given ink is safe in Pen A, it is automatically safe in Pens B, C, and D. The Vanishing Point feed shown to the left was destroyed by an unsafe ink. There is much more on inks in Inks: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.

  4. For safe long-term storage of hard rubber pens or of celluloid pens in colors noted for a tendency to discolor, consider removing their sacs. Among colors that tend to discolor are Jade, Black and Pearl, Parker’s Moderne Green and Pearl, Sheaffer's Ebonized Pearl, Wahl's Cathay, and Waterman's Onyx and Persian.

  5. Use silicone grease sparingly and with discretion. This stuff can rapidly spread everywhere as pens are handled, and it blocks air transfer, hastening the decomposition of celluloid or other cellulosic pens. Also, if you spend much time in a kitchen, you know how grease attracts dust, which can build up into a film that will require serious cleaning (which can damage finishes).

  6. When in doubt of your abilities, or if you encounter difficulties during a restoration, seek qualified professional help. Do not let stubbornness or a lack knowledge or skill be the death of your pens.

  7. When you store your pens for long periods, take them out periodically and wipe them down to remove dust with a soft cloth. Use 100% cotton, not a synthetic; some synthetics are made of fibers that are hard enough to scratch pens, gradually dulling the surface.) While you’re wiping your pens down, take the opportunity to inspect them for possible issues such as celluloid crystallization and fluorescence, which is an early sign that crystallization will be happening.

  8. Know your furniture. As a follow-on to the previous point, you should know that some trim, such as the gold plating applied to inexpensive steel nibs, is fragile and should not be polished. A gentle wipe with a damp rag (100% cotton, as described above) to remove dried ink is fine, but more industrious polishing can quickly wear the plating away. This is also the case with cap and other trim bands, levers, and clips on third-tier pens (and some lower-line models of first-tier makers, such as the Parkette).

  9. Consider sending pens that are scratchy, exhibit bad ink flow, or are just troublesome to write with, to a nib technician while they are out of rotation. This also applies to pens whose filling systems feel as though they are not up to par, especially hard-to-operate pistons that you don’t feel capable of lubricating safely, as well as any filler that doesn’t seem to take up as much ink as it used to.

Things NOT to Do

  1. no_ren_waxDo not wax your pens. Waxes have not been shown to benefit hard rubber, and they can damage celluloid or cellulose acetate by sealing the acid exudates into the material, hastening decomposition. Over time, all waxes will harden, potentially requiring extraordinary measures for removal -- especially waxes that are already hard, such as carnauba. They will also discolor to yellow or brown, degrading the pen's appearance. Even the best microcrystalline waxes are subject to these disadvantages, but synthetic waxes are far worse. Waxes that were once thought to be "museum grade," such as Renaissance Wax, are now known to be no better in the long run than other waxes.

  2. Do not store your pens filled with ink or ordinary tap water. Both of these liquids contain dissolved substances that can precipitate out onto the pen's surfaces, clouding or staining clear parts and potentially jamming pistons and other sliding parts. Never leave pens filled with pen flush. See item 2 in the “Things to Do” list above.

No Teflon tape
  1. Do not use Teflon tape to seal threaded joints or for any other purpose associated with fountain pens, except to repair household plumbing so that your pen collection will not be subjected to an accidental flood. Unlike proper sealants, Teflon is a lubricant, and it will allow threaded assemblies to loosen and come apart unexpectedly. If you use more tape in an attempt to jam the joint and keep it from slipping, the tape will pack into the space between the threaded surfaces, putting a terrific tensile stress on the outer part (usually the barrel) and cracking it.

  2. Do not use alcohol or other organic solvents such as nail polish remover to clean pens made of celluloid or other cellulosic resins. These solvents will damage the cellulosic material.

  3. Do not expose hard rubber pens, or rubber parts such as sacs, gaskets, or seals, to petroleum products. These substances will destroy natural rubber materials.

  4. Do not use label-maker labels or any other pressure sensitive materials, such as retail stickers or cellotape, to label your pens. Pressure-sensitive adhesives can harden and become virtually impossible to remove without damage to the underlying surface, and some of the adhesive formulations can damage the surfaces of pen bodies even if they remain easy to remove.

    No labels

  5. Do not use any silicone grease that is not 100% pure. Some silicone greases contain petroleum products. You can buy 100% pure silicone grease from several fountain pen vendors on the Internet, from diving shops, and from restaurant supply houses.

  6. Do not use aerosol silicone spray. Although the lubricant might be great, the propellant is usually heptane, a petroleum product, and some of it is dissolved in the liquid lubricant.

  7. Do not soak hard rubber pens in water, especially warm or hot water. Hard rubber surfaces degrade over time through exposure to light, and water can cause the material to oxidize and turn brown in a matter of seconds. This John Holland saddle-filler was rested cap downward in a glass to soak off an ink stain. The stain is gone, but at what cost?

    Fountain pen

  8. Do not use silicone grease or an O-ring to seal a vintage eyedropper-filler that leaks at the joint. These pens were machined to very close tolerances, and the smooth mating surfaces on the section and the front of the barrel will make a perfect seal so long as they are not damaged. Foreign materials or objects in the joint can lead to damage. Usually, a leak at this joint can be solved by screwing the pen together just a little more firmly.

  9. Do not use paper or thin pasteboard to make a loose section fit tightly in the barrel. The stress on the parts is not symmetrical, and the barrel, especially if it is hard rubber, is likely to split.

  10. Do not overuse an ultrasonic cleaner. Ultrasonic cleaners work by imparting energy to the water to make microscopic bubbles, and that raises the water’s temperature. It can quickly rise to levels that can damage pens. For this reason, you should also never use an ultrasonic cleaner with a built-in heater.

  11. Do not wrap your pens in ordinary paper or tissue. These materials usually contain sulfuric acid, and they can damage pens. If you must wrap your pens in paper, use special preservative paper; see the third bullet under item 1 in the “Things to Do” list above.

  12. Do not store your pens in sealed plastic bags. (In fact, we recommend you avoid plastic bags altogether except for very short-term use.) Most bags are made of plastics that exhale chemicals (called “outgassing”), and they can damage the surface finish of your pens. Like an airtight cabinet, they also seal in the acidic gases that all calluloid and cellulose acetate pens release, and those gases can just turn around and eat the very pens they came from.

Why is the list of things not to do longer than the list of things to do? It's because there are many, many more ways to damage your pens than there are ways to keep them from damage.

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