By Richard Binder, Linda Kennedy, and Mike Kennedy
(This page published November 1, 2021)
Basic repairs, and even some fairly advanced ones, are within the skill set of virtually all pen collectors. But the information on how to perform those repairs, such as what is reasonable and a good idea as opposed to what is dangerous, harmful, and not a good idea, is sometimes hard to find. This article will help you to understand why some techniques are good and others are not so good.
Some of the information in this article is also covered elsewhere on this site, in different words and often with different images. Having information of this basic nature in multiple places increases the chance that search engines will index it — and that you will see it before it’s too late.
Don’t use warm water, hot water, or household cleaners like Windex or Formula 409 to clean pens.
Vintage pens were made of materials that were state of the art at the time, but today most of those materials are delicate and easily damaged. Hard rubber oxidizes and discolors due to exposure to light. Heated water can hasten the discoloration process to the degree that a pen might turn from almot black to light brown in a matter of seconds.
CAUTIONHousehold cleaning products such as Windex, Formula 409, Mr. Clean, et al., contain harsh chemicals that will damage many fountain pens. Do not risk destroying your precious pens by using these products.
Do use cool water.
As a general practice, use the gentlest available cleaning agent (water), and if you need to soak a pen, soak it for shorter periods rather than longer ones. It is safe to soak any pen except one made of casein. If necessary, you can use a good commercial pen flush to help the process, and for severe cases, such as a pen that has been filled with India ink, you can use Koh-I-Noor Rapido-Eze. It is poor practice to use flush or Rapido-Eze all the time; you should reserve them for cases in which the gentler action of water isn’t sufficient.
Don’t assume, when you are disassembling a pen for sac replacement, that the section is a friction fit into the barrel.
Most sac-filling pens have the section fitted into the barrel without a threaded joint; a tight friction (push-in) fit was common. But it wasn’t universal. There are sac-filling pens with threaded sections, including some early Conklin Crescent-Fillers, most button-fillers, and even some ordinary-seeming lever-fillers like the WASP Addipoint (shown here). There are also some pens with unthreaded joints that are glued together. You can break a threaded- or glued-section pen by insisting on pulling the section, especially if you get too ambitious in trying to wiggle it loose.
Do assume that a pen you’re not familiar with has a glued or threaded section.
NoteIt is good practice to apply gentle heat to the barrel immediately adjacent to the section before attempting to remove the section. The heat will cause the barrel to expand slightly and become less brittle, and it can also soften shellac if the section is shellacked in place.
Because the pen in your hand might have a threaded section, try unscrewing the section before wiggling or pulling. Turn only a very slight amount; a very few threaded sections have left-hand threads, and turning them counterclockwise will tighten them instead of loosening them. It might take a couple of tries to loosen the threads. If the joint comes loose, you will know immediately whether it’s threaded or not, and you can proceed accordingly.
Don’t assume, when the old sac falls out in pieces (or even when it doesn’t), that the barrel is clean and ready for a new sac.
When a sac comes out in pieces, there is a good chance that some of it has remained in the barrel, stuck to the wall or the pressure bar, or both. In fact, sometimes there will be pieces of a previous sac if the person who installed the sac you are replacing didn’t do the job properly.
Do check and clean the interior of the barrel to remove any pieces of the sac that might be stuck there.
You can use sac remover tools, dental picks, or any other suitable tool to scrape down the interior of the barrel. This can be easier to do if you have removed the presssure bar and, if there is one, the lever. (Removing the pressure bar and lever is higher on the difficulty scale, however, and it’s often not necessary.)
Don’t use the largest sac that you can force into your pen.
Manufacturers often used the biggest sacs they could jam into their pens in the belief that a bigger sac would hold more ink. That only works when you compare the bigger sac to one that is too small. Do not try to determine the right size by measuring the section nipple or the inside diameter of the barrel — or by measuring the old sac if it came out in one piece.
Do choose a sac that is the right size.
The right size is the largest size that will drop into the barrel all by itself with the pressure bar and lever already installed. If you have to push the sac in, it's too big, and there will be problems down the line.
Another way to tell whether a sac is too big is to see if it's smaller in diameter than the section's nipple, as in this photo. If there isn't a distinct step-down in diameter, then there is not going to be sufficient room for the pressure bar.
There are tables of sac sizes, determined by the drop method, for many common American pens in Fountain Pen Sac Size Guide.
While we’re on the subject of sac size, it’s also important to make sure your sac is the right length. When you are dropping sacs to determine the right size, take note of how far into the barrel they fall. The correct sac length is about " (~3 mm) shorter than that in order to give the sac a little breathing room. An easy method for determining the length to cut your sac is explained in How to Replace a Pen Sac.
Don’t just pick up whatever glue you have and use it for attaching a sac.
There are lots of glues that you could use for attaching sacs, but most of them are inappropriate for the job. Included in this group are epoxy glue, super glue, Gorilla Glue, rubber cement, contact cement, Liquid Nails, and nail polish (whether clear or not). You get the idea.
Do use orange shellac to attach a sac. Period.
Pen manufacturers have always made ordinary orange (amber) shellac their first choice. That's what's in the little bottles of sac cement that you can buy from pen dealers online or at pen shows. The best reason for buying from a pen dealer instead of a big box store is that even in a small bottle there is more than the average hobbyist will use before it passes its shelf life and is useless. You also get the applicator brush, which is ideal for applying shellac to the section sac nipple. This small purchase is another way of helping the small pen dealers stay in business.
Don’t just put the pressure bar back in if you took it out for barrel cleaning.
Lots of ugly things can become stuck to a pressure bar, such as pieces of the sac, corrosion or rust, and dried ink. Most of these things will add bulk to the pressure bar, making it take up more space in the barrel and also making it work less smoothly. If the pressure bar has a spring attached to its back side, crud can build up between them, forcing the pressure bar farther away from the barrel wall. Shown here is the pressure bar from a button-filler:
Do clean the pressure bar and check it for alignment before reinstalling it.
You can use a stiff brass brush, or even a steel brush, to remove most of the crud from a pressure bar, but there is a better way. Drag out the rotary tool that you bought so you could trim your dog’s toenails, and buy a pack of yellow 3M radial brushes. Go over the part with a radial brush, and you will see an amazing improvement in its appearance. If there is crud that you can't get at between the pressure bar and the spring, use a piece of 0.002" brass shim to “floss” it out. Now check the pressure bar to make sure it’s straight so that it will lie as flat as possible against the barrel wall, giving you more room for the sac and also performing better when you fill the pen. Here is the same pressure bar shown above, after cleaning:
Don’t just leave the sac naked when reassembling your pen.
Naked sacs get cold and sometimes damp, and that makes them unhappy. They like to wear a coat of powder. But do not use baby powder or any similar product; those formulations contain perfumes and oils that will rot the sac you just installed, and many of them also contain finely powdered abrasive material that can impair the functioning of the filling system.
Do give the sac a nice coat of talc to wear.
After you've installed a sac, but before you put the pen back together, you should coat the outside of the sac with talc. Talc is a dry lubricant that will make the filling system operate more smoothly, and it will also repel moisture that might otherwise collect inside the pen and attack parts of the filler. Vacumatic diaphragms also like to be coated with talc. Some pen dealers sell talc online or at shows, or you can buy larger quantities at billiard supply houses or companies that sell to people who make their own cosmetics. To apply the talc, you can use a soft artist’s brush as shown here:
Don’t remove the nib and feed from any pen unless you are convinced that there is no other option.
There are serious risks involved in nib removal. Knocking out a nib from a vintage pen can split the section, smash the feed, or bend or crack the nib — any or all of the above.
Do learn the right way, and the wrong ways, to remove nibs.
In general, knocking the nib and feed out together is among the easiest ways to do the job, but it’s not always the best. Before you try to knock a nib out, be sure that you have a proper knockout block, not just any old thing with a hole in it, and proper knockout punches. The best punches are made of tubing so that you can use them on feeds with breather tubes. (Removing a breather tube, especially if it’s made of hard rubber, can be disastrous.) Shown here are professional-grade knockout tools.
Don’t just start whacking on the back of the feed and hope it will come out.
In pens with celluloid sections, such as Parker Vacumatics or any of the many pens with sections having an ink-view window. the celluloid might hace shrunk, locking the nib and feed in very tightly. Similarly, in some early pens such as Sheaffer flat-tops from the 1910s and 1920s, the nib and section were installed very tightly in the hard rubber section. It is also possible, and frequently is the case with used pens, that the nib and feed are ink locked into the section. Hammering away on the feed in an assembly like this can smash the feed, split the section, or both.
Do treat all very tight nibs and feeds as though they were ink locked.
You can often loosen the feed by wiggling the nib sideways the least bit. WIth enough wiggling, the nib will come out, giving the feed more room to let go and come out. If the nib refuses altogether to wiggle, it's probably ink locked. If the nib does wiggle, be careful not to push it too far sideways; that can result in a crinkle in the side of the nib, and you really would prefer not to have to deal with that.
If the nib and feed do not budge after one or two reasonably firm strikes and attempts at wiggling, they are probably ink locked. Soaking in cool water — never warm — can loosen the dried ink; this might take several hours. Warm water can permanently discolor the section. If soaking doesn’t do the job, try running the assembly through an ultrasonic cleaner. Using Rapido-Eze in the soaking jar, with or without the ultrasonic, can have beneficial results. With enough patience, you can loosen an ink-locked feed.
The image above illustrates how to knock a nib and feed out. In this example, the pen is a Sheaffer Snorkel, and there is only the very small threaded portion of the section, not a complete section. The technique used is the same for all section styles except for two major special cases:
In some pens, such as the Waterman Taperite and the earliest version of the Eversharp Fifth Avenue and Sixty Four, the nib must be removed first by wiggling it out from the front. Trying to drive the nib and feed out together can split the shell.
For Parker pens with the Lucky Curve feed, the feed must be removed by pushing it out the back after removing the nib by wiggling it out from the front.