Pen Shows III: How to Buy a Vintage Pen

(This page revised June 22, 2012)

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There it is! Right before your eyes, the pen you came to find! You knew this would be the show where you’d find that near-mint Vacuum-Filler you need to complete the third drawer in your Number 4 pen chest.

Fountain pen

Your fingers are itching. Your palms are sweaty. Your tongue cleaves to the roof of your mouth. Your wallet is kindling a bonfire in your pocket. Almost without conscious volition, your hand goes to your pocket, brings out the incandescent wallet, extracts a wad of bills, and hands the cash to the dealer across the table.

What's wrong with this picture? There is a right way to buy a vintage pen, and there is a wrong way. If the person in the story above is you, you just bought a pen the wrong way. This article will help you know how to do it right, so your wonderful pen won’t turn out to be something other than wonderful.

Note
 
Even before you start looking at a prospective purchase, remind yourself that on some other day, at some other show, the dealer on the other side of the table might be you. Treat him or her with the respect and courtesy you would expect if the roles were reversed.

The First 30 Seconds

Is the pen really as pretty as it looks in the case? If you’re buying a pen that is supposedly restored and in working order, you should see that it is. Pick it up. Look it over quickly (but not hastily). Do you see any obvious scratches, cracks, chips, dings, teethmarks, brassing, or other blemishes? Does the cap screw (or slip, or click) on and off smoothly, and does it post? (Be careful posting; some pens, such as Sheaffer’s Balance, are prone to cap-lip cracks if posted too firmly, and if you make a crack, you’ve bought the pen.) If there are problems, you need to decide right then whether the pen’s condition is good enough to satisfy you. If the answer is no, put the pen down and look for another. But if the pen still looks good, it’s time to get serious.

Getting Serious

Look at the nib. Until the advent of the fountain pen, the thing that actually puts the ink on the paper was called a pen. Today we call it a nib, but as Shakespeare said, “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” Or maybe not. The nib is still the most important part of a fountain pen, and a damaged nib can turn the rest of it, no matter how perfect, into just so much pretty junk — unless you have, or can get, a good nib.

Nib drawing Let’s ignore the possibility of fitting a new nib for the time being, and concentrate on the nib at hand. Get out your 10x loupe, the one you bought after you read Pen Shows I: Your First Pen Show, and look the nib over. Are both tines properly tipped? Is the tip shaped well, or will you have to invest time or money to have it reshaped? Illustrated by the drawing at the left are the tips of two Parker “51” medium nibs in side view, one with well-shaped iridium and one that has worn severely. The worn nib probably has enough iridium to be reshaped once into a usable form, but you may want to forgo that pen because you don’t like the prospect.

Nib drawing Is the nib cracked? Look it over very carefully — cracks that are just starting can be virtually unnoticeable — and be sure you check all the potential points where cracks can start, as shown to the right. The most insidious cracks are the ones that run from the base of the nib, deep within the section, up toward the breather hole; these are nasty because they can actually be entirely invisible if they haven’t yet progressed far enough to show. It’s well to be aware that certain brands, Moore among them, are notorious for cracks that start at the base. If you suspect that the pen in your hand might have such a crack, ask the dealer. If the answer is, “I don’t know,” you probably want to look at another pen. (Pulling the nib, even were the dealer to say it's all right, is risky; without half trying, you could create the very crack you were looking for!)

Misaligned nib tines Having established that the nib is all there and is not going to fall apart on you, look at the tine alignment. Are the tines in line with each other? Are they straight? Here are two pictures of a particularly ugly nib, in an Eversharp Skyline. This nib is both misaligned (shown in the head-on view at left) and bent (shown below).

Bent nib tines

Is the nib lying close to the feed, or is there a cavernous gap there that will prevent proper flow? (A good way to test the gap between the nib and feed is to try inserting the edge of an ordinary sheet of paper. If it goes in, the pen may flow poorly, if at all.) If you’re not familiar with the ins and outs of nibs and feeds, you might want to spend some time reading Nibs I: The Basics and Feeds: Revolution, Evolution, and Devolution.

The nib looks good. Move on to the rest of the pen. You’ve already given the cosmetics a cursory look; now go back over the pen more carefully. The surface wear you didn’t see at first may now become apparent. Look at the barrel, where the cap extends past the threads or where the cap posts. Is there wear, or a pressure ring where the cap was posted? Here are an Esterbrook SJ showing cap wear on the barrel and a Sheaffer’s Balance with a posting ring.

Barrel wearPosting ring

Does the filling system appear to function? Appearances can be deceiving; a lever filler may lack a sac, or a Vacumatic’s diaphragm might be installed improperly, but you can’t be positive about this without disassembling the pen, and most dealers are understandably not too keen on having you spread pen parts — their pen parts — all over their tables.

Now you should revisit brassing. Look closely at the edges of clip, bands, and lever — places like the sides of the clip ball tend to go unnoticed. Brassing can also hide through being extremely well polished; bright brass is about the same color as the 12K or 14K gold that overlies it, and the way to spot it is to look for a change in the level of the material, sort of like the wall of a butte. The image below shows a Skyline with its lever brassed by friction with the posted cap. (This image has been enhanced to show the edges of the gold layer more clearly than in real life, and it will usually be more difficult to see the brassing. Use a loupe.)

Brassed lever

You should also remember that some dealers may have pens on which the brassed parts have been replated. Replating, if done right, is great; but doing it right means feathering the edge of the gold layer before plating to smooth away the contour. This way, the brassing disappears entirely. But sometimes a part may be plated without the necessary prep work, and when that happens, the result looks the same as the “naked” brassing shown above.

Frankenpen? What Frankenpen? Do the parts appear to be from the same pen, or were they assembled later, from a collector’s spare-parts drawer? As explained in Pen Shows II: Preparing for a Show, it‘s important to be familiar with the kinds of pens you want, to be sure you get pens that are “correct.” Here is a very specific example:

Fountain pen

Nib This Sheaffer's 5-30 Flat-Top, with its lever secured by a pin through the barrel, was made in 1931 or earlier. (In that year Sheaffer changed its design, replacing the pin with a circular clip ring that fits invisibly into a groove inside the barrel.) It shouldn’t have a full-comb feed because Sheaffer didn‘t introduce that feed until 1938 or 1939, and it shouldn’t have a 2-tone Feathertouch nib because a 5-30’s nib is plain gold with an imprint reading 5-30, as shown to the right. For a user, this pen is probably just fine, and in fact it could be perfectly legitimate if it was repaired somewhere along the line while it was still in the wild; but for a type example, it’s wrong.

What about color? Many pen materials discolor. Some celluloids turn brown from sulfur exhalation by the sac; clear celluloid ambers just through aging. Casein is prone to stain when left in contact with ink; and hard rubber oxidizes, turning brown or olive, when exposed to actinic light. (Those lovely olive-green Waterman’s Ideal Nº 52 pens you see described in such glowing terms on eBay weren’t made that color.) Discoloration, from whatever cause, affects the value of a pen. Here is a Parker Vacumatic with very good barrel clarity. Note how easily you can see the breather tube (the long, narrow dark area extending from the section about halfway to the lip of the posted cap):

Fountain pen

And here is a Vacumatic with clarity so poor it’s only barely observable in this image:

Fountain pen

The blue pen, while otherwise in excellent condition, is worth less than it would be with good clarity. The value difference can be significant. It’s up to you to decide how much discoloration you’ll accept.

Other material decomposition can also be a problem. In the early 1940s, Eversharp revolutionized the manufacture of plastic pens by replacing celluloid with inexpensive, injection-moldable polystyrenes. But these plastics are notoriously prone to shrink or crumble. Some Skyline inner caps are among the parts that crumble, and you need a bore light to see this problem. Other manufacturers had some plastics problems, too; the clear or colored ends of Waterman’s Hundred Year Pen, for example, tend to crumble with age.

Dings in metal parts are unattractive, and they also don’t help the value of a pen. Some dings can be removed (in a gold-filled Parker “51” cap or at the end of a “51” Flighter’s barrel, for example), but some cannot. Buying a dinged pen without being sure the dings can be removed can be a costly mistake. Here is a Sheaffer’s Lady Crest with some unsightly (and unremovable) cap dings.

Fountain pen

And while we’re on the subject of metal parts, remember to check the clip and band (or bands). Are these parts nice and tight, or are they loose? On most Parker pens made from 1916 until about 1948, the clip is secured by a screwed-down blind cap or a threaded bushing hidden under a jewel, and the clip can rotate around the cap. Has the clip ball left a nice gouge in the Permanite on a Big Red, or a bright shiny streak on the Lustraloy of a metal cap? On Sheaffer’s Touchdowns, Snorkels, and other models of the 1940s and 1950s, the spring-loaded clip is installed through a hole in the cap. That hole can crack at the lower corners, and it’s not repairable. Apply these kinds of possibilities to whatever pen you’re looking at.

Closing a deal: If you get all the way to this point and decide you still want the pen, now is the time to ask if you may dip it. Some dealers are happy to let you dip, but others prefer not to have their pens dipped. Feel free to bring your own paper for dipping, or use any paper that’s handy — but always remember to respect the wishes of the dealer you’re talking with.

If, at the end of all your examination, you decide to buy the pen, you can begin discussing price. That subject is covered in Pen Shows I: Your First Pen Show.

In Conclusion

Forewarned is forearmed. Knowing what to look for when you pick up a tantalizing pen can save you from making a costly mistake if you’re looking for superb specimens; or, if all you want is a good writer, it can give you bargaining points to get a better deal. The choice is yours; go out there and find the pens that you want.

Pen Shows IV: The Auction offers an introduction to one of the best and most entertaining features of a good pen show.

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