BY DON FLUCKINGER • Every collector wonders, “Gee, can I fix [pen X] myself? I mean, it’s pretty basic stuff, right?”
The answer is, “sometimes.” But when, and how does one go about figuring it out?
|It only took, oh, a grand’s worth of broken pens to realize one Saturday afternoon that I had to get my father-in-law on board fixing them for me.
First off, says Syracuse, N.Y., fountain pen repairman Ron Zorn, don’t even bother trying to take apart your pens and do even the most basic fixing or adjustment if you’re not very mechanically inclined, or “a person who is all thumbs,” as he puts it.
That eliminates me. I came to this conclusion independently of interviewing Zorn, after cracking the living [expletive deleted] out of the cap lip of an heirloom jade green Sheaffer flattop. And the cap lip of a great eBay Vac acquisition. And busting several of those long Sheaffer feeds from early-1950s, open-nibbed lever fillers.
I learn quick. It only took, oh, a grand’s worth of broken pens to realize one Saturday afternoon that I had to get my father-in-law on board fixing them for me (true story), which inspired him to fix his first pen.
Zorn does say, after more than a decade of creating his own pen-repair tools, reading all the books, and observing guys like Richard at work that yeah, if you are a fix-it type, pens are pretty simple and some things can be done by the average collector, pretty handily.
Pen sacs, for one, are pretty easy to replace. The sacs are widely available through hobby channels, and the only real trick is figuring out which is the right size. Use orange shellac to reattach the sacs, and forget using rubber cement, he says.
"If you’re going to start, start simple with sac pens,” says Zorn, who got the itch after reading Cliff Lawrence’s classic guides and some Pen World articles. “Sac pens were easy. Then I started doing Vacumatics.”
Start on Esterbrook pens or other inexpensive pens. They work much like their more expensive, rare lever-filling counterparts from the Sheaffers and Parkers, but there’s less to lose if you wreck a part.
I offer my own personal affirmation of this with another true story: About the abovementioned heirloom Sheaffer — it took roughly three years and about eight pen shows to find a replacement cap for the flattop, my grandmother’s junior-high graduation present from her parents in the 1920s.
Collectors can tackle basic cleanup jobs, too, Zorn says. Stay away from bleach and 409 cleaning solution, he says. They cause enough headaches that he doesn’t touch them. Polish metal parts with nothing more abrasive than a silver polishing cloth, unless the gunk on a part is “really bad” — and be careful with that, he says, because silver and gold plate/fill can rub off when you apply stronger stuff to your pens.
What shouldn’t pen collectors attempt to do without some sort of help from someone more experienced? Nib work, for sure, he says. That includes trying to re-seat feeds and nibs, which can fairly easily cause damage to the nibs when done by the inexperienced collector.
The ability for doing all the other stuff in between (swapping parts, manufacturing pressure bars, painting blue diamonds, etc.) probably varies from collector to collector. But most of it “is not rocket science,” Zorn says.
More of Zorn’s dos and don’ts:
Just say no to open flames. Contrary to hobby dogma, little good can come of using open flames to help separate fused parts, which often catch fire.
Nail polish doesn’t work for attaching sacs, contrary to popular belief.
Take things slow and gently, don’t be aggressive with heat or cleaning or removing stuck pieces such as sections from barrels. Plastic and hard rubber crack and split, unforgivingly, and if you’re cranking a lot of pressure down on vintage pen parts, it’s not your tools that are likely to give first.
If you haven’t used a buffing wheel so far in your life, don’t start.
These repair tips, for the most part, cover vintage pens. Many modern pens aren’t made to be taken apart and fixed, but instead to have whole assemblies (i.e. nib and feed, cap and clip) discarded and replaced with new ones.
“The old pens were really made to be serviced and not just to be eye candy,” Zorn says. “It was part of your everyday life, and you serviced it instead of just throwing it away. I don’t think modern pens are made with servicing in mind.”
Read all the pen-repair books you can lay hands on, he says, and still be prepared to break some pens en route to becoming competent.
"You’re going to break pens,” Zorn says. “I broke pens. You have to be willing to take a risk if you’re going to fix pens. Every time you open a pen you’re taking a risk. But when you get a pen to work … that’s the reward.”
Further reading: FOUNTAIN PENS THE COMPLETE GUIDE TO REPAIR AND RESTORATION, by Frank Dubiel
This home-brew repair guide won’t make a star out of you, but if you want to repair your pens, you won’t find half as much really useful information in any other six books. (Just ignore the parts about open flames and rubber cement.) You can buy it from Pendemonium.
|Freelance writer Don Fluckinger lives in Nashua, New Hampshire, and is the son-in-law of Richard Binder. His articles have been published in Antiques Roadshow Insider, The Boston Globe, and on the Biddersedge.com collectibles Web site. Please note: Any opinions stated in this column are Don’s alone and do not necessarily reflect those of Richard Binder or this Web site.