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April 2011: Emailer Opens Modern-vs-Vintage Debate Anew

Extra Fine Points Index  ]

BY DON FLUCKINGER • We get email. Most of the messages we get are complimentary, and our replies run along the lines of “thanks for your kind words.” Occasionally, emails come in that prompt more lengthy responses.

“I am a FP newbie, having about six months’ experience writing with a fountain pen but I am enjoying using the pens in place of my PC for a lot of my personal stuff…” Extra Fine Points

But this month’s best email from a reader touched off a whole article, with questions answered by both me and Richard (lucky you, heh). Here’s the email:

I am a FP newbie, having about six months' experience writing with a fountain pen but I am enjoying using the pens in place of my PC for a lot of my personal stuff.
          I've never owned a vintage pen but today, I met a guy who has NOS Parkers and Sheaffers for sale. I'm interested in trying a few out as everyone I know who owns vintage as well as modern pens, seems to prefer the older pens for writing.
          Are vintage pens more difficult to clean and maintain if I use them for daily writers? In general, I flush my pens with water every other fill or if I am switching ink brands or color. My current inks are Peli 4001, Edelstein, Waterman and Private Reserve. I only have blues and blacks at present. I do not use reds, greens, or violets, but am interested in getting Havana Brown, Diamine's Chocolate and Iroshizuku's Yama Budo.
          My pens are currently limited to the Pelikan 2xx series models and a 45 Flighter. The Pelis are easy to maintain. I've only had the 45 for a week so I can't comment on ease of maintenance for that model yet. Thanks for the time and for any advice you can offer.

Great questions. We’ll break these out into questions and tackle them like a Q-n-A:

Vintage vs modern fountain pens: Which write better?

Don: Oh, this is a question for which debate has raged 30-40 years and will for the next 30 or 40. At first I was a militant, diehard vintage-only type of guy, but I’ve really warmed to modern Pelikans, Bexleys, Richard’s nouveau ancien Gate City models with the 1910 filling systems, and most of all the Pilot Custom 823 — my all-time favorite modern pen, with a filler similar to 1940s Vac-Fil Sheaffer’s.

Fountain pen
Fountain pen

Vintage pens ten to run lighter in weight and smaller in size, and can come outfitted with such an incredible variety of point styles (i.e., stub, italic, etc.) and variations in flex that you’re more likely to find one that exactly fits your personal style. Better? You be the judge.

Over the years I’ve pared down my modern and vintage collection both. I’ve kept many more pens from the 1920s-’70s, it’s true, but if you consider 1970s/1980s Sheaffer Targas modern pens, it’s a lot closer to 50-50 vintage/modern than I could have possibly imagined five years ago.

Something else I’ve realized: I like carrying a fountain pen to work. My computer bag takes some hard knocks. Carrying one of my beloved silver Wahls, for example, in this environment is a bad idea. So modern ones — which are generally worth less cash, are eminently more replaceable, and are made of either strong resins or thicker metal — go in the bag. And I end up writing with them much more than vintage pens, truth be told.

Fountain pen
Fountain pen

It boils down to what you like better constitutes the better of the two. Let other people’s opinions on this matter inform, but not instruct you. In other words, don’t take any lip about the choices you make once you do settle on something(s) you like.

Richard: In essence, I can’t disagree with Don. But I’ll phrase it differently. If “better” means “smoother,” then in many cases you’ll find that properly adjusted modern pens will win out because pre-World War II tipping material was much less consistent in quality. But there’s a lot more than ultimate smoothness tied up in “better” for many users. Want great flex? Look to vintage first, but don't completely ignore the possibility of a modified modern pen such as a Pelikan M400 or a Namiki Falcon.

I consider myself primarily a vintage guy. But I have a respectable assemblage of modern pens, too, and I use modern or vintage with equal facility and pleasure. (But, as a serious user, I do admit to gravitating toward moderns that are lighter in weight.) Because I work at home, my pens don’t typically face the risks that point Don toward modern for his carry pens. As I write this, my pocket holds a c. 1943 Waterman’s Hundred Year Pen with killer flex and a gorgeous Paul Rossi one-off buit on a buttery smooth Pelikan M800 nib and mechanism. They’re both great pens. Which one writes better? <shrug>

Fountain pen
Fountain pen

Which are easier to clean?

Don: Cartridge/converter pens are easier to clean, yes. But the Pilot Custom 823 takes more flushes and more time, along the lines of a Vac-Fil or an old-skool Vacumatic “51”. Or your Pelikan piston fillers. And that’s not a whole lot more effort.

Do you agree, Richard? Am I being too simplistic here?

Richard: As soon as you mentioned my goldy-oldie Gate City pens, you shot yourself in the foot. There is no easier fountain pen to clean than a syringe filler — that was the inspiration for Gate City’s Belmont Pen. The thing flushes itself, zip-zip, and its capacity is big enough that it gets the job done very quickly, in just one or two cycles. (The closest modern competition is the slide-style converter that comes in Parker’s lower-line pens.) Go find a Post syringe filler, or a Salz or a Franklin or a Morrison Patriot, or one of the myriad World War II-era third-tier and no-name syringe pens.

Using a rubber-bulb ear syringe to flush a pen.I don't find cartridge/converter pens all that easy to clean, unless I remove the converter and shoot water through the pen with a rubber-bulb ear syringe. Honestly, I think a lever filler is easier and quicker than a converter pen.

And then there are all the plunger fillers that were based on the Onoto: Sheaffer, Eversharp, and Conklin — oh, and Pilot’s prewar plungers. You mention the Pilot Custom 823, and I find that a whiz to clean compared to a converter pen.

On the subject of inks:

Ink bottleDon: I’m an ink minimalist. As in, so many different inks have clogged up different pens that I’ve used — or the writing looks more like one of my seven-year-old son Patrick’s watercolor paintings than good, solid lines — that I’ve quit all brands except Waterman and Diamine. I haven’t even gotten around to trying the Gate City Ink my father-in-law is selling, but that’s not because I’m worried it will ruin my pens, but because we’re both busy people.

I do agree with your general practice of flushing your pens frequently. Richard sees the aftermath of bad fountain pen hygiene on an hourly basis, so I’ll let him give you a more technical breakdown.

Richard: When Jim Baer proposed selling the flushing solution we use in the Nashua Pen Spa, I was all for it. Why? Because, as Don says, I deal with bad pen hygiene every day. The choice of inks can be a major contributor to problems — or the lack of them. Good pen hygiene can head off most of these sorts of problems, and careful flushing with a good flushing solution is like brushing your teeth with a good toothpaste: it gets the gunk out.

Ink bottleIn my article on inks, I lay out a scheme of low, medium, and high-maintenance inks. It’s really serendipity that the best-performing commercial ink I know is also the lowest in maintenance requirements.

In technical terms, a high-maintenance ink can clog your pens almost before you can put the bottle away. I have a bottle of Ink X on my workbench that has never kept flowing for a week, not in any pen I’ve ever tried it in. At the other end of the scale, low-maintenance inks can go almost forever without making any demands on you. (That’s why my Hundred Year Pen is loaded with Waterman Blue-Black.)

Thanks for your email.

Us hobby graybeards sometimes forget the fun, mad rush of excitement — and fulfillment — one gets after first discovering the hobby. Your email took us right back to those early days, and reminded us that it’s important to share what we know with each other. That is, if we care about fountain pen collecting community continuing to thrive in the coming years as it has the last few decades.

I’ve got one more suggestion: Buy fountain pen collecting books. As many as you have room for and can afford. Scales will fall off your eyes, and you’ll know better what you want to chase out there on the pen show floor without as much money- and time-wasting trial and error (another lesson we learned from the school of hard fountain pen collecting knocks). That, and you’ll support the authors — who make little if any money off their efforts.

cover Further Reading: Fountain Pens : Past and Present (revised edition)

This is probably the best “first book” for a new pen collector. There’s a good serving of history here, and plenty of wisdom for beginning and advanced collectors, plus superb photography of pens, ephemera, and other related materials.

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 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. Don Fluckinger
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