First of all, I am not an expert pen restorer, nibmeister, or anything remotely like that. I don’t even specifically collect vintage pens. I merely wanted to share some thoughts and resources on vintage pen restoration, for future reference.
Should you do it yourself or send it off? That depends. Is it a common pen that you are ready to risk destroying or did you find it in grandma’s writing desk? Is it a straightforward restoration or is there something more involved? Is it from 1908 or 1988? There are a lot of factors at play, way too many variables. When in doubt, send it to a pro. These are my opinions and, as said, I’m not a pro. Proceed at your own risk.
The golden rule is do no harm. Vintage pens grow fragile over time and in many cases are irreplaceable, or have components that can be replaced at astronomical costs. It’s extremely easy to ruin an old pen. I’ve done it–cracked sections, ruined nibs, and other such things. I’ve even stripped the gold plating off of a nib with an over-enthusiastic application of a paper towel. Believe me–I’ve gotten more hesitant to work on pens with experience, not the other way around.
If I haven’t scared you, take it easy and slow and use the least intensive and invasive processes first. If you can’t do it, send it to a pro before the problem gets worse–the worst thing they’ll tell you is it cannot be fixed, in which case you still have a beautiful piece of history. They don’t always have to be fully functional to be appreciated!
Always warm a joint before working it. Pens were often stuck together with shellac or a sealant that must be softened. The heat can decrease some of the brittleness of some materials and will expand the material ever so slightly. But too much heat will ruin the pen–the melting points of celluloid and shellac are super close, so be careful.
Practice on cheap pens. You’ll probably break some stuff, and it’s better to break an already ruined Wearever or some crap pen than something special. (That’s not to say you should butcher a bunch of third-tier pens. They do have their own charm–they’re just not especially desirable to as many collectors. Go for the hopeless cases first, if you can find some.)
Pens don’t need to be taken apart, generally speaking. Leave the nib and feed in the section. Don’t do it. It just increases the chances of breaking it or wearing it out prematurely. I know that the current trend is user-serviceable pens that can be completely disassembled and thoroughly cleaned but there’s no need to do this, least of all with vintage pens. A clogged feed can almost always be flushed and cleaned without disassembly, given time. Keep in mind that soaking ebonite sections discolors them, and casein pens can be downright obliterated by it, so know what you’re dealing with before trying to soak a section for a long duration. I’ve read posts by David Nishimura and Ron Zorn recommending piano wire or guitar string to unclog stuff if it is particularly stopped up. All of these steps should be attempted before hammering a feed out. Mr. Zorn and Mr. Nishimura know what they are talking about, and yes, it often takes a hammer, a punch, and a block to get the nibs/feed out. Too much risk, to me. Flushing it until it works is safer. If it’s caked with India ink or something nasty, I’d send it.
And never ever ever ever work a section that does not have its nib and feed inserted. Think of the cardboard center of a paper towel roll–pretty easy to crush, but less so if had something inside of it to support it. Something like a hard rubber rod.
You’ll need tools. There are many retailers who carry the stuff that you need–I like Anderson Pens, but other places will sell you the stuff, too. The minimum for a simple jobs is shellac and talc, appropriate ink sac/seal/whatever, scissors, a way to carefully heat the pen, tweezers, and something to clean hard to reach places. A bulb syringe is a great tool to flush and clean sections. Avoid section pliers and for the love of ink, do not use pliers/Channel Locks/Vicegrips, or whatever you’ve got floating around your garage.
Time and patience are the most important tools.
Now, some restoration notes based on my experience, and my recommendation on whether to Do It! or Send it.
Keep in mind that there is absolutely no shame in sending a so-called “simple” fix to a professional, they’re more than happy to do it for you.
Very rarely do these need a bunch of work to restore, but I think they’re still worth including.
Cartridge/converter pens sometimes get a bad rap, but the system is ridiculously easy to diagnose and thus quite fun to restore and collect. A 60 year old Aurora 888 cartridge pen can be writing again in minutes, whereas an 88 from the same time period will take a lot more work, with the only functional difference between them being the method of how they get ink in them.
The pen will probably need to be cleaned. I flush it with just cool water first, and then water with a tiny bit of gentle soap if it’s stubborn. I’ve never found an instance where it was necessary to use anything more than that. Maybe the pen needs a little polishing, but take it easy, and keep in mind that pens and polishing wheels do not mix. Some people love ultrasonic cleaners, but these can damage some pens so do your research first. I don’t own one. I’ve never come across a pen that wouldn’t write again without one.
The most challenging part of this type of pen is finding a cartridge or converter that fits and works.
There are roughly three categories one must consider:
- The cartridge/converter pattern is still made. Some companies–like Sheaffer–have always used the same cartridge, so modern options work just fine with vintage pens and they are widely available. The company’s modern converters may or may not fit, which may necessitate using the pen as a cartridge filler only or refilling cartridges with a syringe. I have had a little success making homemade squeeze converters–cutting off an empty cartridge’s opening and shellacing a latex sac on it–but it doesn’t always work and isn’t really worth the trouble to me. If the company historically made converters for their pens–again, like Sheaffer–these are usually worth as much or more than the pen they fill. I just refill cartridges with a syringe.
- The pen’s cartridge/converter pattern is no longer made, but a suitable replacement exists. For example, early Aurora DuoCart and 888 pens: one could refill empty cartridges, but eventually they will wear out and no longer seal and they are uncommon by themselves, so this won’t work for very long. Aurora never made converters in this pattern, either. Through dumb luck, though, current production Platinum cartridges and converters work with them, so that’s an easy option.
- The last category is the trickiest: the pattern is no longer made and a suitable replacement is difficult to obtain. Pens like the Esterbrook Safari come to mind–one could refill old cartridges, but the cartridge mouth will eventually wear out and not seal. They weren’t made to be reused multiple times, after all. Because they aren’t made anymore this option is not sustainable and eventually all of the old Esterbrook cartridges will no longer function. This may not be a practical consideration, but it is true.
Esterbrook did make a converter for these pens, but it’s unobtanium and worth significantly more than the pen itself. There is no modern replacement that will work without modification, either.
The user is pretty much forced to refill the original cartridges and try to get as much life out of them as possible or will have to do some experimenting with other modern cartridges to get them to work. I’ve read that Sheaffer cartridges can be made to work with old Esterbrook cartridge pens, as can standard international cartridges. Some people try to create a squeeze converter with the cartridge mouth and a latex sac. In any case, it’s unlikely that a bit of experimentation with potential cartridges and converters will hurt the pen, but I wouldn’t carry it around in my shirt pocket until a suitable filling method is identified and tested. I’m willing to bet that somebody could 3D print something that would work, but the question eventually becomes “is this pen worth the hassle?” I hate to say it, but not every vintage pen is a fantastic piece of old-world craftsmanship, so they may not be worth the time and money. That’s up to the user.
Mat’s restoration recommendation: DO IT! It’s easy and you’re unlikely to hurt anything.
These are often touted as the easiest fountain pen to restore. I don’t think they are, but they’re a good place to start, given how common they are.
Once the section is removed–which could either be super easy or super challenging–the inside of the pen is cleaned and a new, appropriately sized sac is installed on the section with shellac. A dusting of talc on the sac keeps it pliable. The pen is reassembled once the sac is dried a bit and it’s good to go.
The biggest challenge is when the j-bar or lever is rusted or broken. Fixing these requires sourcing the right parts, which could be between super easy and impossible. J-bars are pretty ubiquitous, but levers could be tricky. Some pens like Waterman require expert care to fix the levers, some levers are pretty easy to replace. Do your homework.
I don’t generally shellac lever filler sections back onto a pen. If the section is snug, I stick the pen back together and forget about it. If the section is loose, I’ll “paint” layers of shellac on the section, letting them dry completely between layers, until I’ve “built” the section’s width up enough to fit with friction only. It’d be easier to just secure it with shellac, sure, but this way the section is easier to remove for future repairs. Why create extra drama?
Mat’s restoration recommendation: DO IT!, but be cautious with severely damaged levers, stuck sections, or valuable pens. Don’t force it, don’t take your pliers to it.
I think these are easier to fix than lever fillers because the section (in theory) should just screw right off. Whether they do or not is another matter.
The operating principle is the same but now we’re replacing a lever with a simple button.
Assuming the button and everything else is undamaged, of course.
Button filler pressure bars are also available at most retailers that have repair supplies, if the one in the pen is bad. They’re not all the same, so find the most correct one.
The sections on button fillers are almost always threaded–this is because the pressure bar operates against the section, and a friction-fit section might just fly out with the extra pressure.
So the repair goes pretty much as for lever fillers–remove the section, replace the sac. If the pressure bar is shot, cut/file a new one to the right length and place it in the correct configuration within the button. This can take some experimentation to get the length that allows the section to be threaded on and still allow the bar to compress and retract the right amount.
There is no need to shellac a threaded section in place if it is tight enough to do its job. No ink will come in contact with this joint under normal operation, so it doesn’t need to be sealed. Doing so will just make future repair more difficult. Don’t make your life harder down the road. If it’s unavoidable and the threads are loose, I would track down a rosin-based thread sealant before a shellac, but avoid both if you can in this case.
Mat’s restoration recommendation: DO IT! , with consideration for very old or valuable pens.
Other types of sac fillers:
Matchstick fillers, coin fillers, blow fillers, crescent fillers and so on–less common than lever and button fillers, but they all operate on the same principle.
Mat’s restoration recommendation:
Do your research on your specific pen, and if it seems pretty straightforward DO IT! The process isn’t much different than the above.
Otherwise Send it. Especially if it’s one of those weirdo, obscure filling systems. An example would be twist fillers like a Swan Leverless or similar–they require removal of the nib and feed and aren’t as simple.
Send it. The repair seems pretty straightforward, but the pens are too old, complex, or valuable. I wouldn’t mess with it.
The job requires specialized tools just to get out of the gate.
Mat’s restoration recommendation: Send it, unless you’re going to get into the habit of fixing old Parkers. The tools, skills, and time aren’t worth investing in unless you plan on fixing a lot of them. It’s not a challenging operation in principle, it just requires specialized tools. Seriously, you cannot remove the plunger end without the correct $50 tool without messing it up. If you’re $50+ dollars deep on tools just for one pen, you just as well send it.
Sheaffer Snorkels, PFMs, Touchdowns, and other pneumatic-type fillers:
I’ve no experience, but there are a lot of guides and parts kits out there.
My recommendation: DO IT! but make sure you have the right tools, parts, and the stomach for it. Go slow. If the pen is really bad on the inside, then Send it. That’s what I’d do, anyways.
Some vintage piston fillers don’t require any restoration at all, especially younger vintages like the pens of the 60’s, 70’s, or 80’s. Are the 90’s vintage yet? Modern materials hold up pretty well, so they should be good to go.
But if the pen isn’t holding ink, Send it. These repairs can be a nightmare.
You’ve got a vintage piston-filled pen–a pen that was never meant to be taken apart in the first place and holds a bunch of ink. Ink that, if your botched attempt fails, will not only get all over you but has a good chance of contaminating and corroding internal parts. Should the piston be fully extended or retracted prior to disassembly? Which end do you disassemble? Is the piston seized? There is a lot to consider when messing with these.
I’ve restored all of my vintage Aurora piston filled 88s and in all cases, the piston rod was rotten and crumbled to pieces. For my 88P, I happened upon a busted parts pen with a good piston rod that I used. I lucked out. For the others, I managed to salvage the original piston head enough to get adequate compression out of it to seal properly, but they will fail eventually. It’s a hack job by an amateur–me. (Remember when I said don’t make your future life harder? Remember when I said I’m less enthusiastic about tearing pens apart with experience?) It’s impossible to repair these rods–David Nishimura recommends cutting the stripped piece off of the rod, drilling and tapping the remainder, and threading a new end onto the piston’s face. This process is not for the faint of heart and requires specialized equipment. The best option to restore these would be to have someone manufacture new piston rods from some material that doesn’t suck as much as the original nylon rods, but no one is doing that at the moment as far as I know (seriously, get in touch with me if you manage to 3D print these things.)
Other piston fillers could require cutting specialized cork seals or messing around with other internal parts, which may or may not be worth it to you (and may literally turn to inky sludge in your hands.) The pros can do it for you correctly the first time, so send them some love.
A word on Montblancs: Consider carefully what you want to do with these pens. Montblanc will happily “repair” your granddad’s leaking 149 for a sizeable chunk of money and throw out all of the good stuff on the pen–like the original ebonite feeds and so on. Consider sending these to somebody if the pen is old enough to have the no-longer-made accoutrements that make those pens special. Montblanc will take your pen and send you a functional pen in return but a professional restorer will fix your pen. There’s a big difference.
Vacuum fillers or syringe fillers:
I wouldn’t go there for the same reason I wouldn’t mess with a piston filler unless I knew exactly what I was doing. Double that if the piston rod is corroded or threads are stripped out. Send it.
I feel like I’ve covered the most common pen types, but when in doubt, Send it. Eye-dropper pens shouldn’t theoretically require much work unless there is a hole or something in them. If your capillary-filled Parker 61 is working, don’t mess with it. Undoubtedly there is some other filling mechanism that is out there, but I’m fairly sure we covered 97% of the different styles.
Finally, as far as actual repairs go–cracks, missing parts, damaged nibs, etc.–generally these should be sent to a professional unless there is an obvious source for busted parts and they’re readily available (like cap jewels or Parker 51 hoods, stuff like that.) Again, the worst a pro will tell you is it’s a no-go. And remember that it doesn’t have to be in perfect condition either–part of the pen’s beauty and charm is the little dents, scuffs, and flaws. It’s old enough to be your parent, or even your grandparent. Cut it some slack.
I cannot, in good faith, recommend solvent-welding old pens, nor will I discuss it here because:
- It’s an art, not a science, and a complex one at that. One that must be practiced to master, leaving a drawer of melted pens and materials for salvage. It’s not a sensible skill to try to learn for the average hobbyist.
- More importantly, the process gives off toxic fumes from the melting of God knows what chemicals were used in the old-timey proto-plastics that these pens were made of.
Resources/references for the above, in no particular order:
Ron Zorn, Main Street Pens (repairs, restorations, supplies, some vintage pens.)
Indy Pen Dance (repairs, restorations, supplies, new and vintage pens.)
David Nishimura, vintagepens.com (he doesn’t repair pens [anymore?] but has vintage pens for sale and incredibly detailed references on pen restoration.)
Richard Binder (I mean, the guy’s a legend. He’s essentially retired but his website is an incredible reference.)
Mike Masuyama, mikeitwork.com (Legendary nibmeister. He will also do a variety of repairs and restorations. Also an all-around fantastic person.)
Rick Horne, Southern Scribe (The only one on this list I don’t have personal experience with, but Mr. Nishimura recommends him, as do the folks in my usual virtual haunts and that’s good enough for me. Seems like his prices are super reasonable, too. And he’s been doing it nearly as long as I’ve been alive, so that’s awesome. Hope to do business with you soon.)
Bertram’s Inkwell (new and vintage pens, repairs. Send ’em some love. Bert’s a top-shelf guy)
Anderson Pens (Good selection of repair supplies, plus new and some vintage pens.)
There are others that do good work, of course. Probably several that I just simply don’t know about. There are others I am aware of that I’m not including here because they’ve either shifted their focus into their own sales rather than outside restorations and repair work or they were jackasses to me/have a reputation for jackassery (believe it or not, there are mean fountain pen people! I won’t besmirch them, but I won’t recommend them either. There are too many kind folks out there that need love and won’t hassle you!)
Good luck and happy writing!