Between the Old and the New: Caught in the Middle
I am a vintage fountain pen repairman/restorer: a hobby I came into by default.
The year was 1996. I became interested in collecting old fountain pens. I searched for them everywhere. I found them at most every flea market and antique shop I visited. By the end of my first year of collecting, I had purchased or had been given several hundred pens. Frustration set in when I discovered that most of them, with the exception of a few Esterbrooks, a clutch of Sheaffers and Wearevers and a Parker or two, didn’t work! What an opportunity for a new education/skill to present itself.
I had not yet been introduced to the professionals of the hobby. I didn’t know about pen sacs, pressure bars, filling systems, Parker Duofolds, Sheaffer Snorkels, Crescent Fillers, Watermen’s Patricians, etc. I didn’t know there was a Jim Marshall, a Frank Dubil, a Rick Horne or a John Mottishaw. I didn’t know that serious collectors like the late Dr. Richard Barbee (with 10,000 pens) or Dr. Bob Nesbit (7,000 pens) existed, or that they would become my friends and mentors in the hobby.
Soon I began to attend National Pen Shows. I was the new kid on the block. I had set up my table with a few hundred vintage pens and was introduced to a “pen feeding frenzy”. I walked away from that show with several thousand dollars in cash. Nothing stimulates a preacher more than a nice offering! I was hooked, but also caught in the middle. I had bins full of broken pens and parts; many I could repair, but many were just truly parts pens with crystallized caps or barrels, cracked barrels and caps, ruined nibs, missing parts, etc. Although I had spent my professional years as both a University Professor and an appointed Clergyman, I had also earned a Doctorate in the Administration of Vocational/Technical Education. I had spent my life with my hand in two fields.
Although I grew up in a family of craftsmen, I felt called to a professional career; so I majored in one and minored in the other. Pen repair came naturally: figuring things out was second nature. How things work was a learned skill on the family farm, and in the wood shop I would have as an adult.
As I continued to collect fountain pens, repairing broken ones was just the natural thing to do. As I became acquainted with specific pen designs such as the Onoto, I immediately understood the reasons they incorporated “left-handed” thread pattern into some of their pen parts. When I discovered that Sheaffer Touch Downs filled on the down stroke, I knew what the designer went through to perfect that design.
My struggle came when I looked at individual parts and wanted them to be useful again. I had a decision to make. I could leave them in my parts bins and wait until someone sent me a pen that needed those parts, or I could take the useful parts and bring them back to
life by incorporating them into newly made replicas of the parts that had once been their home.
The question then became, When I take original parts and rebuild dimensionally correct missing parts and bring them together, what have I done? I sought a little legal advice which resulted in the following decision: I would mark them as “Replicas” and offer them for sale to the collector/user market.
Some have chosen to argue with me about the ethics of my practice, but most are satisfied that such a process does not commit fraud. After nearly twenty years, my work has never been formally challenged. The vintage or modern parts are marked by their makers and the parts that I turn are also marked by their maker. They bring together the old and new parts, unusable on their own, to a state of usefulness, with credit given to the producer. No harm done!
This discussion brings us to the present day. My hobby has advanced, and I continue to engage in the process I have discussed above. Added to this endeavor is the development of several new pens that I have designed and placed my name upon. They still incorporate parts made and sold by others: nibs, for example. But they represent my personal creativity. Soon I will bring to market new pens that will make use of my experience and acquired research. The fact is, they will be a mix of the old and new. I truly am caught between what has been, what is and what will be. What a wonderfully creative place in which to be.
Over the years engaged in this hobby, I have had the privilege of meeting several creative/skilled individuals. Several have chosen just to do pen repair. They have their niche and reasons for doing what they do. That trade has become highly specialized. Several are generalists; others specialize in specific makes and models. Others are creators. They get satisfaction from taking a rod of material, shaping it, adding a few component parts and in the end changing what was useless by itself into something that is useful when placed in some functional order. I am happy being in the middle. Nearly every week I receive pens which simply need repair, new seals, sacs, cracks fixed, cap lips replaced, etc. I also spend time evaluating severely damaged pens with missing or broken parts that require technical research or skills to repair. A Waterman’s Hundred Year pen with a missing-colored end piece cannot be repaired unless the repair person has a replacement part or has the tools and machinery to reproduce the missing part. A Waterman’s #58 with a missing or broken lever box cannot be repaired unless the repair person has a replacement or can use his or her jewelry skills to fashion a new one.
There are only a few of us who stand in this middle ground, where we can repair and/or create. Many skilled repair persons in our hobby are much more experienced than I am, at this skill. They write the books. They set the standards. Most of them work too cheaply for their acquired knowledge and skill level.
What the middle ground of repair/restoration offers me is the reward of taking something useless and with a little time, a few parts, and some skill and creativity, meshing it all together into a writing instrument that gives the user pleasure and reward while “scribbling.“
So, happy pen turning, repairing, and using both new and vintage fountain pens.