Basic Fountain Pen Restoration, Part I
So, you've discovered a cup'o'pens at the local flea market, and found that amidst all the cheap Bics and broken mechanical pencils are a few fountain pens. Sure, they're covered with grime, tarnish, and bent bits, perhaps there's a crack or two, but still -- they are fountain pens, a relic from a bygone age when people's worth was often determined by their words, and their words were defined by their pens. You roll them over, shake them a little, inspect the dirty tips. While they'll never sell for much on the market, you suspect that you might be able to get some decent daily writers out of the lot. But what's involved in that? After all, you don't have any fancy pen repair supplies, and don't have the first clue where to begin with restoration techniques.
Restoration, what a scary word. People think of houses, furniture, huge investments of time, effort, outside help, equipment. But despite the fact that some fountain pens can be quite expensive (thousands of dollars is not a rare price to pay), a little bit of skill and a modest investment of gear --much of which is probably already in your home-- can turn a junkyard pen into a writer's best friend, if not a family heirloom.
The fundamentals of fixing pens are not out of reach for even bare beginners -- recognise that I've only been doing this for around a year, but thanks to great books like "Da Book" (Guide to Fountain Pen Repairs by Frank Dubiel) and numerous Fountain Pen Network forums, I've picked up enough basics to restore about 50 or 60 vintage pens and pencils. While I'm obviously not an expert, the purpose of these DIYPlanner articles is to share beginner's tips with you, perhaps whetting your appetite for something a little more advanced. Then Dubiel is certainly your next logical step.
Some flea-marketing friends of mine are nice enough to keep their eye out for fountain pens and old mechanical pencils for me. At first, they bypassed anything that looked remotely broken in favour of something that seemed structurally sound, but now they realise the benefits even of broken pens. Not only are broken pens sometimes the source of excellent parts, but they can be valuable in themselves. For example, another friend of mine found a circa-1900 eyedropper pen and sold it with a broken barrel for nearly $150. Plus, as one's skills, techniques and equipment gets more advanced, the greater the likelihood that breaks and other significant issues can be tackled. So, while such pens are definitely a few steps down the road of restoration, don't snub your nose at some oldies if they're going for pennies apiece.
Depending on where you live, flea markets and garage sales are one of the best places to look for pens. Since few people recognise the intrinsic value of pens, especially ones covered in dry ink, it's likely that these will be kicking around as a dollar-lot long after the end tables and Spongebob CD players are gone. Estate sales are generally filled with more savvy buyers who often purchase large lots of pens for a few hundred dollars if they think a few gems are present. eBay is very much a crap-shoot: both buyers and sellers are often ignorant of how condition and model years and nuances affect the price of pens, and thus it isn't unheard-of to find a dirty "Parker something" selling for $10 which turns out to be a $300 1920's Duofold, or --on the other hand-- a similar Duofold selling for $200 that has number small cracks in the barrel lip, a nib partially broken inside the section, or a cap that doesn't post (stick on the end). Caveat emptor. Of course, the best dealers are the ones who sell pens professionally, whose knowledge seems limitless and whose reputation is on the line for every sale. (Do your research on the FPN.) However, you'll never find a true bargain-basement deal like you might trip across in a flea market.
For this exercise, though, I'm going to assume you have a "junker" pen, one ready to go terribly wrong without setting you back any money. Every restoration has its risks, especially for beginners. Don't try any potentially destructive techniques on your late grandfather's prize Conklin. Plus, do some online research to learn the approximate value of the pen you're fixing. It would be far smarter to turn over a potentially valuable pen to a professional to restore.
Likewise, recognise when you're over your head. Badly bent nibs, huge cracks and missing parts are no place for a beginner to start. For your first pen restoration, I'd advise starting with a low-end pen that shows a bit of promise: some dirt, some tarnish, an intact nib, no major cracks, and a lever-fill that allows easy repairs.
These beginner articles are targeted towards pens with some minimal problems. Those generally falls under the categories of cleaning, ink container replacement, nib tuning, scratch removal, minor cracks and loose bits, and basic part replacement.
Is there a decent pen under that ink and grime? First warning: Don't ever, ever take Brasso, Comet or another strongly abrasive or corrosive cleaner to your fountain pens. Second warning: you may get ink on your skin and clothes. Now's the time to finally wear that Vanilla Ice t-shirt your mother picked up for you at the discount clothing place.
First things first: there's probably a mess waiting to happen. Run the nib under a tap and you may find a stream of ink issuing forth. That's because many pens were simply dropped into a drawer one day when ballpoints came about, and thus most "unrestored" ones are filled with dried ink which reconstitutes when they get wet. If the pen has a working plunger or lever that moves fairly easily, immerse the front of the pen in warm water and flush water in and out till the water is fairly clear. (We'll discuss filling mechanisms in a moment.) If that doesn't seem to work, you'll probably want to use a little caution as you proceed, since some ink stains aren't very easy to remove.
Most of the cleaning I've done with fountain pens has been a simple two-step process. First, use an old toothbrush and lukewarm (not hot) tap water to give them a good scrub. Don't forget all the nooks and crannies like under the clip and in the feed (beneath the nib), going gently around the more fragile bits. Dry thoroughly, even if it takes a few days. (Did I mention patience is a useful virtue in pen restoration?)
Once a pen has been fixed up, you can then use SimiChrome and some light but fast rubbing to buff the pen with a microfibre, lint-free cloth. SimiChrome does an amazing job of removing tarnish and ugly build-up on pen "furniture" (that is, the metal bits). Keep applying small amounts of it and buffing with the cloth until no more dark residue appears, mainly from the furniture.
If you have a Dremel with a cloth wheel (not fibre!), you can set it on its lowest speed to buff the body -- do it slowly and deliberately, with correct eye protection, and if you see any indication of melting or scratching caused by the wheel, stop immediately. Be careful not to hook the wheel into the nib or other fragile parts, or you may find parts of your project pen embedded into the ceiling or your flesh.
A final option might be a coating of museum wax, but that's much more difficult to find (and a more advanced topic).
Ink Container Replacement
Shake the pen. Does it sounds like maracas or a baby rattle? If so, the ink sac inside has likely disintegrated. This is far from uncommon: the rubber gets old, then stiff, then shatters. It's often an easy fix, assuming you order an inexpensive pen sac replacement.
But first, a word about filling mechanisms. There's a dozen ways or more of putting ink into a fountain pen, but the three most common are levers pressing against a sac, plungers that somehow use vacuum via a plunger or "button" to draw ink into a receptacle, and (with late model pens) cartridge-based systems. If you stick the section of the pen into water, pump the lever or plunger a few times, and actually find that the pen draws and expels water, good for you! Most of the hard work is already done. If not, and it's a plunger or button fill, best leave it till you build up some more skills -- such restoration can be pretty tricky.
A cartridge pen is usually easy, as long as they still make the correct cartridges. If not, you'll have to find an old empty one and use a needle syringe (cut off the sharp bit) to "top it up" with ink occasionally. The only other thing you'll likely need to do is properly flush the old ink from the pen section and nib. For that, remove the barrel and cartridge. Find yourself a small ear bulb syringe (likely about $2-3 at your local drug or department store) and cut off the tip so that the opening is about a half-centimeter (a little less than a quarter-inch) in diameter. Fit the bulb over the back of the section --the part holding the nib)--dip it into a class of warm water, and proceed to squeeze the bulb, drawing up liquid. Hold it over your drain and squeeze again, slowly, to force water through the section and nib. Keep doing this until the water runs clear. When it does, let the section dry for a day or two, then attach a new cartridge and the barrel, and you're done!
Replacing an ink sac is a little more complicated. Only try the procedure below if the pen has a lever in the side of the barrel.
The first challenge is to remove the section from the barrel. Never use regular pliers to do this: you'll find up damaging the fragile plastic. Instead, try this:
- Get yourself a grip. Options:
- rubber-coated spark plug pliers
- an old set of pliers with the centre teeth ground out and covered by a rubber tube;
- a small rubber-strap wrench; or
- a really strong grip (yes, your hand), with a bit of sheet rubber so your hand doesn't slip.
- Heat up the section with a hair dryer. (Some pros use alcohol lamps or heat guns, but a hair dryer is a more common and easier-to-use accessory for beginners.)
- Most sections twist out unthreaded, but don't force it if it seems like there might be threads. Grip the barrel --some sheet rubber will prevent it slipping-- and try rotating the section slowly, being careful not to wiggle it sideways (it might crack the barrel) or put any pressure on the nib (which could warp it). If it still doesn't budge, try heating it and twisting it again. If this continues to make no headway, put aside your pen for a professional, or at least better equipment.
When the section comes out, it'll probably have the remnants of a sac on it. Gently scrape the rubber off the section with an X-Acto or pen knife, being careful not to gouge the plastic. Flush the section and nib with the syringe as above. You may also want to flush the inside of the barrel and cap, since ink build-up may have occurred there. Hint: use Q-Tips within the wet cap to help loosen the many layers of dried ink. Allow these parts to dry a couple of days before proceeding.
Sand the section (where the sac was attached) gently to remove the last of the sac residue and prepare it for the glue.
Now, make sure that the lever and pressure bar are still intact -- peek inside and you should see a little flat piece of metal that uses the lever to put pressure on the sac. If that's there, you'll need two things to continue: a rubber sac and some orange shellac. The shellac, you can find at the hardware store. The pen sac, you'll need to figure out what your pen is and order the appropriate sac from an online store such as Pendemonium, PenSacs.com or Woodbin. Most will run between $1.75 to $3 per sac. Be very sure to get the right size. If you're just starting out, get a couple extras, just in case. (Pendemonium and Woodbin also sell pressure bars if yours is broken.)
Once you get the sac, trim it so that --once stuck on the section-- it'll extend just short of the bottom of the barrel.
To fit it over the bottom of the section, try a dry run. Press one lip of the sac against one side of the section and with your thumb and forefinger spread the rest of the lip over it. It takes a little practice to establish a technique. When you're feeling confident, spread a little shellac around the base of the section with a brush and put on the sac. The shellac will be slightly slippery at first, so you'll find that the sac slides on more easily than in your dry run. Try not to get any shellac inside the sac, since this could taint your ink and gum up the feed. After you get the sac on, twist it around a quarter-turn to spread the shellac evenly. Allow to dry for at least 24 hours.
Once it's ready, apply a light dusting of talc on the sac and slip into the barrel, twisting the section so it fits on tight again. If all goes according to play, you now have a working filler system, and if your nib is decent, a working pen! Insert the nib in a bottle of ink, lift up the lever and release. Wait a few seconds. The moment of truth is here -- try writing.
If your nib is scratchy, or lays down ink in an inconsistent way, don't worry. We'll handle that soon.
Next up, we'll look at nib straightening, nibs moothing, scratch removal, fixing cracks, and minor part replacements. In the meantime, you can most of this information, and so much more, in the Dubiel book. Good luck!