Nib Novice, Part 9: Pen Cleaning & Retro 51

This is the ninth part in a series in which I’m learning to use fountain pens. For all the previous installments, click here.


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It’s probably an understatement to say that I have a fondness for the Retro 51 Tornado. Not only do I have an embarrassingly large collection myself, I’ve also given away many of them as gifts, hoping that others will appreciate the pen as I do. Of course I’ve been aware for a while that Retro 51 offers a fountain pen version of the Tornado. I even ordered one a few months ago, but it has been sitting, unopened, on my desk. Before cracking the packaging open, I promised myself that I’d do something I’ve been putting off: fountain pen cleaning.

While I like the fountain pen collection I’ve built up over the course of writing this blog series, the simple fact is that I just don’t consistently use all of them. For example, my Parker 51 is great, but I feel guilty letting ink just sit inside a vintage pen. And I think it’s neat to have that counterfeit Lamy Safari in my collection, but I’m never going to actually use that piece of junk ever again.

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The good news is that Goulet Pens has a wonderful guide to pen cleaning. The bad news is that it is tedious as hell. The procedure goes like this: fill a cup with room temperature water in a sink, then pull the water into your pen (via whatever filling system the pen happens to have), then flush the water back out. Keep doing this over and over, replacing the water every once in a while, until the water being flushed out of the pen comes clean. Wiping the nib down with a paper towel after a few flushes can speed the process up, but the whole thing still feels endless.

The Parker 51, with its aerometric filling system, was pretty easy to clean. The counterfeit Lamy, on the other hand, required quite a lot of clockwise and counterclockwise twisting of the cartridge-converter. I have a couple more pens that I should probably clean, but, in all honesty, I currently lack the patience. So while letting the pens dry out overnight, I decided it was time to finally break out the Retro 51 Tornado Fountain Pen.

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In typical Retro 51 fashion, the Tornado fountain pen is available in a bunch of styles. My choice was The Lincoln,  a vintage-looking pen with a shiny, copper-colored coating. It’s got some weight to it, and it feels like a substantial pen. It uses a medium Schmidt nib and comes with both a cartridge-converter and a generic ink-filled cartridge.

Initially, I was going to use the cartridge converter, and I even started filling the pen with some bottled ink. Then I remembered all the tedious cleaning I’d just finished, so I did an on-the-fly switch to the pre-filled cartridge. That probably wasn’t my best idea, as it caused a bit of a mess.

After using the Tornado fountain pen for a few days, I’m sad to say that I grew a little tired of it. I had some trouble with ink flow, particularly whenever I’d set the pen down for a few hours. But mostly, it worked just fine. I guess this one just didn’t blow me away in the same way that the TWSBI Eco did. It’s almost as if this Tornado fountain pen is one I’d rather look at than use – or maybe I’d rather just buy the rollberball version of the Lincoln instead.

As someone who collects Retro 51 Tornado pens, that’s fine. I’m glad I have this pen. However, I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it to anyone else. Hopefully my next fountain pen pen – the final one I’ll be purchasing for this series – will leave more of an impression.

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Nib Novice, Part 8: Platinum Preppy Conversion

This is the eighth part in a series in which I’m learning to use fountain pens. For all the previous installments, click here.


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For those interested, fountain pens can provide plenty of “DIY” opportunities. Cleaning, nib swapping, and basic restoration projects seem to be fairly commonplace, for example, but an eyedropper conversion was the one project that really peaked my interested. An “eyedropper” refers to a type of fountain pen filling system (or lack thereof) where all you need do is pour or pipette a load of bottled ink into a pen’s barrel. So an eyedropper conversion is just like it sounds, when you take a pen that doesn’t have an eyedropper filling system and modify it to have one.

There are a couple benefits to having an eyedropper fountain pen. First, with the pen’s entire barrel filled, it holds a maximum amount of ink, significantly reducing refill frequency. And second, an eyedropper is easy to manage and clean, as opposed to filling systems that are a little more complicated (I’m looking at you, Parker 51). Additionally, I’m converting a Platinum Preppy, a pen which uses proprietary ink cartridges. So rather than being forced into using Platinum’s inks, I’ll be able to use any ink I’d like in this pen. Incidentally, I’ve decided to go with the gray-ish colored “Charles Dickens” ink by DeAtramentis.

Now to get started…

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The whole process is actually deceptively simple, and a good guide can be found at the JetPens Blog. The basic procedure is this: First, grab a bottle of ink and buy a Platinum Preppy – these pens are widely available for under $5. Then find a #5 O-ring and a small bit of silicone grease. Both these items can be found at most hardware stores, but I took the lazy way out by ordering a 4-pack of O-rings from Goulet Pens, and I’m using the silicone grease that came with my TWSBI Eco.

From there, you simply  (1) unscrew the barrel of the Preppy, (2) get rid of the proprietary ink cartridge, (3) slip the o-ring over the threads, (4) cover the threads will the silicone grease, (5) pour or pipette ink into the barrel of the Preppy, and (6) screw the pen back together. Give it a few shakes, and you’re good to go. Maybe that sounds complicated, but the whole process really only takes about 5 minutes.

The difficult part is more psychological. Thing is, the drawback to doing this eyedropper conversion is that by getting rid of the ink cartridge, I’ve effectively removed one barrier between the outside world and the ink that’s inside the pen. A cheap, plastic barrel is the only thing preventing an inkpocalypse while writing with it. Or, if the barrel’s threading comes loose while the pen is in my pocket, my pants would basically be done for.

So, though I was slightly terrified to do so, I decided to use this pen for the day. I carried it around at work, praying the whole time that I wouldn’t accidentally drop it or crack the plastic somehow. But in the end, well, it worked great! The Preppy’s fine nib writes clean and consistently, and I love any fountain pen with a pull-off cap. Overall, it’s a bit scratchy, but it’s still very good for such an inexpensive fountain pen. And while my fear of getting ink everywhere hasn’t fully evaporated, it has been significantly diminished.

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It turned out to be a fun project, and something I’d recommend to any fountain pen newbie.

Nib Novice, Part 7: Noodler’s Ahab Flex Nib

This is the seventh part in a series in which I’m learning to use fountain pens. For all the previous installments, click here.


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If you watch a flex nib in action, you’re going to be impressed. It’s not only that they’re commonly used by professional calligraphers, but, due to their softer tines, flex nibs are capable of large variations in both line width and shading. I’d been looking forward to trying one out for a while, even though I already have a calligraphy pen that I rarely use.

Unfortunately, outside of the vintage and high-end fountain pen markets, flex nibs can be hard to find. The popular brands, such as the Pilot Falcon, use gold as the primary nib material, putting them in the $150+ price range. For something less expensive, the only option I’ve found is from Noodler’s Ink, which produces several lines of flex nib pens that cost anywhere from $15 to $75.

So, not knowing if I’d actually enjoy this nib style, I went with something on the cheaper side: the Noodler’s Ahab with the”Bumblebee” barrel design, which cost me about $23. For ink, I went with Thornton’s Orange – a bright color to match the bright barrel – for an extra $9.

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After inking up the pen, I experienced some initial frustration until I found this guide from Goulet Pens, and I realized that operating a flex nib demands a different touch. Typically, fountain pens glide across a piece of paper with very little (or no) need to apply force. Flex nibs, on the other hand, require pressure. The more the nib is pressed down, the more the tines will separate (i.e. “flex”) to allow for greater ink flow.

This line variability allows for some very artistic writing. However, it does take some practice to master. One guide at VintagePen.Net even asserts the importance of proper posture while writing with a flex nib. That may be overkill for a non-professional fountain pen user, but playing around with varying pressures and writing angles is still a lot of fun.

The Noodler’s Ahab – and flex nib fountain pens in general – are definitely not functional. By that I mean to say, you probably wouldn’t want to take notes with it. Flex nibs don’t seem to be very good with the block-style fonts like I typically use either. So, it would be rational to assume that I wouldn’t like this pen, but I do. This flex nib is such an enjoyable writing experience that I’ll find an excuse to use it… even if it’s only for signing holiday cards.

Nib Novice, Part 6 – Vintage Parker 51

This is the sixth part in a series in which I’m learning to use fountain pens. For all the previous installments, click here.


Meet the Parker 51 fountain pen.

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First produced in 1941, the Parker 51 would go on to sell tens of millions of units before being discontinued in 1972. It’s possibly the most popular fountain pen ever made, and has a long history to show for it. In the vintage pen world, Parker 51s aren’t particularly rare, and their individual values depend greatly on age, condition, and style. But nevertheless, each one is a classic.

This particular Parker 51 was given to me as Christmas gift last year, but was probably originally produced sometime during the 1950s. However, as I’ve gathered from the wonderful resource page at Richard’s Pens, it can be difficult to nail down a specific production date. Regardless of its exact age, this pen has weathered the decades extremely well; it still writes great, despite a bit of leaking around the nib.

The Parker 51 is obviously designed to be a working man’s pen. It has a professional look, a sturdy clip, and the cap pulls off quickly (as opposed to most of my other fountain pens, which have caps that screw on and off). It also has a hooded nib that allows ink to start flowing quickly. But, above all, my favorite feature is the aerometric filling system.

With this filling system there is a flexible ink sac built into the barrel that acts a lot like a pipette bulb. A small cutout inside the barrel will allow you to compress the sac, squeezing air out of it. With the sac still compressed, all you need to do is dip the nib into a bottle of ink and release the sac – ink will be sucked inside. It’s a very simple mechanism, yet one that is rather unique.

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I like this Parker 51. It’s such a classic that every fountain pen enthusiast should probably own one. If it weren’t for that slow nib leak, I’d probably carry this one around with me a lot more. As it stands, I’m a little paranoid about it, but I’m hoping that the problem will be solved by using a different ink. Currently, it’s filled with Noodler’s Black, which looks great but seems a little on the thin side.

Overall, however, I’ve found the vintage fountain pen world to be fairly daunting. There’s really a lot to learn in order to properly become a vintage collector. Still, I’ve had fun getting my feet wet with the Parker 51, and I can easily see myself buying another one someday.

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Nib Novice, Part 5 – The TWSBI Eco & a Zebra V-301 Update

This is the fifth part in a series in which I’m learning to use fountain pens. For the previous installments, click here.


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Chalk it up to a bad experience, but I really had no desire to pick up a new fountain pen after putting down my Lamy Safari a few months ago. I’d already purchased a pen – a TWSBI Eco – but I couldn’t bring myself to ink it up. So I decided to let it sit, shrink-wrapped on my desk, for about a month. When curiosity finally drove me to break open the packaging, I realized pretty quickly that my experience with fountain pens was about to change for the better.

Just to look at it, it’s obvious that the Eco is one of the coolest pens I own. In the lingo of the fountain pen world, it’s referred to as a demonstrator pen, a style that indicates a clear-bodied pen that makes all the inner workings visible. Filled with a dark red ink, “Rouge Hematite” by J. Herbin, it’s neat to watch the fluid slosh around the pen’s innards and move through the feed toward the nib. It’s certainly eye-catching. In fact, a co-worker of mine recently mistook the Eco for an e-cigarette and erroneously scolded me for picking up the habit of smoking.

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In addition to its looks, I’m very happy with the way the Eco writes. Various nib styles are available, but I decided to blindly go with a stub nib. Luckily, this turned out to be a great choice, as it seems to give a professionally stylized character to my print handwriting. This has everything to do with the shape of the nib, which looks to my eye like a narrower, rounded-off italic nib. This gives it a vertical/horizontal line variation that is a lot more subtle than what you get from a calligraphy pen.

It’s worth noting, too, that the Eco’s piston filling mechanism holds a lot of ink. A piston mechanism, I’ve learned, works almost exactly like a cartridge converter; simply dip the nib into a bottle of ink, then twist the end to suck the ink up into the reservoir. There’s really only one difference between the two filling systems: instead of the a cartridge being housed inside the pen, the pen’s barrel is the ink cartridge. Yes, I have some anxiety about the pen coming apart and ink spilling everywhere, but it’s something which – knock on wood – hasn’t happened yet.

I’m happy to report that the Eco is the first fountain pen I’ve found myself coming back to again and again. I’ve even considered buying a second one with black trim that I’d fill with a black ink to match, but that’s a little ways down the road. For now, I’m excited again about trying another new fountain pen.

In other news…

Shortly after writing about the Zebra V-301, the fountain pen that barely worked, I received an email from one of Zebra’s product managers. The V-301’s design was in the process of being updated, and I was asked if Zebra could send me one to try out. I agreed, and a few months later, the new V-301 arrived in my mailbox.

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On first inspection, the new V-301 looks practically identical to the older model. Take off the cap, however, and it’s easy to tell that the nib has gone through a bit of an update. A shroud now covers the nib and feed section, and it’s likely that there are more changes underneath. Whatever the case, I can say that the V-301 now works a lot better. The new model writes much more consistently (and right side-up), and the ink flow has been reduced. I’ve also noticed that the cap of the new model posts a lot more securely than the old one did.

It’s still not a particularly smooth fountain pen, and I think the clip could use some beefing up. But for a fountain pen under $5, it’s not bad. At the very least, I’m happy that Zebra listened to their customers and made improvements.