Written In Invisible Ink

“The pages are still blank, but there is a miraculous feeling of the words being there, written in invisible ink and clamoring to become visible”
― Vladimir Nabokov

Sheaffer Snorkel snorkel extended - waiting for new ink

Sheaffer Snorkel
snorkel extended – waiting for new ink

“As writers we live life twice, like a cow that eats its food once and then regurgitates it to chew and digest it again. We have a second chance at biting into our experience and examining it. …This is our life and it’s not going to last forever. There isn’t time to talk about someday writing that short story or poem or novel. Slow down now, touch what is around you, and out of care and compassion for each moment and detail, put pen to paper and begin to write.”
― Natalie Goldberg

Fake

You all know (or should know) that I have a weakness for and love of fountain pens. I am primarily a “user” rather than a “collector” – but still appreciate an aged and well-done writing instrument, as long as it has a nib.

I was looking at Amazon.com for some stuff and, off in the corner, I saw an ad that caught my eye. Usually I ignore web ads, but this one seemed aimed right at me.

It looked like The Parker Pen company, the venerable company that over the years has produced such legendary and wonderful fountain pens such as the Vacumatic and the Parker “51” has come up with a new pen – maybe some sort of advanced nib, or a revolutionary filling system. I was stoked.

So I clicked through the ad to the Parker Ingenuity, one of their “5th ink technology” pens. Something didn’t quite look right. So I did some digging and research and it didn’t take long for me to figure it out.

This wasn’t a fountain pen at all. It’s like a felt pen, with a metal hood stamped around it to make it look like a fountain pen.The actual writing surface is replaced with a new refill. It even has non-functional ribs to look like the ridges on a fountain pen feed. A typical model costs a little bit under two hundred dollars. It is obviously aimed at people that want to look like they carry a fountain pen – they want the cachet – but that don’t want inky fingers.

I know that you are going to get ink on your hands or worse when you carry a fountain pen. A pen with a nib is considered a “controlled leak” and I’ve learned to wipe off the pen and clean the inside of the cap when a pen has been lugged around where it can get a shock and shake ink out into the cap. Flying is a real problem – the reduced air pressure can cause a pen to spew ink (I carry an empty pen, an airtight case, and extra cartridges).

So I fully understand someone that wants to carry, for example, a rollerball – sometimes I think of it myself – though I say no… it seems unclean somehow. What bugs me is that they make it look like a fountain pen. A triangle with a slit in it is not a nib – a good nib is a wonderful piece of design, engineering, and manufacture. It is a delicate mechanism of steel, gold, and iridium designed to deliver a carefully controlled stream of ink in a smooth flow to a piece of paper.

A felt pen is useful and deserving of its existence – but don’t try to hide it behind a stamped piece of sheetmetal.

Oh, one other point – I am not a fan of pens that have metal sections – the part right in back of the nib, the place where your fingers grip. I don’t like the feel of cold chrome. Warm plastic, rubber, or ebonite is a better writing grip.

Now that I’ve ranted a bit… if anyone actually wanted to buy me one of those… well, that would be different.

It would be a gift.

Pen Porn

We all have our addictions. I don’t think you can get away from them. I don’t think you want to get away from all of them.

Addictions are what make life worth living. Giving in to them is the spice that makes it worth getting out of bed in the morning (unless, of course, you are addicted to sleeping late). The trick is to choose your addictions.

There are addictions that are always bad. You see these on Intervention. Crack, for example… I think I can say that this is an addiction that is always bad. So don’t give in to your inner crackhead, channel him somewhere else.

Then there are addictions that might not be always bad, but are inappropriate, overly embarrassing, or catastrophic for you, personally. If I became addicted to anything overly expensive – say fast cars, supermodels, or gambling – I would be in big trouble.

So being the useless geek that I am, I tend toward useless, geeky addictions. One of the most obvious ones I’ve picked up lately is a rather silly obsession with fountain pens. I’ll talk more about that later, but today we will simply take a look at today’s single fix – and table the larger questions for another day.

Over that Internet thing… from that online commerce site that sort of rhymes with flea spray… I bought a cheap macro lens adapter for my camera. I did this for the sad purpose of being able to wallow in my stupid addiction in one more ridiculous performance method – I want to take pictures of pens.

Pen Porn.

And we’ll leave it at that. Judge if you must, it makes no difference to me. It is an addiction.

It came in the mail – an unmarked, brown paper package. I eagerly unwrapped my simple purchase, stuck it on the front of the lens, and put together a quick assemblage of tripod, desk lamps, and a cut up cylinder of translucent plastic (an old cover for a stack of blank DVDs) as a light tent.

I have a lot to learn about macro photography. I have a book. I’ll get better at it. But, of course, it is porn, so quality isn’t all that important, is it?

Today, let’s take a look at three different kinds of Sheaffer Nibs.

The nib is not only the most important part of a fountain pen, to a great extent, the nib is the fountain pen. It is the critical piece of hardware that conveys the ink from the pen body and deposits it onto the paper. Most people are familiar with a nib as a curved, triangular piece of metal with a narrow slit in the middle. Look close, and you will see a little rounded tip on the end that moves over the paper.

And that’s about it. Over the long decades, however, there have been many nib innovations and variations. I’ll take some pictures later of my Parker 51’s (if this raises the hair on the back of your neck, God help you… it does mine) but today we’ll look at three examples in the history of the Sheaffer nib.

First, we have the conical Triumph Nib. This is probably my favorite nib of all time. It is as stiff as a nail, but is very smooth and reliable, and it looks cool.

Sheaffer Triumph Nib

Sheaffer Triumph Nib

This is a Sheaffer two tone, touchdown filling pen, probably from around 1950 or so. I bought this one from a grubby pile of crap under the trees at Canton, rebuilt it, and now it writes like a champ.

The Triumph Nib ruled Sheaffer’s top of the line pens until the end of the 1950’s and the emergence of the Pen For Men (I do not have a Pen For Men, or PFM, it is really the only pen I really lust after. They were not very popular when they came out and are therefore rare, collectible, and expensive today. I simply can’t afford one) and its Inlaid Nib. The Inlaid nib dominated the Sheaffer line from 1959 to the present.

Sheaffer Inlaid Nib

Sheaffer Inlaid Nib

This is a humble example of an Inlaid Nib. It is from a small Imperial from about 1965 – 1970. It is a bit different because it has a “V” shaped triangular cut-out, rather than the longer diamond shaped one. It is a small, cartridge filling pen, nothing fancy, but it writes really well. I have some orange-colored translucent ink in it, you can see a bit of ink on the nib.

Finally, we have an oddball. This is a Sheaffer “Dolphin” nib. You can see the odd hump that gives it its name. The Dolphin is simply a cheap imitation of the more tony inlaid nib. It is a design that is supposed to look like an inlaid nib, but is really an ordinary nib with a bit of plastic and metal stuck on top of it to make it look better.

Sheaffer Dolphin Nib

Sheaffer Dolphin Nib

It may be cheap, but it works fine, this pen, again, is a very smooth and reliable writer. It is a cartridge fill. Candy gave me a touchdown filling Dolphin nib desk pen from an antique store in Granbury for Father’s Day – it is waiting for me to restore it – maybe this weekend. I love touchdown filling pens.

Sheaffer Pens

Sheaffer Pens

What is a touchdown filling pen? You’ll have to wait. More porn to come.

Refilling a Varsity

I believe that we all have addictions. Trying to navigate this vale of tears without a healthy dose of irrational cravings is an impossibility. The key is to chose your addictions.

Good luck.

At any rate, one of my addictions is Fountain Pens. I have no idea why: a childhood memory? The pure gadgetry of the thing? The nerdiness? The relationship to writing? I don’t know why. I only know that I don’t fight it.

Much.

In the spectrum of Pen Collectors I am what is referred to as a USER. I don’t care about how expensive a pen is, I simply want to write with it. I don’t care about rarity, or perfect condition, or if someone in time past had their name engraved on their pen (I think this is cool, actually). My favorite thing is to find some beat up old antique caked with dried ink and desk drawer dust at Canton or some other flea market – then disassemble, clean, repair, replace, rebuild, and then, actually write with the thing.

Enter the Varsity.

Modern fountain pens do not, as a general rule, stand up to vintage writing instruments.  There are exceptions.

One interesting specimen is the Pilot Varsity. The Pilot company is a Japanese manufacturer and purveyor of fine pens that can cost thousands of dollars. (their Vanishing Point model is very popular, their expensive shit is sold under the sub-brand Namiki).

The Varsity is one of their low-end models, very low-end. It is disposable. You can find them in office supply stores or some bookstores for around three bucks each.

They even come in packs of seven different colors for about two dollars each.

The crazy thing is, they are great writers. A wet medium line, a surprisingly smooth nib, very reliable, rarely leak. If you want to give writing with a fountain pen a try, this is a great way to do it.

I like the Varsity so much, I decided it was too good to be disposable. When my blue model went dry, I decided to re-fill it.

My favorite color is a bluish-green and I decided to go there, with a slant on the green side. I chose two compatible inks: Private Reserve Spearmint and American Blue. I assembled all my tools: pen, ink, pliers, and an irrigation syringe.

Tools

Pen, ink, syringe, pliers.

I grabbed the nib with the pliers and pulled it out – it gave away with a nice firm click. The nib is the metal part of a fountain pen. It sits up against a ribbed plastic bit called a collector. This is what holds a dab of ink up next to the nib so it can go onto the paper quickly. A fountain pen is accurately described as a “Controlled Leak” – the collector is what controls that leak. In the Varsity the steel nib and black plastic collector came out of the clear body in one piece.

Easy. Much better than the method this guy uses.

I washed everything out and put some diluted green and blue ink (mostly green) into the syringe.

Pilot Varsity

Pen, nib and collector removed, cleaned out, ready for new ink.

I was a simple process to squirt the ink back into the body of the Varsity and then push the nib and collector back in. A good shove and it clicked back as it was before.

And now it writes again. I saved myself three dollars (minus the cost of the ink) but that’s not the point.

Varsity Refilled

The Varsity refilled with a sample of the ink color. My handwriting is terrible, it always has been.

Now that I think about it… I don’t actually know what the point is. Points are overrated, I guess. Aren’t they?

A junkie fix for my fountain pen addiction. Not too bad as addictions go.