(Mis)Adventures in Pen Resurrection: Sheaffer Balance Sovereign

Lately I’ve begun dabbling in the dark arts of Pen Resurrection. You know, bringing dead pens back to life. I acquired an inexpensive bunch of old Sheaffer pens in various states of disrepair, and have started attempting to fix them up into a usable state.

I foolishly forgot to take pictures before I started, but here’s how one of these pens looks now:

As I mentioned in my sneak peek a few days ago, this is a Sheaffer Balance Sovereign, circa 1938-1942, with a vacuum filler. The marine green striated celluloid is in decent shape, and the barrel still has some transparency. It’s not easy to find these pens with fully-transparent barrels since ink comes in contact with the barrel walls whenever the pen is filled, leaving them prone to permanent staining.

The gold-plated cap trim is fairly nice on the clip side, but badly brassed on the back.

Sheaffer’s vacuum filler system gives a pen an enormous ink capacity, but at the cost of mechanical complexity. Most unrestored vac-fill pens found in the wild will require a lot of work to bring them back to writing shape. There are lots of warnings online about working on these pens yourself and that they should be sent to professional restorers, but that just sounds like a challenge to me. (Hey, that’s how I learned to work on motorcycles — I just dove right in. At least with pens, if you make a mistake it won’t kill you!)

That being said, I haven’t restored the vac-fill on this pen, for reasons I’ll explain in a minute.

First, I took the pen apart so I could see what I was working with. Removing the section wasn’t difficult, but it took time. I used a hair dryer to carefully heat the junction where the section screws into the barrel. If it’s too hot to rest the pen against your upper lip, it’s time to stop! Then I wrapped a small piece of bicycle inner tube around the section for better grip, and turned the barrel persistently, but gently. If it didn’t budge, I heated the junction again. I had be careful and patient, alternatively applying heat and trying to twist the pen without breaking it.

Eventually, the shellac around the section threads melted enough for me to unscrew the section from the barrel. The plunger washer for the vacuum-filling system had long since rotted away, but the plunger was in otherwise great shape. There’s a packing unit that seals the plunger at the knob end of the barrel that will have to be refurbished. But that wasn’t the only problem I saw.

A working vac-filler requires a feed with a special protrusion into the barrel that pushes the plunger aside, and the protrusion on the feed in this pen is broken completely off. So I needed a new feed. Unfortunately, replacement feeds are hard to find and seem to be hoarded by the pro restorers. The best alternative will be to keep an eye out for a donor pen with a good feed.

In the meantime, the pen can be made to work as an eyedropper. But before I could do that, I had to fix the nib because the tip of one tine was broken.

I decided to try grinding my first nib. (What did I say about diving right in?)

My definitely-not-professional semi-italic grind.

There’s juuuuust enough tipping material left.

With the nib sorted, I shellac’ed the plunger knob onto the end of the barrel and put an o-ring on the section threads along with a thin layer of silicone grease. Then I filled the barrel with ink, screwed it back onto the section, and gave the pen a try.

(temporary) eyedropper conversion

One of the tines on the nib was broken and I ground it into an italic in an attempt to salvage it. I’m pretty pleased with the results!

Diamine Kelly Green, Tomoe River Paper

I left the pen inked overnight, and there’s a tiny bit of ink leaking from the end cap. I need to see if it’s just a poor seal on the end knob or a crack in the barrel. Either way, it’s just one more thing to learn.

It’s very gratifying to start with a broken pen and end up with one that writes!

Stuff For Sale, And a Sneak Peek at an Old Sheaffer

I’ve got a couple of notebook items I need to get rid of (including an elusive Seven Seas notebook!) so I’ve created a new page for them here: items for sale.

To keep this post pen-related, here’s a sneak peek of what I’ve been working on lately:

This is a Sheaffer Balance Sovereign c. 1938-1942. It’s one of six old Sheaffers I picked up this weekend. Unfortunately, the square-ish plastic bit near the top of the photo is broken off from the feed. 😦 And one of the tines on the nib was broken, so I ground it down into an italic. I plan on turning this pen into an eyedropper until I can find a suitable donor pen to refurbish the vacuum-filler with.

Hidden In Plain Sight

Yesterday, I was wandering downtown when I stumbled across a bookbinding shop tucked partway down a side street. I had no idea this shop existed despite living here for over a decade. Clearly I need to explore more.

While the shop is focused on binding, repairs, and restorations, they had a tiny selection of handmade journals that included this adorable little gem. Look how it makes an A6 Hobonichi look big!

The notebook is covered in soft black leather, the kind of leather that makes you want to hold it in your hand because it feels so nice.

Check out the colors and pattern on the endpapers.

The binding is section sewn and the pages measure an enormous 2″ x 3″ (5.1cm x 7.6cm). The paper is fairly thick and has a little bit of tooth.

Unfortunately, I don’t know if the paper is fountain pen friendly. I haven’t done any test scribbling — this li’l book deserves to be used for something special!

Snap Judgements: TWSBI ECO

Bob at My Pen Needs Ink graciously loaned me his TWSBI ECO so I could try it out. The ECO is an entry-level demonstrator type pen, and since “ECO” ostensibly stands for “economical,” it’s perfectly aligned with my interests!

Aesthetics are in the eye of the beholder, but I think the white ECO looks very classy.

The cap has silver metal accents. TWSBI branding is etched into the cap ring, but I don’t find it obnoxious. At least they chose a nice, clean font.

The cap is hexagonally shaped, which I found useful as I don’t usually post my pens. It takes slightly more than one full turn to unscrew the cap. The clip is not springloaded, and it’s too stiff for easy use. I needed two hands to clip it to anything.

Perhaps my favorite thing about this pen is how the white cap and piston knob make inks inside the barrel pop with color. It’s a cool effect, especially with an ink like Iroshizuku Kon-Peki.

The red TWSBI logo on the end of the cap reminds me of a traditional signature seal.

I have smaller hands, and the unposted ECO is almost the perfect length for me. It’s a lighter pen in terms of weight, and I had no trouble writing for long periods with it.

The ECO was balanced in my hand when unposted, but posting the cap threw the weight distribution off in an unpleasant manner. Again, I have small hands so your experience may vary.

This pen has a steel nib that was smooth but offered some feedback. I’m used to Pilot’s silky-smooth nibs so the feedback was a nice change of pace. Since this was a loaner pen, I did not try to test the flex of the nib, but in regular writing it seemed on the stiffer side.

The flow was very good. This nib is more broad than I prefer given my handwriting, but it laid down a nice line and was enjoyable to write with.

I did not experience any hard starts or skips during my time with this pen.

Shaped sections are a point of contention, and the ECO’s section has a slight triangular shape, not as extreme as a LAMY Safari or a Pilot Kakuno, but there just the same. I use a traditional tripod grasp and I found the shape of the section to be unoffensive. The section’s diameter is on par with the Pilot Metropolitan and smaller than the Pilot Kakuno.

Certain TWSBI pens have a reputation for having issues with cracking, but this pen did not have any cracks that I could see. I believe this particular pen is a little over a year old at the time of this writing.

A fairly smooth writer with just the right amount of feedback. The broad nib is a little too wide for my liking. It lays down a nice wet line when using Iroshizuku Kon-Peki. The section has a bit of shape to it but I found it comfortable. This pen is really sharp looking by itself, but it’s a stunner filled with a beautiful ink like Kon-Peki. I thought I’d want an all-clear demonstrator, but the white cap and piston knob look great and compliment whatever ink is in the barrel. The TWSBI ECO is a lot of pen for the price, and I’m definitely adding one to my “to buy” list.

Many thanks to Bob for letting me borrow this pen!

Three Good Reviews of the TWSBI ECO:

A Wild Pen Appeared: The Sheaffer School Pen V2

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I found my first wild pens today at a local flea market. One of the pens was a Parker 21, which I’ll write about later, but the other was a Sheaffer that I’d never seen before. (No surprise there—as a newbie, most pens are pens I’ve never seen before!)

As typical with wild pens, this one had been stored away inked, which had long since dried up inside the nib, feed, section, and cartridge. I took the pen apart and soaked the parts in some water mixed with a few drops of dishwashing soap. Blue ink bloomed in the water, full of promise.

In the meantime, I did some research and learned that this is a Sheaffer cartridge “school pen” V2, circa 1965. (Version 2 pens have conical ends on both the cap and barrel.)

After a nice long bath, I gave the Sheaffer a thorough cleaning using a bulb syringe until the water ran clear. I didn’t have any Sheaffer cartridges at hand so I cleaned the old one out and filled it with my favorite test ink, Pilot Blue Black.

Writing this with one of my very first wild pen finds! It’s a Sheaffer cartridge school pen circa 1965. The nib is not flexible at all, but it’s smooth and has just the right amount of feedback. Someone stored this pen away inked, which had dried all up in the section and feed. I gave it a good soak and cleaned it as best I could, and now it writes like this! Not bad for $4.

Here’s a closeup of the nib. I’m assuming it’s stainless steel.

The barrel also has some printing on it:

I’m the curious sort, so I typed that right into google and found a single hit: a 1964 yearbook from the University of Wyoming.

How this pen made its way from Laramie to the Mid-Willamette Valley, Oregon is left as an exercise for the reader.

If guests at Deetjen’s could access Wi-Fi or peck away at cell phones in their cabins, perhaps fewer people would spend hours curled up with the journals. (The isolation from the breaking-news feed is total: Berto, for instance, who stayed at Deetjen’s on September 11, 2001, mentions only cheese and wine and Castro Cabin’s cozy front porch.) It’s become commonplace to ruminate on the ways social media estrange us, or how emails confound style and epistolary grace. But each time I visit Deetjen’s I’m reminded of the extraordinarily deep connections I feel with these other vulnerable, wondering pilgrims. I see their ropy cursive, their off-kilter printing, their gestural sketches and I touch the pages with my hand. None of which I could do at my computer screen. None of which has anything to do with humble-brags, polemical rants, or gratuitous selfies. Here, there’s a tangible space—nine-by-twenty, creekside—for the self to slowly unfold.

—Anna Journey, “A Close Reading of the Greatest Guest Book in the World

The Most Expensive Pen I Own

Let’s get one thing out of the way right now: the most expensive pen I own is a Pilot Murex MR-500SS.

Why am I writing about a pen that routinely sells for over 200 USD on a blog called “The Economical Penster”? Because my feelings about this pen explain the way I judge other pens. It’s my gold standard.

The Murex was, and still is, my “holy grail” pen. It’s the only pen that’s made me break my “costs less than $20” rule. The first time I saw a Murex (yes, in that article) I knew I had to have one. Such sudden lust for a fountain pen came as a complete surprise. I’m a bad pen fancier, I admit it. The aesthetic aspect of fountain pens has never moved me much, and I consider fountain pens to be tools that give me pleasure specifically as writing instruments. The best ones allow me to put words on the page with a minimum of fuss.

The Pilot Murex puts words on the page, but it does so with a kind of timeless style rarely seen in fountain pens, a style I find immensely appealing.

The Murex is not the first pen featuring a nib integrated with the body. That honor belongs to the Parker T-1, which was originally produced in 1970. A year later, Pilot introduced the predecessor to the Murex: the MYU 701, a stainless steel fountain pen with an integrated nib, short barrel, and long cap.

Pilot redesigned the MYU in 1977. Its short barrel and long cap was replaced with more traditional proportions, and the “Murex” was born.

The clean lines of the Murex’s design are accompanied by minimal branding. The “MR PILOT” etched into the cap is the only visible logo.

The field of website design has the concept of “sticky eyeballs,” which means content that attracts attention and keeps it there. This can apply to physical objects as well. Apple iPhones. Ducati motorcycles. They grab the eye and refuse to let go, and the Murex is right there with them. It’s an attention grabber whenever I use it in public.

But lest the Murex be considered all show and no go, I should mention that it’s an excellent writer. The integrated nib does not flex, but it glides smoothly and is a reliable starter.

I purchased this pen on eBay as an uninked specimen, and it’s written flawlessly since I got it. Not bad for a pen only a few years older than I am.

The nib integrated into the section is my favorite part of the design. It’s incredibly comfortable, and the concentric rings engraved into the section provide just enough grip to keep the pen from slipping. Prefer your grip up close to the nib? Go right ahead. Like your grip further up? Knock yourself out. Someone would have to have a particularly unorthodox grip to find this section uncomfortable.

This particular Murex is engraved with “F” to indicate a fine nib, and “H677” for a manufacturing date of June, 1977 at Pilot’s Hiratsuka factory.

Pilot did not neglect a single detail on this pen, right down to the spring clip on the cap and the satisfying way the cap snaps onto the body. For an all-metal pen, the Murex does not feel heavy. It’s nicely balanced in the hand when unposted. For those who prefer the alternative, the cap posts deeply and securely, yet still remains in balance when writing.

So yeah, the Murex is a cool pen, but is it economical? Consider that it originally sold for 5000 yen in 1977, which was about 16 US dollars at the time, or 66 dollars in today’s money. That’s a reasonable price for a pen that looks this good and writes this well.

The Pilot Murex is an excellent pen with a simple, timeless design that pays attention to the little details but remains universally accessible. Dieter Rams would approve.

The Pilot Murex featured in this post is part of my personal collection, purchased with my own funds. My thoughts are my own.

Librarians Don’t Have Time For Your Flourishes

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Influenced by Edison and honed via experimenting on patient, hand-sore librarians, library hand focused on uniformity rather than beauty. “The handwriting of the old-fashioned writing master is quite as illegible as that of the most illiterate boor,” readNew York State Library School handbook. “Take great pains to have all writing uniform in size, blackness of lines, slant, spacing and forms of letters,” wrote Dewey in 1887. And if librarians thought they could get away with just any black ink, they could think again real fast. “Inks called black vary much in color,” scoffed the New York State Library School handwriting guide.

—Ella Morton, Atlas Obscura, “Library Hand, the Fastidiously Neat Penmanship Style Made for Card Catalogs

The Metro and the Kid: Pilot’s sub-$15 Wonder Duo

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Fifteen dollars may not stretch as far as it once did, but it can get you a workhorse fountain pen that you’ll want to use every day, thanks to Pilot Corporation and its Metropolitan and Kakuno pens.

Many reviews have already been written about both these pens, so I’m not going to reinvent the wheel by reviewing them here. Instead, I’m going to discuss some features of interest in each pen, and point out some differences that might help you choose between them.

Pilot Metropolitan

The Pilot Metropolitan has an MSRP of $18.75 USD, but it’s easily found for less than $15. It’s a refillable pen that includes a Pilot-proprietary ink cartridge and a CON-20 squeeze-style converter that’ll allow you to use bottled ink right from the start.

The Metropolitan’s brass barrel adds some heft to a pen that’s not particularly imposing out of the box. It has plain, but classy, styling that would be suitable in a professional environment. The weight of the pen in the hand, plus its impeccable build quality, makes the Metropolitan feel like a far more expensive pen than it actually is.

But how does it write? Excellently, thanks to its fantastic nib. (It actually uses the same nib as the Kakuno, which makes choosing between these two pens mostly a matter of personal preference.) My Metropolitan wrote as smooth as silk from its first inking. The nib is stainless steel, with little to no flex, so don’t expect miracles in terms of being able to vary your line widths. If this is your first Pilot fountain pen, be aware that Japanese nibs tend to run thinner than their European and American counterparts. A Pilot fine nib creates a line approximating a 0.5mm gel pen, and a medium nib is close to 0.7mm.

The Metropolitan’s section (i.e. gripping area) is smooth, round plastic. It’s sized comfortably for smaller hands, but may not be large enough for folks with bigger fingers or those who prefer their grip higher up on a pen. The cap of the pen can be posted (i.e. slipped onto the end of the barrel) when writing.

Three Good Reviews of the Pilot Metropolitan:

Pilot Kakuno

The Pilot Kakuno has an MSRP of $13.50 USD, and that’s the price point you’ll usually find them offered at. It’s a refillable pen that comes with a Pilot-proprietary ink cartridge, but it does not include a converter. You’ll need to purchase a Pilot-compatible converter separately to use bottled ink.

The Kakuno is a plastic pen with a hexagonal shaped barrel. Due to its plastic construction, it feels light and less substantial in the hand. The flat sides of the Kakuno will keep it from rolling off a table, which is helpful because the cap does not have a clip. (Instead, the cap has a small nub to further prevent accidental roll-offs.) Pilot designed this pen for the children’s market, and the available colors and styling reflect “fun” more than “professional” — there’s even a smiley face on the nib.

As mentioned previously, the Kakuno’s nib is the same as the one found in the Metro, so both pens offer a similarly excellent writing experience.

The Kakuno’s section is plastic, and it’s molded into a somewhat triangular shape intended to guide you into a proper grip. Despite being designed with children in mind, the section is fatter than the one on the Metropolitan, and those with larger hands may find it more comfortable. The Kakuno’s cap can be securely posted on to the end of the barrel.

Three Good Reviews of the Pilot Kakuno:

In Summary

Choose the Metropolitan if…

  • you prefer a round grip section
  • you need a more professional looking pen
  • you prefer a pen that feels heavier in the hand
  • you’d like to use bottled ink immediately without buying a separate converter

Choose the Kakuno if…

  • you prefer a shaped grip section
  • you like fun, bright colors
  • you prefer a lighter pen
  • you don’t mind if the cap doesn’t have a clip