(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!

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