(Mis)Adventures in Pen Resurrection: Sheaffer Lifetime Balance Valiant

I’ve wanted a Sheaffer pen with a military clip for a while now, so when the opportunity to buy one presented itself at last month’s Northwest Pen Round-up, I jumped at the chance.

This user-grade, lever fill Sheaffer Lifetime Balance Valiant cost $10 in unrestored condition.

The beauty of lever fillers is that they’re relatively easy to fix. The filling mechanism is super simple: a thin latex sac attached to the section sits inside the barrel, and a lever on the outside is used to squeeze the sac so ink can be drawn inside it. It’s the same idea as the Pilot CON-20 converter, without needing to take the pen apart to fill it. Just submerge the nib and feed into ink and flip the lever.

I gave the pen a thorough cleaning and then took it apart to see what I was dealing with. The nib had a broken tine and the sac was ossified inside the barrel, but everything else was in good shape.

The old sac came out with some coaxing from a thin-bladed screwdriver. After that, I cut a new sac down to size and affixed it to the section nipple with shellac.

Replacing a vintage Sheaffer nib can be tricky since there are so many different sizes in the wild. Thankfully, I had another Lifetime Balance the same size that had a good nib but a barrel and trim in poor condition. Time for a nib swap.

The replacement nib is an extra fine. I’m seeing a tiny bit of ink seepage at the edge of the section around the feed, but this can be helped by heat-setting the nib against the feed. I plan to tackle that task once I’ve written the pen dry.

The nib was very scratchy when I first inked up the pen, so I spent a while adjusting the tines. I’m not usually a fan of Sheaffer extra fines, but this one is pretty nice. It’s not perfectly smooth — no extra fine nib is — but it’s more feedback-y than scratchy. It’s an enjoyable pen to write with. The section is comfortable and the Visulated (i.e. translucent) window makes it easy to see how much ink is left in the pen.

Sheaffer introduced the military clip variation of the Balance in 1941, to allow soldiers to conform to the US military regulation that required the flaps on uniform shirt pockets to be closed neatly. Typical pen clips of the time were set low on the cap. When clipped inside a shirt pocket, the clip would push the cap up against the flap, leading to a disheveled look. Richard Binder has an excellent article about the history of military clips if you’d like to wander down this lesser-known path of fountain pen knowledge.

The barrel and imprint are in great shape, but the trim does have some minor brassing. That’s fine with me — I wanted a pen I could use without worrying about keeping it pretty.

I’m pleased with how this pen turned out. It writes well, and the military clip makes it a unique addition to my collection.

(Mis)Adventures in Pen Resurrection: Sheaffer Valiant Vac-Fill

I guess I’ve developed a thing for fixing Sheaffer vacuum-fillers. Perhaps it’s the clever engineering in the design of the filling system, or the fact that these pens often worked for 60+ years before they began failing due to worn-out parts. I keep my eye out for cheap Sheaffer pens with restoration project potential, and I found this gorgeous Valiant at last month’s Portland Pen Meet-up.

This is a Sheaffer Valiant vacuum-filler with a white dot and Triumph Lifetime nib. I believe this pen dates to the mid-to-late 1940s. Like most vintage Sheaffers, it’s smaller than most modern pens. In comparison to the Sheaffer Balance line, it’s a bit fatter than the most common Balances, but not as big as an official “oversized” pen.

The trickiest part of pen restoration is getting the darn thing apart. There’s a lot that can go wrong, and the whole endeavor is nerve wracking because any mistake can result in a broken pen.

I started with a thorough cleaning: first soaking the pen in water, then in a 10:1 mixture of water and ammonia. That usually loosens things up enough for most pens to be disassembled, but not this one. I had to soak the nib and section in straight ammonia for a couple of days to dissolve the sealant on the nib unit threads. Then, a little heat from a hairdryer along with some gentle pressure allowed me to unscrew the nib unit from the section.

Once the nib unit and section were apart, I could fully disassemble the pen. This pen is a later version vacuum-filler that uses a cartridge for the filler assembly. These cartridges were intended to be disposable; back in the day, a Sheaffer pen repairperson would simply toss a bad cartridge and replace it with a new one. Unfortunately, new cartridges are fiendishly difficult to find these days, so restorers have had to come up with alternatives.

The primary parts that fail in vacuum-fillers are the gasket seal that creates the suction at the business end of the plunger, and the gasket that seals the plunger rod at the back of the barrel. I followed David Nishimura’s guide for plunger-filler repair to replace the worn gaskets on this pen.

The cartridge style vac-fills are much easier to fix than earlier ones because you can pull the entire unit out to work on it instead of having to do everything through the barrel. With the cartridge in hand, it was quick work to drill out the end of it, clean out the old packing seal, and replace it with a brand new gasket.

After that, I installed the new plunger gasket. Then I re-assembled the pen and did a few test fills with water. Satisfied with the results, I put thread sealant on the nib unit threads and filled the pen with ink. It wrote well, with no leaks!

This pen is made of a gorgeous striated carmine celluloid with gold filled trim.

The wide cap band is engraved with the name Ernest Schreiber. While not a proper Sheaffer “autograph” pen, I wonder if the engraving is a facsimile of its former owner’s.

The rest of the pen is in great shape, with a strong imprint and none of the usual knocks and dings.

I’ve gushed about Triumph nibs before, and while this one isn’t my “most-favoritist”, it’s a smooth writer that puts down a wet, medium line. I won’t say it’s a gusher, but plenty of ink gets to the page to show off shading and sheen.

I really love the engraving on these vintage Sheaffer nibs.

Restored vintage pens are expensive, but I’ve been able to dabble in vintage Sheaffers by looking out for inexpensive project pens that I can restore myself. I’ve found it helpful to remain laser-focused on one specific brand, accumulating knowledge about its various models and filling systems. Perhaps one day I’ll branch out into Parkers or Wahls, but Sheaffers are still keeping me busy. There’s so much left to learn.

Sheaffer Valiant Vac-Fill

This is one of my favorite pens. It writes like a typical vintage Sheaffer — a smooth nail, but there’s something about these Triumph nibs that makes me love them.

Restoring a vacuum-filler system can be tricky, but the internal cartridge made fixing this pen easy.

I’m particularly proud of this one, because of the skeptical look one of the gentlemen at the PDX pen meet-up gave me when I said I was going to restore this pen myself.

Waterman Inspired Blue

(Mis)Adventures in Pen Resurrection: Sheaffer Touchdown TM Valiant

I’m not sure why I haven’t written about this pen yet, as it was my first “proper” pen restoration. I found it in an antique shop a few months ago, and after some research, identified it as a Sheaffer Touchdown Thin Model (TM) Valiant. (The “TD Valiant,” henceforth.)

This Sheaffer TD Valiant dates to the early 1950s, and like most pens of its era, it’s not very big. When uncapped, it’s about a third of an inch shorter than an uncapped Pilot Metropolitan, and its section and barrel are proportionally smaller in diameter. It fits my small hands very well.

The TD Valiant has that classic pen look. You know what I’m talking about because millions of pens have been made that look a lot like this one.

This pen is made of plastic, with a gold plated clip and cap band. The cap screws on to the barrel. It can be posted, but I don’t particularly enjoy it as the metal innards of the cap scrape against the barrel plastic in an unpleasant way.

The trim on this pen is very clean and the barrel is in great shape, but check out this glorious nib.

This pen has my favorite nib ever, full stop. It’s a 14k Sheaffer “Triumph” Lifetime nib, and there’s an intangible quality to it that I can’t describe. It’s smooth, but not too smooth. It’s fine, but not too fine. It’s wet, but not too wet. Goldilocks finds this nib juuuuust right.

Sheaffer produced Triumph nibs in an innumerable number of different grinds and I have no idea what grind this one has. Whatever it is, it produces a hint of line variation that adds a distinctive look to my handwriting when compared to my writing with rounder nibs like a Pilot Metro medium.

The TD Valiant has a Touchdown filling system, which I’ve written about before. To summarize, a Touchdown filler uses a sleeved sac and a bit of clever engineering to create a vacuum to draw ink into the sac on the downstroke of a plunger.

As with most vintage pens found in the wild, it took some work to get this pen writing again. After a thorough flush and soak in a 10:1 water/ammonia mix, the first thing I found was that the sac had fossilized inside its protector sleeve.

I literally had to drill the old sac out by hand, twisting the drill bits with my fingers. There wasn’t much left of the sac when I finished.

With the old sac removed, I disassembled the rest of the pen.

I replaced the sac with a new one.

Touchdown fillers have an o-ring at the knob end of the barrel. These o-rings can harden with age. If the sac needs replacing, so does the o-ring.

New o-ring in place, I reassembled the pen and lubricated the plunger with a dab of silicone.

Restoring a Touchdown filler isn’t as easy as replacing the sac in a lever-filler pen, but pressing down the plunger and hearing that vacuum seal release with a whoosh makes the extra effort worthwhile.

Sheaffer Touchdown TM Valiant

This is my first proper pen restoration since it needed more than just a good cleaning. Its sac had long since ossified and it had to be chipped out of its enclosing sac protector. After a new sac and o-ring, this pen works perfectly.

The nib on this pen is my absolute favorite. I love how it writes and how it makes my handwriting look. It’s going to take a lot to keep this one out of my pen rotation.

(Waterman Inspired Blue, Tomoe River paper)

(Mis)Adventures in Pen Resurrection: Sheaffer Touchdown TM Craftsman

A couple of weeks ago I posted a picture from a pen I was working on. Those broken bits of o-ring kept me at my wit’s end for a solid hour, as I attempted to extract them from the barrel of the pen they belonged to, a Sheaffer Touchdown TM Craftsman.

The o-ring in question is part of the Sheaffer “Touchdown” filling system, which uses a sac to hold the ink and a sleeved plunger to create a vacuum to draw ink into the sac. Like Sheaffer vacuum-filler pens, Touchdown pens fill on the downstroke of the plunger, which is completely counter-intuitive. But it’s magical when it works, as this pen now does.

After disassembling the pen and giving it a thorough flush and cleaning, I found that not only did it need a new sac, it was also missing the protector sleeve that fits over the sac inside the barrel. It took a few weeks to find a replacement sac protector, and after that, installing a new sac wasn’t difficult. But that pesky o-ring at the end of the barrel… That thing had hardened into a fossil, and it took a variety of increasingly sharper implements to dig it out, all while trying to avoid damaging the threads for the blind cap inside the barrel.

It was so satisfying when all those o-ring pieces finally came out that I took a photo for posterity and shared it with you.

Want to know what else is satisfying? Dipping a pen that you fixed yourself into a bottle of ink, and watching it fill on the first downstroke. “Eeet’s alive!”

This particular pen was made in the 1950s. While the Touchdown TM Craftsman (“TD Craftsman” henceforth) was the budget model in the Touchdown TM line of pens, it still has classic lines and sharp gold trim.

The TD Craftsman is a smaller pen that’s light and balanced in my hand, posted or unposted. It’s a perfect fit for me, but I have small hands.

Size comparison, capped (L to R: Lamy Vista, Pilot Metropolitan, Sheaffer TD Craftsman, Pilot Elite, Pilot Long Murex)
Size comparison, unposted (L to R: Lamy Vista, Pilot Metropolitan, Sheaffer TD Craftsman, Pilot Elite, Pilot Long Murex)
Size comparison, posted (L to R: Lamy Vista, Pilot Metropolitan, Sheaffer TD Craftsman, Pilot Elite, Pilot Long Murex)

The #33 14k gold nib is classic Sheaffer: smooth and unpretentious. The tines have a bit of give to them, but no real flex. This might not be a “Lifetime” nib, but it throws down a wet line even with a dry ink like Pelikan 4001.

The top side of the tipping has an imperfection, but it’s perfect where it counts:

TD Craftsmans have a cap with a plain wire band. The cap on this particular pen is in fantastic shape.

Unfortunately, like most vintage pens, this one has seen some use (and some teeth). Seriously people, keep your pens away from your chompers! The imprint is intact, but on the thin side.

Overall, this is a good, solid pen that writes well. It’s worn but wears its bling proudly. It’s been places and seen some things. I’m not sure I’ll end up keeping it, but if I do decide to sell it, I hope it ends up with someone who will appreciate its performance despite its cosmetic flaws.

Sheaffer Touchdown Craftsman c. early 1950s

This pen needed a new sac and o-ring, and a new sac protector to replace the missing original.

The #33 open nib is 14k gold and lays down a smooth, wet line with a hint of feedback on TR (Tomoe River) paper. It is not flexible, but a nice, solid writer.

Aside from toothies on the blind cap, this pen is in decent shape, and the trim on the cap is in excellent condition with no brassing.

Pelikan 4001 Royal Blue

(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!