I’ve always loved the idea of fountain pens, and a few years ago I started buying a few. More recently, I was interested in trying out some vintage pens, but I didn’t know where to start. When I asked for advice in an online group, some folks guided me toward websites for professional restorers. Other told me not to bother with anything vintage, because I was guaranteed to get a dud and be bummed about wasting my money.
Just because I ask for advice doesn’t mean I always listen to it! I’ve since purchased several vintage model through eBay. I have had a couple of duds, but I’ve also experienced the complete opposite end of the spectrum. Honestly, my Sheaffer Balance (c. 1937-1942) is my absolute favorite pen. If I had to get rid of all my fountain pens and only keep one, this would be the one on my desk.
Though I’m by no means an expert, I thought I’d pass along a few things I’ve learned along the way.
Restored or Original Condition: You have to know ahead of time if you want to buy a pen that needs restoration or one that’s already been restored. The ink sac in many older pens will likely be crumbled and useless, so you have to be prepared to replace this (and possibly work on other parts of the pen) if you buy a pen that’s not already been worked on. Read the listing carefully so you know if the item is in working condition and has a new sac. You’ll spend a lot less money if you’re willing to do the work yourself, but you’ll need to the know-how and the supplies. Personally, I have enough on my plate without another hobby, so I always buy restored.
Research: It helps to do your research ahead of time, before the auction is down to the last minute and you’re desperately trying to outbid someone. If a pen catches your eye, hit that search bar and see what you can find out about it! An internet search can tell you a lot about the history of the pen, including how old or rare it may be. Don’t forget to look for other eBay listings of the same pen so you know if you’ll have another chance. It also helps to know what kind of nib and filling system you’re interested in.
Know Your Filling Systems: I still have plenty to learn myself, and since most vintage pens aren’t cartridge/converter pens, it’s wise to know what you’re getting into. For instance, that Sheaffer Balance I mentioned is a vacuum-fill. I wanted it because I thought it was neat, but a fellow aficionado made a good point: vac-fills are difficult to clean, so using any ink that’s waterproof, shimmering, corrosive, or iron gall would be a bad idea. Instead of changing colors out regularly, it’s better to pick a color and stick with it. (I chose Monteverde’s Olivine.) Other pens may be lever fill, touchdown, snorkel, etc., so figure out what will work best for you!
Know Your Nibs: What kind of nib do you like on a fountain pen? It seems that most vintage pens are fine or extra fine, with a few flexible nibs to be had. If you’re looking for medium, broad, or stub, you have a little more work ahead of you. Check for writing samples as part of the listing, and ask for one if it isn’t available. If the seller refuses because they don’t want to dirty the interior of the pen with ink, then you should move on. (A pen can also be dipped, tested, and rinsed, and I personally prefer writing samples so I know this is a nib I’ll like.)
There are also numerous different nib materials. It could be gold or steel, and the tipping material may yet be something different. If you don’t yet know what you like, this could be a great time to try it out!
Check the Seller: Like any listing on eBay, check the seller’s feedback and number of transactions to make sure they’re someone reliable to deal with. Find out what their return policy is. Look at their other listings, so you know if this is someone who deals with pens all the time or just happened to come across them at an estate sale. Ask questions before you buy.
You might not always get a pen you’re happy with. I have one that has a crack in the section that keeps it from feeding correctly. Another had a new ink sac, but the cap doesn’t fit correctly and it just dries out. My husband snagged one that writes beautifully…when you can get it to start. There are going to be some issues, as you may be dealing with something that’s close to a hundred years old. Do your research, be patient, and don’t get caught up in the urgency of an auction.
Have you purchased any vintage pens? I’d love to know!
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Ashley O’Melia is an independent author and freelancer from Southern Illinois. She holds her Bachelor’s Degree in Creative Writing and English from Southern New Hampshire University. Her books include The Wanderer’s Guide to Dragon Keepingand The Graveside Detective. Her short stories have been published in The Penmen Review, Siren’s Call, and Subcutaneous. Ashley’s freelance work has spanned numerous genres for clients around the world. You can find her on Facebook and Amazon.
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