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Vintage doesn’t have to mean pricey & finicky

Black chased hard rubber (BCHR) pens and a red Parker
Black chased hard rubber (BCHR) pens and a red Parker

I was already working on a draft for this topic when Dan texted me the link for a post on the Pen Economics blog asking "Why Aren't Vintage Pens More Popular?".It begs a follow-up question — popular with whom? I'd say there are definitely some vintage pens that are a little too popular.

There are people who are willing to pay some rather astronomical sums for a vintage flex (usually a lovely specimen of black chased hard rubber — BCHR — or marbled ebonite). There may be others out there like me, a sub-set of the pen community, who are fine with the attention being lavished on modern pens so we can continue to enjoy finding the reasonably priced daily writers, or even a coveted flexible nib, many of them older than we are.

There are some prominent pen folks who own, and use, both modern and vintage, but the focus has primarily been on modern (currently manufactured) or custom pens. A number of blogs and podcasts extol the virtues of the gold nibs that seem to have no modern counterpart. The super flexy, wet noodle nibs of some Waterman’s, and similar pens of that early era, are commanding prices in the same range as some modern custom pens or a Montblanc, high-end Pelikan, or Nakaya. I’m still on the search for an affordable wet noodle.

I can absolutely see wanting more of a guarantee if you are heading above the $50 range for a pen. Until I found some reputable places to purchase, my self-imposed cap was below $50 for a fountain pen. I understand why someone might want to stick with a pen they can return to the store if they have buyer's remorse or find fountain pen use doesn't suit them. I find it a little disingenuous that someone needs to rely on a manufacturer warranty or guarantee for a pen under $10-$15. Seems more of a hassle than it's worth if a pen that price doesn't quite work out.

Variety of Esterbrook fountain pens
Variety of Esterbrook fountain pens

There’s discussion around certain modern brands with the ability to swap out nibs, but for the most part, I’d surmise that the basic pen user is going to stick with the nib the pen came with, possibly buying an additional pen with a different size if they really like the first one — which is also a great way to have pens available as you acquire more ink colors you may want to use.

One reasonably priced vintage option with truly swap-able nibs are the line of Esterbrook pens. A guest post on The Pen Addict blog by Ron Gilmour gives a solid overview. When we are discussing starter pens, an Esterbrook can be a great "gateway" pen to the broader vintage world. There is a very nice range of nib types. They are easy to maintain, many under $30, and quite a few of us out there seem to be doing a decent job restoring them to use. There are affordable Sheaffer's, Parker, and Waterman's vintage pens as well.

A selection of Esterbrook purse pens
A selection of Esterbrook purse pens

Heading down the acquisition path, many of us attempt to stick to our budgets or self-imposed expenditure caps. That often fails as you get more fascinated with the variety and wonder of these analog tools. That resolve can fail even further as you get more in tune with the types of nibs you enjoy. That self imposed cap I mentioned—under $50?—I'm spending that on broken pens now for repair. Some I keep to use, but increasingly my goal is to get them back out into the world as useful, and enjoyable, analog tools for other avid pen users.

To be sure, bad things can happen to good pens, as Ana Reinert of the Well Appointed Desk, points out in her post about her repair experience in Atlanta. The security of knowing that a favorite pen can be easily replaced from modern options can be a comfort. It’s even comforting for those of us who are very careful and still manage to damage or lose a beloved pen inadvertently.

Sheaffer's lever fill vintage pens.
Sheaffer's lever fill vintage pens.

Dan and I did a marathon antiquing wander recently, stopping at 7 of the places we tend to hit independently on various outings — all in one day. There were a few Esterbrooks that might have been worth restoring, and quite a few other makes that were in truly sad condition - Wearever, Sheaffer, Parker, etc. A vendor at an antique mall we go to with some regularity usually has horribly overpriced vintage pens, most in abysmal condition. This time, however, I managed to sort through the unsalvageable pens to find a halfway decent Sheaffer No Nonsense with an Italic F nib. The seller happened to have a "50% off, except FIRM" on his booth. WIN! Vintage, inexpensive, reliable, and not the ubiquitous M nib.

There are plenty of examples of affordable vintage cartridge or aerometric pens in relatively good condition to start you down the road of fountain pen use. I completely understand recommendations that come from folks who are familiar with modern pens like Lamy Safari and Pilot Metropolitan for entry level. They serve the purpose as well as a reliable inexpensive vintage cartridge pen, and they have a certain appeal in terms of styling, standardized quality expectation, etc. Different strokes for different folks.

I was interested to see that Brad Dowdy, of The Pen Addict, helped organize a vintage pen seminar at the Chicago Pen Show. He gives his assessment of how that went in episode #203. Another take on that evening event is from the viewpoint of Michael, via Medium: My thoughts on last night’s vintage pen seminar for newbies at the Chicago Pen Show. I know where Michael is with his desire for the next steps. I’m not by any stretch an expert on vintage pens. On the contrary I’m just someone with a lot of time spent with them and a desire to learn more about them and share what I learn.

There are some great resources out there already. I just hope sharing them doesn’t push the price-point of some vintage pens I’d still like to acquire too far out of my budget range. 😉

Resources (other than attempting an eBay buy):

  • Esterbrook.net- Anderson Pens purveyor Brian Anderson's page about Esterbrooks.
  • Greg Minuskin's web site - Quite possibly the "Rick Turner" (ask me about the reference 😉 of fountain pens. Re-tipping, information, and restored pens that don't seem to stay available long once he lists them.
  • Nibs.com - parts, pens and info
  • Richard Binder's web site - a phenomenal resource about vintage pens, history, repair, and general guidance. Not a modern site, get over it... the rich information is worth tolerating a non-modern website. ;
  • sheaffertarga.com- a wealth of information about Sheaffer Pens
  • The Vintage Pens Web Site- David Nishimura - supplies for restoration, pens for sale and reference information.

Some prices of restored pens are not going to appeal to the beginning fountain pen user (possibly) but I've tried to list primarily sites that are as much (or more) reference as they are sales.

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