Vintage pens can be more sensitive to ink viscosity than contemporary pens, especially those with flex nibs. Getting a fussy vintage pen to write well may require nothing more than a drier or wetter ink. I try out different inks to see what works well, using Pilot Iroshizuku inks as my test “wet” inks and Pelikan 4001 and J. Herbin inks as my test “dry” inks.
Vintage pens and pencils use a variety of mechanisms that may be unfamiliar, from lever-fillers to aerometric inserts to button-fillers to snorkels to propel-repel-expel pencils. With the exception of some cartridge-fillers, the original mechanisms have been restored for use as originally intended.
Cartridges for many vintage cartridge-fillers are no longer available—in this case, I have either converted the pen to use as an eyedropper, or have included an empty vintage cartridge and a blunt syringe that can be used to refill the cartridge from bottled ink.
To syringe-fill cartridges:
Unscrew pen barrel to remove cartridge. Screw blunt tip onto syringe. Draw ink from bottle, inject into cartridge. Replace cartridge. Hold pen nib to paper until flow begins—dipping nib in ink or gently squeezing cartridge may help to start ink flow. Sometimes you have to leave it alone for a couple minutes while capillary action brings the ink down the feed to the nib. For storage or to change ink, flush cartridge with water, using syringe, until clear.
To fill pens with converters:
Converters fit in cartridge-fillers and allow you to use bottled ink rather than pre-filled cartridges. There are two common types, aerometric and piston. Aerometric converters fill an internal sac by pushing a squeeze-bar. Piston converters either slide or twist, drawing up ink. To use a converter, open the pen, push the converter into the section, at the internal end of the feed, opposite the nib. Place the pen nib all the way into the ink and a little past, so the nib-end of the section is submerged too—this creates a seal so you draw in ink rather than air. Holding it there, pull or twist up the piston, if that’s what you’ve got. If it’s an aerometric converter, squeeze once and then wait a couple of seconds while the sac expands on the inside of the converter. Then do it again, and wait again, and you’re set. Wipe off the ink and you’re ready to go—and do the above with plain water to flush the pen between ink refills.
To fill lever-fill pens:
The lever pushes down an internal tension bar, which in turn squeezes a latex ink sac. To fill with ink, place the pen nib all the way into the ink and a little past, so the nib-end of the section is submerged too—this creates a seal so you draw in ink rather than air. Holding it there, gently pull the lever all the way out, and then put it back in and wait a few seconds while the sac expands on the inside of the pen. Then do it again, and wait again, and you’re set. Wipe off the ink and you’re ready to go—and do the above with plain water to flush the pen between ink refills.
To fill eyedropper pens:
Unscrew pen barrel—be sure not to wipe silicone grease from threads. Use syringe or eyedropper to fill pen barrel with ink from bottle. Screw section most of the way back on, then invert pen. With nib facing down over ink bottle, screw section the rest of the way onto the barrel, priming pen by forcing ink into feed and nib. Try to keep eyedropper pens at least half full of ink—heat from your hand will cause air in the pen to expand, and an eyedropper that’s low on ink may occasionally “burp” ink onto the page.
Vintage filling mechanisms:
Here’s a great overview of fountain pen filling mechanisms. Below are some specific vintage instruction sheets—as I restore different pens and pencils I’ll update this collection of specific manufacturer instructions to provide detailed support. Contact me if you have questions about a pen or pencil which does not have instructions below.
Parker 61, 51 and 21 (aerometric) pens and pencils
Eversharp (Parker) Big E
Parker 45 (plunger converter) pen and pencil
Parker 45 (aeromatic converter) pen and pencil
Sheaffer touchdown and lever pens and pencils
Sheaffer cartridge pens and pencils
Wahl-Eversharp Slim Ventura pen and pencil
Wahl-Eversharp pencil (1920s-1930s)
Wahl-Eversharp Repeater pencils (including Skyline pencils)
Waterman’s pens and pencils (1940s)
Waterman’s C/F pens and pencils
Check the instruction sheets above, but it may this excellent overview of vintage mechanical pencil mechanisms may also be helpful. Mechanical pencils today tend to be cap-actuated, load from the back, use .5mm leads, and click forward a set length of lead. Vintage pencils often don’t have any of those qualities.
As we look further back in the history of pencils, lead advancement is more likely to be twist actuated, and leads are thicker. Recent vintage pencils may take .7mm leads, but most will take .9mm leads, which was a standard size from the 1940s through the 1970s. Earlier pencils usually take .046″ leads, which are usually sold today as either 1.10mm leads or 1.15mm leads. Retro 51 is a good brand that isn’t hard to find, although the leads are usually too long for these pencils from the teens, ’20s, and ’30s.
Some vintage pencils load from the back and work just like you’d expect, but a great many are twist-actuated propel-repel-expel pencils. To load, you twist them all the way forward, until a small metal rod pokes a bit out of the tip. That’s the expeller—it makes sure the inner mechanism doesn’t get clogged with old lead. Twist it back in, and then insert a lead into the tip. Keep twisting, and the internal mechanism with feed the lead into a socket which will hold onto it. Once you have it all the way in, you’re ready to go. Pencils from before the 1930s won’t have an expeller or a socket. These will hold the lead through friction and will be twist-actuated. To retreat the lead, twist backward a bit and then push the tip down on the table to push the lead back in.
Erasers are difficult to replace. Earlier pencils tend to have wider erasers, and may be able to use cut-down click eraser refills or slightly-smaller Retro 51 eraser refills; Cross refills work on others. When I’ve replaced erasers, I’ll make a note of what I used so that you can replace them again as needed.
Some brands have been great about backward-compatibility—Parker and Sheaffer refills, for example, are mostly going to fit Parkers and Sheaffers. There are exceptions, which I’ll note here, and with each restored pen.