How to Buy Your First Parker 51

Since there’s a good chance that people reading this post, about buying your first vintage fountain pen, will want to purchase a Parker 51, I thought I’d write a separate post with a few extra tips on how to get a good, working Parker 51 at a decent price.

So, one of these pens costs upwards of $400 and the other can be purchased for closer to $40. Which is which?

This is one of the dilemmas facing a new Parker 51 buyer: you’ve heard that this is a great vintage pen, but you can’t make heads or tails of its market value. How do you know what to buy and that you aren’t being ripped off?

Here are a few things worth knowing, if you want to buy a Parker 51 that you actually intend to use. If you’re looking to buy a pen to collect, this is not the guide for you. I’m assuming that you want a good, writing pen that will last you for years and won’t break the bank.

  • Check if the pen is a vacumatic or an aerometric Parker 51. You can either ask the seller, or take a quick glance at the pen body. If there’s a visible seam near the end of the pen, its a vacumatic. You want an aerometric, because they’re cheaper, easier to use and clean, and generally have less issues requiring repair than their earlier counterparts. Aerometric Parker 51 have a filling system that looks like a modern squeeze converter: a sack covered in a metal sleeve. The sack is transparent when the pen is brand new, but 95% of the time you’ll see sacks that are discoloured to a black, opaque state. That doesn’t affect the workings of the pen, but the more transparent the sack is the higher the pen’s price will be. You don’t need a pen with a clear sack to enjoy your 51. Just press the sack to check that it’s still supple (it usually will be. The sacks aren’t rubber so they don’t crumble with age), and remember: you’ll need 4-5 presses to fill the pen properly.
  • Most of the value of a Parker 51 pen lies in the cap. I know, that sounds weird, but since the body has no markings (usually), there’s really note much else that can differentiate between one Parker 51 and another (we’ll get to the colours later, I promise). Gold, gold-filled, coin silver and sterling silver caps will make the price of the pen skyrocket. Telling the gold apart from the Lustraloy (regular) caps is easy, but don’t worry, you won’t get any silver capped 51 for less than $150, so that’s how you can tell even if you don’t want to ask the dealer. But by all means, ask the dealer. Sterling silver caps are stamped, as are the gold ones. The gold filled caps are merely marked as gold filled, and if your heart is set on them they aren’t wildly expensive usually (they actually cost less than a modern Edison or Franklin Christoph pen, so long as you’re going for an aerometric in a common colour).
  • Caps that are even slightly dinged or nicked, visibly scratched or have lost the frosted lustre in their Lustraloy also seriously devalue the price of the pen. A brand new Lustraloy cap has a frosted finish and shiny bands on the top and bottom. The pen in the middle of this photo is NOS, and you can see that it looks different than its well worn neighbour to the right (the black pen). Gold filled and gold caps are usually dinged in some way if they were used, and this is the case of the demi Parker below (the grey one). Needless to say, the state of the cap doesn’t affect the writing experience with the pen, so you can get 51s for a song if you’re willing to go with a common coloured pen with a Lustraloy cap that’s seen some wear. It doesn’t even have to be dinged – just the existence of significant micro-scratches is enough.
  • In order of rarity the common Parker 51 colours are: Black, Navy Blue, Grey, Burgundy, Teal. None of these colours are rare, and none of them should raise the price of the pen.
  • If the pen is NOS or stickered and sold as almost NOS, walk away. That significantly raises the price for a pen that’s meant to be looked at, not used.
  • All Parker 51s use a slip cap mechanism. That means that oftentimes a well used pen will have scratches, abrasions and visible scuffing on the section (the part of the pen above the band, near the nib). That also devalues the pen, but like other cosmetic flaws it does nothing to affect its writing capability.
  • So what does affect the Parker 51’s writing capability? The tipping material. The thing you absolutely must check before buying a Parker 51 that you intend to write with is how much tipping material it has left. This may be a little tricky, because in finer 51 nibs you may not see how much tipping material there is on first glance. The trick is to look at the pen nib not from the side, but from below. Look at this 51 pen nib for example. Without a loupe it’s difficult to see from the side how much tipping material is left on it:

 

  • Hard to tell if there’s a lot of tipping material left there or not.

The answer is to flip the pen and look at the flip side of the nib. The tipping material looks like a shiny dot on the tip of the nib. If there’s no shiny dot and you just see the gold nib, the tipping material is gone. You’ll also feel it immediately when writing, as the pen will drag over the paper instead of floating on it, and may even be scratchy. Parker 51 nibs don’t get misaligned very often, so a scratchy nib usually means the tipping material is gone.

  • A medium Parker 51 nib with plenty of tipping material left

    A fine Parker 51 tip with some tipping material left. This should still last for years of use.
  • Parker 51 pens have gold nibs, unless they’re Parker 51 Specials, in which case they have steel nibs, shiny caps and a black jewel on top. I personally am not a fan of the 51 Special, but if you are, they’re usually an inexpensive way to get into your first vintage fountain pen.
  • There are two lengths of pen body, the full size Parker 51 and the shorter Parker 51 demi. I don’t recommend buying the demi because they’re too small for even my tiny hands  to use with comfort (without posting), and they tend to cost more because there were less of them made.
  • As usual, personalization of any kind on the pen body or cap makes the price of the pen severely drop.

Bottom line: you can get a phenomenal gold nibbed pen in a beautiful Jetson design for less than $100 if you know what not to pay for. Now can you tell which pen is the Plum?

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How to Buy Your First Parker 51

How to Buy Your First Vintage Fountain Pen

I just listened to the latest Pen Addict Podcast, where a listener asked for tips on buying their first vintage fountain pen. I have well over 100 vintage fountain pens, and I’ve been buying vintage fountain pens since the early 2000s, so I decided to take the time and write a guide to buying your first vintage fountain pens (for the sake of this guide vintage fountain pens are those made before the ’70s).
  1. First, set a budget. Vintage pens are no different than modern pens in this respect, but somehow vintage fountain pen buying guides tend to skip this step. You can get great vintage fountain pens for under $50 and well over $500. Pick a number you’re comfortable with, and stick to it, no matter what.
  2. Decide why do you want a vintage pen:
    1. Flex – You’re looking to add line variation to your writing or drawing. Apart from dip pens, vintage fountain pens are the cheapest way to get that desirable flex. No modern fountain pen, despite any manufacturer promises, offers the line variation of a vintage flex fountain pen, and the premium you pay for a bit of springiness in modern nibs is painfully high. Vintage fountain pens also offer flex “combos,” such as italic flex, needlepoint flex, etc. And if you’re considering the Noodler’s fountain pen lineup, I recommend going dip pen instead. They require less fiddling and are more reliable.
    2. Gold/Specialty Nib – You want to get into gold nibs as cheaply as possible, or you want non-standard nib configurations (a fountain pen that works on carbon copy paper, perchance?). You can get fantastic gold and crazy nibs on vintage fountain pens for much, much less than certain manufacturers ask for a generic steel nib pen with a colourful plastic body.
    3. Looks – You can find a vintage fountain pen that utterly matches your style, whether it’s an understated elegant pen, a stunning showstopper one, or an out of this world wacky wildcard pen. Did I mention also that these lookers will likely cost you much less than any modern equivalent?
    4. History – You’re looking for something with a past, with a story. It can be something that’s passed down the family, a treasured pen found in an estate sale and begging to be researched, or a bold attempt by a brazen small company to create something completely new.
    5. Quirkiness – Things were wild in the heyday of the fountain pen, and you want  a piece of that. Retractable and adjustable nibs, crazy filling mechanisms, pens made out of strange materials: works of genius and madness that call out to you.
    6. Collectable Value – This is the first thing people think about when they hear about vintage fountain pens, and there’s a reason it’s the last on my list. If this is what interests you, I highly recommend walking away before you even start. This isn’t a money making venture. There are no great deals or finds to be made. All the good ones have been taken long before you, and are now passing from hand to hand, available only to people in the know. If you get into vintage pens for another reason and then decide you want to collect a few of the same kind, maybe nab one that’s a bit hard to get – fine. Otherwise, you’re getting into a losing game.

    P1010319
    Ugly no name lever filler with phenomenal gold wet noodle nib and feed, in utter user-grade condition. Bought for $30. 
  3. Your next move depends on what you chose in the last step:
    • Flex – Get thee to a vendor. Writing samples on the internet are lovely, and they’re a great way to shop for inks. Vintage flex needs to be held in hand and tested. Go to a pen show or a vendor and specifically ask for pens with a flex nib. Then ask to dip them, and try writing with them. Be very gentle at first, until you figure out how the nib works. The magic of vintage flex isn’t so much the nibs themselves, it’s the feeds. A good vintage wet noodle can keep the ink flow going even when you’re writing in giant poster letters. A modern pen’s feed will give up and you’ll end up with railroading. Things to remember:
      • A vintage flex nib may look wonky (dropping, slightly wavy). Ignore that – the test is in the writing. If the vendor won’t allow you to dip test, say thank you politely and walk away.
      • You’re interested in the nib, not the pen. Ask if the filling mechanism works (99% of the time vintage flex are lever fillers), and check the body for cracks. That’s it. It can be a black chased hard rubber (BCHR) Waterman brown with discolouration, brassing, and 3 different personalizations, it shouldn’t matter. You’re there for the nib, and the uglier the pen, the cheaper it’s likely to be. Vendors used to not even repair these ugly ducklings until recently, when the interest in vintage flex spiked and people figured out that you can get a wet noodle for $30.
      • The maker doesn’t matter. Waterman made great vintage flex nibs, but people know that, so you’re going to pay a premium for it. Some of my best flex nib pens are from no-name small manufacturers, and I got them all for a song. Waterman is great, just don’t get locked in to looking only at them. Test the nib and let it speak to you.
      • If you want to be extra sure that the pen works, ask the vendor to fill the pen for you once you’ve completed the purchase but before you’ve left the table. Just don’t forget to empty the pen out if you’re going on an airplane later on.
      • Never touch a pen, especially not a flex nib pen, without talking to the vendor first.
P1010317
Ugly no name Italian pen with personalization, bought for the phenomenal flex italic nib. Bought for £25
    • Gold/Speciality Nib – Much of what applies to flex nibs applies to these types of nibs. Unlike with flex nibs, online shopping for vintage gold/specialty nib pens is an option, but going to to a pen show or a vendor and try them out is still the best and safest approach. Don’t buy for the pen’s looks or condition (beyond checking that it works and there are no visible cracks), but for how it feels to write with this nib. Things to remember:
      • Great vintage pens with gold nibs are very common. If the price for a pen is high, you’re not paying for the nib, you’re paying for something else. Walk away.
      • If you just want your first gold vintage fountain pen, I recommend the Parker 51. You can get a great one for well under $100 (often under $50 if the body’s been personalized), so long as you aren’t fixated on one of the rare colours or an early year. Focus on aeromatics, in Black, Navy Grey, Burgundy, Forest Green, Midnight Blue, Teal Blue with a lustraloy cap. You pay a premium for special colours, caps in gold and sterling silver, red band vacumatic filling systems, and the cap condition. If the cap is dinged or lost its frosting, or if the pen is personalized, you can get it for a song. The Parker 51 nibs are PHENOMENAL. There’s absolutely nothing like them, and they make your writing look great. This is a large part of their appeal. The nibs aren’t graded, and most of them are in the fine-to-medium range. Just make sure there’s plenty of tipping material when you buy the pen (try out the pen and feel if it’s scratchy/look at the tip/ask to see a close up of it when buying online). The Parker51 website and the Parker forum on the Fountain Pen Network are a great place to learn more about these pens.
      • Speciality nibs are harder to find, so focus on two companies: Esterbrook or Pelikan. Both made great pens with a wide variety of interesting nibs, and both can be had relatively cheaply. These pens were also built like tanks, so they’re very likely to be in great working condition when you buy them, just be sure to ask. If you’re in Europe, Pelikans will be cheaper for you to acquire, and if you’re in the US Esterbrook is your friend. These are also pens that you can buy online relatively safely. Start with the Fountain Pen Network Esterbrook/Pelikan forums (FPN is still the #1 resource for vintage fountain pens), Esterbrook.net or the Pelikan’s Perch to educate yourself and purchase pens. I’ve purchased great vintage Pelikans from Berlin Collectibles, but again, I’d recommend trying the pen in person before going to the online shopping route. Esterbrook is going to be significantly cheaper than Pelikan, and you can buy one pen body (I recommend the J) and several nib units. But Pelikan has phenomenal OB, OBBB, OBBBBB… nibs that Esterbrook just never made.
P1010318
Esterbrook J double jewel (i.e. super common) with a 9556 nib. Bought for $16.5
P1010310
Pelikan 140 with a flexible OM gold nib. Piston filler, bought for 120 euros.
    • Looks – this is probably the hardest one to give recommendations for, except go to a pen show and look around to see what catches your eye, but there is one thing worth noting. If there’s a particular design you like but it’s beyond your budget, look for “knock offs” made in the same era. Smaller makers made great pens “inspired” by more expensive ones made by the big manufacturers. You can get a Parker Vacumatic Golden Web look alike for $50-$80, gold nib and all, and only you’ll know that it’s a lever filler made by a no-name Italian maker and not the real deal (don’t sell it as such, though).
  • P1010309
    Waterman, bought for the crazy look and the superflex nib. Notice how the nib looks dented.
    • History – tell friends and family that you’re into fountain pens, and you’ll likely be inundated with old pens that they’ve found in the back of desk drawers. Most of them will be ruined, but you may get grandpa’s Parker 51, or grandma’s Esterbrook nurse pen, you never know. If it’s something from the family, I recommend investing in having it professionally repaired and restored if the history aspect interests you. Otherwise, this category of purchase requires dedicated research. I’d check the Fountain Pen Network, and go on from there. If you like to know that your pen had a past, skip stickered pens and go for personalized ones and you’ll also save a lot of money.
    • Quirkiness –  this is the most fun category. Go to a pen show or vendor and ask if they’ve got anything strange. A pen with a weird body design/colour. A pen with a strange filling mechanism. Something wild engineering attempt to make the pen leak proof. The prices here can vary a lot, depending on whether the pen works or not, and if you plan on restoring one of these and they have a strange nib or filling mechanism take into account that it will add a lot to the price, and not every restorer will take the job. I wouldn’t start with one of those.
    • Collectable Value – don’t. If you really, really want to, go to the relevant Fountain Pen Network forum and check what everybody’s wild about. Don’t go by what eBay sellers call “rare,” and remember that not everything that’s rare is desirable.
P1010308.jpg
One of these is a user grade black Parker 51, and the other is a plum Parker 51. Would you pay well over 4 times the price of one for the other?
How to Buy Your First Vintage Fountain Pen

The Master Pencils Union No. 84 Pencil Review

My latest flea market find is a red/blue Union No. 84 pencil from The “Master” Pencils Ltd, the English pencil company that also created the Golden Master pencils that I reviewed in the past.

The Union No. 84 is an oversized pencil, with a red and navy core. I love the choice of font for the imprint: it looks clean and professional.

The pencil is thick, built like a children’s pencil, and so the cores are extra large as well.

The navy core, almost black in appearance:

Finding a sharpener that can sharpen this pencil was a challenge. You’ll need one that’s designed for children’s pencils, yet is high quality enough to handle wood that has toughened over time, and a core that is still soft and brittle. I went with the M+R double brass sharpener Nr. 0603. Beware of the red core when you sharpen this pencil, as it can stain your hands.

Here’s the Union No. 84 next to the Caran d’Ache Bicolor 999, the golden standard for red/blue pencils. You can see their size differences quite clearly.

The navy tip of the pencil:

The red tip of the pencil:

The red tip of the pencil was much softer and more crumbly than the navy tip, but even though I was worried about it, it didn’t break with use.

I tested the Union No. 84 against the Bicolor 999, and discovered a few interesting things. The Union’s blue is indeed a shade darker than the Bicolor’s but it’s not as dark as I would have expected. The red shades of both pencils are virtually identical. The Union feels more like a pencil than the waxy Bicolor, with more feedback, and more shading possible when some pressure is applied. Both pencils erase poorly, but the Union erases better than the Bicolor, particularly the Union red, which doesn’t stain the paper.

I tested the pencils on a Baron Fig Confidant, my go-to pencil testing paper, and erased them with the Maped Technic 600.

The Master Union No. 84 is a lot of fun to draw with, beyond being useful for highlighting and correcting text. It feels like a proper pencil, and not a waxy crayon, and it shades enough to allow for doodles like this one:

The Union No.84 is great and fun, and so was the Spiderman movie. I highly recommend them both.

The Master Pencils Union No. 84 Pencil Review

Golden Master Pencil Review

A box of these beauties was languishing together with other art supplies in a stall in London’s Spitalfields market. I saw the box, saw their name, “The ‘Golden Master’ Pencil” and I couldn’t resist.

Just look at this design:

Who doesn’t want “Silken Graphite”? Or “A High Grade Pencil in Hexagon Cedar”? I’ve rarely seen a company take such pride in a pencil, outside of the Japanese market.

British made, from an era where Britain made things — and in London, too!

The pencils aren’t really Golden Master HB, but 2B (a bonus from my point of view). They’re labeled as such on the pencil, and strangely enough as two Bs on the box. I’ve never seen 2B pencils labeled that way. I wonder if they printed six Bs for their 6B pencils. I doubt they’d have room on the box.

In any case, the pencils slide out of the box in a sort of cardboard tray that is pretty robust. It works just like an old Eagle Pencil box, and I wish that more modern pencil makers would use this design.

The pencil itself has a good coating of yellow lacquer that has withstood the test of time, and has “Made in England”, “Golden Master”, “Silken Graphite”, “Pencils LTD.” and the grade stamped on it in gold foil.

The hexagonal shape is sharper, has sharper edges, than more modern pencils do. It doesn’t cut into your hand, but you feel it, and I have a feeling that without the lacquer this pencil wouldn’t be as nice to use.

The pencils come unsharpened in the box, and they’re a standard pencil size. As you can see there’s no eraser and no ferrule, but I don’t mind that. I rarely use pencil erasers, but rather keep a block eraser on my desk, or scribble things out if I’m writing.

I drew a journal comic with this pencil. It’s very smooth and holds a point forever, but it’s not a 2B pencil in terms of darkness. It’s closer to a standard B, but there’s a chance that time has done wonky things to make the graphite lighter. It erases well, and every core in the box that I have is perfectly centred. If you can get your hands on these, I recommend giving them a try. They’re great pencils, and I wish that they were still in production today.

Journal Comic 21-6-19.jpeg

Golden Master Pencil Review

Vintage Faber Castell Sharpener

I found this beast in a dusty corner of my favourite vintage shop in Jaffa. It’s far from pristine, but it’s so overbuilt that it still works. The body is Bakelite and somehow still whole, and even the green shavings receptacle isn’t cracked. I haven’t been able to find anything about the Faber Castell 52/18 (except for an eBay listing that says that it’s rare), but I love the design enough to wish that they were still being made today. Something about that green cutout in the black body just works.

Vintage Faber Castell Sharpener

Westinghouse No. 2 Pencil: Not a Review

I just started using a vintage Westinghouse number 2 pencil, instead of the Palomino Blackwing 530 which reached the Steinbeck stage. There’s no point in reviewing a pencil that isn’t widely available, but I got a pack of these on eBay for a pittance and they are excellent pencils, so if you’re looking for great, super cheap pencils and don’t mind petrified erasers, give branded vintage pencil listing on eBay a try. You never know what you’ll find.

Westinghouse No. 2 Pencil: Not a Review