Fountain pen construction

Old fountain pens were generally assembled by hand, using parts that were typically fashioned by hand. Pen point making, in particular, was quite a handicraft, and many penmakers chose buy rather than make their points (hence the "warranted" or nonbranded points found on many lesser-brand pens). Until injection molded plastics appeared around World War II, the materials used for barrels and caps (usually hard rubber or celluloid) had to be worked to shape from rods or tubes on a lathe, then finished and polished up by hand.

Courtesy of my parts bin, here are the parts of a typical Depression-era lever-filler sac pen (an El-NoNameo deluxe, unlimited edition):


The cap, of course, protects the point of the pen (as well as the owner's shirt pocket, purse, etc. as appropriate). The earliest caps were simple slip-ons, but eventually the industry went to threaded screw-on caps to prevent accidental opening, Later, the slip-on cap would make a return in the forms of the clutch cap (like the Parker 51 and 61, with a metal friction clutch) and the snap-on cap (like the Waterman Le Man or Gentleman with spring loaded retainers).

Most modern pens, in fact, have snap-on caps, which often leads to confusion when non-FP-users try to open vintage pens. A tip: when showing a pen, always remove the cap first yourself (and some say you should hold onto the cap so as to reduce the likelihood that the pen might inadvertently "walk away").

The metal band usually found near the mouth of plastic and hard rubber caps is not merely decorative, it reinforces the portion of the cap that gets the most stress, and stops cracks in the cap lip from spreading. The band may be gold-filled or plated, and may be plain or engraved with a pattern.



The size, shape, finish, and construction of the clip all add personality to the pen; clip design is important because the clip is the first part of the pen that a casual observer is likely to see (i.e.,when it sits in your pocket). Clips were originally an option; Waterman simply riveted the ball-end clips on its famous early "Clip-Cap", but Sheaffer went for clips secured by internal springs. Parker originated the washer clip, in which the clip is attached to a ring or washer that is secured to the cap by a decorative screw called a tassie or derby (the washer clip was favored by the doughboys during WWI because it helped the pen fit all the way down in a button-flap pocket). In its Personal Point and Doric pens, Wahl continued the use of the elegant roller clips used by the Boston Pen company, and later went to a fairly futuristic design in its Skyline pen. Many less expensive pens make do with clips secured to the cap by insertion and bending of tabs.




Points are made of sheet metal, gold alloys (14 or 18 carats) on the more expensive pens, and steel or gold-plated steel on lesser pens. The original reason for using gold was its imperviousness to chemical attack from the somewhat caustic inks of the early years (not a problem now, so there's no reason to turn down a steel point pen).

Since the gold is rather soft, and would wear rapidly if used for writing, a tiny blob of iridium (a very hard metal) is soldered to the tip; this blob is properly called the nib (although this word is popularly used to mean the entire point).

The point is slit after being shaped and fitted with a nib, and a breather hole may be cut to help with smooth ink flow and rapid filling. The breather hole also stops the tendency for cracks to form at the end of the slit.

Making pen points was a farily skilled craft in the old days, so much so that the point makers had their own union (much to the detriment of the political ambitions of a Waterman executive, as David Nishimura reports in one of his informative articles).



The job of the feed is to get the ink from inside the pen and out to the point and nib. The feed also has to supply a return path for air to enter the pen to take the place of the departing ink. Feed design is fairly critical, and it took many years for inventors to develop practical designs (Waterman may have had the first).

One of the problems that the feed must cope with is widely varying ink flow rate (caused by changes in temperature, humidity, type of ink, pen usage, etc.). Most feeds have comb cuts or internal pockets for accumulating excess ink and keeping it from blotting the paper during writing.



The section is really the linchpin of the pen; it is where all of the important parts of the pen come together. The feed and nib are placed together in proper alignment and press-fitted into the front of the section. The sac is trimmed to fit inside the pen and then stretched over a nipple or reduced-diameter cut on the rear of the section (classically, shellac was used to glue the sac in place as this gave a good seal, did not harm the section, and could be cleaned off for later re-sacking).

Some pens (like the Sheaffer lever fillers) had a transparent band in the section that allowed the user to tell when the pen was running low on ink. This was a trick that partially made up for the fact that sac pens couldn't be made transparent like Vacumatics or other sacless pens.



Sacs were made from rubber, although later penmakers would use more exotic polymers (such as Parker's "pliglass" transparent sacs in the aerometric 51s.

If ink is left to dry in a sac pen, it will leave a hard residue that can petrify the sac; a collector trying to fill the pen for the first time in twenty years or so will feel a nasty crunch as the sac splits...time for a replacement. Another tip: clean out your pens before you put them away for an extended period.


Lever & barrel

The lever is held in the barrel by a small pin or retaining ring; older pens may have a lever box of metal surrounding the lever. When the lever is pulled out, it bends a J-shaped metal bar (usually and unimaginatively called the "J-bar") running the length of the barrel, which compresses the sac and expels its contents. When the lever is released, the J-bar snaps back in place, and the sac expands to its original shape, drawing in ink as it does so.

On many pens, the barrel is finished off with a decoratve screw or "jewel", typically resembling the tassie. A flashy looking jewel was often a cheap way to finish off a barrel or cap, less labor intensive than tapering to a point (as with the Sheaffer Balance pens). Button fillers, vacuum fillers, and bulb fillers have "blind caps" at the end which can be removed to get at the works.

This file last posted on:
2005-Jan-20 17:50:23 CST
MCMVIII, the red network