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Sheaffer TM Snorkels
and predecessors

Sheaffer Clipper set in Aqua, c 1955.

With the end of the Second World War, the U.S. could dismantle its huge and efficient war machine and return to a civilian peacetime economy. Of course, this took a bit of time, and in any case no one was sure exactly how well that economy would do. Consequently, most manufacturers played it somewhat conservatively, and it is therefore no surprise that the Sheaffer pens of the postwar period looked quite a bit like those made before (and in limited numbers during) the war. Changes were, however, on the way.

Early postwar innovations

In 1948, Sheaffer discontinued the use of Radite (celluloid) in favor of a new synthetic cast resin that they called "Fortical." This meant the end of the quaint stripes and swirls of old-fashioned celluloid, but the new material promised to be more durable and scratch-resistant, and was much less expensive to manufacture. Also, in my view at any rate, the new material worked much better with bright or pastel colors, a characteristic that Sheaffer would exploit in the years that followed.

The ever-faithful lever filler, the innovation that put Sheaffer on the map back in 1912, was also on its way out, although it would last into the early 1950s on a few models. The Vac-FIl system was getting a bit long in the tooth, and perhaps Sheaffer was getting too many warranty claims due to leaks and rotted pistons. In 1949, Sheaffer announced a new filling system, the Touchdown, which quickly replaced the Vac-Fil design.

From the user's point of view, the two systems were essentially identical in operation: unscrew the blind cap and pull back, put the point in the ink and push back in. Sheaffer publicity art made much of the supposed one-hand operation of the Touchdown; although this would actually have required quite a bit of manual dexterity to keep from knocking the ink off the table, it would certainly have been easier to manage with the Touchdown's beefy, lubricated filler tube than with the Vac-Fil's slender piston rod.

The Touchdown was actually a sac pen; the conventional rubber sac was concealed inside a metal capsule with holes strategically punched through its end and around its base; over this assembly was a nickel-plated tube fitted with an O-ring for an airtight seal. When the tube was retracted from the back of the pen and then pushed back in, it created high pressure inside the pen that deflated the sac and forced out any ink remaining inside; then, as the pressure equalized, the sac returned to its normal shape and drew in a load of fresh ink. Although rather more complicated than the Vac-Fil, the Touchdown was no doubt easier for Sheaffer technicians to refurbish (it's also easier for modern-day restorers to rebuild).

The Thin Model

In 1950, Sheaffer introduced the "Thin Model" or "TM" range of pens. I use the term "range" here rather than "model" because the TM lineup actually included a lot of separately-named models with varying details and pricing (we'll look at some of these shortly). With this multiplicity of new model names, it's as if Sheaffer were making up for the several decades during which it tended not to assign prominent names for its various pen lines.

The TM pens were, as the name suggests, quite slender; so much so, in fact, that they were pretty straight-sided rather than gently contoured as the earlier Balance pens had been. The TMs would use Touchdown filling until the arrival of the Snorkel filler in 1952.

Nearly all of the TM models used threaded caps, with improved metal-to-metal threading (I've seen at least one gold-fill model that had a slip-cap). The sections of these pens were made from a comfortably knurled dark-amber colored plastic, which on the early Touchdown models contained a translucent or "visulated" portion just behind the point (which by the time you find one has usually stained beyond use). The later Snorkel models did not permit visualted sections because of the need to house the Snorkel tube (the ink supply no longer wetted the insides of the section).

The snorkel filler

In 1952, Sheaffer introduced what many have called the world's most complex fountain pen filling system: the Snorkel. This pen does indeed merit this tribute, as can be seen from the picture below.

Sheaffer Saratoga TM snorkel pen disassembled.

Fortunately for owners, this complexity seldom showed in daily use; the Snorkel is a reliable, easy-to-live-with, and efficient filler that shows its teeth only to the technician who has to try to get all these tiny parts apart and then back together again (without leaving any out, as I sometimes do when working on my car's brakes!).

The snorkel, stowed (top) deployed for action (bottom)

The Snorkel was essentially a Touchdown pen with the addition of a thin pipe (the "snorkel") that emerged from beneath the feed when the blind cap was unscrewed for filling. The idea was that you could simply dip the tip of the snorkel into the ink well when filling, and you would not have to wipe up afterward. This was indeed the first Sheaffer (and possibly the first self-filler of any type) that did not require you to insert the point fully into the inkwell, and it was just the ticket to go with Sheaffer's "dip-well" ink bottles.

Owing to the extra bulk of the internal spring and the slender profile of the TM barrel, the snorkel's sac had to be very small; however, thanks to the efficiency of the design, the Snorkel had a much longer write-out when properly filled than many other pens of conventional design. The Snorkel also made an effective ink-deployment weapon for pranksters of the 1950s; a Snorkel in good tune can shoot out a stream of ink more than a foot long. There are reports of some Snorkel enthusiasts using their pens as "eyedroppers" to fill antique pens and old cartridges.

The Snorkel became standard equipment for all TM pens after its introduction; the older Touchdown filler was relegated to the lower-priced TM-like Cadet and Craftsman steel-pointed models (but the Touchdown would outlast the Snorkel and would remain available on some Imperial models until well into the 1970s, and would be revived during the 1990s).

The TM model range

Throughout its career (which lasted through 1959), the TM Snorkel pen was offered in several distinct models. The entry-level TM models were available for prices starting at $7.95 (Special), while the Triumph-pointed models started at $15.50 (Statesman) and went up to about $100 for the solid gold Masterpiece. The all-black Autograph was a Sheaffer tradition dating from the early days of the Balance; upon purchase, you returned this pen to Fort Madison, where a metalsmith would engrave your signature directly into the stout gold band (the Autograph tradition would be carried on until the PFM in the early 1960s).

The White Dot appliqué was reserved for the more expensive Triumph point models; although the Dot no longer denoted the lifetime warranty (as it had when it was introduced in the early 1920s), it was still used as a mark to distinguish Sheaffer's higher-line offerings.

The Triumph points found on these pens were of the later, longer type, drawn from gold tube rather than welded up from sheet gold, and are correspondingly much stronger even than the very strong originals. I defy you to spring one of these points without using power tools!

Sheaffer Valiant TM in burgundy, c 1955

It was during the TM Snorkel era that Sheaffer first began to fit non-gold points to Sheaffer-branded pens, something that would have been unthinkable during the 1920s and 30s. In fact, even the lower ranges of the White Dot series used non-gold points (although the owner could still brag about the very stiff, strong, and lustrous silver-palladium points found on these models). Moving away from gold only made sense, as it allowed the pens to be sold for much less; Parker had already been doing this for a few years with the 51 Special and lesser models. Anyway, most of the purely functional reasons for using gold points (ease of working, durability, corrosion resistance) had been rendered moot by this time, and buyers of the 1950s tended to be more interested in novel mechanics or fresh designs than in what you made the point from.

The TM models carried the flag for Sheaffer during one of its most successful periods, but were ushered into history with the arrival of the PFM in 1959 (along with an assortment of new slip-cap pens more or less related to the PFM in style). The TM's cardinal features, the Snorkel and Touchdown fillers and the Triumph point, were carried forward on many of the newer models.

The Verdict

Sheaffer TM pens have a dedicated following, who admire the fancy and efficient Snorkel filler. These pens came in many variations of trim and style, enough to keep you on the hunt for quite some time. Needless to say, these durable pens also make great everyday writers (particularly if you like Sheaffer's firm, smooth points). Nothing beats operating a Snorkel filler in good tune; it's even fun to operate them when they're empty, just so you can hear the little "whoosh" of escaping air.

Snorkels generally sell at or below the prices one might pay for contemporary Parker 51s, although metal-capped pens or rare colors might sell for a bit more. Still, a conservative sampling of these pens probably won't endanger the college fund.

If you find a Snorkel pen in the wild, it will most likely require some refurbishment. The snorkel may not move out of the pen easily, indicating that a thorough cleaning and a dab of silicone grease are in order. The sacs can rot (as they do on any other sac pen), and the pens have to be torn down completely in order to replace them. Also, the O-ring seals of the touchdown tube can harden and must be replaced to restore the filler to its normal standard of "suckfulness." Be aware that even if a Snorkel (or a Touchdown pen, for that matter) is shot internally, it can still seem to fill when you operate it; in fact, what is happening is that you are letting liquid ink into the insides of the pen, where it can not only leak out, but can cause some parts (particularly the snorkel spring) to rust. I'd recommend that you turn your new Snorkel over to an expert for rebuilding, as they can be even more of a chore to put back together than they are to take apart.