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Sheaffer Vac-Fil

Sheaffer Balance Lifetime in Gray Stripe with Triumph Point and Vac-Fil, c1942

Despite Sheaffer's famous patent defenses, its lever-fill system had escaped the barn and had in fact become an industry standard by the 1920s. The principal holdout from this standard was Sheaffer's Wisconsin arch-rival Parker, which stuck to its own button-filler design. This was no big issue, since both systems were sac-fillers, and any arguments over which might be better were largely academic. However, in 1933, Parker leap-frogged Sheaffer (and others) with its new Vacumatic pen, which they claimed (perhaps with less than complete accuracy) to be "sac-less."

And so, Sheaffer engineers were faced with the task of creating their own sacless pen to respond to the Vac threat. They unveiled their new design on their low-priced line of WASP ("Walter A. Sheaffer Pens") fountain pens, and in about 1935 made it available on Sheaffer-branded pens as the Vac-Fil system.

I don't have the research (yet) to say who did what to whom, but clearly the Vac-Fil was inspired by the plunger filler that had been used for some time previously, principally by Onoto De La Rue in the UK. It's a clever design that can be a fast and efficient filler. The barrel of a Vac-Fil pen is simply an empty tube with a metal and felt seal at the back; through this seal and into the barrel runs a long, thin steel rod with a pliable piston fitted at its end. The other end of the rod is secured on the pen's blind cap. Here's how it worked:

  1. The user unscrewed the blind cap and pulled it out, which extended the rod and pulled the piston to the back of the barrel.
  2. The user then put the point into an inkwell and pushed the rod back into the pen.
  3. As the piston descended, it created high pressure in front (which forced any remaining ink out of the pen) and partial vacuum in the back.
  4. When the piston reached a point near the bottom of the stroke, it entered a portion of the barrel that had a larger inner diameter; with the piston no longer in contact with the barrel walls, the vacuum was broken and ink was drawn into the pen.

Sheaffer Crest Triumph Point Vac-Fil set in Golden Brown stripe, c 1945

As I said, the plunger is a remarkably simple and efficient filler mechanism (one of my favorites, in fact). Sheaffer told its dealers that this pen had several times the capacity of similar size pens including the dreaded Vacumatic, and that unlike the Vacumatic, the Vac-Fil was really and truly "sac-less."

The example shown at the top of the page is somewhat unusual in that it seems to have a silver clip and band, this probably makes it a wartime baby (when the brass that would normally have been used for trim parts was needed on the battlefield). It shows a slight shrinkage of the celluloid that was common in many pens of the 1940s (again, probably, a consequence of wartime economics). Its section was probably supposed to be translucent (so you could see the ink level), but like contemporary Vacumatics has become stained over the decades. Like other later Vac-Fils, this model actually has an internal sealed barrel beneath the celluloid, so that the barrel itself is not translucent.

Parts from a Sheaffer Balance Lifetime Carmine Stripe Vac-Fil, c 1938

It's nice to find a Vac-Fil in good repair. Unfortunately, you're far more likely to find them in the condition shown above: corroded filler rods, bad rear seals, and hardened pistons. Some Vac-Fils I've seen had some sort of cladding (possibly rubber) on the piston rods, but this often flakes off during repair and makes things that much worse. The filler rod can be so badly corroded that it will break loose from the piston, making repair difficult if not impossible. Even if the filler parts are intact and in good shape, the pen won't fill if the rear seal isn't tight against the rod. These pens are very expensive and time-consuming to repair, and the expense is seldom justified by the trading price (although, again, this does not mean that you shouldn't have yours repaired if you really cherish it). I have also heard of some folks being able to turn these pens into cartridge fillers, but I suspect that the expense may not warrant the job.

The Verdict

When shopping for 1930s-1940s Sheaffers, particularly in online auctions, you are advised to verify whether they're lever fillers (which are easy to refurbish) or Vac-Fils (which are not). If you're looking at a Vac-Fil, you should assume that it is a wreck and set your price accordingly.

On the other hand, Vac-Fil junkers are relatively cheap (when bought from knowledgeable sources), and might be worthwhile if you want to figure out how to repair them, or if you could use their parts (caps, points, feeds, sections, etc). for another Sheaffer pen you're rebuilding.

Maker Sheaffer
Origin USA (Iowa)
Production 1935c - 1949c
Type Vac-Fil (plunger filler)
Point 14k
Construction Striped celluloid barrel and cap, sliver trim.