The Pen Doctor XXIX

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Vacumatic Filler Pellet Pops Out

I just received a 1940s Striped Duofold Vacumatic Ingenue/Junior. This pen has a speedline filler. I took the filling unit out, removed the pellet, and gave it a clean. However, when I went to install the diaphragm, it wouldn't keep the pellet in.

Rx:You can usually get the pellet to seat better by using a blunt pick or a small punch to push the rubber separator down into the plunger tube. Diaphragms vary in the thickness of their rubber; find the thickest one you have. Install it, making sure to push the pellet farther in than usual. Then, use the conical collar as a "ram" to push the rubber separator back down onto the pellet. (You will still be able to pull the diaphragm free with a little tug, but don't. As long as it stays in place through filler operation, it's fine.

This technique applies only to Lockdown and Speedline fillers. Trying it on a plastic-plunger filler is a good way to break the filler.

Tines Touching, Poor Flow

Why do you say in your nib smoothing workshop, that modern pen companies looked at vintage nibs and incorrectly determined that the tips of their modern nibs should be touching as well?

Rx:I’ve seen too many pens, both modern and vintage, write poorly (or not at all) because their tine tips were touching. I think modern pen companies, in many cases, were started by people who don’t understand the physics and fluid mechanics of fountain pens, and I think these people looked at vintage pens to learn how to make their own pens. As I explain in my workshop, having the tine tips touching is an attempted violation of the laws of physics, which say that you can’t put two things in the same space at the same time: when the tines are touching, there is no way for ink to travel between them.

Droopy feedWhy, then, do the tips touch on so many vintage pens? It’s because vintage pens have hard rubber feeds. Pens were assembled so that the nib would press down on the feed to ensure good contact for flow. A brand-new feed would resist this downward pressure, pushing back up a little, and the tines would spread the tiniest bit. But over time, the nib wins the contest. The feed begins to deform under the pressure, and when it droops this way, the tines can come back together. The photo above and to the right shows the feed from a Webster pen, as it looked when I knocked it out of the section. The photo below and to the left shows the same feed after cleaning and the application of heat to straighten it out. When it went back into the pen, the tines were about 0.0005" (0.013 mm) apart at the tips, and the flow was perfect without further adjustment.

Straightened feedI’ve learned by experience that only flexible nibs — real ones, vintage style — should have their tips touching, to ensure that capillary action can start a flow as the writer presses to spread the tines.

Okay, then, how does one adjust the tines? Here are the basics:

To create a gap between the tines if there is none, hold the pen in both hands, with the nib facing away from you, so that you can see the under surface of the feed. Rest the nib on the tips of your two index fingers. Hook your thumbnails into the spaces between the nib’s shoulders and the feed.

Spreading the tines

Rock your hands very slightly outward, to spread the nib shoulders. (The fingers under the nib will hold it so that the shoulders will spread but the nib won’t be bent away from the feed. Not too far! Examine the tines using a good hand loupe (10× or thereabouts) to see that there’s a tiny gap. If you want to measure it with acceptable precision, get a piece of 0.001" (0.025 mm) brass shim stock, available in packs of assorted thicknesses from a good hobby shop. Cut a 1" (25 mm) square of the shim stock and burnish the edges to get rid of the burr from cutting. Slip the shim between the tine tips. If the nib holds it reasonably firmly, you’re good; give the pen a try. If it falls out, the gap is greater than you want.

To decrease the gap between the tines, hold the pen in both hands, with the nib facing away from you, so that you can see the top surface of the nib. Put an index finger under the feed, behind the breather hole, to support it. With that hand’s thumb, press downwards on the tine on that side just firmly enough that it flexes downward far enough to pass under the other tine with a click. Not too far!

Clicking the tines

Release it, change to your other index finger and thumb, and do the same thing to the other tine. Examine the tines with you loupe to see that they’re even. See the image below for the correct way to check the alignment. The best way to do this is to turn the loupe’s light off if it has one and then look toward a brightly lit wall or the sky. You don’t want to look at the surfaces toward you, you want to look at the shape in silhouette so that you can see whether the surfaces that touch the paper are aligned. This might seem odd, but the point here is to see the nib as though your eye were the surface of the paper. Once you understand what you’re looking for, you will realize that this is the best way to see it.

Alignment checking

If the tines are aligned, give it a try. If not, you’ll need to tweak one tine. In the following discussion, “down” means “toward the feed” and “up” means “away from the feed.” Find the down tine, and press it up a little using a thumbnail on the underside right at the end of the feed while bracing the body of the nib with a finger. Check alignment again, and repeat if necessary. If you want too far, go back down as you did initially, and restart the alignment procedure. It’s finicky, but it can be done. Once you’ve got the tines aligned, try it. If it’s too dry, spread the tines as described earlier until it’s as wet as you like it. If it’s too wet, start over again.

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