April 2012: An Appreciation of a Pen Repair Dude

Extra Fine Points Index  ]


BY DON FLUCKINGER • You think you’re bumming that Richard has decided to discontinue repairs?

It’s not over, by any stretch of the imagination. Richard and Barbara plan to keep selling new pens, Binderized as usual, indefinitely. Extra Fine Points

I was there, literally, in the beginning. Richard and I bought a few pens at a few antique stores, when old flat-top Duofolds with unbroken nibs could be scored at antique shops for $50, or $35 if you had the brass to ask for a price break.

Cruddy fountain pen

We had a few Duofolds that were pretty easy to get working with new sacs and cleanup.

Fountain pen

Very early on in the proceedings, I remember a 1950s Sheaffer pen (an open-nib Touchdown, perhaps?) I’d found. It functioned, but the ink didn’t flow. We wrestled out the feed, took it down to the basement, did something with it that broke it clean in half. Something to do with a hammer, chisel, and putting it in a vise. Then we glued it. Then we broke it again in two other places. Glued it together again. That didn’t work. At all. Dead pen. At least for us, at the time. Who knew there were other feeds out there?

We’d work on a writing table in the “sitting room” at his house. Or rather, Richard worked and I watched. On weekends. Days he should have been kicking back on the hammock. But he was having a ball helping me get these finds working.

He soon got into it, too; much to Barbara’s chagrin we soon expanded to flea markets, then buying and selling on eBay. There was a family trip to New Orleans where we took Magazine Street by storm, coming away with our first 51s, finally appreciating what all the hype among collectors was about.

Fountain pen

It was marvelous to watch this engineering mind reverse-engineer all manner of pens, teaching himself their inner workings as he disassembled them. Lever fillers. Button fillers. Vacs. 51s.

Mixed logosSoon after, it all clicked. In what seemed like a few months, Richard took a retirement package from the rapidly merging Digital Equipment Corp., er, Compaq, er, HP, and turned that sitting room into the Nashua Pen Spa. He somehow convinced Barbara that he could make this repair stuff fly as a business. He bought a copy of the late Frank Dubiel’s Da Book, only to realize his own knowledge was advanced beyond the mostly rudimentary tutorials contained within (although there were some key pieces of knowledge he assimilated from Da Book, which will forever remain one of the great gifts to the hobby from a cranky but passionate pillar of our hobby).

BookSoon, any pen I brought back from my motorcycle wanderings Richard could identify, break down, and fix within an hour. Or less. Sometimes it would take longer, but only if it involved cement or shellac drying. The nib adjustment went from pretty good to perfect — and in less time — even though I was left-handed and held the pen weird. He could get dents out of metal pens. At that point, where he stopped telling me how I should be holding the pen and simply made it work and compensating for my shortcomings, things started getting serious.

The equipment and parts multiplied in that room, expanding into a nationally renowned center of pen restoration. It was jaw-dropping to watch. Nibs appeared. Whole retail displays of Esterbrook nibs. New gold nibs. Vintage gold nibs. He’d come back from pen shows with bags and bags of parts, especially proud when he could find Vacumatic guts to make all those old pens out there lying dormant new again. A metal lathe showed up. Dremels. Other weird tools to this day I can’t identify.

When a tool to do a particular job didn’t exist, Richard just made one. “Check this one out,” he’d proudly show me and explain his latest fabrication, explaining the particular repair conundrum it solved.

Vac pellet pocket reshaper
Vacumatic pellet pocket reshaper

A particularly cool master stroke came when he sat down and figured out how to make Sheaffer Vac-fils work. Before that, most collectors would leave them for dead at estate auctions, flea markets, and antique shops. A few people we knew had taken stabs at fixing them but there wasn’t a whole lot of success going on. Yet, he took it as a challenge, almost a personal affront, that these pens couldn’t be restored. And he wasn’t the only one. Ron Zorn was just as offended. It took them some months of tinkering with process, materials, and tools, but eventually, Richard and Ron figured that one out, too.

Richard’s confidence grew from “I think I can deal with this” to “Please go get me a Pepsi while I get this working.” And guys and gals started sending him email from all over the country asking for tips on how to fix their pens. Driven and focused, he had put together all the skills he’d honed designing and building hard drive controllers in the 1970s and programming computers after that to create a pen-repair business that delivered on his hand-coded Web site’s promises. Along the way, he made tens of thousands of fountain pen aficionados happier.

Four score and seven years ago...

All along, Barbara was there to interface with the pen-collecting hobby, manufacturers, and distributors, possessing the needed people skills and business acumen to grow the enterprise in ways he never could.

At one point, “the queue” as he and Barbara called it (most collectors referred to it as the bleepity-bleeping waiting time) extended five months. That’s how long your pens would wait before Richard could work his magic on them. Worth every bleeding second, too, that wait, and a testament to the reputation he built one pen — and one pen show — at a time.

Amazing stuff. Their reputation spread mostly by word of mouth, with little advertising.

Richard never stopped collecting, either, but focused his collection on types. He’s still seeking one of every filler, maker, feed system, whatever. Mainly, so he can take them apart and learn more. He never stops. Although nowadays it takes him longer to find something he hasn’t seen before, he hasn’t lost the collecting jones we all have.

Fountain pen
Fountain pen
From Richard’s collection:  prototype Wearever twist
filler by David Kahn, Inc. (never put into production)

And here we are, today. It’s not over, by any stretch of the imagination. Richard and Barbara plan to keep selling new pens, Binderized as usual, indefinitely. All those tools remain operational, at the ready. They’re not going anywhere. The custom grinds, the italics, obliques, stubs, and needlepoints will flow from the pen spa like water, as per usual.

While it is a sad moment to see the repairs taper off, my kids — their grandkids — will reap rich benefits. They get their grandparents back. Hopefully Richard will pass some of those mechanical skills to Patrick and Susanna, because lord knows their dad has none of them.

Still, I’m kind of bumming. The pen hobby will never be the same. Dude’s left his mark, hasn’t he? Best of luck, you two, writing the next chapter of Richardspens.com. In Palmer Method cursive, of course.

For me, the point is moot. I’ll put my money on the humans. After all, my kids need to eat.


cover Further reading: FOUNTAIN PENS THE COMPLETE GUIDE TO REPAIR AND RESTORATION, by Frank Dubiel

The one indispensable book for every fountain pen collector. If you repair pens, or collect pens, or use pens, or just want to know how they work, you need this book. You can buy it from Pendemonium.

Don Fluckinger lives in Nashua, New Hampshire, and is the son-in-law of Richard Binder. His articles have been published in Antiques Roadshow Insider, The Boston Globe, and on the Biddersedge.com collectibles Web site. Please note: Any opinions stated in this column are Don’s alone and do not necessarily reflect those of Richard Binder or this Web site. Don Fluckinger
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