Vintage isn’t about ideal

As a kid,  I remember straining my neck when I first saw a Jaguar 420 on the road. In British Racing Green, it was absolutely stunning and while the Super Trump generation fantasized about 308s and Lambos,  my daydreams were of leaping cats.

That dream soon faded.  A neighbor had four old Jags in his garage and while all of them looked elegant,  I can’t recall seeing them running about.  It turns out that none of them could go further than the neighborhood store without overheating or bogging down in some way.  The owner spent a fortune trying to get them roadworthy,  but he quickly reached the depths of the money pit. And still,  the cars couldn’t serve as daily drivers.

Vintage pens are a lot like old Jags.  They look iconic. They fuel emotion and desire. But their eccentricities can quickly erode the intoxication of the initial attraction.


Take the Parker Vacs for instance. They are unmatched for their lovely celluloid shimmer, and not even Visconti’s Wall Street can compete with their allure. The usual deal breaker is that they are typically arid writers.  Sometimes,  you’ll find a gusher but this bestows a bigger headache. Taming it’s flow is harder than trying to coax a stingy feed to give up more ink. Sending it out to a nibmeister might set things right, but I’ve seen a few that remained incontinent even after a visit to a pen spa.

Skylines are reasonably priced and their streamlined silhouette evokes images of silvered jets cutting through the sound barrier.  Their semi-flex nibs are a dream to use but their plastic caps and barrels shrink over time,  leaving derbies and cap bands to rattle incessantly. You can try building up the gaps, but the years can only be unkind to the resin.


Safety pens hold a ton of ink and come in designs that shame a jeweler’s best offerings.  Ornate overlays in vermeil, gold fill and sterling recall the pomp of the Roaring 20s and the nibs on these things are unmatched for flex. However, the cork seals in these pens can wither at the wrong time and leaks seem to be the norm. As a friend put it,  safety pens are a test of faith.

Conway Stewart’s sublime lever fillers strike a fetching pose.  Patterns like hatched and tiger eye celluloid give the Vacumatics a stiff run for the money. However,  their plating is thinner than a julienned onion and if you bust the lever box,  parts interchangeability is not assured.

Fancy hard rubber in black chased or perhaps the desirable cardinal orange hue? Be aware that browned ebonite is almost impossible to revive and the vivid orange material stains at the mere suggestion of the word. Even the gentlest microfiber cloth can abrade the maker’s mark and soaking the parts in water isn’t something you want to do very often.


The trick Snorkel fillers that were the bane of schoolmarms never cease to impress. Their Waverly nibs are some of the smoothest tips you can ever try and their colors match the tones that adorned Bel Airs and Mercurys of the era. But if you need to resuscitate a damaged Snork,  few members of the local pen posse have the knowledge and parts to get it done.


And with each and every vintage pen, nibs are usually hand-cut. This means that tipping can be irregular or asymmetrical. Tine gaps can be skewed or angled, making nib tuning a delicate proposition. If you are unwilling to adapt to the predilections of these quirky points, you will rue the day that you snagged an elderly writer.

Do I hate vintage?  Hardly.  I have four of them. Admittedly,  three are in the hands of repair specialists for various ailments. They can annoy the hell out of me sometimes but each one provides a special,  if not eccentric experience that is endearing. Like the Jag that can only sprint a few blocks before bottoming out.  You may not get very far but believe me,  the ride is nothing short of exhilarating.

Mondays to Fridays may be best served by Honda.  Quiet Sunday mornings are when the old roadsters can relive their concourse days and put a smile on your face.


8 thoughts on “Vintage isn’t about ideal

  1. paperandhand

    Interesting reflection on vintage pens! I like to hear about different point of view even if I don’t agree.

    As a mechanic’s daughter I grew up around car parts and seeing broken down cars repaired and running again.

    I enjoy using vintage pens for the experience of it, but then to me vintage pens are for using, they don’t need to be perfect, they need to be usable, just like my car isn’t perfect and I don’t run to have every scratch repaired (yes, it’s true the cobbler’s children really go unshod).
    My question is do you need a Jaguar or could you be happy with a vintage WV Beetle? I’d go for the Beetle 🙂

    • Karlo Tatad

      Bugs are fun! Karmans are slick too. And who can forget the old Kombi / Microvans that VW produced for decades?

      I like vintage pens but for daily users, I find older pens to be more prone to leaks and similar quirks. I still like keeping one or two in my office desk though. The softer or finer vintage nibs are a real treat.

      But for a pen I will lug around, my vote goes to modern writers.

  2. Ron Gilmour

    Great post! I’ve had some similar experiences with vintage pens. Every now and then, I say to myself “no more vintage!”, but that resolution never lasts. They’re too pretty and too historic to give up. And of course there are some AMAZING nibs on vintage pens.

    Vintage pens that work as daily writers do exist. I keep a pen or two at the office, and these “work pens” must be trouble free. No time to fiddle with pens at work. Vintage pens that have made the cut include a Sheaffer Balance, a Snorkel, and a Pelikan 120. All great writers with no weird behavioral traits.

    In searching for really workable vintage pens, I’d recommend going to reputable dealers. Yes, you’ll probably pay more. And yes, you could get lucky on ebay and find a treasure for not much money. But your chances are best with an experienced vintage pen dealer.

    • Karlo Tatad

      The vintage pens I kept are all gifts from a friend. I think three came from a reputable dealer while one was an eBay find. Two are with Zorn now for filling system repairs while the third is with Masuyama for nib and feed work.

      They all write so differently from any of my modern pens and I mean this in a good way. And if looks are your thing, the older pens seem to exude an elan unmatched by their modern counterparts.

      Can’t wait to get my old warhorses back in the stable.

  3. lawpaul

    Hi Karlo,

    I also love vintage pens, sometimes because of their flaws. There is something special about using a pen that has been marked by decades of use. Finding a no-fuss daily user has been tough, but the others live happily on my desk at home.

    I love the qualities of the hand-cut, flexible nibs of yester-year. I’m willing to gamble a bit at pen shows or e-bay, figuring that I might find a gem. The others I try to fix myself. I figure over time my surgery on vintage pens will teach me enough to do simple nib adjustments myself.

    Thanks for your musings on vintage pens.

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