Favorite 5: Vintage Fountain Pens

I recently posted my favorite modern fountain pens, now it’s time for the vintage list. Like the modern pens, these choices are completely subjective and specific to the pens I have. My preference for thin, nail-like nibs factors in so don’t expect a vintage juicy flex. Similar pens may perform completely differently. I’m fickle so this list could change anytime, but my current favorite 5 are…

1. Sheaffer Balance Junior c1931 with custom stub nib

Sheaffer Balance Junior c1931While the discoloration makes this a pretty ugly pen it tops the list on the strength of its stub nib. Reviewed here.

2. Sheaffer Balance Lifetime Oversize c1935

Sheaffer Balance Oversize - Marine Green

While the Junior tops the list thanks to it’s nib, this Balance owes the #2 slot to its looks. The stub nib is great although just a little wider than my personal preference which keeps it out of the number one slot.

3. Parker Vacumatic Maxima (1942) Silver Pearl with Nickel Trim

Parker Vacumatic Maxima (1942) Pearl GreyMy second vintage pen is still holds a place among my favorites. The fine nib is comparable to my other Parkers, which makes it very good. It’s the finish of this one that sets it apart from the others.

4. Esterbrook J (any of them)

Esterbrook J with 8440 nibThe Esterbrooks make the list, not because of any single pen, but because of the variety, durability and wide selection of nibs. They’re just plain fun to have and use.

5. Parker Duofold Senior c1928 “Big Red”

Parker Duofold Senior "Big Red"This has always been the classic fountain for me so this makes the list based strictly on emotion. This pen has a tendency to leak a bit from the nib into the cap when being bounced around in my bag, so it will probably be the first to go from this list.

Esterbrook #8440 Nib

Esterbrook 8440 nibThe latest addition to my Esterbrook nib collection is the Esterbrook #8440 Superfine nib. This was a special purpose nib and Esterbrook’s most expensive nib back in their day. The scarcity and price has made this the most expensive Esterbrook nib these days, by a large margin.

My #8440 is well used. Much of the gold plating is worn off, although it remains in the engraved lettering. There’s also ink staining on the white base. While the photos make it look like the gold plating is worn unevenly, to my naked eye it looks like the gold remains inside the engraved letters and lines while the raised areas have a slight gold sheen. It looks like it belongs this way rather than being worn down.  I debated a bit as to whether this was worth the price and decided to buy it when a comparable specimen (probably worse, hard to tell from photo) sold on eBay for significantly more than I paid Anderson Pens for this nib. The Anderson Pens price was at the very top of my budget and I decided I’d have to be very lucky to get a better nib for less.

The nib was promoted as a map making nib and is often described as a cartography nib. The nib is engraved “Superfine” so that’s what I’ll call it. I don’t have the original packaging but photos show it labelled for map making, super fine and special posting, with a emphasis on map making.

As expected, the nib is needle sharp and stiff as a nail. Both good things in my book.

Considering this is such a thin nib it’s remarkably smooth. I put the nib on an Esterbrook J and filled it with Rohrer & Klingner Blau-Schwarz to give it a try. The nib glides smooth and easy over Rhodia No. 16 Dotpad paper. There’s a bit more feedback on Doane writing paper but just enough to be reassured that it’s writing. I do need to keep a light touch but as long as I do the nib moves easily and puts down a consistent line, pressure does cause the nib to catch on the paper.

While I did write the draft of this article using the nib, this isn’t a nib I’d use for every day writing. I’d use it more for marking up other documents or writing notes when space is limited. While writing with a light touch isn’t a problem for me, I start getting careless when I start writing fast and the nib can catch on all but the smoothest paper. I have the same issue with other needlepoint nibs, so it isn’t unique to this nib.

I didn’t have any problems with Rhodia, Doane (Jotter & writing pads) or Field Notes (Original and the “Drink Local” editions). No skipping or false starts and a smooth writing experience. Well, smooth within the parameters of a needlepoint nib that needs a light touch. It writes better than a couple modern needlepoint nibs that I have.

Despite the thin nib, and limited ink on its tip, I find it takes surprisingly long for the ink to evaporate off the nib. I can consistently put the nib down for over 2 minutes and its still wet when it meets the paper again. So far, only R&K Blau-Schwarz ink has been used, other inks may evaporate faster.

I have two nibs that are similar to the #8440 nib, the Esterbrook #1550 and #2550, and used them in the sample for comparison. Both are “Firm Extra Fine” nibs. Viewed through a loupe the #8440 is clearly thinner than the other two. The #9550 is also similar and has tipping material but I don’t have one of those. You’ll see two #1550s in the writing sample. The first one just didn’t seem to be writing right so I tried a second that I had (it’s a very common nib) and it was much better.

Wrapping Up

The 1550, 2550, and 9550 could all be purchased for a fraction of an Esterbrook #8440. The writing experience isn’t all that different. I want to say the #8440 is smoother but that could be my brain wishing it to be. It is worth mentioning that these are all old nibs and there could be variations in performance even within the same nib type as seen in the two #1550s I used in the sample.


Vintage Notes: Sheaffer PFM I

Photo of a capped Sheaffer PFM IThe Sheaffer PFM (Pen For Men) started production in 1959 and were produced through 1968, making them late model vintage pens. There were 5 main models (PFM I, II, III, IV, V) although I’ve seen references for 9 models.

The Sheaffer PFM has intrigued me, although not necessarily in a positive way. I went to the D.C show wanting to see them, more for curiosity than to buy one. One thing that intrigued me was why they were so expensive. The seemed like a basic, simple pen yet were significantly more expensive than the earlier Snorkels. At least on eBay for ones in restored or excellent condition. At the show I learned prices varied across the models and the scarcity of the color. Generally the lower model numbers are less expensive, mimicking their original selling prices.

Why I Got It

I like the pen size and the snorkel filling system. The pen felt comfortable in my hand and seemed suitable for long writing sessions. It had a fine nib. It’s a PFM I which puts it at the low end of the price spectrum so the price was right. The pen came from Sarj Minhas.

What I Got

It’s a blue Sheaffer PFM I that was produced between 1959 and 1963 with a fine nib. The barrel and cap are both plastic while the clip and band are chrome plated. The inlaid nib is palladium silver (PdAg). The PFM I is the only Sheaffer PFM model that doesn’t sport the white dot. At the time this pen was made the white dot didn’t signify a lifetime guarantee but it did identify the higher end pens. So I assume mine was the lowest priced model – $10 when new.

The Numbers

  • Length Capped:  5.389″ (136.90 mm)
  • Length Uncapped:  4.652″ (118.17 mm)
  • Length Posted:  5.575″ (141.62 mm)
  • Barrel Diameter:  0.492″ (12.51 mm)
  • Cap Diameter (at the widest part):  0.597″  (15.18 mm)
  • The section is different than most pens due to the inlaid nib. The barrel tapers directly into the nib. The gripping section is 0.471″  (11.97 mm). I didn’t measure the section length since there’s no obvious start and stop. It’s 1.593″ (4.047 mm) from where the taper begins to the end of the nib (the end that writes).

Using The Pen

Photo of a Sheaffer PFM I inlaid fine nibIt’s when I started using the pen that I began to learn why it’s so sought after. The pen holds a lot of ink and I got a full pen with one cycle of the snorkel filler. The gripping section is large and tapers right into the nib without a traditional fountain pen section. This makes it comfortable to hold and feels natural even though it’s a big pen.

The fine nib is a smooth writer and glides easily across Rhodia paper. There’s a bit of feedback to it on Doane writing paper. Just enough to feel it and even hear it a little. I can hold the top end of the pen and drag it across a page with only the pen’s own weight keeping it on the paper and get a consistent line.

Since the pen is made of plastic it’s a light pen despite its size, even when posted. The cap does post securely

On the topic of posting, I don’t typically post my pens, but I’ve been posting this pen most of the time. Early on I posted the cap a couple of times because holding it or putting it down wasn’t feasible. One of those was a long off and on writing session and I wasn’t fatiqued at all when done.

One reason I don’t post my pens is that I’m constantly capping and uncapping the pen. For some reason I find this cumbersome with this pen. Maybe it’s the pen size, maybe it’s the plastic, I can’t exactly figure out why. But that hasn’t been a problem with this pen. I can post the pen and put it down for extended periods of time without the nib going dry. I timed it for over 15 minutes without going dry (MB Bordeaux ink on Doane Jotter paper). That’s more than enough so I stopped trying to figure out how long it could sit. There’s no hesitation, even after being put down for 15 minutes.

Just recently I had a couple drops of ink seem to come from the snorkel. I’m not really sure what to make of this. I’ve read that air leaks can cause this. But this has only happened twice and both times as soon as I uncapped the pen and moved it to the paper. Both occurrences were shortly before the pen went dry. So maybe it’s air expanding or “burping” similar to an eye dropper. It’s possible it could be coming from the nib, but it seems to be from underneath even though I don’t see ink around the snorkel tube. It never happened while writing, only immediately after uncapping.

Bottom line on using the pen – it’s a joy to write with.

Inks Used

Only one – Montblanc Bordeaux. It’s one of my favorite inks, if not my favorite. It seems especially appropriate for vintage pens. The ink works so well with this pen that I haven’t had any desire to use another ink.


I had been refilling with the same ink but I finally did completely flush it out once it went dry this last time. If was no easier or harder than my other snorkel. The pen doesn’t come come apart so it’s just continuously filling and emptying it with water until it’s clean. It wasn’t especially difficult to clean.

Wrapping Up

This pen has me doing a bunch of one-eighties and busting of my per-conceived notions.

  • I couldn’t understand the pricing, especially when compared to other snorkels. Plus, it’s a relatively recent vintage pen, and plastic no less. One-eighty turn – the pen is a great writer and I can see why they’re in demand.
  • I used to say I only post a pen when it needs to be posted to use, such as a small pen. I find myself posting this pen quit a bit, which is bizarre to me but it feels very natural. It’s a big pen so there’s not need to post for comfort. Added to that is I’m always concerned that posting will mare a pen. Maybe I subconsciously don’t care because it’s plastic. Thanks to the inlaid nibs ability to keep ink from evaporating I can put the pen down and the cap keeps it from rolling. So whatever the reason, I do post this pen quit often.
  • It’s an inlaid nib. I prefer to see a full nib. At least it’s not hooded and I can see it. A small price to pay for the benefits.

How much I like something is often inversely proportional to my expectations. I was reluctant to spend the money on the Sheaffer PFM because I didn’t expect much. So when I say the Sheaffer PFM I is a great writer and a great pen it’s safe to assume it’s somewhat colored by my wildly exceeded expectations. So much so I just bought a second one.

Additional Information

Sheaffer PFM Information at penspotters.

Sheaffer PFM Information at PenHero.


Vintage Notes: Sheaffer Balance Junior (c. 1931)

Sheaffer Balance Junior with Iroshizuku Fuyu-syogunMy Sheaffer collection’s newest addition is a pen I picked up from Greg Minuskin’s website. While I’m new at Sheaffer identification, I put this as a Sheaffer Balance Junior from between 1931 and 1934.

Why I Got It

Sheaffer Balance Junior - nib tipPens on Greg’s site generally go quickly. For this one my timing was all luck. I happened to refresh my RSS feed after catching up on the current reading and this was one of the new posts that came through.

I bought the pen because of the nib –  a 14k custom fine stub. I liked the design although the coloring seemed off, but that wasn’t a major concern. I wanted the nib and it was a vintage working Sheaffer. I didn’t do any additional research before sending off the “I want it” email.

What I Got

I researched the pen after receiving it. I put this as a Sheaffer Balance Lifetime Junior from between 1931 and 1934. I placed the date due to the Pearl & Black color being available from 1929 to 1934. Then the clip seems to be the shortened version introduced in 1931 or 1932. So I figure 1931 to 1934 is the possible date range. The size is closest to the Junior model. The identification information came primarily from Richard Binder’s Sheaffer Balance reference page.

The discoloration is pretty heavy with much of the pearl on the barrel discolored to brown. Discoloration seems to be common and unavoidable with these pens, the only variable seems to be the degree of discoloration.

The engraving on the barrel is still pretty crisp and says

W.A. Sheaffer Pen Co.
Fort Madison, Iowa U.S.A.
Pat. D-78,795

Patent D-78,795 is a design patent filed Nov. 21, 1928 and issued to Craig R. Sheaffer on June 18, 1929.

The nib is engraved

Reg. U.S. Pat. Off.
Made In U.S.A.

The Numbers

As usual, there’s wiggle room in the measurements so the calipers don’t scratch the pen

  • Length Capped: 4.651″ (118.14 mm)
  • Length Uncapped: 4.209″ (106.92 mm)
  • Section Length: 0.553″ (14.05 mm)
  • Section Diameter (top): 0.405″ (10.30 mm)
  • Section Diameter (near nib): 0.352″ (8.95 mm)
  • Barrel Diameter: 0.452″ (11.50 mm)
  • Cap Diameter (at band): 0.518″ (13.17 mm)

Using The Pen

Sheaffer Balance Junior - barrel and cap measuredThe pen is a bit shorter than I expected, although from the pictures it obviously wasn’t long when unposted. The pen can be posted but I typically don’t post my pens and It’s just long enough for me to use unposted. This pen is comfortable unposted and that’s how I’ve been using it. I did use it posted for awhile and also found it comfortable. Since the pen is already discolored I’m not concerned about the posted cap marring the finish. The cap is light so there’s not much added weight and the pen is still well balanced. I can see myself using it posted if there’s no place to put the cap and I don’t want to hold it.

The first, and so far only, ink I’ve used is Iroshizuku Fuyu-Syogun which is an ink I like for every day writing.  In addition to liking the color I love the subtle shading between the down-strokes and cross-strokes of a stub nib. While the variation is subtle with a thin nib, there is some upon close inspection.

The nib is an extremely smooth writer which I suppose is to be expected of a pen from Greg Minuskin. The flow is also extremely consistent and puts down a nicely saturated line, not too wet but not dry either. Perfect for every day writing.

Filling the pen was done like any lever filler. Open the lever, insert the pen into the ink covering the entire nib, close the lever and wait about 15 or 20 seconds so the sac can fill. Based on my water test the sac can hold a lot of ink with just one pull. I’m still on my first ink fill and I’ve done a lot of writing, maybe a dozen or so pages worth. There’s no ink viewer so the amount of ink left is a mystery.

I don’t expect the pen to be any harder to clean than other lever fillers but I’ve yet to do so.

Clip comparison

Sheaffer Balance Junior – Esterbrook J, Sheaffer Sentinel Deluxe

While the clip itself is on the short side it also sits low on the cap so a lot of the pen sticks out my pocket (or pen case), more than most of my other pens.

Unlike many of my other vintage pens this one clips onto my pocket without any hassle. The rounded ball at the end of the clip is still smooth and slides easily over the material.

It makes a good shirt pocket pen, the only downside is that it’s not one I would lend to someone asking to borrow a pen and it sticks out enough to be obvious.


The only ink I’ve used so far is Iroshizuku Fuyu-syogun. The ink has behaved as well in this pen as it has in any other. There’s been no skipping or hard starts. There is some ink spatter on the nib. I’ve noticed this is fairly common with my vintage pens when I carry them around, more so than modern ones. I rather like ink showing on pictures of nibs, after all my pens are users, not show pieces. The pictures in this article show a nib that’s been used for a couple of days, including carrying it around in my pocket. There’s some ink on the nib but no real nib creep.

Wrapping Up

While the discoloring is a bit of a downer, the brown isn’t as nice as some of the other variations (or the original pearl) but I don’t consider it downright ugly. I rather like the look and after all, this pen is about 80 years old. There is some depth left to the color so it’s not a solid brown patch. The coloration gives the impression it’s had a useful life. The discoloration is also liberating. I don’t have to worry about ruining the look of the pen or causing a few scratches. If I want to post this pen I also won’t have to worry about marring the finish. I won’t be ruining it’s value and I’ll be adding more character.

Additional Reading

Richard Binder’s site seemed to have the most complete Sheaffer Balance information in one place.


Vintage Notes: Sheaffer Snorkel Saratoga

photo of Sheaffer Snorkel Saratoga and Diamine Syrah ink

Sheaffer Snorkel Saratoga with Diamine Syrah ink sample

Last weekend I received my first snorkel filler, a purchase from FP Geeks forum member Rick Krantz. The snorkel is generally considered the most mechanically complex filling system ever made. It’s their Touchdown filling system with a narrow tube that extends from the feed so the nib does not need to touch the nib. The nib doesn’t need to be wiped.

Jim Mamoulides at Penhero.com  described the snorkel filling system:

Essentially the Snorkel is a Touchdown filler with a narrow tube that extends through the feed to allow filling without immersing the nib in ink. As with standard Touchdown pens, the filler uses pneumatic air pressure in the down stroke of the cylindrical plunger to compress the sac inside the cylinder and fill the pen. The principal difference is the only thing that gets inky is the Snorkel tube, which retracts back into the section, underneath the nib, after filling. No wiping, and ready for use!

Why I Got It

Plain and simple. Filling systems are my current fascination and this is a new filling system for me. It is an extra fine nib which is my preference. Finally, he price was right and I was confident I’d be getting a pen that worked right and would be a good example of the filling system. While the color wasn’t a big factor I do like burgundy.

What I Got

My model is burgundy with gold trim. It has a two-tone nib that’s 14k gold with a platinum mask. This is the non-white dot model so it’s not a conical nib. Conical nibs seem to be popular with Sheaffer collectors but I like the the look of an open nib, especially with the shaded style. The two-tones add a little character to a otherwise plain pen.

The Numbers

There’s some wiggle room (literally) in the measurements as I didn’t want the calipers scratching the pen.

  • Length Capped: 5.582″ (141.84 mm)
  • Length Uncapped: 4.892″ (124.26 mm)
  • Section Length: 0.655″ (16.64 mm)
  • Section Diameter (at thinnest point near nib): 0.347″ (8.82 mm)
  • Barrel Diameter: 0.422″ (10.73 mm)
  • Cap Diameter (at band): 0.452″ (11.50 mm)

photo of capped Sheaffer Snorkel Saratoga

Using The Pen

The pen is thinner than I would typically be looking for these days. Despite this, the pen is extremely comfortable when writing. Unlike other thin pens I don’t get fatigued when writing with this pen. The pen fits comfortably in my hand. The section appears to have threads but is really just a spiral design that provides a solid grip with a light touch,

The ink flows easily from the pen which also contributes to the comfortable use. I don’t need a tight grip on the pen and I don’t need to apply any pressure to write.

photo of Sheaffer Snorkel Saratoga nib and sectionThen nib is not super smooth and there is some feedback when writing. I think this helps prevent fatigue, at least for me. I sometimes find a light pen and a smooth nib means I grip the pen tighter to prevent my writing from getting sloppy. There’s not much feedback at all on smooth paper such as Rhodia. On courser paper, even my Doane paper, there is more feedback although some of that may just be the extra fine nib griping some paper fibers. I still consider the nib smooth and see no need for additional smoothing.

Filling the pen was simple. Unscrew the blind cap so the snorkel extends. Lift the Touchdown plunger then put the snorkel in the ink and lower the plunger in one smooth motion. Leave the snorkel in the ink for several seconds to let the ink flow into the pen. I filled from an ink vial and is was cool to see the ink level drop so much during the fill. The nib had ink as soon as I retracted the snorkel, screwed down the blind cap, and got the nib to paper. There wasn’t any need to wait for the ink to flow into the feed.

Cleaning the pen wasn’t as difficult as I thought. Not really any more tedious than a sac or vacuum filler where the pen is sealed. It took awhile but was just repeated filling and emptying of the pen until there was no trace of ink. I always end up with more ink when I fill what appears to be a clean pen and then shake it to get the ink hanging around in the sac. No exception here. I typically let the pen dry nib down on a paper towel to extract any remaining water or ink. I ended up with a little ink on the paper towel. In this case I was re-inking immediately so didn’t care, but if I was putting the pen in storage I probably would have given it another flush although I probably shouldn’t obsess about it so much.


Diamine Syrah is the only ink I’ve used in the pen so far. The snorkel is perfect for filling from a sample vial so I picked from my ink samples. Syrah seemed like a good compliment to the burgundy pen. The ink is great in the pen but I can’t compare it to anything. No hard starts or skipping. Ever.

Wrapping Up

The looks of the Snorkels don’t really appeal to me. I don’t dislike them, but they’re no Parker Vacumatics or Sheaffer Balance. I do like the look of the two-tone non-conical nib.

The pen may be plain in the looks department, but as a writer the pen excels. I’ll probably look for more at the Washington DC show to see what variety of nibs there are. I can see adding a couple more if the nib/price combination is right. I understand why people collect these pens and an affordable price makes collecting them easier than many other vintage pens.

I expected a nice Snorkel example from this pen, but what I got was a really nice writer.

Additional Reading

PenHero.com has a long write-up of the pens with information on the various models. I used this to identify my pen as a Saratoga.

Sheaffer Snorkel Collectors Guide at Vacumania

Anatomy of a Snorkel and Sheaffer Snorkel profile at RichardsPens.com

An FPN member writes about a Snorkel repair