July 07, 2014

‘Frankenpens’ and ‘Squeezacs’

, and pensmiths and the Lourdman.

        Altering the “Big Red” ballpoint into a fountain pen was a major sport amongst pen collectors in the 1980s and 1990s, and it continues on to this day.  I’ve seen practically every kind of nib-and-section stuck into these “Big Red” ball pens.  The Sheaffer “NoNonsense”, “Old Timer”, and “Connaisseur” sections fit with only a slight alteration of the threads.  I have also seen Parker 51 shrouds and filling units adapted to fit, and I have an example made by one of the guys at the Parker factory in Janesville, perhaps Mike Conway, or Lynn Sorgatz, with a 75 nib in a reworked “Big Red” section with a feed with a cartridge-filling nipple from a Parker 75.  But the easiest retrofit is the Sheaffer “NoNonsense” or “Connaisseur” nib-section unit, depending upon whether you want a steel, gold-plated, or 14K nib.  And once you get the “NoNonsense” section to fit, the existing nib can also be pulled and switched out with any 14K nib that fits.  I have one with a small Waterman’s Emblem nib, but #2 to #5 nibs might also fit.  I even have one that I franken-penned with a conical Montblanc splat on the barrel end, just as a joke, so that it’s hidden inside the pocket when carried, and hidden under the cap when posted.  When capped and out of the pocket, it makes a good, showy, self-promoting pointer for someone with a big ego.
        The Cross “Solo” and “Radiance” nib-section units also fit perfectly with no sanding required, but I prefer the shape and look of the Sheaffer “Connaisseur” nib, especially the Type II in this
Dennis Bowden picture from Jan 15, 2007.  The Sheaffer Connaisseur nib has more of a vintage nib shape, and the Cross Solo clearly doesn’t, as this comparison shows.  In terms of looks, the Sheaffer “Connaisseur” nib wins by a country mile.  One of my Sheaffer “NoNonsense” sections now has a Waterman’s #2 nib, but it could also hold anything up to a #5 nib, small “100 Year Pen” nibs, or any other suitable nib.  Let’s see, you could put a Sheaffer “NoNonsense” nib-section in a Cross “Solo”, the “Solo” nib-section in a Parker “Big Red”, and the Parker “Big Red” section in a Sheaffer “NoNonsense”.  My goodness, that’s quite an incestuous roundelay of frankenpens.
        I don’t like the look of a nib with wide shoulders and curved sides.  The nibs in some modern Cross, Pilot-Namiki, Sailor, and Montblanc pens have this shape.  The shoulders stick out like stubby, little bird’s wings spread wide.  It’s what I call a flügl feder, or wing nib, although I know I am misusing the term as used for
Montblanc nibs, and I am giving new meaning to the term.
        I do not claim this discovery for myself.  I just helped to perfect it once I found out about the possibility.  And I don’t know who was the first one to do the retrofit with a “NoNonsense”, but the first time I saw it was in the 1980s here in my city, Saskatoon, and the guy who dreamed it up was Glenn Craig.  He’s a fellow-collector who used to live here, but he moved out to the west coast and islands of B.C., the Saskatchewan graveyard, where all Prairie people go to die when they retire.  Glenn had the bad habit of tightening his pen caps very tightly, and doing some heavy-handed repairs on pens that required a delicate touch, so I gave him the nickname “Lourdman”, a punning, Anglicized version of the French words “lourde main”.  We were pretty well isolated from the pen-collecting world out here in the 1970s and 80s, and Glenn had lots of time on his hands to play with the cheap parts pens that we found out here.  Glenn wrote on Pentrace recently, on June 19, 2014
specifically, “Living in the boonies makes a person do with whatever is at hand.  I appreciate mint condition authentic pens, but if all you got is bits and bobs then make what you can out of them”.  He had a good penmechanic’s and pensmith’s eye, and he noticed that the two parts were almost the same size and very nearly compatible.  But the Sheaffer-retrofit idea was probably in the air and was discovered separately by a few different people at about the same time.  It’s like discovering that the gold-plated Osmiroid nib units are compatible and interchangeable with Esterbrook nib units.  I found that out on my own, but so did a few other people, I’ll bet.
        The threads on the Sheaffer sections and the “Big Red” barrels have the same pitch, but the diameter of the section threads is just a tiny bit larger than the internal barrel thread diameter.  All you have to do is sand and file the threads down on both pieces until they match, only about 0.3 to 0.5mm.  Use a bastard file, not a crosscut file, on the section threads, and round files and sandpaper rolled around the file, or a dowel to do the barrel threads.  It’s easier to keep the pieces symmetrical if you use a lathe, but it’s not necessary.  It’s not rocket science.  And don’t go too far, or you will have no threads left to hold the two pieces together. If you reduce both sets of threads by half, that should be sufficient, but constantly keep checking the fit until you get it just right.  Every time you test the fit, the section will go on a little farther, a little bit at a time, until it finally fits.  The section still fits in the “Connaisseur” body.  I got a black one as part of a trade for repairs, so I sacrificed it because I would rather have a Big Orange-Red pen with a “Connaisseur” nib.  I will only do it for others if they specifically request it and understand the consequences.  I put a nib-section unit with a gold-plated “NoNonsense” nib into the “Connaisseur”, so it isn’t a total write off.  Pun intended.  In any case, one can use a “NoNonsense” nib-section unit and switch out the steel nib for a vintage gold nib.
        This is what I also do with my
“Big Red”.  I remove the gold ring on the cap to make it shorter, and curve the lip to look like a bandless Parker Duofold.  It’s not rounded over, but rather curved parabolically form a short distance from the cap lip.  The one above is an early pen with the single-lead thread inside the cap, and the black barrel tip, but I also use the later one with the bandless cap with triple-lead threads and solid orange barrel, but then I usually cut the cap down to shorten it.  It just looks better with a shorter cap when the cap is posted.  The later ones also come with steel clips, so you have a choice of silver-colored or gold-colored clips.  Then I install a “Connaisseur” section with a gold nib, but with the rings removed.  The plastic is very soft, and the threads usually wear out in a few years, so I just retire it, move the section over into a new one, and make another one.  Although I specialize in collecting RHR pens and pencils and penholders and inkwells, etc., one of my small sub-collections consists of an example of every known variation of the Parker “Big Red” felt tip and ballpoint models, but only in red plastic.  Maya Furlong, another Canadian pensmith in B.C. who makes her own frankenpens with Cross “Solo” and “Radiance” nib-section units, said that she was surprised that I collect new pens, but any pen is pen history.  Old pens, new pens…who cares about the distinction.  It’s all pen history.
        By the way, when you’re watching the film The Paper Chase, look for the scene at the end where John Houseman’s character is altering the marks on exam papers.  He is using an original “Big Red” felt-tip pen, and it just glows on screen.  Here is Len Provisor’s picture of his “Big Red” in
Mandarin yellow that I made for him, and a clear red Sheaffer “NoNonsense” retrofitted by Vivek Narayanan into a matchstick filler.  You can just see the matchstick hole in the barrel.  Good luck with your attempts.  If you are successful, then way to go!  You will be well on your way to becoming a pensmith.
        Another thing that Glenn “the Lourdman” Craig may have originated was the squeezac, a mechanism that converted a cartridge pen into a bulb filler.  Over on the Zoss List in February 2005, they were talking about it and coined some new terms for it.  They called it the “Craig Conversion”, a term coined by Paul Lloyd, and named after its originator.  It concerns Glenn Craig’s and Keith Hallgren’s method of converting a cartridge pen into a sac-filler.  Then Glenn coined a new term for it, the “Squeezac Filler”.  This conversion method turns ink-stingy pens, such as the Parker Centennial Duofold, into super-wet writers.  Keith said that he never thought that it was anything but “a practical way to turn a cartridge filler into a bottle feeder”, and could not remember whether the idea was his own, or whether he picked it up along the way somewhere else, but it was “still pretty cool, and an excellent solution for those who hate buying cartridges”.  Add to that the improved performance of the pen that one gets, and the modification is a winner.  Although they both got some credit for the idea, Keith thought it had been around for a while.  It may have originated in the method of refilling cartridge pens by pressing the soft-plastic cartridges directly, that is, until the sides of the cartridges cracked.  The squeezac filler makes an excellent substitute for cartridges, improves the performance of any cartridge pen, and is really easy to make with simple tools.
        Using a silicone ink sac is a good idea because then there is a means to see how much ink is in the filler, and the finished length of the new filler cannot exceed the length of the original cartridge.  An intact cartridge can be used as a guide.  A small amount of rubber cement can be used to secure the cartridge to the pen, although this isn’t required, but use caution so as to prevent any adhesives from getting into the cartridge nipple.  John Chapman suggested cutting down the cartridge more and using a longer sac.  With a longer sac you get “a more complete squeeze of the sack and a more complete filling with a single squeeze”.  Less cart and more sac is the right idea.  Here are two pictures of a squeezac,
Shawn Newton’s, and Keith Hallgren’s.
        Glenn may not have invented this method, either, but he certainly popularized it.  He was one of the pioneers who championed this method, and he deserves the eponym, that is, to have the method named after him, the eponymous “Craig conversion”!  It definitely qualifies him as a journeyman pensmith.  I think Keith Hallgren, another pensmith in neighboring Alberta, also helped to pioneer the method.  Maybe it’s a frugal Canadian kind of thing, in other words, a cheapskate kind of thing.  It also might help to be a preacher.  What was that Lourdman Repair Tip #1 again, the first one I learned from Glenn?  “Never throw anything away”, the Lourdman said.  Never throw away any broken pens, or pen parts, or spent cartridges, because someday you’ll want to try out some sort of pen repair, or conversion, and you’ll never know what you’ll need.  You, too, may become a pensmith, someday.  All pen collectors should be their own pensmiths.

George Kovalenko.


P.S.  This is a picture of
Dagwood Lourdman setting fire to his fountain pen.  I got the picture from Ron Dutcher, and I added the fire.

P.P.S.  Also take a look at this other version of a “Big Red” frankenpen with a gel refill in this post.  It can take a Pilot G2, or Juice refill.