A red hard rubber Namiki fountain pen from the 1920’s with a cracked Sailor cap, from my collection. Every pen company
had its own formulation for RHR, which can be seen in the color difference between the cap and the body in this picture.
[Posted on Zoss on Feb 13, 2000, Apr 21, 1999, and Mar 13, 1999, and on L&P on Dec 30, 2005.]
I collect pens, pencils, penholders, and inkwells made of red hard rubber, RHR, exclusively, so I guess you could say I sort my collection by color, one color, red. Actually it’s sort of an orange color, but the traditional name for it is red. One true method of telling RHR from plastic is to smell it, so I guess you could also say that I do my pen sorting by pen snorting. If you’re not sure whether an item is made of hard rubber, here’s my favorite test. Place the pen right under your nose like a moustache. Breathe out onto the pen through your nose, and then right away breathe in through your nose. If it’s hard rubber, whether red or black, it will smell like an old tire tube, or a rubber ball. The warmth and humidity of your breath will bring out the sulphurous, latex smell within a breath, or two. If you can’t get any smell out of it, it’s plastic. If the plastic is celluloid, and if you don’t smoke and have an acute sense of smell, you should be able to detect the smell of camphor. And from bakelite, you should smell formaldehyde, or the smell of rotten eggs. There is also a definite difference in the smell of BHR and RHR. I have gotten to the point where I can identify the color of hard rubber blindfolded, by smell alone. That prompted Xan Nyfors to quip that I had really good RHR Radar. The black hard rubber is sharp and pungent, and the red hard rubber is more subdued, and has almost a gentle, creamy smell compared to the black. I would almost go so far as to say it’s dreamy.
But then, you know me. I think that RHR is HRH, as far as I'm concerned.
[Posted on L&P on Dec 23, 2004. Also placed on the Lion & Pen homepage.]
I posted this a while back over on Pentrace, when they were talking about red and orange hard rubber, but since my post has long ago disappeared from the Pentrace message board, I thought I’d post a new version of my response here to archive it.
Syd Saperstein was right when he talked about orange hard rubber. Red hard rubber pens “weren’t red in the first place”. They were orange. First of all, they were burnt orange, then they were bright orange like these two examples. But they were never red. Vintage red hard rubber was a bright orange hard rubber. Well, that’s not always true either. The lighter ones sometimes darken where the cap fits over the section onto the barrel, but they were originally brighter in color. Some people say it’s the other way around, but I don’t buy it.
Some batches of RHR have iron oxide, or hematite in them, which makes them brownish red to start off with. It is the pigment most often used in soft elastic rubber. But the major constituent coloring agent of RHR is cinnabar, or vermilion, which is orange-red in color to start off with, but it slowly darkens to a rusty brown with exposure to sunlight. Chinese and Japanese lacquer are colored with it, and are typically called “red lacquer”. Some other red pigments that were used in RHR are minium, or red lead, and litharge, or yellow lead. In Japan, where cinnabar, minium, and litharge are used as artist’s pigments, it is well documented that the red colors in paintings unpredictably darken and often turn rusty brown over time, so the same kind of thing probably goes on in RHR as well.
Some of the red pigments actually revert to black versions of their natural minerals. In the case of cinnabar, the culprit is UV-light. When exposed to sunlight, it turns black. The substance responsible for turning red lead to black is sulphide, and since sulphur is the vulcanizing agent in hard rubber, any RHR that darkens in the absence of light probably contains a high percentage of minium or litharge.
In order to make the RHR brighter in color, scarlet antimony and golden antimony were added to the mix, as well as other yellow pigments. Black and white pigments were also very important in attaining the right shades. I’ve seen a lot of early formulas and recipes for RHR, and they all contained these pigments to various degrees. These deadly heavy-metal pigments are no longer allowed for safety reasons, and the contemporary substitutes just don’t cut it. That’s why Chris Thompson is having such a hard time approximating the old color in the red rod stock he is having made for him. Parker used a synthetic dye in the middle and late RHR Duofolds called Vulcafor Orange, which made the rod stock lighter in weight as well as in color. It is why those later RHR Duofolds look so glorious.
Some companies had their own supplies of RHR, and their own proprietary formulations for their distinctive shades of red rod stock. Sheaffer red is much darker than Parker Duofold red, and Wahl Eversharp red is almost a creamy coral. The brightest oranges are the Onotos and the Conway Stewarts and the Duofolds, but then I’ve seen darker ones as well. There’s no general rule. Sometimes Waterman’s red is light, and sometimes it’s dark. It’s highly unpredictable and very infuriating. Some of the early Parker RHR is slightly darker, but the Vulcafor Orange Duofolds make up for it. After those glorious RHR Duofolds, the red plastic ones are a huge disappointment.
[Posted on L&P on Feb 14, 2005, revised Feb 1, 2015.]
Over on Zoss, Glenn Craig asked whether any brave new company was working on a modern red hard rubber. Well, the only things holding it up are economics, and the further complication of safety standards.
Let’s start with the safety issues. The old red hard rubber formulas incorporated not only mercury in the form of the mineral vermillion, or cinnabar, but also minium, or red lead, and litharge, or yellow lead, and golden and scarlet antimony. All these heavy metals are highly regulated and restricted in the workplace today, and that makes the old formulations of yesterday impossible today. There are at least two companies in the US that could make red hard rubber, but they can’t use these old colorants. Chris Thompson is working with one of these companies to try to develop a RHR rod stock, but this is exactly the problem that he has run up against. He has a darker shade of RHR, but not the desired brighter orange tint. Also, the developmental costs of experimenting and trying to achieve that brighter color are quite high, so if he does succeed, the rodstock won’t be cheap.
There are also three European companies that make hard rubber, two in Germany, and one in Italy. One German company, New-York Hamburger Gummi-Waaren Compagnie, or NYHAG, was based in Hamburg-Barmbek, and had been in the trade since the 1870s. They also made a darker shade of RHR, but there was another problem. A few years ago, the minimum order used to be 1000 meters of rodstock. Now, the minimum order is about 100 meters, but that might still be too much for some penmakers. All pen repairmen could use a few meters at least, and pensmiths such as Paul Rossi and Michael Fultz could make use of a few dozen meters or more, [and some small pen companies such as Howard Levy’s Bexley Pen Co. and Brian Gray’s Edison Pen Co. could utilize a hundred meters or so,] and even I could use a few meters, so that I can stick it in a corner and admire it for ten years like Brad Torelli. Perhaps we’ll have to get together a red hard rubber cartel. Schönberger Ebonite Manufaktur, or SEM, is a young German company dealing in a variety of ebonite products including some very high quality ebonite rods for penmakers. They were founded in May 2006, after this article was first written, by partners who had worked for New-Yorker Gummi-Waaren for a long time. They produce the best quality rods without bubbles, free of pores and blow holes, without smell or taste, and easy to polish. They produce a red rodstock, but the color is still too dark because they use the same machines to produce darker colors and black, and the machines can never be cleaned completely. To produce ebonite you need a lot of machinery, and they cannot afford to dedicate the necessary machines to red hard rubber production exclusively. They have no minimum order, but smaller runs of rodstock are understandably more expensive. Volonta Anselmo is the Italian company making hard rubber in Varese, Lombardy, in northern Italy.
But that still doesn’t solve the problem of the color. Some might want a darker shade to repair older pens, and others might want the orange shade more common in the 1920s, to repair Duofolds and Watermans and the like. It might not be possible to please everyone, and the cartel will fall apart.
There might be a solution, though. In 1992, “Pen World” published a series of articles by Bob Tefft on “Materials Used To Make Pens”. In one of them, he gave the formula for the RHR used in the later hard rubber Parker Duofolds. The early Parker RHR contained the usual heavy metals, but the RHR from the later-Duofold era substituted a synthetic aniline dye called Vulcafor Orange. That’s the secret of those glorious orange later hard rubber Duofolds. The dye goes under about 50 different trademarked names, depending upon which company makes it. These names include “Tiger Orange”, “Pyrotone Red”, “Pigment Scarlet”, “Tanager Red”, “Blazing Red”, “Flaming Red”, “Fast Orange”, and “American vermilion”, all commercial names for chlorparanitraniline red, otherwise known by the chemical names, 2-Naphtalenol 1-((2-chloro-4-nitrophenyl) azo), and 1-((2-chloro-4-nitrophenyl) azo)-2-naphthol.
Perhaps someone can be persuaded to take it upon himself, or herself, to get in touch with
the companies producing hard rubber rodstock for fountain pens, to see whether a special formulation using Vulcafor Orange, or some other correct orange-red colorant, would be possible. Then it’s just a matter of getting the cartel together.
[Posted on L&P on Dec 29, 2012.]
I know a pen collector, and pensmith, and hard rubber maker in Poland, Lukasz Marszalek, who is a designer in his day job, but in his spare time, he is a penmaker. Luk isn’t a professional penmaker with a company of his own, but an amateur in the true French sense of the word, “someone who does something because he loves it”. Now, when I say he makes pens, I mean he makes pens! He makes pens from scratch, that is, he makes his own hard rubber rodstock in many different colors, and then he makes pens from those rods. Here’s an example of a loving, faithful reproduction of a Pelikan 100N made from some RHR rodstock that he also made. The ebonite production is still in the experimental stage, and he’s not ready to start mass producing the rods, or the pens, but you can see the quality of the workmanship. This picture is just to wet your appetite, but perhaps he can be persuaded to join the cartel, and to make some more pens and rodstock for sale. Here’s a copy of a tiny Montblanc RMHR eyedropper that Luk also made. It looks a lot like this tiny Montblanc No. 0 safety and this No. 00 safety on Tom Westerich’s website, minus the Montblanc splat.
[Addendum, Feb 1, 2015.]
David Nishimura & Mark Hoover’s company American Art Plastics has started selling hard rubber rod stock made for them with pigments that are not classified as hazardous materials by the US Department of Transportation. The dust produced while working their hard rubber is not toxic, though it is an irritant. They have two types of orange-red. They say that their first type, “Classic Orange”, is “the closest thing yet to vintage red hard rubber”. It is not an exact duplicate of any single vintage color, though it is right in the vintage color range resembling coral. Weight and feel are also true to the era. Their second type of “Orange”, which they also call “Tangerine”, is a true orange in comparison to the vintage red-orange.
The thing about vintage RHR was that every pen company had its own formulation, and Conklin, Conway Stewart, Namiki, Onoto, Parker, Sailor, Simplo-Montblanc, Waterman, and Wahl had some of the best. There is nothing like the color, or the smell, or the feel of the old stuff. In my opinion, none of these modern reds produced by all the contemporary companies are correct. They are all still wrong when compared to the pens produced in the late 1910s and the 1920s by the above vintage pen companies. But their worst down falling is that they smell bad. The components of the new rodstock are all wrong. When new pens made from the new rodstock are warmed up in the hand, they just don’t smell right. In fact, they stink, both literally, and metaphorically.
And if you’re still not sure whether a pen is made of red hard rubber, here’s another test. Rub the pen 2 or 3 times on one tiny spot with a clean, damp, white cotton cloth. If the spot on the white cloth turns orange, it’s RHR. No amount of rubbing, even aggressive rubbing, will turn the cloth orange, if it’s a plastic pen. These tricks of the trade are all part of being a pen pusher, someone who tries to get you addicted to pens.
As Meike Huijssen, managing director of SEM, likes to say, “I love my ebonite”.
Addenda et Corrigenda, Feb 14, 2015.
Here are some additions and corrections, with thanks to penmaker Tom Westerich.
NYH produced for a long time in Hamburg, Harburg, but some years ago they moved south of Hamburg near the city of Lüneburg. The minimum order today is 90 kilograms of material for colors, and black rodstock is a minimum of 1000 Euros per diameter. Ages ago, their ebonite factory complex used to be in Hamburg, Barmbek, but now what is left of the buildings houses the “Museum der Arbeit”. SEM was founded by one ebonite engineer defecting from NYH. She was funded by Meike Huijssen, but has since left SEM. Quality is fine, but some colors are prone to bleaching, including some lots of black ebonite that have come out coffee brown. I’m not sure Volonta Anselmo still produces. I tested his stuff some years ago, must be 10 years ago already, and the quality wasn’t there. The stuff with the crazy colors made in China is $10 per rod, if you buy 3000 metres, but the quality is bad. Their coral red is quite a good color, but it’s too soft, and it smells like chopping up rubber tires when working it. Do not forget Nikko Ebonite Mfg. Co. in Japan, very good quality rodstock. They also make pens, and have a separate website for their Eboya pens. Forget the Indian rubber company. Their stuff is porous. Well, if you pay less, you get less.