Bleeding Ink

A couple of years ago, I picked up a pair of old fountain pens at a garage sale for a dollar apiece. I’d only stopped at the sale to buy a large mirror in a wooden frame, but while I was there I looked over the odds-and-ends table, which is where I saw the pens.

The black pen had a cheap steel nib and some scoring on the threads, but the barrel was in good shape. The other pen was much more interesting. For one thing, it was light brown. The nib was almost completely hidden and the back end unscrewed to reveal a plunger fill mechanism. It was like no pen I’d ever seen before.

Later that day, some closer inspection revealed some manufacturing marks. That led to some information on the Internet about my new pen. I’d stumbled onto a Parker 51, a legendary model. Smooth writing, beautiful, easy to hold, easy to use, it has a fine nib that leaves a clear line and an ink reservoir that lasts for a long, long time. My particular pen is a double-jeweled, blue diamond edition, manufactured in the third quarter of 1946. The brown is not as rare as the tan or green, but is rarer than the black or maroon.

Parker 51 header

My Parker 51… with added lens flare

The Parker 51 has been described as “the finest fountain pen ever produced”. Fanboi hyperbole aside, I did some investigation of how much such a pen would go for at auction. Through eBay and other sites, I established that my pen is worth considerably more than the dollar I paid for it.

Aside from its monetary value, I love this pen. I love that it fell into my lap. I love writing with it. I love writing words that start with the letter “f”, since they allow me to make large, swooping strokes. I love that it is unusual. I love that it fits my style of manner and dress so well.

How sad I was, then, to think that I’d ruined it.

When I first got this pen, after I’d cleaned and reconditioned it, I loaded it with Sheaffer Skrip ink, a reliable, well-respected ink designed for fountain pens. I bought three bottles: blue, black and blue-black. Conservative, I know, but I didn’t want to take any chances with my new treasure. All was well and the world was fine. Then I switched inks.

With previous pens, I’d experimented using different colors and mixtures. A 5:1 blend of black and metallic green gave a wonderfully rich ink that lent my words a sheen like that seen on foreign currency. A 2:5:1 mix of black, red and metallic green yielded a maroon color that reminded me of flayed skin, very good for writing horror. Alternating among blue, blue-black and black made me feel like writing crime drama, detective noir, legal adventures.

To change things up a bit, I tried a 1:2 mix of Sheaffer Skrip blue and Parker Quink peacock blue in my Parker 51. What could be safer for a Parker pen than Parker ink? Serious dark blue with a hint of playfulness, it looked great for weeks… until the pen started to fail.

After a while, I noticed that a bead of dark ink leaked out around the barrel seam. It stained my fingers, bled onto the papers I was handling. It turned my wonderful, magical pen into the kind of clumsy, messy apparatus that people associate with Charlie Brown’s splotches. Every morning, the bead was bigger when I took off the cap. I was appalled.

Was this the cause of my pen’s misery?

The peacock blue Quink did something to my pen. Somehow, the modern Parker ink was completely wrong for my vintage Parker pen. Was it too acidic? Too basic? Did it have a surfactant ingredient that I’d failed to notice? Old pens reach a certain equilibrium within their works. The pigment flows into microscopic cracks and solidifies, much like carbon buildup seals around the piston rings in old V8 engines. Get rid of the gunk and the engine won’t run at all. By switching inks, I disturbed the internal equilibrium of my pen.

It was horrible. Even after I got rid of the Skrip/Quink abomination and flushed the pen with pure black Sheaffer Skrip, the leak got worse. A pen I loved was turning into a pen that was distracting to use in private and which I was increasingly embarrassed to use in public. It was like having a perfectly trained dog who’d developed uncontrollable incontinence – I found myself constantly apologizing for the mess.

What to do? The leak reduced the pen’s monetary value by hundreds of dollars, but I couldn’t afford to take the pen to a shop and have it serviced. Even if I did, it would no longer be purely vintage.

It was truly a black night of the soul… black with a noticeable blue tinge. All I could do was keep loading the pen with the right ink and pray that it would find its way home again.

Thankfully, happily, miraculously, the bleeding ink tapered off a few weeks ago, then stopped. Like the long-suffering woman who touched the hem of Christ’s robe and was thereby healed of her decades-long affliction, my Parker 51 has been returned to me: safe, sound and whole. If you have a favorite writing instrument, you know how I felt.

With care and reverence, I cleaned off the last of the ink that stained the barrel seam and refilled it with Sheaffer Skrip black. My Parker 51 and I have been delivered from the valley of the shadow of pen death, and we shall rejoice in the light of a new day, forever more. Amen.

6 thoughts on “Bleeding Ink

  1. Wow. I found myself actually worrying about your pen, Tony. I’m glad it is okay!

    I wish my handwriting was better because I’d go out to seek something like this pen. Unfortunately, my handwriting is hardly worth the cheap pack of 10 for a dollar ball points I got at the dollar store.

    • Not half so glad as I am! My handwriting isn’t that great, but a fountain pen forced you to be better. I tend to press hard on the paper, so much so that my hand aches with a regular ball point. Fountain pens and pencils require a lighter touch to work, so I can write longer. Fine-tipped gel pens serve this function as well.

  2. Do you have too much time on your hands, Tony? Or I’m just an uncouth clutz with no cosmopolitan gene in my body. Well written description, despite my lack of empathy. I read the whole thing and was pleased at the happy ending!

    • You’d be surprised what a difference in makes to your worldview when you start paying attention to the little things like how your pen writes. Instead of an unnoticed bit of the background props that make up my world, my pen is a source of continual delight. Believe me, I was pleased with the ending, too.

  3. Glad your pen recovered! What I find the most interesting is that this summit in pen technology was created in 1946… and then it was stopped. I’d love to find the executives at Parker (if any of them are still around) and ask them what the heck they were thinking. Fountain pens are still made, certainly. I used a cheap Skrip one through five years of university, more because the larger barrel makes my handwriting slightly more readable than because it was a superior pen (it wasn’t).

    Seriously, people, even people of limited means, cheerfully treat themselves to pens that cost a couple of hundred bucks if that’s their thing. If it’s really that great a pen (and I believe you when you say it is), they should make them again. Exactly as they did in 1946, mind you — no knock-offs!

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