"On a bit of test paper I wrote 'Dad’s pen with wonky nib'...."
August 12, 2018 5:56 PM   Subscribe

"World's Most Wanted": "One day last November, I dropped my dad’s fountain pen on the floor. Actually it’s been my fountain pen since my dad died half a century ago, but I still think of it as my dad’s pen."

More on the Parker 51:

The Parker 51 went into production in 1941, and remained a best-seller for decades thereafter. The majority of examples in circulation, however, date from the 1950s.

A Brief History of The Parker 51 Fountain Pen

Revealed: The Secrets of History's Greatest Pen:

Lucite wasn't even the 51's biggest secret -- the biggest secret rested atop the pen's gold nib. Crowning the utensil was a tiny amount of ruthenium, a rare, hardy, and nearly untarnishable transition metal famous for augmenting the properties of other metals. Though a member of the vaunted platinum group metals, ruthenium also has the added bonus of being relatively cheap compared to its elemental brothers and sisters. Such was the pride that Parker engineers took in their tip that the company advertised the nibs as being made from fictitious "plathenium," apparently to mislead competitors.
posted by mandolin conspiracy (34 comments total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
Wow! I have always loved fancy pens, and knowing this history is delightful. Thanks!
posted by stoneweaver at 6:04 PM on August 12, 2018

uh i think uh i think I may have one, dried up and with a crackle-failed refillable reservoir, which prompted my triaging it to the "later" locale, like, what, 25 years ago. Now where have those pens got to...
posted by mwhybark at 6:18 PM on August 12, 2018

I have one of these in my hand, although a later issue. I never liked it, but that is true of all fountain pens whether they used ink from a bottle or cartridge. Being left-handed, a lazy tendency to drag the hypothenar part of my palm onto the recently written line regularly smeared the not yet dry ink. I tried multiple inks over the years but never found a quick-drying one with acceptable opacity.

Any suggestions on ink from the writers/calligraphers here?
posted by sudogeek at 6:21 PM on August 12, 2018 [4 favorites]

I was given a set of Parker ball-point pen and mechanical pencil for my senior year in high school that looked exactly like that "51". They must have gone on to produce similar products based on its popularity.
posted by Mei's lost sandal at 6:22 PM on August 12, 2018

I'm not a huge fan of the 51, but it's definitely an iconic pen.
posted by slkinsey at 6:25 PM on August 12, 2018 [1 favorite]

sudogeek: Several companies, notably Noodler's, make quick-dying inks specifically for left-handed writers.
posted by slkinsey at 6:30 PM on August 12, 2018 [1 favorite]

Just a note that the owner of Noodler's has questionable politics. Great products at excellent prices though. It's like ULINE -- do I support white supremacists or pay a premium for my crap? Oh, well, put it that way....
posted by seanmpuckett at 6:33 PM on August 12, 2018 [5 favorites]

He's not that bad, unless something drastic has changed. But if you're looking for more left-handed fountain pen advice, Goulet Pen Company has started a YouTube series about left-handed writers on their channel. Noodler's has a whole line of quick-drying inks, and the lefties I know also enjoy the Pilot Iroshizuku line of inks.
posted by Punkey at 6:42 PM on August 12, 2018 [1 favorite]

I love the shape of the 51. What the E-type is to cars, the Spitfire is to planes, and the A4 Pacific is to trains, it is to pens.
posted by Jon Mitchell at 6:47 PM on August 12, 2018


but it is a maroon Parker "21", not quite the top of the line. It has a rubber pump reservoir that uses a kind of tweezer spring clip and which does not appear to be quite as damaged as I had recalled.

Bonus junk drawer spelunking prize: my opening-weekend membership card to the Gilman Street Project, dated Jan 3, 1986.
posted by mwhybark at 6:50 PM on August 12, 2018 [3 favorites]

Appears to be largely the same model seen here.
posted by mwhybark at 6:53 PM on August 12, 2018

Do not put Noodler's ink into any vintage pen! Go for the classics -- Waterman's, Parker Quink, Pelikan's non-Edelstein line. Regular Pilot should be fine but their Iroshizuku line is pretty alkaline. Stick with modern pens for the boutique inks.

Noodler's does have a lot of quick-drying inks that are suitable for lefties, but if you have a vintage pen you don't want to have to replace the sac or the diaphragm if it melts.
posted by rewil at 7:23 PM on August 12, 2018 [2 favorites]

A few things about the Noodler's inks: Firat, yes some of them have properties that can permanently stain or which can dissolve latex pen sacs. And Nathan Tardiff is vocally right-libertarian. Personally, I don't purchase Noodler's inks for a combination of these reasons.

However, the Parker 51 was meant to use a notoriously corrosive special ink, and therefore had a special "pli-glass" sac that would not dissolve the way a latex sac would. Any Parker 51 should have a pli-glass sac that would be able to withstand anything a Noodler's ink would throw at it. AFAIK the quick-drying Noodler's inks are not known to damage pens. In addition, the Iroshizuku inks are not quick-drying in my experience.

I agree that vintage pens generally speaking (i.e., other than 51s with pli-glass sacs) should use one of the low maintenance washable inks such as Waterman's, Montblanc, Scheaffer or Diamine.
posted by slkinsey at 8:09 PM on August 12, 2018 [3 favorites]

I have a 51 demonstrator that I snagged in a lucky estate sale score (among a few dozen other pens, some of the simpler ones that I restored myself since replacing ink sacs is easy mode most times) that need to get restored by a pro. They are truly impressive.
posted by RolandOfEld at 8:24 PM on August 12, 2018

I have a later generation Parker 51 (with the squeeze bulb). It works beautifully with Parker Quink ink, available at my local Staples. It was my grandmother's, then my uncle's, then tucked up in an old desk for safe keeping, found by me and now mine.

I love this pen - I use it everyday, for work notes, grocery notes, doodling and diarying. Sometimes I worry about carrying it everyday - what if I lose it? what if I damage it? But what's the point in having a wonderful pen if you don't use it? So it has new life with me.

Also: the reservoir is amazing - I write a LOT and I only need to refill it every 2-3 weeks. My previous refillable (a nice slim jinbao) needed refilling every few days.
posted by jb at 8:35 PM on August 12, 2018

Any suggestions on ink from the writers/calligraphers here?

I am neither, but I am a fellow sinistral, and enjoy writing by hand enough that I trained myself into good penmanship—in the past now sadly from lack of regular practice.

Even more effective than special inks I found simply turning the paper so that the near edge was perpendicular to me and the desk edge made the single largest difference.  You then write straight away from you*—a lot easier than it sounds—which makes putting the proper slant into cursive dead simple, and also keeps your hand from touching ink until well after it's dried.

*This also keeps you from having to hook your hand in the slightest, though it will engender strange looks and regular comments from the usual suspects—right handers that is. Most lefties who've seen me write like this just get a thoughtful look on their faces. I can see the gears turning.
posted by los pantalones del muerte at 9:31 PM on August 12, 2018 [3 favorites]

Holy shit there are politics in my ink.

I’m so tired.
posted by mr_roboto at 10:27 PM on August 12, 2018 [10 favorites]

Dang I didn't know Parker Pen practically closed shop.

I have a Parker 51, vintage aerometric just like the first article, nabbed from eBay back when eBay wasn't trying to be Amazon.

Ironically the reasons that people loved it when it was released (durability, capacity, reliability) are the reasons why I never really bonded with the pen. I preferred pens that had less capacity (because changing ink colors is fun) and with weirdo nibs like stub, italic, or the weird Esterbrook flex ones. The 51 had a concealed (hooded), nail-stiff, mundane fine nib with little feedback.

This article makes me actually want to sell it so someone more deserving can own it for a while.
posted by meowzilla at 12:13 AM on August 13, 2018 [1 favorite]

Yeah, Noodler's isn't as corrosive as Parker Superchrome ink (which could ossify diaphragms and corrode breather tubes even in the 51s that were built to handle it, according to Richard Binder). I still wouldn't risk it.

If you want a 51 of your very own, there are tons at any pen show that might be near you (DC's just happened, SF and Sydney are coming up soon, Denver has one the first weekend of October). If you're not near a show, eBay has 'em, Peyton St. Pens has them. They'll occasionally show up on r/PenSwap, less often on the Pen Addict slack's #sell-trade channel. I know a guy who's at most of the pen shows who'll also sell regular and Fantasy 51s through Instagram; eventually I'll get a fantasy purple 51 from Nik. (Or maybe just a 45. I respect 51s, but 45s appeal to me personally.)(If you do get one from Nik, don't tell him if you plan to ink it with Noodler's. He might yell.)

Or, if you don't want to invest much, Wing Sung makes a knock-off, the 601. Can be found for under $20 on eBay or Amazon with a steel nib, or for just under $60 of alixpress with the gold nib. I have a transparent aqua steel nib version. Not a bad writer; I should get it back out of my drawer of fountain pens while waiting for PenBBS to come out with their vacumatic pen. (Which I don't believe will be aping the 51? Not entirely sure.)
posted by rewil at 12:23 AM on August 13, 2018 [2 favorites]

For vintage pens, there is none easier to get than a Parker 51. And unless it's a rare color or has either a sterling silver or gold-filled cap, you can get them in good working order relatively inexpensively, too (meaning <$200). This is because they made a zillion of them over a lot of years and there are quite a few floating around the market. I'd recommend getting one that's been restored and has a new pli-glass sac.
posted by slkinsey at 3:01 AM on August 13, 2018

My father had one of those, too. I looked into getting it repaired with one of the fountain pen artisans my wife knows, but apparently it's beyond economic repair. I've got a horrible feeling that what happened to it was me when I was two.

My own favourite pen is a Pilot M90. One of the most space age things I own, and it has its own pen shrine (which it shares with a rotating gallery of tarot cards).
posted by Grangousier at 3:53 AM on August 13, 2018 [1 favorite]

“Though a member of the vaunted platinum group metals, ruthenium also has the added bonus of being relatively cheap compared to its elemental brothers and sisters.“

What? No it’s not. Ruthenium is in Group 8, with Iron. Do Forbes’ fact checkers not have access to a periodic table?
posted by midmarch snowman at 5:40 AM on August 13, 2018

The platinum group spans three columns near the middle of the periodic table.
posted by GenderNullPointerException at 6:45 AM on August 13, 2018 [2 favorites]

Incidentally, Goulet Pens just reposted this "Tips for Lefties Using Fountain Pens" blog post on their Twitter feed because it's Left Handers Day.
posted by rewil at 9:38 AM on August 13, 2018 [1 favorite]

The Lamy 2000 and Pilot Elite 95s are both much better choices for that aesthetic than a vintage pen.
posted by b1tr0t at 10:12 AM on August 13, 2018

Also, don’t pay more than a few bucks for the Chinese versions: I’ve had a few and quality is all over the place. Culturally, Chinese fountain pens are similar in use to fancy pens in America: intended as beautiful gifts, not to be used. If you don’t want ink all over your hands in the middle of a meeting, get something better. (Obviously Chinese manufacturing can do much better, but the market for Chinese fountain pens does not seem to demand quality)
posted by b1tr0t at 10:15 AM on August 13, 2018

Quality is definitely questionable for sub-$5 Chinese metal pens. But something like a Moonman M2 for circa fifteen bucks is pretty good for the money.
posted by slkinsey at 2:08 PM on August 13, 2018 [1 favorite]

I like this blog for following what's new in the Chinese pen world. There's some interesting designs coming out recently, alongside the usual cheap Jinhaos and Heros.
posted by rewil at 2:38 PM on August 13, 2018

Also: the reservoir is amazing - I write a LOT and I only need to refill it every 2-3 weeks. My previous refillable (a nice slim jinbao) needed refilling every few days.

I find evaporation is more of a problem than running out. I mean, I'd expect my $5 Hero not to have an air-tight cap, but my Parker Sonnet needs refilling weekly whether I use it or not. Muji make a cheap little snap-fit pen case that keeps the humidity in the right side of the pen, so that makes my more breathy pens useful.

I have my mum's UK-made 51 somewhere. While I'm grateful that she gave it to me, it's not my favourite writer. The needle-fine concealed nib might be smooth, but it's very short of character. A $15 Muji fountain pen writes better.
posted by scruss at 2:00 AM on August 14, 2018

Well... today I learned.
posted by midmarch snowman at 5:57 AM on August 14, 2018

scruss: Apparently it's common for the cap material of Parker Sonnet's to crack when the jewel is inserted during the manufacturing process. This means that the cap is not particularly airtight, which leads to the Sonnet's notorious drying-out issues. You can test this by pouring water into the cap. It may be possible to plug these leaks with a little bit of resin.
posted by slkinsey at 8:25 AM on August 14, 2018 [2 favorites]

slkinsey: whoah! It does indeed leak through the cap, which would explain the drying out. I'll stick with the Muji polypropylene case for pens for now, as I don't know of any good local repairers. Thank you!

In trying to find my mum's Parker 51 (oh please oh please let me have left it with her in the UK rather than bringing it to Canada …) I did find 14 other fountain pens, including two Rotring 600s, a Sheaffer Targa and a stainless Parker 25 …
posted by scruss at 11:13 AM on August 16, 2018 [3 favorites]

This can become a bit complicated because snap-type caps do typically need to have some amount of ventilation so the vacuum created when you uncap the pen doesn't draw up a big blob of ink.
posted by slkinsey at 1:40 PM on August 16, 2018 [1 favorite]

I did find 14 other fountain pens

If I had kids, I would be in that found pen league. Digging around for what turned out to be that 21 I turned up six to ten other fountain pens I had mislaid to add to the seven or so I maintain and use. I got hooked via the inexpensive Rotring Art Pen, still in primary rotation.
posted by mwhybark at 6:38 PM on August 16, 2018 [1 favorite]

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