Posted in Collection, Material, Pens, Stories

Ebonite; Mottled, Woodgrain and Ripple

What is Ebonite….
The name “ebonite” comes from “ebony” and is black in color (duh). Yet it is clear brownish-red in thin-film form and brownish-red in powdered form. Also known as Vulcanite, it is warm to the touch, a durable medium, and provides excellent electrical insulation and machinability. Great, I’ll remember that next time I’m working with live electrical wires. Ebonite is sometimes called “hard rubber,” manufacturers in Germany and Japan often distinguish ebonite that is hardened with fillers from “natural” hardened ebonite.

Eco-friendly benefits of ebonite, it is manufactured with natural rubber collected from gum tree sap, and the tree is not cut down. Gum trees have a high absorption rate of carbon dioxide.

Ebonite is produced by a chemical reaction of combining rubber and sulfur molecules in a process known as “vulcanization.” Ebonite may contain from 25% to 80% sulfur and linseed oil. The process is accelerated by applying heat and pressure of steam for several days. The result of the process is low-elastic, very firm vulcanized rubber Interestingly, soft ebonite prior to vulcanization becomes ultra hard rubber afterward. When the surface of ebonite is polished, it gives a beautiful, lacquer-like gloss.

Why do I love ebonite pens, especially those that are dyed or mottled, etc. Welp, when the surface of ebonite is polished, it gives a beautiful, lacquer-like gloss. Secondly, the pen has a natural warmth to the touch, unlike contemporary acrylic, plastics, or vintage celluloid which are cold. I am particularly fond of ebonite which is mottled – mixing colored rubber with standard rubber in the vulcanization process.

Following careful mixing formulas, ebonite rods can be drawn in a spiral fashion to produce a variety of appearances and styles.

Mottled

As the technique gained popularity, pen makers in the 1920s produced elegant woodgrain pens.

Woodgrain

Expanding the woodgrain design, in 1926 Waterman introduced a flow pattern, called ripple. The only other company to produce a true ripple was Platignum.

Ripple

Ripple in still water. When there is no pebble tossed. Nor wind to blow
~ Jerry Garcia

Ripple was immensely popular and available in a variety of colors such as olive, rose, and blue-green. Contemporary mottled ebonite rods available to indie pen manufacturers come in a fantastic range of colors. The rods are readily available from manufacturers in India, Japan, and Germany.

Unfortunately, black ebonite is susceptible to sun and water damage. I have not encountered this with mottled, woodgrain, or ripple ebonite pens. Maybe I am just lucky. Please feel free to leave comments detailing your experiences with mottle ebonite, etc.

COPYRIGHT © 2021-2022 DANNY WATTS and CHRONICLES OF A FOUTAIN PEN.
Posted in Pens, Stories

Wait, my pen is made from WHAT?

Some time ago, I was researching something (the first thing to go is your mind) when a revelation hit me, “wow they produce pens using all kinds of weird stuff.” I started taking notes, found websites providing generic dictionary-style explanations, and well that wasn’t going to work.

As I am not a chemist if I misspeak, my apologies, and please feel free to correct me. Also, if by chance you manufacture your own pens, feel free to comment.

I came across this quote and burst out laughing. I knew then I had to learn more.

“Casein doesn’t burn well but a celluloid pen in flames is memorable.” Deb @ goodwriterspens.com

Pen Material

Thermosets vs Thermoplastics: Thermoset is a material that creates bonds between polymer strands forming a tangled grid when heated that cannot be remolded or reheated after the initial forming. While thermoplastics can be reheated, remolded, and cooled repeatedly without causing any chemical changes.

Bakelite. It is not often used for pens due to its brittleness. It is the first plastic made from synthetic components via the condensation reaction of phenol with formaldehyde (thermosets).

Celluloid (trade names Permanite, Stonite, Pyralin). The first widely-manufactured synthetic plastic combining cellulose nitrate with camphor and alcohol. It replaced ebonite in the late 1920s. It can be made in virtually any color or pattern, and is easy to machine, yet slow to produce and is flammable. As celluloid ages, the camphor molecules are ‘squeezed’ out causing deterioration generally known as “celluloid rot.” Celluloid was replaced by cheap plastics in the 1940s. Celluloid acetate is not celluloid.

Pen Injection Mold

Casein aka Galalith (trade names Casolith, Lactoloid, Aladdinite). A milk-derived plastic, susceptible to moisture. Derived from 80% of the phosphoproteins in cow’s milk. It is rarely seen in American pen production but is more commonly used in the UK and Europe. It is a synthetic plastic material produced by the interaction of casein and formaldehyde.

Photo credit: Crimshaw.com

Ebonite (hard rubber or vulcanite). Early naturally-derived plastic is made by vulcanizing latex rubber with a large proportion of sulfur (25% to 80%) and linseed oil. Used to manufacture fountain pens until the late 1920s, thereafter primarily used to produce pen feeds and sections. The origin of the name reflects its intended use as an artificial substitute for ebony wood (thermosets).

Plastic. A generalization referring to celluloid, resin, and acrylic. Excludes hard rubber even though hard rubber is technically plastic.

Resin (aka Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene or ABS). A fancy modern name for plastic (honestly how else can one justify sales prices for a “plastic pen”). Resin actually undergoes a chemical reaction in the mold and cures from a liquid into a solid (thermosets).

Acrylic Resin (trade names Lucite or Perspex). Parker 51s is acrylic resin. It is typically derived from acrylic acid, methacrylic acid, and butyl acrylate, and/or methyl methacrylate. In the case of acrylic, the material is melted and poured into the mold to cool (thermoplastics).

How can I tell what my pen is made of?

Firstly, you must have an idea of your pen’s age, then as a general rule, pens predating 1925 are usually made of hard rubber, casein, transparent bakelite, or celluloid. Multicolored pearlescence or translucent pens are typically celluloid, as are most streamlined pens. Postwar, most penmakers transitioned from celluloid to cellulose acetate and injection-moldable polymer plastics (thermoplastics).

Hard rubber is easily identified by its distinctive smell (like a tire). Wet a celluloid pen and it gives off a distinctive smell (odor of camphor – honestly I have no idea what camphor smells like). You can also, test for celluloid by removing a tiny, tissue-thin shaving from the inside of the cap or barrel. Place the shaving on a glass slide, then add a drop of acetone. If the shaving is celluloid, it will dissolve; if casein, bakelite, or acrylic nothing will happen.

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Posted in Heat Seating, Nibs, Restoration

Heat Setting an Ebonite Feed Without Burning Down the House

Heat setting an ebonite feed is a topic of much conjecture, often viewed as some deep dark secret shrouded in mystery, like the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Addressing ink flow issues is not a rare or uncommon problem for fountain pen users. The cause of flow issues can be attributed to a variety of reasons. Before jumping to costly conclusions and if you have an ebonite feed there is a quick and easy “try this first” option – heat set your nib. Heat setting is a great option when addressing the following issues:

  • Consistent railroading
  • Dry writing
  • Hard starting
  • Dripping
  • Excessive leaking into cap
  • Blobbing
  • Excessively wet writing
  • Swapping nibs

Consulting the Parker Repair Manual 5115 (8th edition), the following guidance is provided. To achieve a consistent, and trouble-free ink flow, the nib must fit snuggly against the feed.

They recommend a process called “heating down” the feed. This is accomplished by lightly rotating the nib and feed through a flame. Then wet your finger in cold water, place the nib dorsal side down against a hard surface, like a table, and rub the feed in a back and forth motion. Pressing it against the nib produces a custom tight fit.

I strongly recommend that you do not use an open flame to heat down a feed. Vintage celluloid pens are highly flammable and there is a much safer alternative.

Let me introduce you to the hot-water-heat-setting method. No special skills required beyond the ability to boil water, and it works great. Using the hot water you can heat set a feed as many times as needed until the desired fit is had and the correct ink flow is achieved.

Begin by boiling water, it needs to be hot. Pour the hot water into a glass or jar, but only enough to immerse the nib up to the section. It is best if the section is not submerged. Leave the nib and feed in the hot water for 30-35 seconds then remove from the hot water. Now, place the feed on your thumb and gently squeeze or pinch the feed and nib together. Holding it for 20 seconds, allowing the ebonite to cool. Ink the pen and evaluate the results. Repeat as needed.

If you are heat-setting a vintage pen with a black ebonite barrel, I would remove the section from the barrel, eliminating any chance the barrel may come into contact with water. I had a very bad experience where my 100-year-old black ebonite pen turned green the instant the barrel got wet….

Thanks for reading, let me know if this has been helpful. It has for me. Until next time.

Posted in Pens, Stories

It’s a new month, what’s in your pen cup?

Geez I hate February, I was counting on those extra couple days to get some writing done and welp, they are missing.

For this month I grabbed a Pilot Prera with a medium calligraphy nib. It’s only 1mm across, honestly, an italic or oblique nib would have also been a nice choice. Inked it up with a De Atramentis Black-Red and toyed with it a bit. Loving the way it lays down letters.

I’ve been fighting with the indie ebonite pen, it was leaking. I applied more silicone grease which seemed to help significantly but only today I noticed ink leaking out around the feed….. I know, I know “good can be cheap but cheap is never good.”

Posted in Pens, Restoration, Reviews

Handmade Mottle Ebonite Pen

“The mottled ebonite eyedropper fountain pen is resplendent of the magnificence of Indian craftsmanship for a reason … the hand turning of fountain pens is elevated to a form of fine art

Independent artisans working with a small lathe machine in a small apartment, produce high-quality handmade fountain pens that are sold all over the world. It takes between one to four days to make a single pen.

This brings us to my pen, unbranded, hand turned on a lathe from solid tan and brown mottled ebonite. The pen is in good shape, there is a small scratch on the barrel and ink stains on the cap around each air hole. The pen has a faint odor, this is common with ebonite, especially with indie pens from India. Hey, the pen is made from hard rubber and all rubber smells, it will fade with time. The feed is handmade from ebonite. There is a partial channel running along the ventral side of the feed, I’m not sure what function this serves.

The nib is a “Butterfly” brand medium nib, not a butterfly nib. Butterfly nibs are super cheap, they were popular in the early 20th century. They are missing tips at the end of the tines. Instead, each tine is bent under forming a writing surface. This nib has “Butterfly Medium” and the letters “PPM” in an oval engraved on it. The nib shoulders bet so that they form a tight fit around the feed much like a Lamy.

The pen is made entirely of lathe-turned mottled ebonite. You can just make out the lathe marks on the section. The cap has a single ring cut into it and a silver plate clip. The clip has pyramided rectangle boxes running the length of the clip. The clip is attached to a silver-plated ring and held in place by a blind cap.

I was able to remove the ink stains from the cap with a Sunshine cloth, and cleaned the insides; purple was the past ink of choice.

Time to give it a try, I got out the Serenity Blue and filled the barrel. Had to prime the nib, but once it got started no problems. I stored it nib up for hours, introduced it to paper and ink flowed without missing a beat.

Now for the scary part, I’m going to lay the capped pen on my desk in the hope it doesn’t leak.

Vital Statistics

  • Capped length 128mm,
  • Uncapped length 112mm,
  • Barrel diameter 11mm,
  • Cap diameter 13mm,
  • Inside barrel diameter 7mm,
  • Inside barrel depth 61mm,
  • Pen weighs in at 13g.

Geek alert! For giggles, doing the math (yes I cheated and used an online calculator) but the volume of the inside of the barrel (less the section) is nearly 9,300 cubic mm. This pen can hold just north of 9ml of ink.

The Verdict

I have a thing for mottled pens let’s focus on the pink elephant, I was leery of the nib. Image my surprise when it wrote so well. Once upon a time, I was a fan of fine-tipped nibs (to compensate for cheap paper) and this pen writes closed to fine than to medium making this a great choice. The nib is firm, bordering extra firm – ok it is so firm you could use it in a game of darts, which may not be agreeable to all. The pen did not leak when left lying horizontally but it did have an issue after the weekend. When I tried to use it after it lay horizontally over a weekend nothing, no ink. I applied the nib to the paper with a bit more force than normal and a gusher ensued.

Final thoughts, this pen is not elegant, it’s not fancy, it’s simply functional. With the huge ink reservoir, I’ve filled it with as much Serenity Blue ink as I dare, now let’s see how long it lasts. Kudos to the Indian artisan who made this pen.