Guest post: Why your first vintage pen oughtta be an Esterbrook!

7 10 2009

So a few days ago, Bruce made a comment on my blog that probably got him a little more than he bargained for…he suggested more guest posts, so I drafted him. :) He graciously accepted (not that I would have let him off the hook very easily) my demand request for a piece about the pens that really have his attention…Esterbrooks!  (I knew Bruce was big into Esterbrooks, and I hadn’t had the chance to write a piece about them yet, so I figured he was definitely the go-to guy for this one!)

So, without further ado, here’s a few thoughts (and some scrumptious photos) from Bruce about why Esterbrooks should be high on your list for a first vintage pen.  Thanks, Bruce!  I knew I could count on you, and I really appreciate you stepping up!

Estie Spread

When the time comes for you to consider your first vintage fountain pen, the multitude of examples still readily available from the various 1st, 2nd and 3rd-tier pen companies popular during the heyday of fountain pens can be stupefying.  Though the name Esterbrook may not come to mind as quickly as the more recognizable names such as Parker, Sheaffer’s or Waterman’s, I feel there are numerous reasons why and areas where Esterbrook excels above all the others. In the areas of variety, lasting quality, durability, ease of repair and restoration, cost and especially adaptability, you’ll be hard pressed to find another pen company that can provide today, in their vintage pens of yesterday, what Esterbrook can.

The most widely available J family series of Esties came in 10 different colors and 3 different sizes. There are the SJ and LJ models, both slightly thinner with the SJ being a bit shorter for those with average to smaller hands. The “full sized” J comes pretty close to the size of many modern fountain pens. Almost all of those colors and sizes also existed in the Dollar pen family by Esterbrook that preceded the J family though being older, the Dollar family is a bit harder to find today. Combining all those colors and sizes gives you a range of possibilities unequaled in my opinion by any other pen maker.  While Esterbrook not only had more colors than most any of the other pen makers, they also had more patterning variations within those colors. Most of the other pen companies were very set and unvarying in their colors and patterns so many of their pens in the same colors look exactly alike. With Esties it’s very likely you can find a variance in color and patterning that you won’t see exactly duplicated in 10 other pens of the same color.

Note the variations in the celluloid of nearly identical pens!

Note the variations in the celluloid of nearly identical pens!

While during their heyday, The “big three” of pendom were courting the customer looking for a “pen of distinction” or a “fine writing instrument”, Esterbrook (IMO) was content to be “the people’s pen”, the (original) VW Beetle or Ford Mustang of fountain pens if you will.  While the big three were fighting it out amongst the individual pen consumers with their visulated celluloids and gold plated (and filled) trim, Esterbrook was selling millions of simpler, less flashy, much less expensive pens to the monstrous Bell System (phone) monopoly, AT&T, AAA Auto club, various school systems nationwide and the “Joe (and Jane) Sixpacks” of the day.

While most of the other pen makers were wowing their customers with visulated celluloid that ambered as it aged  and changed colors due to the outgassing from their ink sacs, Esterbrook used a very durable opaque celluloid that is immune (for all intents and purposes) to those color changes and ambering.  While other pens’ gold plated (and filled) clips and trim rings looked distinctive and “rich” in their prime, today many are discolored, worn and brassed, while Esterbrook’s “plain jane” stainless steel furniture soldiers on looking in many cases as clean as the day it was made over 50 years ago.  Even with an internal component as simple as the latex ink sac, some how Esterbrook managed to excel over their competitors. It is very common today to see Esties with their perfectly pliable and serviceable 50+ year old original “Esterbrook” stamped latex sacs, while the other pen company’s sacs crumbled to rattling chips long ago.

You might wonder where the prior mentioned trait of “adaptability” enters in as that’s not a word you might normally see associated with fountain pens. It comes into play with the manner Esterbrook chose to nib their pens. While the other makers were “blinging” their customers with 14kt gold single and dual toned nibs, Esterbrook stuck to the same theme of stainless steel it did with its clips and trim. Now, don’t be lured into the “Snootinista” position of “it’s got to be a GOLD nib to be a GOOD nib”; that simply just isn’t the case. A properly aligned steel nib can write just as smoothly and flow just as well as any gold nib. Esterbrook called their nibs “Re-New Points” and at times there were as many as 52 different Estie nibs available (yet ANOTHER benchmark no other pen maker could touch). Any and all of the Re-New Point nibs can easily be screwed into all the Dollar and J family pens by the user.

Therein lies perhaps the most effective “secret weapon” that makes the Esterbrook such a winner in the vintage pen arena.  With almost all the other vintage pens, you are “stuck with” the nib the pen comes with. While you can have those nibs re-tipped or replaced by a pen repair person you are usually looking at a minimum of $50 to do that.  (Be sure you make the right choice there, it’s at least ANOTHER $50 if you choose a replacement nib that doesn’t “fit” you.) That same $50 can easily buy you 3-6 different NOS Esterbrook Re-New Point nibs that you can swap around at will in a minute or two yourself.  (Very few if any of the replacement nibs available now for vintage big three pens will be NOS, almost all will be used nibs.) While they are somewhat pricier, in the $25-35 range, there are even flexible Estie nibs available <though some may rate them as only “semi-flexible”> when during the day, the big three weren’t generally fitting flex nibs in their pens.

While there are other less common and more expensive Esterbrook Re-New Point nibs, they generally fall into 2 categories, the 1XXX/2XXX numbered nibs and the 9XXX series nibs.  While a few of the 1XXX/2XXX nibs have no tipping whatsoever and can be somewhat scratchy, most have a tip formed by folding over the end of the nib and soldering the fold along the bottom of the nib point and can write just as smoothly as any “iridium” tipped nib. The 9XXX series nibs have the standard “iridium” tipping on them and are generally slightly smoother and last longer than the other series nibs. While there are a lot of good usable used Re-New Points available there are also still Lots of NOS Estie nibs to be had. The more common NOS nibs are available for between $10-20 depending on the nib series and the specific nib’s popularity. There are numerous locations on-line that show the full chart of all available Esterbrook Re-New Point nibs.  (Esterbrook.net, hosted by Estie guru Brian Anderson, is a great source of Esterbrook info along with Richard Binder’s most excellent page on Esterbrooks on his site.)

In the day, many of the big three’s pens retailed for $10-15 while the lowly Esterbrooks sold in the gazillions for $2-3 depending on mainly your choice of the 2 grades of nibs. Thankfully, the lower prices of the Esties seems to have carried forward to today where even a very good condition example can be found on eBay for $12-18.  Even fully restored examples are readily available in the Fountain Pen Network’s Marketplace for $25-35. (While there are less common Esties than the J and Dollar family pens that command prices in the $150-250 range, those are more the targets of collectors than those searching for their first Vintage pen.)

The ease with which an Estie can be repaired or restored makes their wide availability on eBay a big boon to Estie lovers.  Though it probably wasn’t purposeful at the time, the materials Esterbrook used and the way they assembled their pens make it especially easy for even a non-skilled, non-mechanically inclined person (like myself) to not only bring an Estie “back from the dead” but yes, even easily return them to looking and writing as nicely as the day they were made.

Unlike other pen makers who may have used special section sealant or shellac to secure their nib sections, Esterbrook used only a pressure fit that can often be separated by hand with no tools whatsoever (though some dry heat is suggested to minimize the chance of a cracked section). Even so far as cracked sections go, Esterbrook is known to have used some of the toughest celluloid ever put into pens. Being lever fillers, all that’s usually needed to restore the filler is a new sac, some shellac and some pure talc. The basic supplies to re-sac an Esterbrook will cost about $10 for one pen and only $2 more for a new sac for each pen after that. There are methods using common household materials to polish an Esterbrook you’ve re-sacked for $2 to a mirror like, better than new finish. So, after your initial outlay of $10 for supplies, it is easily possible to buy an Estie in nice shape on eBay, restore it yourself and have a total outlay for that pen of between $15-20.  And you wonder why I like Esterbrooks…

Speaking of “”Why I Like Esterbrooks”. When Ryan and I originally discussed this piece, that was the title he suggested. I, in turn suggested “Why an Esterbrook should be your first vintage pen”.  Hopefully, you can now see that the reasons for each scenario are pretty much the same.

You should be warned though, around the Esterbrook forum on the Fountain Pen Network, Esties are compared to Lay’s potato chips. Just like the chips, once you get one you can’t stop yourself at just one.

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19 responses

7 10 2009
chkuo

Bad influence.. makes me want to buy some more Esties..

Anyway, thanks for the great post (and the wonderful pictures)!

7 10 2009
Michael

WOW! What an amazing article!! Bruce you have hit the nail on the head. I did take the plunge with a Estie J (cobalt) with a 9556 nib (based on a recommendation from Ryan) about a year or so ago, and I have NEVER regretted it! I absolutely love it and will be scouting a red J to add to my collection very soon. Thanks to Bruce for the great article, and to Ryan for being a great and trusted friend in the FP world!

7 10 2009
dannzeman

Fantastic article! Very well done. I’ve had several Esties before and you nailed all the good about them. My only problem with them is that they just feel too darn cheap. That alone was enough to get me to never want another one. But, that’s just me.

7 10 2009
Wayne (ToasterPastry)

Don’t get me wrong. I love Esterbrooks. I love their engineering. I love their concept. I love how you can take the nib off and inject tiny quantities of ink–that I mixed up–directly into the ink sac. I love how you can clean them more thoroughly than any other pen. I love the idea of interchangeable nibs. However, the pen just bores me. I know that they come in lots of assorted colors. But even that doesn’t pique my interest. I don’t stop in the middle of my sentence and pick up the pen and say, “wow, that’s a cool pen,” like I do with my vintage Aurora 88, or my Waterman 55. Most of the nibs available for the Esterbrook have absolutely no character at all: firm and extra firm. You can get a flexible nib, but good luck trying to find one for cheap. I own two Esterbrooks and they just sit in the tray. Great first pen. Indeed! But when you move on up to a vintage Waterman or Mabie Todd, or experience the beauty and handling of a Parker Duofold nib, then you never want to go back.

23 04 2010
John Markway

I have used fountain pens since middleschool in 1962. I have used a wide variety of fountain pens and I would like to take $200 in gold back to 1930 and buy some wonderful pens. The problem today is in finding a flexible fine nib. (For you of course it might be something differient).

Try to find a store that lets you try out 20 or 30 pens and their nibs in vintage fountain pens. They are not common if they exist at all, and the price…well. I enjoy luxury and the wonder of made things, I truly do, but for me function comes first.

I have Parkers, Waterman, Sheaffer, and Esterbrook pens and the ones I write with are Esterbrook. They do look “Cheap” and they are light and so on, but the 2048 nib is flexible and fine and like writing with a quill.It costs between $15 and $40 for the nib. ( The author of the lead article is behind the times with his figures. A restored Esterbrook starts at $30 and goes to $70 these days). I loaded one up last night with some de Atraments Rose ink (it’s scented with rose oil) and it’s sooo smooth! I look at my other pens and I like LOOKING at them and PLAYING with them but writing? It’s the Esterbrook.

8 10 2009
Bounce

I got my first vintage pen recently. It is a red J (hi Michael). Until then I hadn’t used a fountain pen of any kind since the disposable cartridge-based kinds I used in the early 70′s. The process of re-learning old skills has been enjoyable. The Esterbrook only makes it better.

Thanks for the excellent article, Bruce (and the links to more information).

8 10 2009
pmorin

“Great first pen. Indeed! But when you move on up to a vintage Waterman or Mabie Todd, or experience the beauty and handling of a Parker Duofold nib, then you never want to go back.”

Personally, I disagree with that statement…. I own a decent number of vintage Waterman’s, Parker Vacs & 51′s, an Omas, Visconti, a number of Sheaffers, Pilot Capless, and some other fabulous writers – I always have at least a couple of Esterbrooks on the go. Ok, they don’t write like my Omas (nothing does), but they write as nicely as most of my other pens and better than some. (Wayne, feel free to send me your Esties – I’ll even pay the postage :D )

Bruce – I’m glad you gave a warning about buying the first one…. I started with one and am afraid to count now. I’m guilty of starting to buy some of the rarer collectible Estie’s and nibs now too. But still cheap compared to collecting Mont Blanc LE’s.

8 10 2009
Pendleton

Well spoken Bruce ~ You ROCK dude!

8 10 2009
dizzypen

Thanks for the EXCELLENT article Bruce. I have 4 of them myself. They are great pens and cheap as chips!

8 10 2009
Speedmaster

Outstanding post!

4 11 2009
David

In theory, a steeel nib should’nt have any difference in flow or smoothness from a 14k or 18k nib, as the gold on the nib is to prevent corrosion, etc. and as a result the gold itself never extends to the very tip.

17 11 2009
dandelion

These photos (and the article) are awesome and really brings out the beauty in Esterbrooks!

22 11 2009
rachel

omg… i am in esti heaven… thanks!!!! gorgeous photos too…

22 11 2009
rachel

ps1: you know who told me about estis? my mom – never heard of them until she mentioned 2 years ago that that was her favorite pen in college in the 50s. i found her a lovely blue J just like her old one… she keeps it in its box “for safekeeping” no matter how much i urge her to use it, but maybe that’ll change. for my part, i now have 3, plus parts.

ps2: um and i’ll hunt on fpn too but if you can (please) drop a line here re: 1) what sorts of household products to use to get them so shiiiiiiiiiiiny? and 2) what would you say the MOST flexible nib out is out there for an esti? i know they’re not really hugely flexi, but what numbers should i be looking for? thankyouthankyouthankyou…

13 12 2009
OcalaFlGuy

Rachel, The polish “regime” is a bit too involved to go into here but is thoroughly covered in this FPN post. http://www.fountainpennetwork.com/forum/index.php?showtopic=97184 Keep in mind that in a somewhat recent survey, FPNers were split near 50/50 as to whether they like an uber-shiney finish on a pen or not.

I tend to look at it thru a strange lens myself. These are pens I restored for ME, no one else. I’d already “turned back the hands of time” on them internally. To do the same to the outsides seems the only “right” thing for me to do to finish the process. Now, strangely enough, I’m not so concerned if *I* put a scratch on one of my already restored pens, I guess I just want any of their scratches to be my own.

The better Estie flex nibs are the 9128 XF, 9048 F and 9788 M. There may also possibly be a varying degree of flex within 2 nibs of the same number. There is a 2048 flex nib but it is totally untipped and can be scratchy. IMO, the 9 series nibs are worth the extra money.

Hope this helps,

Bruce

28 12 2009
Rey Ruiz

Your article and pictures are very well written & presented. I am just a new pen collector that started this November, 2009. I’ve wanted to have my first Esterbrook some eight years ago but did not pay attention much to have one. Got my first red J Esterbrook this November. Someone told me once you have an Esti, you’ll end up wanting more, which I did at present. Right now, my collection turned into a hobby of restoring pens. I use my Esterbrooks like shoes — to match every color I’m wearing. For me it is like a watch — like a show off jewelry. This is how I like Esterbrook pens — they are beautiful. Thank you for this article. Rar

10 02 2010
Polly McConnell

Ocala,
Great article. It sounds like you have been collecting and researching Esterbrook Pens for quite some time. Thanks for telling me about your article. I think I’ll send it on to my aunts and father who might enjoy it.

19 03 2010
gyasko

Toast, toast… have you tried a 2284 or 9284? One of the 9314 or 2314 series? A good 9128? (there are good ones and characterless ones) And really, even if you “move up” to more expensive pens, 90% (or more) of the nibs are pretty dull, too. As with Esterbrooks, those that aren’t dull fetch a premium. I keep inking up my x314s and x284 and my 9128 because they are fun to write with.

6 08 2010
Vintage Pens

I love my Estie’s, All J’s, a dark copper [root beer], Blue, Dubonnet Red, Fern Green, they made me realize what a really great value they are. They fit my hand much better than the Sheaffer Balance too.

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