Adventures in Fountain Pen Repair and Restoration: Esterbrooks

Esterbrook Pastels parts

Some Esterbrooks come in fun colors, too.

Those are a few Esterbrook Pastels (and a Nurse’s Pen). I really like them. For all the fans of the pastel Lamy Safaris coming out in 2019, I hope you also get to see Esterbrook Pastels some day.

Esterbrook made and sold the Pastels the 1950s, and they are very “of that era.” The Pastels are shorter than the Esterbrook J, and came in solid colors, and were marketed to women — sold as “purse pens.” You could get them with or without clips. There were matching pencils, too.

I’ve been working on a tray of pens and pencils from an estate we’re handling, and the colors include pink, peach, blue, mint green and lilac. There is also a nice pen and pencil set from the related Nurse’s Pen line.

I’m very taken with the Pastels. The size, colors and design evoke the 1950s so perfectly, that they are almost bits of history. When Esterbrook matched those 1950s colors with the (existing) Esterbrook J design, especially the clip and cap band, and made the pens smaller, well, if there are design angels, they burst into the Hallelujah Chorus.

Esterbrook Pastel pencils

The colors, the trim, the cute size, and even the “purse pen” name — all work together to tell the same story. That might have been just good luck. But that confluence is what makes for good design. It’s not my aesthetic, generally. But I can’t resist something this perfect.

The best part may be that these were very reasonably priced pens. Esterbrook was not a bottom-of-the-barrel pen maker, but it was a pen maker for the budget-conscious, for students and for other regular people. Esterbrook’s main pens right before the J pens were the “Dollar pens,” which as you’d guess, started at a dollar, but were very well-made. Here’s a random tray of colors.

Esterbrook Dollar Pens

The nicer Dollar pens cost $1.50. Even in the 1930s, that was well-priced. The pens had steel nibs, in a range of widths and grinds, and they could be screwed in and out, and swapped between Esterbrooks.

Fast-forward 20 years later, and Esterbrook was still holding the line on price. There’s a light purple Pastel pencil in this estate with the original price sticker: it was $2.50.

I’ve been going through a lot of the Esterbrooks this week. Sorting, sifting, checking. And I’ve been fixing some, a little at a time. They are lever fillers, so very easy to get working again. The Pastels are in light colors, and were made of notoriously soft plastic, so they tend to be found in more scuffed-up condition than most. The threads are almost always ink-stained, the pen bodies usually show scratches and the cap lip can be cracked. But soaking the pens, opening them, and carefully removing the old sacs and cleaning the pens — sometimes even doing a little J-bar repair — isn’t that hard. I’ve found it kind of soothing. It’s something I can do in fits and starts, when I’m on the phone, or need a break from sitting in front of the computer. It’s satisfying to clean things up and get them working again.

Esterbrook J nibs and section parts

Now, the Pastels are going to sell at a higher price, and they are probably more collector pens than user pens, if only because they are harder to find and more delicate.

But regular Esterbrook J pens are much cheaper and much hardier. Depending on the nib you buy, a good-condition but normal Esterbrook J might cost you around $30 or $35, and a regular Dollar pen will be less. The colors are fun, and attractive; you can swap in any Esterbrook J nib; and the nibs are decent writers. But for me it’s the pens: any random one is pretty attractive, at least if you like color.

Esterbrook J closeups

I like these “regular people’s pens.” I like that the cost is reasonable, and that they are still good user pens. The only downside is what makes them so easy to restore — the lever filler.

Lever fillers aren’t as easy to use as modern converters, in my opinion, so with my own Esterbrooks pens, I’m not swapping inks in and out. I pick a color and keep using that same color family in the same pen, so I don’t have to spend too long working that lever and risking my fingernails to clean the pen. But, frankly, I do that “same ink color family” thing with all my vintage pens, because almost all vintage pens have filling systems that were designed for refilling with the same ink, rather than for switching colors with each fill.

The regular Dollar and J pens make nice user pens, at that price, if you can stand the levers. It’s a nice piece of history and a nice everyday pen. If you find some cheaply in unrestored condition, it’s a good pen to restore yourself too: it’s easy, and doesn’t require much in the way of special tools or supplies, other than a Number 16 sac and shellac.

And there are a lot of details to keep you interested. This photo shows a Transitional J fountain pen in gray, on the left, and on the right a Transitional J pen and pencil set in brown — but it’s the less flashy black pen in the middle that has a more interesting story. That’s a black Dollar Pen that was made in the early 1940s: it has a bandless cap and different (and less well-preserved) metal clip, which were changes made to conserve metal for the war effort.

Esterbrook Dollar and Transitional J closeup

This little grouping, below, is also interesting. The pens are tagged with identifying information, hence the strings. From left to right is what I believe to be an uncommon early pencil, then a V-Clip pen (predecessor to the Dollar Pens), then a very nice Visumaster in black, then a sprightly green Icicle set (which I of course just love for the color).

Esterbrook Dollar Pen, V Clip, Visumaster and Green Icicle Set

So there’s something for everyone. The colorful Pastels and Icicles are, I like to think, precursors to some of my wildly colored, more fun, modern pens. The good user pens, like the Js and the Dollar Pens, are very good value for fountain pen users who may not have tried vintage pens before. And there are some less common early Esterbrooks that will go to collectors.

I’m going to pull out something that Brian Goulet said to me, in a different context, at the San Francisco Pen Show. (Because everyone is more likely to listen to him than me.) He told me that early in his career he internalized the saying that “the best way to learn is to teach.” I loved hearing that. I’d also like to add that another very good way to learn is to do. In this case, get your hands dirty — and I mean that literally — and start working on some vintage pens. It doesn’t have to cost an arm and a leg, either, if you start with pens like lever fillers. And you’ll end up with a pen that’s the equal to some much more expensive modern pens.


14 thoughts on “Adventures in Fountain Pen Repair and Restoration: Esterbrooks

  1. The first pen I tried restoring was an Estie, a cute little pinkish one, a little less than perfect cosmetically, but in pretty good shape. I found the instructions for replacing the ink sac, and I did it! It was easier than I thought it would be and I was darn proud of myself. I have a small collection of Esterbrooks to go along with my other vintage fps that are all of the affordable type. I love the old Sheaffers, too.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I love all the pretty colors! I wish I could get my hands on some of those pastel “purse pens.” That would be incentive enough to get me into collecting and repairing vintage fountain pens. That’s something I’ve avoided, thinking it was fraught with difficulties. But it doesn’t sound so bad, the way you write about it. I may just look into it.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Hey, I’ve actually been meaning to do that – fix lever-fill pens I mean! but as it’s out of necessity rather than pure curiosity as the motivator (because I have a few pens lying around that I’m super curious to try but no pen repairer nearby), I’ve been a bit apprehensive, too. But you’re making it sound really easy!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Great post. I’ve always felt like the original Esties were akin to the Volkswagen Beetle: cute, economical, user-friendly, a car/pen for the masses. Your segue into doing repair on them is spot-on, as well, because I can’t imagine how many people who work on their own pens started with an Esterbrook. I’ll bet it’s a very high percentage and a group that I happen to be a part of. This pen is such a neat part of the history of American pens, thanks for a refreshing new look at it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think that’s a great analogy: it’s a less-expensive pen that was made to much more expensive standards. I don’t like to get on a soapbox, but quality like this is worth lauding. I’ve sorted through hundreds of Esterbrooks that are, on average 70 years old, and they look great and still work exactly as intended. I’ve bought cheapy pens (some not even that cheap) that don’t work or that come apart after a few days.

      Also, I can’t remember if I deleted this sentence or not, but I had a line in here, originally, that I think of these lower-priced, easy-to-fix, vintage pens as “people’s pens.” And you mention Volks-wagen, the people’s car. Spooky.

      I wasn’t sure you’d like all the pretty colors, though. 🙂

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Their basic build quality *is* remarkable! You can grab a pile of unrestored Esterbrooks (at least the J and pre-J pens) and about the only thing that might be amiss is a chipped jewel or maybe the clip is loose. The threading, bodies of the pen, all the rest is always solid and the pens clean up very nicely. If only they hadn’t sunk to those washed-out pastels… 😉

        Liked by 1 person

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