By Michael W. Harris
It is hard to be a fountain pen enthusiast and be of modest means. Budgets are really tight and FOMO is strong with the endless parade of pretty limited edition pens in swirling colors. You naturally want to get ALL THE THINGS, but rational thought, your bank balance, and the crushing reality that you can only use so many pens and inks in a lifetime (and you cannot take them with you) will, hopefully, bring one back down to earth. So, what is one to do to keep the fountain pen/stationery passion alive and well when you cannot plunk down $900 on a new Visconti at the drop of a hat? How can the stationery junkie in search of their next fix get it while also on a budget?
Some find that rush in the form of cheap Chinese pens bought from Amazon, Etsy, or eBay. Fun to explore, easier on the wallet, and many times mimicking the hot trends of the larger or more expensive brands (looking at you PenBBS faux Conid), these can be a way of exploring different aspects of the hobby without breaking the bank.
Others turn their attention to one of the other three pillars of good stationery that are decidedly cheaper but are much harder to store and move: inks and/or paper. With so many new inks coming to market, this can become its own black hole (curse you Colorverse!), and Field Notes and similar brands give new meaning to the phrase “paper chase.”
The problem, for me, with any of these routes, is that they tend to create the same problem: accumulating more stuff, taking up more physical space (and also being harder to move), still spending a lot of money (but because the per purchase cost is less you don’t notice it as much), and doing so with no end in sight. There is always another limited edition color release or what-have-you. And THAT is the crux of my problem. I am a completionist, I have to know all that is knowable, acquire all that you can acquire. If there is a set of six things, I will feel incomplete if I don’t have all six…
At least for a while, until the fever breaks and I move on to the next pursuit, or I determine that getting all six will be too difficult, too expensive, or both (see: Fantastic Four #1, most likely to forever be my white whale).
Still, especially in those early stages of any new hobby, I will make lists, check things off, organize searches, and run-down leads. It is literally what I do for a living as a librarian, but instead aimed at my personal life. Which is all to say that if I want to avoid going broke from my pen addiction and start to unbury myself from the pile of debt accumulated from over a decade of school and living on a student’s income, I needed to find a cheaper and more methodical and measured niche to explore of the hobby that is occupying my idle thoughts. Something that requires even more research and careful planning.
Note: While I don’t agree with all the conclusions that the Nib Sections comes to in the above podcast link, it does provide a good overview of a lot of what I will be talking about.
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So, what is a Frankenpen exactly and how does one label a pen as such? How do you label something that is simply a pen with an aftermarket, though not unexpected by the manufacturer, modification or a Frankenpen? And, most importantly, how does my pursuit of them help reign in my more expensive tendencies? Well, please allow me to explain.
To me, a Frankenpen is a pen with a modification that is not within what might be considered a reasonable or expected modification by the manufacturer. Swapping the nibs on your TWSBI or Edison or Faber-Castell or Pelikan by changing the nib unit with another by the same brand? Not Frankenpenning. Similarly, swapping the stock nib on a Jinhao for another Jowo #6 nib is also not Frankenpenning…though it is a gateway to further exploration.
Swapping the body and caps between a purple and lime green Pilot Metropolitan and throwing on one of those smiling Kakuno nibs and calling it “The Joker” is a borderline Frankenpen…but still not quite (at least in my book) since you are still swapping out all Pilot parts. No, what made Frankenstein’s Monster, Frankenstein’s Monster was that it was that it was an assemblage of parts from disparate bodies regardless of sex or age or race (or, at least, that seems to be the popular conception, I have never actually read the original text). However, all of these parts were at least all still human and would ostensible work together. A better metaphor for what I am thinking of as a true Frankenpen might be a Chimera (as dubbed by the Nib Section podcast), which has parts from different animals.
What I am saying, in a laborious and roundabout way, is that a true Frankenpen (or Chimerapen?) has parts from different makers, or sometimes parts from different pens by the same maker, that were not intended to work together, and in order to get them to work as a whole might require some degree of modification. The parts have to be hacked in some way. Elbow grease applied. A DIY mentality employed. There might also have been some sort of other modification made in terms of aesthetic appearance to suit an owner’s taste. And the end result is a pen that is truly a one of a kind item. A limited edition of one.
And this is how Frankenpens fill my needs. If I find a pen not being used by me, I will either sell it or try to make it more interesting and something I want to use (while also putting a hard limit of 21 pens in my main collection box…plus five pocket pens and four vintage. After that, I must sell). I can do this by either modifying existing pens in interesting ways, from simple non-Frankenpen methods like nib modification or within brand/stock Jowo or Bock replacement, to full on Franken-methods, and in doing so I have cut back on costs while also working to educate myself on how pens work, how nibs are made and supplied (what branded nibs might swap more easily than others), and also just becoming more creative within the hobby.
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I, like many others, began experimenting with upgrading pens via swapping nibs on cheap Chinese Jinhaos for better stock #6 or Goulet branded Jowo nibs. It is a fun and easy way to get a low stakes introduction to the parts of a pen and also basic pen maintenance via getting comfortable taking apart and putting back together a cheap and easily replaced pen; not unlike learning how to do any sort of basic tune-up on a car or bike. However, as I said before, this is not a true Frankenpen. For me, I stepped into that world when I acquired my now beloved TWSconti 580, which I promptly threw into a sauce pan of boiling purple dye.
This pen came to me already modded: a TWSBI 580 AL with a fine, two-toned Visconti steel nib (which you can no-longer buy separately) that had been set and tuned by madman of nibs: Ralph Reyes. At that point, it was already a true Frankenpen, a cross between two brands. However, I took that modification a step further by dying the clear barrel and cap purple with Rit dye. This made the pen truly one of a kind and personal. If I had to sell all but one pen, the TWSconti 580 would be the one I kept. What is even more remarkable is that I paid $50 for the pen (along with a TWSBI inkwell and the seller also threw in a bottle of ink), plus the cost of the Rit ($5). Really, it is a remarkably cheap investment for what I consider one of my best pens and a true daily writer.
This set off a period of experimentation in which I practiced dying pens on some cheap Chinese pens (mostly Wing Sungs) that I had around, plus some easily available on the cheap from Amazon or the Pen Addict slack. All told, I spent $30 on around ten pens. As a bonus, some of these also have fun nib swaps possible so now, along with the dyed TWSconti 580, I have a Wing Sung 698 with a Pilot Metropolitan Nib dyed gray dubbed “The Dark Knight,” a Wing Sung 3008 with a Lamy nib dyed pink and called “The Pink Ranger,” and a Jinhao 992 dyed a very light purple with a weird Chinese dragon nib called the Purple Dragon. I also have a Wing Sung 618 dyed yellow (called “Bumblebee”), but its nib is a Parker 51 style hooded nib and I have yet to work on trying to find the right replacement for it. Luckily, I have a small stockpile of nibs on hand so I did not have to go out looking for nibs to swap into most of these pens.
These experiments were performed in conjunction with the time that I went from trying to sell a pen to definitely keeping one because of a possible modification: the Wancher Parallel Crystal. After seeing Gourmet Pens’ video on the Opus 88 Demonstrator/Pilot Parallel hack, I wondered if my Wancher Crystal could also serve the same function since it also has a standard Jowo #6 nib unit. And it worked like a charm. So, I went from having pen that was proving hard to sell to one I wanted to keep around. Another true Frankenpen.
At this point my list of Frankenpens was now at 6: TWSconti 580, Wing Sung 618 “Bumblebee,” the Purple Dragon 992, Pilot Wing 698 “The Dark Knight,” Lamy Sung 3008 “The Pink Ranger,” and the Wancher Parallel Crystal. I looked long and hard at my box of pens and tried to see what “sparked joy” and what could either be sold or form the basis of another Frankenpen. Move beyond the experiments and do some hard work. A few things were simple: I was never going to be able to sell the Conklin Nozac. I had tried twice with no hits, and the resale market on Conklin is pretty bad and my model are also now on closeout sale at most retailers. So, I swapped in a Goulet broad nib and have sent it off to get the Pendelton BLS nib modification on it. Not quite a Frankenpen, but at least something more interesting to use. The most edge case of what I consider just over the line of being a Frankenpen is my Magnum Opus: an Opus 88 Picnic with a Diplomat Magnum nib.
Among the pens that were not seeing much use was my TWSBI Classic in turquoise, which had the most potential for some fun modification. It had a broad nib on it, and for as much I love the TWSBI extra fine nib on my VacMini (now with a blue cap and orange body after some dying…the “Fire and Ice” and also sporting the black TWSBI nib from the recently released TWSBI Aurora), I really hate TWSBI’s broad. Both on the Classic and on my Go (which now sports a TWSBI medium). However, the Classic is another TWSBI…and the old-style Visconti replacement nibs will no longer be made…so…another TWSconti!! Also, I do love the color of my Classic and did not wish to part with it.
After sourcing one of the now out-of-production Visconti steel nibs, and sending it off to a pro, I now have a second TWSconti. And after having to remove the nib and feed to clean out a clog, I got to see first hand the modification that the nib had to undergo to fit. Proof that even if two brands get their nibs from the same outside manufacturer (either Bock or Jowo), there still can be differences. (I do believe that in this case both nibs were made by Jowo, however both TWSBI and Visconti have switched suppliers over the past 5-10 years so it is all a bit fuzzy).
My most recent experiments have led me down the path of exploring the possibility of swapping Faber-Castell nibs. Again, made by Jowo with custom stamping, the finishing on them is stellar and puts them above most standard, stock Jowo nibs. And with a #5 Jowo (a bit smaller than the standard #6) on a used Faber-Castell Basic/Essentio not costing much, I looked around to find something to play with. Enter my most out there mod yet: the TWSber-Castell Vac700. A TWSBI Vac700 that was sold to me used with the section of a VacMini that takes a #5 Jowo nib. Some cleaning and fiddling with o-rings, plus dying a blue-black has yielded my most Franken-ed of Frankenpens that I have dubbed simply: “Twilight.”
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So, what is next? I recently picked up an old Eagle Pen Co. with a moon and stars motif (you know I love space) for just the cost of shipping ($4), but in dire need of some work. Besides needing a new filling sac, there are also visible teeth marks on the end and some corrosion on the clip. I want to not only use this pen to learn about how to replace sacs on vintage pens, how to properly dissemble lever fillers, but also see if I can also put my own spin on it. Namely, if it is possible to 1) convert it from a lever filler to a cartridge/converter pen (I feel like it isn’t possible, but who knows!) and 2) play with lacquering it to seal it in some way and preserve the screen print motif.
Another realm that I think I will be exploring soon is 3D printing the parts of pens. I have access to printers at my job and it is actually related to my job in a small way!
Not sure if any of these are possible, but doing the research should at least be fun while also keep me from eyeballing whatever new inks Colorverse is releasing or the latest Sailor limited editions. And for that alone, my bank account thanks me.
P.S. – My phone now autocorrects/autofills to TWSconti because I have typed it so much while texting with pen friends.
P.P.S. – For a different take on the problem of reigning in expensive purchases, see UK Fountain Pens’ post on the topic.