The other night I was cleaning a vintage fountain pen-and-pencil set that I wanted to sell. It was a 1930s Marine Green Sheaffer Balance mismatched pair – while the fountain pen was the standard length, the propelling pencil of the same pattern was shorter, sized for a vest pen. (I originally acquired them together, from the Fountain Pen Network Classifieds section a few years ago. Since then I was able to find a White Dot version in the same celluloid, so it was time to pass this pair on.)
I find that for some enthusiasts, the vintage pencil is an afterthought. Not many actually use the pencils as much as they would the fountain pens. Sellers sometimes break up sets in order to more easily sell the items. Maybe that’s how my little vest pencil got orphaned, and later matched up with the wrong size pen. Some people, on the other hand, end up collecting vintage pencils for their beautiful celluloid (unblemished by latex sacs or staining ink).
Propelling pencils are writing tip-loading twist action pens. To expel old lead, you twist the pencil clockwise to push the lead upwards and out. Then you twist the other way until the metal pin that pushes the lead is fully retracted. You place the appropriate size lead in through the pen’s nose cone and press the protruding tip onto the paper to make sure the lead is securely lodged. If you’re not sure how to load your pencil, the blog Dave’s Mechanical Pencils gives instructions, according to brand and era.
It was while learning how to refill the pencil that I realized it contained the wrong size lead. It was a 0.9mm lead that kept falling out. I cleaned out residue from the nose cone with a straight pin and tried some vintage Scripto 1.1mm lead that a friend gave me. It was a perfect fit! By the end of that exercise I realized I had fallen in love with the tiny pencil and just decided to keep it.
Richard Binder mentions that vintage Sheaffers and Parkers usually use 0.9mm leads, but Dave Nishimura is more specific. Pendemonium is another good source for vintage leads (the site navigation is not that intuitive, but go to Pen Repairs Supplies and select Pencil Leads). The most common sizes sold locally are 0.5mm and 0.7mm leads for modern mechanical pencils, but 0.9mm is available if you look for Japanese or Korean pencil brands (I use MonAmi).
I couldn’t resist checking out the Waterman Ideal No. 3 propelling pencil that I received as a gift last January. I took it apart and discovered that the cap end unscrews to expose the eraser. I heard pencil lead rattling inside the eraser tube, so I pulled the eraser tube out and found a stash of short 1.1mm leads! The nose cone twists to propel the lead, but there wasn’t much traction, so I lined the mechanism with a bit of latex and gently turned it with my pliers. I’ll see later if a layer of dried shellac can thicken the diameter of the brass tube and provide traction for the nose cone (no, I’m not gluing them together). I’m not using the vintage eraser on this one – I have my favorite modern eraser (Staedtler Mars Plastic) for that.
For most daily use my 1940s Sheaffer Crest pencil with 0.9mm lead is pretty good. It’s part of a set, too. I do have a couple of other modern plastic mechanical pencils, but right now they’re not getting that much attention. The pretty vintage celluloid and the solid build appeal to me. It’s not a collecting direction I’ll be taking, but I sure do appreciate the fact that they’re decades old and still work!
To learn more about vintage pencils, check out Jon Veley’s The Leadhead’s Pencil Blog. Jon Veley also wrote the book The Catalogue of American Mechanical Pencils and maintains The Mechanical Pencil Online Museum.