What Material is Best for Flex Nibs?

What Material is Best for Flex Nibs?

The performance of flex nibs depends on two factors: (a) a properly shaped nib from good material to withstand flexing and (b) a proper feeding system not only to supply adequate ink but also to follow the rapid changes of flow requirements flex nibs.   The amount of flexing (the opening of the tines) depends on the geometry and the material of the nib. The focus of the discussion here is going to be the nib material.

The discussion on best materials for flex nibs is often clouded by a number of misconceptions or unclear use of terms.  For example, the stiffness of a nib is confused with its strength.  For a flex nib, we want

  1. Low stiffness, so that a small force can produce large reversible deflections of the tines.
  2. High strength, so that after large deflections the tines return to their original shape (i.e. do not deform permanently.

The stiffness or the strength of a nib can be adjusted by changing its geometry, e.g., by changing the thickness of the nib.  For a fixed geometry, however, the performance of a nib depends on the material. For a good flex nib we need a material with:

  1. Low elastic modulus, to get low stiffness which allows for large tin opening at low force
  2. High yield strength and fracture strength: which allows for large openings of the tines without permanent deformation or cracking at the tip of the breather hole.
  3. High fatigue resistance: to avoid opening of cracks at the breather hole due to repeated flexing of the pen.

Additional criteria that apply to all nibs (flex or not) are:

  1. Weldability of tip alloy  (this essentially excludes plastics, composites and aluminum)
  2. Corrosion resistance to inks (this excludes a number of otherwise good materials)
  3. Ease of manufacturing.

There are steel alloys with excellent strength and fatigue performance but the modulus of steel is 2-3 times that of gold alloys (~200GPa versus 60-100GPa).   Therefore any advantage offered by steel due to high strength/fatigue performance is lost due to the high modulus (stiffness) of steel.  The strength and fatigue performance of some gold alloys is quite remarkable.   The low stiffness of gold is its biggest advantage.  In simple words, if you had two nibs of identical dimensions, the gold one would give you the opening of the tines at a force that is half or a third of the force needed to flex the steel nib to the same tine opening.  As a result, the stresses that may cause fatigue will also be 2-3 lower in the gold than in the steel nib.

It is possible to compensate for the high modulus of steel by decreasing the thickness of the nib/tines (or other geometric characteristics such as the length of the tines, the curvature of the nib, the width of the shoulders, etc).  A thinner steel nib can match the opening of a thicker gold nib.   Steel nibs with some flex exist (e.g., 9128, 9048 Esterbrooks).  The thickness of nibs, however, is ~25 thousand of an inch, and often close to the tail it is as thin as 5 thousand of an inch. Getting such thickness in high-performance steel is much more difficult than in gold. Nib punching from a metal sheet will cause high wear on the tools.  The problem is similar with titanium nibs – in fact, the properties of titanium are even better than gold (about the same modulus and high strength/fatigue).   The difficulty in processing and the high capital cost of tools make the processing of steel and titanium nibs unfavorable given the small production sizes.

The advantage of gold is even stronger if you consider the corrosion resistance which excludes some other interesting materials such as memory alloys. Stainless is more sensitive than gold to acids and titanium is slightly worse than gold to bases and acids. I would rank the material selection criteria for flex nibs in terms of importance (high first) in the following way:

  1. Weldability of tip alloy
  2. Corrosion resistance to inks
  3. Low Modulus
  4. Ease of manufacturing
  5. Fatigue resistance
  6. Strength

Therefore gold is better than steel for flex nibs because of the low modulus (stiffness), reasonable strength/fatigue, excellent corrosion resistance, and good formability.

There are two other facts that also lead to confusion in the discussions on the best material for flex nibs:

1.     A single material can have a range of properties depending on processing (rolling + heat treatment). In simple words, we can change the properties of the metal by rolling the sheet before stamping the nibs or by heating the nibs to a high temperature than induces changes in the internal structure of the alloy.

2.     Generic materials designations are not enough to specify the material. For example, when we say 14K this includes a very large range of materials.  The karat designation only specifies the gold contained.  The other elements in the alloy (e.g., silver, copper, etc.) can affect the properties and may result in a large variety of properties. 

We say that in general 14K is better than 18K for flex nibs because we can make 14K gold alloys that have lower elastic modulus and higher strength than the 18K alloys.   This is shown in the table below that compares some of the common nib materials.


Gold 14K80-90   200-500*      150-450*     Very good/Very Good/VeryGood    Good
Gold 18K90-100              150-400*120-350*     Very good/VeryGood/Very GoodGood
Stainless 302SS200750-900440-750*     Very good/Good/Very GoodDifficult
Ti-6Al-4V110450-750       610-650*Very good/Good/GoodDifficult

*The wide range of properties indicates variation in composition and processing.

Remember we want

  • low elastic modulus
  • high strength/fatigue limit
  • good corrosion
  • good formability

It is interesting to note in the table above that it is possible to get a 14K alloy which is totally inappropriate for flex nibs if its properties (strength and fatigue resistance) correspond to the low end of the range.

There is a lot of room to optimize the composition and the processing of gold alloys for flex but the cost of R&D with gold and the small market size for flex nibs are not favorable for such a pursue.  I hope to get back to you with a detailed report on the geometry of flex nibs.

On the Trail of Tolkien: Part 3: In the Land of Mordor, where the Shadows Lie

On the Trail of Tolkien: Part 3: In the Land of Mordor, where the Shadows Lie

Three Rings for the Elven-kings under the sky,
Seven for the Dwarf-lords in their halls of stone,
Nine for the Mortal Men doomed to die,
One for the Dark Lord on his dark throne
In the Land of Mordor where the shadows lie,
One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them,
One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them,
In the Land of Mordor where the Shadows lie.
– The Lord of the Rings, by JRR Tolkien

This is the final part of the present series discussing the life of the author and scholar JRR Tolkien and his inspirations in the Midlands of England, and perhaps the most controversial.

The first parts comprised a concise biography and early bibliography, and a tour of places in the Birmingham area where Tolkien lived in his childhood, and which are said to have influenced and inspired the author when he came to write his much-loved books ‘The Hobbit and ‘The Lord of the Rings. These influences are fairly well-established, although occasionally open to some debate.

One area which is also often claimed to have had a darker influence, however, is open to far more conjecture, as Ronald Tolkien never, as far as I am aware, went into any detail about his inspirations for places in the Land of Mordor, home of the Dark Lord Sauron, chief instigator and inspiration for most of the evil to be found in Tolkien’s fantasy works.

Tolkien makes clear his distaste for industry and its unnatural destruction of the countryside. Whether he deliberately wrote The Lord of the Rings to make this point is debatable, but it is undeniable that this abhorrence influenced his thinking and his writing, however unconsciously.

As a result of this, and of its proximity to Birmingham, it is often suggested that one area, in particular, may have inspired Mordor – a place, in fact, a series of towns, heavily industrialised, run-down and blackened by centuries of industrial revolution and poverty, and only in the late 20th-century managing to drag itself into the light of day. This place is known as ‘The Black Country.

This article aims to let a little light into the shadowy corners of Mordor by suggesting some places that if Tolkien had seen them, might indeed have sparked thoughts of the black land of legend, and to give you, gentle reader, the chance to see them in a brief tour herein.

Tolkien purists already foaming at the mouth with indignation should remember, however, that this article claims no greater authority than mere conjecture in the spirit of fun. This author, being a denizen of The Black Country, simply allows himself a little amusement and speculation in the light that he may yet live today in the land of Orcs and Goblins, of rock trolls, black riders, of Mount Doom and barad-dur, and the all-seeing Eye of Sauron, Oh my!

Where is The Black Country?

‘Day was coming again in the world outside, and far beyond the glooms of Mordor the sun was climbing over the eastern rim of Middle-Earth, but here all was still dark as night. The Mountain smouldered and its fires went out. The glare faded from the cliffs. The eastern wind that had been blowing ever since they left Ithilien now seemed dead.’
– The Return of the King

The Black Country – shaded area.
Note Bloxwich, my home, on the northeastern border!

The Black Country, in fact, borders on the Birmingham area, in the Midlands of England, and as you can see from the map, it is not far from Tolkien’s homes in Sarehole (Hobbiton, The Old Forest) near Moseley, and Edgbaston (The Two Towers, Orthanc), so it would make sense that Tolkien might be influenced by it.

This group of towns, some small, some large, was at the heart of the industrial revolution of the 18th and 19th centuries, and became known, because of its black ground and the choking black smoke from innumerable furnaces, as the Black Country.

Wednesbury by Night, mid-19th-century painting

Elihu Burritt, the American Consul to Birmingham in 1862, said that the place was ‘Black by day and red by night’. In Tolkien’s youth, certainly, it was. Today, The Black Country owes much of its heritage and image to the period when the iron and steel industry was at its height, but has also cleaned up its act a great deal, and has made great efforts to modernise and become more clean and green.

The boundaries of the Black Country are somewhat hazy and often the subject of much pedantic debate, but in today’s tourist-conscious times, four main Boroughs, each incorporating many Black Country towns and villages, all lay claim to being part of it: Dudley, Walsall, Wolverhampton and Sandwell.

Certainly, Dudley is at the heart of it, as are many parts of the other Boroughs. These days, part of nearby Warley comes under Sandwell, and some of it tends to get lumped in with Birmingham, but it has a historical claim to being part of The Black Country, and any trek to the heart of Mordor from The Two Towers would surely have led through it.

Whatever its boundaries, the Black Country was certainly something that would dismay Tolkien and nature lovers anywhere. Great iron foundries and abominable structures abounded, just as the open-cast quarries and deep mines scarred the land. Grim and black indeed: certainly the Mordor amongst us.

While The Black Country today is by no means as black as it’s painted, and is a great place to live, being full of friendly people (orcs being rarely seen nowadays!), fascinating heritage, pubs, Staffordshire Bull Terriers, ghosts (grin) and even the odd green patch of vegetation, you can still see that when young Ronald Tolkien was a lad, it would have been a grim place indeed, bustling, harsh, noisy, black and dirty.

But where to site the chief dark places of Mordor?

The Morannon, or Black Gate
– Blackheath

‘This was Cirith Ungor, the Haunted Pass, the entrance to the land of the Enemy… …Across the mouth of the pass, from cliff to cliff, the Dark Lord had built a rampart of stone. In it, there was a single gate of iron, and upon its battlement sentinels paced unceasingly. Beneath the hills on either side the rock was bored into a hundred caves and maggot-holes; there a host of orcs lurked, ready at a signal to issue forth like black ants going to war. None could pass the Teeth of Mordor and not feel their bite, unless they were summoned by Sauron, or knew the secret passwords that would open the Morannon, the black gate of his land’.
– The Two Towers

High Street, Blackheath, photographed from the junction with Halesowen Street in 1905.
Coombs Wood Works in Rowley Regis was an independent steel producer before being taken over by British Steel, and was responsible for the influx of many workers from South Wales into the area.
Coombs Wood Works in Rowley Regis was an independent steel producer before being taken over by British Steel and was responsible for the influx of many workers from South Wales into the area.

Directly on the route from The Two Towers – Minas Tirith and Minas Morgul – lies the chief entrance to Mordor – The Morannon or ‘Black Gate’. In the ‘real world’, geographically speaking, a fine place to situate the Black Gate would be at the all-too-similarly named ‘Blackheath’ or ‘Black Heath’, a rather run-down but nonetheless historic town within the area of Rowley Regis, now in the Borough of Sandwell.

The development of Rowley into an industrial area had very early beginnings going back to Roman times, but the first recorded industry of the Manor of Rowley was nail making which started in the 13th Century. The development of coal and iron industries led to a rapid transformation of the region from green to Black Country. By 1880 over fifty collieries poured their smoke into the atmosphere, and four blast furnaces lit up the night sky. Truly a candidate for part of Mordor.

Mount Doom
– Sedgley Beacon

‘Still far away, forty miles at least, they saw mount Doom, its feet founded in ashen ruin, its huge cone rising to a great height, where its reeking head was swathed in cloud. Its fires were now dimmed, and it stood in smouldering slumber, as threatening and dangerous as a sleeping beast. Behind it there hung a vast shadow, ominous as a thundercloud, the veils of Barad-dur that was reared away on a long spur of the Ashen Mountains thrust down from the North.’
– The Return of the King

Mount Doom, or the volcano Orodruin, stood in the plateau of Gorgoroth in northwestern Mordor. With an elevation of some 4,500 feet, and a base of seven miles diameter, it would not be much competition for Mount Etna in Italy, which towers some 11,000 feet and has a base of around 21 miles diameter, but nonetheless, it was a sinister and dangerous place.

Frodo entered the Chambers of Fire and approached the Crack of Doom through tunnels, certainly, tunnels are common in The Black Country – the former limestone mines, now abandoned caves, at Wren’s Nest in Dudley, and in Castle Hill, are a few of the man-made examples of such in the area.

I have placed Barad-dur on Castle Hill (see more below), and thusly, geographically placed to the east of Barad-Dur, Mount Doom may most attractively be identified with Sedgley Beacon, a prominent hill famed in its name for the great fires once lit atop its heights. While not on the same scale as the ‘real’ Mount Doom, it is certainly in the ‘right’ place.

Sedgley Beacon, 1904
Sedgeley, Beacon Hill and Monument in the distance, c.1921

Sedgley Beacon is situated on a limestone ridge, 654 feet above sea level. It gets its name from a great signal fire once lit atop the hill, perhaps as part of the series set up in Tudor times or earlier to warn against invasion from the sea.

Victorian historians once entertained the thought that ancient Druid priests had ‘oft-performed their mystic rites’ atop the Beacon, and though modern scholars might pour scorn on this, such rites might well inspire thoughts of Sauron’s magical ring-forging in the flames of Orodruin.

The Beacon Monument, which can still be visited today, is a circular stone tower built in 1846 by Lord Wrottesley for astronomical observations and as a fitting landmark for Sedgley Beacon.

It certainly also seems fitting that this high place near the centre of The Black Country, with, historically, a great flame at its summit, might symbolise the mighty volcano of Orodruin or Mount Doom, where the Rings of Power were forged, and where the One Ring was destroyed. It even happens to be west of Dudley Castle, where I have placed Barad dur, as it was in The Lord of the Rings.

Oddly enough, in geological time, there were volcanoes in the area, in the vicinity of nearby Wolverhampton, and volcanic rock was long quarried at Rowley Regis, but none at Sedgley itself.

‘Barad-dur’ – the Dark Tower of Sauron
– Dudley Castle

‘…for here as the mountain drew near the air was ever mirky, while out from the Dark Tower there crept the veils of Shadow that Sauron wove about himself.’
– The Return of the King

The Keep of Dudley Castle
Dudley Castle towers over the Black Country

For over 900 years Dudley Castle has surveyed from its lofty vantage-point the changing face of the surrounding landscape. This most important of the town’s buildings were mentioned in the Domesday Book when the small village of Dudley nestled amidst fields and woods. During the days of the Industrial Revolution, the fields were built on and the woods were cut down for building materials and to burn.

Coal, iron and limestone were mined, to make iron and steel for industry, and to build steam engines, railways and iron ships, to such an extent that many parts of The Black Country suffer from subsidence even today.

Dudley Castle is at the heart of The Black Country and occupies a truly commanding position on Castle Hill, near the centre of the modern town.

Castle Hill itself is a fascinating place, full of caves and canal tunnels to the nearby Wren’s Nets limestone caverns. It overlooks a remnant of the historic Black Country industry much beloved of tourists, the Black Country Living Museum, where the visitor may get some feel of what it would have been like to live and work in the area during Tolkien’s youth.

Could Tolkien have visited Dudley, and been inspired by the ancient castle on the tunnelled hill to dream of Sauron’s dark tower of Barad-Dur? Who can say, but I know that it inspires me? Hopefully, it will inspire you, young Hobbit.

So ends, gentle reader, my series of articles introducing to you to the life of JRR Tolkien and some of the locations in the Birmingham area which have influenced the landscape of The Hobbit and, most significantly, The Lord of the Rings. I hope that you have enjoyed the quest, and maybe inspired to visit these places yourself one day. If you do, please contact me – I would love to show you around his world.

It may be that in the future I will return to the world of JRR Tolkien to introduce you to his haunts in Oxford, during the days when he became a great scholar and the author whom we know and love today. But that, young Hobbit, is another story…

Stuart Williams
Bloxwich, England

The Duofold Pencil

The Duofold Pencil

This article is a brief summary related to the pencil Duofold introduced by Parker between 1923 and 1928, the so-called Flat Top. To be described here are the diverse sizes, with the date of introduction in the market, the type of materials used in manufacturing, and the colors in which the pencils were offered. In subsequent articles, the Pre Duofold and the Post Duofold Flat Top pencils will be described.

The company Parker was founded in 1888 and began by making fountain pens exclusively, however, around 1918- 1920 it added the production of pencils in different sizes molded in bronze, silver, gold, and other metal combinations. These first pencils are very similar to the future pencil Duofold, but they are not imprinted with the name Duofold on the pencil, nor are so designated in catalogs or adds of the period.

In fact, the Duofold name appeared for the first time on a fountain pen produced by Parker in 1921 at the insistence of a salesman, Lewis Tebbel of Washington State. For reasons undetermined, George Parker was initially against the manufacture of this pen and ordered to stop production, nevertheless, the Duofold was the pen that saved Parker from bankruptcy. This first Duofold fountain pen is of a color called “maroon” by Parker, but now it is known as red-orange.

The first pencil with the Duofold name

The first pencil with the Duofold name was presented to the public on February 1st, 1923 and it was geared as a very appropriate graduation gift for University students, the advertisement offered the pencil as a Duette with the matching fountain pen. This 1923 pencil measures 11,8 centimeters in length, the body is in bronze finished with red-orange enamel, although a few are in black enamel; the cap is of metal electroplated in gold and is imprinted with the Duofold name; the clip is welded to the cap, and its shape resembles a spoon. The mechanism is of rotation, and one must take care when removing the mechanism because it has a certain type of coils and hooks that not knowing how they are intended to work can produce irreparable damage to the mechanism.

Three of the first Duofold pencils from my collection are shown in the photo.

Second pencil Duofold and the first made of Ebonite

This pencil was introduced by Parker in 1924 and it was made in red or black ebonite like the pens; it is larger in size than the pencil of the previous year, actually is of the same size as the next to be produced pencils that would be called “senior”. The imprint on the body says Duofold – Parker “Big Bro” Pencil- Janesville, Wisconsin USA. The cap is finished with three rings, two with sawed marks while the third is smooth; the clip is loose and finished in a ball, a feature to become standard for all later models. The mechanism is also of rotation but with improvements to facilitate repairs. I have shown these pencils to several collectors who remain surprised since they did not think that the pencils were genuine until I show them the vintage ad with a photo of the pencil. This pencil must have been in production for a short period of time because there are not many around; in my collection, I have eleven, nine of red ebonite and two of the black ebonite.

Caps of the pencil Duofold

The caps of the Duofold pencils have different shapes, due surely to variations introduced in the place of their production because Parker had factories in Canada and England in addition to the USA plant in Janesville-Wisconsin. Five different caps are in existence: the first Duofold pencil in bronze with the spoon-shaped clip welded to the cap; the subsequent Duofold larger pencil in ebonite with three rings in the cap and loose clip ended in a ball; and three others, one with long cap and a loose clip that keeps in place by the pressure of the body and the cap, another one also with the long cap but bearing a grove where the clip is inserted, and, finally still another with short cap and loose clip.

It should be noticed that the cap of the feminine Lady model does not have a clip but instead is topped by a ring for the passage of a silk cord that would allow carrying the pencil like a necklace or as a bracelet.

Sizes of Duofold pencils

The pencil Duofold Flat Top was offered in three sizes

Senior, 14,12875 cm (5 inches and 9/16)
Junior, 12,85875 cm (5 inches and 1/16)
Lady, 12,065 cm (4 inches and 3/4).

Colors of Duofold pencils

The colors, always related to the manufacture materials, were offered to the public approximately in this order: enamel orange (“maroon”) on bronze 1923; ebonite black 1923; ebonite red 1923/1924; and finally plastic (“permanent” made by DuPont) in black 1925; red 1925; green 1927; mandarin yellow 1927; lapis lazuli (blue grained) 1927; black and pearl 1928.

All these pencils also have matching pens in similar colors, unfortunately, the colors of the pens have deteriorated as a result of the chemical influence of the ink contained in their rubber sacs.

Pencil Duofold Lady in pastel colors

In May of 1925, Parker began to send to his salesmen a new line of pens and pencils of the Lady model in six pastel colors: magenta, gray/beige (the rarest one to find), violet, green apple, coral, and blue Naples. These pastels colors were also manufactured in a moire pattern. And because these pastel colors were only made for ladies, its advertisement was limited to women’s magazines.

Pencil and pens of the so call Duofold Quality (D.Q.)

Parker embarked briefly in 1924 in a production line of pens and pencils of quality similar to the Duofold line but of lesser price for use by children and young students in high schools (in fact, Parker was finishing the leftover black ebonite of the previous series already discontinued). These are the Parkers D.Q. (Duofold Quality), only in black, with a design of horizontal lines and the name of the company prominently imprinted in the body.

Note: All the pencils displayed are from the author’s collection.


Jimmie Cockburn was born in Lima, Peru, studied Medicine in Spain, and received the Extraordinary Prize of the Real Academy of Medicine for his doctoral thesis. He continued medical studies in Paris, France, and in the U.S.A. in the specialty of Anatomic Pathology and Laboratory Medicine receiving certification by the corresponding Boards of these specialties. He practiced Pathology covering three hospitals in the Southern Maryland area. He has retired since and now devotes part of his time to the collection of pens and pencils. His new specialty now is mechanical pencils, with a collection of several hundred units. You can visit his website at http://www.jimmiecockburn.com

This article was originally published in Spanish in La Gaceta del Club de La Escritura in January 2002. Check out Actionable acrylic paint tips you should know.

Colors: The Parker Vacumatic

Colors: The Parker Vacumatic

The Many Hues of Parker: In August 1932, Parker announced the next generation in fountain pens, the Golden Arrow. The pens actually went into production in 1933; the name underwent rapid changes to Vacuum Filler and then to Vacumatic, and a legend was born. The Vacumatic line remained in Parker’s stable until about 1948; as best I can tell, Parker ceased using the Blue Diamond, which indicated a lifetime warranty, and ended production of the Vacumatic at the same time. Over the lifetime of the Vacumatic, a broad array of colors was available; but not all of the colors were offered at the same time. When the Vacumatic went on the market in 1933, the Standard line was offered in black, Burgundy Pearl, and Silver Pearl, while the Junior line was offered in black, marbled Grey or Burgundy, and Crystal. A the end, Vacumatics were available in Emerald Green Pearl, Azure Blue Pearl, Golden Pearl, and Silver Pearl. The information here is as accurate as possible, but you should not take it as absolutely authoritative.

This article shows the striped “Pearl” colors, then the Junior colors (“Golden Web,” marbled, and Shadow Wave), and finally the black versions. Check out for Acrylic paint tips for beginners

In addition to the changes in the Vacumatic’s color palette, Parker also made changes in the pen’s design; for more information, including photographs of the external appearance of the Vacumatic, see Dating by Design Features: The Parker Vacumatic. A technical description of the Vacumatic filling system is given in Anatomy of a Fountain Pen II: The Vacumatic.

Striped Colors




Emerald Green Pearl

Emerald Green Pearl


Azure Blue Pearl


Burgundy Pearl


Golden Pearl


Silver Pearl


Junior Colors




Brown (“Golden Web”)








Shadow Wave Black






Opaque Black


Black Visometer (early longitudinal striped)


Crystal (completely transparent barrel)


Laminated Black


Black Visometer (later version)




Without reservation, this book now stands as the definitive reference source on the Parker “51” the world’s most successful fountain pen.

David and Mark Shepherd have a passion for the Parker “51” which started with David’s use of the “51” in his schooldays and today has built up a collection that is one of the most comprehensive in the world. During his collection process, he has acquired substantial expertise in the subject which provided the impetus to write this book. As a retired Dentist in England, he is fortunate to have had privileged access to the Parker archives at the Parker Pen Co Ltd in Newhaven. David’s son Mark became involved in this project after graduating from Oxford University and starting work as a solicitor in London, spending much time researching the archives and helping to shape the structure of the book. Mark’s input into this book has been invaluable and he is also responsible for the extensive photography.

The “51” fountain pen was originally Kenneth Parker’s idea. As Geoffrey and Steven Parker, grandsons of Kenneth Parker, a state in the Foreward of this book “To us, the “51” is Kenneth Parker…and looking at a “51” today always brings him to mind.

The contents of this book, with many never before seen materials from deep within the Parker archives, is a journey along with Kenneth Parker, his design team of mechanical engineer Marlin Baker, patent attorney Ivan Tefft, and metallurgist Milton Robert Pincus. David Shepherd now documents the chronology of the “51” which actually started in 1928 with Parker’s desire to get into the ink business by developing a quick-drying ink. The ink was strongly alkaline, a new pen material was needed, and along came DuPont Pontalite, later renamed Lucite. The book now takes off as a 13-year adventure of research and development trials and successes to develop a pen unlike anything ever produced before or since. The final design was one of some complexity, with the pen’s 23 separate components requiring 238 different operations to manufacture, 42 of which were done by hand-produced to a tolerance of one-thousandth of an inch. Yes, the book almost reads like a novel, with the highly detailed structure of every development in manufacture and marketing almost every page has a startling discovery that finally sees the light of day.

The structure of the story begins with the history of the beginnings, the very root of design tracing to the first button filler of 1914. David explains and well illustrates with original designs and photos of developmental models and concepts. Illustrated are the major components of the product and detailed information on early test marketing, which was cleverly conducted in faraway markets of South America out of the glaring eye of the American markets in case of failure or disappointing results. Fundamental problems were identified, such as with the ink collector design. Continuing, David documents the evolution of the design from First Year Vacumatic filler, to American, English, and Canadian production. The mystery of the infamous Red Band filling system is finally fully explained, in part as a result of the huge garage sale lots found by pen collector Roger Cromwell a few years ago, containing perfectly preserved pens and parts belonging to a former Parker metallurgist.

“Glancing out his office window one day, Kenneth Parker noticed a marker sign on the highway running beside the Janesville factory. It read U.S. 51. On a business trip to New York he dined at Toots Shor’s restaurant, he noticed the address on the menu…51 West 51 Street. He decided on a name.”

The story continues with elaborate illustration and text concerning metamorphosis from Vacumatic to Aerometric fillers, the Demi size “51”, Liquid Lead pencils, ballpoints, and the desk pens continuing up to the 2002 Special Edition model. David and Mark document the great variety of style designs, aluminum and plastic jewels, prototype colors and cap designs both original and modern, prototype nibs and fillers, clips, inks, and some really strange-looking demonstrators.
Also illustrated is a huge variety of packaging and gift boxing, dealer point of purchase displays, and sales techniques are also explained. Almost everything documented in this book is new information that has never been disclosed before.

Did you know there was a “51” nib made in Arabic medium and broad, plus a broad music stub?
Prototype nibs included a three-way slit, a flat pointed nib, a totally flat and layered top, and bottom nib, and most outrageous, an experimental rubber-coated nib.

Furthering the great value of this simple yet complex pen is the role played by the “51” in world-historical moments. In 1941 the saga of Parker “51” manufacturing switched almost immediately after the introduction to war production efforts and the products they made. Advertising documented the use by famous individuals in peace and wartime, by Presidents, Generals, and world-famous personalities. The influence of post-war aviation, increased public transportation made the development of the high altitude leak-proof Flighter. This was “AA-1 priority” as Kenneth Parker would state. Post-war aviation demanded the next level of development for the traveling public and Parker created a design concept copied by almost every major pen manufacturer.

David and Mark conclude the book with extensive provenance, dating by barrel imprints, cap designs, anatomy drawings, key dates, valuations, and price guidelines. Extremely well researched and written with stunning photography this book is now the icon of Parker’s “51” reference. Adding to the value is an elaborate Glossary and Index making for easy quick reference, a chronology of key dates, and even has an illustrated Parker family tree. I can certainly say this was a wonderful discovery for me to read and highly recommend this as a choice book for any pen collector, modern or vintage. I would even say that after reading this book you can easily slip into any conversation with serious “51” collectors and have as much or more information for a knowledgeable discussion. The value of information far exceeds the modest $80. retail price making this book an easy reach for any serious or even casual pen collector.

Parker “51”
Hardcover, 169 pages, 8 ½” x 11”, dust jacket, full-color illustrations, index, and glossary.
Available worldwide.

David Shepherd will attend the 2005 Chicago Pen Show and autograph his books.

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J Herbin Ink Chart Part II

J Herbin Ink Chart Part I

Herbin Inks

Herbin is a French brand founded in Paris in 1670, originally producing sealing wax. The founder M. Herbin traveled around the world as a sailor and started a business using the formulas for sealing he gathered in India.

Thirty years later the first inks were produced by Herbin in their store, in the “Latin Quarter” of Paris, being called the “the jewel of inks” (“Perle des Encres”, which is still their current name for their black fountain pen ink!).

Later in the 19th century, Herbin added stationery, both for office and school to their product – line.

Herbin is THE French ink brand, still today available in most stationery stores around France.

Besides many colorful fountain pen inks, Herbin offers a wide variety of special inks such as scented inks, India inks, drawing inks, metal – flake inks (not suitable for fountain pens).

Besides inks Herbin today also produces a number of “traditional” products such as sealing wax, ink bottles, dipping pens and nibs, and even bamboo pens with matching papyrus sets.

The fountain pen inks are said to be “vegetable” based (which doesn’t say anything about if those inks are less harmful than others, in my opinion).

Most inks are on the thinner side, appearing slightly washed out in some cases. This problem is eliminated when using bottled ink because they get thicker due to evaporation faster than you might like! Thicker ink is prone to dry very slowly, so adding some distilled water will get rid of this problem.

Herbin inks are pretty expensive compared to other brands, but I haven’t had any serious problem with them in any pens, they flow very well and the variety of different colors are exceptional.

The only letdown might be the above-mentioned washed-out look of some colors, but again, I don’t want to argue about the color itself, leaving this to the personal taste of everybody for themselves.

This is Part I of a chart of Herbin colors from cartridges, produced by Michael Richter. The images were scanned in at a resolution of 300dpi and have been reproduced here as faithfully as possible to the original. The chart has been broken into several separate images to facilitate downloading, please be patient, images of this size take time to load.

It is very difficult to reproduce accurate colors on the web; unless you have calibrated your monitor you will only see a representation of the actual color.



Jaune Bouton d’Or

Orange Indian

Rouge Caroubier

Rouge Fuchsia


Poussière de Lune

Rose Cyclamen

Violette Pensée

Bleu Myosotis

Bleu Nuit

The Pentrace Report: WES Birmingham (England) Meeting, 8 March 2008

The Pentrace Report: WES Birmingham (England) Meeting, 8 March 2008

Saturday 8 March 2008 saw the second Birmingham meeting of the Writing Equipment Society, which is the UK group for anyone interested in all aspects of writing equipment, especially fountain pens. I attended both as a new WES member and to report on the occasion for Pentrace.

Held in the unique Pen Room museum at the Argent Centre in Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter (see http://www.penroom.co.uk), the meeting had two main aims; firstly to present a series of lectures by members and guests, and secondly to celebrate a very special occasion, the formal dedication and opening of The Philip Poole Room, named in commemoration of one of the best-known founders of the Writing Equipment Society who also helped inspire the setting up of the Pen Room.

Mr. Brian Jones, Secretary of the Birmingham Pen Trade Heritage Association

Members of WES and volunteer staff of the Pen Room arrived from 10.30 am and at 11.00 am were warmly welcomed by Brian Jones, Secretary of the Birmingham Pen Trade Heritage Association, and WES Meeting Secretary Dr. Charles Steiner. Various WES Council members then gave notice of forthcoming events etc to the members.


Mr. Colin Keats, grandson of company’s founder Ludwig Frederick Brenner

The first lecture of the day was the unique story of The Yard-O-Led Pencil Co. Ltd, the famous English mechanical pencil and fountain pen manufacturer which still makes top-quality writing instruments at their factory in Spencer Street, Birmingham. Remarkably, this story was told by Colin Keats, grandson of the company’s founder Ludwig Frederick Brenner.

In the early 1900s Mr. Brenner learned his skills in the jewelry trade in Pforzheim (in the state of Baden-Württemberg, southwest Germany at the gate to the Black Forest) a town world-famous for its jewelry and watch-making industry.

Before the First World War, Brenner settled in England, where from his premises in City Road, London he introduced a broad range of elegant jewelry in rolled gold and silver. He went on to establish strong relationships with many craftsmen and merchants of fine jewelry, becoming highly respected in the trade. Sadly when war came, Mr. Brenner was interned and lost his business, but after the cessation of hostilities, he developed a new business and resumed his respected place in the trade, branching out in 1931 when he founded the Brenner Pocock Pen. Co. in London.

In 1822, the first-ever propelling pencil, the Mordan Everpoint, was invented and patented by Sampson Mordan. Mordan was not directly associated with Brenner, but in 1934, Frank Tufnell, Junior (whose father had been a long-time associate and employee of Mordan) met Mr. Brenner, a meeting that was to be of great importance to the history of writing instruments in later years.

In 1934, Ludwig Frederick Brenner founded The Yard-O-Led Pencil Co. after patenting a mechanical pencil design that enabled each pencil to hold twelve 3” leads (or one yard, hence “Yard-O-Led”). However in practice, the leads used were only 2 ¾” long, which meant the capacity was just short of a yard. The pencils at this time were mostly made using a silver jacket over a brass and steel mechanism. A variety was made, including shorter models (“Yard-O-Letters”) with ring tops for the ladies and the same size with clips for gentlemen’s vest pockets. The short model pencils held 2 1/8” leads. The leads were 3/64” thick. Yard-O-Led pencils became well-known and were even sold in the United States.

The Second World War brought about many changes. In 1941, at the height of the London Blitz, both the Mordan factory and the premises of Yard-O-Led were totally destroyed by German bombs, together with their books and records. In fact, many documents were lost when the safe at Yard-O-Led was looted, a practice that was not uncommon during the Blitz. Following this disaster, Ludwig Frederick Brenner and Frank Tufnell, Junior met again and decided to rebuild the Yard-O-Led Company.

After the war, the business was re-started and a new factory was built in Augusta Street, in what is now part of Birmingham’s “Jewellery Quarter”. The Sampson Mordan Company patterns were sold, and the name was acquired by quality pencil manufacturer Edward Baker of Birmingham. Tufnell purchased a majority shareholding in Yard-O-Led, also buying the Edward Baker Co., which Yard-O-Led took over in 1955. He was also responsible for trade sales.

Post-war business was good. Pencils were now made slightly longer in solid silver and using 3” leads, adding up to a genuine yard. Yard-O-Led went on to offer a wide range of pencils and pens using materials from plastic to silver or gold plate, rolled silver, solid silver, rolled gold, and even platinum (only a few items made in the latter). In the 1950s the advent of the ballpoint pen or “biro” had a big impact on the trade, even though the early refills were poor, and Yard-O-Led also produced such pens. The rarest Yard-O-Led ballpoint pen is however one made of pewter, which apparently was not put into general production, though Mr. Keats was able to show one borrowed from a collector.

When the Edward Baker Co. moved to a larger factory at Soho Hill, Birmingham, the Yard-O-Led factory moved into the former Baker premises. The company’s founder, Ludwig Frederick Brenner (affectionately known as “LFB”) was still active in the company until 1955, but in 1961 Frank Tuffnell, Junior became Managing Director of Yard-O-Led, and in 1964 Mr. Brenner died, at the age of 88, leaving a remarkable legacy. The London offices moved from Great Cumberland Street to Drummond Street in 1965, and then in 1972 to East Barnet.

Tim Tufnell, a trained manufacturing jeweler and son of Frank Tuffnell, Junior, joined Yard-O-Led in the 1970s, and eventually became Managing Director. Today, Yard-O-Led is owned by Filofax (itself now part of the Letts Filofax Group). The majority of the company’s pens and pencils are sold in Great Britain, but also as far afield as the USA, Japan, Russia, Europe, China, and India. The present factory is located in Spencer Street, just a few hundred yards from the old Augusta Street works. As with many fountain pen companies today, high-quality gold nibs are sourced from one of the big manufacturers in Germany. However the majority of pen and pencil production is handled ably by just six highly-skilled craftsmen, with anything from 2 – 49 years of experience each, who works in pen and pencil production at Yard-O-Led, and you can be sure that any quality writing instrument made by the company is produced by time-honored methods, including hand-chasing and using engine-turning machines around a century old.

After being congratulated on his lecture and asked numerous questions by the audience, Mr. Keats was thanked once again by Dr. Steiner before the assembly broke up for lunch. During lunch, break time was available for trading but since most people had gone out for lunch only a few deals were made.


Reconvening at 2.15 pm, members and guests were called together at the entrance to the main meeting and learning center room, which on this occasion was to be officially dedicated as “The Philip Poole Room”. The late Mr. Poole at one time ran “His Nibs”, a fascinating shop in Drury Lane, London, and he was one of the main inspirers of both the Writing Equipment Society and the Pen Room Museum, and so it had been decided jointly that this was an ideal opportunity to honor a man who had done so much for both organizations.

The Writing Equipment Society grew from a group of enthusiasts who had two things in common – they were interested in all the paraphernalia associated with the act of writing and they all patronized “His Nibs”. Philip had written informal newsletters to his customers and friends, pulling together a group which met in London in September 1980, realizing that they had the makings of a really worthwhile new society. So it was that, on 30 November 1980, an inaugural meeting was held in the Bonnington Hotel, London, and the Writing Equipment Society was born.

It is perhaps less well-known that Philip Poole was also one of the main inspirations behind the formation and setting up of the Pen Room Museum, which is the home of the Birmingham Pen Trade Heritage Association. The Association was first formed in September 1996 as an informal meeting of people interested in the Birmingham pen trade. It was registered as a charity in 1997. Membership was drawn from former employees of the trade, collectors, and people interested in history. The interest has broadened over the years to include writing implements and accessories and forms of writing including Braille and moon, calligraphy, and shorthand. The membership has increased to over 80 and now includes calligraphers, cartoonists, and local people. The Pen Room was opened in April 2001, and a learning center and further exhibition were established in what is now The Philip Poole Room in June 2002.

Mr. Philip Poole, Junior

With both WES members and Pen Room volunteers gathered, then, Brian Jones explained the purpose of the dedication and invited Mr. Poole’s son, Philip Poole, Junior, to say a few words and to formally open the room under its new name by unveiling a new sign on the door.

Mr. Poole then went on to unveil a photographic portrait of his father in the exhibition area of the room.

Finally, Mr. Michael Woods, Chairman of WES, formally introduced a new display cabinet and a further display dedicated to Philip Poole, speaking about Philip Poole and WES as he did so.


The final half of the day commenced immediately after the opening of the Philip Poole Room. The first lecture was one to warm a fountain pen fanatic’s heart:


The second speaker of the day was Jeremy Collingridge, who over the years has developed a thriving fountain pen sales and repair business. He is also the WES Librarian/Archivist and one of the organizers of both of last year’s WES London Writing Equipment Show and this year’s new Midland Pen Show in Lichfield (20-22 June 2008, see http://www.midlandpenshow.co.uk). His lecture was on “Unusual Ink Filling Systems in Fountain Pens”. After explaining that historically there were literally hundreds of variations on filling systems, many no longer in use today, he went on to describe and explain, with photographs and illustrations, a few of the more interesting and even “classic” ways to get ink into a fountain pen and (sometimes!) keep it there.

First up was the “Stephens Button Filler”. In this design, once the blind cap was unscrewed, this became the button for pumping ink into the pen. Its advantage was that it was not possible to lose the blind cap as a result. Next, he described the Conklin Screwed Plunger Filler and “Word Gauge” system, which enables an approximate count of words left to write based on a measured indication of ink remaining. Thirdly, Mr. Collingridge spoke about the “Waterman 88 Jifmatic”, which worked by simply lifting a flap and crushing the ink sac by hand. The Japanese “Pilot Switch Filler” seemed a neat solution; remove the barrel and flip a switch at the end of the inner metal tube, dip the pen and flip the switch back to fill, then replace the barrel. A somewhat more obscure variant from a mechanical point of view is the unusual lever fixing in the “Moore Lever Filler”. In this, a small pin engaged in a tangential hole machined in the barrel. This made it essential to maintain the associated spring when overhauling such a pen.

Mr. Collingridge showed a number of fascinating pictures of prototypes held in the Parker Archive during his talk. One Parker experimental design, for example, was made to demonstrate a nib similar to that on a Parker 65 but took a Parker 51 cap. Also shown was a Parker experimental bulb filler, apparently based on a Parker 51. There was also Parker Experimental Vacumatics, one of which showed a minor variation in design (a rounded hole in the filler) which would have reduced mechanical stress in the aluminum Speedline filler by a factor of five compared with the lockdown design which went into production. There were also the Parker Capillary Trials, which went on from the 1940s and in an extraordinary campaign by Ken Parker and his team produced concept designs for such fillers which would eventually evolve into the Parker 61 capillary filler and the (shown) Parker 71 of 1961.

One particularly attractive little pen discussed was the “Wahl Eversharp Midget Bulb Filler”, a tiny pen that incorporated a bulb filler in its simplest form, simply a crushable sac. Another, the “Blackbird Top Fill” was a more engineered version of the Wahl filler, a bulb filler incorporating a breathing tube. Slightly more familiar was the “Swan Visofill”, which was similar to the Blackbird but with a violated barrel to see the ink content. One simple yet very clever design was the “Ink Maker Pen” – a modern version of the Trench Pen. It contained a replaceable “ink battery”, and the idea was to dip the barrel of the pen into a glass of water and the ink would dissolve, filling the pen. Also looked at was the “Sheaffer Pen for Men”, perhaps the ultimate, if over-complicated, the evolution of the Sheaffer Snorkel system whereby a snorkel extends from the pen to fill then a piston knob is turned to draw in the ink without having to clean the nib and section. Unfortunately, all the mechanics within the “PFM” mean there was relatively little ink capacity, and its complexity meant potentially increased need for services.

Other examples shown included the Conklin Crescent Fill “Starry”, the “Cameron Safety Filler” where squeezing the end of the barrel pressed the filler bar, the “Grieshaber Matchstick Filler” where a matchstick was poked into a hole in the side of the barrel to compress the sac, and modern representatives of the oft-decried cartridge filler, notably the Montblanc Boheme, and the Waterman Glass Cartridge, whose patent went back to 1935 but was still in use in the 1950s.

The lecture was warmly received, many questions asked, and some of the systems illustrated were viewed with amusement as you might expect!

And finally…

Dr. Charles Steiner, WES Meeting Secretary


Dr. Charles Steiner has had a lifetime of experience in metallurgy, and after thanking Jeremy Collingridge, went on to speak on his own behalf in the afternoon’s second and final lecture, about “The use of unusual materials in the manufacture of writing instruments”.

He gave particular examples of a number of fountain pens and in some cases nibs, made from materials as diverse as platinum, palladium, titanium, and carbon fiber.

The first titanium fountain pen was the Parker T1 of 1970. It was followed in 1996 by the Omas T2, of which there were two versions, one of which was larger with a titanium nib and silver trim. The standard T2, a slightly smaller pen, had a gold nib and gold plated trim. Other titanium pens produced have included special pens made by Grayson Tighe in numbered editions based on the Pelikan M800 and M1000; these pens were anodized giving different shades or colors of metal. Some current Tighe pens use carbon fiber overlaid on titanium. Motor racing company McLaren has also produced pens made from spare titanium tube stock and carbon fiber. Chris Thompson has produced some fine “vintage” Parker Duofold replicas from machined titanium bar stock and using modern Duofold gold nibs. The Visconti Skeleton Demonstrator is a startling limited edition pen that uses a titanium skeleton overlain over a transparent body, offering a pen that changes color according to the ink with which it is filled. Finally, less exotic but more affordable is the Lamy Persona, a fine modern pen that in one form has a titanium finish that could be either vacuum deposited or electroplated.

Why use titanium? Although expensive, it is less so than in the past and is widely distributed in mineral form (i.e. Rutile or Ilmenite), although it can be difficult to isolate. It is very hard and resistant to discoloration or corrosion, including that caused by bodily fluids or inks. It is tough and shock-resistant. It can be worked into shape hot or cold. On the other hand, it can be difficult to handle and work, being tougher than steel tools – one of the main reasons for the commercial failure of the Parker T1 was the fact that it cost so much to manufacture. The titanium simply wore out the conventional metalworking tools of the day.

Some pens have also been made out of Platinum, although because this often dulls many have been overplayed. Platinum is four times as expensive as palladium, is 2 or 3 times denser than steel, and its discovery dates back to pre-Columbian times. Its use was in decline until World War II, after which there was an upsurge in use. It is very unusual for solid platinum pens to be made; normally manufacture involves a thin vacuum deposited or electroplated coating of platinum over the main body (brass?) and the platinum may then be coated with palladium or rhodium. Companies making pens that use platinum have included Montblanc, Cartier, and Yard-O-Led (who made just 3 ballpoints from this!). Montblanc also uses platinum in the nibs for its 149 fountain pens.

Finally, carbon fiber, a synthetic material that is stronger than steel, is also used in the bodies of a number of pens, usually in combination with other materials. Dunhill produced the first carbon fiber pen in 1996 – the “AD2000”. Carbon fiber has also been used in the Delta Extrema, and in selected pens by Montblanc, McLaren, Monteverde, and the Caran D’Ache Octagonal.

After applause and a series of interesting technical questions, Dr. Steiner was thanked for his most informative lecture and the meeting concluded around 3.30 pm, the members and guests departing to wend their weary way home. Your Ace Reporter likewise headed off hotfoot to Birmingham New Street Railway Station for the train back to Bloxwich and a well-earned cup of coffee!

What next for WES? A meeting of the Writing Equipment Society will be held on Saturday 19 April 2008, 3 pm, at the Clifton Arms Hotel, Lytham St. Annes, England. For more information see the WES website: http://www.wesonline.org.uk and don’t forget – new members are always welcome!

Stuart Williams, 13 March 2008

© 2008 Stuart Williams All rights reserved by the author

Read Stuart William’s previous article
The Birmingham Pen Room

Pen Room Museum at the Argent Centre in Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter

Writing Equipment Society

On the Trail of Tolkien: Part 2: Tolkien's Inspirations in Birmingham Locations

On the Trail of Tolkien: Part 2: Tolkien’s Inspirations in Birmingham Locations

Those who have rediscovered The Lord of the Rings through the wonderful (if not always accurate) Peter Jackson movies probably have an image of wild New Zealand locations whenever they think of Middle Earth.

Yet J.R.R. Tolkien’s inspiration for many of his literary locations came not from the exotic wilderness of a foreign land, however beautiful, but from the gentle English countryside, and the rather more sinister smoking heart of the Industrial Revolution in and near his childhood homes in Birmingham, England.

This is a whistlestop walking tour of some inspirational places which may still be visited by the adventurous tourist following in the footsteps of The Fellowship of the Ring. Read this in conjunction with my biography of Tolkien in the first article to get the most from it.

Ronald Tolkien had many childhood haunts in the Birmingham area that were later to become the stuff of legend, and which are now as familiar to me as the back of my own hand. Here, gentle reader, I will lead you on a quest to places in The Shire from ‘The Fellowship of the Ring’, and to ‘The Two Towers’ themselves (and one other!)…

In my next and final article in this present series, however, I will take a more speculative look at The Black Country, said to have inspired Tolkien’s ideas of the dark land of Mordor, home of the evil Lord Sauron – ‘The Lord of the Rings’ himself!

J.R.R. Tolkien was also influenced by other places in later life, and the horrors and joys that were to come as he matured to manhood, experienced war, and settled into happy married and academic life. These may feature in a future article, but first, gentle reader, we travel now to Birmingham, in the heart of England…

Bag End, Hobbiton, and The Old Forest

‘In a hole in the ground, there lived a Hobbit
– or, the Tolkien family’s first home in Birmingham

The tiny village of Sarehole, young Ronald Tolkien’s first home in England, was the model for Hobbiton and The Shire in ‘The Hobbit and ‘The Lord of the Rings.

Formerly a secluded rural hamlet, surrounded by traditional English farms, Sarehole is now a largely built-up residential suburb on the border of the Moseley and Hall Green areas of Birmingham and is easily reached by trains from Moor Street Station in Birmingham City Centre, alighting at Hall Green Station and then walking for about 15 minutes down Cole Bank Road to Sarehole Mill.

All the places shown here are within easy walking distance of each other, but stout footwear and sensible clothing is recommended for any brave traveller who chooses to explore Moseley Bog – ‘The Old Forest’! May I suggest then, gentle reader, that you begin your quest by walking on past Sarehole Mill and starting, like Frodo, from Bag End, just around the corner in Wake Green Road?

No. 264, Wake Green Road, formerly 5, Gracewell Cottages, was the home of the Tolkien family from 1896 until 1900. At the rear of the house is Moseley Bog – ‘The Old Forest’ – and at the front, just across what was then a country lane (now the busy Wake Green Road), is Sarehole Mill – ‘The Old Mill at Hobbiton’.

Together with three matching pairs of semi-detached houses, No. 264 appears to have been built in the early 1890s for the servants of A.H. Foster, who lived in a larger house a short distance away.

Now a retirement home, and not open to the public (so please do not disturb the residents), No. 264 is a fine, attractive semi-detached house of individual style. Is this the inspiration for Bag End? It is by no means a hole in a hillside but is certainly a very cosy, comfortable home, ideal for a Hobbit.

Our next stop is Sarehole Mill, now a fine museum, which we will explore for a while before entering the mysterious and beautiful Moseley Bog. On the opposite side of Wake, Green Road from No. 264 is another boggy area of woodland surrounding the pond of Sarehole Mill. Step lively, but cautiously, young Hobbit, across the road, and when you arrive here, you are at the heart of Hobbiton, and surrounded by fellow Hobbits, at least in spirit.

The Old Mill at Hobbiton
– or, Sarehole Mill

You can reach the Mill safely and in Hobbit-style (avoiding the dangers of the road!) by entering what is now a playing field through a gate in Wake Green Road, and then walking alongside the Mill Pond on your right, which can be glimpsed through fencing and trees. The pond receives its water from nearby Coldbath Brook, which travels beneath the road from Moseley Bog until it enters the pond.

We know that Tolkien played in and around the Mill as a child. It is said that whenever the miller’s son (who came to be known by young Ronald Tolkien as ‘the White Ogre’, from his floury appearance!) caught him and his brother, he would chase them away, to teach them not to trespass in what was really quite a dangerous area for children. There was also a local farmer, who beat the boys when he found them playing in his crops, whom they called ‘the Black Ogre’ – perhaps he inspired Farmer Maggot?

Walking along and staying on the right, you will cross a small bridge over the Coldbath brook as it exits from the Mill. Here you may walk across the small car park (accessible by cars from Cole Bank Road), and enter Sarehole Mill via the visitor centre, where you will find displays, maps and leaflets of great interest to curious Hobbits. Admission to the Mill is free, but donations are welcome.

Once watermills were a very common sight along Birmingham’s rivers. It is estimated that in the 18th century there were over fifty in the area. However, of all Birmingham’s watermills, only Sarehole Mill and Newhall Mill (in Sutton Coldfield) survive as standing buildings with working water-driven machinery.

There has been a mill at Sarehole for over 450 years. The first known records date from 1542 when a man named John Bedell was allowed to build a corn mill on this site. Corn was ground at Sarehole Mill until 1919, and this is still done occasionally for demonstrations and special events.

However, watermills were not only used for agricultural work; waterpower was used in Birmingham’s industrial workshops until the late 1800s, and Matthew Boulton, a leading light of the Lunar Society, is reputed to have used the mill at Sarehole for rolling metal in the 18th century before building his Manufactory at Soho in Handsworth.

The main building on site is L-shaped with a separate bakehouse and stable block situated to the east. The buildings have been taken down and rebuilt several times. The current buildings date from the early 19th century.

Sarehole Mill was restored and opened as a museum by Birmingham City Council in the 1960s, and J.R.R. Tolkien contributed to its restoration. Visitors to Sarehole Mill today will see an attractive group of buildings, including a bakehouse, a metal workshop, a granary and the mill itself, all arranged around a cobbled courtyard. The ground floor contains displays, an education room and waterwheels and associated gearing. Due to the Mill’s construction, access to the upper floors is by steep stairs only.

Annually, The Tolkien Society jointly organises, with Birmingham City Council, a grand Tolkien Weekend at the Mill, which is great fun. See: www.tolkiensociety.org

In any event, you will want to tarry a while in Sarehole Mill, for there is much to see, which takes around an hour. Be careful you do not disturb the White Ogre, though!

The power to turn the mill’s wheel comes from the pond. Dropping down from the mill pond through an inlet, the water drives the wheel around, thereby turning the cogs within via a shaft, and grinding whatever the mill needs to process, normally corn.

The gearing from the North Wheel transfers the power of the water upstairs to grind the flour. There is also a smaller south wheel, not normally used these days.

Much of the rest of the operating machinery is upstairs, and it is worth noting that there is no wheelchair access to the upper floors, and stairs are fairly steep, but the climb is worthwhile as there is much to see.

Corn pours from grain bins in the attic, into the hopper, then into the centre of the upper grindstone and is gradually transferred between upper and lower stones, ground into flour, and is carried out by the motion of the wheels and collected.

The attic of the mill contains the grain bins, flour bins and numerous items of lifting gear for bringing sacks of grain and flour up to the attic.

On the way down again to exit the building, is a room specially dedicated to a display on Tolkien and old maps of the area

Another room contains a display of numerous farming implements, too numerous to show here.

There is far too much to see in and around Sarehole Mill to do it justice here, gentle reader, and so I encourage to you to walk in the floury footsteps of the White Ogre and visit the Old Mill at Hobbiton for yourself, to soak up the atmosphere and dream a little boy’s dreams of Hobbits…

The Old Forest
– or, Moseley Bog

‘Looking ahead they could see only tree-trunks of innumerable sizes and shapes: straight or bent, twisted, leaning, squat or slender, smooth or gnarled and branched; and all the stems were green or grey with moss and slimy, shaggy growths.

Leaving the Old Mill, turn left through the car park and across the stream, returning through the field to where you began in Wake Green Road. Find a safe place to cross the busy road here, young Hobbit, and enter Thirlmere Drive, to the left of No. 264. From here, walk until you reach Pensby Close and turn right into this 1960’s community housing development., then bear left.

At the end of Pensby Close is a grassy area, cross this, and just by a set of galvanised handrails, you will see where Coldbath Brook leaves Moseley Bog and travels underground to the Mill Pond. It is here that we enter The Old Forest, so beware, for you may not be alone…

Moseley Bog, now a wonderful nature reserve, is in fact the drained former secondary storage pool for Sarehole Mill. Some 150 years ago, the water was drained away, but the area never really dried out, and so by the late 1890s this had become a wooded dell, full of flowers. Today it preserves a little of that lost rural Sarehole which has survived to the present day.

Entering the Bog and climbing over the bank, which was formerly a dam, turn right along the top of the dam. Now you have truly entered the Old Forest. As you wander further into the woods, you can see the remains of some of the brickwork for the sluicegate that controlled the water flowing down to the Mill. With the ivy-shrouded trees closing in around you, the world of the 21st century begins to fade away, and the secretive rustling of leaves is interrupted only by birdsong and the occasional furtive noise of some small animal in the undergrowth.

Follow the high ridge along the bank of the old dam, and then a walkway made from old railway sleepers will lead you ever on and on through mature trees, until clearing beckons.

Quietly, you may enter. But beware, today this is the last refuge of Smaug the Dragon – exercise caution, here! I find a gift of gold always quiets his nerves, and who knows, he may let you rest awhile upon his back while you eat a packed lunch. Careful, though, or you may be on the menu instead! I often rest here a while, to read, and to dream…

Here also is a mysterious green pond, much beloved of TV producers making programmes about Tolkien. Did the Tolkien boys play around this pool? We cannot know for sure…

Having eaten your fill of food or of the clear air of Middle earth – or having been chased away by Smaug (!) – continue on into the Old Forest. Follow the path, sometimes the sleeper walkway will be your guide, sometimes not. Work your way cautiously around to the right, and then bear left through sylvan glades and wooded dells, filled with seasonal bluebells, buttercups and glorious greenery. The Old Forest is a strange and beautiful place, but it can be a little unnerving if you enter it alone, gentle reader…

After a while, following the path as it curves to the left, you will see a flight of steps that will take you out of the Bog and into Joy’s Wood, but let us leave that for another day, and continue on our quest.

You may now return whence you came, young Hobbit, walking in the dappled shade along the tinkling brook, the gently flowing water sounding like Elvish bells or quiet voices floating on the breeze, as they make their way through the Forest to the Grey Havens. Hark now, do you hear their sad lament for days long past?

The path will bring you back along the walkway, over the bridge and to the dam, where you may if you wish return to the noisy 21st century, treading back down Pensby Close and Thirlmere Drive to Wake Green Road.

But perhaps, gentle reader, you will tarry a while in the land of Middle Earth and glimpse a little of the Fellowship of the Ring, before we seek out The Two Towers? Come, just a little further along the road…

Strange Sights of Middle Earth

“The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow if I can,
Pursuing it with eager feet,
Until it joins some larger way
Where many paths and errands meet.
And whither then? I cannot say.”

Step warily, friend, we know not what lies around the corner.

Carefully, now.

Quick, hide behind that tree, and pull your cloak tight around you, for we must not be seen.

I feel a great sense of foreboding.

Save us! Black Riders!

Beware, their dark swords spell doom!

No! I would we could stay and help, but we cannot interfere with the story. Frodo must make his own way, it is his destiny, and that of the Fellowship, written in a greater book than ours. But hold – we may glimpse a little more of their adventures…

Having left the Old Forest, to visit The Two Towers, young Hobbit, you must travel back into the centre of Birmingham, and continue your quest from there. It is simplest to then take a bus from near St. Philip’s Cathedral in Colmore Row. Any bus travelling past Five Ways and along Hagley Road will suit. Get off the bus in Hagley Road at the second stop after Five Ways traffic island (first stop after the Edgbaston Shopping Centre), and you will see a little way ahead and across the road an ancient public house called ‘The Plough and Harrow’, on the corner of Plough and Harrow Road. Walk along Hagley Road and cross safely at the traffic lights.

Enter Plough and Harrow Road and walk steadily until you reach Waterworks Road. Here you enter the vicinity of Ladywood and will see The Two Towers looming ahead. It was here, on Stirling Road in fact, that Tolkien lived during his later childhood and teenage years.

I have always found the natives friendly here, but it pays to be cautious, young Hobbit, as this is now a run-down area attempting to regenerate itself, and as with many such areas, crime has been a problem. Walk with fellow travellers, if you can, and be cautious – you never know when an Orc might appear…

Literally, just around the corner from Tolkien’s childhood home in Sterling Road, and on Waterworks Road itself, you will find Perrott’s Folly, a magnificent 18th-century tower of brick and stone.

It is believed that Perrott’s Folly inspired the City of Minas Anor in Gondor, later named Minas Tirith. Though the fictional Minas Tirith is far more elaborate, it is understandable how inspiring the young Tolkien must have found this remarkable building – I have always found it so!

This fabulous tower was built in 1758 by John Perrott and stands some 96 feet (30m) high. A Hobbit-sized door some 3ft (0.9m) high allows access to the roof.

Perrott’s Folly may have been built as a hunting lodge – when it was constructed, the tower was well out into the countryside and commanded dramatic views of the surrounding landscape, a great place for Perrott to entertain his friends.

Between 1885 – 1979, the roof and topmost room of the Perrott’s Folly were used as a meteorological observatory, first by the Birmingham & Midland Institute and later by Birmingham University. It specialised mainly in wind and sunshine observations following the establishment of a further weather station at the nearby Edgbaston Reservoir in 1886 for the measurement of temperature and rainfall.

Today, the weather observatory resides at Birmingham University, and the tower, which is not normally open to the public except for occasional open days, is cared for by a charitable trust, The Perrott’s Folly Company.

The trust runs a group, the ‘Friends of Perrott’s Folly’, with an annual membership of £10 and life membership of £100, and administers an appeal for the restoration and maintenance of the tower (all payments in Sterling, cheques drawn on a UK bank and payable to Perrott’s Folly Company). For further details, contact: Ian Cox, 52 Harborne Road, Edgbaston, Birmingham, B15 3HE, United Kingdom.

Walk on, young Hobbit, and you will discover the second tower that Tolkien would have seen – and heard – near his home in Sterling Road: the glorious Victorian Italianate tower of Edgbaston Waterworks, now under the authority of Severn Trent Water Ltd.

Strictly speaking, this is a highly decorated chimney, not a tower – but what a chimney! This tower is thought to have inspired the fictional creation of Minas Ithil, later to be named Minas Morgul when it became the home of the Witch-King and the evil Ringwraiths or Black Riders.

Built-in 1862 and designed by architect J.H. Chamberlain, this altogether more sinister-looking tower is in fact the Grade II listed chimney for the boiler house feeding a group of three steam engines which for many years pumped water for Birmingham and Aston, extracting it from underground boreholes.

James Bond Shooting Pen

James Bond Shooting Pen

The story begins in an anonymous hotel room when Pentrace reader Willis reports a pen sighting while watching the Bond movie “Never Say Never Again” on TV. With the details posted on the message board, our intrepid agent 007 (jeff Peirce) who was monitoring communications that night, reports back with the information that the pen is in fact a Mont Blanc 149 (old style) with a Union Jack flag on the barrel. He is also able to confirm that the very pen is now in the possession of “M” (Mike Mihlberger of Office&Things).

Flying down to “M” the following day, 007 records images of the pen on a special disposable camera and arranges for “Q” (jeff’s son James) to digitize and compress the images and relay them trans Atlantic to Pentrace HQ in Ireland.

Unbeknownst to our agents, the evil operatives if ISP were conspiring to thwart the successful transmission of the images, but reckoned without the resources of 007 who, having battled with the system many times before, had arranged for duplicates to be sent by both “Q” and agent 006 (Brian Nelson). Despite several dastardly attempts by the evil email operatives, the images were digitally enhanced and safely transmitted to the website for examination by international pen experts…

The movie “Never Say Never Again” was not one of the “official” Bond movies. It wasn’t directed by Cubby Brocolli and didn’t feature the famous opening theme or shooting sequence. It saw the return of Sean Connery to the role of Bond after many years in what was in effect a remake of “Thunderball” with a twist. The villain was Fatima Blush (Barbara Carrera) and it was she who met her demise on the end of a rocket-propelled by the MB 149 shooting pen, leaving only a pair of smoking spike heels behind!

It is unusual for a person with the refined and educated taste of Bond to carry a fountain pen with a gaudy flag emblazoned on it, an image more suited to a British seaside resort souvenir shop, but the props people obviously saw nothing wrong with redecorating the precious resin. Another Mont Blanc was employed in the film “Octopussy”, this one a Solitaire with a listening device in the removable blind cap. The Solitaire was filled with a concentrated mixture of nitric and hydrochloric acids, a combination which can be approximated by mixing equal parts of Penman Saphire and Private Reserve Tanzanite.

“M” displays the pen Union Jack pen from time to time in his shop but refuses to sell it or even quote a price. He was given it by Mont Blanc in the early days, and it is certainly a great conversation piece. Even better is the fact that it remains within the pen community and is not lost in some back-lot prop store.

Many thanks to Mike Mihlberger for allowing the pics to be taken and published here, to James Peirce for the technical work, Brian Nelson for the backup support, and most of all to Jeff Peirce who was both Producer and Lead Cameraman.

To end on a quote from the film:

“We’re not allowed to give endorsements.”

Bond to Fatima Blush, who insists that he put in writing that she was his greatest love.

Next time you’re asked to check your MB 149 at the door, you’ll know why!

The Story Of Sumgai

The Story Of Sumgai

The name Sumgai has by now become synonymous with the dread nemesis of all collectors, the cause of “the one that got away”. Of course, the real dark secret of Sumgai is that we all get a chance to be Sumgai ourselves sooner or later. As a wise fellow once said, “we have met the enemy, and he is us”

Well, it has finally happened, yet, as I relate this tale, be warned! In true Lovecraftian fashion, I am certain that It is still out there, somewhere, biding its time, awaiting the moment in which to strike again… It had been a poor couple of days, lots of looking, stopping every few blocks or so, to root through antique malls and shops, only to hear the same sad story. It had been here….. The dark and malignant presence of the evil demon of pen collectors, Sumgai. I heard the same terrible story from a hundred dealers.

“Oh, yes, we had a bunch of pens, one big old red colored one, and one was all silver. But Sungai was here yesterday and bought them all.” It was truly horrible, the devastation that had been wrought upon this area. I quailed under the knowledge that I was too late, I had missed my chance to save these pens from the grasp of Sumgai. It was as if It was everywhere at once, through some awful porthole to another dimension It came, snatching up the pens, never to be heard from again.

I began to despair of finding anything, so as I turned towards home, I was of a mind to pass by the gleaming new antique mall. But then a sixth sense warned me. I vague feeling of something calling to me, deep within the recesses of my mind. I stopped and pulled into the parking space that was suddenly there, right in front of the door. I went in, and for the first ten minutes, it appeared as if It had been here, or if there had just never been any pens, to begin with. Then suddenly, I saw them! A case with about ten pens in it! I looked wildly around for a clerk, certain that It had already gone to find one and was on Its way back to buy them all! But no, I found one, and she opened the case and laid them out on the countertop! Four Vacumatics, and a couple of 51s.

The Vacs were all priced the same, $125. There was a tooth-marked black standard, a green demi, a brown standard, and… A brown Oversized! The 51s told the same story, both priced the same, $50, a plain beaten black one, and a Signet capped double jewel. This was the time for action, swift and certain action! At any moment Sumgai could stroll through the door, and there was no telling what It might do when It found out I had beaten It at Its own game! I offered $150 for the Oversize and the Double jewel 51. No doubt glad to have helped in the defeat of Sumgai, the dealer agreed! I had triumphed!

As I drove away, I thought I saw an awful form materialize and slink into the store. It seemed that there was a horrible cry, but I couldn’t be certain, I had the radio turned up…

This article was originally published in Stylophiles.