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A right way to write: Hagerstown man collects, restores fountain pens

February 02, 2012|By MARIE GILBERT | marieg@herald-mail.com

When turn-of-the-20th-century Americans composed a letter or signed a document, they did so with a flourish and with their favorite fountain pen.

Sold in every size, shape, color and style imaginable, the writing tool was favored by those who took pride in their penmanship and often was a prized possession.

But by the end of World War II, its reign came to an end — only to be replaced by the ball point which purportedly had the ability to write under water and even through butter.

Dethroned fountain instruments drifted to the farthest recesses of desk drawers where they were all but forgotten.

But today, after decades of dormancy, they are being rediscovered.

And it's not by boardroom types.

It's by collectors who want to get a grip on a bit of history.

Tom Mullane is one such individual.

Not only does he collect fountain pens, he restores them.

His interest began during his childhood, the 63-year-old Hagerstown man said, when "I started writing with a fountain pen in elementary school — back in the dark ages."

Mullane, originally from the Bronx, N.Y.,  said he attended parochial school and although ball points were just starting to come onto the market, he was required to use fountain pens from second grade on.

"They wrote better and also it was easier to teach good handwriting with a fountain pen," he recalled. "To this day, I still have beautiful Palmer-style handwriting as was taught back then."

Mullane said he continued to write with fountain pens even after ball points and gel pens became popular.

"I always had at least one pen in my pocket as my signature pen," he shared. "I used the other types because that was what they wanted for business use."

Mullane said he also is a wood turner and started making custom wood fountain pens.

"I had a table at the Hagerstown Farmers Market during the Christmas season for a few years, selling my various styles of pens and did very well until I eventually flooded the market and sales dropped," he said.

He eventually found a fountain pen forum on the web — FountainPenNetwork.com — and learned that the older vintage pens he loved were still available.

"I started by purchasing a few, learning to repair the basic ones and my collection just sort of took off," he said.

The first vintage pens Mullane collected were the Sheaffer brand, which "was one of the big three manufacturers in the fountain industry from the beginning," he said. "For some reason, I then started to purchase some Parker pens, another of the big three. And now my collection is primarily focused on the Parker line. There is just something about the various models of Parker pens that I really love."

According to Mullane, every pen in his collection is a writer. "At some point in time, they are filled and used and then eventually cleaned and put away and another pen filled."

In the beginning, Mullane said his collection grew slowly "as I really did not know a lot about vintage pens. But I purchased books and studied a lot, and, as time went on, the collection grew by leaps and bounds."

He estimated there have been months when he's purchased 10 to 20 vintage pens — some to keep in his collection and some to restore and resell to fund future purchases.

Among his most prized possessions are a full set of all the colors of the First Generation Vacumatics and two mint-condition Parker 51 pen/pencil sets in their original boxes.

"While they are not unique, they are a treasure to me and will eventually be passed on to my daughter, who also loves using a fountain pen," Mullane said. "I also have a couple of pens with unique filling systems that I own just because the filling system is off the norm."

While collecting fountain pens is a growing hobby and a lucrative business, repairing them is an almost lost art.

Mullane said he began restoring fountain pens out of necessity.

"I just could not afford to have someone restore the pens I was buying," he noted. "I picked the brains of some of the best pen restorers and read everything I could about doing restoration work. In the beginning, I did ruin some pens because I was in the learning curve and this was to be expected. However, as time went on and the restorers I personally knew gave me more advice, I really got the hang of it Eventually, the guys whose brains I was picking told me to start offering my services to other pen owners."

Mullane said pen restoration is an extremely important part of his hobby.

"Remember, we are talking about collecting pens that may have been manufactured  at the turn of the (20th) century," he explained. "There are no new parts available anymore. Parts must be repaired, remade or taken from pens that are in too bad of shape to restore."

Like most restorers, Mullane said he keeps a parts bin and often purchases a pen in bad condition just for the parts.

"There aren't many places or people you can go to and get a pen restored," he said.  "There are some restorers who are considered the masters of the craft and if they do not pass on their skills — like they did to me — eventually, there will be no one around to do the work. Fortunately, they are very free with passing on their knowledge and many new collectors are trying their hand at repairs."

Mullane said the hardest part of a restoration is repairing the nib of the pen that is damaged.

"This is something I don't do even for myself," he said. "There are maybe three men in the whole country who I consider masters at this work."

In addition to collecting and restoring fountain pens, Mullane said he sells them — often to people he talks with on various fountain pen forums.

"Surprisingly, it's not a small group," he said. "The one forum I spend a lot of time on has about 59,000 members and over 2 million posts."

His customers come from all over the world, he added, noting he has shipped pens to every continent.

Because of the popularity of fountain pens, Mullane said there are collectible shows across the United States.

He generally attends two of them — one in North Carolina, the other in Ohio.

"These are shows that have a lot of people looking for vintage pens and I have developed quite a following at them," he said.

As a believer in good handwriting, Mullane said he was pleased that his daughter had a second-grade teacher who "taught cursive and taught it well.

"I donated enough inexpensive fountain pens so that each child could have one and take it home at the end of the school year," he said. "I know at least a few of these children are still using them today — six years later."

While fountain pens are a passion, Mullane also does scroll saw art.

"I don't have an art background, but I always have enjoyed drawing and painting," he said.  "I've been doing scroll saw art for about 12 years, starting out just cutting patterns that I bought online from scroll saw companies. But I wasn't satisfied with what I was seeing, so I decided to try my hand at designing patterns. Other scrollers saw the finished pieces and started asking to purchase them."

Mullane said neither hobby is a full-time business but "it's a labor of love that allows me to purchase some things I might not otherwise afford for my family."



To know more about Tom Mullane and his fountain pens, go to www.myfavoritepen.com. Information about his scroll saw patterns can be found at www.oldgriz.biz

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