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Playing with Fire

Posted by Dirck on 8 April, 2013

Given that there was yet more snow over the weekend, the attraction of an incendiary diversion should be obvious.  In years long distant, though, I was a Boy Scout and with Baden-Powell’s slightly militarist ghost standing by my shoulder and whispering warnings, actual conflagration was avoided.

The snow, which in any sensible year has long since given over the field to grass and a quantity of muck, meant that I was very pleased to get stuck into the Pit of Correction and the few remaining client pens therein.  With one exception, a Waterman Citation with an ugly India ink problem (still!), I got through to the bottom of the drift pile and with a little time still available in the day’s ration of Time To Work On Pens, I decided to see about applying myself to some of the Parker “51” cap problems I’ve been collecting in the past year or so.

There are now a quantity of Parker “51”s in the world whose caps are no longer dented, and I’m pretty pleased about this.  Involved in the remediation process for the dents is the complete disassembly of the cap, and as part of the process I was also moving cap jewels from one pen to another to ensure that the more attractive caps were complete.  It was in this pursuit that man’s old friend and great enemy came into play.

While I’m not above swapping bits about, as the previous paragraph and a recent entry indicate, I prefer where possible to keep all the original parts together.  In the case of one of the nicer caps, a gold-filled item with no hint of brassing on it, there was only the stub of the cap-jewel’s shaft in place.  In the “51”, you see, the clip is not held down by the jewel itself but by a brass screw.  The centre of this screw is tapped to allow a horribly thin threaded shaft on the underside of the jewel to be installed.  Frequently, when attempting to remove the jewel, this shaft breaks.  Since I was in a jewel-swapping mood, but not inclined to swap the screw (despite, as the sensible among you might point out, the screw being utterly invisible in the complete pen), that little stub had to come out.

There are a couple of ways to do this, but the quick way is to burn it out.  At least in earlier pens, and for no reason I can find I’ve never had a newer “51” than 1959, the jewel is made of celluloid.  Cellulose nitrate, that is, and that’s just gun cotton with a couple of extra ingredients.  What’s gun cotton?  Oh, just the propellant for the main battery guns on battleships.  While celluloid isn’t quite that reactive, it has a rather poor reputation in the area of flammability, and it’s why most modern pen-repair authorities suggest keeping open flames well away from the work bench.

…so I made very sure that all pens were secure in trenches and behind sandbags before I lit the candle on my work bench.  Frankly, I’m surprised how long the process took.  I held the screw over the flame (using pliers) for about thrity seconds before anything substantial happened.  That something makes me wish I’d had a video camera on at the time, as it took the form of a lateral puff of flame, roughly ten times the length of the stub’s diameter.  That diameter is only about 2mm, so no eyebrows were endangered but they were certainly raised.  More interesting was what was left behind.

Absolutely nothing.  No residue whatever was visible to the naked eye.  That’s a pretty impressive demonstration of why we don’t get our vintage pens near open flame; they might be erased entirely!

Today’s pen: Sheaffer Old Timer
Today’s ink: Herbin Bleu Nuit

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3 Responses to “Playing with Fire”

  1. Guess who, for about 3 years, sat about 8 feet from a map cabinet full of panoramic negatives made of this stuff?: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nitrocellulose#Nitrate_film

    And no, that library did not have suitable fire control equipment to hold it. At least it was all in very good shape (it can, on its own, degrade to the point where it will combust of its own will, given the right conditions).

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