Esterbrook vintage pens

Esterbrook vintage pens DEFAULT

Both pens are unique and completely different. Besides the name, there are no similarities between them. The Estie is not a recreation of a vintage pen. It has basically no design elements in common with the LJ. I am glad I had both to compare.

The LJ, though a beautiful pen, is too thin for me to write with comfortably for any length of time. My meaty hands tend to cramp up, but for people with smaller hands, this may be the right choice. As a vintage pen, it occasionally misbehaved and spat out an inkblot, meaning that this pen was relegated to my desk to avoid jarring it too much. This limits my functionality and enjoyment as my currently inked pens live in my briefcase and get dragged from place to place with me.

The Estie was the other way; it was almost too big to write with comfortably for an extended period. It behaved well as any modern pen should, but I am not a fan of the very hard steel nib. I do like the style and feel that the tortoise colour makes this very modern pen feel like a vintage-inspired pen. Even though the colour is unlike any of the popular vintage pens that made Esterbrook famous.

Given the cost difference - a good vintage Esterbrook can be found in the USD$50-100 range while a new Estie is just under USD$200, it would be a tough choice. My recommendation would be to see each pen in person and try it out to see how it fits and feels in your hand. There are some other good gold-nib pens in the same price range as the Estie, which I would also consider if I was making another purchase. But my Estie is very pretty, and I am glad to add it to my collection.


Editor’s Note: I asked Jesi to write this post. “How to get started with Esterbrooks” is something I’ve wanted to write about for a long time but with someone as knowledgeable about Esterbrooks as Jesi on hand to do a far better job than I would, it made sense for her to do it. She wanted me to make it clear this was not a sales pitch to buy her pens even if I say “Buy her pens” because I do. No bias. Okay, maybe a little.

Thanks, Ana! A bit of a disclaimer — in order to keep this post to something that is useful to those who are not yet familiar with Esterbrook pens (or vintage pens in general), I have glossed over many of the fine details about the pen company.  In order to learn more about Esterbrook in the present, read this post.  If you want more details, please see the amazing by Brian Anderson including his page of links for further reading.

I am known for having a bit of an interest in Esterbrooks (understatement). I first became enamored with vintage pens when I realized how many fountain pens were available but unusable due to their condition.  I’ve always loved fixing and tinkering so I picked up some broken pens at a show; the rest is history.

Esterbrooks seemed to be present every time I looked for vintage pens that needed repair.  There are a few reasons for this; Esterbrooks were one of the most popular pens in the 1930s to 1960.  They were everywhere because they were inexpensive and sturdy; workhorse pens that were made to stand up to years of use. Esterbrooks that are sold now are anywhere from 60 to 90 years old, still ready to be used daily.

Most Esterbrooks on the market belong to the J series. They are easy to identify by the colors of the pen body (black, red, gray, green, copper or blue), the striated, swirled pattern and the clip.  Shown below is an Esterbrook J on the right with an earlier Esterbrook dollar pen on the left.  The J below on the right is also classified as a “transitional” pen, identifiable by the lack of a jewel on the bottom. This example includes a jewel with three ribbed lines and — Esterbrook was transitioning from the dollar pen to the iconic J pen.

Green variations in Esterbrooks

Now for size.  The J series contains three sizes, J, LJ, and SJ. The J is the standard pen, 5 inches long and 1/2 inches in diameter.  LJ pens are the same length as the J pen, but more slender at 3/8 inches in diameter.  SJ pens keep the slender diameter of the LJ pens, but they are shorter as well at 4 3/4 inches.  The photo below shows an SJ pen between two J pens.

Grey variations in Esterbrooks

Pencils and ballpoint pens were also a part of the series, below is the photo of a pencil in the center. Ballpoint Esterbrooks can be difficult to find; the refill for these pens was a proprietary refill only manufactured by Esterbrook.  Once the company stopped producing these, the pens were nearly useless other than collecting and I believe many were thrown out.  However, due to the ingenuity of John Hubbard, adapters are now available to make these useful again.  Read this post to find out more.

Brown color variations

You may also notice that the pen on the left in the photo above has a different pattern on the body.  This is called an icicle pen for the straight pattern of the striations.  Due to the rarity of this pattern, it is a more expensive pen and sought after by many collectors.  It’s not often you see pinstriped pens!

The final type of Esterbrook I will talk about here is the Purse pen, often called the Pastel pen.  The size on these pens is CH, as slender as the above SJ pen but shorter as well.  They were produced to be used by women and were sized to fit in a pocket or purse.  These pens were sold individually or as a set.  The Petit Pak refers to a set of matching fountain pen and pencil that included a plastic sleeve (shown below on the left).

Esterbrook Purse Pens in pastels and brights

The Purse pens were produced in two different series which can be identified by the color of their jewels.  Those with black jewels were made between 1954 and 1957 and are true pastel colors; pink, peach, yellow, blue, aqua, gray, lilac, and white. The second series of Purse pens were not actually pastel colors.  They have jewels that (usually) match the color of the pen; Trianon pink, Aloha Yellow, Country Green, Peacock Blue, Tempo Red, and Arctic White.

Finally, the feature that set Esterbrook pens apart from most other pen companies at the time: the interchangeable nibs. Esterbrook produced many different styles of nib units that could be changed by the consumer; the nib units are removed by unscrewing and could be replaced by screwing in a new unit.  These units were available at two different price levels, the less expensive solid Durachrome nibs (the red and white boxes below) and the more expensive Master series (green boxes below) that were tipped with iridium. Each series contained a wide variety of nib choices, including extra fine through broad, stub and italic, flexible nibs and rigid.  Any of the Esterbrook pens (except specific models that I won’t talk about here) could use any of the nib units.



Esterbrook Nibs

I hope this guide has been helpful to anyone looking to start into the vintage pen world; I always say that Esterbrooks are a great way to dive into vintage pens and among the least expensive vintage pens to purchase.  Let me know if you have any questions in the comments below!

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The Esterbrook J (and close relatives)

(Ron Gilmour is a fountain pen enthusiast, would-be calligrapher, and librarian. You can find him online at Twitter @gilmour70 and Instagram.)

If there is a Lamy Safari of the vintage fountain pen world, it would probably be the Esterbrook J. Like the Safari, it's inexpensive, comes in a variety of attractive colors, and has easily swappable nibs.

The pen's name comes from the shape of the internal piece that depresses the ink sac when the lever is moved. There are three size variants of the J: the classic J (the largest), the LJ (a bit thinner), and the SJ (both thinner and shorter). You'll also sometimes see models referred to as "transitional," which are basically like the J, but with a slightly different shape and no jewel at the back end of the pen barrel.

(Vocabulary note: "Jewel" refers to ornamental bits at the top of caps or the back end of the pen barrel. They are often strikingly un-jewel-like, as in the Esterbrook J, where they are discs of black plastic.)

This may be a good opportunity to mention something about sizes in vintage pens: they may be smaller than what you're used to. While there were oversize pens produced in Days of Yore, these were less common and so will be more expensive now. Many vintage pens fall in the size range of the Pelikan M2xx/4xx models, which is about the size of the Esterbrook J. If you're used to the larger end of the modern pen spectrum, you may be surprised by the small size and light weight of Esterbrooks and many other vintage pens.

The design of the pen is basic, maybe a little bland, but the celluloid of which they are made is beautiful. The black model looks like most black pens, but the colored ones are amazingly complex, exhibiting depth, vibrancy, texture to rival many far more expensive modern pens. The colors vary a lot. Saying that you have a green Esty isn't saying much: depending on factors either intrinsic to the original manufacture or the storage conditions in which the pen was kept, the greens can vary from sage to pale mint to olive. And the patterning of the material can vary, even on the same pen, from a smooth streakiness to a pronounced rippled appearance sometimes called "snakeskin."

Buying an Esterbrook

These may be the most plentiful vintage pens out there, so you shouldn't have any trouble finding one. Keep an eye on the classified sections of fountain pen websites. If you get impatient, you might even try your luck on an online auction site--just remember to buy from actual pen dealers.

The main thing you'll want to be clear about with a purchase is the condition of the sac. Assuming you're not looking to get into pen repair as a hobby, you'll want a pen in which the sac has been recently replaced, ideally by the person who is selling you the pen. Ink sacs break down and you don't want to find that your new-to-you Esty is full of crunchy bits of ossified sac material and dried ink.

Filling Your Esterbrook

The Esterbrook J and its relatives are lever fillers. There's a little lever on the outside of the pen body. When you open the lever, the "J bar" inside the pen squeezes the sac and air is forced out through the nib. When you return the lever to its flush position, the ink sac is released and re-inflates, drawing in ink.

All you need to do is stick the nib in a bottle of ink, making sure that the entire nib is submerged. Open the lever (you should see or hear bubbling as air is forced out). Now close the lever, leaving the pen in place for a few seconds to allow time for the ink to be drawn up. Repeat this process to get a more complete fill. Wipe off the nib and grip section with a paper towel and you're ready to write.

Cleaning your Esterbrook

Thanks to the removable nib units, Esterbrooks are easier to clean than many other sac-filling pens. If you're a patient person, you can submerge the nib in water and pump the lever gently until the water comes out clean. If you're more thorough or less patient, you can remove the nib unit and rinse out the inside of the sac directly. You might try using a blunt syringe to shoot water into the sac, but, of course, don't poke the sac.

About Those Nibs

You know how you might go into a coffee shop and order something like a full-fat, half-caf, hazelnut latte with an extra shot of vanilla? (Not my thing, but I've seen people do this.) Customization is fun! You're not just ordering a generic cup of Joe--you're ordering this highly specialized drink that you experience as uniquely yours.

Esterbrook figured out this customization thing long before Starbucks. Their interchangeable "Re-New Point" nibs come in dozens of varieties, tailored to specific purposes. They even offered nibs specifically for use with the Gregg shorthand system of writing. The nibs are all steel, but for the most part are of high quality. I've heard of duds, but since new ones are so readily available, even if you have the bad luck of getting an Esty with a bum nib, you can replace it fairly cheaply.

The nib types are designated by four digit numbers. There are patterns to these codes, but I've never bothered to learn them. Just look them up on a chart like this one. The common nib types, like the 2556 "firm fine" on my copper J, are often available for under $10 US, while more exotic nib types like flex and stub nibs can be more expensive.

The nibs work a lot like those on modern Pelikan pens. The nibs and feeds are assembled into units, so you can just screw out the whole nib/feed assembly and screw in a new one. As you do this, grip the nib firmly near the base to avoid twisting the tines.

Further Reading

Esterbrook Estie


Vintage pens esterbrook


Vintage Esterbrook L J Fountain Pen Review


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