Chris Thompson made this promise to himself 35 years ago when he received a beautiful hand made pen as a gift. His hobby and passion has tuned into quite a busy production. Today Chris and his wife Julie often exhibit at many U.S. pen shows and are well known among vintage and modern pen collectors. Chris produces faithful reproductions of classic pens from the Golden Years and now introduces his own newly designed Thompson Pens.
The Reasons I Turn Replicas--An Essay!
by Chris Thompson
Some of the reasons I have for making "replica" samples of past production pens are as follows. There will be those who do not agree with my motives and who would like for me to redirect my efforts to only making pens of my own design and namesake. That day may come in the future.
A little history...35 years ago, I was given a pen that had been turned out of wood. Even the pocket clip was fashioned by hand. The ink refill was made by the Bic Pen Company. I still have that work of art, and I prize it highly. I mused to myself, "One day, I want to own a lathe and turn beautiful writing instruments." Years went by before I invested in a lathe. Then, in 1996, I received a wood-turner's supply catalog in the mail. It contained several pages of supplies which supported the "kit-pen hobby". My dream of turning pens was greatly facilitated because Mr. Jim Heusinger (of Berea Hardwoods Co., Inc. and a vintage pen collector himself) was importing kit-pen parts by the millions and distributing them to crafts persons through retail outlets.
As I began showing individuals the pens I was turning, they told me about old fountain pens that they or other members of their families owned. Word spread that I liked pens, and little-by-little, I began to collect most every fountain pen I came across. Being the mechanical person I am, I began experimenting with repair. In less than one year, I had obtained over 1,000 pens and had attempted to restore all of them. Many of them were broken beyond repair, or shortly thereafter!, given the fact that the pen repairman learning curve is somewhat lengthy and fraught with failed attempts. Needless to say, my parts bins were ever increasing in numbers of parts.
My favorite pens to work on were the Parker Senior Duofolds. The first Senior Duofold I collected was a Senior Mandarin yellow, sold to me by a little ole' church lady for $325. I had heard of Frank Dubiel's repair book by then, and I had obtained a copy. Following his instructions to the letter, I quickly got out my oil lamp and began heating the barrel so that I could "safely" remove the section. In very short order, I received an education in how close one should *not* hold early plastic pens to open flame! Fires fueled by early plastics tend to be violent! I still have *some* parts of that Mandarin Yellow pen.
Dr. Richard Barbee lives in my city, and he became a dear friend and mentor. My pen repair capabilities improved dramatically under his tutelage. He had 32! Mandarin Yellows in his collection plus a drawer full of parts so he became a great resource of pen parts. His collection of near 10,000 pens plus thousands of parts inspired me beyond measure.
The major frustration I had with my collecting, was not the locating of old pens but rather what to do with the mounting number of parts. I remember the day in 1998 when the thought came to me, "Why don't you take some of those parts and marry them to new caps and barrels since the old caps and barrels were damaged beyond repair?" I knew that if I were going to do that project, I would want the new caps and barrels to mechanically match the original ones as closely as possible. Aside from my everyday profession, as a clergyman, I hold a doctorate in the Administration of Vocational/Technical Education and had completed extensive research on the subject of work ethics--in fact, that was the subject of my doctoral dissertation. With this background, I had two objectives: One, build mechanically correct pens. Two, don't try to pass them off as something they are not--original pens.
The next day, I took three Parker Senior Duofold pens to the machinist gauge shop and had the thread patterns evaluated. Interestingly enough, none of the three were the same. That meant, in machinist's terms, that according to today's machine shop standards, two of the sample pens would not have passed a "go" or "no-go" gauge test. An interesting assumption can be made from this observation. Originally, Parker Pen Company probably had several production lines, and each pen remained in line until it was finished. Each production line would have had its own tooling, and none of them were exactly alike. My guess would be that each lathe operator made his/her own set of cutters. Given the slight differences in each pen that I took to be measured, we did the math and decided to order taps and dies that divided the extremes of the three pens' thread patterns. One thousand dollars later I had a set of taps and dies with which I could efficiently duplicate caps, barrels, blind caps, and barrel end caps.
Now came the second question I had to wrestle. Would anyone construe my work to be an original product of the Parker Pen Company? I asked this question to three attorneys. All three answered me with basically the same answer which I paraphrase, "Parker Pen Company could object in order to protect its ownership of its patent and trademark if your work is perceived as a threat or cause for loss against the company." These professionals did not write me a formal legal opinion, but rather suggested I place a "mark" on each pen, not to protect me from possible litigation, but rather to inform the purchaser that this is not a product "in whole" of the Parker Pen Company. They also spoke with me about the power of public perception over time. When I asked what they meant, they explained that if the pens that I turn are sold to the public and displayed to the public for a period of time, and the general response toward them is positive rather than negative, my pen production would not likely be formally challenged.
With this information dealt with in my mind, I decided to turn a few pens, and with them, test reactions. In 1998, I heard that there was a Pen Show in Kansas City, Kansas. My wife Julie and I loaded up about 100 kit pens and my handful of replica Parker Senior Duofolds plus another 100 or so vintage pens, and we drove to Kansas City. I learned three things during the first few minutes of that show. The first, I learned the meaning of a vintage pen "feeding frenzy". Second, kit pens were of no interest to vintage pen collectors. Third, there was major interest in my replica Parker Senior Duofold pens.
Julie and I came home and developed a web site, joined the Zoss Pen List, and the rest has been fun, educational, and much hard work.
What I have sought to do through my pen-making is to give honor to Parker Pen Company and others for pen design that have stood the test of time and use. The intention to defraud any pen company or any individual through what I do has never even been a consideration. Fraud, however, always has its servants. There are those who try to build duplicates of a market design and then represent them as something they are not, to those who tell little ole' ladies who come to pen shows with family heirlooms that their pens are basically worthless because, "condition is everything". They then purchase them for a few dollars and turn right around and inflate the price to market standards and realize huge profits. My guess is, that like the old Proverb, "there is none that is without sin, no not one" fits the pen-collecting community just like it does the rest of society.
Julie and I plan to keep on making our pens and offering them for sale. Some of our pens will be our own design, and will carry our own name. Others will be duplicates of proven designs. You can rest assured that each design that we create or replicate will bear our "mark". If the purchaser decides to misrepresent our work by altering it in some way, that is a real dishonor to the pen community. My mother, Bertha, always told me, "Chris, be sure your sins will find you out." Guess what? I bear the marks of many wrong decisions that I have made during my 55 years. She was right!
Conclusion-- Why do I turn pens? One cannot imagine how fulfilling it is to go to the shop with a piece of rod stock and a few parts and eight hours later, walk out with a tool that is as beautiful, useful, appealing to the senses, and powerful as a fountain pen can be.
With what else could I place on record for all time the momentary wish of my soul?
In most cases the Parker nib and feed is original. In every case the Sheaffer nib, feed, section, pocket clip, and lever are vintage.
© text and photos 2003 Chris Thompson
Some examples of custom pens from 2003
Chris and Julie Thompson