Monday, December 21, 2015

Up Close and Personal

This lot of forty mechanical pencils showed up in an online auction, from the same seller who has sold me several other pigs in a poke – with great success, I might add:

There were several pencils in here that I thought looked very interesting, and I’ll be writing about them in the coming weeks, but my eyes were riveted to just one of them:

That Vacumatic pencil in the upper right corner looked just a little bit more red than a typical burgundy example.  The stripes looked a little wider than I’d expect to see, too, and the rings looked a little crooked.  I was confident from that tip – with the telltale ring around it – that it was a legitimate Parker and not some foreign knockoff.  What I was hoping it would be was a “Ripley Vacumatic,” like the example Joe Nemecek owns and I wrote about here a couple years ago, at

When I wrote that last article, I didn’t do a very good job of it: there were a lot of questions I didn’t answer, many I didn’t ask and unfortunately, at the time it was a direct result of my general lack of interest in the subtle nuances of Vacumatic pencils.  When I showed these fuzzy pictures to my friends online, one of them commented – and rightly so – that I wouldn’t know for certain whether this one was a Ripley until I was “up close and personal” with it.

Spoiler alert: it’s a Ripley.  And now that I’ve spent some time examining these in more detail, and comparing notes with Joe Nemecek, I’m able to articulate what a “Ripley” is and how easy they are to spot in a sea of Vacumatics.  No, they don’t all look alike.

Here she is, after restoration:

I should have taken before pictures, but I was too excited to dig into making this one look nice and work.  I cleaned it up, straightened the clip (which had a decidedly left bend) and fixed the mechanism, which had skipped the track and was jammed in the forward position – see the tutorial I wrote a few weeks ago regarding how to fix a stripped mechanism (  A paper clip pushed against the rod while I jiggled and retracted the mechanism, and it eased back into the spiral and works perfectly.  Good thing I didn’t have to pull the mechanism out and risk breaking the barrel – especially one made from such a fragile plastic!

Unlike most Parker Vacumatics, this one is not a rear-drive pencil.  It has a nose drive mechanism and unscrews in the center:

Note the very atypical imprint for a Vacumatic:

And the black top jewel – Vacs this big of a later vintage had matching striped celluloid top jewels, but Ripleys had plain black ones (a good thing, too: can you imagine trying to track down a striped Ripley plastic top jewel?):

Ripleys are pretty easy to spot, once you know what you are looking for.  Here it is shown alongside a typical “first year” burgundy example:

There’s five things to notice here, and the first three were what led me to think this might be a Ripley from a really bad picture.  Note how much redder the Ripley’s stripes are, how much wider they are, and how crooked they are.  The other two outward indications are the huge tip at one end and a different clip at the other – look how much shorter the “feather” section is on the clip.

Now I do have to stop for a minute and be a little critical of collectors’ lore on the subject.  We are told that “Ripley” Vacumatics got their nickname from Parker’s 1933-1934 advertising campaign, featuring mock “Ripley’s Believe it or not” cartoons extolling the virtues of the new pens, and picturing pens which look sort of like these.  Yes, it’s true that there was such an ad campaign – but no, the pens that were pictured didn’t look like they were made from the same plastic.

These look more like the typical, later burgundy plastic I’ve compared to my Ripley above.  However, the lore isn’t completely flawed: there is something in these advertisements to tell us what makes a Ripley a Ripley:

Later production Vacumatics used stacks of opaque black plastic and colored celluloid everywhere but on the visulated portion of the barrel, where the colored celluloid was alternated with clear plastic.  The “Ripley” pens and pencils used the same celluloid from end to end - and the “black” stripes would be see-through when held up to the light.   The only definitive way to see if a pen or a pencil is a Ripley is to expose it to bright light and see if you can see through the plastic, which should be a translucent blue.

My pencil, unlike later Vacs, lacked the brass tubes glued inside the barrel, so it was easy to put a small LED light inside for the definitive diagnosis:

There you have it.  That’s the acid test (no, never really use acid) to determine whether a pen or pencil is properly called a “Ripley” Vacumatic.

All of this being said, and bearing in mind that there aren’t very many of these to which I can compare mine, I think the first three clues that tipped me off -- deeper red, stripes that are wider and stripes that are crooked – are enough to tell you that you’re going to see blue when you hold it up to the light.

The light test is just pretty cool.

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