The Fountain Pen Doctor

Richard Binder admits to having poor handwriting, but he’s working to develop a “legible but still characterful sloped script.”

After bailing out of the computer industry, Binder became a full-time fountain pen doctor, meaning he repairs and restores fountain pens. His small family business charges anywhere from $20 to well into three figures for pen restoration – more often than not, ones of high sentimental value. The pens come from everywhere: New Zealand, South Africa, Japan. Work on a single pen may take anywhere from ten minutes to several hours. Once restored, its nib – the point through which the ink flows  – should glide over paper like an ice skate. (The same cannot be said of ballpoint pens, he aptly notes.)

“I’m not changing the world in any big way, but I am making a better world one pen at a time, and that’s a good thing to do,” Binder says. “People send me their toys and pay me to play with them. It doesn’t get any better than that.”

Age: 65
Based out of: Nashua, New Hampshire
Has repaired pens for: About 15 years
Previous jobs: Mechanical drafting and tool design; technical illustration; computer engineering

Do you employ a staff? My wife, Barbara, manages the business while I work on pens. We have one assistant and one shipping person who are each here two days per week.

What do you do at work all day? I personally test and adjust every pen or nib we sell. When I’m not preparing pens we’ve sold for shipment, I’m repairing and restoring pens, or answering customer emails.

What’s a nib? The front part of a fountain pen that actually does the writing. It’s usually made of gold or steel.

Do you work a typical 9-to-5 five-day workweek? Yes, with a half hour for lunch.

Briefly describe the pen restoration process to a newbie. It varies from pen to pen, but the general run involves disassembly, cleaning, restoring the filling system, reassembly, adjustment to write well, and a little polishing. Most pen collectors prefer that their pens be in as close to new condition as possible.

How many pens do you restore on a regular basis? We have served several thousand people in more than 60 countries. We do a lot of business with Australia and New Zealand.

Price per pen restoration: It depends, but standard restoration is $35. Repairing major damage can sometimes reach three figures.

That seems more expensive than just buying a new pen. True, but sentimental value drives many of our sales. A grandfather’s cherished pen doesn’t have a dollar sign in front of it.

Is your office teeming with pens? My “office,” which we refer to as the pen studio, is in a converted bedroom. My pen collection is confined to a 12-drawer metal map chest in the pen studio.

Watch:

How many pens are in your collection? About 400, since I started my collection in 1998, but I haven’t counted for some years.

Best part of the job: After I’ve sent a particularly challenging family heirloom pen home, I sometimes receive a heartfelt thank-you note, which I love. Pens are truly avenues to people.

Most challenging part of the job: Getting up in the morning. (Laughs.) Working in my home makes getting out of bed necessary, but still not fun. In terms of pens, one of the greatest challenges is coming up with a way to repair a type that I’ve never seen before.

Why fountain pens? My son-in-law discovered eBay and dragged me in. (Laughs.) Pens are a marvelous part of history and technology. It’s the most personal accessory you can own; it’s a means to express yourself in a purely unique way. When you write with a fountain pen, it assumes the characteristics that your hand puts into it.

The Parker 51 fountain pen, which was developed in 1939, is considered by most collectors to be the finest pen ever made.

If you could bring one pen with you on a desert island, which would it be? The Parker “51” (see left).

What do you attribute your success to? At least partially due to the fact that I embarked on this business later in life. Both my wife and I were better prepared for it than many owners of other startups are.

Where do you see yourself in 10 years? Our business is growing rapidly, so we’re going to be closing down the restoration side and concentrating exclusively on sales and customizing purchased pens. I’m also looking into offering summer camps and master classes in pen repair and restoration.

So iPads and mobile devices aren’t putting pens out of business? I think iPads tend to isolate us from others. One way to get back in touch with one another is through writing. As far as I can tell, the number of fountain pen users is climbing.

Do you own an iPad or tablet? I have a laptop, which I use because of time constraints. But I write notes all the time by hand.

LAUNCHING YOUR CAREER>>
Learn to repair insignificant pens before taking it on as a career. If you jump into it and you’re not very good, you’ll ruin thousand-dollar pens.  You must be very passionate about pens and be willing to work at it part-time, as most pen repair-people are paid very poorly. I repaired pens part-time for three or four years before taking a buyout and going full-time.

For more on Richard Binder’s pen restoration, visit RichardsPens.com. For more pen-wielding No Joe Schmos, check out the CollegeHumor.com editor.

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