One of the tragedies of history is that we can't see things with the eyes of the past. No matter how much we learn about Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, we can't hear it with the ears of the Parisian crowd who rioted at its premier in 1913. Novelty, by definition, cannot be replicated.
This is the case for the Sheaffer Balance. When we see it today, it looks like a pleasant, but perhaps nondescript fountain pen. There are no hooded nibs or bizarre filling mechanisms. But when it debuted in 1929, the Balance was revolutionary, simply because it was pointy.
Torpedo-shaped pens are something we take for granted today, but early on, almost all fountain pens were flat-tops, or the ends were slightly rounded at best. With the gracefully tapered Balance, Sheaffer brought a new sleekness to the world of fountain pens.
For all the innovation of the design, the Balance is otherwise fairly traditional. Most are lever fillers. There's nothing unusual about the nibs. The materials, while lovely, don't necessarily stand out in a lineup of vintage pens.
The Balance debuted with a long clip that featured a full ball at the end and a sort of hump in the middle. Over time, Sheaffer modified the clip to make it more streamlined. The final version of the clip, called the "radius" clip, fits the streamlined aesthetic of the Balance nicely, but the early humped clips have a quirky charm.
As a modern user of vintage pens, you can think of the Sheaffer Balance (at least the lever-filling versions) as a solid everyday user, maybe an upgrade from an Esterbrook J.
Note: Sheaffer revived the Balance line with the Balance II in the late 1990s. This article is concerned only with the original Balance.
Buying a Balance
If you're shopping for a Balance, you'll need to consider size, material, and filling system.
As with many popular vintage pen models, the Balance was made in a variety of sizes, which varied both in length and girth. The slender models are quite thin and some may find them uncomfortable, so make sure you know the dimensions of the pen before you buy.
While all of the materials used for the Balance were once attractive, some of them haven't held up well over time. Two of the three materials with which the line was launched in 1929 have aging issues. The lovely jade green often darkens unevenly, while the "pearl" parts of the "pearl and black" models have mostly turned a peanut butter tan. Early Balance models not so afflicted will not be cheap.
Happily, there are some beautiful later materials that are quite common, especially the various longitudinally striated finishes like Marine Green, Grey Pearl, And Carmine.
In 1935, Sheaffer began using its "Vacuum-Fil" system on some Balance models. This filling system works like the modern TWSBI Vac models or the Pilot Custom 823. I recommend the lever fill pens over the Vacuum-Fil models, because the former are far easier to service. Repair of Vacuum-Fil Sheaffers is considered a specialty among pen repairers, so you may have difficulty getting one fixed if it develops a problem. That said, the Vacuum-Fil version does have the advantage of a greater ink capacity and, depending on the finish, an easier method of assessing the ink level in the pen.
Prices for the Balance range widely. I once picked up a slightly battered slender black model for $25 US. For a functional, but not pristine, full-size Balance in a common material, you can expect to pay about $100-175 US. Even the rarer and oversize models of the Balance don't generally bring the high prices of, say, rarer Parker Vacumatics. The Balance seems to top out around $500 US.
Filling a Balance
In terms of filling, the lever-fill Balances are no different than any other lever-fill pen. See this article on the Esterbrook J for detailed instructions.
To fill a Vacuum-Fil Balance, first unscrew the blind cap and pull the plunger back as far as it goes. Fully immerse the nib in the ink and then push the plunger back in. Wait a few seconds. Repeat this process to get a more complete fill. See Brian Goulet's video on filling the TWSBI Vac 700 for details on filling a similar pen. When the pen is filled, don't tighten the blind cap all the way down. Leaving it open a little will allow for better air exchange as you are writing.
Cleaning a Balance
Cleaning your Balance is just a matter of drawing water into the sac (in the case of lever-fill models) or the body (in Vacuum-Fil models) and expelling it repeatedly until the water comes out clean.
For users of vintage fountain pens, the Sheaffer Balance is a solid choice. They offer a wide variety of sizes and finishes, are readily available, and easily repaired (at least the lever fill versions). If you're new to the vintage pen world, the Balance would make a great introduction, or a step up from an Esterbrook J.
- Richard Binder's profile page on the Sheaffer Balance provides a wealth of information, including exact measurements for the various sizes and images of the materials.
- Richard Binder's Anatomy of a Fountain Pen V: Sheaffer's Vacuum-Fil