Sheaffer Touchdown and Snorkel Fountain Pens

Touhdowns, Snorkels and Tip-Dips

A bit of general info about these pens first, before we get on to our actual museum exhibits…

What Are They?

Sheaffer Saratoga Snorkel - Cap On

They’re fountain pens – a pen with a nib, that carries its own supply of ink within the barrel. The interesting part about these Sheaffer pens is the mechanisms they use for filling with ink. This was the days before cartridges, and even now there are plenty of reasons to prefer non-cartridge pens (or at least use a converter with a cartridge pen so you can use bottled ink).

Why Are They Interesting?

Those filling mechanisms. Very early fountain pens could be opened, and you’d use an eyedropper to fill the barrel with ink, then close the pen up again. The pen would store a lot of ink, and if part of it was made clear, you could see how much. Some people still prefer this type for these very reasons. Most people, though, didn’t want to mess about with an eyedropper. The most popular solution, especially in the earlier days, was a rubber sac, with a lever or other mechanism to squeeze it. Squeeze it over the ink, dip the whole of the nib in, and release. The sac would pull itself back into shape, and fill up with ink. Wipe the nib and bottom of the feed clean, and you’re done.

Touchdown

First, Sheaffer didn’t like the lever part – too fiddly. Then introduced the Touchdown mechanism. You unscrewed the top of the barrel to release it, pulled it up with the pen over the ink, dipped the whole nib in, and pushed the touchdown tube back down into the barrel. Inside, the tube compressed the air inside the pen, deflating the sac, which then reinflated, drawing in the ink.

Snorkel

With the Snorkel, though, Sheaffer took things a step further, and eliminated the dipping of the nib entirely.

As you unscrew the top of the pen’s barrel, the part that holds the sac is screwed down inside the pen. A long metal tube is attached to the bottom of this part, and pokes out through the middle of the nib. When you finish unscrewing the top of the barrel, the Snorkel tube is extended right past the end of the nib. Now, you operate the pen just like a Touchdown, except only the end of the Snorkel tube has to be dipped in the ink. Once it’s had a few seconds to slurp up the ink, you screw the top of the barrel back down, and the snorkel withdraws back into the pen. No wiping is needed.

Snorkel tube in…

Sheaffer Saratoga Snorkel - Nib Underside - Snorkel In

…and out…

Sheaffer Saratoga Snorkel - Nib Underside - Snorkel Out

There are two trade-offs in return for this wipeless action…

  • You can’t see the ink level – the sac isn’t see-through, and it’s encased in a metal sac guard anyway.
  • Low ink capacity – because the whole sac section has to wind up and down inside the pen, it can’t be very big.

Because of these factors, you’ll end up filling a Snorkel pen more often than you would with most others. Fortunately, the squirty action is so much fun that that’s not such a bad thing 😉

Tip-Dip

The Tip-Dip is really a cross between the Touchdown and the Snorkel. Rather than the tube the Snorkel uses, that winds up and down, there is a tunnel through the middle of the feed, that comes out just before the end of the nib. With this, you still have to dip the nib, but only the lower half. You don’t have to cover the whole nib in ink, and you don’t end up with the section (where your fingers grip when writing) covered with ink. It’s not quite the neatness of the Snorkel, but it’s a lot cheaper to make, and it’s cleaner than the standard Touchdown.

History

The Snorkel range, including the Saratoga was introduced in 1952, and was produced until 1959. Despite the complexity of the mechanism, there are plenty of working examples around. Touchdowns were around before the Snorkels came along, but also ran alongside them. After the Snorkel pens disappeard from the range, Touchdown models remained. There was even one late model where the Touchdown part itself was removable, and could be replaced with a cartridge to make the pen into a cartridge filler – effectively, the touchdown part was a converter.

Our Exhibits

Sheaffer Saratoga Snorkel - Clip

Sheaffer Touchdown - Cap and Clip

  • Touchdown in Black: This one worked straight away, but the nib was quite damaged. I had a go at regrinding it using a knife sharpening block and a nail file with surprisingly good results. I wouldn’t recommend it, but since the nib was scrap anyway, there wasn’t really anything to lose.

Getting One

They’re fairly readily available. You can pick them up on eBay, but beware that if they haven’t been tested, they don’t always work. Of the three I’ve bought that way, two have worked ok, but one of those had a damaged nib. It’s a cheap way of getting them, but you may end up with a broken one, and you may have to pay someone to fix it – or learn to do it yourself.

eBay

These are affiliate links, so if you find your pen this way, and successfully bid, we’ll get a little payment from eBay, and we’ll be very grateful…

Elsewhere

Here in the UK, Andy’s Pens usually has a few Touchdowns and Snorkels for sale, and considering they’ve been freshly cleaned up and serviced, and you know they’ll work, the prices aren’t bad. There are also people on eBay who give the pens a full service before selling them on, but if they don’t say they’ve done it, they won’t have done. People do similar things in other countries, too – ‘vintage pens‘ is probably a good search to start with.

2 thoughts on “Sheaffer Touchdown and Snorkel Fountain Pens

  1. Hello, I hope you can answer a question I have about a vintage pen. In the mid 1960s, while in grade school, we were required to use a fountain pen that had a see-through plastic barrel that held a refill ink cartridge. Refills came in a box of 5 or 10 ink cartridges. I have no idea what brand it is, but would love to get one again just for the fun of it. Do you know what brand of pen I described and where I could find one? Thanks, mc

  2. Hi Mark,

    I’m afraid that doesn’t sound like much to go on. Many of the ‘school pen’ brands disappeared, and even if the brand is still alive, it’s unlikely they’d be making the same pens.

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