The Super-Flex and the Nail

When I came back to fountain pens it wasn’t long before I found flex and I loved it.  It made my handwriting look good and it gave an extra dimension to writing.  For years I wouldn’t use anything else and I was one of those who sneered at inflexible nibs and called them nails.  Of course I didn’t know what I was talking about, a situation I have often found myself in.  The reality was that I didn’t write much in those days.  Some correspondence, over which I could take my time and make the most of the line variation and the shading.  The word got out that I could write moderately well and I did invitations and place settings.  Then I took a couple of university courses.  I found that my usual flexible pen just wouldn’t allow me to write at the pace I needed for note-taking.  I refused to invest in a ‘nail’, of course, but I had a Conway Stewart 388 that was semi-flexible and I persevered with that.  It worked but it was far from perfect for the purpose.  Someone gave me a Rotring pen, a heavy ugly thing with a rigid nib.  We had an end-of-year exam and I stuck a few pens in my pocket as an insurance policy.  I had a lot of writing to do and very limited time to do it in.  For some reason I tried the Rotring and it flew.  With the right pen – which in this case was the Rotring – I’m a fast writer.  I got all my ideas down in the examination booklet.  I came away very pleased with this pen that I had hardly considered before.

I write a lot now.  All the posts that appear here are first hand-written.  I write an equal amount in another blog that I do.  I have better tools than the Rotring pen now and I enjoy the challenge of writing well, or at least legibly, at speed with a fine nib.  I still have flexible pens and I still enjoy writing with them but they are not my everyday  writers.  Prove me wrong if you will but I don’t think that it’s possible to write at high speed with a very flexible nib.

Of course that doesn’t mean that I like all firm nibs.  Many are utterly characterless.  Those ball-shaped lumps of tipping material make for an unpleasant writing experience.  They appear on many modern pens but strangely enough some Mentmores as far back as the forties had that lump of iridium, too.  Very rigid nibs with tips polished so smooth that it feels like writing on glass don’t suit me either.  I like a little feedback.  I have one or two modern pens that work well for me and some older ones, too.  There’s a Swan with a fine Eternal nib that I love and use a lot.  I have a 1950s English Duofold with a fine, springy nib that I enjoy.

For the simple practicality of getting my work done, those fine firm pens are always in my pen pouch.  There’s another incidental benefit:  They’re cheaper than similar pens with flexible nibs.  The fountain pen world has gone slightly mad over flexibility.  If a pen has a nib that shows line variation, it’s suddenly worth much more.  I see sales sites online with flexible pens at very high prices.  At times it seems that that is the only thing people want from vintage pens and they ignore all the other aspects that make them so attractive to me.

Though they have a long way to go before they will equal the flexibility of the old Swans, Watermans or Wahl Eversharps, some manufacturers are making a real effort to produce flexible nibs.  More power to their elbow!  I look forward to a time – and I’m sure it will come – when those who want flexibility can buy a new pen at a reasonable price that will fulfill that requirement.  Then, perhaps, will end the ridiculously inflated prices that flexible vintage pens are fetching today, and we may return to a situation where people buy vintage pens for their beauty, age, historical significance and technical wizardry, not just because the nibs bend.


10 thoughts on “The Super-Flex and the Nail

  1. For some reason I have always preferred “nails”. I guess it’s because I put too much pressure on flexible nibs. I tried a copperplate nib on the osmiroid 65 and I think I destroyed it. Everyone is different. 😁

    1. I like nails. It’s possible to learn not to press down. It takes a bit of work but it can be done. I didn’t have to do it myself because it was one of the few bad habits I didn’t have, but I’ve known others who have successfully developed a good fountain pen hand.

  2. Looking at some eight or ten purpose made shorthand pens, they mostly have medium firm nibs lacking any flex – which probably confirms the fact that you can’t write quickly with a flexible nib. Time was I wrote Pitman’s using an HB pencil, so can’t comment on how a f.p. might perform.
    It’s true that nails are coming in for a lot of flack – probably in the main from people who don’t need to write in a commercial sense, and have the luxury of writing at a leisurely pace.
    It’s possible that the most difficult nibs are the fine firm tips – somehow fine writing draws attention to poor hand skills more than any other nib – for me anyway they make for a lack of artistry in the end result.
    Broader nails can at least give some thick and thin strokes which makes for slightly more attractive words – but suspect that it’s simply writing too quickly that ruins the hand, and this quickness is a habit that’s nigh on impossible to avoid after decades of ‘being in a hurry’.
    All the fault of the biro you know:-)

    1. You’re right about fine firm nibs showing up all the faults of your writing. That’s part of the reason why I enjoy them so much – I love the challenge. I also try to maintain good writing while writing fast. I don’t always succeed but sometimes I do.

  3. Modern flexible nibs are priced at even more ridiculously inflated prices than vintage flexibles and not as good. For now, give me a good vintage flex any time.

    1. I don’t think that’s true, Aileen. The Namiki Falcon is quite expensive but if you go to, the main site for vintage flex, you will see that those pens are very much more costly. The various Noodler’s pens are quite cheap. As I said in my blog post, those modern pens are not as flexible as the old ones but the point is that they’re getting there.

      I agree that vintage flex is better but it sounds to me as if you missed the point I was making.

  4. don’t see why you should be given one – the rest of us have to buy ours :-):-)
    Since there appear to be a fair number of flex. nibs still around – which originated in the ’20s – ’30s ………… then presumably they were common enough during that period to suggest that they were popular. Since we know they are slower to write with, this implies that writing for many people was definitely at a slower pace, which is indicated by examples of period handwriting that looks attractive, and made doubly so by joined up cursive.

    1. I think you’re right about the slower pace. Quality of writing was what was demanded – though I expect that the bosses wanted a good amount of work done too. If you ever search through old wills, done in the days before typing came along, the writing is very beautiful. It was done by copyists and they were paid by the word.

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