Smoothing and Unsmoothing Nibs

This subject arises from a discussion in the ever-entertaining Fountain Pen Geeks. I dislike a buttery-smooth nib. It feels slippery and imprecise to me. The problem is easily resolved with a moment on fine micromesh. The aim is a nib that grips the paper ever so slightly rather than skating over it. No roughness or scratchiness, just that absence of slipperiness is what is required. Most Pilot pens I’ve had are like that straight out of the box.

Others, of course, will go the other way, polishing their nibs to make them even smoother. The question – really an unanswerable question – that arises from this is, “were people so particular about their pens in the heyday of the fountain pen – say the 1940s?”

Unless some centenarian with a wide knowledge of how people used their pens back then appears, we will never know. We can speculate though. Most people would only have one pen, used for social and work purposes. Would they tolerate it being uncomfortable or unpleasant to write with? Would they have made an adjustment themselves as many of us do? There was a large fountain pen repair industry, everything from the local guy (or guyess) to the fountain pen manufacturing companies. I’m sure most of those technicians carried out all the repair work we do now. Would they have been surprised to be asked to unsmooth a pen? Is it just us modern snowflakes who are so sensitive about our pens?

What do you think?

14 thoughts on “Smoothing and Unsmoothing Nibs

  1. I know my old mum would buy pens, fill them and write a few lines; if she didn’t like them, they would be consigned to the bureau drawer of pen death. Every few years, that would be cleaned out, and any offenders would be headed for a landfill somewhere. Adult me looks back on these years with great sadness… because I learnt to recognise Parker, Waterman, and Sheaffer logos from what I saw on her desk.

    1. Paul, EEK ! Multiply that by a frightening number of folk doing the same thing …..and weep for the wonderful pens still lying buried out there somewhere.

  2. 1. Most pens (not all) were purchased from a place that could assure you walked out the door with the pen properly adjusted.
    2. The available abrasives were much different. There were adds for Parker 51 (if I remember right) that talked about them being tumbled with walnut shells to smooth them. In Frank D’s book the smoothing abrasive was “crocus cloth” – pretty rough compared with 12,000 Micromesh or 1.5micron diamond lapping film available today. The point is that my guess is that pens arrived with not quite the same butter smooth nib you can get with a little work.
    3. A single pen was used by most people – the reason you see “loaner pens” for repairs. Use one pen day in, day out, for a while and the nib will smooth itself.
    4. The paper was probably different. I don’t know this for sure, but my guess is that paper that wasn’t fountain pen friendly wouldn’t have much market.
    The result isn’t one way, just that it’s probably pretty difficult to compare.

    1. These are good points. With regard to the paper: remember that pencils were used much more then than now. My husband reports that when he was a child there was a rough pad and a pencil by the phone. His mother had a writing case with Basildon Bond for letters.

      The comment about pens “wearing in” is the source of another unending debate. From my own experience, dealing with thousands of vintage pens, I’m sure it would take an unacceptably long time to smooth from use.

      1. ….Deb, I must say, I haven’t had that many vintage pens across my desk. !!
        But I have a few old ones with a very specific ‘sweet spot’ that is super smooth and demands to be held exactly…so . ??

      2. Of course. That pen may have been used continuously for 20 years or more. That’s a very different matter from Mark’s suggestion that a scratchy or rough pen would be smoothed with use in an acceptable time. It takes a great deal of writing for tipping material to begin to show a sweet spot. I had one of those very cheap Chinese pens with tipping that was just stainless steel and it took a year of heavy use to develop a noticeable polish. Platinum group tipping is how many times as hard as stainless steel?

  3. Deb.
    One wonders to what extent the quality of paper impacted on the necessity to smooth a nib’s tipping in past times …

    However, according to the wording of much period advertising, it would seem that some lengths were gone to, to ensure that customers were completely happy with the characteristics of their new pen’s nib.

    And as you say, the number of highly skilled craftspeople ( guys and guyesses ! ) able to not only manufacture an amazing variety of nib combinations from scratch, but tune and repair them, would have ensured that everyone probably had access to a source of pen/ nib customisation.

    Of course, in the past, it could be seen as having been an everyday necessity, as were the pens themselves, rather than the affectation of a dwindling minority.

    Personally, I think it’s fair to say that we have become a virtual avalanche of ‘Modern Snowflakes ‘ 🤣 across multiple fronts.

    1. I accept your final point without reservation! I would think, as you say, that quality control must have been much better when the fountain pen was the primary writing instrument.

  4. It was a lovely old piece. The dealer’s described it as “Queen Anne, polished oak”, but it was just too big and heavy to make it to Canada. And yes, my mum would have been very happy with how it served the family in the end 🙂

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