The Glorious Nail

When I began using fountain pens again as an adult, it was with a Sheaffer, a medium nib and hard as a rock. Then I discovered flex and delighted in it for a few years. My writing is about legibility rather than beauty but line variation covers a host of sins.

However, I was trying to improve my writing and that was never going to happen so long as I hid behind line variation. In any case I know my own limitations and I have no ambition towards calligraphy. I missed the challenge of writing well with a firm fine – or as well as I can! I bought my first firm fine as an experiment but it just felt right. I’ve kept one or two flex pens and I have a few broad stubs. They’re good for signatures and for addressing envelopes. Everything else is done with a fine or an extra fine. I’ve moved from the flex to the firm camp – which is great as it opens the door to wonderful pens: Duofolds, Summits, Mentmores and the whole range of Japanese pens, vintage and modern.

It’s strange how the value of nibs has changed. Many flex nibs from the twenties and thirties flexed because the manufacturers wanted to save money and did so by using very thin grades of gold. The firm pens like the Conway Stewart Duro or the Swan Eternal were the expensive, prestigious ones. Also they were in demand for carbon paper and to reduce the number of warranty claims for cracked nibs by the heavy-handed. Those splendid nibs are the ones I see described as ‘nails’!

The demand for the ultra flex nib is very high these days. So many people want a vintage ‘wet noodle’. It really is a pity that the pensmiths of the early twentieth century did not anticipate this change that fashion would take a century later! Such pens are very rare indeed. The pens I sell are mostly firm or semi-flexible with the occasional full flex but only very occasionally something could meet any description of a ‘wet noodle’. The really very, very bendy flexes don’t really occur much in British pens. The Whytwarth safeties can sometimes be an exception. I’ve had Onotos that were very flexible.

What concerns me is what will happen to the semi-flexible and fully flexible nibs I sell. I know that in many cases they will be over-stressed and in others such pressure will be applied in the search for extreme flexibility that nibs will be cracked.

In truth, very few – vanishingly few – fountain pens can achieve the line variation that many dip pen nibs show with ease. That may be the best, and by far the cheapest, way to achieve the flexibility that is fashionable today.

If all you want is a fountain pen with a nib that will show the occasional broad-line flourish while mostly writing as the nib was intended to do, that can be done provided a little mechanical sympathy is applied so as to avoid stressing the nib to the point where a century old nib has its life shortened abruptly.

4 thoughts on “The Glorious Nail

  1. Many thanks for another insightful post. I’m wondering whether the title of the post (“The glorious nail”) is a wink towards “The holy grail”, an expression regularly used by fountain pen aficionado’s to qualify “the ultimate flex nib” that seems to eternally elude them.

    I share your concern for those poor vintage pens when watching YouTube videos in which the owner proudly demonstrates how he (well, it’s mostly a man) mashes a nib to the point of snapping or permanently bending it.

    I doubt that flexible nibs produced in the 1920-1950 period were intended for Copperplate (or other scripts that include thick swells or heavy shading). It suffices to look at documents and letters written with a fountain pen during that period. I have yet to come across one that looks as if it had been written by Madarasz or Behrensmeyer. Ornamental scripts that include serious line variation are written with a steel dip nib.

    I believe that flexible fountain pen nibs should be used with care, especially when they are used for scripts (such as Copperplate, Spencerian, etc.) that are slanted to the right. As Mauricio Aguilar warns (see http://www.vintagepen.net/how-to-use-flex-nibs.html ), when being flexed on the downstroke, both nib tines must get the same amount of pressure. That is virtually impossible to achieve for a right handed person who writes at a 55° or a 52° right slant. That is why Copperplate and Spencerian are often written with an “oblique” nib holder. Unfortunately fountain pens are not available with an oblique section.

    I am an aficionado of flexible fountain pen nibs, but have given up on trying to make them produce “line variation”. When used at moderate pressure for normal-sized handwriting, such as a letter, any line variation is subtle at nest, and often hardly visible. But the best flexible nibs (Swan, Onoto, Waterman) when put under mild pressure feel like springs (Waterman advertised its famous pink nibs as being “as resilient as a watch spring”), which (for me) results in a quite pleasant writing feel.

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    1. Wise words, Hans, and we are in complete agreement. I enjoy writing within the movement of the spring of a pen like that. It indicates that you are employing just the right amount of pressure. With some Watermen pens from the 20s and 30s it takes no pressure at all.

  2. Very interesting article and well expressed. I have been using a fountain pen since, IIRC, 1959 and have always had one to hand for writing when legibility was important: numbers on everyday documents like orders, receipts, and the like. Reason? The embarrassment of getting 2 office chairs when you thought you had ordered a dozen reams of copy paper.

    It is only in the last couple of years that I have become interested in fountain pens for their own sake. It seems that the nibs best suited to my hand have some flex (or would that be softness) and ‘bounce’ rather than the chimerical ‘wet doodle.’ In all probability a fine italic with a little flex would be best. The flex helps my hand write rhythmically.

    While on the one hand I am very fond of the Parker “51”, on the other a recently acquired Parker (UK) Slimfold has a delightful soft nib. Your article has opened my eyes to a whole new world of possibilities, though Onoto is a favourite.

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