I regularly receive requests for vintage pens with flexible nibs. Demand for flex nibs has spiked in the last few years, with buyers on eBay bidding up $40-60 pens to the $400-600 range if equipped with nibs of sufficient flexibility -- though primarily certain pens, from certain sellers.
Luckily, vintage pens with flexible nibs can still be had for far less. As noted in my recent post on the Waterman 52, most high-spending newcomers to vintage pens in search of flex seem to be chasing just a handful of models in just a handful of venues. Yet there is so much more that is available. Pre-1900 pens, including gold-nibbed dip pens, are often extremely flexible. Pens predating 1920 or so also often have very flexible nibs, so eyedropper-fillers and safety pens are likely candidates. For self-fillers (pens with a built-in filling mechanism), good flex-nib candidates of the same date range include Conklin crescent-fillers, Mabie Todds, Wahls, pre-Duofold Parkers, pre-Lifetime Sheaffers, and many others. If you really don't care about the pen, only the nib, buy the pen for the nib and swap it into a pen you like better. It's not difficult, and if you want someone else to do it for you, not costly.
eBay isn't currently the best place to look for pens with flexible nibs at a reasonable price. Regular pen sellers have found out that emphasizing a nib's flexibility can pay off hugely, so exaggeration of a nib's capabilities has become routine. Nonspecialists and infrequent pen sellers may neglect to describe a nib's writing qualities entirely, making a bargain possible but also making searching out a suitable nib that much more difficult and chancy. All in all, you are best off working with a vintage pens specialist whose grading of nibs you can trust, but whose focus is on pens rather than special nibs.
|"That poor nib! It's bleeding!"|
Aside from seller hype, the problem is that many flex-nib buyers are misinformed about what their favorite vintage nibs were designed to do. Even those nibs explicitly marketed for artists' work were intended to work within a rather restrained range of line width variation. The Waterman "Artist's Nib" has in recent years gained cult status as the ne plus ultra of flex, yet as the original instruction sheet above states, "Line widths range from filament width to 1/32 of an inch or more." That's nowhere near where the current crop of flex-nib aficionados are routinely pushing their nibs: 1/32" is just under 0.8 mm, and even though "or more" would seem to give an out, that "more" surely would still have been less than 1/16 of an inch -- 1.6 mm -- otherwise 1/16 is what Waterman would have written in the first place.
If you want a nib that will go from extra-fine to 2 mm or more, you may be best off with a very flexible steel dip nib. If you insist on a gold nib, that kind of line width variation simply cannot be sustained unless the nib is quite big, large enough that the tines don't have to be bent to an excessive degree to achieve the desired width. Perhaps the best solution is to learn to appreciate a more restrained degree of line variation: truly elegant effects can be had well under the 2 mm mark, and without risking an irreplaceable old nib.
Finally, a few comments about another recent cult object, the so-called "wet noodle". I've never much liked the expression, in that even the softest of super-flexible nibs should have a degree of springiness entirely absent from cooked pasta. Yet leaving that objection aside, the question remains why such extreme softness has become so sought after. A nib that opens up with next to no pressure can be difficult to control -- and at the same time, easy to damage. This was why, in times past, such nibs were recommended only for those who wrote with a very light touch, while calligraphers generally opted for nibs with a full range of flex but considerably more spring.