Sunday, March 8, 2015

Seeking and using flexible nibs

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!"
Beware of the sellers who put out lavish photo displays and even videos trumpeting how wide a nib can open up. These typically show nibs being bent far beyond what they can sustain over the long term (the writing samples in our catalog are less dramatic, as they show writing with reasonable restraint). Flexible nibs can last a lifetime, but they can also be destroyed within weeks or even days if regularly pushed to their limits -- sprung (permanently deformed) or cracked or worse. The picture above is from an eBay listing; the caption links to a thread where the listing is discussed, and where a leading nib technician (along with others) openly expresses his dismay and concern. Signs of damage were already visible in photos of a similar nib on another pen simultaneously offered by the same seller, yet it was ultimately bid to over $500 -- a pen that most retail dealers would have priced at $80 to perhaps $150 at the most.

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.


sallywally said...

Thanks for that information, David. It's good to hear another point of view!

Andrea Kirkby said...

Glad to find someone challenging the 'wet noodle' orthodoxy and talking a bit of sense.

People who want big flex coupled with the advantage of not having to dip might be better off looking at Desiderata pens, or at Indian pens adapted to work with steel dip nibs, rather than ruining a good vintage gold nib.

That said, my best flexy nib of all came on an anonymous little black eyedropper taper cap pen with a split cap, one euro out of a big mug of pens on a junk stall. It's wonderful - as long as I remember to write s-l-o-w-l-y. Very slowly!

chrisrap52 said...

Excellent realistic discussion of flex. I am fortunate to have a large vintage collection that I am slowly restoring. Many early pens have a very soft nibs and generous feeds, necessary for the substantial ink flow full flex needs or it will rail road. I do enjoy these soft nibs. I also enjoy a smooth responsive soft modern nib. It is a very different writing experience. As mentioned, vintage flex writing requires a slow patient hand. Modern pens require much less effort & provide less line variation. I am glad to see interest in vintage flex. This renews interest in our hobby.

CS said...

True, I'm not huge fan of flex myself as most people don't have the proper patience or paper for it.