Soggy Pasta Primervera

If you’re active in using or collecting fountain pens eventually you will hear the term “flexible”. It’s often used with reverence as when someone gushes “the pen has a nib that is flexible!!” Sometimes you hear such called “wet noodles” which causes no end of confusion as people not familiar with the term try to figure out how long to boil their pen to get it al dente. I’m pretty sure that most people who read this (all 6 or you) will know what a flexible nib is and what it does but that isn’t going to stop me from rambling on and giving a explanation on a kindergarten level. If you are schooled in flex about you might want to skip to the pictures.

Once upon a time skilled individuals created fancy documents with flowing, beautiful script. If you look at historic letters you can see that the lines which make up the letterforms flow in varying widths. For example, a line descending into a curve would become broader in a natural swelling that reminds one of a widening river. The same line usually pinches back to being narrow yet again while it moves along into another letter. One could think of it a bit like brush strokes in painting where more pressure creates a greater ink patch on the paper. However, we are talking about pens and not bristly things.

Mechanically the way it was accomplished is very easy to understand (even for me). Writing tips from the quill to our modern gold nibs have a slit down the middle to the point which directs the ink through capillary action to where you want it on the paper. The narrowest line a nib can make is the width of the point without any (well, hardly any) downward pressure on it.  If you bear down while writing the two sides of the slit, called tines, spread apart creating a wider contact area on the paper. The more pressure means the wider the gap, and thus a wider line. Eventually if the spread is too far apart there would be a loss of capillary action or ink flow which stops the line on the paper which is bad. That’s how it works, Q.E.D.!

So, why is flex so special then? Well, fountain pens today are less able to create line variation. This is because the nibs are thicker and stiffer so the tines don’t move apart much. There’s metallurgy involved as well but I’m not getting into that since its complex and I’m too stupid to fully comprehend it. Let’s just say chances are a modern pen will usually write a predictable line without much variation akin to ballpoints.

As stated this is a change from the past. Early on just about all fountain pens (like their dip pen predecessors) had nibs that would allow for a great deal of flexibility. The systems used to teach cursive or business writing took this into consideration and instructed on when and where to apply pressure to create the standardized but artistic writing styles. Still, for writing in small print for things like accounting there was a need for uniform, thin lines and less flexible points were available. With the advent of things like flimsies and carbon copies stiff nibbed pens become the norm since a firm, regular contact point on the substrate was necessary. To top it all off an inflexible nib is easier and requires less practice to use correctly.

This transformation started in the 30s and by the 50s the vast majority of pens had fine or medium nibs often described as being like nails since their strength would allow them to be driven into wood with no damage. At this time flexible nibs were for specialty uses and not very common.

So, now that we know what a flexible nib is let’s take a look at some I have on hand. Below you’ll see a gallery of 5 nibs that have this quality (click on them for the big view):

Many people use terms like “full-flex” or “semi-flex” to describe a nib’s ability to create the mentioned line variation. There’s no standardized system to measure this and unless the nib is marked this kind of label is based on trial and experience. Luckily, three of the pictured nibs are marked so we know they are officially flexible. The first two are the rather rare beast known as the Sheaffer Snorkel flexisaurus. OK, I made that last word up but you get the idea. You could obtain a wide number of different points on Snorks (16 were listed but when you consider that there were 5 different nibs designs you can imagine the variety) and a number were flexible. Determining if you have such a nib is easy and 100% foolproof if the lightly etched nib codes (in use to 1958, after that you’re out of luck) are still visible. Often these have been polished off by the friction from repeated wiping. In the pictures you can these codes and the meaning is listed in the caption.

The Eversharp nib seen is stamped “flexible” leaving nary a doubt about what it was born as. Rounding these out is a Moore nib that through use can be determined as flexible and an Onoto with a stub nib and the moves to make it at least a semi-flex.

Now that you’ve seen the nibs you might want to see them in action. Well, too bad! I’ve got zero skill in calligraphy and my hand writing looks like I’m three sheets to the wind. OK, I did do something in the way of a demonstration which is that I doodled and recorded it. So below is my first (and maybe last) attempt at being my own A.V. club and I hope you enjoy it.

[media width=”[media width=”540″ link=” height=”350″ link=”http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=89Q_dHfeJew”]

 

If the video isn’t enough for you for an encore I’ve got some writing samples for you to examine followed by an image of what the whole pens (not just the nibs) look like.

  1. October 26, 2009, 9:39 am

    Hahaha this is an absolutely FUN post. Great video, thanks! Enjoyed the music, too. Speaking of flex, the Swan has motivated me to practice my initials (the limits of my ability, haha). Leigh kindly shared links to a free tracing sheet from iampeth.org.

  2. TAO
    October 26, 2009, 9:57 am

    Mona: Glad you liked the video. The song I picked but the group was suggested by the same kindly person who shared the links with you. She told me about iampeth.org too and I’ve downloaded some of the old manuals. It’s a great site.

  3. October 26, 2009, 5:59 pm

    My boss has really been chasing flex nibs for the last little while. He’s got about four, I think; perhaps one of them is vintage. It’s odd, he has about 10 pens that he carries around in his bag all the time, only one inked/seeing use.

  4. October 26, 2009, 7:53 pm

    great video, tom! makes me want to have my own while i do some chancery practice. 🙂 LOL! seriously, this is a very educational post. 🙂

  5. TAO
    October 26, 2009, 8:06 pm

    Adam: Some people do carry a lot of pens around that they don’t use. I’m not sure if it is the “just in case” philosophy or not. Still, there are people that carry all kinds of odd things that never see the light of day.

    Clem: I’m glad you liked the post. A flex nib would give you a reason to practice more. 🙂

  6. hazel
    October 27, 2009, 3:33 am

    i’ve always wondered how lefties wrote with fountain pens and not smear the ink. i like the pens, nibs, and inks but the music made me dizzy…

  7. TAO
    October 27, 2009, 7:18 am

    Hazel: Very carefully.

  8. October 28, 2009, 5:01 am

    Is the song on itunes?

  9. TAO
    October 28, 2009, 9:12 am

    Orange Gent: Yes, it is. The Group is “Bike For Three!” and the song is “First Embrace”. Glad you liked it.

  10. October 29, 2009, 9:12 pm

    We like Bike for Three! We listen to it when we walk to Greenbelt.

  11. TAO
    October 29, 2009, 9:58 pm

    Leigh: Really? You like this group? It is excellent walking music.

  12. Kim
    October 30, 2009, 11:31 am

    This is a great post! I know what flexible nibs are, but it was still educational. I know I’m late to the party but I’ll definitely share this with friends!

  13. TAO
    October 30, 2009, 11:53 am

    Kim: I don’t know if there’s a party and if there were it probably would be pretty dull. However, I’m glad you enjoyed the post.

  14. Erin
    October 30, 2009, 12:42 pm

    Thanks for this very enlightening post about flex nibs. It is especially nice to see a nib or pen in action, not just a photo and description.

  15. TAO
    October 30, 2009, 1:28 pm

    Erin: Glad it was of service.

  16. Beth
    November 1, 2009, 6:38 pm

    I am relatively new to fountain pens, and have been frustrated with other noobs going on about the flex in a Lamy Safari. I’m no expert, but I knew they was trippin. I especially enjoyed the history you included in the post about why flex when out of style.

  17. TAO
    November 1, 2009, 10:28 pm

    Beth: Glad you liked the post. There’s only a few pens made today that could be stated as having flexible nibs (and people debate that using vintage pens as a reference). Some modern pens can have semi-flex nibs or “soft” nibs that give when you write with them. The Safari is a good pen and it has a great range of italic nibs (another whole category there) but at best they might be considered “softish” since there’s just not much line variation due to pressure.

    My reasons for the demise of flexible nibs from the mainstream is partial at best. I think one could also blame how the typewriter took over for almost all business records and correspondence as well. Probably a zillion other factors. 🙂

  18. Risa
    November 28, 2009, 12:11 pm

    Hi TAO. This is very informative. It explains a lot the futile search I’ve had for a flexible nib. Do you know of any semi flex I could get my hands on easily (as in go into a shop and buy?). The Pilots and Watermans I see all look like nails.

  19. Antonios Z.
    November 28, 2009, 8:43 pm

    Awesome flex 🙂 Thanks.

    AZ

  20. TAO
    November 28, 2009, 11:50 pm

    Risa: The Namiki Falcon is often called semi-flex. I’ve not tried one so I can’t tell you much more. The 742FA and 743FA from that company also have been described as somewhat flexible. After these you get to some quite expensive pens or custom modified nibs. There are probably are a lot of pens that are a bit flexy that aren’t coming to my mind right now. Most pen folks will say there is nothing like a vintage flexible nib and I agree. If you look at some reputable vintage pen dealers you can find restored pens of this sort at reasonable prices. Good luck to you!

    Antonios Z: Thanks for the comment!

  21. Risa
    November 29, 2009, 10:37 pm

    Thanks for the leads! 🙂

  22. April 7, 2010, 10:36 am

    I was puzzled by the title and thought it was something with a recipe and overcooked pasta and instead it was this very pleasant article of flexy nibs!

    1. TAO
      April 7, 2010, 11:03 am

      I know it’s an odd title. When I thought of wet noodle that just popped into my head. Oddness is I.

  23. Linda Cartmel
    August 23, 2010, 3:28 pm

    Tao,
    Thank you explaining ‘flexible’ to me was truly educational. I have a vintage or antique? elongated traveling Eversharp with a beautiful marblized green/pearl 12 sided pen with v-shaped gold bans. Eversharp Flexible Made in USA is on my gold colored nib, but on the back besides the letter ‘M’, there are numbers inscribed on the black part of nib 12153. I am assuming the m is for medium, but what do the numbers me?
    Sincerely,
    Linda

  24. Ria
    September 12, 2011, 1:36 am

    T_T Where can I buy this flex fountain? I searched for days but I couldn’t find any site..

    1. TAO
      September 12, 2011, 5:47 pm

      There is no specific place to find one. I recommend looking for flexible vintage pens on eBay or you can get one (but not for cheap) at a pens seller like http://www.vintagewriting.com/pens.htm

      Good luck!