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.