Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Let's talk about flex

It's probably about time I shared my obsession with you, confession being good for the soul and all that jazz. You know how I have a bit of a thing for tapping holes in planes, agitating to tweak handles, and generally seeing a tool as something that could probably be butchered to better suit me? Yeah, well, it turns out you can do that to pens too.


Ha-hum. But first you need to know about the obsession. The other obsession; not the tool butchering one. Turns out it has parallels with woodworking tools too.

So when I started on my handwriting improvement project, aka Scrawl No More, I took the trouble to get some paper specifically for the task, but for the pen I just set forth with the very lovely, very fine, Pilot G-Tec-C4 gel pen I had about my person. Which is endlessly reliable, comes in lots of lovely colours (If that's your thing, which it is mine, turns out), has an incredibly fine line (Cricket scorers, amongst others, favour them for squeezing all the info into the tiny spaces in the average score book), and is as boring as hell.

Seriously, it doesn't make you want to linger. It's so effortless it doesn't need to make you linger either, and Scrawl No More was suffering because I was still going too fast to see any improvement.

So having rediscovered my dip pens (and the surface of my desk), I ordered up a fresh bottle of India Ink and decided this was the way forward because you just can't rush with a dip pen. Not if you don't want a nasty scratching noise, a spattering of ink across the page, and likely a bent nib. Why? Because these things are as flexible as an over-cooked length of spaghetti. Allow me to demonstrate using the Mk.1 Thumb Nail - preferred gauge for all things nib-ish. (I know, right; who knew? But that's apparently the case. Presumably because you'll go "Ow! That hurts!" and stop pressing before the nib goes "Ow! I'm broken, you clumsy-handed oaf.")

Here we have my preferred nib; a Joseph Gillott no.1950 "Artist's" nib. Absolutely no-one ever recommends this nib for writing - the Gillott 404 and 303 and Japanese Manga nibs are always the ones - but it suits me. Conform? Me? Not gonna happen. In this instance.

Anyway, here it is with absolute no pressure on the nib point. With luck you might just be able to make out the barest sliver of light between the tines.

Now, here it is with just the weight of the pen resting on it. See how that's opened up?

Now with some moderate pressure, such as you might use on the down stroke as you write. Ooo, look at that.

Now the no.1950 is classed as medium elastic, so it can take more pressure than some. Take a super springy mapping nib - except don't, because they're about as controllable as a four year old hyped up on fizzy drinks let loose on a bouncy castle - and moderate pressure opens it up like a pelican's beak when it sees a pilchard tossed its way.


Now imagine what happens if you still have that pressure on the nib during the upstroke. Those fine points on those tines are like a couple of very bendy needles trying to tattoo the paper, so you have to use absolutely no pressure. It's rather like starting the cut with a dovetail saw; you have to take all the weight off the saw pen.

But when you do, and when it goes right, you can get this lovely line variation. Now mine's horribly agricultural and true calligraphers demonstrate considerably more finesse (and evenness, and skill, and are just artists while I wistfully aspire to even be an artisan, but hardly anyone starts cutting London pattern dovetails straight away... ) but it's fun and I enjoy it so I don't care if it makes folks wince. Much.

(And it's true, by the way; those jackdaws covert that big sphinx something rotten.)

Now that's what's called "flex". And when you get into the groove with it, you build up this excellent rhythm as you write, with a sort of bounce up from the bottom of the down stroke to the up stroke. 

You know when you're planing and you're doing the whole pressure on the toe at the start of the cut and then pressure on the heel at the end thing, and the shavings are creaming off the board and you're in danger of planing off way too much because you're just in a sort of Zen-like state of planing Nirvana? It's kinda like that.

And then the iron gets blunt and you have to stop and resharpen. Well, unfortunately it's kinda like that too.

The trouble with dip pens - aside from their requirement for being handled with kid gloves, washed and dried after every use to prevent rust, and requiring actual desk space to put the ink bottle down - is that the darn things run out of ink pretty quick. Without a reservoir, you might get three words if you're lucky; even with a reservoir (and I've been experimenting with those too), it's a paragraph before the flow is hopelessly disrupted and your Zen-like trance is lost in the face of making sure you don't get India Ink anywhere other than the pen nib as you re-ink it. It's this kind of limitation that lead to the invention of the fountain pen in the first place, so who was I to buck the trend? I like the fresh ink on the page, and while nothing else will come close to the physical presence of India Ink (you can feel it under your fingers), it'd still be nice to use a "real" pen for these scrawlings. So I hit Google, and that's when my troubles began.

Because lo! It was revealed unto me that things were not as I remembered them when I was a nipper and the only option I had was whether I could locate a pen with a fine nib rather than the ubiquitous medium. Not only could you get fountain pens of many beautiful varieties (Oh, so many pretty things), you could also get fountain pens that flex. This was a revelation to me; the convenience of the fountain pen and the bouncing goodness of the dip nibs? Oh, yes, please.

So that's easy, right? Buy one of these (desirable) pens and go on my way rejoicing. Poorer, but rejoicing. Yeah, easy. 

When I first wanted to buy a Western saw for dovetailing, it was before LN took over the Independence saw production; it was long before the Veritas saws; it was in an era not blessed with a selection of boutique saw makers; you wanted a sharp saw to dovetail with, you looked for something Japanese. If you wanted a Western dovetail saw, you had to work for it. You found a vintage one or you took the unsatisfactory modern ones and tried to improve them. It took either time, money, or learning new skills. Or all three. 

It turns out that buying a flexible nib fountain pen in 2013 is exactly like buying a dovetail saw in 2003.

Oh joy.

You see, flexibility in nibs was apparently something people used to expect as a matter of course (which makes sense when you think about it; I simply hadn't thought about it); then the ballpoint arrived, and the majority of people came to expect much the same from their fountain pen as they would from a ballpoint or a rollerball. In consequence flexible fountain pen nibs are something of a niche item these days; either they're not really flexible, or they're customised by a skilled "Nib Meister" and thus out of my league, or they're vintage.

Buying old tools in order to get a user tool? Oh, crivens. I know how this one goes...

But an obsession had just grabbed me round the ankles and was sinking its teeth in; and, dammit, it was too late to get away.


  1. "It turns out that buying a flexible nib fountain pen in 2013 is exactly like buying a dovetail saw in 2003." I see a slippery slope down a rabbit hole forthcoming! I can't WAIT or you to find the old codger at the car boot sale with a collection o' flexy fountain pens :)

    Best of luck!

    1. That way madness lies. Um, increased madness...


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