To the Point: Alice in Smoothnessland

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Stylus MagazineThis article is a slightly revised version of one that first appeared in the 2011 Stylus magazine annual.

The Walrus and the Carpenter

The time has come, the Walrus said,
To talk of many things:
Of shoes — and ships — and sealing-wax —
Of shopping carts — and nibs…

I know, that last line isn’t exactly what the Walrus really said, and it doesn’t even rhyme. But the time has come, and in my twisted mind the rest just sort of follows along.

My email frequently contains a query about smoothness. Invariably, it’s related to a nib the writer is considering purchasing, has purchased, found, dropped, wrote with on a paper bag, or any of several other subtexts. They all come down to one thing: why is this nib not as smooth as I think it should be? But what do shopping carts have to do with nibs? Be patient, Gentle Reader, and all will become clear. One of the primary reasons for using a fountain pen is the luxurious smoothness it offers, a wonderful glide far smoother than even the best gel pen, let alone a rollerball or an ordinary ballpoint. But what if that smoothness isn’t there?

For this exercise, we’ll assume that your nib is perfectly aligned and that it doesn’t have any sharp edges. (With the tines aligned, the next most common cause of scratchiness is sharp edges where the tipping material was slit. Remedying this one isn’t something you should try at home.)

Cat clawsThere’s a widespread perception that very fine nibs are inherently scratchy. This perception is not really valid as a general assumption, although it is admittedly more difficult to make a very fine nib smooth than it is to set up a medium or broad nib to emulate the famous melted butter on hot glass that we all love. But let’s set this problem aside for a moment and talk about shopping carts.

James Bond making a MartiniConsider the scenario in which you have pens with a perfectly smoothed XF nib and a perfectly smoothed medium nib. Blindfolded, you can tell which is which just by writing briefly with each. The XF just feels, umm, rougher. Step back a moment, and think about pushing a shopping cart across a parking lot to get to your car. It bounces and jounces, and if you had a Martini in a shaker, the cart would shake the drink for you. Now transfer your bags and your drink to your car. Suddenly, the jiggling and shaking stop. The car glides smoothly across the tarmac, and your Martini will arrive delicately stirred. What’s the difference? It’s the wheel size. Every surface, including the surface of your smoothest, richest, most luscious paper, is imperfect. The imperfections, although they are microscopic in size, are there — and they translate to roughness, just like the roughness of that parking lot. A very fine nib is like the shopping cart’s wheel; every tiny bump in the surface of the paper is a pebble big enough to give it a lift — literally. The medium nib, on the other hand, is like the car wheel, so big it just rolls over those tiny pebbles as if they weren’t even there. So, you see, the problem isn’t one of smoothness at all. It’s one of scale. And there’s only one way to deal with it.

Fallen skaterIf you’ve ever gone ice skating, you may have wondered how the skates managed to glide over the ice with such magical smoothness. (That smoothness is why you probably had to pick yourself up a few times after your skates slid right out from under you.) The key is lubrication. The pressure of your body weight caused a tiny amount of water to melt under the skate blades, and you were actually gliding on that water, not on the ice. The water lubricated your ride just as oil lubricates the engine of your car. And just as ink lubricates the nib of your pen as it glides over the paper.

Smooth nibBut there’s a catch, and I touch on it in my article titled Lighten Up! when I talk about nib wear. If you press down on the pen, even a little, you will squeegee the ink out from between the nib and the paper, and you’ll be back at the grocery store pushing your shopping cart. Let the pen do its thing by not applying pressure, and that nib will amaze you by how smoothly it glides. Even a needlepoint can be remarkably smooth if you support the pen so that the nib’s tip just grazes the surface of the paper. And when you translate that lightness of touch to a bigger nib, you’ll be astonished at how smooth it is, like your car in the parking lot. And it’s all because you lightened your touch.

You already have your driver’s license, now it’s time to really learn how to drive your pen!

The Parker Vacmobile
Notes:
  1. Carroll,, Lewis, pseud. [Dodgson, Charles Lutwidge], Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There (London, England: Macmillan & Co., 1872)


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