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This article is a slightly revised version of one that first appeared in the April/May 2005 issue of Stylus magazine.
FLEX. The magic word. These days, it seems that users of vintage and modern fountain pens alike want to experience the Joy of Flex. They seem to think flex will magically make their writing more dramatic. Flex will wow everybody from the CEO of their company to the kid who mows their lawn. Flex will even improve their sex life.
That may or may not be true. What is true is that a flexible nib, used with skill, can help you to produce elegant handwriting that harks back to the luxurious-looking styles of 150 years ago.
The key word here is “skill.” Flex nibs aren’t a magic bullet. Most people can’t just pick up a pen with a flex nib and start writing out custom wedding invitations for the rich and famous. Learning to use a flex nib takes patience and practice. If you’re willing to invest the effort, the results can be very gratifying, as illustrated here by two lines of text penned for me by my friend Antonios Zavaliangos, using first a pen with an ordinary round nib and then a Waterman’s Ideal No 7 with a Pink (flexible fine) nib from the late 1920s.
Now comes the hard part. If you think of flex nibs as a blessing, you need to remember that no blessing is unmixed. The potential for disaster that lies a hairsbreadth away — a sprung nib — offsets the potential for beauty that lies within these little bits of gold. Sprung nibs result in creases, cracks, and other problems that precipitate trips to the pen guy for repair or replacement of a nib. The vintage Waterman’s Lady Patricia nib here shows creasing from flex-nib abuse.
How can this happen? Will every flex nib you try to use end up like this? That depends on how you write with them. Let’s look at one more illustration, a graph of the behavior of a flex nib in use. The green/yellow/red area represents various combinations of flexibility, flexing (deflection), and force. A very flexible nib flexes easily — the yellow line moves to the right rapidly without climbing very high, indicating that little force produces a lot of deflection. A stiff nib, on the other hand, doesn’t flex easily — the blue line climbs very quickly but doesn’t go as rapidly to the right, indicating that more force is needed to produce much less deflection. (Antonios Zavaliangos consulted with me on the mathematics of sprung nibs, and this graph is based on a plot that he generated for me.)
Notice in the illustrations that when writing with a flex nib, Antonios does not create the hugely fat lines that so many people seem to want. Antonios is careful to keep the nib in the green zone on the graph. This is the range that shows where the nib is completely safe from springing, and it is the range in which the nib was made to be used.
People who want the most flex that a nib can give (“demon flexers”) push their nibs harder, driving them up into the yellow zone. Nibs are not intended to work in the yellow zone; every time you push a nib that hard, you are damaging it by overstressing the metal. Pushing upward through the yellow zone to extract that last tenth of a millimeter of line width, you’ll eventually reach the line where the red zone begins, the “Point of No Return.” Abandon all hope, ye who enter here; you have just pushed your nib so hard that it can no longer return to its proper straight form. You’ve sprung it. You can see by the slope of the red zone that your nib will suddenly require much less force to produce vastly more deflection. This is how that Lady Patricia acquired its crease; the writer was not expecting the sudden reduction of force required, and he just kept pushing.
It’s important to realize that no modern manufacturer produces flexible nibs like the great old superflexible “wet noodle” nibs from the likes of Waterman and Mabie Todd. The Namiki and Pilots Falcon, very good pens, have nibs that are only semiflexible at best — but those nibs are sold as being “soft,” and they are not intended, or suitable, for use as a flexie. There are nib technicians (“nibmeisters”) who can add flex to modern nibs, but many modern nibs aren’t appropriate for this modification. The best way to get flexible is to seek out a good vintage pen; failing that, consult your favorite nibmeister.
The Lesson Learned
CAUTIONAs noted above, no modern maker produces vintage flex nibs. In fact, the tempering done to modern nibs, even those like the “Extra Flessible” nibs of the recently defunct Omas, is not the same as that done to vintage nibs. This means that no modern nib, even one modified by the very best nib technicians, can stand up to being flexed as far as the great nibs of old.
The moral of the story should be very clear: By all means experiment with flexible nibs; they really are one of the most remarkable and unique aspects of writing with a fountain pen. But don’t ask too much of them, or you'll damage your treasures.
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