(This page revised May 4, 2013)
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This article is a revised version of one that first appeared in the October/November 2006 issue of Stylus magazine.
“I need a left-handed pen because I’m left handed.”
The person who said that was addressing Barbara, my wife, at a show. Barbara is a left-handed overwriter of the type whose hand position has earned its practitioners the dubious pleasure of being referred to as “hookers.” At that moment, she happened to be writing with a Bexley Submariner fountain pen fitted with a plain 0.6-millimeter stub nib. Oops. The speaker at least knew that left-handed people are not always and everywhere barred from using fountain pens, but he was nonetheless laboring under a misconception. I’m here to set the record straight. Listen carefully, all you lefties out there. This is important.
There is no such thing as a left-handed fountain pen.
Don’t make me say it again, okay? Things could get ugly.
I know that the Osmiroid company in England used to make special “cranked” italic nibs that it advertised as being suitable for calligraphy by left-handed writers. What wasn’t said was that those nibs were actually suitable only for some left-handed writers. And they were also suited for some right-handers.
It turns out that most people, both lefties and righties, can write perfectly well with standard nibs. In looking through 606 nib questionnaires from my clients, I find 78 left-handers, of whom 59 hold the nib straight at an average angle of elevation. This is the specification for a standard nib. Moreover, of these 59 people, 25 are overwriters. It would seem that most left-handers don’t need left-handed pens after all. Which is a good thing because, as I said a few paragraphs back, there isn’t any such animal. Barbara, whom I cited earlier, falls comfortably into the group who can use standard nibs; she can simply pick up a fountain pen and use it, without having to pause and consider just how she’s going to have to hold it to make it work. In the first illustration here she’s using a medium-nibbed Signum sterling Orione that belongs to our son-in-law Don.
There are a few southpaws who rotate their pens in the hand, and these people need special pens. For them there exist oblique nibs, in both left- and right-foot varieties. Most left-handed underwriters who use obliques prefer right-foot nibs, while most overwriters use left-foot obliques if they use any obliques. A similar situation prevails among my right-handed clientèle, with the difference that there are virtually no right-handed overwriters. Almost all of my right-handed clients who use obliques prefer left-foot nibs unless they’re experienced calligraphers.
All the foregoing is not to say that left-handers cannot benefit from having their nibs tuned to their specific hands. Both left-handed and right-handed people who learned to write without formal instruction in penmanship, especially if they learned with ballpoint pens, tend to hold their pens at very high angles of elevation above the paper. For lefties this situation presents a slightly greater degree of difficulty than it does for righties. The second illustration shows how Don, my son-in-law, grasps his pens. Because Western writing styles require that the pen move from left to right across the paper, Don “pushes” the pen more than he “pulls” it. Pushing a fountain pen’s nib, especially at a high angle of elevation, tends to make the nib dig into the paper — not so much as to “stub the pen’s toe” but enough that the nib feels far toothier than it should.
Fortunately, there is a ready solution to the “pushing” problem. A skilled nib technician can tune a nib so that it will be smooth and easy to push even when held almost vertically — usually without affecting its writing qualities for the more “normal” user. I tune Don’s nibs to work smoothly at high elevation.
There is one concern for overwriters that nobody else faces, and that is the problem of dragging your hand through the drying ink. Barbara solves this problem by the exaggerated “hook” that she forms with her hand. Don orients his paper so that his hand misses the ink long enough for it to dry. Other tricks might include choosing a quick-drying ink or having your pen adjusted to write drier.
Last but not least, there are the underwriters. Allison, Don’s niece, handles her pen as if she’d learned with a fountain pen instead of a ballpoint, holding it at a very nice low-to-average angle (third illustration). Allison is no fun for a nib technician like me; she presents no challenge. Which means that if you are a left-handed underwriter and write the way she does, or if you can train yourself out of the high-elevation, heavy-pressure ballpoint regimen, you will love fountain pens. In actual fact, though, you’re not alone, Overwriters like Barbara and Don, of whom there are many, also love their fountain pens. Which is what it’s all about, isn’t it?