To the Point: Super-Size Me!

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Stylus MagazineThis article first appeared in the August/September 2006 issue of Stylus magazine.

Size does matter. It’s common knowledge among most women that if you shop at stores like Ann Taylor (a chain known for high-quality fashions) and wear a size 8, you will probably not fit into a size 8 that came from the Wal*Mart across the street. The extra cash you pay for expensive clothing buys you more than just the name on the label; it also buys you more fabric and a bigger dress form. This is one of the techniques manufacturers use to sell their products: by stroking the customer’s self-image.

Large nib and small nibThe very same phenomenon is familiar to many pen collectors, for whom nib size is an unmistakable sign of prestige. Pens from first-tier makers like Sheaffer and Waterman featured larger nibs than their same-sized counterparts from cheaper brands such as Moore. The illustration to the left shows the difference in size between two No. 4 nibs, one from a Waterman’s Ideal Nº 54 and the other a generic Warranted nib that you might find in a third-tier pen of decent quality.

Pen makers are generally pretty good at selling their products. Bling sells, and that big bright solid gold Waterman nib is likely to gleam a lot brighter in a display case than the little Warranted nib next to it. Back in the day, it did.

What might be less well known is that sizes have also changed over time. If you bought size-8 jeans at Ann Taylor in 2000, only six years later you would have gotten the same exact fit by buying size 0 (source: The Boston Globe, May 5, 2006). This is more stroking of the prospective purchaser’s self-image. But most pen makers these days don’t put size numbers on nibs, so how does this gradual increase in size apply to pens? Look not at the nibs themselves, but at their tips.

The technology for making highly refined tipping alloys is a relatively new thing; most nibs made before about 1945 were tipped with chunks of crushed high-grade iridium ore and then ground and polished to size. And, in order to provide the best uniformity possible, nib makers used small chunks. The arrival of modern alloy pellets made it easier to apply bigger tips to nibs, and that’s exactly what has happened. See the illustration below for a comparison between medium nibs from a 1938 Parker Vacumatic and a 2004 Parker 100.

Nibs head to head

Seeing these two nibs, with the 100’s tip nearly twice as deep as the Vac’s, you might think, “Hey, that bigger tip is probably going to draw a bigger line!” You’d be right. Modern nibs do draw bigger lines, and in fact a surprising number of people these days want exactly that. The illustration to the right shows the words “Mango Chutney” written with the 100 (upper) and with the Vac (lower). Handwritten textThere is a pronounced difference in line width, roughly a 17% increase in the 66 years between these two pens. Some other brands, such as Waterman, exhibit a much more pronounced increase. We’ve been Super-Sized! There now, do you feel your self-image being stroked?

What’s not quite so easy to show here in a short article is that a surprising number of modern nibs — seen from the side — look the same as this Parker 100 nib. Even if they happen to be extra-fine nibs. The tipping balls on three nibs I examined, a Medium, a Fine, and an Extra Fine made for a well-known German pen, were exactly the same size when seen from the side. The only difference was in how much material had been ground off the sides. This method of sizing nib tips could be viewed as a good thing, in that it reduces costs and, hence, prices. But there is a downside. Many finer nibs seem to make lines of two different widths: up and down, relative to the nib, the line measures as expected, but sidewise strokes are broader than they should be. I once reground an Extra Fine that a client sent me because its sidewise strokes were the same size as the up-and-down strokes of a Medium from the same manufacturer.

It really does appear that making nib tips in the new way is a cost-saving measure. But not all pen companies are interested in saving costs at the expense of the product. In Parker’s factory, nib tips are polished by hand, but machines shape them — all except the Extra Fines and Needlepoints, which are still shaped by a live human being because machines cannot do the job well enough. Parker has the right idea, and it shows in the consistency of strokes from the company’s nibs — even the very fine ones. Is the competition listening?


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