To the Point: Better in the Days of Old

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Stylus MagazineThis article is a slightly revised version of one that first appeared in the Summer 2009 issue of Stylus magazine.

“And with what tools did I work in my own mould-loft? … I used a slim, octagonal-sided, agate penholder with a Waverley nib. It was a gift, and when in an evil hour it snapped I was much disturbed. Then followed a procession of impersonal hirelings each with a Waverley…”

— Rudyard Kipling, Something of Myself

The Waverley nib Kipling was writing about was a dip nib, or, more properly, a steel pen. (At the time of which he was writing, fountain pens were still in the future. He later tried them and didn’t like them, but that’s another story.) Invented in 1864 by Duncan Cameron, it was the product of Macniven & Cameron, of Edinburgh, Scotland. The first photo here shows a Waverley nib in one of my penholders.

Dip pen

The shape of the nib is unusual, to be sure, but the critical feature that led Kipling to be a fan of Waverleys was the slight upturn near the tip. That almost incidental bend, it turns out, makes the tip much smoother and more comfortable to write with than it would be if the nib were straight — and for someone like Kipling, whose profession involved a great deal of writing, that extra comfort could really add up over the course of a long day.

Why is a Waverley nib smoother than a straight one? Try a little experiment, and you’ll see why. Write with one of your favorite fountain pens held at about a 60° angle off the page, as if it were a ballpoint. Take note of how smooth it feels. Now write with that same pen held at a much lower angle, say 40°. See how much smoother it feels? The upturned tip of a Waverley nib has the same effect as changing the angle of elevation; in essence, it’s lying to the nib, making the nib think it’s being held at an angle that’s lower than the real angle. Duncan Cameron stumbled across this phenomenon, and the result, as they say, is history. When Macniven & Cameron bought a factory in Birmingham, England, to make fountain pens, the Waverley design made the leap, and Waverley fountain pens were even sweeter to use than Waverley dip nibs. Here is a Waverley pen, the “Cameron” model:

Fountain pen

Macniven & Cameron eventually stopped making Waverley pens, but the magic of upturned nibs lived on. Sheaffer seems to have discovered it in about 1940. Even if the company had wanted to, Sheaffer couldn’t use the trademarked Waverley name; but Lifetime Balance pens began rolling out of Fort Madison with Sheaffer’s version of the upturned nib. I have a Valiant, the $10.00 model fitted with a military clip, and it writes beautifully. The photo below shows its nib from the side so you can see the upward curve clearly.

Fountain pen nib

Sheaffer’s design was so successful that when the revolutionary Triumph conical nib made its appearance in 1942, it had an upturned tip for extra smoothness — and when the PFM strode upon the scene, in 1959, its Inlaid Nib™ also had that magical curve. Sheaffer stopped bending its ordinary open nibs back in the ’40s, but Triumph nibs and Inlaid Nibs have retained the magic with but one divergence: the funky-looking Intrigue — whose straight Inlaid Nib writes like the proverbial “nail.” The Legacy Heritage or Valor that you can buy today owes the smoothness of its Inlaid Nib to Duncan Cameron’s ingenuity.

But most fountain pens today have open nibs — hence, straight nibs — because, with one exception, no manufacturer today has seen fit to adopt that little bend for smoothness. The one exception is Montblanc, which doesn’t bend its nibs upward as Sheaffer did but does finish its tips to create a writing-pad shape very like that on a Waverley fountain pen nib. (I learned this little tidbit from Dieter Wolf, a German friend who pointed it out after reading one of my blog entries.)

I began experimenting with upturned nibs in 2008 after a client sent a Waverley “Cameron” fountain pen for nib repair. I found that pen’s nib to be amazingly smooth; and when I discovered why it was so, I set about adapting the upward bend to my own reground nibs. It really works! The supersmooth Waverley-ed pen shown in the photo below is a Bexley Submariner Grande that went home to an enthusiastically pleased client in 2009.

Fountain pen nib

I wish I could take credit for the whole thing, but I can’t. On the other hand, it’s pretty cool to see my adaptation of Duncan Cameron’s invention in the hands and pocket of someone like Howard Levy, president of Bexley, into whose ebonite Bexley 56 I fitted an accountant-point Waverley nib. Think about that: a modern pen based on a 92-year-old pen model, with a nib based on a 145-year-old design. As the title of this article says, and with apologies to Mr. Kipling, sometimes it’s better “as it was in the Days of Old.”


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