(This page revised August 23, 2012)
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This article is a slightly revised version of one that first appeared in the February/March 2008 issue of Stylus magazine.
It’s February. You’re sitting at your study desk, getting ready to sign a Valentine card for your sweetie. Or maybe it’s June, and it’s time for an anniversary card. You choose the time, I’ll set the scene.
You open the drawer, and your eye falls on that box. You know the one, it’s the rich-looking presentation box for the pen you got for Christmas. The pen that’s still resting, dipped but never inked, inside that very box. The pen you want to love but can’t, because it doesn’t write the way you wish it did.
|You realize … it might just be that you’re not as flexible as your pen’s nib.|
The problem may not be the pen. But if it’s not the pen, what is it? The ink? No, you tried the pen with your favorite ink. The paper? No, same story there. What’s left? Your brow creases as you realize that the culprit might be you. It might just be that you’re not as flexible as your pen’s nib.
Not every pen, not every nib, will write precisely as you expect it to, even when you’ve had it tuned by your favorite nibmeister. There is inevitably some variation in the sizes of tips; even the best nib technicians can’t create precisely the same thing twice. There’s also likely to be variation in tine springiness due to imprecision in the rolling, stamping, forming, and polishing operations at the nib factory.
How do you deal with the disappointment of a pen that’s not quite smooth enough, not quite wet enough, or not quite broad enough? Obviously, the “how” will depend on the “what,” but let’s look at a couple of common scenarios:
Your usual pen, a Visconti Opera LE, has a medium nib. It’s smooth, and it rides like a Mercedes, smooth and soft.
The pen your sweetie gave you is a Taccia Staccato. It’s a nice pen, comfortable in size and shape and weight, and the color is great. But it rides like a Porsche with stiff suspension and racing tires, not like a Mercedes, and even though you took it to a pen show and had a nibmeister smooth it, it still doesn’t feel the same.
Taccia’s nibs aren’t made by Bock, whose nibs appear in pens from many of today's leading brands, including Signum, Delta, Visconti, and many others. They’re a bit firmer than most other nibs of similar size. Is this nib’s “sportier” ride what’s holding you at bay?
You’re still pondering over the same pens. You test several others with varying degrees of nib springiness and decide that, after all, you rather like that firm feel from the Taccia. You’re even looking forward to taking it to work and manifolding (making “carbon” copies) with it. But you still don’t like the way it feels. You notice, as you move the box from one side of your desk to the other, that the label proclaims your pen to be fitted with a fine nib. Aha! You hadn’t noticed that before. Maybe what you’re objecting to is the slightly toothier “road feel” that you’re getting from this pen when you use it on your Southworth Antique Laid paper. The nib rides over the paper’s slightly textured surface the way a shopping cart rides over the tarmac in a parking lot, while the Visconti’s broader nib feels more like a big, soft-wheeled baby stroller. Are you that strongly put off by the smaller nib?
You have a couple of choices. You can sell the pen you don’t love, or you can put it back in the box, close it in the drawer, and hope your sweetie never notices that you aren’t going to use it until about a week after Old Nick puts in his order for whole-house oil heat. Or you can do something to make the pen into one you’ll use with relish:
Consider where you're writing. You can’t do a lot about the sporty ride, but you can definitely do something about the surface you write on. If your writing surface is the polished urethane or laminate top of your desk, try a desk blotter — yes, you can still get them — or a desk pad. Desk pads come either as pads of paper in a desk-blotter frame or as clear or colored sheets of plastic with varying degrees of resilience. A desk blotter or pad will provide a much softer surface, and you might just find that it’s all your pen needs to morph into a star. I use a clear Artistic-brand plastic desk pad on my workbench, and the writing surface is terrific!
Consider what you're writing on. So it’s not the stiff suspension, eh? It’s that consarned toothiness. And you did have the nib smoothed, too. What a waste, right? Not at all. Try a different paper! If you really love the look of a laid paper, try flipping the paper over and writing on what was intended to be the reverse side. The watermark will read backward, but that’s a small price to pay for resurrecting a “dead” pen. Modern laid papers aren’t really made on a laid mould, they’re rolled like other papers and finished by impressing a texture — just like a watermark, and made in the same pressing operation — into the front surface. Flipping the paper over will present a surprisingly different, and smoother, surface. Hey, that nib guy wasn’t so bad after all!
Meet your maker. There’s one more possibility — swap your ride, as Ford put it in a recent television advertisement. Most pen companies really want you to like their pens — which is how they get you to buy more — and are quite willing to swap nibs with you. Trade your fine nib for a medium, get it smoothed if it needs it, and you’re off to the races. Maybe the first letter you write should be a thank-you to your sweetie for giving you such a great pen!
The last thing you want to do is, or should be, to get rid of the pen. Not every pen is perfect, and you will eventually run into a pen that’s fated to be a loser or, at least with many fountain pens, not quite as perfect as your favorite. But living with pens is like living with people, and Stephen Stills put it best back in 1970 (was it really that long ago?): If you can’t be with the one you like, you can usually learn to like the one you’re with.
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