(This page revised August 14, 2018)
This article is a revised and extended version of one that first appeared in the February/March 2010 issue of Stylus magazine.
I have a couple of questions for you to ponder:
Is a pen you recently bought gradually getting smoother?
Is your favorite pen getting scratchier or more prone to skip?
If the answer to either of these questions is yes, your pen is in pain, and it’s your fault. Not to put too fine a point on it (pun intended), you need to lighten up.
In the first case, what is happening is that you’re gradually wearing the original, less-than-perfect surface of the nib’s tip smoother. This is often called “wearing in,” and some people think it’s a good thing. Sadly, those people are mistaken. The problem is that after a nib wears in, it isn’t smart enough to know that it’s supposed to stop wearing, and it begins to wear out. For many people, a nib that is wearing out can reach an astonishing degree of smoothness. This happens because most fountain pen users, when they pick up their pens, will automatically hold the pens the same way every time. As it wears, the tip assumes the perfect shape to work with the writer’s hand.
Anyone else (or even the pen’s owner, if he changes his posture or the way he holds the pen in his hand) is likely to find such a nib to be very scratchy and prone to skip — which is what’s happening to the pen in the second case above. The photos above shows two Esterbrook No 2668 Renew-Point nibs, one brand new (left) and one worn out (right). These nibs are untipped, and they wear more rapidly than tipped nibs — but the wear illustrated really does happen to tipped nibs, it just takes longer.
Nib wear is the bane of fountain pen users, but it’s not an inevitable element of using fountain pens. It happens because there is too much friction between the nib and the paper. Fountain pens are designed to be used with virtually no writing pressure. The idea is that the nib should skate across the paper the way an ice skate glides over the ice. Ice isn’t really all that slippery, but the pressure of the skater’s weight on the skate blade causes a tiny amount of the ice to melt, and the resulting film of water acts as a lubricant — zip! Transferring the physics to a pen’s nib, it’s the ink that does the lubricating. The difference is that because the nib’s tip is so small, anything more than the merest hint of pressure will squeegee the ink out from between the nib and the paper. Because paper, even the finest, smoothest paper you can buy, is abrasive, the resulting friction will wear away the surface of the nib’s tip.
NoteThere is one exception to this rule, and that is brand-new pens with gold-plated steel nibs. The gold plating on these nibs is applied after the nib tipping material is shaped and polished, and the plating is not as smooth as the tipping material. If your pen fits this description, there will be a brief period when you first start using it during which the plating will wear away to expose the smoother tip. Note, however, that you might still need to consider lightening up.
A properly adjusted fountain pen will draw a line with no more pressure than what’s exerted by the weight of the pen itself. I test a pen by holding it at the back end of the barrel, allowing the nib to rest on the paper, and pulling the pen across the paper as shown here:
Many pens today leave the factory without being adjusted for proper flow. If your pen won’t write with virtually no pressure, it almost certainly needs adjustment, and usually the factory or its representatives can’t handle such a task. In most cases, the services of a skilled nib technician are called for.
Holding a pen with little or no writing pressure requires you to relax your hand and arm — in essence, it’s relaxation therapy. In fact, it’s exactly the opposite of the way you probably learned to hold a pen when you were younger and someone handed you a ballpoint. You found that you had to press down on the ballpoint to make it write, and to do that you had to squeeze your fingers together to keep them from slipping down the pen’s length as you pressed. You shouldn’t actually squeeze or press a fountain pen at all; what’s required is a cradle to guide the pen across the paper, with just enough gripping force from your fingers to keep the pen from slipping around or falling loose. (If you’re “white knuckling” it, you’re squeezing much too hard.) There’s usually going to be some slight amount of pressure involved, but the less you can apply, the better your pen’s nib will like it. (When I was in elementary school, during penmanship class the teacher would take off her shoes and move around the classroom. Every so often, she would come up behind a pupil unheard, reach quickly over the pupil's shoulder, and snatch the pen straight back out of the pupil's hand. If the pen didn’t slip right out, that was a sign that it was being held too tightly.)
The final ingredient in holding a pen properly is moving your whole hand, not just your fingers, as you move the nib across the paper. Treat the pen, your hand and your forearm as a rigid assembly, moving the pen with your shoulder muscles. This may seem difficult or impossible, but it’s actually easy to do with a little practice. Turn your body a little so that you can rest your writing arm on the desk or table, with your hand and elbow at about the same distance from the edge. You’ll discover that there’s a pad of muscle and fat on your forearm, and it forms a perfect bearing for the forearm to slide back and forth. The photo below shows a writer with her arms and hands in an ideal position.
When I describe this style of writing, some of my listeners become concerned, saying, “But if I write that way, my handwriting will look different. I’ll have to learn how to make it look the way it does now.” Fortunately, that’s not how it works. If you can remember what it was like when you were sent to the board in your school classes, you may recall that once you got past the embarrassment of being up there in front of the whole class, you picked up a piece of chalk (or an erasable marker) and started writing. With your shoulder. Surprise! Your handwriting on the board didn’t look much different after all. The shape of your handwriting is brain memory, and your brain guides your hand to produce the same style whether you write with your fingers or your shoulder. Shoulder writing is like riding a bicycle; the motions will be a little clumsy when you first start, but you’ll quickly overcome the clumsiness just as you did when you learned to ride your first bike. (I would go through the same learning process, in reverse, if I tried to finger-write.) The greatest difficulty in learning to shoulder-write is the incredibly strong tendency to slip back into the old habit of writing with your fingers. It will take perseverance to overcome this tendency.
Why bother with all of this? Well, as I said before, it’s relaxation therapy. If you’re not stressing the muscles of your hand, which are small and have relatively little energy reserve, you’ll be able to write more comfortably and for a longer period. And, as I said even earlier, it’s a lot better for your pen’s health and well-being.