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The Joy of Flex
Everything I Know About It - Which Won't Take A Long Time To Read

from the fountain pen of Bob Helfrich

Click here for an illustrated companion to this article.

Q1. What is Flex, Why do some nibs have it and others don't ?

A1. Actually that's two questions, but it it weren't for the second
part, the first couldn't be asked.

With increased hand pressure on the pen, some nibs respond by
having the tine tips move apart and leave a wider ink line. The tines
do not bend, they move apart like scissors. With the release of
pressure, the tines snap back together quickly, and make their 'normal'
line width.

Nibs have flex because they are designed that way.

Q2. Why Would Anyone Want A Flexible Nib ?

A2. Flex nibs can give a wide variation in line widths and make shaded
letters, where one part of a letter may be 3 to 5 times wider than
another part of the same letter.

Q3. Don't Italic and Stub Nibs Also Give Line Variations?

A3. Stubs and Italics usually give line variation because they make a
wide down stroke and a much narrower cross stroke. There usually isn't
variance in the widths of the strokes as with a flexible nib. (Yes,
there are Flexible Stub and Flexible Italic nibs, juts to confuse

Q4. Do All Flex Nibs Flex The Same Amount ? [How Much Flex Would A Flex
Nib Flex If A Flex Nib Flexed Full Flex?]

A4. There is no fixed ratio. It seems that if a nib actually flexes by
the tines separating (without bending) and snapping back to their
'normal' line, the nib is at least "Semi-Flex:. Flex and Super Flex are
likewise subjective evaluations.

Not that anyone ever asked me to do it, but it seems to me that a
Semi-flex nib will make a line up to 3 times the width of its normal
line; a flexible nib, up to 5 times; a Superflex up to 7. No such
standard exists, but using this as a working definition, the difference
between 'soft' nibs ( which may increase line width by the bending of
the tines) and flexible one's is clearer.

Q5. What is a Nibs "Normal" Line

A5. The "Normal" Line is the nib width as set by the Manufacturer - EF,
F, M, B, BB, 3B etc. A flex nib should always return to its 'normal'
line when pressure is released.

Q6. Don't All Nibs Make A Wider Line When Pressure is Applied ?

A6. True, even a BiC will leave a wider line when its pressed harder
into the paper. But fountain pens leave ink "on' paper, not 'in' paper
( except for those using Parker SuperChrome ink). The difference is the
amount of pressure. A rigid nib will act like a Ball Point ball -
pressure will not change the width of the nib unless it breaks it.

A 'soft' or 'responsive' nib will bend under light pressure and may
even flex, but it will not 'snap back' to the 'normal' line. (The nibs
can usually be reset.)

Q7. Can Too Much Pressure Be Put On A Flex Nib ?

A7. Flex nibs become 'sprung' when too much force is applied. The nib
may, under great force, break.

Q8. How Much Pressure is Safe To Use On A Flex Nib ?

A8. The pressure will differ from pen to pen and nib to nib, but do not
press so hard that the nib tines bend after they have flexed to their
optimal width - the optimal point is "just before the flexed tines

Q9. What Are Flex Nibs Good For ?

A9. Flexible nibs make some people's handwriting look more interesting.
Sadly, no pen has the ability to make the content more interesting.
Flexible nibs are good for correspondence and short notes.

Q10 What Can't Flex Nibs Do Well ?

A10. Flexible nibs are harder to use than Rigid nibs. Flexible nibs
tend to be less smooth than rigid nibs. (Probably due to the flexes
flexing.) Flexible nibs can't make carbon copies. Flexible nibs aren't
great for writing quickly.

Q11. Where Does One Find Flexible Nibs ?

A11. For advertising purposes, nearly every pen boasts a "flexible
nibs." As a general rule, flexible nibs are somewhat hard to find.
Even in the 'golden age' of pens, Flexible nibs were a small fraction of
a company's output. Some vintage pen dealers are very scrupulous in
describing the amount of flex a given nib has on a given pen.

I have two Crocker Pens about 100 years old, one has a Superflex nib
other rivals a modern rigid nib like a Waterman or a Rotring. The only
way to know if a nib is flexible is to see if it flexes.

OMAS offers a 14kt Superflex Nib - but I never wanted to be parted from
any of my OMAS pens long enough to have one retrofitted.

Q12. Are Any Modern Nibs Flexible?

A12. Not having tried all modern nibs, I can't say. Pens with somewhat
flexible nibs that I have are Marlen Atellans, some Viscontis, some
Pelikans, some MBs, some OMAS 18kt nibs, Diplomat 1922, Delta, Cross,
Stipula Namiki. None of these modern nibs has the same amount of flex
an some vintage Flexible nibs. Most of these are Semi-flex, the tines
spread a moderate amount.

Q13. Are There Modern Manufacturer's Who Don't Make Flexible Nibs?

A13. In general, I don't think that Rotring, Lamy, Waterman ( save for
the Liaison and Serenite), Aurora, Ancora, Sheaffer, Alvin have any
flexible nibs

Q14. What Vintage Pens Have Flexible Nibs?

A14. Nearly every vintage manufacturer made some flexible nibs - but
these were a minor part of their offerings. Not only were few flexible
nibs made, but flexible nibs are more subject to breakage, its likely
that fewer survived.

Q15 Are Flexible Nibs Hard To Use ?

A15 They are hard to use well. First, one needs to write with very
little pressure on the nib or the range of line widths is lost. (If
your hand is so heavy that the nib is always flexed then there's no
where to go.)

Flexible nibs tend to magnify handwriting problems - so if your not
happy with your handwriting as it is you'll be downright appalled by
what a flexible nib can do to it. Getting the nib to flex when you want
it to is only half the problem. The other is keeping it from flexing
when you don't want it flexed.

Also, because there is the possibility for wide variation in line
widths, letters have to be made consistently or the handwriting is very
hard to read.

If you have practiced Italic writing style and are used to the zen of
pen - the discipline necessary to make handwriting into an spiritual
exercise (art or craft, if you prefer) the transition will be easy. If
you see writing as finding out what the nib will do, you'll probably be
a natural. If handwriting is making the nib do what you want it to
without any realization that nibs are different, your likely to have

Q16. What Advantages Do Rigid Nibs Have Over Flex Nibs ?

A 16 Rigid nibs are easier to write with and usually smoother nibs.
Rigid nibs aren't as touchy about handwriting style or angle of attack.

In the pre-Xerox, pre-PC office setting, Rigid (manifold) nibs were
needed to make carbon copies; to make accounting and bookkeeping entries
in large Ledgers with fixed columns (Most companies made an Accountant
nib, a EEF rigid nib.)

Rigid nibs are much more durable. The rise of the Lifetime Guarantee
by Parker and Sheaffer moved these companies even more heavily toward
rigid nibs - They don't have to be replaced nearly as often. Many rigid
nib pens can survive being dropped nib first onto the floor. This is a
death knell for a flexible one.

Unlike the flexible nibs, rigid nibs usually don't get sprung. If they
do become out of alignment, they are not hard to realign.

Q17. How Do You Know If You Should Try Flexible Nibs ?

A17. Even inexpensive fountain pens with flex nibs are a fairly
expensive item. The most economical way to practice with Italic, stub,
flexible, oblique, reverse oblique, or scroll nibs is to get a handful
of Speedball ( or other dip nibs) and some wooden or plastic holders. A
basic Speedball Lettering or Calligraphy manual, some ink and paper, and
some time is all you need to experiment with all sorts of styles.
Knowing the proper way to make letters isn't all that necessary for
rigid nibs, but is a prerequisite for flexible nibs.

Practice takes time, but the skills developed remain with you after the
practicing ceases. Flexible nibs require the writer to be mindful of
what he or she is doing - so the learner must be disciplined in
practice. If you have 15 minutes a day, do it for 15 minutes each day -
don't try to do 90 minutes once a week (its really too boring to do for
90 minutes of correct letter formation for most of us -- although some
people can seem to do it endlessly -- like that roommate you had who
tuned a guitar string for an hour per string, but never played

Q.18 Can you Tell If A Nib Is Flexible Just By Looking At It?

A.18. In comparing flexible nibs to rigid nibs: the tines of a flexible nib may be
be longer and thinner, the breather hole will be further from the tip, and the
shoulders of the nib will not be as blocky.

Viewed from the side, a rigid nib will probably have a constant thickness while
a flexible nibs thins out towards the nib tipping. But this isn't foolproof
especially if you don't have a known rigid nib for comparison.

The only obvious evidence that a nib is flexible comes by flexing it. Put the
nib on a white piece of paper and press very lightly, if the tines separate, its flexible.
If the tines both separate and bend, they may not go back to their normal line.

Q19. Are Only 14kt Nibs Flexible ?

A19, Flexibility depends on how a nib is made, not what its made of.
Steel nibs can be as Superflex as springs. With Gold nibs, the increase
of other metals in the alloy means that a 12kt nib could be more
flexible than a 14kt . . .18kt. But all materials can be made into
flexible or rigid nibs.

Q20 Have You Told Us Everything You Know About Flexible Nibs ?

A20. I've probably told you more than I know - but we have space to

Q21. Where Did You Get The Flexible Nib Pens You Have

A21. I've picked up a flexible Conklin Nozac 5M at a pen show. The rest
have come from dealers and individuals over the internet To mention
individual names and purchases risks being a commercial endorsement and
also risks not mentioning the names of very reputable dealers.

Q22. Are There Web sites With Information On Nibs ?

A.22. As this is for information, you might want to check:
nibs.com, vintagepens.com, seattlepen.com/nibs.html, jimgaston.com,
pencentral.com. They will all have good links to other sites of

Q23 Are Fine, Medium, and Broad the only Sizes of Flex Nibs ?

A.23 In Vintage pens, one can (infrequently) come across flexible and
semi-flex nibs in Italic, Stub, and Oblique. Combinations like flexible
fine Italic nibs occasionally turn up.

Q 24. Are Flexible Nibs Worth More Than Non Flexible Nibs ?

A.24. Worth and price don't always have a direct relationship in pens -
often they've never been introduced properly. Flexible nibs are
probably scarcer than rigid nibs, but then they're also more likely to
break and harder to use It seems a toss-up to me, but then I'm not
selling any. The price the seller gets is related only to how much the
buyer wants the item.

Q 25. What Credentials Do You Have To Write This Piece ?

A.25. I'm not a nib meister, calligrapher or graphic artist, nor a well
known pen collector, metallurgist, pen repair specialist nor even all
that knowledgeable on pen history and design.

I do use and like flexible and semiflexible nibs. They aren't even
the organizing principle of my collection- they just sort of happened as
I was collecting odd filler mechanisms. Having practiced Italic
calligraphy about 30 years ago -so that my handwriting could be read by
me - I found that the techniques, though rusty, still carried over. A
light hand and the ability to adapt yourself to find out what the nib is
capable of doing is probably the best indicator of whether someone
should use flexible nibs.

Also, flexible nibs are not good for all writing - trying to take notes
on a lecture with a flex nib is a recipe for disaster - and not helpful
when one has to write fast. In these situations, break out the Carene
or Rotring 900.

The viewpoints and opinions expressed are not necessarily the opinions
of Pentrace.com nor the people associated with it. The secretary will
disavow all knowledge (oops, wrong channel.)

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