A while back I wrote asking when we should expect nibs that work out of the box and who holds the responsibility. This is only partially a follow up, as the idea actually came out of a discussion else where, and this is on what our expectations should be with those nibs not normally associated with every day hand writing. The stub; italic; and flex nibs.
I am coming at this from two directions. First, who are the target market for fountain pens and second, who is the target market for speciality nibs. Additionally I shall touch on why we the fountain pen collector and enthusiast not the chosen ones. Please note that last statement is not meant as click-bait or a fire starter, it is an opinion which hopefully I will make clearer further down in this article.
So what do I consider a speciality nib. To me it is one that would normally not be used for writing in the office, at school, making notes, updating diaries and journaling (aside from illuminations). It could be argued that ultra extra fine (UEF) and large broads (BB, BBB, etc) could come under this banner, but I am excluding them as they can be used normally, just with very small or very large writing.
So first off, who is the target market for fountain pens. While there may be many of us who are keen fountain pen collectors and users, some of whom will have hundreds of pens and total values in the thousands of pounds/dollars/euros, it is actually not us. Sure the small speciality makers generally are dependant on our trade, but not the big boys, not the luxury makers who are brands belonging to corporations and investment groups. Many people will just own one or two pens, they may be given them as gifts, or buy them for work, but the total numbers far exceed the collector. This is the reason the likes of Cross, Faber-Castell, Lamy, Montblanc, Parker, ST Dupont,… sell pens primarily with just medium nibs. Sure from a speciality store you can get other options and some of the brands offer free nib swaps, but they know the majority of the people buying their product do not care. Now at this point I’m sure one or two of you are shouting ‘what about the really expensive pens, the Graf von Faber Castell Pen of the Years, the high end Montblancs and Montegrappas’. Take a look, you will find the only nib options being Fine, Medium, and Broad with maybe the occasional EF or BB. What about urushi, chinkin, and maki-e pens. Please do not confuse SF and SM for what they are not (I will cover them in a bit), for looking at Nakaya, Namiki, and Sailor, again you will only find ‘regular’ nib options, some times just medium. I will touch on Nagahara speciality nibs (either generation) later on.
So who do I believe the speciality nibs are for and why do I think this affects the way they should be used. Artists and calligraphers. Now remember many of us own and use stubs, italics, and flex nibs, and like myself have poor handwriting and/or drawing skills. We use these nibs for fun and for something different. But we are not the real target market, we just help generate extra cash. I say the latter as flex/semi-flex nibs have always cost more and now we are starting to see the same with italic and stub nibs. But why should this matter? Well because artists and calligraphers take their time, move the pen slowly (partly my failing), do deliberate and controlled strokes and flourishes. Ink flow needs to be controlled. Too wet or too rapid and their careful lines are ruined.
Now taking my two assumptions above, there is a third thing to take in to account. Manufacturing costs and margins. Pen makers are just like anyone else, they need to make a profit. Margins are tight and prices are rising. So how does this affect speciality nibs, especially as I have already mentioned we are starting to be charged an additional premium for them? Feeds. Most pen and nib manufacturers normally just have the one feed for each nib size. It does not matter whether it is plastic or ebonite. For multiple variations on feeds you need multiple cutting dies (for each machine) and having to reconfigure for each batch. It is all time and money so having just the one option keeps costs down.
Now obviously, we the hobbyist pay the penalty for this. We want to enjoy the bounce of a flex nib with the occasional flourishes, or add character to our writing with a stub, but while keeping to our usual writing pace. Net result we get ink starvation, especially with larger stubs and italics, or wider lines when flexing. The conversation that gave me the inspiration for this piece resulted in a number of people pointing out there are stub and italic nibs out there that have no ink flow problems. Bock, JoWo, Lamy and OMAS/ScriBo (18k nibs) come to mind, however all of these brands suffer from people complaining their fine nibs are closer to a medium and there is little difference between their F and EF. Reason being, sure the feeds are great at supplying the ink and the speciality nibs work with no issues, however at the other end of the tipping size scale there is too much ink. Net result the makers can not win.
There actually is one specialist nib that does normally come with a dedicated feed. A nib named after an industry that does not use it. A nib that normally increases the cost significantly of a pen compared to others in the same range. The music nib. Take the Platinum 3776 for example. On Cult Pens you can presently buy one for £119. The same pen with a music nib is £185. We are talking a 55% increase in price here. Part of the reason is the nib with its three tines, but pull that and you find a feed with two channels. No ink flow problems here (in theory). But you pay for it. I note the Sailor 1911 music nib is just £20 more than the regular version, however it just has two tines and is narrower than it’s rivals. (Here are some videos from Mike ‘Inkdependence’ Matteson and Figboot on Pens comparing music nibs). Would you be prepared to pay [slightly] more for a music nib feed with a ‘regular’ stub or italic, after all in reality it is just a wider version.
You will note I have not yet mentioned other Japanese speciality nibs, but this is because I feel they are not covered by this article. The Sailor Nagahara nibs are all hand tuned, as are the feeds, and you pay a LOT for those. The sf and mf you get from Platinum and Pilot (also sfm) are not actually flex nibs by European standards, but are designed for East Asian/Oriental calligraphy as replacements for a brush. Sure they can write nicely, but the ‘flex’ is actually a ‘flick’ of the nib to allow for the creation of the tail you see in artistic writing. As with other calligraphic writing implements, the artist takes their time with use, however from experience you can write quickly with them with no issues, it’s just that you will find the nib to be stiffer than expected if you try to use them as actual flex nibs (I should add I have at present a Platinum MF and a size 15 Pilot FA, and have previously owned a Platinum SF and a size 10 Pilot FA).
So my thoughts. I suspect I am going to be in the minority here, especially after my earlier article. As the flex, italic, and stub nibs are targeted at users who will take their time and who need good ink flow control, i.e. not too wet, I feel we should accept that we need to take our time when using these types of speciality nib. Sure it could be argued that anyone serious with calligraphy will be using dip pens, but if not why should they get too wet a line to satisfy our needs. The problem is we forget writing implements are tools and as such we need to learn how to use them properly. A rough analogy would be using a filleting knife to cube potatoes or slice carrots. Sure it can be done, but the flexing blade is designed to curve round bones. Taking your time and you will cut straight. Use it like a traditional cooks knife and you are going to struggle.
Not the best wrap up from me, but then I am conflicted over this and part of me thinks that pen makers should have two feeds. A wetter one for medium and larger nibs, plus stubs and italics, and a dryer feed for fine nibs and narrower. At present the only manufacturer I can think of who does this is Platinum (and as a result, Nakaya – though they do not supply their dual channel feeds to their repairers and resellers, so if you want a music nib on a Nakaya you must get it direct from them).
So what are your thoughts? I know many of you will disagree with me and that is fine, after all this discussion is about opening up debate, either in the comments below or by posting in your own blogs and vblogs (and if you do the latter then please drop my name and a link as your inspiration 😉 ).