Thursday, June 2, 2011

Beautiful Handwriting and the Secret of the Flex Nib

Ever wondered how those beautiful written texts of the past were written? There is a certain charm in the manner in which these were written, there was a rhythm, there was a graceful flow, a very expressive tone, and when looking at them now, produces almost a mystical look.

Often time we wonder , maybe it was the talent of the writers, with such gifted handwriting, which probably is too difficult to acquire. No question about the talent of the hand that wrote those beautiful texts, but no matter how hard one tries, unless the tool is right it will never be as good.

Apart from the style and grace of the hand, the variation in the width of the strokes is the key ingredient and the secret behind the expressive variable width is the Flexible nib of the pens that was used to write them.

Of course these were not written with modern ball point pens or roller gel pens. Even the flat edges Calligraphy pens can only come close. In olden times pens were in the form of nibs set in a holder and dipped in bottles(ink wells) of ink and used. The simplicity of the mechanism also meant a flexibility in the kind of ink one can use. The ink can be pigment based (opposed to modern dye-based inks) and hence can be very dense and non-feathering, waterproof and indelible.

Apart from that advantage, the nibs can be of varying types. very thin to thick, and from very stiff to very very flexible. The Flexible nibs again varied from Flex, to semi flex and no flex and everything in between.

These flexible nibs were capable of producing lines of varying thickness based on the amount of pressure exerted on them. some nibs such as the Hunt 100 is so thin, yet totally flexible that it can produce very huge swells if pressed even slightly. Some such as Gillott 404 and Gillott 303 had manageable amount of flex.

Using these a very interesting and varied types of text can be produced. The style and grammar of such handwriting evolved and one can see styles such as Spencerian or Copperplate as being more popular.

As dip pens gave way to fountain pens (we are still talking of 'ancient' times), the flexible nibs became a speciality. It was a challenge to produce flexible nibs that can work inside a fountain pen's feed mechanism. Gold was the most suitable since it can flex without breaking, and also at the same time resistant to corrosion, since fountain pens stayed wet even when not in use. Hence it became expensive to have flexible nib fountain pens, and slowly the flex nib along with the fountain pens faded away from public memory.

Of course it did not fade away from everyone, and there always existed a set of individuals passionate about handwriting, flexible nibs, and what not, and they continued the tradition, however with limited supply of vintage flex nib fountain pens, which became more and more expensive and certainly into the hundreds of dollars.

One always had the choice of using a dip pen. but it always comes with its own disadvantages, such as lack of portability and increased maintenance. The increased interest in Manga, has re infused the enthusiasm in dip pens , and there is a specialized set of nibs from Nikko, Tachikawa and Zebra such as the G-Pen, which offer great flex capabilities. One can still get Gillott, and from other manufacturers such as Leonardt, and Brause.

Most recently the intriguing company called the Noodler's Ink company has introduced a beautiful flex nib fountain pen that has satisfied the cravings of a flex nib enthusiast, at a price that won't pinch the pocket.

All of these is recent knowledge to me, and it was a great liberating experience to take a flexible dip pen, dense India ink, and produce some very interesting vintage style text with expressive strokes.

Some of the resources that helped are the Fountain Pen Network, Russ Stutler's Sketching Forum and countless blogs from great folks.

If you want to know all about Penmenship, the only place you ever want to go is IAMPETH. And of course you need your choice of dip pen, or fountain pen with a good flex nib and a bottle of beautiful ink, and endless supply of paper.

Next time you want to send a handwritten note, or a little note on the tiny little card on the gift, you are better equipped.

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