By Mike Stevens
originally issued August 1999
Maybe you're new to collecting, and you've heard all the discussion over flex nibs. Can you find a flex nib on a modern pen, or did the last of the true flex nibs die out in the 30s? Which pens have 'em, and which don't? And so on..... So you might be asking yourself, should I care about this?
Well, to start with, a flex nib, or at least a true flexible nib, can be a wonderful thing. It can also be a royal pain in the posterior. The chief characteristic of a flexible nib is (oddly enough, considering the name) the flexibility of the tines. The more flexible the tines are, the wider the spread as pressure
|is put on the nib during writing. Once the tines spread apart, and ink flow increases, the line width increases.
So, with a flexible nib, you get a thicker line the harder you press down while writing.
Almost all nibs will have some degree of flex to them in the tines. However, most will not have what I call "real" flexibility. They may be soft enough, but they lack the springiness of a true flex nib. Instead of each tine flexing separately, the nib as a
whole bends. This can give you a soft feel, but not anywhere near the kind of variation in line width possible with a good flex nib. The tines move apart, as they do on all nibs to some degree or another, but with an older flex nib, the flow of ink going onto the paper changes more dramatically than with modern "soft" nibs.
I tend to find that the last real flex nibs were made in Europe, around the 1950s or so. Some Pelikans and MB pens from this era have very flexible nibs, in the original sense. Much past this time, the nibs tend to be soft, but not really flexible. In US pens, the trend towards rigid nibs began in the 1930s, with one of the chief selling points of the Parker Duofold being it's very rigid nib. The Parker 51 and Sheaffer Triumph nib pens also boasted (for the most part!) very rigid nibs.
In modern pens, rigid nibs are far more common than even "soft" nibs. In many ways this is probably to be expected, it's a lot easier to transition from a ballpoint to a rigid nib than a soft nib. It is also very important to note that a rigid nib is not automatically a bad nib! Many of my favorite nibs are not flexible, or even particularly soft. Flex nibs and rigid nibs are different, but it's not that one is any better than the other, they are two entirely different animals.
There may be a perception that flexible is better, and some modern pen manufacturers have gotten on the bandwagon in this regard. I have noticed that its' become popular to have a "flexible" nib mentioned in your advertisements, and there are such pens as the Namiki Falcon, and the Platinum Purist which are designed and marketed as "flex" nib pens.
Other pens that have received a lot of press for being "flexible" are the Parker Sonnet, Pelikans, Stipulas, OMAS 14K nib pens, and the Sheaffer Balance II. I would probably call all of these nibs "soft" rather than truly flexible, in the vintage sense of the word. In other words, if you tried them out next to, say, a Modern Duofold, or a Waterman Le Man, you would be impressed at their "flexibility". Try them next to a Waterman's Hundred Year, and you would see the difference between "flex" and "soft".
I love all of the nibs mentioned above, mind you, modern Pelikans, are, to my mind some of the best nibs ever made. I have a Stipula that writes like a dream, and the nib is about the best thing on the Balance II. In other words, it's not fair to go into a comparison like this with the idea that there will be a winners and losers. While I love a great vintage super flex nib, I wouldn't care to use on as an everyday work pen. A Pelikan M1000 or M800, on the other hand, serves that purpose more often than not. I tend to judge a pen's nib, whether vintage or modern more upon how it writes than how flexible it is. There are bad flex nibs out there, not matter how super flexible a nib is, it it's out of alignment, missing iridium, or other wise just not up snuff, you won't enjoy writing with it very much!
So, with all the caveats out of the way, and the understanding that we are comparing these pens against each other, and not against vintage flex nibs, let's take a look at the best of modern "flex" nibs! I have tried, in most cases, to separate the nibs from the pens, in terms of performance, so as to not handicap what might be an excellent nib, trapped in a poorly performing pen. Interestingly enough, this was only really necessary in two cases, every other pen was a superior performer right out of the box. Another note, you will not find the Platinum Purist or the Namiki Falcon in this list. It's not really a matter of leaving them out on purpose, but rather that I don't think either one is any more flexible, in the traditional sense, than, say the M1000. Aside from this, I don't happen to own either one, so I can't really speak to their qualities as users. I am fairly certain that, both being from companies with excellent reputations of high quality, that either would make a great pen, if you like the streamlined, thinner style pen. Don't expect flex to match your old Wahl Eversharp, but you can look for a nice, smooth, soft nib.
Number Five: Parker Sonnet The Parker Sonnet has a pretty well known reputation among us "serious" pen nuts. Promoted by Parker as "The Writer's Pen", it's generally known for being the "Non-Writing Pen". Most of the trouble with the Sonnet seems to come from it's habit of drying out much faster than most pens, even when securely capped. This is commonly attributed to the massive air vent in the cap, located beneath the clip. Various methods of sealing this gap have been tried, most of which work to some degree or another, and can make the Sonnet a much easier pen to live with. It's a nice, smaller sized pen, slim, and very well balanced. It's made in a wide range of finishes, from plain laquer and stainless steel, with plated steel nibs, to luxurious versions in solid sterling silver, with 18K nibs.
Since we are looking at this pen from the standpoint of it's nib, and the flex thereof, let's stick to the 18K versions. This is not to say that the plain steel nibs are bad, in fact, I rather like them as far as a good, inexpensive writer goes. I can pretty much live without the fancy two tone versions found on the highest end models, but they do look sharp. The nib on the Sonnet is always touted as being one of it's high points. It is a nice nib, and definitely has that "soft" feel that passes for flexibility in a modern pen.
While you don't get as much give as on the Pelikan nib, the Sonnet is a pretty nice effort from Parker, and if you like slim, heavy pens, the Sonnet is not a bad choice. As long as you are willing to take the time to get one that works! This will not likely be an "out of the box" wonder. You may have to send it back to Parker for adjustments, seal the cap vent, and otherwise fiddle with it. this seems to be the norm for Sonnets, unfortunately. On the other hand, I have had several that were great writers, once I got the caps sealed up.
The QC problems are what put the Sonnet at the bottom of my list. Once you get around those, it's not a bad pen at all, and certainly more than good enough as regards the nib!