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How do you hold your vintage flex-nib pens?

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33 replies to this topic

#1 Huffward


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Posted 07 November 2007 - 13:44

I bought another old Wyvern a short while ago. It seemed a little scratchy. I was about to reach for the crocus paper when I paused. Retaking the pen, I held it the way that I and my parents had been taught as children to hold it, index finger laid along the top of the barrel, middle finger along the side, which has the effect of keeping the entire barrel below the index finger’s top knuckle. You don’t grip the pen with the ends of your fingers, but lay it between your fingers

When you hold a pen like this, it lies flatter (lower pitch, shallower incline, however you want to put it) and you use much less pressure. Result – the Wyvern no longer scratches – it glides - and without any intervention from the crocus paper. Apparently, this pen had lain unused in a drawer for donkey’s years before I bought it. It occurred to me that the previous owner had probably written with it at this flatter angle, and with this lighter pressure.

This led me to a further thought. I checked with some of my older friends who told me that they, and presumably their parents too, had been taught this flatter, lighter, pen-hold. So it seems likely that many or most children at English grammar and private schools in the 1920s – 50s were taught to hold their pen this way. I am not making an elitist point here. School kids in general used dip pens in earlier times (see below) and dip pens have to be held in a similar way. But I’m thinking specifically of the people who used Burnham, Conway Stewart, Onoto, and Wyvern gold flex nibs – the people these pens were designed for. I tried to consult photographs from the period showing people writing or about to write (as distinct from people posing with a pen in their hand, or simply waving one about). I found only a few, but the index finger laid along the top of the barrel was a common feature.

Now that I have lost the habit of holding a pen this way, it is difficult to re-adopt it. But why have I lost it? The ball pen, of course, is to blame (and here, to my shame, I must confess that for a number of years I used them). A ball pen will simply not write if you hold it flat. The more vertically you hold it the better. And you need to apply a deal more pressure than you do with a fountain pen. The same is true of the wretched roller-ball, a ghastly compromise that I particularly loathe. So I believe that most of us who use or have used ball pens, now hold our fountain pens more vertically, and write with greater pressure than was the case sixty or more years ago.

I suspect that modern fountain pens take this into account, to some extent at least. The Inlaid nib on my Sheaffer Legacy has a pronounced upward sweep (the business end in profile looks like the prow of a late eighteenth-century warship). I also have an old Sheaffer Lifetime from the 1950s, and its Triumph-type nib points the opposite way – downwards. So was the old Sheaffer designed to be held flatter than the new one, and was the Inlaid nib a response to the inevitable widespread adoption of the more vertical ball-pen grip, and heavier pressure?

I have noticed some other things too.

Flex. Holding a vintage British flex-nib pen flatter, the nib will respond to minimal pressure changes – including unconscious ones. You apply the pressure, not with the hand, but with the index finger alone. If you hold the pen like a ball pen (I contend) any attempt to flex the nib becomes clumsy and (I now believe) may damage it in time

General pen pressure. I’ve seen some old pens with cracks across the nib, and missing nibs. Was this damage cause by using the pen incorrectly, and under too much pressure? Of course, I accept that ink corrosion is also a big factor. But perhaps the real killer was the combination of the two. A few years ago, I also managed to crack the section of a Sheaffer – straight down its front. Thinking about this, excessive pressure was almost certainly the cause, not defective manufacture (which I was happy to blame at the time). This was a pen from the late 50s or early 60’s. Are sections more robustly made now?

My English master used to say (punctuating his harangue with many clips round the ear): “A pen GLIDES across the page – boy; you don’t cut great trenches in the paper with it – boy; it’s not a plough boy!” (Schoolmasterly wit here!) And yes, I am certainly using more pressure than I was taught to and used to. Hold the old Wyvern, and my other vintage British pens, flatter, and they glide. I tried some experiments with an old dip pen, a horrible thing now that we are no longer accustomed to using them. Hold it flat, fingers well back from the nib, and apply minimal pressure. It’s hard work, but you get a reasonable result. Try to hold it like a ball pen and pressure it - SCRATCH, SCRATCH, great ink spatters all down your shirt and on the wall.

Materials. Vintage British pens tended to be made from fairly light and fragile materials, casein plastic for example. This has been superseded by more robust plastics, brass, and titanium. A response to heavier use?

Pen size. I have long maintained that I prefer a large pen, and that smaller, slimmer pens are less comfortable to hold, and consequently tire my hand. My one difficulty with some of these vintage British pens has been their small size and slimness. Yet if I hold these pens correctly (by ‘correctly’, I mean ‘held as I believe they were designed to be held’) their size ceases to present a problem.

Very early pens. Pens up to the 1920s tended to be long and slender. These were designed for people who had learned to write using dip pens. One thing you have to do with a dip pen is hold it well away from the nib, or you get yourself into a terrible mess. Dip pens traditionally were slender. And it is logical that the early fountain pens would be based on their precursors in this respect. Of course, if you hold a pen well away from the nib, you HAVE to hold it flatter. So should you hold a very early pen in this way in order to realise its true writing characteristics? It seems logical to assume that you should.

Weight: I’ve long maintained that I prefer a reasonably heavy pen, and I have found the vintage pens lighter than is ideal. But hold them ‘correctly’ and you realise that they HAVE to be light.

I shared these conclusions and ideas with my eighty-five-year-old father (a Parker Duofold man who won’t allow a ball pen in the house). He did a very slow burn, looked at me as though I’d crawled from under a rock, and said: “Isn’t this what I’ve been telling you all your life?” Well, I confess it is. I just haven’t listened. My interest in vintage pens is relatively recent, and for many years I simply switched off from the lecture. He has always told me that there is a ‘correct’ way to hold a pen, and if you hold it that way, you can write furiously for twelve hours at a stretch without fatigue. An exaggeration, perhaps, but I am now sure that there is rhyme and reason to it.

So, what are my conclusions?

1. We tend to hold pens more vertically than those who were trained to write using dip pens and early/vintage fountain pens, that is, before the ball-pen era.

2. Ball pens have encouraged us to use greater pressure, necessary for the ball pen but unnecessary for vintage fountain pens.

3. The old flex nibs were not built to withstand enthusiastic attempts to flex them at the wrong angle and under too much pressure.

4. The lighter construction of a lot of vintage pens reflects the fact that they were more lightly held.

5. Very early pens should he held like dip pens, flat, and well away from the nib. VERY little pressure should be applied.

6. Modern fountain pens take account of this steeper, heavier writing style.

7. Say what you like about the virtues of vintage flex pens. If you’re not holding them right, and flexing them with anything other than your index finger, you are deluding yourself.

Because I am now changing my pen hold, my handwriting has gone to pot. Recovering it will require perseverance. I also have to make a choice now between using modern pens, and using vintage ones. I don’t see how I can use both. I’ll have to go for the vintage pens, I guess. And if I dispose of my modern pens I will be obliged to persevere with the hold and try to recover my handwriting, which may revert to its earlier character, and seems to be reverting already.

I’m not suggesting that these conclusion are original, assuming that they are correct at all. I dare say that many vintage pen users DO hold their pens ‘correctly’ or will tell me quite plainly that I’m talking drivel. But I thought the idea worth posting, if only to give others the opportunity to shoot it down in flames.

"Once you have absolved people of the consequences of their own folly, you will have populated the world with fools." (Herbert Spenser)

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#2 richardandtracy


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Posted 07 November 2007 - 14:33

I agree with you about the angle. However I've hardly ever written with a ball point and the pen naturally falls into the 'old fashioned' position you describe.

I do find I press quite hard though. I normally write with a P61, and have in recent weeks been experimenting with a P51 - which I find needs as much pressure. However, I have recently inherited my Grandmother's Onoto dating back to the 1920's (probably). I was terrified of the degree of flex on the nib I caused when I first dipped the pen and started to write with it like I would a P61. I will have to learn a new, gentler, writing style whenever I get the pen restored.



#3 Huffward


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Posted 07 November 2007 - 15:07

QUOTE(richardandtracy @ Nov 7 2007, 02:33 PM) View Post
I agree with you about the angle. However I've hardly ever written with a ball point and the pen naturally falls into the 'old fashioned' position you describe.

I do find I press quite hard though. I normally write with a P61, and have in recent weeks been experimenting with a P51 - which I find needs as much pressure. However, I have recently inherited my Grandmother's Onoto dating back to the 1920's (probably). I was terrified of the degree of flex on the nib I caused when I first dipped the pen and started to write with it like I would a P61. I will have to learn a new, gentler, writing style whenever I get the pen restored.



This is interesting. I'm not really a Parker person (reaction to my father, I suppose - you always like to be different) but I have a couple, though not very good ones. I have a 17 with the exposed nib (UK 1963 I think) and an old 45. I find that both require some pressure, and a bit of a scrub sometimes to get them going. Neither of my Sheaffers REQUIRE much pressure at all though the modern Legacy seems happier held more vertically under some pressure, and I imagine it can take an awful lot of it. The nib looks and feels constructed to withstand this. The vintage Sheaffer, the four Wyverns, CS, and Burnham, all seem happier held flat with negligible pressure.

Of course, pressure assessments are subjective. Having used Sheaffer inlaid nibs for years, I have got away with pressing pretty hard (the cracked section I mentioned being the single casualty).


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#4 Ernst Bitterman

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Posted 07 November 2007 - 18:29

I hold mine in high regard thumbup.gif

This may explain why I had so much misery during my years of BP use-- I always hold a pen as described, which with an BP seems to build up a blob of cast-off on the side of the point opposite travel, which leaps off upon changing that direction (like at the top of a t). And, of course, not rolling out ink at all at some points. No wonder I'm such an FP partisan.

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#5 antoniosz



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Posted 08 November 2007 - 03:24

The answer is yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes and yes smile.gif
You are absolutely correct. Regarding the angle see rule #2 below smile.gif

Edited by antoniosz, 08 November 2007 - 03:24.



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Posted 08 November 2007 - 05:22

Nice post antoniosz, thanks for the timely tips!!


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#7 tamburlaine



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Posted 08 November 2007 - 13:36

Thanks for this post, Huffward. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

I haven't any flex pens to speak of, but someday I definitely hope to have a couple, perhaps a Burnham or such. But anyway, the question of how to hold a pen has long intrigued me - at school I always held my pen differently from everyone else (one witnesses some atrocious methods of holding pens in schools) and I believed at the time that I was holding my writing instrument the 'proper' more traditional manner, as you (and your father) have mentioned. I mainly thought this because I recall my father making such a comment to me. I wasn't taught to hold in any particular way as I recall it, but my hand has always grasped the instrument as I do now, with a low angle. Now I believe, through this forum, that I perhaps don't use a pen exactly in the traditional/proper manner, but t is something akin to it.

It got me thinking as to why I held the pen so differently - we did not use fountain pens (and definitely not flex pens) in school - so I think I have come to a conclusion. Most people used pencils initially I think before gradually adopting the ballpoint, probably later on in primary school. I, on the other hand, used pencils all of my school life and until recently when I started with fountain pens.

And I think it is thanks to this I never developed the awkward pen-clutching manners of the ballpoint generation. With pencil lead, one can write at any angle and with a light-ish touch, so I always managed to maintain a lower angle than most of those who used a ballpoint. They of course wrote at a high angle with high pressure.

Something like that anyway.

Not sure if my grasp is quite the same as the one you talk about, but as I say it is at least akin to it as I put my index finger along the top of the pen as follows.

Edited by patrick1314, 08 November 2007 - 13:37.

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#8 telltime



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Posted 15 December 2007 - 04:18

I must say... I wish my handwriting were as beautiful as antoniosz's. There may be some level of skill that could be taught, but the beauty of his written word proves there is most certainly an art to it.

#9 artaddict


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Posted 15 December 2007 - 06:34

QUOTE(pakmanpony @ Nov 8 2007, 12:22 AM) View Post
Nice post antoniosz, thanks for the timely tips!!

Ditto, antoniosz! I love that page you posted. In fact I tried to steal it.
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#10 georges zaslavsky

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Posted 15 December 2007 - 06:50

With any of my pens, I hold the pens with an angle of 40°-60°, it is the best way to combine speed and smoothness. Nice illustration Antoniosz wink.gif
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#11 alvarez57



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Posted 15 December 2007 - 07:14

wub.gif What a beautiful and relaxed handwriting!!! Thak you so much for posting this very interesting and teaching post. I've been practising to hold the pens as such and it eases the pressure from the hand.

Edited by alvarez57, 15 December 2007 - 22:37.

sonia alvarez





#12 FrankB


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Posted 15 December 2007 - 09:10

Huffward, thank you for a nicely thought out and articulate presentation. It has really caused me to think.

I learned to write with a dip pen in school in the late 1950's. We kids got the usual posture lectures and we were expected to sit upright with our feet flat on the floor and our pens held at about a 70-degree angle. The nibs we used were as rigid as nails and we received no instruction that there was anything but the style nibs we used in class. My parents and the adults around me never voiced any knowledge of different style nibs.

Outside of penmanship hour, I recall that most of us kids held our pencils at a flatter angle, more like the 40-degree angle in Antonios' illustration and Patrick's photo, and we held our fountain pens at a similar angle. I know I changed my hold on pens when I started using ball points, and I remember seeing the students around me do the same. It was the verticle hold you mention. And the amount of pressure needed to make cheap BP's write was always a horror. I often wished they were six inches longer so I could grasp the things with both hands to PUSH! I always got tired in just a few minutes of writing and I hated writing as a result. I used a Parker 51 for longer writing assignments (at home) and I loved that pen in contrast to any BP.

To ths day, I hold FP's and pencils at a flat angle, though more 50- to 60-degrees. I like to use BP's with B refills because the wider tips allow me to hold the BP's at the flatter angle I so much prefer. At this flatter angle, all of my FP's seem to work to their full potential, whether regular nibs, stubs or italics.

As of this moment, I have only a half dozen pens with truely flex nibs, and I think I got two of them (if not three) from Antonios. Face it, Antonios is "Mr. Flex" and my flex writing does not look as pristine as his, nor will it ever, but I can make the pens work for me acceptably well. I could not make them work at all if I held a pen as I was taught in school.

I will have to come back later and reread this thread. It gives me a lot to remember and think about.

#13 Keng



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Posted 15 December 2007 - 10:48

Antoniosz your posts are always eyecandy smile.gif

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#14 Belboz


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Posted 15 December 2007 - 21:00

Huffward -- thank you for that fascinating post! All of your points and suggestions are of great interest.

I wonder -- would it be possible for you to add photographs of the pen hold you describe? Or instead provide pointers to the photographs you located which illustrate this grip?


#15 Will Thorpe

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Posted 16 December 2007 - 01:13

Excellent! I agree with your conclusions. I hold a pen nearly the same way as you describe. That's the way all fountain pens should be held, vintage or modern, flex or stiff nib. That's the way most people held pens in the 1940's and 1950's which I remember very well. It was a logical transition from the dip pen as you say, it also avoided inky fingers, still does. Later when the dreaded ballpoint took over the dreaded clinched fist death grip came into being. Pen makers of today recognize that the ballpoint death grip is what the majority of the population grew up with and make their nibs and sections to accomodate such grips. I look at modern pens with their "gripping sections" most of which seem to be designed by finger clenching monsters and laugh for I know the true joy of the relaxed grip, the gentle no pressure glide, the free form of letters without engraving the paper, and hours of writing pleasure in complete comfort. However I have given up, as a lost cause, on ever converting any fountain pen user to the "proper" way of holding a pen. My opinion, your mileage may vary!

#16 FrankB


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Posted 16 December 2007 - 20:51


Sorry, guys, I am hassling with this image.

I finally found this handwriting position chart. I regret I cannot attribute it properly, but I think I downloaded it from a discussion here on FPN. If you follow the URL on the bottom of the image, it takes you to a site selling some awful rubber pencil grip things.

My point here is that, if you look at the "correct" positions for holding a pencil, in school I was taught position #1 for a dip fountain pen. I always held my pen more naturally in the #2 position, as did most of my classmates. I think poistion #2 is what we have been referring to here as a good position for holding a flex nib pen. Today, I have a disability in my hand that forces me to hold a pen more like position #1, if not even a bit higher.

But note pencil position #3. I was in fact taught that position as an alternate for holding a pencil, not a pen. But when I started using BP's, it was the only position that worked, along with the "death grip" to push the pen hard enough to make it write. When writing with a BP over carbon copies, I still use this hold.

Edited by FrankB, 16 December 2007 - 21:01.

#17 wspohn


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Posted 17 December 2007 - 15:33

I was also taught penmanship in the 1950s and so have the correct method of holding a pne, unlike many young people I see today who clutch the poor pen in a death grip in a closed fist with thumb and fingers positoned willy nilly.

I was taught with pencil and ballpen, not fountain pen, although my wife, SWMBO, who is MUCH older than I am (and who was schooled in some of the more backward areas of the world like Ottawa, and Southhampton) did get training in dip pens. I always regretted missing at least the opportunity of dipping pigtails in ink bottles.

I used a FP through high school and university, from choice, while most others used a BP, so I have lots of miles with them.

But something I had not realized until you brought it up was what angle I use. I found, somewhat to my surprise, that I quite unconsciously switch angles depending on whether I am writing with a BP or FP. And I do this all day long as I take notes at work with a FP, but sign documents and fill out forms with a BP. Interesting - I must have developed the automatic reflex to adjust angle so many years ago that it is second nature now.
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#18 Russ



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Posted 17 December 2007 - 21:19

I really appreciate this thread. I have been suffering from hand cramps for years even when using FP's, and finally -- finally -- something Ghost Plane said connected with the posts in this thread. She spoke of holding a heavy YOL in small hands, laying the pen across the webbing of her hand, letting the nib float across the page. Hmmmmmm......... I realized that I was holding my pen too vertical, that I rotate the top of the nib toward the 11:00 position when writing slowly and toward 9:30 when writing furiously. The characters -- despite the italic nib -- were thin on the downstroke and thick on the horizontals. Then I laid the pen down on the webbing, played with the position of my fingers, and found that with slight shoulder movements (which people have recommended for years) made writing much less strenuous. Something to practice.

The only remaining problem is very frustrating: I tend to compress my hand and fingers when writing fast and hard in moments of insight and passion. Thus the cramps. So (1) I will try to write while consciously suppressing the squeeze factor and (2) think long about the weight of the pen in use. It seems that when the pen is laid on the webbing, the lighter pen may be less comfortable than a heavy one (!).

I always learn new and exciting things on FPN!

#19 Bo Bo Olson

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Posted 22 April 2009 - 21:45

Thank you, I am trying to re-learn how to write with a fountain pen. I think I failed that course as a child. Eventually my writing became so bad I became a printer.. I think it was because of being in a hurry and trying to save expensive paper. Any excuse will do. Slow drying ink might be another.
I find that I hold the pen a bit differently if posted or not. If posted I hold it a half an inch up from the end.
I had a Parker 75 sitting in my wife's jewelry box for some 30 years, and was going to flea market some inherited pens that sat in a drawer for some 10 or so years. One was an Esterbrook, and after looking it up in the net, I did the same for the others. So now I have a fountain pen collection.
To my shame, I have horrible hand writing. Odd, it never shamed me before it was just a fact of life. Now with a collection of fountain pins, I have to learn to write.

German vintage '50-70 semi-flex stubs and those in oblique give the real thing in On Demand line variation. Modern Oblique is a waste of money for a shadow of line variation. Being too lazy to Hunt for affordable vintage oblique pens, lets you 'hunt' for line variation instead of having it.

www.nibs.com/blog/nibster-writes/nibs-germany & https://www.peter-bo...cts/nib-systems,


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#20 Namo



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Posted 22 April 2009 - 22:27

very interesting post, thank you. This is consistant with my experience: I was taught to wrtie with a FP (Pelikano), and I was taught to hold it like a ball point (that was in the '70s). But an older collegue of mine, about 25 years older, hold his FP in the "old" way and was taught this way.
I must add that I switched for several years to BPs (an act of rejection of the dictatorship of the school I guess) and still press too hard on my pens.



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