Why can’t modern manufacturers recreate vintage flex?

Why can’t modern manufacturers recreate vintage flex?

As a fountain pen community, we are cray-cray for nibs that flex. Any time a manufacturer talks about offering a new flexible nib, we descend like a horde of locusts to devour. And, usually, within a few weeks, we start to see complaints from users and reviewers that, “It’s good, but it’s not as good a vintage flex.”

And thus we stumble upon one of the most commonly-asked questions in fountain pendom: Why can’t modern manufacturers recreate the vintage flex experience?

I’ve talked through this question several times in some of my videos, but I thought it would be interesting to lay out my thoughts in the written format. I plan to continue to update this post over time as I have additional experience with “flex” in both its modern and vintage forms.

Also, allow me to preface this post by saying that what is written below is not the result of exhaustive journalist effort. Most of my ideas are a combination of gathering, repeating, and/or synthesizing the thoughts of others in the community with my own rudimentary understanding of both the fountain pen market and business in general.

All that being said, here are some of my thoughts about why it’s so difficult to recreate the vintage flex experience in a modern pen.

Thought 1: It’s probably more difficult than we think.

I have no doubt that, using relatively simple modern scientific techniques, we could determine the exact makeup of the 14k gold alloys used by manufacturers of the “best” flexible nibs. With computer imaging, we could easily recreate the shape of wet noodle nibs with near perfection.  Gold alloy and die shape is not the only contributing factor to nib manufacturing, however. What we are still missing, perhaps above all, is the large array of human capital that used to be available to manufacturers (e.g., the expertise of the people who grind and tune those nibs.)  I know flexible nibs are more difficult to work than rigid nibs, and many manufacturers of modern pens can barely be bothered to put the time and energy into making their regular nibs work properly, let alone to grind, polish, adjust, and tune flexible nibs with any sort of consistency

When most manufacturers don’t even have nibmeisters on staff and just screw in a nib unit from somewhere else, expecting the expertise to manufacture, install, and adjust a true flex nib seems optimistic.

Thought 2: It’s probably more expensive than we realize.

Very few modern manufacturers actually make their own nibs and feeds. Most actually use one of a relatively small number of standard-sized and shaped nibs and feeds from only a few manufacturers. So, unless those flex nibs comes from one of the few nib manufacturers, anyone who wants to offer a new flex nib needs to take into account the entire ecosystem of both the writing experience and of the manufacturing chain.

For instance, how will the feed be manufactured? Most modern feeds are made of injection-molded plastic and have tiny ink channels and multiple fins to hold runoff. The goal is a consistent (but not overly wet) ink flow with no dripping. Vintage flex pens have feeds that are machined from ebonite and have large reservoirs for ink under the nib. They usually don’t have fins at all, or if they do, only a few bulky ones. In order to recreate the flex experience, you can’t slap a flex nib on a standard modern feed; you have to recreate the vintage feed as well. The cost of doing so (especially for a company that just buys its nib units from Jowo or Bock) will likely be exorbitant (e.g., new machinery, additional employees, tons of research, etc.)

Or what about the filling system? Most vintage flex pens are lever fillers with latex sacs. Can you recreate a vintage flex experience with a converter? Who will repair the sacs when they fail (as they will, particularly with some of the inks on the market right now)? Or replace the lever box if it snaps off? And what if the company goes out of business in the meantime?

I suspect that when people think about recreating vintage flex, they think about the nib only, not the pen’s entire ecosystem, which is actually quite large (and expensive to recreate from scratch) when you figure in all the dependencies.

Thoughts 3: The market for flex nibs is probably smaller than we realize

We fountain pen users are a fun, vocal, and energetic group. But as much as I hate to admit it, the fountain pen user community isn’t huge. It’s growing right now, and fountain pens are experiencing something of a renaissance, but compared to the population at large, it’s still a fraction of a percent of all the people in the world. When flex was a regular option on pens, fountain pen use was ubiquitous. Everyone who used a pen used a fountain pen. I have absolutely no data to back this up, but I suspect that the number of people in the 1930s who used pens with flexible nibs was significantly higher than the total number of people who use any kind fountain pen today.

Keeping in mind the question of the cost of R&D and manufacturing mentioned in thought 2 above, I suspect many manufacturers simply don’t see the possibility of ROI (return on investment for those of you who studiously avoid business-speak) in recreating the full vintage experience. As a result, those manufacturers who do provide flexible writing experiences often do it in a half-assed way, trying to shoehorn a nib with a different alloy or different shape into their already existing ecosystem with their already existing feeds, fillers, etc. It may not be worth it from a financial incentive perspective to redesign from the ground up.

Thought 4: The question of springing a nib.

When flexy nibs were in their heyday, people were actually taught penmanship. For example, while cleaning out my grandmother’s house after she passed, we found an award certificate for penmanship that she won when she was in grammar school. These days, a growing number of children are never really taught any sort of penmanship, and those who are taught are rarely taught a cursive hand. (And let’s be honest, flexible nibs are at their best when used with a cursive or flourished script.) Additionally, most people who are taught some sort of penmanship are often taught with pencil or ballpoint pen. As a result, they learn to write with a very heavy hand, and usually an “improper” grip.

Even many modern fountain pen users first learn flexible penmanship on inexpensive steel nibs from manufacturers like Noodler’s or some of the Indian manufacturers who include similar steel nibs in their pens. While they are an affordable entry point into the world of fountain pen flexibility, these steel nibs also train users that you need to use a relatively high amount of pressure in order to achieve line variation.

As a result, any manufacturer who attempts to recreate a vintage flex experience, particularly what we call a “wet noodle” flex experience, runs a real risk of putting a potentially fragile pen into the hands of people who have no idea how to use it. The result will almost undoubtedly be a large number of damaged nibs and frustrated customers. And, with very few local pen shops, manufacturers who refuse to sell individual parts for their pens, and a real dearth of qualified nib repair people, anyone who spends a lot of money on a flex-nibbed pen may well find herself out of luck when it comes to getting it repaired.

Thought 5: The cost of a modern flex nib will probably be higher than most are willing to pay, especially when vintage nibs can still be had for less.

Considering all the thoughts above, the one thing that stands in the way of recreating the vintage flex experience in a modern nib is the final cost to the customer. New machinery, new materials, new staff, new expertise, new filling systems, new assembly methods, new repair people: all of this comes together to result in an ecosystem that could result in extremely expensive nibs. The number of people who use fountain pens is small. The number who want a flexible experience, smaller. The number who are willing to pay many hundreds or even thousands of dollars for a modern experience that matches a vintage experience, smaller still…

Especially where there are a wide variety of vintage flex nibs still available on the market for well under $100.

Thought 6: It’s possible vintage flex nibs didn’t start off as flexy as they are now.

One idea I have heard floated around is that vintage flex nibs didn’t start off as flexible as they are now, and that the molecules of the metal have rearranged/aligned themselves over time, or that the metal has fatigued enough to produce a more flexible feel. I don’t know that anyone has, or would be able, to prove this hypothesis, but it is an interesting one to consider.

Over a year ago, I purchased a vintage Parker Vacumatic Major that someone was selling as New Old Stock (NOS), meaning that it had never been inked up/used. The pen came in its original packaging, and even still had the stickers on the cap and barrel. Including, I might add, a sticker on the cap that said, “FLEX.” (That sticker alone was the reason I bought the pen.)

Vintage Vacs with flex nibs are uncommon. Vacumatics were never known for their wet noodle flex nibs, but flexy nibs could be had for the pens. (I’ve now got three Vacumatics with flexy nibs)  Now, as I’ve said before, I’m a pen user, not a pen collector, so I had the pen repaired and inked it up for use…and was instantly disappointed in the flexibility of the nib. It was relatively stiff and required a fair bit of pressure to get the nib to flex to anything approaching interesting line variation. It was nothing like any of the other vintage flex nibs in my collection.

Over time, however, the nib has loosened up a bit and now flexes a lot more easily than it used to. I don’t push the nib very hard at all, but I would easily consider it a solid semi-flex nib these days.

Now, admittedly, one anecdotal experience with a “flexible” nib needing a break-in period does not a theory prove, but it’s an interesting thought. It will be fascinating to see if the nibs being sold as “flexible” right now will actually become flexible over time (and if the feeds they are paired with are actually capable of keeping up with the increased ink flow that would require.

Final Thoughts

In the end, I suspect we’ll never know fully why modern manufacturers can’t make flexible nibs like they used to. As the community continues to grow, however, we continue to see more and more flexible nib options show up on the market. In 2015, the relaunched Wahl-Eversharp introduced what they called a Super-flex nib. In 2016, Pilot USA began bringing in the FA nibs for the Custom Heritage 912 from Japan. In 2017, Aurora introduced their flex nib, and Franklin-Christoph introduced a flexible nib for their pens (likely made by Jowo.) I have heard rumors that Jowo and/or Bock will be adding a flexible nib option to their offerings for other manufacturers as well. Several nibmeisters are adjusting existing nibs on the market to add flexibility to the writing experience. (The most interesting of these, to me, is the semi-flex nib at fpnibs.com, with a keyhole-shaped breather hole. It’s perhaps the closest modern experience I’ve had to a modern wet noodle, but the feed often has a problem keeping up with serious flex writing.

It may well be that we continue to get closer and closer to the experience of vintage flex nibs as time goes on. But in the meantime, I will enjoy the flexibility of the nibs I have, as well as learning and playing with the experience of vintage flex nibs.

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