Thursday, March 28, 2013

Of Fountain Pens and Dinosaurs



For those of us who use fountain pens regularly -- whether for correspondence, art, calligraphy, or business -- it is inevitable that at some point someone will (or has) asked, "Why are you still using that old dinosaur?" (or words to that effect). Well, while researching pen nibs recently I learned that there actually is a connection between fountain pens and dinosaurs!



Most of us are already aware that, in order to reduce wear and to provide a smooth writing experience, nib manufacturers have, since 1834, tipped our nibs with a tiny ball of iridium during the manufacturing process. This hard metal is a rare member of the platinum "family" of metals. In fact, it is so rare that it is found primarily in the Earth's core (where, of course, we can't get at it), in meteors (ditto), and in a thin layer of the Earth's crust called the K-Pg (formerly known as the K-T) Boundary. What, might you ask, is the K-T Boundary? Well, it is the thin geological layer (usually no more than 1 inch/3 cm) of pulverized minerals that lead Walter Alvarez and a group of like-minded geologists to postulate that a meteor measuring approximately 6 miles in diameter (and containing a sizable amount of iridium) struck the Yucat√°n Peninsula some 65.5 million years ago with a force roughly equal to that of a one million megaton bomb. (I know, that's way too many zeros for me to get my head around too.) The result, however, was: A) the extermination of the dinosaurs, B) the creation of deposits of iridium in what would become known as the K-T Boundary, and (possible) C) the tip of my smoothest-writing nib.



So, the next time some wise guy unwittingly asks you, "Why are you still using that dinosaur?" you can respond, "Say! Do I have a story for you!"

Dr. Walter Alvarez, who led the team that first identified the K-T Boundary. 

Parting esoterica (or "six more degrees of separation"): I never heard of Walter Alvarez and his work while I was an undergrad at California College of Arts & Crafts -- even though he was a celebrated professor at the school just down College Avenue from us (that would be UC Berkeley). But I did know of his great-aunt, Mabel Alvarez, and her work (as an avant guard California artist and member of the "Group of Eight"). The world is such a finely interwoven fabric, don't you think?

Mabel Alvarez self-portrait, 1923

Cheers!    

my son and his "pet" raptor

12 comments:

  1. Love this, Earnest, and bookmarked to share!

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  2. Great post...learned something new and got to marvel again at the strands that bind us all!

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  3. Hey, that's really interesting.

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  4. Ok so here's my question. Roz Stendahl was talking about buying a Namiki Falcon and having the nib ground to make it
    more flexible. Wouldn't that grind right off the iridium tip?
    And if you can explain the whole grinding thing that would be good too.

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    1. Dear Cat Lover, Great question. Let's see if I can answer it with just words in a way that makes sense. (If words alone don't work, let me know and I'll do a separate illustrated post to clarify.)

      The tipping material is only lost if one has the nib ground to a finer point (for example, if you have a Fine reground to an Extra Fine or even EEF).

      When a nib master undertakes to grind for extra flex he/she will either cut away at the shoulder (the side of the nib that curves downward on either side of the feed) to reduce the nib's rigidity, or carefully grind away some of the thickness (again to reduce its rigidity), or both.

      Here's a link to a YouTube posting that shows some of the remarkable things a Falcon can do when it has been properly modified. (This is also an EF/EEF point with minimal tipping too. Note how scratchy it sounds.)
      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pRebkWHsHC0

      Lest you think a modified Namiki is the only option in order to get flex though, here's a link showing what you can get in a vintage pen for about the same price as a new Falcon with regrind. (And listen carefully to the nib as it moves; this is the nib-making skill that modern manufacturers find next to impossible to duplicate today.)
      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dWUMgpjYsBI

      I hope that helps.

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  5. To be fair the description under the first video says he was writing on Bristol. That would certainly make the pen sound MORE scratchy. I'm on a budget so a vintage pen isn't in the cards at the moment, but I don't think a grind will be anytime soon either. Nice to know what the options are. Thanks for explaining.

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    1. Actually, Plate finished Bristol, like a HP watercolor paper, will normally be smoother than most writings papers. Since it is intended specifically for detailed pen and ink illustration work, scratchiness shouldn't be a given.

      FYI (for when your budget allows it... or someone asks you what you want for your birthday), a vintage no-frills pen barrel with a yummy 14k flex nib (say, for example, a 1950s era NOS Wahl Eversharp Symphony) can frequently be found for about half what you'll have to shell out for a new Falcon with extra flex regrind.

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  6. Can you recommend a few online places to keep an eye out?

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    1. Hi Cat', Greg Minuskin frequently has flexy bargains but you have to act fast as his pieces go fast (http://gregminuskin.com). A more relaxed site to check out would be the "NOS Seconds" and "Flexible Nibs" pages at Payton Street Pens (http://www.peytonstreetpens.com).

      Be forewarned though, the eye candy is enticing and can quickly (and easily) consume the contents of any checking account. ;-)

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  7. I loved this article and hope I get to work with a nice fountain pen one day. Do nibs of dip pens have this nice dinosaur tip or only certain fountain pens? Your drawings are wonderful.

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    1. Thanks Joy. For a modern steel dip nib - try a Hunt 512 Ex-Fine Bowl Pointed nib to start. It actually has a bowl-shaped tip but avoids the tendency of more pointed tips to dig into the paper on the up-strokes. If you really get hooked on dip pens (and your budget allows) consider investing in a vintage gold nibbed (and iridium tipped) pen. (These frequently have gorgeous mother of pearl or silver nib holders and come in velvet-lined cases.) Greg Minuskin (see url listed in reply above) and David Nishimura (http://www.vintagepens.com/catill_antique_writing_instruments.shtml) regularly list a few.

      Another (moderately priced) option would be a modern Venetian glass dip pen -- not usually as fine-lined as steel or gold, and forget flex, but Oh! so smooth.

      I hope that helps.

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  8. Really beautiful, I'm starting in the drawing with dip nib. I hope i get some skill like you.

    www.FountainPenLand.tk

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