Monday, October 28, 2013

Flexed Up

Now you may have been wondering why I mentioned butchering tools in my previous post about flexibility in pen nibs. This is why.

You see I really don't want to go down the "Bought a tool chest, er, writing case full of fountain pens, and in another five years I'll have cleaned and restored them all and decided which ones to keep and maybe sold some of the others and then I'll get back to actually using them" route. Because you may have noticed that I Have Been There, Am Still Doing That, And Have More T-Shirts Than I Can Handle Attesting To It. So, no. My first thought on deciding I needed something both flexible and fountain in my life was to look at the brand new purchasing options.

I glanced at the customised nib possibility, blenched at the three figure prices involved, and moved on. It's not that I don't want to drop three figures on the right tool for the job, because, well, I Have Been There, Am Still... etc etc. It's more that I am nowhere near a state where I'd feel comfortable using a pen costing many hundreds of Earth Currency; I'd worry.

Thus I turned my attention to the new but cheap options; there are two. One is from the USA but is made in India as far as I'm aware; the other is from India but with an American twist. Bit of a trend going on there, huh? But we'll focus on the 'Murrican company one, because that's the one that I butchered. I'll talk Indian pens another time though, because they're rather good.

So it's called an "Ahab" by Noodler's Ink, and yes, they do the whole whaling thing and stuff with the marketing and such. Some people hate them; some people love them. Pretty much everyone agrees they're not an outta-da-box pen using experience. One of the pluses is that you can take the thing apart completely, even unto removing the piston from the ink reservoir - so cleaning it is easy-peasy.

One of the minuses is that cleaning it thoroughly is essential - and you might find yourself doing it several times and still it might not work. It's a pretty good way to learn all about the bits of a fountain pen and how they effect each other though, and as I'm busy slogging up that particular learning curve, it seemed ideal. (Incidentally, discovering you're supposed to "flush" a pen before using it was rather like someone finding out you're expected to sharpen the blade of a new plane. You get several flashback "Whoops" experiences in quick succession.)

Now this thing is marketed as having a flex nib. Which... it doesn't. Well, no, that's not strictly true. If you press really hard (and my thumb was starting to make some serious Ow-ing noises to get it to do this much) it does slightly flex. But try writing any length of time like that, and unless you're a professional bear wrestler or something, you're going to be suffering a world of hurt in your writing hand.

This is a recognised problem with these cheaper "flex" pens, and a lot of people just give up and put a regular nib in it instead and forget the whole thing. But some people look at the nib and say "Hey, genuine flex nibs have a more streamlined shape. How about...?" And others look and say "Hey, there's a nib style referred to as "falcon" which makes everything bend a little easier. How about...?"

I took option two. Because I think it looks cooler.

Here's the nib as it comes. (Sorry for the dodginess of some of the pics in this post, by the way. I'm trying to get this typed up before the on-coming storm hits and almost inevitably takes out our electricity, so re-takes are not happening.)

These crazy fountain pen types apparently think nothing of taking a Dremel to a piece of metal this small and grinding the bejesus out of it. I'm a faint-hearted woodworker who doesn't like grinding when a file will work just as well and three times more safely. So ten minutes with a needle file and some deburring with a slip stone and I had this:

The other side's the same, in case you wondered. That's where half the ten minutes went; checking symmetry. Yes, that's it, that little semi-circular cut out in the side. Wow, I hear you gasp. Or maybe not. I was entirely convinced either, but with less violence inflicted on my poor thumb nail look what you get from the nib now:



(It's ink, not blood - promise. I'm really not pressing half as much and getting double the tine spread.)

Anyway, it's an annoyingly difficult thing to convey over the interweb, but it really does make a huge improvement. It's like cambering the iron of your jack plane and discovering what a jack plane can really do.
(As a result it becomes considerably easier to incorporate some line variation. The limitation now is the less than hair-like quality of the unflexed lines. Mainly because they keep drowning the loops of my pathetic little Es. But that kind of nib grinding is another art entirely.)

Of course, another limitation is the input from the operator. Viz: My handwriting. That's a very good example of what happens when you go from nought to flexy; warm-up to get some flow to the hand is more sensible. But hey, it's all practice.

It remains to be seen if removing material from the nib like this will have negative consequences down the line. It's a small bit of metal under some tension, and upsetting its structure could irrevocably alter that for the worse. Time will tell, although no-one's reported any trouble yet as far as I'm aware.

Naturally, after all that, I did still take a Dremel to a fountain pen; when in Rome and so forth. But maybe I'll tell you about that another time.

Friday, October 25, 2013

A Week To Go

A week to go to what, I hear you not asking. November? Well, yes (and incidentally, how can that be?) But also a week to go until:

(Fountain Pen Day)
Fountain Pen Day!

Yes, it was news to me too. Apparently it's in response to "Ballpoint Pen Day" or something, and the widespread reaction amongst fountain pen users is largely of the inevitable "But surely every day is fountain pen day" variety.

Anyway, this year it's on
(Friday 1st November)
That's next Friday, to you. So you've a week to rummage around in your desk and find that old fountain pen you've been neglecting recently and join in. In a fit of insanity I have committed myself to writing a blog entry 
(in pen, like this)
Well, not exactly like that. I'll probably actually use one of my pens instead of swiping the Old Man's Waterman for the purpose... 

Oh, and I'm aware that not everyone can see the pics when they read this blog, so I'll type up every precious word as well. Truly, you didn't think you'd escape that easily, did you?

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Let's talk about flex

It's probably about time I shared my obsession with you, confession being good for the soul and all that jazz. You know how I have a bit of a thing for tapping holes in planes, agitating to tweak handles, and generally seeing a tool as something that could probably be butchered to better suit me? Yeah, well, it turns out you can do that to pens too.


Ha-hum. But first you need to know about the obsession. The other obsession; not the tool butchering one. Turns out it has parallels with woodworking tools too.

So when I started on my handwriting improvement project, aka Scrawl No More, I took the trouble to get some paper specifically for the task, but for the pen I just set forth with the very lovely, very fine, Pilot G-Tec-C4 gel pen I had about my person. Which is endlessly reliable, comes in lots of lovely colours (If that's your thing, which it is mine, turns out), has an incredibly fine line (Cricket scorers, amongst others, favour them for squeezing all the info into the tiny spaces in the average score book), and is as boring as hell.

Seriously, it doesn't make you want to linger. It's so effortless it doesn't need to make you linger either, and Scrawl No More was suffering because I was still going too fast to see any improvement.

So having rediscovered my dip pens (and the surface of my desk), I ordered up a fresh bottle of India Ink and decided this was the way forward because you just can't rush with a dip pen. Not if you don't want a nasty scratching noise, a spattering of ink across the page, and likely a bent nib. Why? Because these things are as flexible as an over-cooked length of spaghetti. Allow me to demonstrate using the Mk.1 Thumb Nail - preferred gauge for all things nib-ish. (I know, right; who knew? But that's apparently the case. Presumably because you'll go "Ow! That hurts!" and stop pressing before the nib goes "Ow! I'm broken, you clumsy-handed oaf.")

Here we have my preferred nib; a Joseph Gillott no.1950 "Artist's" nib. Absolutely no-one ever recommends this nib for writing - the Gillott 404 and 303 and Japanese Manga nibs are always the ones - but it suits me. Conform? Me? Not gonna happen. In this instance.

Anyway, here it is with absolute no pressure on the nib point. With luck you might just be able to make out the barest sliver of light between the tines.

Now, here it is with just the weight of the pen resting on it. See how that's opened up?

Now with some moderate pressure, such as you might use on the down stroke as you write. Ooo, look at that.

Now the no.1950 is classed as medium elastic, so it can take more pressure than some. Take a super springy mapping nib - except don't, because they're about as controllable as a four year old hyped up on fizzy drinks let loose on a bouncy castle - and moderate pressure opens it up like a pelican's beak when it sees a pilchard tossed its way.


Now imagine what happens if you still have that pressure on the nib during the upstroke. Those fine points on those tines are like a couple of very bendy needles trying to tattoo the paper, so you have to use absolutely no pressure. It's rather like starting the cut with a dovetail saw; you have to take all the weight off the saw pen.

But when you do, and when it goes right, you can get this lovely line variation. Now mine's horribly agricultural and true calligraphers demonstrate considerably more finesse (and evenness, and skill, and are just artists while I wistfully aspire to even be an artisan, but hardly anyone starts cutting London pattern dovetails straight away... ) but it's fun and I enjoy it so I don't care if it makes folks wince. Much.

(And it's true, by the way; those jackdaws covert that big sphinx something rotten.)

Now that's what's called "flex". And when you get into the groove with it, you build up this excellent rhythm as you write, with a sort of bounce up from the bottom of the down stroke to the up stroke. 

You know when you're planing and you're doing the whole pressure on the toe at the start of the cut and then pressure on the heel at the end thing, and the shavings are creaming off the board and you're in danger of planing off way too much because you're just in a sort of Zen-like state of planing Nirvana? It's kinda like that.

And then the iron gets blunt and you have to stop and resharpen. Well, unfortunately it's kinda like that too.

The trouble with dip pens - aside from their requirement for being handled with kid gloves, washed and dried after every use to prevent rust, and requiring actual desk space to put the ink bottle down - is that the darn things run out of ink pretty quick. Without a reservoir, you might get three words if you're lucky; even with a reservoir (and I've been experimenting with those too), it's a paragraph before the flow is hopelessly disrupted and your Zen-like trance is lost in the face of making sure you don't get India Ink anywhere other than the pen nib as you re-ink it. It's this kind of limitation that lead to the invention of the fountain pen in the first place, so who was I to buck the trend? I like the fresh ink on the page, and while nothing else will come close to the physical presence of India Ink (you can feel it under your fingers), it'd still be nice to use a "real" pen for these scrawlings. So I hit Google, and that's when my troubles began.

Because lo! It was revealed unto me that things were not as I remembered them when I was a nipper and the only option I had was whether I could locate a pen with a fine nib rather than the ubiquitous medium. Not only could you get fountain pens of many beautiful varieties (Oh, so many pretty things), you could also get fountain pens that flex. This was a revelation to me; the convenience of the fountain pen and the bouncing goodness of the dip nibs? Oh, yes, please.

So that's easy, right? Buy one of these (desirable) pens and go on my way rejoicing. Poorer, but rejoicing. Yeah, easy. 

When I first wanted to buy a Western saw for dovetailing, it was before LN took over the Independence saw production; it was long before the Veritas saws; it was in an era not blessed with a selection of boutique saw makers; you wanted a sharp saw to dovetail with, you looked for something Japanese. If you wanted a Western dovetail saw, you had to work for it. You found a vintage one or you took the unsatisfactory modern ones and tried to improve them. It took either time, money, or learning new skills. Or all three. 

It turns out that buying a flexible nib fountain pen in 2013 is exactly like buying a dovetail saw in 2003.

Oh joy.

You see, flexibility in nibs was apparently something people used to expect as a matter of course (which makes sense when you think about it; I simply hadn't thought about it); then the ballpoint arrived, and the majority of people came to expect much the same from their fountain pen as they would from a ballpoint or a rollerball. In consequence flexible fountain pen nibs are something of a niche item these days; either they're not really flexible, or they're customised by a skilled "Nib Meister" and thus out of my league, or they're vintage.

Buying old tools in order to get a user tool? Oh, crivens. I know how this one goes...

But an obsession had just grabbed me round the ankles and was sinking its teeth in; and, dammit, it was too late to get away.

Monday, October 21, 2013

On the level

Okay, so I may be now suffering from a vast panoply of possible subjects to muse about and can't decide. So while I'm thinking about that, let us try a oh-so-subtle combination of tools and pens. Which are, in fairness, tools anyway. But then someone gets all excitable and launches something like this on the unsuspecting public. It's a pen! With tools!

Given it's a pen shop, inevitably the spec of the tool-ish aspects is a bit lacking. Accuracy of the spirit level? Well, it has a bubble. Size of the screwdriver bits? Tiny. That sort of thing. But still, a bit of fun. Although I just know I'd try rubbing out the pen mark as if the stylus bit was an eraser...

I also found something - or maybe I mean "Something?!" - for the frustrated pen maker without a lathe. I'll take their word for it that this is really a pen. I wonder what it's like to use? Apart from "Deadly uncomfortable".

Still, if you've got that hard-to-please giftee who likes working with their hands, it might be just the thing for christmas instead of socks.

Of course, it's just possible I'm addressing entirely the wrong audience with that thought, because I suspect many of us here are that relative...

Thursday, October 17, 2013

All write

Thanks for all your input, folks; both on and off the blog. You know how to make a gal embarrassed, so you do. Please stop now, or I'm going to be unable to write a word about anything owing to shocking self-consciousness.

Ooo, that last sentence is rather inelegant; has to be a better way of saying that. Where's the thesaurus and my copy of Fowler's?

Just kidding - not that self-conscious. Chucking the first thought I have down on paper will remain the order of the day. Dunno about you, but I've never seen an infinitive I didn't want to totally split.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Musing On The Musings

Gypsy Alf here, come to attempt to draw aside the misty veil that conceals the future - at least as it pertains to this blog. Cross my palm with silver and I will tell all.

No? Oh well, in that case I will just put forward some things and see what the reader thinks.

First up, thank you for the various comments along the lines of "Don't go" which I wasn't fishing for, honest - I'm touched. Arguably you're touched too - in the head. Heaven's, kids, you had a chance to get me to shut up. You may yet regret that... ;)

Secondly, I really don't see myself giving up the blogging habit entirely, whatever else I decide. The need to spew forth quantities of nonsense periodically seems to be a chronic condition that I'm unable to cure.

Now to the nub of the thing. The crux, if you will. It's in two parts.

Nub Number Numb One.
I'm not doing any wooodworking. I don't know that you realise this, but this is supposed to be a woodworking blog, and it's really tricky to keep that general trend when you're not doing any. My problem is I can only see this getting worse - my w'shop time has perforce always been sporadic anyway, but added to that my folks really aren't getting any younger. Not unreasonably they're needing more of my time and energy, which naturally I'm happy to give; but sitting in various waiting rooms while they see assorted medicos for this and that does not good blogging material make.

Unless this was a blog about aquaria; then I'd be laughing. Every waiting room in Cornwall appears to have a fish tank. Is it some kind of regulation? Is the soporific effect of watching little Nemo going round in circles really supposed to make me fail to notice that I'm growing into the painfully ill-padded chair seat?

But I digress. (Surprise. But seriously - more padding, fewer fish!)

Crux The Second.
I'm not reading about any woodworking either. The blog came about as a result of wanting a more instant place to put stuff than the website; and the website came about from things that cropped up during forum discussions. Currently I have no woodworking forum I call home; ergo not a lot of external inspiration to prompt blog posts. I find it's difficult to talk woodworking in a vacuum.

So, now I need a wee bit of feedback from the reader:

As you may have noticed, I've made an attempt to keep things ticking over by trying to semi-regularly post woodworking-related stuff I may inadvertently trip over. But honestly, is anyone interested? I'm not much - it's just work really, and if no-one else cares either, I'd be more than happy to knock it on the head. Discuss.

I'm currently sliding head first down a new-to-me Slippery Slope concerning the use, care, and feeding of the fountain pen. It's reminding me a lot of getting into old hand tools and I could probably feel moved to talk about it a bit. But really, that's getting waaaay off what you presumably came here for - woodworking.

So bottom line: are you here for the woodworking; or are you here - inexplicably - for the writing? 

Be brutal; I can take it. I have a crate of Cadbury's Dairy Milk chocolate and a cuddly teddy bear on stand-by...

Friday, October 11, 2013

And the wotsit is...

As I write this, the quantity of wotsits guesses is a trifle low. I think I can feel a decision about this blog's future coming on, because I'm not convinced any of us are having any fun.

Anyway, the answer is... (insert drumroll here) A nib holder.

In what I believe is greenheart. Remind me not to use greenheart again - I sharpened the roughing gouge four times to complete this, which is ridiculous even allowing for my lack of turning competence.

You might recall I posted about making an effort to improve my handwriting back in June, and one of the ways to do that is to slow down. Trust me, nothing slows you down like using a dip pen. But I increasingly found the number of nibs I wanted ready to use far outweighed the number of holders I already had to hand - not helped by lucking upon a small selection of them at the car boot. And call me a tight-fisted woodworker, if you will (and heaven knows, it is a bit of a trait amongst the wood torturing fraternity), but I resented the thought of sending someone money for a stick that I had the means to make myself. So I have. A few times.

Front to back is the greenheart, pink ivory, muhuhu, and muhuhu/rosewood with a annoying decorative ring from the equally annoying pen turning kit I liberated the brass tube from to make the actual nib holder.

It's an on-going experimental thing of trying new shapes and sizes, and at least it's making use of some of those tiny pieces I hoard in my scrap box. Rather disappointingly it's seeming increasing like I should simply copy one of the plastic holders I already have, as it just seems to suit me. Figures.

For nib holders that are infinitely better turned and a lot more eye-catching, go Googling for "oblique pen holders". There are some real stunners out there.

Of course, after all that, it's too bad the handwriting hasn't improved more; my slopes are more varied than the answers to a "Which angle should I use for dovetails?" Hey ho.

Monday, October 07, 2013

Made a Wotsit

Got some w'shop time whilst my brother and sister-in-law were visiting, and made a... thing.

No, I'm not telling (or showing) you until you've had a guess. Reckon it's pretty easy, but then it would be for me - I know the answer.

Friday, October 04, 2013

Planes by the pint

Well I can tell you were all agog wondering about this one.


Occasionally, or maybe more often than that, my dad tells of an old dear in the village he grew up in who used to sell potatoes by the pint. Seems to me a cunning scheme to sell folks a lot of air to me. Anyway, I reckon you can probably fit more planes to the pint than you can potatoes. If you nest them.

I know, I know. It looks like a crush at the bottom. But they're all fine, honest. If my apron plane had been a low angle instead of standard, I'd definitely got that in there, I'm sure of it.

See? Look at all that space at the top! Alas, nothing quite small enough to fit in it. I suppose I could have stopped off to make one or two. Didn't think of that. Anyway they had to be functioning... Wanted to put the Stanley #271 in there too - or try to - but inexplicably can't find it. Okay, perhaps not so inexplicably. My top tip: make every effort to avoid long absences from the w'shop directly after you've tidied it; you can't find a thing.

Unfortunately the detail rebate's effusive tail meant I could only get one in. Too bad, because they look good in a jar, turns out. Likewise, the cherry knob on the side rebate ruled out more than one, and I couldn't find the Stanley #79 either to try that. It must be somewhere.

 Yes, it's a woodie! I was especially pleased to get that one in, for variety.

And the final total. Ten. Yes, TEN (count 'em) planes to the litre chez Alf. And by no means all "miniatures" either, but proper grown-up planes. If I'd ever succumbed to the siren song of violin maker's thumb planes, it'd easily be a round dozen.

So my wondering mind can rest easy again. Until the next time.