Why Some Pens Don’t Work For Me

I often describe a pen as “needing a right-handed writer”, and some pens need my wife or friends to write the writing sample. Why is this? Is it me or the pen? 

From my first using my first fountain pen in 1965, having received a Parker 21 for a present, I realized that the left side of my left hand was no longer covered in ink, contrary to the warnings of my teachers when they saw me using it in class and not the ballpoints that had become the norm. Years later, I learned that most left-handed writing is really very different from right-handed. 

The facts are that less than 10% of people are left-handed; that handedness is genetic, even apparent in fetuses; and that cultural biases against left-handedness have been very strong for hundreds of years, particularly in Asia. It would, therefore, make sense that fountain pens would have always been designed for the majority of their potential users, right-handed writers, even though right-handers write differently than left-handers. Left-handers do in fact need to be more selective with their nib, ink, and paper selections, because they use them differently. Right-handers pull a nib to write left to right, i.e. write under-handed, while a typical overhanded leftie pushes a nib to write left to right. It is only logical to connect the mechanical difference to writing performance with fountain pens. 

From the earliest use of cursive script, children have been taught to write with their right hands, and natural lefthanders were discouraged from writing left-handed. I can still see Miss Campbell standing over me in third grade, and have heard many similar stories, particularly from those brought up in schools with strong cursive teaching programs. Although it has mostly disappeared in recent years, left-handedness was viewed as a sign of the Devil in many cultures, so was discouraged in writing, eating, even shaking hands. Having a dominant right hand was considered standard in most cultures, and of course this was matched by the genetic results that turned out almost 10 times as many right-handers as left-handers or ambidextrous people. 

This, then, connects directly to fountain pen manufacture. I’m not knowledgeable about physics or metallurgy, but do know that the various elements of fountain pen nib design have worked pretty well for 130 years. How a pen is held in the hand and how writing is accomplished is therefore intrinsic to the mechanics of a nib; the nib would have been made to be pulled by a right-handed writer, rather than pushed. Thus, as culture shifted and left-handers retained their habits, one can guess that they learned to accommodate, as they did with scissors and knives, and probably learned early that some nibs just didn’t work for them.  From the view of manufacturers, for whom nib-making has always been an expensive part of a pen’s many component costs, there was never a need to create separate nibs for lefties, even for those companies that sold a range of different writing experiences in their nibs.

This is particularly true for vintage flexible nibs, which are well known to not work for lefties. American full flex nibs are very flexible because they bend up/down and open easily at the slit; calligraphy with these nibs means mastering the movement inside the nib as it moves along the paper. The up/down flex in the early American nibs responds wonderfully to under-handed writing, because they pull easily and well, but not for over-handed, which is why those nibs rarely work for left-handers. Similarly, traditional Italian nibs have longer, thinner tines than those of most other countries, so shade and flex because the longer tines do not have as much support from the body of the nib. Were they made this way to create shaded script? Or were they just made this way, and shaded script was the result? Was there a reason? I don’t know, but I am certainly curious to learn more. One has to wonder if the traditionally strict teaching in a predominantly Catholic country led to an even greater proportion of right-handed writers and to flexible nibs…but perhaps this chain is too far-fetched. 

Are there vintage pens for lefties?  None that I’ve ever seen, although in 1927 Waterman’s did apparently advertise a “ball-point tip” (not what we know as a ball-point today…), which emphasized what left-handers know: rounded nibs, rather than stubs or italics, fine to broad but not extra fine, and firmer rather than flexible nibs are generally better for us. Better paper works far better for a nib that is pushed than recycled paper. However, these aren’t firm rules, since most vintage fountain pens work well for both righties and lefties. The good news for me, as a pen seller, is that while there are many pens that do not work well for me but do for right-handers, these are the minority, and I’m fortunate to have people around me who are willing to write the writing samples I can’t achieve. So you know, I will always tell a potential pen buyer if I think that pen should be used right-handed. 

If any of you have a pen that has a nib tooled for a left-handed writer, I’d like to hear from you!