Oh, it’s Tuesday, so usually no Ping post. However, from today, every first Tuesday of the month we will feed you with some of the loveliest bits from our sweet little sister, PingMag MAKE. As starter, we serve you our long-time favourite about The God of Fountain Pens: As computers become more and more prevalent, writing has become a synonym for typing on a keyboard. But there is a man, known as the God of Fountain Pens by pen aficionados, who still continues to handcraft pens nibs even now. PingMag MAKE went to meet Nobuyoshi Nagahara, to find out about a lifetime pursuing the perfect writing instrument. PingMag presents PingMag MAKE!
Interviewed by Takafumi Suzuki
Could you describe briefly exactly what your work is?
Nowadays my work is repairing pen nibs. Repair orders come in from shops all over the country. I’m the one who makes them. Normal fountain pens have a long sword-shaped nib. You have to sharpen them. Also I’m working on a series of bamboo fountain pens. I keep working on them, even though I’m actually retired now, but before I retired I also used to develop all sorts of other products.
A fountain pen is a fairly expensive thing, but just what exactly goes into making a pen nib?
In general making a fountain pen nib goes something like this. First you need to melt the metal and compress and stretch it until it’s a uniform thickness. Then you apply the ball for the nib tip, and polish it. Next you must split the nib with a saw cut. The cut is what determines the nibs flexibility. Then finally the nib is checked for quality, and finished by being fine-polished and cleaned.
The crosspoint nib
The naginata emperor nib
And how did you first enter the world of fountain pens?
Actually my uncle used to work here (at The Sailor Pen). That’s how I came to join the company. But in fact about 25 people joined from my junior high school. For the first 3 years, all I did was the rough shaping and rough cutting to prepare the balls that make the pen tip. I had to polish the nibs very carefully to make them symmetrical. Then one of my seniors said he’d like me to do the rough cutting. So, every day, day in day out, that’s what I did. It was really tough, and I was always complaining to my mother that I wanted to quit, but in the end that’s how I learnt the basics of the trade. So I’m grateful for it now.
I guess having that base helped you to reach such a high level of expertise.
As far as technique goes, foreigners are always really amazed. In American cities like Chicago, New York, or L.A. they hold these pen shows. Around 230 companies gather together and put on a kind of display for fountain pens. One time the boss of the magazine Pen World came over to me with a fountain pen he’d been using for about 8 years, and said “The nib’s bent.” So I just straightened it for him, right there in front of him. Over there, you take it in for repairs and it will take a week or even ten days or so before you get it back. “It writes beautifully. And you did it right there, in front of my very eyes! I’ve never seen that before.” He was flabbergasted.
A lot of people draw with fountain pens.
A huge model pen nib helps explain.
So when you adjust a nib, you can make it write that much more comfortably.
Yes, of course. One time an artist came to see me. All his drawings ended up looking the same, he said, and he asked me if I could make him a fountain pen that was easier to draw with. So I asked him to show me some of his drawings. “Your drawings don’t have any fullness to them – all the lines are the same, they’re boring.” Well, I just said what I thought. So he says “Then please see what you can do to adjust my pen.” So I took his drawings home and studied how each line flowed, every single one. His drawing style used lots and lots of lines. So, to make it easier for him to draw so many lines, I made him a nib in a V shape. And he was so surprised. “What!?” he said “With a pen like this I’ll be able to draw beautiful big, full-bodied nudes…” And off he went home with a big old grin on his face. I guess when you get two dirty minds together, nothing of much worth is ever going to come out of it (Laughs). But seriously, seeing just how close you can come to the customer’s dream – that’s what makes work so interesting.
You are known as the God of Fountain Pens, and have developed lots of original nibs and hit products, right?
Yes, that’s right. For instance, the nib of the Crosspoint pen has one more nib attached right at the end, compared to other pens, with the gutter cut in a cross shape to hold the ink. So it feels like a hair brush to use, and you can even write smoothly on paper that really absorbs ink, like Japanese washi. I like brush writing, so I thought it should be possible to develop a pen that writes like a brush. But even the Crosspoint has evolved over the last 10 years. That’s a proof of my own growth, so that’s what makes it interesting. And then there’s the Long Sword Emperor, an improvement on the Crosspoint, which came from something a customer said to me. “When I write fast, the ink runs dry and the letters won’t form properly. Isn’t there anything you can do?” That’s what the customer wanted. New, flexible ideas often come from listening to customers’ wishes, or complaints.
It’s wonderful to have worked on something for over 50 years, and to still find it interesting and stimulating.
The thing that’s so interesting about this job is, the things you dream up in your head become real. If I do this, it’ll be like that… if I try that, I’ll get this, that kind of thing. The thing about fountain pens is, every single one of them takes on the character of the person who uses it. There are a lot of repair people who say “You’re writing with it wrong.” I don’t ever say that. Even if the owner can write with it beautifully, the next person might not be able to write with the same pen at all – that’s just the way it is. So you shouldn’t even lend your pen to your own wife. If it’s pushed on and written with in the wrong way, it’ll be ruined. Some people come to me with a fine nib and say something impossible like “Make it fatter.” But even then I’ll do everything I can to find a way. Then when I manage, they say “Mr. Nagahara, you’re amazing.” But the thing is, if you go to another repair shop they’ll tell you the pen is too old, or something.
A great line of fine pens…
… and the holders.
You must need a lot of patience to deal with each customer with such care.
The thing that makes me most happy doing this work is being able to help people with their worries and unhappiness, thanks to fountain pens. Nearly all of my repair jobs come to me with a letter attached. I once made a pen nib for a junior high school girl. She was a quiet, unhappy girl. But when I made her a new nib, I suppose she must have practiced writing really hard. She won a calligraphy award. And thanks to that she brightened right up. Or, I get a lot of repair jobs from people who have a pen that belonged to their father. Those times, I tell them just what I think. “Your father must have been a great father. In those days it was no joke to get hold of a pen as good as this one. This is your father’s medal as a man.” Even a simple fountain pen can be seeped in deep family relationships, you see.
Your life experience and your work together….
Well, I’ve been doing this for over 50 years now. I quit the company, but I can’t quit the job. I think I’d probably fall down sick if I gave this up (laughs). Even at the weekends I find myself at it. It just suits me, coming up with new, original ways to repair and fix each pen. There was one time, though, that I thought, I like cameras, maybe I’ll quit this job and set up a camera shop (laughs). But just at that point fully automatic cameras started coming on the market, so I gave up the idea. There’s nothing interesting in work that doesn’t need fine craftsmanship.
The Sailor Pen, Tenno Factory
2-1-63 Tenno Saijo, Kure City, Hiroshima
Born in Kure City, Hiroshima, 1932. Fountain pen craftsman.
Thank you, Nobuyoshi Nagahara, and especially thank you, PingMag MAKE for letting us know about this extraordinary guy! Until Tuesday in a month, don’t be shy and have a look over at PingMag MAKE for more of these delicacies…