Through Thick and Thin

By A. S. Osley
Date Added: 17/07/2009


This is a report of a talk given at the Society's Annual General Meeting on 2 April 1981 by Father Simon Trafford O.S.B., in which he drew on his long experience of helping boys at Ampleforth College to learn italic handwriting.

He dealt first with the italic pen, pointing out that, although this gives the best result, it could be attended with certain problems if it were not properly adjusted to its task. For example, the chisel edge could cut into the paper if it were too sharp. Success in handwriting depended largely on finding the right mixture of five variables, three related to materials and two to their manipulation. The former consisted of the sharpness of the pen, the smoothness of the paper and the quantity of ink: the latter of pen-pressure and pen-angle. Thus the extremes within which the solution lay were a very sharp pen on rough paper with minimum ink, and a very smooth nib on smooth paper with a copious flow of ink. The best combination occurred when the pen glided over the paper with sufficient ink to act as a lubricant, but not enough to blotch the paper.

Nib-grinding. The speaker demonstrated the tools that he employed in preparing his nibs:... a small, hand-turned grindstone for the initial shaping, carborundum stone for fining it down, a cloth on which to rub the pen to remove any traces of loose metal, and a pocket microscope or magnifying glass to inspect and check the result. The nib should not be ground to too sharp an edge. Free movement of the pen over the paper ought not to be sacrificed to high contrast of thick and thin strokes.

Paper. Various kinds of paper, ranging from the porous duplicator variety to the very smooth high-quality product were discussed. Paper resting on wood or a hard top presented an unsympathetic surface. This could be remedied by writing over a paper pad, which should not, however, be so thick as to impede the operation of the pen. It was also helpful to insert a sheet between the hand and writing paper to afford protection from the natural grease of the hand, which often marred the last few lines; of writing.

lnk-flow. This was determined by the position of the reservoir in relation to the nib (the nearer the nib, the greater the flow) and by the width of the slit in the nib. The tines of the nib should not be separated as this would inhibit the flow of ink.

Pressure. A light touch, just sufficient to allow the ink to flow, was recommended.

Pen-angle. The more the writer turned his nib to the vertical, the less smooth it was to write.

Father Trafford then considered whether one could write Italic with other instruments. He thought that this was possible, though the characteristic thicks and thins would generally be lost. This was not important if the letter-shapes were sound, and the result looked good and thoroughly italic. Pupils could in fact learn to write with one of the 'easier' instruments, and it might well be better to teach in this way than to insist on the use of the' difficult' italic nib from the outset. He showed on the screen several illuminating slides of the nibs of writing instruments and enlargements of the letters which they made on paper, and made the following comments.

Non-italic fountain-pen. These usually had blob nibs, but they gave the best feel and left a good line.

Ball-point. A most convenient instrument for notes and rough work. The cheap ones were messy and splodged. Although expensive models were more satisfactory, all slithered about and made an inferior line. On the other hand, where pressure was required, e.g. with carbons, they were serviceable. Best results were obtained on Roneo paper.

Nylon/Fibre-tip. This instrument moved with greater friction than the ball-point and therefore required a smoother, but not too thick paper. The amount of ink varied with different makes but the nylon/fibre-tip always left a better line.

Rolling-ball. This pen was a poor starter, giving a ragged, uneven line.

From this group, the speaker favoured the nylon/fibre-tip and the fountain-pen. For at least one member of the audience, his slides proved conclusively what a shoddy, nasty thing the ball-point is.

The next theme was pen-hold. Here Father Trafford suggested a light grip with sensitive fingers, a pear-shape between thumb and forefinger, and a comfortable distance between the end of the nib and the thumb and fingers holding the pen. This distance could be measured by writing with a pencil sharpened to a stubby point and marking the place where it was gripped. He had found that, in his own case, it was 1.1 cm. He warned against the bent forefinger.

Our speaker then proceeded to describe his methods of teaching, indicating groups of letters linked by family likeness, various sorts of joins, and capitals. Figure I sets out his system and makes further description unnecessary. (After the lecture I wrote to Father Trafford, suggesting that his 'difficult joins' were not necessary, since letters should only be connected when the joins are natural. Excessive joining such as we see in almost every recent writing-book leads to sprawl and spoils letter-spacing. He kindly replied: 'I agree that difficult joins should never happen; therefore I teach them unjoined, but show how they can be joined because they will be in writing fast, when shapes will be modified and the joins then become easy and natural.' I am not sure whether this isn't like saying: 'All our boys will be certain to tell lies when they grow up; let us then teach them to do it properly'.)

After outlining his teaching methods, Father Trafford reflected on the problems of handwriting competitions. There was unavoidably a certain I artificiality about them. In ordinary handwriting, the pen movements make more or less accurate marks on the paper. But a writer in his competition entry was tempted to slow down movement in a self-conscious attempt to make more accurate marks to satisfy the judges. Since most people did not have the skill to do this unless they were formal calligraphers, his writing on that occasion might not be his best. In principle, the only fair competition would be one in which all competitors had to write to dictation at various speeds.

Results of competitions unavoidably owed something to the personal predilections of the judges. Nevertheless boys should be encouraged to enter competitions, since the discipline of trying to write as well as possible was beneficial.

Father Trafford concluded his talk by describing ways of educating the eye and sharpening awareness of letter-shapes, e.g. blackboard work, including the use of double chalk; writing with lettering nibs in pupils' books and on covers; writing monograms and overhead ligatures; and writing notices, letter-heads etc for reproduction by offset litho or photocopying. Excellent examples of these were illustrated on the screen.