I’ve had three encounters with Josh Lax that stick out to me. They’re memorable meetings because during each of them it was like being introduced to a person who was quite different than the other versions I had met. There is Josh Lax the nibmeister who I have seen at pen shows covered in ink, full head gear on, doing beautiful nib work with lots of loyalists of his work looking on. There is the Josh Lax who I met at the Big Apple Pen Club who had just come from work as a trial lawyer in a three-piece suit. And there is the Josh Lax that I met at the bar in Baltimore who was laid back, loves movies, his family and who is so personable that you feel like you’re talking to an old friend without having spent more than an hour with them total before that. All of this is to say that when I was told Josh would be the next featured Storyteller, I was really looking forward to it because the people I am most interested in learning about have many facets to them and are full of surprises. I could tell he would have a lot to say and that it would be storytelling at its best. This is someone, as far as I can tell in my limited experience, who takes things seriously, digs deep into everything that interests him and whose curiosity leads to all sorts of studies, autodidactic and otherwise. When you read his answers to my questions, I think you will agree. The one mistake I may have made is not asking him what movies we should all be watching while we are in quarantine, but maybe we can get him to tell us at a later date. In the meantime, I hope you enjoy the conversation and I know when you are finished reading you will be as excited as I am to try the nib he’s made for the Esterbrook Custom Nib Studio.
Herewith is our conversation:
Do you remember the first time you held a fountain pen? Which pen was it and do you remember what the nib was like?
Josh: I have this recollection of being in the office room in my parent’s house and my dad having a fountain pen. I was in grade school at the time, maybe 4th or 5th grade. It might have been a Cross, a Parker or a Mont Blanc. All I have in my mind is a very 80s/90s fountain pen with a gold nib., with gold and burgundy on the barrel. The irony of the whole thing is that I insisted writing with it with the feed facing up because I thought it looked "right," and my father telling me I was holding it incorrectly and the feed should face down. I think it probably wrote better with the feed down, but for some reason feed up made more sense. It was at this time my father told me people don't lend their fountain pens around lest you bend the tip. Having wrote with it, listening to my dad, and having just stared at it, I realized this was a special object. My father bought me a disposable fountain pen which I used for a bit but went back to the ballpoints they had us using in school. I did learn cursive by the way, though you would never know it based on how my handwriting looks.
How did you become a nibmeister?
Josh: It was wholly accidental. I originally was really into fountain pen restoration, and I thought that’s what I would focus on beyond just accumulating pens. So, I took the Richard Binder master class on restoration. I learned a lot. For example, we spent an afternoon on all the varieties of plunger fillers. Words cannot adequately communicate the admiration we in the pen community should have people like Richard, Ron Zorn and others like them. These are people who built a body of knowledge through research, experimentation and problem-solving that we all owe a debt to and we need to preserve.
In any event, my thinking was that one day maybe I would get to that level in terms of restoration. One thing other to consider is that I am a trial lawyer, and trial work is not something you do on day one perfectly. It takes time, you learn, you apprentice, etc. So, my thinking was I will go through the same process. But here is the problem. I have no background in engineering, industrial and product design, fabricating and manufacturing. So, I lacked the sort of methods and means knowledge to really do the problem-solving aspect of things. I could have learned this stuff but for the bigger challenge that I have lived in an apartment for the last twelve years, and I had no place to set up a shop to really do the intense restoration I was thinking about. So, I continued to practice what I could.
Around this time, I started looking at all these pens with steel nibs I had acquired over the previous three to four years and said to myself "Wouldn't it be great to have stubs and cursive italic nibs on these pens?" To send the pens out to be modified would have taken a lot of time and resources, and it occurred to me, I should just learn to do it myself. So, I got in touch with Richard, he gave me some guidance and then I would observe him working at shows. And there is no just learning a couple of grinds if you are going to do this properly. You have to learn it all. After practicing the modifications and tuning for two years, someone suggested I do it at a show. My first show, the 2016 Long Island Pen Show, was not perfect. To work them out, I did a lot of free nib work at the Big Apple Pen Club so I would have more solid experience with other people's pens. I did the DC Pen Show that summer and have been at it ever since.
Which is your favorite nib to grind? Which is your favorite nib to use personally?
Josh: I personally use a stub. I have a handful of architects and cursive italics, but the majority get a stub, and several have the oblique stub that I am doing for Esterbrook. I do a lot of note taking at day job, and I find the stub is the most comfortable for me for that. On the issue of note taking, for me the architect nib works great when I have to take notes on my lap when there is no table or desk.
My favorite nib to grind is a pretty common one, the JOWO number 6 in either steel or gold. The alloy is excellent and takes to the machining very well. It’s as if they were made to be ground.
Which is your most requested nib? Why do you think that is?
Josh: I am going to cheat and give two. First is the cursive italic, and second is grinding down to XF and below. For the cursive italic, my sense is that many fountain pen users want a nib that simultaneously shows off the ink they are using but doesn't act like a marker. They get that from the cursive italic, and it gives the writing a lot of character. With grinding the nib down, I notice there are some folks extremely dedicated to very fine nibs. For some it’s their work, such as accountants and people in a technical field, others it’s an aesthetic. I find that people who like very fine nibs, really like the small nibs.
Can you describe your technical process in brief?
Josh: First, there is a pre-grinding inspection of the nib, and the tines have to be set a certain distance apart for the grinding. Second, is the grinding itself. Depending on the nib, I make three to six cuts on the nib. When I say cuts, I am actually grinding away tipping material at certain angles. Finally, there is the shaping and smoothing work that I do all by hand.
How would you describe your style as a nibmeister?
Josh: I have two thoughts on the matter of style: it’s about simplicity and experience. What does that mean? I do this part time, and though I consider myself a professional, I do it in addition to another profession because I get a lot of satisfaction from the work. So, for me the experience is what keeps me going, and the look on someone's face when you give them a writing experience that exceeds their expectations. It is also a different experience from lawyering, where you do a lot for a person, but you as the lawyer are vested with the judgment on what the "product" should be with certain input of the client. With nibs you apply your knowledge, but what the end result should be is all driven by the customer. So, I can win a trial for a client based on all my work, and they are happy, and we go our separate ways. But with nibs I am actually transforming an object owned by someone else to their specifications and you expect they will keep this object for a long time. In this way you are having a dialogue with another person through the crafting of an object. And when you get it more than right, more than perfect, you have created something excellent for that person.
Simplicity. When I started this whole endeavor, I had all sorts of fancy ideas of what I would do. After a short time, I realized none of that was me. I just want to work on nibs.
So, I try and keep what I do very focused. I am like that with food. I prefer simple things done well as opposed to something overly complicated (though I will still eat it). I have a lot of objections to deconstructed anything.
I also hope people think I am cool.
How do continue to learn your craft? Are you mostly self-taught? Do you seek out other nibmeisters?
Josh: I continue to learn by doing, problem solving, but I routinely seek advice. I was trained by a true master but did a lot of solo practice until I got things right.
I do seek out other nibmeisters (I prefer the Yiddish, nib maven, or the Brooklyn, nib guy). Some have more of a teacher relationship, some are more like peers. I am friends with some of the other nib maven, and we share information in addition to socializing.
Do you have outstanding goals for yourself as a nibmeister?
Josh: My goals in the immediate is to continue to build on the foundation I think I have created while adding additional services like flex modifications and crack repairs. I am more philosophical when it comes to the long-term. I have the benefit of receiving a lot of knowledge that I hope to pass on one day to anyone who is looking to develop the mastery themselves. So, in that way I look at it almost on a religious or spiritual level, where we can trace our ordination back to the original master. I also have the benefit of having started this at a young age, so I intend to stay active in the pen community until I can't any longer.
What do you love most about being a nibmeister?
Josh: Two things (sort of a constant in a lot of my answers). One is the working with people. I have worked on nibs for people from all over the world, every profession you can think of, all ages, backgrounds, etc. Add to that is the achievement. Each of those people now have something I created. When I finish the nib, I always test it. When I do that test, and its perfect, the way I think it should be, it’s a great feeling.
I also get a lot out that the focus in the actual work. It’s almost like meditation, where I can either clear my mind and focus on the nib or allow thoughts in as I am focusing.
Tell me about the custom nib you are working on for Kenro and why you chose it as your signature nib.
Josh: This I am excited about. One of the achievements of the old Esterbrook brand was their nibs. The pens in the relief nibs were great, and the renew points were a defining feature. And they did it all in a way that was accessible to a lot of people. I am glad that the brand has been revived by people who love pens, love the community and are trying to offer a pen that is as reliable and attractive as the originals, though they are updated for more modern tastes. I am also really excited to be included in the brands nib offerings, because again, I value my part in the grand heritage of this craft.
What I have done is try to mimic two classic Esterbrook nibs, the original Relief nibs and the 2314/9314 Relief Stubs. These stubs were left oblique, meaning the front of the nib is angled down towards the left side if you look at the nib from the top. The 2314 was the first special Esterbrook nib I purchased and my favorite. In doing this project with Kenro, I think offering something that references a classic part of the brand is important. You also don't have many pen brands offering a nib like this anymore.
By Katy Klassman