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Guide to Fountain Pen Nibs

A variety of fountain pen nibsThere are a lot of reasons people love fountain pens. Some love the amazing variety of designs and materials used to make them. Some love the filling mechanisms, and the ability to use bottles of ink, which is economical and good for the environment. But it's likely the part that's key for most people is the nib. It's where the ink meets the paper, so it's the most important part to the writing or drawing experience. And fountain pens are available with a sometimes bewildering array of different types of nib, so we're going to look into them here.

What Is a Nib?

If you don't think about it too much, it's pretty simple. It's the metal bit at the tip of a fountain pen, where the ink makes its way to the paper. You can start pondering if nib-shaped plastic tips can count, but that's a bit philosophical, so we're not going to worry about that. And if you go back in time, the word has changed meaning over the years. The word 'pen' used to mean what we'd now call a nib, and the body of what we'd call a pen was called a 'pen holder'. But we have neither a TARDIS nor a DeLorean, so it doesn't really matter.

While there are variations, by far the most common type of nib has a simple slit cut into the metal, which ink is drawn into by capillary action. Liquids like to seep into tiny gaps. So the ink gets itself into the slit, then the end of that slit touches paper. The ink is drawn to the paper, as the tip forms its own tiny gaps, and the paper itself is a world of tiny gaps between the fibres, so the ink gets on the paper and stays.

In a dip pen, the nib has to be dipped into ink frequently, to keep adding ink to the slit (or sometimes to some sort of tiny reservoir on the nib). In a fountain pen, there's a feed, which takes ink from the body of the pen, and puts it in the nib's slit. It's all done with narrow channels, so the ink can flow, usually with a slightly wider gap where air can get back up into the pen body (or the cartridge or converter), so the pressure can equalise.

Nib Shapes

Here, we're talking more about the overall shape of the nib, not the tip or the writing style. We'll get to that next.

The most common shape for a nib, by a very long way, is the shape you automatically think of for a nib. It's at the end of the pen, sticking out, with the feed underneath. It gets wider, then narrows to the tip. It's how the vast majority of nibs are made, and it works well.

A slight variation on this is the more simple and straightened version, probably most often associated with Lamy, though other brands have used very similar shapes. They work just the same way, so it's really a personal preference. Some people like this more modern and minimalist look, and others like the more traditional style.

Parker 51 nibThere are hooded nibs, most famously associated with the Parker "51", where the nib barely peeks out from the pen body, with most of the actual nib hidden away. These do have a potential advantage, as the nib can be kept in contact with more ink, making it less prone to drying out while you stop and think. That was the reason for their use in the 51 originally - it was intended to use very fast-drying ink, which wouldn't have worked well in more traditional designs. That ink didn't turn out well, as it damaged the pens, but the principle still had its advantages for other inks. They're still around in modern versions of the 51 itself, and various pens that are, let's say, inspired by it. And the Lamy 2000, which is a design classic in its own right.

Inlaid nibs are fairly unusual, and most often known from Sheaffer designs, or the Waterman Carene. The whole nib is visible, stuck onto the body of the pen directly, rather than being pushed into it. They worked just like other nibs, but could give the whole pen quite a striking style. We can't really say why the style didn't catch on for other brands, but it seems likely others just never worked out how to make these nibs stay reliably on the pen.

Sheaffer Clipper Snorkel tubular Triumph nibAnother style that Sheaffer had great success with was their tubular 'Triumph' nibs. Where a hooded nib has the pen body wrapped around the nib, these tubular nibs wrap around the end of the pen, enclosing the feed. Like the inlaid nibs, they made for a very unusual style, which looked good, but they did mean using quite a bit more material for the nib itself. A gold nib that needs a lot more gold to make is going to make the whole pen much more expensive.

We'll end with a little mention for the Pilot Parallel Pen. It's a bit different, partly because it's made specifically for calligraphy, and partly because it's the only one we're mentioning here to use a different method to take the ink to the tip. Instead of a slit cut in the nib, the nib is made of two metal plates with a narrow gap between them, where the ink flows through the whole nib.

Nib Types

Here, we're dealing with the types of nib in terms of how they write - fine or broad lines, flexibility, that sort of thing.

Left-Handed Nibs

Richard Binder, who knows rather a lot about nibs, says very clearly that there's no such thing as a left-handed nib. But we sell them. Well-known brands make them. So is he wrong? Or are respected fountain pen manufacturers making imaginary products?

Well, as usual, Richard is right. But there are things that can make a style of nib more suitable to any left-handed people who have trouble with other nibs. As an example, Lamy make some left-handed nibs. They're just made in such a way as to make them a bit more forgiving of how they're held, if you don't get the angle quite 'right'. For some left-handed people, that can help, others have no trouble at all with a standard nib.

We have left-handed people at Cult Pens, who use standard fountain pen nibs with no trouble - after all, there's no such thing as a right-handed nib, and most are symmetrical. So if you're left-handed, the chances are a standard nib will be fine for you. If you hold the pen at a bit of an angle, a left-handed nib might help - even if you're not left-handed!

Widths

Waterman Carene inlaid nibMost fountain pens have some choice of nib width, often just fine, medium or broad. Some add extra-fine and extra-broad. These should all be fairly self-explanatory, they just write different widths. Broader nibs write thicker lines. While some manufacturers, like Platinum, specify the actual width, most don't, and the width of the line written will vary due to other factors than the nib, anyway. Different paper, different ink, and even things like temperature and air pressure, can all change the width of line.

Tastes vary, so it's really up to you which you should get. In general, though, you'll want a thinner line for smaller writing, and a broader line for big writing. Also, the broader the nib, the smoother it's likely to feel. A very fine tip can be more demanding on the paper, too, needing smoother paper so it doesn't snag on the fibres.

The other problem with nib widths is that there's no real definition for the terms. One manufacturer's fine nib might be the same as another's medium. Japanese nibs tend to be finer than Western nibs. But a lot of nibs come from Germany, even when the pen doesn't. And sometimes an Asian pen brand might get a German nib, but have them made for their own market, so they're finer than you'd expect. If a fine Pelikan nib from Germany is the width you like, you're likely to find a fine nib from Pilot in Japan much too fine for you.

While we'll try to offer what guidance we can, we haven't tried every nib variation on every pen we sell, so sometimes it's best to search for reviews and discussions from people who have tried them.

Italics and Stubs

An italic nib is made with a straight edge, so side-to-side strokes write a thin line, and up-down strokes write a thicker line. These are often given an actual width in millimetres. A true italic has sharp edges for precision. They're great for calligraphy, but aren't so easy to use for general writing. A lot of italic nibs actually have more rounded edges, making them better for more general use, but they may lack the precision a calligrapher would want. The proper term for this type of more forgiving italic nib is a 'cursive italic', but it's rarely used.

Stub nibs have become quite popular recently, but it's a rather imprecise term. It used to be used for any nib that was quite short, from tip to back, literally a stubby nib shape. It changed over time, though, and came to mean something between a cursive italic nib and a more normal rounded nib. So they'd give a nice bit of variation between sideways and up-down strokes, while still being quite practical for daily writing. But as they became popular, a lot of manufacturers started calling their italic nibs 'stub' nibs. But since their italics were mostly quite rounded-off at the edges, it's not too far wrong.

So, if you're a calligrapher, and need those really crisp edges, most nibs called 'italic' are probably too rounded for you. But you probably know exactly what you need. If you're looking for a bit more flair for general writing, a stub is probably what you want, but be aware that you'll need a little more care to keep the nib lined up correctly on the paper.

Oh, and to complicate things a little more, a lot of broad and extra-broad nibs are actually a bit oval in shape, giving a little of that line variation - they'd probably fit into the modern definition of a stub.

Flexibility

Most modern fountain pen nibs are not flexible. Long ago, people were used to writing with quills, and they were used to being gentle, and used to the idea that a little extra pressure would make a nib open up and write wider.

These days, most people are more used to ballpoint and rollerball pens, and they're used to pressing on quite firmly, in a way that would damage a flexible nib. So they went from being the standard type of nib, to being quite a speciality item. Carbon paper had an influence too - when carbon copies of handwritten notes were a common requirement in offices, it became quite a selling point for a pen to have a nib sturdy enough to handle the pressure used for carbon copies.

(Carbon paper? Yes, this used to be a thing. Writing on one sheet, with another sheet below, and in between them, a sheet of carbon paper. With a strong writing pressure, the carbon paper would double-up your writing onto the lower sheet, so you have two copies of what you'd written. Yes, pretty basic, but they didn't have photocopiers or phones with cameras in them. Waxy paper with carbon in it was the height of technology.)

Anyway, back to the present, and things are looking up a bit again. A few years ago, there were very few options for flexible nibs on fountain pens. Now, a few manufacturers are starting to make nibs with some flexibility to them, like the Omniflex, Pilot's Falcon nib, and Platinum's Soft nibs. Even these speciality nibs won't be as flexible as flex nibs used to be, but at least there are these choices again now for those who want them.

Choosing The Right Nib

Underneath a Lamy 2000 nibUnfortunately, while people quite often ask us what nib they should buy, it's usually an impossible question to answer. The general guideline is that if you don't know otherwise, a medium is probably a good choice. Fine if you have small writing, or usually prefer finer pens, or broad if you like thick lines and write large. Beyond that, you'll get to know your own tastes as you use different nibs. If you don't really know what your preference is going to be, we'd usually recommend starting with a reasonably priced pen, so you can change your mind later, or go for something where replacement nibs are available at a reasonable price, as with most Lamy pens.

While the line variation of a stub or italic might sound appealing, we wouldn't recommend it as your first fountain pen, unless you're sure that's what you want, but they can be a great thing to try out, and will give your writing a more interesting look.

Materials

Nibs are usually made of steel or gold. Gold nibs add quite a lot to the cost of the pen, but some people have a strong preference for it. The differences are more limited than many people would think, though, and steel nibs can be just as good, so don't feel like you have to pay the extra for gold to get a really good nib. Both materials can be made quite rigid or fairly flexible. While gold does resist corrosion better than steel, very few fountain pen inks will harm steel, and with modern steels, even the most damaging inks would take many, many years to cause any trouble, if ever.

More expensive pens, with the best nibs, do tend to use gold, so if the pen you want is something high-end or speciality, it may well come with a gold nib. The feel of the nib on the paper won't normally be affected by the material, as the very tip part of the nib is made from different material, which brings us nicely on to...

Tipping

The material the nib is made from doesn't normally come into contact with the paper, that's the job of the tipping material. We all know that fountain pens have iridium tips. Except they don't. Or perhaps they do. Iridium is a metal, in the platinum family. It's very hard, and very wear-resistant, which makes it very good for the part of the pen that gets rubbed against paper so much. Gold would actually wear away with that sort of treatment. Steel fares much better, but especially with a finer tip, would still tend to wear down over enough years of use.

But iridium is also very rare and expensive, so the 'iridium' tip of a fountain pen nib rarely contains any iridium. There are alloys of similar metals that work just as well. But the term 'iridium' just sort of stuck for this use. So while the 'iridium tip' isn't likely to contain any iridium, it's so common to call the tipping 'iridium' that it's just the accepted term.

Most calligraphy nibs don't use any tipping, so the steel comes directly into contact with the paper. They'd generally last so long that it's nothing to worry about, though, and it's one of the reasons why properly sharp-edged italic nibs tend to be the reserve of dip nibs, where the nib is expected to wear out eventually.

Care and Maintenance

There isn't really much you need to think about with maintaining a fountain pen nib. As long as the pen isn't dropped on its tip, or used too heavily-handed, the nib would take a fair bit of damaging. It's made of metal, after all, so it's rarely going to be the weakest part of the pen.

The only inks likely to carry any risk to a nib are iron gall inks, which are quite acidic, and will react a little with steel. They can be used quite safely with gold nibs, and even modern steel nibs are unlikely to be harmed by them unless used with these inks for many years. And with these inks, there's a much higher risk of clogging up the feed, so the nib is unlikely to be the first thing damaged.

There are those who think a nib adjusts itself to suit its owner, which there may be a little truth to, but very little these days. Some say a fountain pen should never be loaned, as it would ruin that adjustment, though it doesn't seem to make a lot of sense that it adjusts to your writing over a long time, but then adjusts to the person you let use it in a few minutes. The main 'adjusting' a nib might actually do is the tipping wearing down a little as you write, which might make it a little less suited to someone else's way of writing, but it happens very gradually, and takes many years.

Loaning pens to those not used to fountain pens can still be a little risky, but the more likely problems are people using too much pressure and damaging the nib, staring at it in horror and handing it straight back, or forgetting to give it back to you!

14 April 2022


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