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Richard Binder's website

Fountain Pen Nibs: The Basics
The nib primer you have been waiting for!
from the fountain pen of Richard Binder

Fountain pen nibs are made in a bewildering array of sizes and styles. Of course, covering everything about every kind of nib in one article would be bewildering as well—I won’t do that—but there should be enough useful information to help you better decide what nibs might best suit your writing style. In this article, I’ll pretend to be knowledgeable about the following aspects of nibs:

  • Nib tip shapes
  • Nib sizes and types
  • Problems

Nib Tip Shapes

There are three basic nib shapes: Round, stub, and italic. Ball point, oblique, and calligraphy nibs are merely slight variations of the round and italic shapes, and I’ll discuss these variations in their appropriate contexts..

Round Nibs: A round nib is ground and polished to have roughly a circular footprint, so that its line width is fairly uniform no matter what direction the nib is moving across the paper. I say “roughly” because the shape is rarely a true circle. Nibs are small, and hands are big. Grinding a nib to a geometrically perfect shape by hand just isn’t possible, but this is one area in which “close enough” really is close enough. Here is a magnified silhouette representing the basic shape of a round nib, together with a cross illustrating the uniform stroke width that this nib produces:

A ball-point nib is like a standard round nib, but it is also ground and polished so that you can write with it while holding the pen with its nib on the underside instead of in the usual nib-uppermost orientation. This gives a finer line, so that you can have, in effect, two different nib sizes on one pen. Parker was famous for the quality of its ball-point nibs. Sheaffer’s Feathertouch nibs are also ball-point nibs, and Sheaffer included a ball-point nib among the choices it offered for the interchangeable-nib Fineline series of pens that it produced to compete with Esterbrook. (But note that Fineline nibs are not interchangeable with Esterbrook’s Renew Point nibs!)

Stub Nibs: A stub nib is elongated sideways, to have a footprint that is somewhat elliptical. This makes it lay down a slightly broader line when moving up and down (in relation to the nib itself) and a narrower one when moving sideways (again, in relation to the nib). The eccentricity of the ellipse isn’t too pronounced, and the nib is still polished to have nice rounded edges. This means that you can write with a stub just about as easily as with a standard nib. Here is a magnified silhouette representing the basic shape of a stub nib, together with a cross illustrating the slight variation in stroke width that this nib produces:

Italic Nibs: An italic nib is much more elongated. This makes the difference between its broad (up-and-down) strokes and its narrow strokes (sideways) much more pronounced than with a stub. There’s a readily perceptible straight edge across the tip of an italic. Here is a magnified silhouette representing the basic shape of an italic nib, together with a cross illustrating the more extreme variation in stroke width that this nib produces:

When you write with an italic, you hold the pen with the nib generally away from your forearm (as with a stub or a round nib). I mention this point here because you hold a pen with an oblique nib differently, and I’ll describe that difference later. When used by a right-handed person, an italic will generally make strokes that are of roughly equal width in both the vertical and horizontal directions; strokes from the upper right to the lower left will be thinner, and strokes from the upper left to the lower right will be thicker, as shown here:

This is the stroke arrangement most commonly seen in Old English and other blackletter styles and in many italic and Chancery styles:

The Old English text shows additional ornamentation that would be applied with a very fine dip-pen nib called a “crow quill.” (The illustrations here were actually produced using typeset fonts, but they are characteristic.)

Left-handed writers use so many different writing styles, overwriting and underwriting, writing uphill, writing horizontally, and writing downhill, that it’s not really possible to illustrate a typical left-handed writer’s results. Depending on the way you position your hand and align your paper, your broad and narrow strokes will be aligned in directions different from those of a right-handed writer, and likely different even from those of other left-handed writers. You’ll have to experiment for yourself.

As you might have guessed by now, italics and calligraphy nibs are the same thing in terms of form; but a calligraphy nib might be even wider yet. Italics are finished with relatively less rounding to their edges than round or stub nibs. This square-edged grind and the wider footprint result in a greater tendency to catch on corners and a greater tendency to skip if the nib isn’t held straight-on to the paper (i.e., when one side of the nib lifts away due to the nib’s being rocked sideways). Writing too rapidly with an italic tends to produce scratchiness and skips.True calligraphy nibs are often even squarer than italics; the intent is to give a very crisp and controllable line width. This is why you can’t just pick up an italic or a calligraphy nib and dash off a note the way you would with your usual nib. You’re forced to write more slowly in order to retain control of your writing. But with practice, some writers become very proficient with italic nibs, producing beautiful text.

Now we come to the the oblique. An oblique is exactly like an italic except that it’s cut on a slant. The oblique shown in the following figure is a right oblique; it looks like a right foot when viewed from the top. A left oblique is cut on the opposite slant. In this figure, the italic is on the left and the oblique is on the right:

When you write with an oblique, you must change the orientation of the pen in order to make the nib’s flat surface contact the paper. A right oblique, when used by a right-handed person, will be oriented with the nib generally away from the body rather than the forearm. This will give broader strokes when the pen is drawn toward or away from the body and narrower strokes when the pen is drawn sideways across the body. In general, this is ideal for producing letters shaded in the way roman type is shaded, with thick verticals and thin horizontals, as seen here:

Left-handed writers, both underwriters and overwriters, will generally have better success with a left oblique than with a right oblique; at least, the left oblique will be easier to hold. As with an italic, you’ll need to experiment to find the best oblique for you.

Nib Sizes and Types

Nib Sizes: Nibs are made in five basic size designation: Extra fine (XF), fine (F), medium (M), broad (B), and double broad (BB). As you might expect, some manufacturers make additional sizes, such as a triple broad (BBB). There is no international standard that specifies the exact sizes for nibs, so different manufacturers will make nibs that are somewhat different in size. The tips of modern nibs seem to be a little larger, generally, than those of vintage nibs of the same designation. I suspect that this is so because over the years a broader line has become more popular, perhaps because of the influence of the ballpoint pen, so that the nib that produces a line of “usual” size is larger than it used to be. (There are technological limitations on how small a ballpoint can be and still work; a medium ballpoint produces a broader line than the average vintage medium fountain pen nib.)

Japanese nibs tend to be a little finer than their Western equivalents; a Japanese M nib is about the same size as a European F. If you’re an antiquarian account who writes with a tiny spidery hand, a Japanese XF might be just what you need.

Nib Types: When I speak of nib types, I’m referring to flexibility or the lack of it.

Most pens today—as did many in the past, including Duofolds of the 1920s and the sturdily-built Sheaffer Triumphs of the 1940s—have nibs that run firm to rigid; they have little or no flexibility. These nibs stand up very well to being used with a firm writing pressure; and this is probably a good thing, because most modern writers have learned to write using a ballpoint, which requires a firm pressure. Among vintage pens, you may find nibs labeled Manifold. These are very rigid nibs designed to be used under enough pressure to make two or three carbon copies. Some fountain-pen users dismiss nibs this rigid, calling them “nails,” but these nibs do have a purpose. George Parker, in manufacturing the revolutionary Duofold—one still hailed by many collectors as one of the best pens ever—chose to install a nail-like nib in a vast majority of the Duofolds his company produced. The many people who bought these pens and the thousands who collect them today outnumber the few who disparage firm nibs as “nails.” In fact, for the majority of users, “nails” are actually better than flexible nibs, and this was as true 80 years ago as it is today. That’s why modern nibs are firmer: It makes sense to the majority of people to use this kind of nib. That being said, I reside on the crotchety side of the fence myself, and I carry a pen with a very firm nib only when I expect to be signing credit-card receipts.

Sooner or later, nearly every fountain-pen user will discover flexible nibs. Flex nibs, which were more common in the earlier part of the 20th century but are still available today, produce interesting and attractive stroke variation with only an ordinary round tip. As you press more firmly, the nib’s tines spread, and the stroke grows broader. Flex nibs have been made in semi-flexible, flexible, and super-flexible variants; a super-flex will do under relatively light pressure the same things that a semi-flex does with more pressure. By choosing the proper degree of flexibility you can fit your nib to your writing style without risking a nib that becomes sprung from the application of too much pressure. The difference between what a flex nib will do and what an italic or oblique will due lies in the fact that the italic or oblique produces its stroke variation, for the most part, in specific directions, as described earlier in this article. A flex nib, on the other hand, can produce a broad or narrow stroke in any direction; this yields a handwriting that its users extol as being much more characterful and personal, citing the uniqueness of every individual’s particular combination of stroke direction and pressure. Mastering a flex nib isn’t easy, but many users find it well worth the effort.

The ultimate flex nib for some writers is a flex italic. With a flex italic, your writing takes on a combination of italic and flex characteristics, thinner than expected in some places and as broad as the Pacific Ocean in others. Writing with a flex italic is difficult to master—even more so than a regular flexible nib. Flex italics have all the bad handling characteristics of both of their parent types. They are not for the faint of heart.

Some makers, notably Moore, attempted to produce nibs that were a delicately-balanced compromise between flexibility and the rigidity needed for making carbon copies; Moore labeled its nibs of this type as Maniflex, and most of them are more nail-like than not.

Problems

A nib can misbehave for several reasons, some of which are simple maintenance problems of dirt, oil, or clogging. (If you use cheap paper, for example, fibers can become lodged in the slit and inhibit the flow of ink.) But beyond these common maintenance problems, nibs can suffer flaws of manufacture or be damaged by improper use. I’ll discuss a few of the more common such problems.

Too Dry or Too Wet: If a nib writes but refuses to lay down enough ink to satisfy you, it’s possible that the slit is too narrow for your writing style. Similarly, if the line is always too wet, the slit might be too wide. The slit width needs to be different for nibs of different sizes; that is, an XF needs a very tight slit if it is not to throw too much ink, while a BB needs a slit more nearly the width of the Grand Canyon to supply the large quantity of ink needed. But there’s a balance here; too narrow a slit produces a dry writer, and a slit that’s too wide dumps more ink than the nib can handle, leading to uneven lines and slow drying.

As a general rule, the nib tines should not touch each other when the nib is at rest. The firmer or more rigid the nib, the more important it is that the tines not touch; if they do, the nib is likely to suffer an extreme case of the “too dry” syndrome. As with most rules, however, there is an exception. A flexible nib’s tines touch at the tip when the nib is at rest; in fact, they are slightly sprung so that if you move one tine slightly up or down, the two tips will overlap very slightly.

Loss of Line: A nib’s slit must conform to certain restrictions of shape. The slitting process, performed with a very thin abrasive wheel, produces a slit that is perfectly straight; that is, the slit’s sides are the same distance from each other along the slit’s length, as shown here:

The nibs in most inexpensive and moderately-priced pens go to market this way, and for the most part these nibs perform reasonably well. Occasionally, a nib with a straight slit will have difficulty maintaining capillary action and will stop writing from time to time. This is more common in broad nibs, whose slits are wider. A quick shake will usually restart the nib, but it’s an annoyance, and it creates the risk of splattering your companions. Worse, if your name is Lewis Waterman, you risk destroying an important insurance contract and having to find a new line of work.

Better-quality nibs, which are hand finished, usually exhibit a slight taper to the slit. You can see, upon close examination, that the tines are slightly closer together at the tip than they are at the breather hole:

A tapered slit is more conducive to the proper capillary action, and nibs with tapered slits are usually more reliable writers than those with straight slits.

A more severe loss-of-line problem can occur if a nib’s slit has an inverse taper; that is, if the slit is wider at the tip than it is at the breather hole:

In this case, capillary action has an uphill battle from the outset, and the pen will probably refuse to write more frequently than it actually writes. This problem can occur when a nib is sprung by the application of too much pressure. When this happens, the loss-of-line problem is aggravated by the fact that the tines, which are now bent slightly upward, are no longer in proper contact with the feed. An inexperienced repair person may diagnose this problem incorrectly as a feed that isn’t set properly, and he or she may simply re-set the feed without solving the real problem.

Hard Starting: This is the condition that occurs when a nib doesn’t start laying down ink immediately upon contact with the paper. The most common nib-related cause of hard starting is slit edges that are improperly ground. Look at the round nib silhouette, repeated below. Note the slight rounding of the edges where the slit is cut through. If these edges are not rounded, the nib is likely to be scratchy. Many inexpensive modern pens, and some not so inexpensive, have nibs that suffer this fault. But if the slit edges are rounded too much, capillary action will hold the ink too far away from the paper instead of drawing it toward the paper as intended, and the nib will have trouble starting. This condition is shown on the right in the figure here:

If your nib starts after a little extra push and then writes well, the fault may well be slit edges that are too round. Nibs with too-round slit edges tend to be very smooth, so there is a delicate balance between too round and just right.

In Conclusion

Different people write different ways. The important thing is to experiment and have fun; and whatever nib style you like, don’t let anyone disparage the nib—or you—because, in the end, no one’s right or wrong or more elegant or less elegant. The only mistake any fountain-pen user can make is never to try a different style nib.

© 2001 Richard F. Binder

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