To the Point: Nib Materials

(This page revised February 10, 2015)

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Stylus MagazineThis article is a slightly edited version of one that first appeared in the April/May 2007 issue of Stylus magazine.

What makes one nib better than another? Many fountain pen aficionados assume that gold trumps steel, and if 14K gold is good, 18K just has to be better. That’s not really true, and it gives short shrift to some very good nibs.

Nib makers have used many different materials over the years: gold, palladium silver, steel, brass, titanium… So what’s the best material for nibs, and why? Assuming that the materials in question can be adjusted (tempered, shaped, finished, etc.) to produce the same feel in the user’s hand, then the ideal material would be one that costs nothing and lasts forever. Obviously, there is no such material.

Fountain pen nib and section

This 14K gold nib came from a Montblanc LeGrand.
It is mounted in a Retro 51 Double-Eight.
 

Let’s look first at longevity: the answer there is obvious. The most corrosion-resistant chemical element known is gold, which is impervious to virtually all corrosives — only hot chlorine bleach and a few rare acids can touch it. Hence, for longevity without regard to cost, gold might be the ideal nib material. This is why high-quality 19th-century dip pens were made of gold. (Inks in use at that time, primarily ferrogallic inks of uncertain purity, were far more corrosive than most modern inks.)

But longevity isn’t all there is to a nib. A super-wonderful nib that has to be replaced periodically might win out over a mediocre nib that lasts forever.

Most high-quality nibs are made of gold. But pure gold (24K, or 1000 by European measure) is no good; it is too soft, malleable, and ductile. But when it is alloyed in appropriate proportions with suitable combinations of other elements (silver, copper, nickel, etc.) it becomes harder and exhibits other desirable properties such as the ability to be tempered.

It happens that there is a gray zone in the range of alloys when measured by gold content. That zone falls around 14K (585). Alloys containing significantly more gold tend to lack some desirable qualities, most especially flexibility (the resilience to bend significantly and return to the original shape over and over again). Many 18K (750) nibs, for instance, are springy (“soft”), but that’s not true flexibility. People who believe the sales hype frequently end up sending their 18K nibs out for repair after they’ve sprung them by applying more pressure than the nibs could handle. As a rule, 18K alloys are too soft — bending too easily and staying bent — or too hard, resisting until the point of catastrophic failure. This is why responsible nib technicians refuse to add flexibility to 18K nibs.

Alloys containing less gold, such as 9K (375), can be made to exhibit even better flexibility than 14K alloys. But these low-karat alloys suffer from a greater potential for corrosion, so there is a balance. That balance falls at about 14K; 14K nibs can combine both superb writing characteristics and good corrosion resistance.

Fountain pen nib and section

This Levenger True Writer’s steel nib has been
ground to a broad cursive italic shape.
 

Why, if 14K is better than 18K, do pen makers insist on using nibs made of 18K or even 21K gold? Beginning with a centuries-old antifraud law in France, there are now laws in many countries that restrict what can, or cannot, be labeled as gold, and 18K is the break point. It is illegal in these countries to sell an object as gold if it is made with less gold than 18K. The result is that a higher gold content has unfortunately become associated with quality and, because gold is precious, with luxury. Manufacturers market it that way, and we’re stuck with inferior nibs that cost more than better ones would.

During World War II, Esterbrook produced 8000-series Renew-Point nibs usina a palladium alloy, and Sheaffer began using various palladium silver alloys in the 1950s to save cost. In general, palladium nibs behave much like nibs made with gold. Palladium alloys are not quite as good as gold for flexible nibs, but their other characteristics can be adjusted by varying the proportions of the metals used. Palladium alloys also have good corrosion resistance; but palladium, like gold, is a precious metal. And since palladium alloys look like polished steel, why waste the money?

This brings us to steel. Steel fountain pen nibs, of course, aren’t made of ordinary steel. They’re stainless steel. It’s important to understand that stainless steel isn’t perfectly stainless. It just stains less. Different stainless steels vary in corrosion resistance, magnetic response, stiffness, and so on.

During World War II, when Germany classified gold as a critical war resource, Pelikan and other German pen companies turned to stainless steel, producing some magnificent flexible steel nibs as well as the more pedestrian firm and manifold types. Many of these nibs are labeled with the letters CN, which stand for chromium and nickel, the two principal nonferrous components of stainless steels. Even the best steel nibs don’t resist corrosion nearly so well as gold nibs do, but they cost much less than nibs made of any precious metal.

Fountain pen nib and section

This is a titanium nib in a Stipula Suprema.
 

But modern nib manufacturers do not make steel nibs that are truly flexible.

During the fabled Golden Age, some bottom-feeding pen manufacturers made pens with gold-plated brass nibs that weren’t at all bad for the price; but that was then and this is now. Nobody uses brass today, so let’s just forget it.

At the end of the list, right where it belongs, is titanium. Titanium is the trendy high-tech metal, and a couple of pen makers have decided to use nibs made of it. Titanium is serviceable, but it is not flexible; it’s like an 18K alloy that’s too hard. Titanium nibs give a good soft springy feel, but go a tiny fraction of a degree too far and you’ve sprung your nib. In the hands of a nib technician titanium is soft; it bends and stays there, so it’s more difficult to repair a damaged titanium nib than it is to repair a gold or steel one. And titanium doesn’t wick ink as well as gold or palladium; this can cause flow issues, especially with heavily saturated inks.

So, whether you’re choosing a new pen or exploring vintage classics, keep in mind this general pecking order of nib materials: 14K gold is the best, 10K gold and palladium silver are also surprisingly good, 18K gold is good but not the very best; and while steel nibs are much less costly, they can still be very good indeed. And when it comes to brass and titanium nibs, it’s probably better not to go there — unless of course you just want to look at the pen and don’t actually plan to write with it.


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