To the Point: Specialty Nibs, Your Key to Exciting Writing

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Stylus MagazineThis article is a slightly revised version of one that first appeared in the December 2003/January 2004 issue of Stylus magazine. It is a supplement to the three-part series beginning with Nibs I: The Basics.

Face it, ballpoint pens are boring. It doesn’t make much difference whether you use a $225.00 Parker Mosaic ballpoint or a 10-cent BiC Stic; both pens make lines that are the same width and density no matter what direction the pen is moving — up, down, or sideways. In contrast, fountain pens offer a little variation in line thickness and density — and that makes a person’s writing livelier. But most fountain pens, sold with round nibs that may be fine or medium or broad, make relatively uniform lines. Fountain pen connoisseurs who take pride in their penmanship often go looking for more dramatic line variation. They can get it with italic, stub, oblique, or flexible nibs on their favorite writing instruments.

Thick lines, thin lines, deeply saturated lines, faint lines, each of these can come from a fountain pen. In fact, a single fountain pen can produce them all in one short stretch of writing:

Writing sample

This sample wasn’t made with a standard fountain pen. The pen body itself, an in-
expensive Pelikan M200, is ordinary enough, but the nib — the part that actually
puts the ink on the paper — is a custom-crafted 0.9-mm formal, or “crisp,” italic nib.

Lines like those in the writing sample above come from an italic nib. Italics are one of several kinds of “specialty” nibs, which produce strokes of different widths. Most specialty nibs are stub, italic, or oblique. All of these rely on the different shapes of their tips to produce line variation. The combination of line variation with the uniqueness of your own handwriting is often very attractive and pleasing. It’s this pleasure, which specialty nibs alone can give, that attracts a small but growing legion of fountain pen collectors.

Writing sample

This sample was written with a custom-crafted 0.8-mm stub. Good stubs
are very smooth and easy to use, with no sharp corners or edges.

Some collectors use a stub for most, or even all, of their writing. They enjoy writing with a stub because the nib is smooth and easy to use, with a big soft “sweet spot.” (The bigger the sweet spot, the less attention you need to pay to positioning the pen to make it write.) Many of these people keep italics or oblique italics, which yield more dramatic line variation, for signatures. Formal, or “crisp,” italics and oblique italics are ideally suited to calligraphy, but most people find them difficult to use rapidly because the nibs’ sharp corners tend to dig into the paper. To solve this difficulty, there is a compromise design called a “cursive” italic, with eased edge and corners.

Nib silhouetteNib silhouette

An italic’s tip is ground straight across (left), while an oblique’s tip is ground at an angle (right).
The oblique italic here is a “left foot” oblique; its tip shape resembles the toes of a person’s
left foot, and it is usually used by a right-handed writer.

Italic nibs work well for both right-handed and left-handed writers. An oblique nib, because of its angled tip, is less adaptable, and obliques can be ground with the angle on either side to suit each individual writer’s preference. Some writers prefer obliques because of the difference in their writing, while others like them just because they find them easier to use than italics.

There remains one more specialty nib, the elusive flexible or “flex,” nib. The line variation of a flex nib is controlled, not by the tip itself (which can be round or a specialty shape), but by the flexibility of the nib’s tines, which spread to make a broader line in response to increased writing pressure. Every writer’s writing pressure changes in a way that is unique to that person, and this makes the flex nib the ultimate in personal pens.

Writing sample

This sample was written with a custom-crafted extra-fine flex nib made from a modern
Pelikan M250 nib. Flex nibs were common until about 1935, declining in popularity after
that time, and no really good flex nibs are sold commercially today.

Modern manufacturers offer a few specialty nibs, but sometimes these nibs can be scratchy or have flow problems. For a really smooth specialty nib, designed and tuned just for you, contact a person who specializes in adjusting, repairing, and modifying nibs. When you hear about these workers, you’ll often hear them called “nibmeisters.” There are fewer than half a dozen well-known nibmeisters working today. Each has his or her own ways of working, and — like me — each has clients who like the way that particular worker’s nibs come out.

Portrait of authorNot everyone needs or wants a dramatic specialty nib. While creating stubs, italics, and obliques forms the bulk of my nib work, I also repair damaged nibs and make other tip shapes such as smooth round nibs in sizes as small as 3XF (“needlepoint”).

I convert a standard nib into a stub, italic, or oblique by reshaping and polishing the tipping material. Starting with a round nib, I use a high-speed grinding wheel to remove material from the top surface, the bottom surface, and the end, making a rough form that is generally boxlike in shape. I create the shape by eye, using the pen as a handy jig to hold the nib against the spinning wheel. When a client has asked for a particularly precise size, I use a caliper; and when an oblique with an unusual tip angle is in progress I use a protractor to check the angle.

To finish, I use progressively finer abrasives, starting with 2000-grit wet/dry sandpaper and finishing with various grades of fiber-optic lapping film (ending with 0.3-micron abrasive, equivalent to 100,000-grit sandpaper) and foam-padded fingernail buffers. For a crisp italic or oblique italic, I work the nib against an abrasive sheet that is resting flat on a precision-lapped steel surface to ensure that all critical edges and surfaces are true. Stubs, cursive italics, and cursive oblique italics need softer shaping, with rounded edges and corners, and for these nibs I work with the abrasive laid directly on my bench surface or held in my hand.

The creation of a flex nib, while it uses the same tools, takes a different approach: I deepen the nib’s curved shape to enhance the degree of tine spread, and to make the tines more flexible I remove material along the outer edge and underside of the tines to lengthen and narrow and thin them. The best candidates for flexing are 14K, as 18K alloys tend to be either too soft or too hard. Too soft, and the nib stays bent after flexing; too hard and it resists flexing until it creases in a catastrophic failure known as “springing.”

Post-polishing adjustment includes aligning the tines and adjusting the width of the slit for good ink flow. It’s not possible to know whether a newly created specialty nib will work without actually trying the nib out, and the final step in the process is to ink the pen and “road test” the nib. For this test I write the first phrase of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address to exercise the nib through a variety of strokes and stresses. I test continuous flow with a series of curlicues, dash off a signature to check the nib’s high-speed performance, and check that the nib flows well in all directions by making a series of short lines downward, upward, to the right, and to the left.

I finish the test sheet with a description of the pen and the nib’s new shape, and the new specialty nib is ready to start enhancing its owner’s letters, checks, and journals. You’re next — would you like me to grind you a stub or italic, or do you want to go for the gusto with a nice flex?

Nib
The broad nib shown here will become a precision cursive italic.
Nib

Here is the finished cursive italic.


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