To the Point: Hitting the Sweet Spot

(This page revised June 22, 2012)

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Stylus MagazineThis article first appeared in the April/May 2006 issue of Stylus magazine.

Every tennis player knows what the sweet spot is — it’s the small area near the middle of the racket’s face that gives the most control, response and power. Did you know that fountain pen nibs have sweet spots, too?

If you’ve been using a fountain pen for more than about two minutes, you’ve probably figured out that there are ways in which you can hold it to make it write smoothly (assuming that its nib is actually smooth in the first place), but there are other ways you can hold it in which it won’t. When you’re holding a pen so that it writes smoothly and effortlessly, you have undoubtedly found its sweet spot.

What is a sweet spot?

The sweet spot is the area of the nib’s tip, sometimes called the writing pad, that is smoothed and curved just right so that it will glide across the paper on a thin layer of lubricating ink. Most ordinary nibs — modern and vintage — have them, but a few slip through quality control without it, and sometimes a used pen’s previous owner wore it off. Manufacturers typically tune nibs so you’ll be on the sweet spot when you hold the pen at an elevation of between 40° and 55° above the paper with the nib straight on to the paper, as shown here:

Correct pen elevation angle

Correct pen rotation

I remember when Slazenger invented an oversized racket with a huge sweet spot. What about pens…is there one like that?

Yes and no. Unlike a tennis racket, a nib doesn’t grow a bigger sweet spot just by becoming bigger. On a nib, the size of the sweet spot is determined by how far you can rotate the pen, or raise or lower it, before the pen begins to skip or write roughly. See the illustration below:

Range of pen elevations

Nominally, a perfectly spherical nib tip will have the biggest possible sweet spot. I say “nominally” because most nibs today are finished only in a small area, allowing fairly restricted rotation and elevation. This was the impetus for Stipula’s introduction of its 52-degree nib. This nib’s sweet spot has been moved so that it’s perfect for someone who holds the pen at an elevation of about 45° to 60°. Most people younger than 60 years old learned to write at this higher elevation — with ballpoints. (For more about this, see To the Point: What’s the Point?.) A good nib technician can extend the sweet spot of a round nib to support any elevation from about 35° to nearly 90° (straight up) and rotations as far as about 15° in either direction. Rotation beyond that point will lift the nib’s slit so far off the paper that the nib will skip on startup.

It turns out that a round nib with an extended sweet spot is precisely what many people need because it allows “finger writing,” the technique that most people have adopted since the ascent of the ballpoint. Unlike those who were taught penmanship in school, finger writers hold their hands relatively motionless, moving their pens to and fro, up and down by flexing their fingers. This technique changes the pen’s elevation and rotation continually. It’s also very tiring. The Palmer penmanship method suggests that the writer hold the hand and wrist essentially rigid, moving the pen by moving the entire lower arm. This technique, which allows the pen to ride on a very small sweet spot, uses large muscles instead of small ones, and it pretty much eliminates writing fatigue. But I digress.

Writers who habitually rotate theirs pens — and many people do — can find themselves far enough off the sweet spot that their pens skip and skritch across the paper. (There is more about rotation, including an illustration of it, in Singing a New “Tune”.) The solution to this problem is an oblique nib. Note here that I’m not talking about a specialty nib like a stub or a cursive italic. As explained in Nibs I: The Basics, obliquity has nothing to do with italic or stub nibs. An oblique nib can be an ordinary round nib except that it’s shaped a little bit to one side so that the sweet spot falls more on one tine than the other.

Some of you probably will wonder, then, how does all this sweet-spot stuff dovetail with the theory and practice of writing with specialty nibs? It’s a completely separate discussion: If you’re one of those people who want to explore stubs, italics and such, you’re very quickly going to find that the sweet spot of an italic nib is much smaller than the sweet spot of a round nib. Most high-quality italics, regardless of whether they’re stubs, cursive italics or crisp calligraphy nibs, can tolerate a reasonable range of elevation, but they don’t like rotation very much at all. The slightest rotation, and you’ve lifted the slit clear of the paper. The nib will skip and scratch, often very badly. Rotate back until you find the sweet spot, and zing! The nib will almost fly over the paper. The next illustration shows an italic on and off the sweet spot.

Correct pen rotation angle Incorrect pen rotation

The whole point of stubs, as opposed to crisper italic nibs, is to make a bigger sweet spot so that the stub will be able to write rapidly. With luck and a little practice, most people can write with a stub as rapidly as they can with a round nib. More severe italics take more practice, and the crisper the nib, the more important it is to write using arm motion instead of finger motion.

Just as with round nibs, specialty nibs can be made oblique to accommodate rotation. Many people think of oblique italics as just plain “obliques,” but as you’ve seen here, that’s a misconception.

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