To the Point: What You See Is What You Get — Or Is It?

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Stylus MagazineThis article is a slightly revised version of one that first appeared in the Spring 2009 issue of Stylus magazine.

This sort of thing is a minefield, but this person wanted to do it anyway. And, truth be told, so did I.

Once upon a time, I received an email message from a client who was seriously interested in documenting the performance of nibs in terms of stroke width. Now, this sort of thing is a minefield, but this person wanted to do it anyway. And, truth be told, so did I.

Two nibs

If you pick up medium-nibbed pens from Maker X and Maker Y, and draw a stroke or two with each, you’d expect the strokes to be all the same, wouldn’t you? Don’t count on it.

Huh? Medium is medium, isn’t it? Well, yes and no.

Nib tip sizes differ among manufacturers. If you expect the medium Bock nib in a Classic Pens Legend to produce exactly the same stroke width as the medium JoWo nib in a Taccia Momenta, or the medium Ancora nib in an Ancora Perla, or any other medium nib in any other brand of pen, you are doomed to disappointment. It happens that all European nibs are in the same general range, but that’s not the same as being the same.

Nib

And to make things worse, nibs from East Asian manufacturers such as Pilot, Nakaya, or Hero are generally much finer than European nibs because East Asian languages are written with pictographs that generally contain many more strokes than the letters of the Latin alphabet.

Oh, and some nibs write more wetly than others. As it happens, more than half of the nibs I’ve tested started out writing too dry. A dry writer will make a narrower line, and it will also be much less smooth than a nib that writes a little wetter because the principle of smoothness is that the nib skates on a thin lubricating film of ink.

Then there’s the issue of italics, which generally come as cursive or stub varieties. Some makers specify their italics by measuring the physical sizes of the nibs; for example, one maker’s 0.9 mm stub is 0.9 mm wide. But that doesn’t mean it makes a stroke 0.9 mm wide — which might explain why other makers specify their nibs by measuring the stroke width. And this means that you can’t even count on two 0.9 mm stubs to make strokes 0.9 mm wide.

The fun part is that I’ve barely gotten started. Setting aside the physical variations in nib tips, there are still a frightening number of land mines in the field. What are they? Ink variety

First, there’s ink. No two brands of ink will perform the same, even in the same pen. Some are wetter (bleed and feather), some are drier (maybe a bit skippy). Some flow better (heavier, broader line), some don’t flow so well (lighter, narrower line). Some tend to clog more easily, some seem never to clog. Okay, there’s a simple solution to this one: standardize on a single brand that performs well for you. But there go your myriad color choices, and to make matters worse, two colors in the same manufacturer’s line won’t necessarily perform the same. So much for that simple solution!

Then there’s paper. Some papers have a hard finish, some are soft. Some are coated, some are uncoated. Some are smooth, some are rough. Some have long fibers, some have short fibers. Some are made of 100% rag, some are part rag, and some are 100% wood pulp. Some are acid free, some aren’t. Everything I’ve just mentioned can and will affect how a given paper responds to ink in a fountain pen. Hard papers and papers with short fibers tend to produce a finer, more uniform line; soft papers and long-fiber papers are more prone to feathering or bleeding. Papers that are coated can sometimes build up “scrapings” of coating material in the nib, and this can lead to clogging. (This is why fountain pens loathe credit-card receipts that are printed on thermal paper.) And so on.The weather

But there’s more! Is it warm today, or cold? Humid, or dry? Does the weatherman say you’re under a high-pressure system, or a low? Yup, all of these things can affect how your pen writes on your paper.

And then there’s the matter of writing pressure. The more heavily you press, the more ink you squeegee out from between the nib and the paper, and the rougher your ride becomes. And by the way, your stroke usually gets wetter and wider, too.

Stroke width thumbnail

Oh, there’s one more thing to worry about. If your pen seems to write wonderfully at the top of the page but becomes a little skippy or a little reluctant to start toward the bottom of the page, well, that one is your fault. Your skin has oil on it, oil that comes from glands in the skin, so you can’t avoid it. And that oil, as your hand rubs it onto the paper, will cause your pen to perform differently — less reliably.

So it seems that there’s no justice in the world of stroke widths, no way you can quantify anything meaningful. But there’s hope. You can set up a standardized test for yourself: choose one particular ink and one particular paper. Try to make your tests under the same conditions; don’t test today under a cabana at the beach and tomorrow in your air-conditioned hotel room. Work on maintaining the same pressure. And find — or make — a standard against which you can compare your results. (Don’t compare one pen against another, compare them both against the same standard.) One readily available standard for stroke widths is our stroke width chart. To download it in PDF form, for printing on your own computer, right-click (Macintosh users control-click) on the thumbnail image to the left.


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