May 2011: Rethinking the Value of Steel Nibs

Extra Fine Points Index  ]


BY DON FLUCKINGER • Gold, you’ve likely noticed if you haven’t been hiding in a mine shaft, is trading at record prices. That, says Barbara, translates to hundred-dollar-plus surcharges on pens with gold nibs over those with steel.

Thus, steel nibs have suddenly become more popular now than they have been since Esterbrook folded its tent back in the late 1960s, or earlier, depending on your perspective. (Jim Lampley would have called the fight over long before that.)

Writers who think gold nibs write more smoothly than steel are buying into a fallacy. You don’t write with the nib, but rather the tipping material. Extra Fine Points

Richardspens.com offers many pens with either gold or steel nib options, a relatively new development. Overall sales, Barbara says, remain level or even better — but the site’s moving more steel-nibbed pens than ever before. It’s a throwback to the Depression era 1930s and postwar 1940s, when steel and gold nibbed fountain pens competed mano-a-mano for the consumer dollar.

I’ve always been a gold-nib snob. That doesn’t quite jibe with my love of vintage junk pens, the joy of which I’ve promoted often in this space. It’s been the topic of spirited discussions between Richard and me over the years. He contends that I’m not a gold-nib snob, per se, but I prefer a certain nib semiflexiness.

Fountain pen

That, he says, can be easily reproduced with the correct steel alloy. His theory holds water, when I think about it, because some of my beloved fat-sectioned Wearevers have these wide #6-ish sized steel nibs that are thinner than, say, Esterbrooks. They feel just right. The Wearever Deluxe 100s I collect also come outfitted with steel nibs.

Fountain pen

While I appreciate Esterbrooks and love their utility and usability (you can take them places one wouldn’t dare take along a more fragile and valuable pen — and they look pretty cool), every Esterbrook nib feels like a stiff manifold to me, with the exception of the 9788 Flexible Medium — and as a lefty, any nib labeled “flexible” should be off-limits, but this one’s near perfect for my hand.

Fountain pen

Why is it that I see it that way?

Steel or gold“No effort,” Richard explains of modern nibs, “is made to match characteristics. They make steel nibs and gold nibs the same physical size (including thickness) so that they’ll interchange in a stock feed/sleeve assembly, but they don’t adjust the stiffness of the respective metals; they just use the cheapest alloys that will write properly. It doesn’t take much additional thickness to make a gold nib feel just like the steelie, and it’s also possible to adjust the alloying metals to make such a nib stiffer without thickening it.”

It’s long been his contention that writers who think gold nibs write more smoothly than steel are buying into a fallacy. You don’t write with the nib, but rather the tipping material; the smoothness or scratchiness thereof is what makes a nib write well — or not. At first I dismissed this out of hand, but come to think of it, he’s got a point. My main work pen, a trusty Sheaffer 444, possesses an inlaid steel nib, as do several chrome and brushed steel Targas I tote. I don’t even notice the steel nibbed aspects of those.

Fountain pen
Fountain pen

As a nib pro, Richard sees how modern pens with 18K and higher (i.e., some pens have up to 23K) gold-content nibs are soft. Overly soft. They spring, and can’t be written with after that happens. I do have some vintage 10K nibs that probably have lived through the decades because they have less gold in them. His advice if you’re a gold fetishist? 14K if you must, 10K if you can.

The whole gold-nib thing, he says, started out because writers had to use iron gall inks, the standard of the 19th century. Iron gall ate steel, but gold was impervious. Nowadays, since there’s no iron gall in most inks, steel — stainless steel, actually, which was unknown in the 19th century — works just as well.

The only vintage pens I’ve kept with steel nibs — save a fistful of cool Wearever combos I love — are Wearever Deluxe 100s. A couple old Wearevers with hopelessly damaged original nibs Richard helped me rehabilitate with modern Pelikan steelies, and I really do enjoy them.

Combo
Combo

So my issue with steel nibs comes down to gold being the status symbol, and steel playing the role of red-headed stepchild. I guess. If it were a 2005 gold market, I wouldn’t be having this argument with myself; I’d just be buying pens with gold nibs. Forced to think about it with gold at fifteen hundred an ounce and gas at four bucks a gallon, okay. I’ll appreciate steel nibs. For the time being, at least.


cover Further Reading: To the Point: Steal the Steel
 
If you’re still not convinced, check out this article that Richard published in his regular column in the December 2004/January 2005 issue of Stylus magazine. It’s short and "to the point."

Don Fluckinger lives in Nashua, New Hampshire, and is the son-in-law of Richard Binder. His articles have been published in Antiques Roadshow Insider, The Boston Globe, and on the Biddersedge.com collectibles Web site. Please note: Any opinions stated in this column are Don’s alone and do not necessarily reflect those of Richard Binder or this Web site. Don Fluckinger
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