By Richard Binder, with Linda Kennedy and Mike Kennedy
(This page published March 1, 2021)
Many of us like to tinker and do our own repairs. In many cases, doing your own repairs can save time and money — and let’s face it, there is a certain satisfaction in doing it yourself. But let us also be clear that there’s a huge difference between tinkering and being professionally trained. In some cases, the time and money you save could end up costing you a lot more time — and a lot more money — than you figured on.
Keep that thought in mind as you read on.
If you’re positive that your pen’s nib needs to make the acquaintance of sandpaper, a buff stick, or a Mylar sheet, but you’re not trained and experienced as a nib technician, consider introducing the nib to a skilled, recognized professional instead of trying it yourself. Some years ago, I sent a very nice pen home after tuning its nib. Its owner had also bought a nib smoothing kit, and a week or so after the pen went home, I received an email from the owner. There had been a tiny skritchy spot that I missed. Having a shiny new smoothing kit in hand, the owner went to work. The skritchy spot was taken care of, but now there was a new skritchy spot. Lather, rinse, and repeat. The upshot of that smoothing session was the removal of every bit of tipping material from the nib. Smoothing a nib might seem like a simple thing, but unless you have years of training and experience under your belt, you — like that owner — run the risk of destroying your nib.
Oh, by the way… The buff stick I mentioned in the previous paragraph is not, repeat NOT, the kind you can purchase at your corner drug store or beauty-supply store. It’s a much more advanced and controllable tool. It’s described in the workshop notes that you’ll read about later in this article. And similarly for sandpaper.
I. Thou Shalt Not Attempt to Smooth a Misaligned Nib.
When you try to smooth a nib that is not aligned properly, you will discover very quickly that it doesn’t work. The tine that is down (closer to the feed) will press harder against your smoothing medium, wearing away more material away from that tine’s tip than from the other. This will create an asymmetrical nib. The down tine is also likely to be either rounded (below, left) or flattened (below, right) too much, while the up tine (the one that is farther from the feed) ends up with a razor-sharp edge that will dig into the paper (but only in one direction), scratching and collecting paper fibers that will clog the slit. The nib will be reluctant to start, and when it does, it will skip (but again, only in one direction).
After any or all of the foregoing happens, the nib still won’t be aligned, and it still won’t write smoothly.
II. Thou Shalt Not Make Figure-Eights.
Unless you have been trained to make figure-eights, you will almost certainly make a flat spot. It’s not as easy as it looks. Even if it were that easy, it‘s only a subset of the things that you need to know before you can smooth a nib properly. The woman making figure-eights in this frame from Right to the Point, a 1943 Sheaffer film about the company’s pens during World War II, was a trained and experienced professional.
III. Thou Shalt Not Write on Brown Paper Bags.
Writing on a brown paper bag to smooth a nib picks up paper fibers and forces them into the microscopic craters and valleys on the surface of the tipping material. This creates a smoother surface, and the nib will seem much improved. But over time, the paper fibers will work their way out again, and the nib will lose that smoothness. This typically happens slowly enough that you don’t notice it. You just get used to using the nib and don’t realize that it’s no better than it was two or three weeks ago.
Using a paper bag will also drag those paper fibers into the slit and the feed channels, leading to clogs and other nasty behaviors.
There is yet another factor that argues against the paper-bag trick: different bags differ in quality and texture. This means that there is zero controllability. You might think what happens with Grocery Store A’s bags is great, and then discover too late that the bags you used from Grocery Store B were total crap. And we won’t even mention the completely different kind of brown bags you get at the comic book store.
IV. Thou Shalt Not Abuse Copper Pennies in the Quest for Smoothness.
Rubbing your nib’s tip on a real copper penny (if you can find one these days) works the same as writing on a paper bag. It just takes longer for the copper to work its way into the craters and valleys in the hard tipping material and longer to fall out again, so the process can occupy months instead of weeks.
V. Thou Shalt Not Pry the Nib’s Tines Apart.
You might have seen a professional using an X-acto knife or a brass shim to spread the tines of a nib to increase flow. This is a technique that involves training and long practice. Let me be more explicit: do not try this on a nib anybody cares about until you have gone through that training and long practice. Even the best technicians have to be careful not to destroy the slit — and they also have to know how to repair damaged slit walls if things go wrong, which they occasionally do — even in the hands of experts. Sometimes, even the experts can’t do it, so don’t fool yourself into thinking that you can.
VI. Thou Shalt Not Push Harder to Start a Balky Pen.
Yes, pushing harder does spread the nib tines, and this can sometimes — but not always — start a pen that doesn’t like to start. It also bends the tines, often far enough that they cannot spring back. This kind of damage necessitates repair by a professional. Pushing harder also wears away the tipping material, and that‘s more difficult to repair, and potentially much more expensive, too. The nib shown here was in an OMAS 360. It wasn’t irreparably damaged, and it survived the repair procedure.
VII. Thou Shalt Use Pressure with Extreme Care When Smoothing a Nib.
Whether you are using sandpaper, Mylar sheets, or a buff stick, exerting any significant pressure is almost always a bad idea. The more pressure you use, the faster you will remove tipping material, usually faster than you intended. There is a corollary to Murphy’s Law that says, “The accuracy of nib smoothing is inversely proportional to the speed at which tipping material is removed.”
VIII. Thou Shalt Not Learn on Pens That Thou Carest About. Or That Anyone Else Does.
Do I really need to say this? Just in case I do, I will just say that I’ve had to repair nibs that were completely FUBAR after tinkerers fixed them for friends. If you’ve never been in the military, ask a friend what FUBAR means…
IX. Thou Shalt Not Smooth Nibs with a Polishing Cloth.
Polishing cloths, the ones that are abrasive at all, are not nearly abrasive enough to work for nib smoothing. There is not enough time between now and next week for you to make meaningful inroads on the tip of a nib. But you will leave lots of fibers in the slit, and probably in the feed channels as well, all of which someone will have to clean out.
X. Thou Shalt Use the Same Ink and Paper for All Thy Smoothing.
It’s a matter of consistency. If you change inks and/or papers all the time just because that’s what you happen to have handy, you will never know whether Nib A, tuned with Iroshizuku Kon-peki on Tomoe River paper, is smoother than Nib B, tuned with Waterman Serenity Blue on Rhodia paper, because of the ink and paper or because you weren’t as careful with Nib B as you were with Nib A. Choose a good, reliable, non-funky ink — I recommend Waterman Mysterious Blue or Serenity Blue — and a good middle-ground paper, and stick with them. Always.
The “Dos” for beginners are to be found in my nib smoothing workshop, which I deliver at selected shows in the Eastern half of the U.S. In case you can’t get to one of these shows, which you certainly can’t do as long as we’re not able to have shows safely, you can click on the image below to download a PDF copy of the notes that participants and I use in my workshop:
Mac computers, iPhones, and iPads have built-in software for reading PDF files. If you’re using Windows, Linux, or an Android device, you will need to install Adobe Acrobat Reader or another third-party app. Acrobat Reader is free, and it is the most powerful PDF viewer available. Click the Acrobat logo to download Reader from the Adobe website. Do not download Reader from any other website!
Section VII of the workshop notes describes the supplies I use and where you can get them. The easiest and best place to get them, however, is to hop on over to Mike and Linda Kennedy’s site and snag a nib smoothing kit. The kits the Kennedys sell are the exact same kits they make for me to use in my smoothing workshop. Click on the image below to go to their page:
In my smoothing workshop, I use Jinhao 992 pens. They’re cheap, and they can be made to work well. Because you’ll go through a few before you hit your stride, I recommend buying them in lots of six pieces. One place that has them that way is Amazon. Click on the image below to go to the Amazon page. If you buy them through this link, I’ll get a few pennies that I won’t use for smoothing:
Good! My nib smoothing workshop is an excellent start, but remember what I told you at the end: “Practice this lots, and you’ll get good at it.” And as Hamlet said, “Ay, there’s the rub.” It takes practice. A lot of practice. If you keep at it, learning from your mistakes, you will eventually become very skilled at tuning nibs. If you walk out of my class with “Now I know everything there is to know about smoothing nibs” foremost in your mind, you will never become good. As a prime example of what it takes, I will cite Linda Kennedy, the resident nibmeisterin at Indy-Pen-Dance. Over a period of more than six years, Linda has had many weeks of personal instruction in addition to having gone through the workshop, and she still comes back to me with questions from time to time. This tells me that she is dedicated to being as good as it’s possible for her to be — and that it takes a long time to get there.
Sometimes, people just don’t seem to learn from experience. The owner of the nice pen I described in the second paragraph at the top of this article, well, I got another email a couple of years later, apologizing profusely and asking if I’d work on another nib because, doggone if it hadn’t happened again.
Please don’t make me feature you in my next article.
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