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Nibs II: Beyond the Basics with Specialty Nibs

(This page published August 1, 2002)

Reference Info Index | Glossopedia  ]

Nib Most pen collectors, as they acquire and use new pens, discover an interest in nibs that are designed to produce exaggerated line variation: italics, oblique italics, and stubs, and also flexible nibs. These kinds of nibs, frequently called “specialty nibs,” are introduced in Nibs I: The Basics. If you have not read that article (in which the basic nib styles are illustrated graphically), you might want to do so before continuing with this one.
The illustration to the left shows the basic parts of a nib’s anatomy.

This article describes many of the various specialty nibs, illustrating them with writing samples and relating them to particular uses and styles of handwriting.

A Little History

The first pen was a hollow reed. Someone, thousands of years ago, discovered that a dry reed cut at an angle across one end and split to form two tines, would deliver a controllable line of ink. Better yet, such a reed could store a small quantity of ink within it and feed that ink down the slit to the writing surface for more than just one or two strokes. But reeds required frequent resharpening or replacement as the ink softened the reed and friction with the paper wore it down. A more durable solution was the quill pen, which was the high-tech writing implement for many hundreds of years. Steel pens, developed during the early 19th century, were a tremendous advance. They could be mass produced inexpensively, and they were much more durable than reeds or quills. To use a steel pen, which is not a complete pen as we think of it today but rather only the part we call the nib, you insert it into a handle (called a pen holder).

Reeds, quills, and steel pens are all “dip pens,” because they draw their ink supply from an inkwell into which they must be dipped frequently. Fountain pens, of course, carry their own ink with them, freeing the user to write anywhere. For some time after its appearance, the fountain pen was given its full two-word denomination in order to distinguish it from an ordinary pen (a nib). Modern nibs are usually made of gold or steel and are tipped with a hard alloy, commonly called “iridium,” that protects them from wear.

All of these pens have in common their basic nib shape, and it should be obvious that by modifying the shape you can modify the way it writes. If you cut it to a fine point, you get a fine line. If you cut the tip off, leaving a slight flat spot instead of a round point, you get a line that is broader in some directions than in others; this is the “stub” effect. The bigger you cut the flat, the greater the line variation you can achieve. You can also achieve line variation by making the pen so that its tines flex during use; this is a natural outcome of using a more flexible material, such as a quill, and this is why many documents from the 18th century exhibit line variation produced by the flexibility of a quill pen. Steel pens can also be made with varying degrees of flexibility. The following figure shows a writing sample produced in 1806 by a needle-pointed steel pen. Note: this image is 2x actual size.

Writng sample, steel nib

Here is a second steel-pen sample, this one produced in 1861 with a pen that has some obvious flexibility. This image is actual size.

Writng sample, flexible steel nib

The above samples were taken from books in my family library.

The Stub Nib

Strictly speaking, you can create a stub simply by shearing off the point from the end of an ordinary nib. In practical terms, this isn’t a particularly good idea, because you will end up with an irregular sharp edge with no iridium to protect it from wear. So a nib manufacturer creates a usable stub by welding an iridium pellet onto the nib and shaping the resulting hard tip to make it straight across with a smooth surface, in much the same way as an ordinary nib’s tip is shaped to be rounded somewhat like a ball. Most stubs today are shaped with the underside of the tip’s edge fairly well rounded so that you can write rapidly with them. There is a more pronounced “sweet spot” (the area that writes with the greatest smoothness) than with a round nib, but it’s easy to find, and with a minimum of practice you can stay in it and write at what is essentially your normal speed. The following figure illustrates a stub nib, seen from the underside, with its sweet spot indicated in red.

Nib illustration with sweet spot marked

A stub nib can be made to produce extreme line variation; but the more extreme the variation, the less smooth the nib will be. Most stubs produce only a moderate amount. People whose handwriting is small can generally use a fine or medium (0.6 mm - 1.0 mm) stub to write normally. The following figure shows an 0.8-mm medium-fine stub nib (actually a special grind that is slightly modified from the usual stub) and a handwriting sample from it:

Stub nib
Writing sample, medium-fine stub

This writing sample was provided by Burton Janz.

Stub nibs can be made broad or fine; the unifying characteristic of all stubs is that they are relatively thick at the tip, on the order of half the breadth. The physical thickness of the nib tip, relative to its breadth, does not control the line variation; that control is exerted by the degree to which the edges of the tip are rounded.

The Italic Nib

A nib that is cut so that its tip is much wider than its thickness will produce more dramatic line variation. The standard nib of this type is the italic, which is three or four times as broad at the tip as it is thick. Italics, as they were originally developed, have relatively sharp edges and corners so that they can produce crisp and controllable lines; they create beautiful thick/thin contrasts. They are sometimes called crisp italics to distinguish them from cursive italics (to be discussed a little later). Calligraphy nibs are generally italics ground even thinner and with edges and corners even sharper than those of a crisp italic, for producing very precise and repeatable results. The following figure shows a handwriting sample produced by a 0.9-mm crisp italic nib. The sloping alignment of the thin strokes (about 30° from the horizontal) is appropriate for chancery lettering styles.

Writing sample, crisp italic nib

This writing sample was provided by the Rev. Frank Bishop.

When a round nib is ground into an italic, the resulting shape generally produces a line that is the entire width of the original iridium ball, wider than the nib produced in its original shape.

The italic is proof that no benefit is ever entirely unalloyed. Unlike a round nib, or even a stub, an italic nib works effectively only at one very precisely adjusted angle of rotation in your hand, and usually in a fairly circumscribed range of elevation from the paper. Rotating the pen in your hand lifts the edge (and consequently the slit) from the paper, causing the ink line to cut out as capillary action can no longer draw ink through the slit onto the paper. And because the corners of the nib are fairly sharp, rotating the pen can also cause a corner to dig into the paper. The angle of elevation (see the following figure) is limited because the farther you tilt the pen from the optimum angle, the greater capillary surface you present to the paper; this will diminish the line variation, producing thicker “thin” strokes.

High angle of elevation  Average angle of elevation  Low angle of elevation

Part of the difficulty with an italic nib’s sharpness can be mitigated by carefully rounding the edge and corners. This change creates a nib that produces slightly less line variation; the thin strokes will be thicker, and edge definition will be a little less crisp. A nib modified in this way is commonly called a cursive italic. These nibs have a larger sweet spot than crisp italics; they work well through a greater elevation range because of their broader edge, and they also do not dig into the paper when rotated slightly. The benefit is that you can write much more rapidly with a cursive italic than with a crisp italic. The following handwriting sample was produced by the 1.1-mm cursive italic nib shown above it, writing at full speed:

Cursive italic nib
Writing sample, cursive italic

The Oblique Nib

Some writers prefer to hold their pens rotated slightly in the hand; that is, the nib is not “straight on” to the paper. Round nibs are very forgiving of rotation because they generally have a relatively large sweet spot. But stubs and italics, as pointed out above, respond more or less poorly to being rotated in the hand. The immediate and obvious solution is to grind the nib so that its tip is properly aligned to the paper when the nib is not straight on. The shape that results is called an oblique. Obliques can be ground to lean in either direction, and manufacturers refer to their products as obliques, reverse obliques, left obliques, or right obliques. These naming variations are confusing at best; is a right oblique suited for a right-handed person, or does it lean to the right? To identify unambiguously which way an oblique leans, use the terms “left-foot” and “right-foot.” (See Nibs I: The Basics.)

Oblique nibs can be ground with round tips that simply accommodate rotation of the pen, or they can be ground to produce line variation in the same manner as an italic. Oblique italics must be ground to the same essential design as italics if they are to exhibit good line variation. Most modern manufacturers grind their obliques as ordinary round nibs that accommodate rotation.

Because an oblique italic contacts the paper at an angle different from that of an italic, the thick and thin strokes from an oblique italic will fall differently relative to the pen itself. The following figure shows a handwriting sample from a 1.0-mm crisp left-foot oblique italic nib; note the subtle contrast and the extreme angle at which the thin strokes fall (about 50° from the horizontal):

Writing sample, left-foot oblique italic

This writing sample was provided by Francis DeRespinis.

In the sample above, note that the angles of the thick and thin strokes are ideally placed for blackletter styles like Old English, as illustrated in Nibs I: The Basics. A left-foot oblique italic is best suited to right-handed writers and to left-handed overwriters. But these people can also make interesting use of a right-foot crisp oblique italic (normally suited to a left-hander underwriter), as shown below in a sample from a 1.1-mm right-foot crisp oblique italic. Note the sharp horizontal ends at the tops and bottoms of the vertical strokes; with an italic or left-foot oblique italic, these ends would be sloped. This horizontal alignment is appropriate for roman or uncial characters.

Writing sample, crisp RF oblique italic in right hand

By realigning the direction of the thick and thin strokes, you can produce a different character style without actually changing your handwriting.

The Flexible Nib

All of the nibs described to this point rely on their shapes to produce line variation. This characteristic makes the writing they produce less uniquely individualized than it might otherwise be. A nib that produces writing unique to the individual writer is the flexible, or flex, nib. Unlike ordinary nibs, regardless of their tip shapes, a flex nib is designed so that when varying force is applied to it during the ordinary course of writing, its tines spread apart and return together instead of merely bending upward and, if the writer is lucky, returning to a straight position. As the tines spread, they draw ink to fill the gap, applying it to the paper in a line whose width varies. Depending on its degree of flexibility, a flex nib can produce remarkable line variation; and that variation is unique to the individual who is holding the pen because no one else will apply the exact same force changes. Extremely flexible nibs are sometimes called “wet noodles,” and a skilled user of such a nib can strain the physics of capillary action to its utmost. The following figure shows a handwriting sample from a flex nib; note the wide variety of contrast and the subtlety with which it can be applied:

Writing sample, flex nib

This writing sample was provided by Julie Roehm.

Combining flexibility with a specialty shape can produce elegant effects, as illustrated by the following sample created with a very fine flexible italic nib. Note the subtle shading of the letter n in “never”:

Writing sample, fine flex italic

This writing sample was provided by Jean Fortier.

In Conclusion

I wish to express my thanks to the people who so kindly provided the writing samples used in this article. And, as I said in Nibs I: The Basics, you should never be afraid to try specialty nibs as these people have done. You will discover a whole new world of writing interest, and you might even discover that you really like it. Enjoy!

For another article on this same general subject, you might want to read Specialty Nibs: Your Key to Exciting Writing, which first appeared in Issue No. 2 of Stylus Magazine.

(This is the second of three related articles on nibs. You can continue your reading with Nibs III: Flex vs. Italic.)

The information in this article is as accurate as possible, but you should not take it as absolutely authoritative or complete. If you have additions or corrections to this page, please consider sharing them with us to improve the accuracy of our information.

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