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Nibs: Does an Oblique Nib Give Line Variation?

(This page published June 1, 2021)

Reference Info Index | Glossopedia  ]


The Question

Again and again, our favorite social-media groups host questions like the following:

Does it make sense to get an oblique nib if you don't need it to correct how you hold your nib? Does it offer line variation then?

And almost always, we’ll see a range of answers:

“A lot of line variation”

“It’s a stub anyway”

“Oblique does not guarantee a variable line like Italic or Stub.”

“The oblique cut gives me line variation that I enjoy seeing in my writing.”

It seems not to matter whether it’s dedicated pen site like Fountain Pen Network or Pentrace, or a sub-site like /r/fountainpens/ on reddit, or just a topic on sites dedicated to other things like Badger and Blade, or a group on Facebook like The Fountain Pen Network or Vintage Fountain Pen Collectors. The answers always vary: some are just wrong, some are so-so, and some are correct.

The Answer

It’s time to set the record straight, once and for all. The correct answer is “No.” Oblique does not, by itself, describe a nib that gives line variation.

The Explanation

How do I arrive at that answer? Let’s start with a dictionary. Here’s how the Oxford English Dictionary defines oblique:



oblique
Pronunciation /əˈblēk/ /əˈblik/ /ōˈblēk/ /oʊˈblik/

ADJECTIVE

1 Neither parallel nor at a right angle to a specified or implied line; slanting.


The OED includes several other definitions specific to anatomy, geometry, and speech; but there is none that implies anything about a variable line width. How, then, did we come to the point of thinking that oblique nibs do give line variation? A little bit of ancient history will explain it.

For writing on parchment, the ancient Romans made dip pens from reeds. (The Latin word for pen is calamus, meaning a reed.) They made an italic nib by cutting a reed at an angle, splitting the tip to make a slit, and then cutting off the end, to arrive at a shape like the one shown here, as viewed from the underside:

Italic reed cutting

The shape above is called an italic because the lettering style it produced was common in Italy and the other Romanized countries of southern Europe. It produced lettering like this, the Latin version of Maximus’ famous quote from the film Gladiator, “What we do in life echoes in eternity.” (The Romans didn’t include spaces between words; the Latin reads, “Quod in vita facimus in aeternum resonat.”) This example is recreated in a writing style found on a political graffito in Pompeii:

Maximus motto

Over time, people discovered that cutting the end at an angle produced a pen that worked better for some kinds of lettering, such as the Blackletter styles that became popular in northern Europe. These oblique italic reed pens looked more like this:

Oblique reed cutting

Here is a sample of handwriting in a ninth-century Gothic style done with an oblique italic nib. This is the Latin version of the ancient Christian meditation known as the Jesus Prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner”:

Jesus Prayer

Reeds, even when well dried, are relatively soft, and a reed pen point will not last very long in use. It will require continual recutting until the reed is too short to use. About 1,500 years ago, some clever monk in a monastery in Seville, Spain, discovered that feathers (quills) could be used to make pens with a thinner edge that lasted much longer than reeds, especially when heat-tempered. The best quill pens came from the left-wing primary feathers of swans, but geese also provided quite usable quills. As quills, and later steel nibs, supplanted reeds, calligraphic styles developed around the use of oblique italic nibs like this. Until the development of metallic tipping material allowed the creation of plain round nibs in sizes larger than very fine, oblique italics were the only oblique nibs. Many people today still adopt a “traditionalist” approach that says a nib is not an oblique if it’s not italic. But not all writers are calligraphers; and, as explained in the next paragraph, oblique round nibs do serve a useful second purpose.

Rotation of penAn oblique nib, often called just an “oblique,” is ground so that the writing tip contacts the paper properly when the pen is rotated in the user’s hand. “Rotating,” in this context, doesn’t mean turning the hand at the wrist so that it points in a different direction; rather, it means “rolling” the pen about its long axis so that the nib isn’t aligned straight upward when the person holds the pen in his or her usual way. See the image to the left. A left-foot oblique, the most common style, requires counterclockwise rotation of the pen so that the nib, instead of facing straight upward, is leaning toward a right-handed writer. Obliques are made in left- and right-foot shapes, and there are variations in the angle at which the tip is finished. Modern factory-made obliques from manufacturers like Montblanc and (until recently) Pelikan, are ordinary round nibs. They are not designed to produce line variation, although some variation is inevitable as the tip grows broader. The two images below show the shapes of an ordinary round nib (left) and a left-foot round oblique nib (right):

Round nib Round oblique nib

An oblique italic nib, which is designed to produce line variation, is exactly like an italic except that it is cut on a slant. Shown here is a formal, or crisp, oblique italic:

Nib tip shape

For comparison, an italic is shown at the left in the following figure. The nib in the middle is a left-foot oblique italic; it looks like a person’s left foot when viewed from the top. A right-foot oblique italic is cut on the opposite slant, as shown on the right:

italic nib silhouette Left-footed oblique nib silhouette Right-footed oblique nib silhouette

Like an italic, an oblique italic will generally be “catchier” than a round nib or a stub unless ground as a cursive oblique italic.

When you write with an oblique, no matter whether it is a round oblique or an italic oblique, you must change the orientation of the pen in order to make the nib’s tine tips contact the paper evenly so that capillary action can draw ink from the slit onto the paper. If you don’t rotate the pen, one tine will not touch the paper, and you will have to push down to bend the other tine upward so that the raised tine can touch the paper. Pushing down results in scratchiness and much more rapid wear, and it can also tear the paper surface, causing bleeding and feathering.

A left-foot oblique, when used by a right-handed person, will be rotated counterclockwise in the writer’s hand so that the nib is facing generally toward the writer’s left rather than diagonally away from the writer. The following drawings, arranged to correspond with the nib shapes above, illustrate rotation in the hand. The rotation depicted is exaggerated for illustration; very few people rotate to this degree:

Nib straight Nib rotated counterclockwise Nib rotated clockwise
Straight (also called neutral) Rotated counterclockwise
for a left-foot oblique
Rotated clockwise
for a right-foot oblique

How does the writing from an oblique italic differ from that from a neutral italic? It differs by changing the angles at which the thick and thin strokes are drawn, as shown in the two images here. The left image shows the angles as produced by a neutral italic, and the right image shows how the oblique italic’s angles are different. The oblique shown here is a left-foot oblique italic; a right-foot oblique italic will of course shift the angles in the other direction from neutral.

italic_angleoblique_angle

Regardless of whether you are right- or left-handed, you will probably need to experiment to find the best oblique for you. Vintage obliques were typically ground at an angle of 20°, but experience with modern writers has shown that as a general rule, a right-handed person or a left-handed overwriter would use a 15° left-foot oblique or oblique italic to produce cursive or italic writing. A left-handed underwriter would use a 15° right-foot oblique. (A left-handed overwriter positions the pen and paper so that the writing hand passes above the text being written, sliding over text that was written before. An underwriter positions things so that the writing hand passes below the text being written, sliding over clean paper.) Some left-handed underwriters find that they get better results from a 30° left-foot oblique. Whatever your particular needs are, a qualified nib technician can grind an oblique to fit them.

You have probably noticed that throughout the foregoing, I have referred to oblique nibs as left-foot or right-foot. If you have not encountered this “foot” terminology before, you are probably wondering why I use it. Isn’t a left oblique always a left oblique? Sadly, no, it’s not, because manufacturers’ designations of oblique nibs are inconsistent. Some manufacturers call the left-foot oblique shown here a “left oblique” because of its slant while others call it a “right oblique” because it is the type most commonly used by a right-handed writer. And some just call it a plain “oblique,” leaving you to figure out that it’s not the only kind of oblique that exists. This means that you should be careful to ascertain the meaning of “right” and “left” as the terms are applied to the nib you are interested in.

The Conclusion

To sum it up, remember that an oblique nib can serve two distinct purposes. One is to compensate for the way a fountain pen responds for writers who habitually rotate their pens. The other is to make line variation that is different from that produced by a neutral italic. Here, boiled down for non-calligraphers and for calligraphers, are the factors controlling whether or not you will get the best results with an oblique nib.



Notes:
  1. Fountain pens did not come along until at least the 10th century CE. For more information, read Who Really Invented the Fountain Pen?.  Return

  2. They also wrote on tablets having one surface coated with wax. For this purpose, they used a metal stylus with a blunted tip. At the back end of the stylus was a small spatula that could be used to smooth over something that had been written, thereby erasing it.  Return


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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