Nibs I: The Basics

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Nib Fountain pen nibs are made in a bewildering array of grades (tip sizes) and styles. Rather than attempt to cover everything about every kind of nib, this article discusses the aspects of nibs listed here. (This page revised August 6, 2005)
The illustration to the left shows the basic parts of a nib’s anatomy.

Nib Tip Shapes

There are three basic nib shapes: Round, stub, and italic. Ball point, oblique, and calligraphy nibs are merely slight variations of the round and italic shapes and will be discussed in their appropriate contexts.

Round Nibs: A round nib is ground and polished to have roughly a circular footprint, so that its line width is fairly uniform no matter what direction the nib is moving across the paper. I say “roughly” because the shape is rarely a true circle. Nibs are small, and hands are big. Grinding a nib to a geometrically perfect shape by hand just isn’t possible, but this is one area in which “close enough” really is close enough. Here is a magnified drawing representing the basic shape of a round nib, together with a cross illustrating the uniform stroke width that this nib produces:

Nib tip shape Round nib stroke width

A duo-point nib is like a standard round nib, but it is also ground and polished so that you can write with it while holding the pen with its nib on the underside instead of in the usual nib-uppermost orientation. This gives a finer line, so that you can have, in effect, two different nib grades on one pen. Parker was famous for the quality of its duo-point nibs. Sheaffer’s Feathertouch nibs are also duo-point nibs, and Sheaffer included a duo-point nib among the choices it offered for its interchangeable-nib Fineline series of pens.

Stub Nibs: “Stub” is a shortening of “stub italic.” Historically, a stub was just a very short, very firm italic. In today’s usage, however, there is a slight difference in tip shape between a stub and an ordinary italic; thus, this article describes the two separately.

A stub nib is elongated sideways. This gives it a footprint that is somewhat elliptical, and it lays down a slightly broader line when moving up and down (in relation to the nib itself) and a narrower one when moving sideways (again, in relation to the nib). The eccentricity of the ellipse is not too pronounced, and the nib is still polished to have nice rounded edges. This means that you can write with a stub just about as easily as with a standard nib. Here is a magnified drawing representing a stub nib, together with a cross illustrating the slight variation in stroke width that this nib produces:

Nib tip shape Round nib stroke width

Italic Nibs: An italic nib is much more elongated than a stub, and it actually writes on a very sharp edge. This makes the difference between its broad (up-and-down) strokes and its narrow strokes (sideways) much more pronounced than with a stub. There is a readily perceptible straight edge across the tip of an italic. Here is a magnified drawing representing an italic nib, together with a cross illustrating the more extreme variation in stroke width that this nib produces:

Nib tip shape Italic nib stroke width

When you write with an italic, you hold the pen with the nib generally away from your forearm (as with a stub or a round nib). You hold a pen with an oblique italic nib differently, and I shall describe that difference later. When used by a right-handed person, an italic will generally make strokes that are of roughly equal width in both the vertical and horizontal directions; strokes from the upper right to the lower left will be thinner, and strokes from the upper left to the lower right will be thicker, as shown here:

Italic strokes in several directions

This is the stroke arrangement most commonly seen in Old English and other Blackletter styles and in many italic and chancery styles:

Italic and Blacketter text samples

The Old English text shows additional ornamentation that would be applied with a very fine dip-pen nib called a “crow quill.” (The illustrations here were actually produced using typeset fonts, but they are characteristic.)

Left-handed writers use so many different writing styles, overwriting and underwriting, writing uphill, writing horizontally, and writing downhill, that it is not really possible to illustrate a typical left-handed writer’s results. Depending on the way you position your hand and align your paper, your broad and narrow strokes will be aligned in directions different from those of a right-handed writer, and likely different even from those of other left-handed writers. You will have to experiment for yourself.

Italic and calligraphy nibs are the same thing in terms of form; but a calligraphy nib might be even wider yet. Italics are finished with relatively less rounding to their edges than round or stub nibs. This square-edged grind and the wider footprint result in a greater tendency to catch on corners and a greater tendency to skip if the nib is not held straight-on to the paper (i.e., when one side of the nib lifts away due to the nib’s being rocked sideways). Writing too rapidly with an italic tends to produce scratchiness and skips.True calligraphy nibs are often even squarer than italics; the intent is to give a very crisp and controllable line width. This is why you cannot just pick up an italic or a calligraphy nib and dash off a note the way you would with your usual nib. You are forced to write more slowly in order to retain control of your writing. There is a compromise grind called cursive italic, more rounded than a traditional italic:

Nib tip shape

When properly ground and finished, a cursive italic can produce stroke variation almost as strong as an italic while writing nearly as smoothly as a stub of similar width.

Historical Note

In Roman times, people made 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, and then cutting off the end. Over time, people discovered that cutting the end at an angle produced a pen that worked better for some styles of lettering, e.g., Blackletter. As quills, and later steel nibs, supplanted reeds, calligraphic styles developed around the use of oblique 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 this article, oblique round nibs do serve a useful second purpose.

Rotation of penOblique Nibs: Now we come to the the oblique. 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 small 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. Most modern obliques are ordinary round nibs, not designed to produce line variation. (But see the historical note to the right.) Here a left-foot round oblique (right) is shown next to an ordinary round nib:

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:

Nib tip shape

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

When you write with an oblique, you must change the orientation of the pen in order to make the nib’s flat surface contact the paper. 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 photos, arranged to correspond with the nib shapes above, illustrate rotation in the hand; in general, the rotation depicted is exaggerated for illustration:

Nib straight Nib rotated counterclockwise Nib rotated clockwise
Straight Rotated counterclockwise Rotated clockwise

Regardless of whether you are right- or left-handed, you will probably need to experiment to find the best oblique for you. As a general rule, a right-handed person or a left-handed ovewrwriter 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.

Manufacturer’ 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.

Nib Grades and Types

Nib Grades: Nibs are made in five basic grades (tip size designations): extra fine (XF), fine (F), medium (M), broad (B), and double broad (BB). As you might expect, some manufacturers make additional grades, such as a triple broad (BBB or 3B). There is no international standard that specifies the exact tip sizes for nibs of the various grades, so different manufacturers will make nibs that are somewhat different in size. The tips of modern nibs seem to be a little larger, generally, than those of vintage nibs of the same designation. Japanese nibs tend to be a little finer than their Western equivalents; a Japanese M nib is about the same size as a European F. If you are an antiquarian accountant who writes with a tiny spidery hand, a Japanese XF might be just what you need.

Nib Types: When I speak of nib types, I’m referring to flexibility or the lack of it.

Most pens today — as did many in the past, including Duofolds of the 1920s and the sturdily built Sheaffer Triumphs of the 1940s — have nibs that are firm or rigid, with little or no flexibility. These nibs stand up very well to being used with a firm writing pressure; and this is probably a good thing, because most modern writers have learned to write using a ballpoint, which requires a firm pressure. Among vintage pens, you may find nibs labeled Manifold. These are very rigid nibs designed to be used under enough pressure to make two or three carbon copies. Some fountain-pen users dismiss nibs this rigid, calling them “nails,” but these nibs do have a purpose. The many people who bought these pens and the thousands who collect them today outnumber the few who disparage firm nibs as “nails.” In fact, for the majority of users, “nails” are actually better than flexible nibs, and this was as true 80 years ago as it is today.

Sooner or later, nearly every fountain-pen user will discover flexible nibs. Flex nibs, which were more common in the earlier part of the 20th century but are still available today, produce interesting and attractive stroke variation with only an ordinary round tip. As you press more firmly, the nib’s tines spread, and the stroke grows broader. Flex nibs have been made in semi-flexible, flexible, and super-flexible variants; a super-flex will do under relatively light pressure the same things that a semi-flex does with more pressure. By choosing the proper degree of flexibility you can fit your nib to your writing style without risking a nib that becomes sprung from the application of too much pressure. The difference between what a flex nib will do and what an italic or oblique italic will do lies in the fact that the italic or oblique italic produces its stroke variation, for the most part, in specific directions, as described earlier in this article. A flex nib, on the other hand, can produce a broad or narrow stroke in any direction; this yields a handwriting that its users extol as being much more characterful and personal, citing the uniqueness of every individual’s particular combination of stroke direction and pressure.

The ultimate flex nib for some writers is a flex italic. With a flex italic, your writing takes on a combination of italic and flex characteristics, thinner than expected in some places and extremely broad in others. Writing with a flex italic is difficult to master — even more so than a regular flexible nib. Flex italics have all the bad handling characteristics of both of their parent types. They are not for the faint of heart.

Writing sample

Some makers, notably Moore, attempted to produce nibs that were a delicately balanced compromise between flexibility and the rigidity needed for making carbon copies; Moore labeled its nibs of this type as Maniflex, and most of them are more nail-like than not.

Problems

A nib can misbehave for several reasons, some of which are simple maintenance problems of dirt, oil, or clogging. (If you use cheap paper, for example, fibers can become lodged in the slit and inhibit the flow of ink.) But beyond these common maintenance problems, nibs can suffer flaws of manufacture or be damaged by improper use. Here are a few of the more common problems.

Too Dry or Too Wet: If a nib writes but refuses to lay down enough ink to satisfy you, it is possible that the slit is too narrow for your writing style. Similarly, if the line is always too wet, the slit might be too wide. The slit width needs to be different for nibs of different grades; that is, an XF needs a very tight slit if it is not to throw too much ink, while a BB needs a much wider slit to supply the large quantity of ink needed. But there is a balance here; too narrow a slit produces a dry writer, and a slit that’s too wide dumps more ink than the nib can handle, leading to uneven lines and slow drying.

As a general rule, the nib tines should not touch each other when the nib is at rest. The firmer or more rigid the nib, the more important it is that the tines not touch; if they do, and and especially if the edges of the slit are improperly finished, the nib is likely to suffer an extreme case of the “too dry” syndrome. As with most rules, however, there is an exception. A flexible nib’s tines touch at the tip when the nib is at rest; in fact, they are slightly sprung so that if you move one tine slightly up or down, the two tips will overlap very slightly.

Loss of Line: A nib’s slit must conform to certain restrictions of shape. The slitting process, performed with a very thin abrasive wheel, produces a slit that is perfectly straight; that is, the slit’s sides are the same distance from each other along the slit’s length, as shown here:

Nib silhouette with straight slit

The nibs in most inexpensive and moderately priced pens go to market this way, and for the most part these nibs perform reasonably well. Occasionally, a nib with a straight slit will have difficulty maintaining capillary action and will stop writing from time to time. This is more common in broad nibs, whose slits are wider. A quick shake will usually restart the nib, but it’s an annoyance, and it creates the risk of splattering your companions. Worse, if your name is Lewis Waterman, you risk destroying an important insurance contract and having to find a new line of work.

Better-quality nibs, which are hand finished, usually exhibit a slight taper to the slit. You can see, upon close examination, that the tines are slightly closer together at the tip than they are at the breather hole:

Nib silhouette with tapered slit

A tapered slit is more conducive to the proper capillary action, and nibs with tapered slits are usually more reliable writers than those with straight slits.

A more severe loss-of-line problem can occur if a nib’s slit has an inverse taper; that is, if the slit is wider at the tip than it is at the breather hole:

Nib silhouette with sprung slit

In this case, capillary action has an uphill battle from the outset, and the pen will probably refuse to write more frequently than it actually writes. This problem can occur when a nib is sprung by the application of too much pressure. When this happens, the loss-of-line problem is aggravated by the fact that the tines, which are now bent slightly upward, are no longer in proper contact with the feed. An inexperienced repair person may diagnose this problem incorrectly as a feed that is not set properly, and he or she may simply re-set the feed without solving the real problem.

Hard Starting: This is the condition that occurs when a nib does not start laying down ink immediately upon contact with the paper. The most common nib-related cause of hard starting is slit edges that are improperly ground. Look at the shape of a round nib in cross-section, shown at the left below. Note the slight rounding of the edges where the slit is cut through. If these edges are not rounded, the nib is likely to be scratchy. Many inexpensive modern pens, and some not so inexpensive, have nibs that suffer this fault. But if the slit edges are rounded too much, capillary action will hold the ink too far away from the paper instead of drawing it toward the paper as intended, and the nib will have trouble starting. This condition, sometimes called "baby’s bottom” for its resemblance to the rounded curves of said referent, is shown on the right in the figure here:

Round nib footprint Too-round nib anc poor capillary action

If your nib starts after a little extra push and then writes well, the fault may well be slit edges that are too round. Nibs with too-round slit edges tend to be very smooth, so there is a delicate balance between too round and just right.

In Conclusion

Different people write different ways. The important thing is to experiment and have fun; and whatever nib style you like, don’t let anyone disparage the nib — or you — because, in the end, no one is right or wrong or more elegant or less elegant. The only mistake any fountain-pen user can make is never to try different nib styles.

(This is the first of three related articles on nibs. You can continue your reading with Nibs II: Beyond the Basics with Specialty Nibs.)


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