This article is a slightly revised version of one that first appeared in the June/July 2008 issue of Stylus magazine.
Every time I check my favorite Internet pen forum — well, maybe it’s only every other time — I see some variation of this question: “Why does ink get all over the top of my pen’s nib? I wipe it off, but it keeps coming back.” And almost every time, one of the first two or three responses will say, “It’s because you’re using XYZ ink. It used to happen to me, too, and I switched to ABC ink, and that fixed it.”
Problem solved, right? Wrong. This phenomenon — which goes by the name nib creep, despite the fact that it’s the ink that does the creeping and not the nib — is not caused by ink at all. While it is true that some inks are more prone to creep than others and that you can indeed sometimes stop the creeping on a given pen by switching inks, the root cause of nib creep is the nib itself. So how do you really stop nib creep? First, you need to understand what causes it and why some inks are more prone to it than others.
It’s an axiom of philosophy that no blessing is unmixed, and this is absolutely true in the case of nib creep. Inks creep because of capillary action, the same thing that makes fountain pens work in the first place. Here’s my definition of this miracle of physics:
Capillary action is the drawing of a liquid into a narrow space. It occurs when the adhesive force between the liquid and the surface of the solid forming the space exceeds the cohesive force between the molecules of the liquid itself. Capillary action draws ink from a pen’s reservoir into and through the feed, and thence along the nib’s slit to the tip of the nib, from which it can draw the ink onto the surface of the paper when the pen is used to write.
Without capillary action, we’d need some way to force ink from the pen onto the paper; with it, nature does the work for us. The dark side of capillary action, however, is that it’ll cause ink to find its way into tight spaces wherever it can, regardless of whether you appreciate what’s happening. This is why eyedropper-filled pens sometimes leak; the joint between the gripping section and the barrel isn’t tight enough, and the ink seeps through. You might also have traced a case of inky fingers to a cracked gripping section: there’s a crack, ink flowing past on its way to the nib discovers the crack, and voilà! You need some ink remover.
What’s actually happening with nib creep is that the nib is either damaged or carelessly finished. One or more scratches or dings in the slit are providing a path, in the form of very tiny canyons, through which ink can creep over the edge between the slit walls and the nib’s upper surface. Once onto the upper surface, the ink pools and then, when the pen is jostled, spreads across the surface. I’ve found, for example, that nibs from one well-respected pen manufacturer are prone to creep. Upon examination of these nibs’ slits, I’ve seen that the marks of the slitting saw are clearly visible, forming a series of evenly spaced grooves running diagonally from the bottom to the top surface of the nib. Smoothing out the saw marks and removing any nicks or scratches on the edge between the slit wall and the upper surface of each tine will usually stop the creeping. It’s easy to ruin a nib by rounding the surfaces of the slit, however, so unless you’re a practiced nib technician, this is a job for a professional.
Using a knife or a razor blade in a nib slit to adjust the flow is an excellent way to nick the slit walls. If your nib wasn’t a creeper before, it often will be one after it’s been abused in this fashion.
In addition to the finish of a nib, the material of which it’s made can affect nib creep. Gold nibs tend to creep more than steel because gold is more wettable than steel, and plated gold nibs are generally more prone to creep than plain unplated ones because plating metals such as platinum, palladium, and rhodium are more wettable than gold. This factor can be a bit subtle. On a two-tone gold nib, the ink will creep onto the plated areas, but don’t be fooled: not all two-tone nibs are gold. Some are steel plated with gold; and on these nibs (e.g., many IPG nibs from both China and Germany), creep is more likely to run onto the gold areas.
But wait a minute! Didn’t I say earlier that simply switching inks can stop creep in some cases? Yes, and it’s true. If you’ve ever filled a creeping pen with water, you probably noticed that the water didn’t creep. Water isn’t really all that wet — it has a high cohesive force (surface tension) and doesn’t readily flow across a clean dry surface — but ink is very wet because it contains surfactants (wetting agents) that reduce its surface tension to make it flow well. The wetter an ink is, the better it will flow — and the more likely it is to creep if given the chance. One ink that is famously wet is Private Reserve Tanzanite, which flows well in pens that behave as if they were clogged when used with other inks. Not so well known for their extreme wetness are Noodler’s “bulletproof” inks. It turns out that these inks are really really wet. Unlike ordinary fountain pen inks, they are not perfect solutions; their coloring agents (dyes) are dissolved, but the component that causes the ink to bond permanently to the cellulose in paper is suspended particulate matter. It’s very fine, but inks containing particulates of any type must also contain a greater amount of surfactant than other inks to keep from clogging the narrow fissures in a pen’s feed.
Use a very wet ink in a pen with a perfect nib, or use a less wet ink in a pen with an imperfect nib, and you’ll probably never know how closely you’re skirting danger. But combine a really wet ink with an imperfect nib, and you’re in for a case of the creeps.
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