(This page revised October 28, 2018)
This article is a revised and updated version of one that first appeared in the April/May 2007 issue of Stylus Magazine.
What makes one nib better than another? Many fountain pen aficionados assume that gold trumps steel, and if 14K gold is good, 18K just has to be better. That’s not really true, and it gives short shrift to some very good nibs. The following quotation expresses this point most cogently:
Focusing on the gold content of a nib is like picking a wine by its alcohol content.
Nib makers have used many different materials over the years: gold, palladium silver, platinum, steel, brass, titanium… So what’s the best material for nibs, and why? Assuming that the materials in question can be adjusted (tempered, shaped, finished, etc.) to produce the same feel in the user’s hand, then the ideal material would be one that costs nothing and lasts forever. Obviously, there is no such material.
This 14K gold nib came from a Montblanc LeGrand.
It is mounted in a Retro 51 Double-Eight.
Let’s look first at longevity: the answer there is obvious. The most corrosion-resistant chemical element known is gold, which is impervious to virtually all corrosives — only hot chlorine bleach and a few rare acids can touch it. Hence, for longevity without regard to cost, gold might be the ideal nib material. This is why high-quality 19th-century dip pens were made of gold. (Inks in use at that time, primarily ferrogallic inks of uncertain purity, were far more corrosive than most modern inks.)
But longevity isn’t all there is to a nib. A super-wonderful nib that has to be replaced periodically might win out over a mediocre nib that lasts forever.
Most high-quality nibs are made of gold. But pure gold (24K, or 1000 by European measure) is no good; it is too soft, malleable, and ductile. But when it is alloyed in appropriate proportions with suitable combinations of other elements (silver, copper, nickel, etc.) it becomes harder and exhibits other desirable properties such as the ability to be tempered.
It happens that there is a gray zone in the range of alloys when measured by gold content. That zone falls around 14K (585). Alloys containing significantly more gold tend to lack some desirable qualities, most especially flexibility (the resilience to bend significantly and return to the original shape over and over again). Many 18K (750) nibs, for instance, are springy (“soft”), but that’s not true flexibility. People who believe the sales hype frequently end up sending their 18K nibs out for repair after they’ve sprung them by applying more pressure than the nibs could handle. During the Golden Age, from about the end of World War I to the beginning of World War II, French makers produced some wonderful flexible 18K nibs; but as a rule, modern 18K alloys are too soft — bending too easily and staying bent — or too hard, resisting until the point of catastrophic failure. This is why responsible nib technicians refuse to add flexibility to 18K nibs.
Alloys containing less gold, such as 9K (375), can be made to exhibit even better flexibility than 14K alloys. But these low-karat alloys suffer from a greater potential for corrosion, so there is a balance. That balance falls at about 14K; 14K nibs can combine both superb writing characteristics and excellent corrosion resistance.
This Levenger True Writer’s steel nib has been
ground to a broad cursive italic shape.
Why, if 14K is better than 18K, do pen makers insist on using nibs made of 18K or even 21K gold? In the minds of many modern pen users, the idea has taken root that a higher gold content goes hand in hand with quality and, because gold is precious, with luxury. Manufacturers are never slow to tune into trends. Pen makers market their wares with a slant toward luxury and “class,” and we’re stuck with inferior nibs that cost more than better ones would.
During World War II, Esterbrook produced 8000-series Renew-Point nibs using a palladium alloy, and Sheaffer began using various palladium silver alloys in the 1950s to save cost. Since about 2012, Visconti has been using a material that it calls 23K palladium for its nibs instead of gold. This designation is a misnomer, as karat measure is properly applied only to gold. Taken as Visconti intends it, however, “23K palladium” would contain 95% by weight of palladium (950 in the common European system) — and that is how I shall consider it here. In general, palladium nibs behave much like nibs made with gold. Palladium alloys are not as good as gold for flexible nibs, but their other characteristics can be adjusted by varying the proportions of the metals used. (The 23K palladium that Visconti uses produces a springy nib but not one that can be used as a flexible nib.) Palladium alloys also have good corrosion resistance; but palladium, like gold, is a precious metal (although not as expensive). And since palladium alloys look like polished steel, why waste the money? It appears to be a matter of bragging rights.
During the 1970s, the “Big Three” pen makers in Japan engaged in a “karat war,” each trying to outdo the others in offering more luxurious-appearing nibs by including more gold. Sailor and Platinum made 23K nibs, Pilot having stopped at 22K, and Sailor finally won the war by producing a nib that it branded as 24K. Obviously, the nib was not pure gold; it was probably 23.5K (979). Regardless of the exact gold percentage, there was not enough alloying material in the mix to produce a durable nib, and the pen did not last long in the market. But if more gold than 23K wasn’t the answer, then what was? Platinum’s answer was to use an alloy of platinum, which was at that time somewhat costlier than gold. The platinum nibs worked, but they did not justify their cost, and they were soon retired. They are today relatively rare.
This brings us to steel. Steel fountain pen nibs, of course, aren’t made of ordinary steel. They’re stainless steel. It’s important to understand that stainless steel isn’t perfectly stainless. It just stains less. Different stainless steels vary in corrosion resistance, magnetic response, stiffness, and so on.
During World War II, when Germany classified gold as a critical war resource, Pelikan and other German pen companies turned to stainless steel, producing some magnificent flexible steel nibs as well as the more pedestrian firm and manifold types. Many of these nibs are labeled with the letters CN, which stand for chromium and nickel, the two principal nonferrous components of stainless steels. Even the best steel nibs don’t resist corrosion so well as gold nibs do, but they cost much less than nibs made of any precious metal.
This is a titanium nib in a Stipula Suprema.
But modern nib manufacturers do not make steel nibs that are truly flexible. Certain hobbyists have experimented with ways to make flexible steel nibs by modifying ordinary nibs, and the results are encouraging but not yet equal to the German nibs discussed in the previous paragraph.
During the fabled Golden Age, some bottom-feeding pen manufacturers made pens with gold-plated brass nibs that weren’t at all bad for the price; but that was then and this is now. Nobody uses brass today, so let’s just forget it.
At the end of the list, right where it belongs, is titanium. Titanium is the trendy high-tech metal, and a few pen makers have decided to use nibs made of it. Titanium is serviceable, but it is not flexible; it’s like an 18K alloy that’s too hard. Titanium nibs give a good soft springy feel, but go a tiny fraction of a degree too far and you’ve sprung your nib. In the hands of a nib technician titanium is soft; it bends and stays there, so it’s more difficult to repair a damaged titanium nib than it is to repair a gold or steel one. And titanium doesn’t wick ink as well as gold or palladium; this can cause flow issues, especially with heavily saturated inks.
So, whether you’re choosing a new pen or exploring vintage classics, keep in mind this general pecking order of nib materials: 14K gold is the best, 10K gold and palladium silver are also surprisingly good, 18K gold is good but not the very best; and while steel nibs are much less costly, they can still be very good indeed. And when it comes to brass and titanium nibs, it’s probably better not to go there — unless of course you just want to look at the pen and don’t actually plan to write with it.
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