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This article is a revised version of one that first appeared in the December 2004/January 2005 issue of Stylus magazine.
What do the Aurora Ipsilon, Columbus Academia, Filcao Nobile, Levenger True Writer, and Waterman Philéas have in common, beyond their being excellent bargain fountain pens? It’s not their price; nor is it their color, size, body material, or filling system. The feature these pens share is their use of steel nibs.
In a world where consumers equate gold — the more the better — with quality, steel seems downright cheap and nasty to write with. And ugly, too. Yet none of that is true, and this article is intended to bust these myths.
Myth No. 1: Steel nibs are cheap. It’s true that steel nibs are less costly than gold, but “inexpensive” does not equal “cheap.” Obviously, steel nibs of poor quality and without hard tipping material do exist. These days, they’re usually IPG nibs. (“IPG” is a reference to the IRIDIUM POINT GERMANY imprint that these deceptive nibs bear.) Such nibs are found on some Chinese-made pens and as a component of the usual kit of parts used by craftsmen pen turners, but they’re far less common today than they were 70 years ago because fountain pens have come of age as writing instruments on their own merits, not as competition for ballpoints. And, like the pens that bear them, modern steel nibs have benefited from advances in technology since those bad old days.
If you pay more than about $20.00 for a new fountain pen, you can expect that it will have an iridium-tipped nib of decent, if not outstanding, quality and durability. For not very much more, you should expect a good-quality nib. Take a close look at a Waterman Philéas (street price about $35.00); you’ll see a two-tone steel nib that is shaped well, finished well, and usually very smooth with good flow. It only gets better as you go up in price from there.
Myth No. 2: Steel nibs write horribly. Most steel nibs are firm. Some are truly rigid. But anyone who has written with a typical vintage Parker Duofold or a Waterman Edson can tell you that the gold nibs in these pens are as stiff as 20-penny nails. But they sure write nicely. And so do most modern steel nibs. In fact, steel nibs often come out of the box writing better than those big, glowing 18K babies we all admire so much.
This unexpected difference happens because steel nibs are generally made entirely by machines, while gold nibs — as befits their luxury status — are often finished by hand. Hand finishing can be better than machine finishing; but it’s slower, and it’s not as repeatable — machine-made steel nibs are more consistent, and therefore more consistently good writers than hand-finished nibs. Hand finishing also costs more; the artisanship to shape a nib so that it glides across the paper smoothly (but not too smoothly, or it will skip), is not common or inexpensive. If a steel nib isn’t writing as well as it should, it can be tweaked or tuned, just as a gold nib can. If you buy a steel-nibbed pen and pay a nibmeister to tune the pen for you, you’ll still usually end up paying less than you’d pay for a similar pen with a gold nib — which might also have to be tweaked.
Myth No. 3: Steel nibs are ugly. Ugliness is not the exclusive province of the metal from which any nib is made. Steel nibs can be ugly, it’s true, but they can also be every bit as attractive as gold.
Here are two pens with customized steel nibs, a Levenger True Writer and a Columbus Academia:
After it has been polished (as shown here), the True Writer’s unplated steel nib looks for all the world like a palladium-plated gold nib, and the Academia’s gold-plated nib looks just about the same as an 18K gold nib. Just as with gold nibs, steel nibs can be customized attractively. The True Writer’s nib has been reground to a 1.1-mm cursive italic for serious drama and swash as a signature pen, and the Academia wears a custom 0.6-mm stub for use as an everyday writer with a little extra writing panache. These nibs, finished with care, look as good as gold nibs, and they have been adjusted to write as well as they look. They will provide a lifetime of effortless, pleasure-filled writing for their owners. For a lot less money than gold.
Most of us are attached to our gold nibs. There’s nothing wrong with that; I love mine, too. But those who are gold loyalists to the exclusion of steel are missing out on some quality writing experiences. Consider adding some steel-nibbed pens to your stable; they’re workhorses, and they can be pretty enough to turn heads as quickly as their gold brethren.
The sad fact of cheap nibs in the kits used by pen turners is that many of these artisans produce superb pens, beautiful and durable. But because of the poor quality of the “guts,” too many of these pens end up being pitched into desk drawers because they are not pleasing to use. But more and more pen turners are discovering that there are now resources for both steel and gold nibs of high quality that are designed to drop right into the most common pen kits, and it’s no longer rare to see a lovely kit pen fitted with a very nice nib made by the likes of Germany’s JoWo. (Edited June 2013)
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