(This page published May 1, 2011)
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This article is a revised version of one that first appeared in the August/September 2005 issue of Stylus Magazine.
“This nib is scratchy! Here, you try it.” Vivian handed the pen to Roger.
“What do you mean?” he asked after scribbling a moment. “It’s like butter!”
They were both right. How can this be? In a word, tuning. Unlike other types of writing instruments, fountain pens have individual personalities, and they don’t work the same for all users. The reason is that nibs are individually finished, especially the more costly gold ones, and they can have edges, corners, and flat spots that get in the way of optimum performance. To extract the best performance from any fountain pen, you need to be sure that the way it wants you to hold it matches the way you actually do hold it. If there’s a mismatch, it’s generally easier to have the nib adjusted — tuned — by a professional nib technician than it is to retrain yourself. (Unless you’re very experienced, nib tuning is something it’s better not to try at home, because the precise cause of your personal mismatch is often not obvious.)
Most people hold their pens at a 45° to 50° angle from the paper, with the nib aligned upward so that the tip contacts the paper straight on, as shown in the illustration to the left.
If this is you, the chances are that your nib won’t be scratchy unless it’s actually defective. (That can be fixed, too, but your first course in that case should be to seek a warranty replacement.)
But not everyone is Joe or Jane Average. Perhaps you hold your pen at a higher angle, as shown in the illustration to the right. If your angle is much higher than about 55°, however, tuning is probably in order as you’ll find the standard nib “pushy” on away strokes. It’s possible to tune a nib so that it works properly even if the pen is held straight up, and many writers of Kanji and other Asian pictographic styles actually use their pens at angles approaching 90°, much as they would use the brush that is native to these styles.
Similarly, you might use a low-angle hold (see the third illustration, to the left). Many nibs aren’t initially adjusted for this, either, and they will tend to skip, especially on starting strokes. But, as with a high angle, nibs can be tuned for a low angle.
The exchange between Vivian and Roger, with which I opened this column, is likely to have occurred because one or the other of them tends to rotate the pen in the 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 below.
Shown in the fourth illustration, to the right, is the hand of a person who rotates the pen counterclockwise. For a right-handed writer, as illustrated, the nib is facing more or less toward the writer. In the hand of a right-hander, rotation in the opposite direction (clockwise) makes the pen face away from the writer. (For left-handers, the opposite is true, of course; but southpaws have a host of additional factors to consider, and there is more about those in Special Nibs for Lefties?)
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.
When you rotate your pen, regardless of which direction you go, the pressure of the nib on the paper tends to push the nib’s tines slightly out of alignment. The slit edge of the “upper” tine, the one on the side opposite the direction of rotation, is exposed and can scratch. If the nib is stiff enough that the tines remain aligned, the nib may not scratch; but the upper tine lifts from the paper, and the nib can skip. These problems can both be adjusted for by making the nib into an oblique. Now, before you panic, it’s important to understand that “oblique” is not synonymous with “calligraphic” or anything else that implies variation in the line. (But see the historical note to the right.) The next illustration shows drawings of two nib tips, a standard round tip and a left-foot oblique.
As you can see, the oblique looks very much like the round tip — but it is modified so that both tines are in proper contact with the paper when the pen is rotated. The left-foot oblique shown here accommodates counterclockwise rotation, and a right-foot oblique accommodates clockwise rotation.
When it comes to making fountain pens sit up and beg, a skilled nib technician is your new best friend. He or she can combine adjustments for hold angle and rotation to customize a misbehaving nib so that it will glide and flow as sweetly as you have a right to expect. Of course, if you’re Vivian, that’ll mean your pen won’t work for Roger anymore, but that’s another problem entirely.
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