All About Nibs
The nib is the heart of the fountain pen; it is the only part that touches paper and this is the most important part in determining writing performance.
Pictured above are the nibs and feeds from a Cross Solo and a vintage Waterman 52 1/2 V.
- The tip of the nib is usually a pellet of hard metal soldered to the nib. Steel and especially gold will wear out very quickly, so a harder material is required to ensure the longevity of the pen. This material is often refered to as iridium, although it is not necessarily iridium.
- The nib has a long thin slit from the point to the breather hole. The ink that the pen transfers to paper is guided to the point via capillary action by the slit.
- The parts of the nib on either side are refered to as the tines of the nib (like the tines of a fork). The tines must meet closely (but not too tightly) at the slit and tip, and must not be bent out of shape.
- Breather Hole
- The breather hole allows air into the feed. The hole itself comes in a variety of shapes, including hearts, keyholes, crescents, and more, although modern pens almost always use a simple circular breather hole. Not all nibs have a breather hole (many modern Waterman pens do not).
- Imprint and Scrollwork
- A penmaker will often imprint names or designs here. Vintage pens usually contain a maker's mark, gold content mark, and possibly some other numerical code indicating the type of nib. Modern penmakers usually tend towards much more elaborate decorative scrollwork, while vintage pens generally just stick to words.
- The base of the nib goes into the section and is concealed from view unless the pen is disassembled.
John Mottishaw has subjected a wide variety of nibs to spectrographic analysis to determine the actual composition of the tipping material. His article conclusively shows that there is little or no actual iridium in iridium-tipped pens. Pen manufacturers have moved on to using other hard metals (osmium, ruthenium, rhodium, tungsten) for tipping but have persisted in using the term iridium to describe the material.
Gold and steel are the traditional materials used for nibs. Gold is the norm on vintage pens, while modern pens use a mix of steel, gold-plated steel, and solid gold nibs depending on the price point. Most vintage pens with gold nibs use 14k gold while most modern pens use 18k gold.
Steel is used in lower end pens due to lower cost compared to gold. Some vintage pens with steel nibs may be corroded to varying degrees, but overall corrosion is not a terribly serious problem with good stainless steel nibs. Esterbrook used almost exclusively steel nibs and they have stood up well over time. The plating, if any, is much less durable and is likely to be lost over time.
Gold was used a century ago in pen nibs because gold resists corrosion. In those days, ink formulations were much harsher and more acidic than modern inks, and consequently were very harsh on steel nibs. While gold was more expensive, a solid gold nib tipped with hard metal lasts far longer than a steel nib.
Flexibility is a highly prized trait in nibs among fountain pen collectors, but they are all but nonexistent among modern pens and uncommon in post 1920s pens. Why is flexibility so interesting?
When you put pressure on the point, the tines separate slightly. A more flexible nib will spread to a greater degree than a rigid nib. This separation allows you to vary the thickness of the line by varying the pressure, rather than by direction as with an italic nib. This is especially noticable if you have good penmanship, but it still retains a subtle effect for ordinary handwriting.
The easiest way to illustrate this is with a picture. Both samples were done with fine point fountain pens (a Sheaffer Lifetime Imperial and a Waterman 52 1/2 V) The first sample was done with a completely rigid nib with no flexibility. The second sample was done with a very flexible nib. The little marks at the end of the first line indicate line width variation with pressure. Notice the subtle difference in normal handwriting and the dramatic difference in good penmanship. If you have good cursive, you will enjoy what a flexible nib can do, as the effect can come close to the stunning penmanship of the Victorian era.
Unfortunately, super-flexible nibs have not been produced in decades, and even semi-flexible nibs are uncommon in contemporary pens. For modern pens, it has been said that the Namiki Falcon, the nicer Pelikan Souverains, and the Parker Sonnet (18k) have nice semiflexible nibs. I can attest that the Pelikan and Sonnet nibs feel flexible and springy but do not give a very dramatic difference on paper. However, for producing dramatic writing, nothing modern even comes remotely close to a good vintage pen.
For vintage flexible nibs, your best bet is pens predating the 1930s. Large-scale adoption of carbon paper in businesses led to the use of rigid nibs, with the added advantage of greater durability. Many of the Waterman Ideal No.2 nibs commonly found on 52 1/2V pens are extremely flexible, as well as early eyedropper-era pens. Parker and Sheaffer nibs are almost always rigid.
There is a very good reason for the rarity of flexible nibs. A flexible nib cannot write through carbon paper, so penmakers started phasing them out as early as the 1930s. In modern times, everyone learns to write with a ballpoint, which requires much heavier pressure and a steeper angle. An overly heavy hand can rapidly destroy a super-flexible nib by overstressing the metal. Rather than deal with customer returns, it makes sense to make a stiffer, more durable nib suited for modern hands. Still, for those of us who do write with a lighter touch, it's a real shame.
The flexibility of a nib is dependent more on the geometry of the nib than the base material. Flexible nibs can be found on steel and 14k gold nibs in vintage pens. However, 18k gold is considered by many to be less suitable for flexible nibs than 14k gold. While the gold content is higher, the effect is to make the nib softer rather than springier.
Antonios Zavaliangos, an Associate Professor of Materials Science, discusses materials and nib flexibility in greater detail.
Stub and Italic
Most conventional nibs are cut so that the writing area is mostly circular. This produces a line that is even in width in every direction.
An alternative is to cut the nib so that it is much wider in one direction than another. Instead of meeting the paper with a circular point, it presents a short thin line. The lines that such a pen produces (for right-handers) are very thick heading southeast and very thin heading northeast.
An italic nib is a nib cut in this way. A stub is similar to an italic, but more rounded off.
The above picture shows the visual difference achieved by using an italic pen. Notice that the thickness of the line varies with the pen angle, not pressure.
I should emphasize that unless you have some familiarity with calligraphy, italic nibs are useless for writing. Italic nibs are intended as special-purpose calligraphy pens. They are much too sharp on the edges and will catch the paper and skip if you do not hold it at a precise angle. A stub nib, being more rounded, can actually be used in normal handwriting, although the thick-thin effect is less dramatic.
Stub nibs are a rare option on some high-end modern pens. It is also possible to have a professional regrind an existing nib to a stub or italic. Stubs are fantastic for signatures and normal letter writing as they produce a visually appealing effect without the finer control and penmanship that a flexible nib demands.
Oblique nibs are similar to stub and italic nibs. However, instead of being cut straight across, they are cut at an angle. Some lefties like them.
There is no consistent usage among manufacturers as to exactly what left oblique and right oblique mean. A nib which slopes down from right to left (looks like your left foot when viewed from above) may be called right oblique or left oblique depending on the manufacturer. Be sure to ask.
Fountain pens had existed for well over a century before Waterman's patent in 1884. However, none of them were very reliable, with the tendency to skip or blot periodically. Waterman's channelled feed was the final development that allowed fountain pens as we know them to truly take off.
There are two problems that need to be solved for reliable ink flow regulation. The first is getting ink from the ink chamber to the point in an even manner. The second is getting air into the ink chamber to replace the ink. If air is not let into the ink chamber at a rate matching the flow out, the pen may start skipping and writing unreliably until a large bubble builds up in front of the ink chamber, and when that bubble enters, ink comes out very suddenly, causing a blot.
The first problem has been solved for a very long time. A thin slit from the point of the nib provides a channel to guide the ink to the paper. Capillary action draws the ink to paper, and any additional ink on the nib takes its place. The feed contains channels (usually slightly to the side of the slit) that let ink from the reservoir flow and contact the underside of the nib.
The second problem was solved by Lewis Edson Waterman in 1883. A channel is cut into the feed extending from the ink reservoir to the breather hole, but not much further. Atmospheric air pressure keeps the ink in the ink chamber from spilling out through the channel and breather hole. As the ink in the reservoir is depleted via capillary action, small amounts of air are let into the reservoir via this channel. If all the channels are carefully thought out and cut, the center channel lets air in at a rate that matches the flow out (via capillary action) from the secondary channels.
It is this dependence on air pressure that is the reason for the advice on not using fountain pens in airplanes, due to the pressure changes. In an airplane, the lower atmospheric pressure causes the air in the reservoir to expand, pushing ink out and creating a mess.
Iridium Point Germany?
You often see this imprint on nibs on "generic" (non brand name) pens, especially those "handmade wood" pens easily found at local flea markets, and on many Chinese pens. This is the classic generic nib for modern pens.
There are some doubts in the pen collecting community about whether the nibs are actually tipped with anything meaningful or whether they are actually from Germany (India and China being the common alternatives). Curiously enough, most of these nibs are not found on European pens, but rather on generic kit pens or Asian (especially Chinese) pens.
Care and Feeding of a Nib
Assuming it is not abused, a smooth working nib will continue to remain smooth and working for decades. A good quality nib well cared for will likely outlast you.
There are several things you shouldn't do. These are comon sense.
- Don't drop the pen point down. This will bend the nib near the point.
- Don't tap hard on the point, even if the pen has trouble with skipping. The reason is as above.
- Don't stick a knife down the slit to widen it unless you really know what you are doing.
- If the nib is very flexible, don't press excessively on the point while writing. You can do all kinds of damage that way, from starting a crack at the breather hole to bending the tines. Most modern nibs are very stiff, making it hard to do this, but some vintage pens have delicate flexible nibs.