Friday, November 11, 2011

A guide to nibs - the basics and beyond

Well, this is rather long in the making. Indeed, I have been planning this "nib super-guide" for about 3-4 months now - writing it, and fine tuning it. I often get asked some really good questions, and I usually don't have the time to grab pictures and show people what I'm talking about. This guide-to-nibs will answer most of those questions, and with lots of pictures, and extremely detailed descriptions. I hope you will enjoy it!

I'm going to cover the following topics:
  • How a fountain pen nib works
  • Different nib shapes
  • Common nib problems
Hopefully by the end of this you will have a much better understanding of nibs! Let's begin!

How a fountain pen nib works

This picture describes the anatomy of a fountain pen nib. Get to know the terminology well, so you can know what people are talking about when they refer to certain parts.

Tipping material: This is the hardened metal alloy that comprises the surface of the pen that you actually write with. This is what touches the paper during writing.

Tines: These are separate "legs" of the nib that form the tip, allowing ink to flow between them to the writing surface.

Slit: This where the ink flows down via capillary action to the nib-tip, and onto the paper.

Breather hole: This allows air to exchange within the pen, allowing ink to flow. Some nibs exclude this, and they work well due to a modified ink-feeding system.

Shoulder: This is where the tines form into the body of the nib. The shoulders of a nib also determine how flexible it is.

Imprint: Most nibs will have a company imprint here along with the size of the nib, and the material of choice. Some imprints can be found on the side of the nib...

Body: This is the main part of the nib.

Base: The very bottom of the nib.

So, the way a nib works is very simple. It's basically a controlled leak. Yup, all the majesty of a fountain pen, brought down to a basic level - a simple controlled leak. In the same way that you can keep a drop of water on your fingers, surface-tension keeps the ink from dripping out of the pen. When you touch the nib to paper, capillary action takes place. The ink flows from it's reservoir, through the feeder, down the nib slit, and onto the paper. Simple, yet amazingly intelligent.

Now I'm going to show a basic ink-feeding system right now. There are many variants, but this is the most common type:

Feed body: The main body of the feed. Feeds come in many different shapes and sizes, but the above image is the most common and basic shape for a feed.

Feed tube/collector: This is basically a reservoir inside the body of the feed. The feed tube collects ink and stores it. This keep the pen from drying out during writing, and improves consistency in flow.

Feed tube ink channels: Most feed tubes/collectors have ink channels running into them. An ink channel is basically a slit running down the feed, much like the slit of a nib. This delivers ink properly into the collecting reservoir.

Combs: The combs of a feed are also a mini-storehouse for ink. They allow the feed to keep ink on-the-ready to be delivered to the nib at any time. Combs usually run all the way around the feed, from the bottom, around both sides, and then terminate near the top, by connecting into the main ink channel.

Main ink channel: This is where the ink flows down right to the nib slit. If this gets blocked up with anything, your pen is toast... At least until you disassemble it and deep clean it. The main ink channel can be seen on most pens by looking through the breather hole on the nib. You should see one, or two (sometimes even three) slits, or channels running down towards the tip.

Hopefully that covers everything in basic nib and feed anatomy. Let me know if I missed something so I can add it to the benefit of everyone else. Now that we've got the basics of nibs and feeds down, let's move on to something more fun.

Different nib shapes

I'm going to now describe the most common nib tip-shapes. There are many more tip-shapes than these, but for now, this is all you need to know. Examine the following illustration, taking not of each nib. Notice the shape of it, the amount of iridium on it (or the lack thereof), and the corresponding name.

Round nib: This is what most people consider the "standard" fountain pen nib. It spherical design gives it little character, but it is also the easiest to write with of all tip-shapes. A round nib allows for a very large sweet spot. In short - it is very forgiving of the way you hold your pen.

Stub: This is a variation of an italic nib, made to be smoother and better-suited for everyday use. A stub is made by taking a round nib down to a generally box-like shape, and then generously rounding the corners. This allows the nib to produce line variation. A stub will not have massive amounts of variation, but it will have some. Most people prefer stubs, as they allow nice variation, while maintaining an extremely smooth writing experience.

Crisp italic: This is like a stub, but without any rounding of the edges. This nib is usually only used by those who wish to do calligraphy. I do not recommend these for everyday writing unless you are very used to them. They are not at all forgiving like a round nib or a stub. Any rotation or angling of the pen and the nib will catch on the paper. On the good side of things, they produce massive amounts of line-variation!

Cursive italic: These are a type of hybrid between a stub and crisp italic. They allow impressive amounts of variation, while keeping the nib smooth enough to write with at a normal pace. A cursive italic has the least amount of tipping compared to the rest of these nib-shapes.

Now for oblique nibs: An oblique nib is a nib specially suited for someone who rotates their pen in hand to the left or right. They compensate for this, allowing for a smoother and more "custom-fit" ride for the user. There is a myth that certain obliques are for left-handed users and others are for right-handed users. This is NOT correct. both right and left handed users rotate their pens in both directions.

The shapes are pretty simple to remember, if explained correctly.

Examine the following illustration first:

Left-footed oblique: This nib is for those who rotate the pen to the left during writing. Look down at your left foot - the toes curve down just like the nib - hence the name left-footed oblique.

Straight: This is a nib with no angle to it. This is the standard for all nibs, unless otherwise specified. Some companies (Mont Blanc and Pelikan come to mind) offer stock oblique options. Most other companies do not. Luckily, a nibmeister can easily set you up with a custom oblique to suit your hand perfectly.

Right-footed oblique: This nib is for those who rotate the pen to the right during writing. Once again, just like your right foot - the toes curve down just like the nib tip does.

Oblique nibs are more noticeable when applied to nib shapes other than normal round ones. A normal round nib will generally have a large enough sweet spot to compensate for any rotation of the pen by the user. A stub, cursive italic, and crisp italic will be much more sensitive to pen rotation. This is why most obliques are seen on specialty nibs. A round nib can have an oblique foot on it, but it is uncommon. I f you notice yourself having to adjust the pen often because you are sub-consciously rotating it - your nib may be in need of an oblique treatment!

Common nib problems

Many nibs can, and do suffer from rather frustrating problems. Scratchiness, skipping, dryness, etc. all take away from the enjoyment of the writing experience. A properly tuned nib on the other hand, will make writing a true joy. If it's important to you that your nibs are tweaked for maximum performance, then I suggest you get them worked on, and buy pens from reputable dealers who tune their nibs before they send out their pens. I tune all my nibs before shipment, but I don't offer very many pens for sale as of yet. There are many other reputable nibmeisters who do sell many different pens, and tune the nibs before shipment. Browse around, see what you find. I guarantee that you will have a much more satisfactory experience purchasing a pen with a tuned nib. With that being said, let's examine some specific problems that many nibs exhibit:

First up - the most common problem of all time: Misaligned tines. This is the #1 cause of new FP's being scratchy and rather unpleasant to write with. It's a very simple fix in most cases. Examine the following illustration carefully. These are not the only kinds of tine-alignments, but these are the most common.

A nib such as the second one down from the top, is rather easy to fix. Careful use of your fingernails can bend the left-tine (in this example) back up to the level of the right tine. Be careful messing with your nibs though! I recommend you research a bit more before attempting anything. I plan on eventually making a tutorial on how  to re-align tines...

The twisted tines in the bottom example are much more difficult to fix. Depending on how badly they are twisted, you will most likely have to send them off to a professional for work. The nib will have to be pulled from the pen, and the tines will have to be carefully rotated until they are in perfect alignment. Once again, I recommend you do not try this unless you confident in your ability to work on nibs.

Next is a problem that I really dislike. Rounded inner tines. This is when the inner-tines of the nib are over-smoothed, and thus overly-rounded. This prevents ink from flowing onto the paper and results in skipping. A pen that skips is a constant nuisance. Luckily a nibmeister can fix a skipping nib fairly easily. It requires grinding a new writing surface. The old surface needs to be removed enough to take away the overly-rounded portion of the inner-tine. See the below illustration:

If you're nib is skipping on the down-stroke of most of your letters, I can almost guarantee you it's rounded inner tines causing the problem. Many new nibs have this annoying problem, as modern companies attempt to make the pens smoother than is really possible. It's better to have some slight "feedback" from the inner tines than to have them skipping constantly.

Now for tine spread. This is also a very common problem with new FP's. I find many new pens to be very dry out of the box. See the below illustration:

Excellent tine spread: When the tines have a good slit down getting slightly narrower towards the end, but NOT touching. This help and encourages capillary action and good ink flow.

Decent tine spread: When a nib has a consistent spread all the way through - form breather-hole to tip. This usually works fine, but is not quite as good as the above spread.

Wide tine spread: This is when the tines are so far apart, they get wider at the tip than at the breather hole. A pen with this condition may not even write at all. The wide spread o f the tines work against capillary action, making the ink (and you) really fight to make words on paper.

Narrow tine spread: This is when the tines are touching at the tip. This makes the nib extremely dry, and in some cases unusable. A dry nib is prone to skipping and other frustrating problems.

A nib with improperly spread tines can be fixed at home, or sent off to a nibmeister. Widening a narrow nib is easy - narrowing a wide nib is much harder, and it usually requires removing the nib from the pen. Once again,  exercise caution if you want to try this yourself. Keep your hands steady, go slow, and know what you're doing before you do it!


That's it for today's lesson on nibs! I hope you have enjoyed this, and I hope you learned something useful today. If you have anything to add to this, let me know in the comment area below. The more opinions the better!

This information is not definitive, or 100% accurate. I have tried my hardest to make it that way, but no one is perfect. If you see an error, please let me know. Post a comment, or send me an email. I really appreciate it.

Feel free to share this article with your friends. Post a link to it on facebook, or any other social networking site. You may feel free to take small quotes from this post, but don't grab the whole thing and re-use it without prior permission. Be courteous, and understand that I've put hours into writing this, and wouldn't want it getting misused.

Also note that all of the images used in this nib article were created by me, for the use of this article. If you would like to use them for any reason, please contact me beforehand and let me know what you are wanting to use them for.

Thanks for your understanding! I hope you enjoyed this article!

Tyler Dahl

PS - I intend for this article to be "ongoing", meaning I will continually, and periodically update it with new information. Coming soon:

  • Gold nibs VS steel nibs
  • Flex nibs
  • Nibs for left-handed users
  • And a lot more!

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for this informative guide Tyler.I have a Sheaffer vfm 9401 fountain pen ( M nib with Universal cartridge using Sheaffer Skrip blue ink) which skips after every 30-40 words.I have tried flushing it with water, using few drops of mild detergent in a cup of water and also leaving the Nib section over night in water. I also tried dipping in boiling water for 8 secs but the same problem persists.
    I don't have a block to knock out the feed & nib. The tines appear to be aligned properly and the tip is smooth and rounded. Can you suggest me a solution for this problem?