Glenn's Pens

Pen Views

July 2009

Its all about the nib

Visconti Ragtime NibWhen pens are described there are a number of aspects of which an owner designates the pen as a “great pen”. There is the style, the material, the weight and balance. But often, it comes down to the nib. The nib is so crucial in defining the writing experience. It is the responsiveness of the nib that in part defines the writing experience.

Through the various visits to pen factories I have always been keenly interested in the manufacturing process for the relatively small, but so important component of the fountain pen. Some pen companies contract out the manufacturing of their nibs while others retain it as part of their production process.

I remember my first visit a number of years ago with Waterman at their factory in Nantes, France. They walked me through the complicated process of creating the nibs. One section of the factory prepared the gold nibs. They had a considerable amount of hand work. Another part of the factory produced steel nibs and those were produced, with some testing, but no where near the amount of detailed worked that went into the high-end nibs.

The process starts the same, long bands of metal are fed into a stamping machine and what came out was relatively small circles of thin metal.  These circles of metal are then compressed under thousands of pounds pressure and through this pressure the metal increases in strength so that it can be used for a nib.

The subsequent steps include cut the nib to its final shape, tipping the end with a durable material and creating the slit so in essence there are two tines to the final nib.

The slit is important as it provides flexibility and assists with the gravity flow of ink through the nib section to the end of the nib. A small hole in the nib, often referred to as the breather hole also helps with air flow as well as providing a relief point for stress on the nib itself.

Pelkan nibs

The nib shape plays an important role in the writing experience and the character of the writing strokes for each person. I have always thought of writing with a ball point a bit on the boring side. A symmetrical ball, with no variation regardless of how the ball point is held. The tip of the fountain pen nib, however, is different. The angles of the outer edges of the nib define the writing line and make up the unique characteristic of your writing with a fountain pen.

As the image to the left depicts, here are three of my Pelikan nibs, a medium on the far left, an italic in the middle and an oblique broad on the right. Each of the nibs has a different angle to the end of the pen to shape the link of ink on the paper.

Regular, or round nibs come in a variety of widths. There are Extra Fine (XF) Fine (F), Medium (M) and Broad (B) point widths. There are some variations, as some companies such as Pelikan and Omas, making Double Broad (BB) nibs. I have a couple of double broads and depending on the overall size of the nib it can be okay - such as the Pelikan M800 BB or just way too big as I found with the Pelikan M1000 in BB. The latter I had sent away and the nib was re-ground to be a Broad Oblique.

Waterman Man 100 Stub Nib

Stub nibs have a squared-off end and results in accentuated variance in up and cross strokes. This style of nib happens to among my first choices as it provides relatively smooth writing but provides a good variation to the stroke. They are all made by hand, and there are variances between nibs by the same company and definitely variances by nibs made by different companies.

The nib to the left is a Stub nib for the Waterman Man 100 line.





Edson Pen with Stub NibThe nib pictured to the right is one of my Edson's with a great Stub Nib. Again, notice how the end are cut square. This show shows how the tip is welded to the nib and then the nib and the tip are slit to form the two tines.

Italic nibs are cut at an elongated  angle and provide great variance in up and cross strokes, especially in relation to the angle the nib is held to the paper. There are variances, such as double broad and italic fine, italic medium, however they are all variances of these three shapes.  

An oblique nib is cut with a slant so that it has a flat, straight edge that is angled. This offers bold strong lines on down strokes and strokes that are finer with less emphasize on strokes running sideways.



Sample of nib writing


Getting a size of nib is becoming more and more of a challenge as some companies are now only shipping pens to stores in fine and medium widths. If there are other nibs produced, the nib would be available through a nib exchange or special order process.

To make the process a little more complicated, all the companies use their own standards, so a Medium of one company may be more like a Fine or Broad of another.

Nibs can be rigid or flexible.  But don’t take the term rigid to mean not good performing. The Waterman Edson nib is rigid but most that use the pen find the nibs incredibly smooth and a pleasure to write with.  Some of the Italian pens, such as Omas, have more flexible nibs and you can feel and see the flex with your write. The flexibility of the nib has to go along with your writing style.

Nib Box

So I find myself regularly visiting my "nib box" and selecting the appropriate nib for what I will be writing. Stub nibs write slower than mediums or broads. So if it is a meeting with a lot of notes that have to be made quickly, a good road nib will just slide across the paper.

I find the oblique and italic nibs are great for personal notes and signatures, but like the stub, move across the page a little too slow for rapid note taking.

The ability to buy a pen with the nib that I want is one of the distinguishing features of the stores I frequent the most. I have been buying pens at Novelli Pen in Rome for over ten years and Marco tells me that Italians prefer the Medium and Fine nibs. He always carries a selection of Broad nibs but they tend to me more for customers in North America. At Vancouver Pen in here Vancouver, BC, well they know me well. As soon as I start looking at a pen, the availability of a Broad nib is immediately identified.

Stipula Nib

So while they are many aspects of what makes a pen really great - appearance, weight, balance, length, material and overall size, the type of nib is also an important consideration.

In closing I would note my Stipula Etruria, with a 1.1 nib, pictured to the left. This is one very smooth nib.


A bar chart of the results is available.


Enjoy your pens! Your pen, an expression of you.