Fountain Pen Guide Series, Session 1: Nibs, Feeds, and How They Come Together
This is the first in a long list of guides all about fountain pens, ink, and everything that makes a fountain pen what it is. Fountain pens are one of the most difficult writing instruments to get used to after coming from ballpoints or pencils, and maintaining them can sometimes be just as confusing. This series is designed to help you get the most out of your pens and become versed with what makes them tick. I will also delve into other topics, such as how to buy a fountain pen, how to pick a quality pen, different inks for your pen, and much, much more!
Each section will be split up into separate posts, and I will include a table of contents at the top of each post. You don’t have to follow along word by word (but please do if you can!), just skip to the section that interests you most by clicking the link in the contents.
During these guides I will introduce new words. but don’t worry! I will star any new ones and at the very bottom of the post will be a glossary of the starred terms. If I neglect to mark any confusing words, or if you have any questions at all about what I have written or elaboration on a particular topic, please comment or send me an email using my Contact Me page.
Session 1: Nibs, Feeds, and How They Come Together
Those that have taken a dive right into the fountain pen world will inevitably experience a pen that doesn’t quite write as advertised. Every pen fan searches for that one pen with optimal flow*, great ink compatibility*, and a silky smooth nib*. A considerable amount of money can be spent on the best-of-the-best in order to achieve such goals, but different people have different opinions on the word “smooth”.
Smooth. Whether it be a nib that is silky, “throwing a stick of half melted butter across a glass table” smooth; or one with a hint of “tooth”*, there are many definitions of smooth when it comes to fountain pen folk.
Sheaffer Touchdown, Platinum President, Parker 51, Lamy Vista, Sailor 1911
Me? I prefer a nib that is very smooth, but not so smooth that you can’t tell if the nib is touching the paper (I’ll explain this later). I also prefer very, very fine nibs, and they tend to present this sort of feel more than broader nibs.
But why do certain nibs perform differently to others? Why is it that even two supposedly identical nibs can write differently to each other? Well that’s what I hope to show you. Some of you may also be unaware that the quality of the feed* is just as important as the quality of the nib, and even such things as the type of filling system and ink you use can affect writing performance just as much as a bad nib.
Aspects Of A Good Nib
Nibs come in all shapes, sizes, materials, and levels of quality. Every manufacturer has a magical way of making their nibs that they love to advertise, but I’m here to bring you past all the marketing buzz words and teach you how to tell if a nib is good, bad, or just in need of adjusting.
The parts of a typical nib are the tines, breather hole*, ink channel(s), and tipping material.
Every nib’s performance can be more or less broken down into a few key factors:
A nib’s material often doesn’t matter, and you cannot say that because your nib is made from gold and mine from steel, yours is automatically better. What matters is how the nib is made, not what it is made from. There are normally one of a few main materials in the body of a nib:
- Gold (14k, 18k, 21k typically)
The difference between each is the flexibility* and spring* of the nib. These are sometimes very desirable qualities, but for those who love nail* nibs, a firmer metal would be a better choice.
Gold is used because it is very flexible when compared to steel. A flexible nib should be able to be flexed without disfiguring the tines*, which is a characteristic of gold. Steel nibs do exist with a flexible property, but they are notoriously difficult to make and often have to be done by professionals for a fee. Springy steel nibs can be quite common, as well as nail hard gold nibs (Sailor’s gold nibs exhibit little to no flex). The karat count is a very misleading detail. Higher karat nibs are often no better than lower karat nibs, and the reason 14k gold is so common is because it is easier to work with and is stronger and less prone to bending than 18k and 21k nibs. Many pen professionals (such as Richard Binder ) vouch for 14k gold as the best nib material available.
The Pelikan M200 (left) has a steel nib, compared to the 14K gold nib on the M400 (right)
The other metals on this list are uncommon, but more and more manufacturers are bringing out titanium nibs. Titanium is desirable because it has a matte texture to it, which can look good on certain pens. However, titanium nibs can often cost more than gold ones without the desirable feeling of a gold nib, and they’re also very easy to bend out of shape, so enthusiasts tend to speak out against them. There’s also the fact the certain materials react with water differently, so a titanium nib will have a worse flow compared to a gold nib, etc.
This may not be obvious, but almost all nibs have the same writing surface material. What happens is the nib is pressed out of a sheet of metal, bent into shape, and then a very hard metal is applied to the end. The type of hard metal used differs, but in any case this metal is what allows a nib to write for years and years without wearing out*. The blob of metal is then polished and shaped into the desired size (such as fine, medium, or broad). This is why the tip of a nib is a different shape and colour to the rest, that’s the tipping material. If you are really careless and rough, you can actually pop off this material, resulting in a useless nib. Be careful with your nibs!
Now, because the tipping material is what makes contact with the paper, the finish on it is very important to making the pen smooth. Sometimes you will find pens catch on the paper and are very scratchy, which can sometimes be because there is a sharp point on part of the tip. You can polish these out using products like micromesh, however.
Flow refers to the amount of ink that gets put through the nib and then transferred to the tip. A nib with a high or heavy flow will write a very dark, wet line* that will usually look great, but take ages to dry. A nib with a dry flow will put out less ink with each stroke, typically resulting in a lighter, quicker drying line. If your pen’s flow is too high it can blob, burp, or leak*, and conversely if the flow is too dry it can skip* as you write.
These two scribbles were done with the same pen, same ink. The one on the right was with the nib upside down: it’s finer, lighter, and drier. The left one was done with the nib held normally: thicker, heavier, darker, and wetter.
The key is to find a balance between wet and dry flow that suits you. Typical pens these days will work best with a medium flow, however flex pens should be avoided completely if you prefer a dry writing pen. Flex pens require a huge amount of ink to be delivered to the nib very quickly, so they tend to be the wettest writers around even when unflexed.
Flow has a lot to do with the feed, as well as the nib’s contact with it and the gap between the tines. Widening or shrinking the gap between the tines by hand is an intermediate maintenance trick that can be used to adjust the flow. Also, different inks flow better than others. Lubricating inks tends to have a high flow even in dry pens, whilst some inks, such as Lamy Blue, have a medium to dry flow in many pens.
It’s also possible that your pen’s flow is off because of debris or manufacturing oils present in the feed or nib. Giving any new pen a good flush with water, or water with a drop of detergent, is a good idea, even if it looks clean. You may also need to take the pen apart and wash out any gunk caught in the parts. This is also a good way to make sure your pen is completely clean when changing ink colours.
Alignment is the most common issue plaguing fountain pens. Even if your pen is brand new, chances are its tines are wonky just a little. Alignment refers to the vertical positioning of each tine relative to the other. Perfectly aligned tines will be dead straight and parallel with each other, but if one tine is off by even a fraction of a millimetre it can cause scratchiness, an extremely undesirable property. Even if your pen writes fine it could still be misaligned. After alignment you will find it writes even better. This is why I always check every pen after taking it out of the box.
Before: This nib was horribly scratchy and completely out of alignment as you can see
After: I adjusted this nib with my fingers, see how even and aligned it is now! Smooth!
In order to diagnose misaligned tines, you will probably need a loupe*. One that magnifies to around 20x-30x is great, but I always use my 60x loupe because many of my pens have super fine points I can’t see any other way. The key here is to not look straight down the nib. This is a very common rookie mistake. Just because your nib look perfectly level from that viewing angle does not mean it will write well at all. The key is to look across the writing surface .
Hold the pen vertically and such that the top face of the nib is towards you. Then, get your loupe and look diagonally across the tip of the nib. If one tine is higher or lower than the other, even slightly, you could have a misaligned nib on your hands. In a later post I will take you through the process behind fixing many simple problems with poorly writing pens.
Same Nibs, Different Nibs
It’s strange to think that even though you have two pens, each with medium nibs, each can write and feel completely different to the other. This is depends on country of origin, materials used in the nib, size and shape of the nib, the cut of the nib, feed material and shape, and even the filling method.
These two nibs (Pilot Prera, left, Pilot 78G, right) may look and write differently, but they are in fact the exact same nib model, apart from the colour.
– Country of Origin
In general, but not in all cases, Japanese pens (such as Pilots, Sailors, Platinums) write a finer line than their Western counterparts (Pelikan, Lamy, Parker). This means that if you compare a Western fine nib to a Japanese fine nib, you will often find that the Japanese fine writes a lot finer.
W (Western) sizes are noticeably broader than J (Japanese) sizes. Note that actual sizes vary from brand to brand, but this is a general comparison
Because of this, you may want to get a nib one size down or up depending on your preference; if you want a Western medium size line on your Japanese pen, get a Japanese broad, and vice versa.
As I said above, the choice of a gold or steel (or other metal) nib results in a pen that writes very different. The springiness, flexibility, flow, and (perhaps least importantly) the look of the nib changes significantly. It also depends on how it was made, for example Sailor 14k nibs are very firm and don’t flex, but Pilot 14k nibs are quite springy!
Nibs come in different sizes, often designated by a number. A #3 nib is tiny when compared to a monstrous #15 for example. This results is a nib that writes further away or closer to the grip section. People who love the feel of a ballpoint pen and hold their pens close to the tip would be at home with a pen with a tiny nib, such as a Lamy 2000.
The Pilot Custom 823 has a #15 size nib, which is simply huge and great for those who like to have the pen elevated slightly. These differences give every pen a certain writing feel. Also, some nibs are flatter, rounder, pointier, stubbier than others, also making the material behave differently and slightly altering the feeling.
– The Nib’s Cut
Now, I don’t mean what happens
when you cut steak with your pen, I mean the shape of the tipping material. Nibs come in many, many different cuts: oblique, italic, cursive italic, ball, stub, the list goes on. Stay tuned for a post all about nib cuts coming soon!
Extra Fine (EF), Fine (F), Medium (M), Broad (B), Oblique Medium (OM), Oblique Broad (OB). All different nib cuts that produce a very different type of line.
(The pens used here are classic Lamy pens)
– Feed Material and Shape
The feed’s material and shape have more to do with flow than anything. A pen with a higher flow will feel very lubricated, and it will glide* across the paper. Conversely, a drier flow means that you really have to rely on the quality of the nib for all the smoothness. In any case, your nib should feel smooth even without any ink going through it. This is a sign of a good nib. Also, you may find that in your slightly scratchy pen, changing inks helps with the feeling of the nib.
Different pens have different way of filling. Piston, converter, cartridge, vacuum, button, lever, the list is massive. It seems every year pen companies bring out some amazing idea on how a pen should be filled, but with regards to writing feel, every filling mechanism provides a different flow. Eyedropper* pens tend to have a higher throughput of ink, as the ink comes into contact with the entire exposed end of the feed. Some converters and cartridges can also come with small balls inside them to help break surface tension and get the ink in contact with the feed and thus the nib, which helps with flow. In any case, it is only important to get ink touching the feed, and ink flow should be managed primarily by the factors above (feed and nib construction).
Even the best pens will write poorly unless you use them properly. Poor handwriting grip, shoddy paper, awful inks, and terrible penmanship will not do a good pen justice. Before sending it back to whence it came, try a few of these tricks to get that extra performance out of a good fountain pen.
Fountain pens are significantly different from ballpoints and pencils in that they are made to be used one way: with the top of the nib facing upwards. Now, some nibs work well upside down (some are even made that way), but your typical nib has been polished and carefully designed to perform best with the upper face of the nib (the part with all the branding, patterns, and breather hole) facing up for the world to see. The tip should sit about 45-60 degrees relative to the paper (don’t hold your pen vertically) and should not be twisted left or right at all. Some nibs, such as obliques, are made to accommodate twisting down the axis of the pen, but normal nibs are balls, made to write with the underside of the tip in full contact with the paper.
The Tripod Grip – A very good grip for fountain pens, it keeps the nib orientation perfect, and at a good 45-60 degree angle to the paper.
Forefinger-Up Grip – Another common grip for fountain pen users, it allows precise control of the pressure you put on the nib because the forefinger is directly above it. Both the forefinger-up and tripod grips allow for zero pressure and strain on the fingers and comfortable writing for very long periods.
The “thumb wrap” grip is very common, and often a result of using ballpoints for all writing. It results in the end of the pen pointing almost directly downwards (bad for fountain pens), and puts a lot of pressure on the fingers. This results in strain after a short period of continuous writing.
Try to adjust your grip until this is possible. Hold the pen very lightly; let the pen do the writing, you just need to guide it, and write from the shoulder, not the fingers. If this hurts, stop, chances are your grip is wrong and you need to re-train your hand to write properly. this is why in some countries children are made to use fountain pens during their early schooling: to help develop perfect writing grip. A great website that helped me stop hand fatigue and get writing the way I should can be found HERE .
You may not think about it, but paper is basically 25% of the writing experience. Horrible paper is rough and thin, and good pens will always feel like bad pens when writing on such paper. Add to that the tendency for low grade paper to exhibit feathering, bleedthrough, and other awful things and you have yourself a recipe for poor looking (and feeling) writing. More information on paper can be found in THIS Quick Questions post.
Ink is another factor, albeit not as significant, to a good writing experience. Lubricated* inks (such as the Noodler’s Eel series) give your nib less friction, which can often translate to a better feel whilst writing. Certain inks (especially very watery ones) will not feel so slippery and don’t give this bonus, but all good pens should feel great without having to be inked up. If your pen doesn’t feel quite there with a “dry write”*, inking it up will often give it a step up in smoothness.
Although this could come under “grip”, being able to actually write properly and clearly will give you a non-tactile enjoyment when writing. Everybody wants to be able to produce handwriting that is both neat and easy to read, so once you have fixed your grip and have a nice pen, ink, and notepad, get to practising your handwriting! You can often just choose a font on your computer and attempt to emulate it, going back to primary school days and writing each letter until you have it down pat. Remember to write slowly and gradually build speed, as you will only take backward steps if you try to write quickly at first.
So that’s it for this session. Check out the next session all about filling systems.
Optimal Flow: A pen with optimal flow will write without putting out too much, or too little, ink. The term “optimal” will change from person to person, as some people like pens that put out a lot of ink and vice versa.
Ink Compatibility: Not all pens work with all inks. Inks have different compounds in them depending on the brand and type, and some pens simply won’t write with certain inks. Inks that are seen to work with most pens are known as “safe” inks.
Nib: The nib is the metal (or sometimes plastic) writing tip on the end of a fountain pen. Many are engraved with ornate designs and often prominently display brand names and information such as nib sizes. Way back when, the word “pen” actually meant “nib”, and the body of the pen was just called a “holder”. These days, “pen” refers to the entire ensemble of nib and body. Some people also refer to the points on ballpoint pens as “nibs”, but this is incorrect.
Breather hole: Not present on all pens, but an important part of all others, the breather hole is that small hole that you see at the beginning of the ink channel. Many different shapes have been adopted for these, from hearts, keyholes, crescents, stars, but all serve to allow air to enter the pen as ink exits the pen in order to equalise air pressure between the outside and inside. This is important because otherwise you could get a build up of pressure that can make ink shoot out the end of the pen.
Tooth: Tooth (also known as “feedback”) is a feeling of friction between the writing tip and the paper. This can often be mistaken for “scratchiness”, but they are two different things. Sometimes tooth is desirable, because it’s a tactile way of letting you know that the tip is in contact with the paper. In general, finer nib points have more tooth than broader ones (as long as they’re well made).
Feed: The feed or “feeder” is the part of the pen that connects the ink to the nib. It relies on capillary action, which is a process by which liquid travels along a narrow path despite gravity due to surface tension and other sciencey stuff. Basically it pulls the ink from the reservoir and pushes it towards the end of the nib regardless of the angle the pen is pointing. Feeds can come in many materials and designs, even from the same manufacturer, and most are designed to only fit one type of nib shape.
Palladium: A cousin of Platinum, but not as costly. Many premium Lamy pens, such as the Dialog 3, are coated in Palladium, and a brand by the name of Visconti puts 23k Palladium nibs onto many of their pens. More often it is used on pen bodies rather than nibs, however.
Flexibility: Not to be confused with “spring”, flexibility or “flex” is a nib’s tendency to write wider lines under pressure. The tines of the nib flex and are pushed outwards when pushing down on the nib, which widens the line produced. “Flex pens” are pens that are specifically designed for flex, and are often used to make expressive, beautiful writing. Pens can be categorised by their flex ability, with terms such as “semi-flex”, “flexy”, “full flex”, and “wet noodle” used in increasing order of flexibility. People like to make up words too, but that’s ok!
Spring: This term should not be used in the place of “flex”, but perhaps alongside it. Spring refers to the nibs ability to bend under light pressure, without spreading the tines and creating a wider line. A springy nib is often desired because it feels nice as you write. As an example, place two fingers together with your fingertips on a flat surface. Press on the surface, allowing the ends of your fingers to bend up, but don’t allow them to spread apart. This is the same action of a springy nib, and after using one you will understand why it lends itself to a very different writing experience.
Nail: A nail nib is one that doesn’t exhibit flex or springiness under pressure. They are often desired by people who use a fountain pen to take notes, rather than write expressive characters, because of the consistent flow at any pressure. Nail nibs are very common on modern pens, especially those with steel nibs.
Tines: The tines of a nib are the two (or more) prongs that meet at the writing tip. They are separated by a slit, which ink travels down towards the end of the nib.
Line: When fountain pen people talk about lines, they mean literally that: a line written by the pen. A wet line has a lot of ink in it, and a narrow line is thin, and so on.
Blob, Burp, Leak: Each of these terms essentially means that ink will drip out of the pen. This is usually caused by a fault, or flow issues.
Skip: Skipping is caused by a fault in the nib or feed, or by too dry a flow. It’s when the ink stops flowing temporarily, causing a gap in the line. Sometimes it can get so bad it requires the user to shake the pen to get it started again. This is undesirable behaviour.
Loupe: A jeweller’s loupe is a handheld magnifying glass used to inspect jewels and other small objects for imperfections or engravings. They are widely available at any hobby store, or on eBay for very cheap (don’t spend more than $10-$15 on a loupe, they’re all the same). Some have LED lights that aid in illuminating the subject, and others have several magnifiers built into the one unit. I have several, which I use to take super close-up photos of nibs for Pentorium.
Eyedropper: An eyedropper filling system involves basically no filling system at all. It is where the barrel of the pen is used as the ink reservoir. For these pens, measures are taken to ensure the barrel seals are airtight to avoid leaks. Eyedropper filling systems are the most unsafe, but the most capacious filling systems available.
Lubricated Inks: These are inks with an added property, usually glycerin, that give them a much slipperier feel when writing. As well as this, they can also lessen the friction in the filling mechanism in piston filling pens, which is ideal. However, many lubricating inks take long to dry and tend to have terrible water resistance (but this varies from ink to ink).
Dry-Write: Writing with the pen uninked to judge the true smoothness of the nib (without the added lubrication of an ink).
*Thanks to Norman Haase of www.hisnibs.com for clarifying this point!
http://www.hisnibs.com Norman Haase
Jono and Charlotte,
What a *wonderful* contribution you’ve made! You’ve provided a real service to the fountain pen community, and especially to new users, with your very clear explanations and diagrams. I’ve already posted a link to your blog from my Facebook page, https://www.facebook.com/HisNibs1. and I plan on sending new customers here to get an education!