Fountain Pen 101: Nibs

Another Fountain Pen Friday, another Fountain Pen 101. Welcome back! This time I’m covering nibs. Let me start out by saying that this is an introduction to nibs. I’ll cover nib customization (yes, that’s a thing) later.

Overview

Your average fountain pen is going to be available in one of the following nib sizes: Extra Fine (EF), Fine (F), Medium (M), Broad (B), Double Broad (BB), and Stub (usually 1.1mm or 1.5mm, although 1.9mm does exist). You do occasionally come across Oblique nibs (similar to a stub, but cut at an angle), but they’re far less common and typically found on specialty pens.

Some pens, especially from indie pen makers, utilize standard #5 or #6 nib units from Bock or Jowo. That means you can purchase other nib units of the same size and manufacturer and swap them out. It’s like giving your pen a mini makeover.

Jowo Nib Unit
A Jowo nib unit. Photo from Nibs.com

Something to keep in mind when selecting a pen is the origin of its manufacturer. Japanese nibs tend to run 1-2 sizes thinner than Western nibs. So if you like a M Lamy, you’d probably want a B Platinum. JetPens (yep, them again) have a great post on the various nib sizes and differences between Japanese and Western nibs.

Nib width comparison
Comparison of Japanese and Western nib widths. Photo from Pentorium.com

Nib Material

Another thing to keep in mind is the nib material. Most common, and least expensive, are steel nibs, whether bare or plated to give them color. A good steel nib can provide a delightful writing experience, especially if adjusted by a nibmeister, so they’re well worth having in your collection.

The next most common nib material is gold, typically 14 or 18 karat, which may also be plated to better match the trim on the pen. As you would expect, these are significantly more expensive that their steel counterparts. Gold nibs tend to be a little on the “soft” side (see below for more info). I know a lot of people adore gold nibs, but I’m fairly ambivalent about them. My general suggestion: if a pen you really like comes with a gold nib, great, but don’t go out of your way to get a gold nib for the sake of having a gold nib.

There are also pens out there with palladium or titanium nibs. I have one pen with a palladium nib: the Visconti Homo Sapiens Bronze Age. It’s a great nib. Just slightly soft, a bit springy, and almost no feedback (the scratchiness of the pen on paper). I have two pens with titanium nibs, the Rainbow and Magma, both from the Stipula Etruria Prisma 88 line. The Rainbow is (I believe) bare titanium, and has significant feedback. The Magma is plated (maybe anodized?) so it has a gold color, and has much less feedback than its Rainbow sibling. Beware that titanium nibs are finicky, and prone to springing (see below), so be gentle.

Flexible “Flex” & Soft Nibs

Flex and Soft nibs are designed to provide line width variation depending on the amount of pressure you place on the pen as you write. Soft nibs provide minor line variation. They offer some extra character to your writing, but aren’t really meant to be pushed into flexing. Flex nibs offer better line variation. Depending on the nib, you can have anywhere from a variation of several millimeters or a fraction of a millimeter. Flex nibs often have more feedback than non-flex nibs because the tines are separated and offer more area to grab at the paper.

Utilizing flex and soft nibs is a skill unto itself. It takes practice to perfect the art, so don’t expect to pick up a flex nib fountain pen and immediately have gorgeous writing. The pen is only the tool, and a tool is only as good as the person using it. for more information on writing with flex nibs, check out this article from Vintage Pen.

You need to keep in mind, when writing with flex and soft nibs, that even very flexible nibs only flex so far. This note from Vintage Pen offers a good warning:

“Please do not attempt to flex the tines of your nib to its maximum capabilities unless you know what you are doing. You can misalign, bend or break your nib beyond repair. It is not worth to damage a flexible nib just to see its maximum flexying capabilities. Over time and with much practice, your skills to determine the degree of flexibility in a nib will become more natural.”

Sprung Nib
An example of a sprung nib from Fountain Pen Network

One of the more common tragedies to befall flex and soft nibs is “springing”. As best as I’ve been able to figure out, the term “sprung nib” is a bit of a catch-all for problems that arise from flexing a nib too far. The great nibmeister Richard Binder has an article on sprung nibs that may be of interest to you. If anyone has a more concise definition of sprung nibs, I’d love to know. Just leave me a note in the comments.

Fude Nibs

Fountain pen with fude nib
Photos from CultPens and LizSteel.

Fude nibs, also called bent calligraphy nibs, are an interesting breed. Fude is a Japanese word for brush, which these pens try to mimic. The line width changes depending on the angle at which the pen is held. Fude nibs are available with different bend angles, so if you’re interested in them, you’ll want to try out the different angles to find what suits you best.

Music Nibs

a music nib.
A three-tined music nib. Photo from The Pen Addict.

Music nibs were originally created to transcribe music. When held correctly, they allow for the thick horizontal strokes and thin vertical strokes. I learned something new in researching music nibs for this post. Up until today, I considered only music nibs with three tines to be “real” music nibs. However, thanks to this article from Richard Binder, I now know that the true mark of a music nib is that all edges of the nib are completely smooth to reduce the pen’s drag on paper. The extra tine on a music nib is really just to increase ink flow and allow for faster writing. GourmetPens has a nice post comparing some more easily acquired pens with music nibs.


I can’t write a post about nibs without giving a shout out to Ralph of Regalia Writing Labs. He’s doing some AMAZING things with nibs, and may very well be re-inventing the modern flex nib. Keep an eye on him, he’s going to huge in the pen world.

So there’s my brief (haha) overview of nibs. I hope you’ve found it helpful. Is there anything you wanted to know about nibs that I missed? Come back next week to learn about ink.

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