Fountain Pen 301: DIY Nib Work

Happy Fountain Pen Friday, and welcome to the final set of my fountain pen series. Fountain Pen 301 is very different to its predecessors. 301 will be short, only three entries, and will give you some advice and suggestions on where to start if you want to become part of the maker community.

In this first issue, I’ll be discussing nib work, which seems to be the next step in fountain pen ownership, based on my pen friends, even if you don’t stick with it. There seems to be great interest in the fountain pen community right now in learning nib work, so I’m hoping some of this information will help those of you who want to know more.

Rather than relying on my own (nearly nonexistent) knowledge for this topic, I reached out to some significantly more knowledgeable pen friends for help.

Nib Tuning

Oscar Rodriguez, founder of the Pay-it-Forward Project, is my go-to for nib tuning. He always seems to figure out what’s wrong with a pen, even if others have already looked at it.

His suggestions for where to start to learn tuning are the Goulet Pen Company’s videos on nib tuning, including:

and Richard Binder’s PDF on nib tuning. YouTube is, of course, a fabulous resource for information (I found some nib tuning videos on SBRE Brown’s channel), as is Google, but if you prefer a setting where you can receive instant feedback, Richard Binder has been known to teach courses at pen shows.

Oscar advises, as have others I’ve spoken to, starting with cheaper nibs and working your way up as your skills improve. “And don’t cheap out on a loupe,” he warned. A good loupe is critical to your nib tuning efforts. Spend the extra money to get a good one up front. If you want more information on loupes, check out this video.

Nib tuning serves as an introduction to nib grinding in that smoothing a nib is, essentially, performing a “micro grind”. The motions you use for smoothing are the foundations of those you use for grinding.

Nib Grinding

우 JC, a nib grinder, (@nibologist on Instagram) stressed the importance of learning nib tuning before attempting nib grinding. “If you don’t have this fundamental skill, then it doesn’t matter how you grind [a nib]. Nib tuning is important for making a grind that functions properly and to compensate for mass manufacturer flaws.” You may also find yourself incapable of correcting mistakes you make during grinding, or adjusting a ground nib to achieve optimal writing results.

JC suggests you “look into a simpler shape, like a stub or italic” nib, then work your way up to the more complex grinds. He suggests Mark Bacas’ website as a good place to find images of nib grinds, but mentions, “hands on usage and visual inspection of real examples beforehand is important in getting things right.”

You’ll want to get your hands on a “pro” version of the nib grind you want to try. Use a loupe and really inspect how it should look. Take note of how it differs from a standard, “out-of-the-box” nib. Familiarize yourself with how it writes. This will all help ensure you know what to do, and how a specific grind should function, when you attempt it.

Nib Modification

My husband, Jim Crawford (@pensloth on Instagram), has been dabbling in nib modification, and was happy to provide insight into the skill. He also stressed the importance of starting with cheap nibs, as you’re going to make mistakes at first. He took it one step further, however, specifically mentioning single-color, non-plated, steel Jinhao nibs. He recommends these as they are stiffer and easier to work with than the softer, gold-plated and two-tone nibs.

Jim advises building a jig to hold your nib as you work to help get straight cuts and “so you aren’t holding the nib in your hands and risking getting cut.” His jig is made from popsicle sticks, so use whatever you have, and build it to suit your needs. Make sure, also, to “spend the money for a good rotary tool”. It’s well worth the investment.

Work with .2mm abrasive cutoff disks (you can find them on eBay or jewelry supply companies), and start with any side cuts you want to make, preserving as much metal on the body of the nib as possible. Once you’re happy with those modifications, then you can extend the nib slit, if you so choose. Jim warns, “extending the nib slit first makes the nib more prone to the tines bending.”

When you’ve finished your modifications, make sure to smooth/polish any rough edges, especially on any modifications to the nib slit and the concave side, using very fine abrasives (also available on eBay or jewelry supply companies).

Keep in mind that most of the fountain pen community is very open and welcoming, and happy to provide advice, suggestions, and assistance to newbies.

That’s it for this week’s Fountain Pen 301. Next week I’ll be providing an overview of pen making.

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