Massdrop 101: Intro to Nibs
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What’s a Nib?
A fountain pen is useless without a nib. Nice to look at, but useless. After all, the nib is responsible for turning the ink within the pen into lines of predictable width on the page. What’s the nib, you ask? It’s the metal implement at the end of a pen, the delicately shaped point that gives a fountain pen its air of sophistication. There are many types of nibs—in different shapes, sizes, and materials, with varying degrees of flexibility—that serve a wide variety of purposes. Which one you use will depend entirely upon your personal preference.
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The Anatomy of a Nib
Most every nib consists of four basic parts that operate in concert to deliver those predictable lines:
Breather hole: Also known as a vent hole, this aptly named element of a nib allows air to be drawn into the pen, which in turn allows the nib to draw more ink. Dip pens do not have a breather hole, because there’s no ink within the pen to be drawn.
Slit: Extending from the breather hole toward the tip of the nib is the slit. It’s this extremely narrow channel that allows the ink to flow onto the page. A fine-tip nib will have a narrower slit than a broad-tip nib.
Tines: The tines are the two pieces of metal on either side of the slit. The tines on flexible nibs (more on those in a minute) will spread farther apart than the tines on a nib that isn’t so flexible.
Tip: This is where it all goes down, the tiny point of contact between pen and paper. There are extra-fine tips, fine tips, medium tips, broad tips—and several others. The lines a pen produces are largely dependent on the size, shape, and material of the tip.
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Nib Shape
The first thing to consider is the shape of a nib. Most nibs have round tips, which are great for writing, as they produce even lines. Then there are italic nibs, which are most often used in calligraphy. They’re composed of a flat tip that produces wide lines when applied perpendicularly to the paper, but thin lines when applied parallel to the paper.
Tip Size
As noted above, extra-fine, fine, medium, and broad nibs are the basic classifications of tip size. As you might expect, a fine nib produces narrow lines (great for everyday writing), while a broad nib produces wide lines (better for drawing and graphic writing). Note that there are two different ways of measuring extra-fine, fine, medium, and broad nibs: Japanese and Western. The former are slightly finer than the latter, as Japanese writing tends to be more intricate than Western lettering.
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Materials
Nibs are most commonly made of stainless steel or gold, though it’s not uncommon to see nibs made of palladium or titanium. A gold nib is almost always more expensive than a stainless steel nib—it’s gold, after all. Gold offers better resistance to corrosion, ostensibly meaning it’ll last longer than any other material, and many enthusiasts describe gold nibs as being springier or more flexible than stainless steel nibs. That’s not to say that stainless steel won’t write well! What really matters is how the experience of writing feels to you.
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Flexibility
The flexibility of a nib determines the pen’s ability to produce line variation—that is, the range of line width. And line variation is determined by how far the tines will spread when pressure is applied to the nib: The more flexible the nib, the wider the tines will spread. Flexible nibs are great for calligraphy and graphic writing, but most nibs today fall on the firm side of the spectrum, as flowery script is less fashionable than it was in the past.
The Right Nib for You
What kind of writing are you doing? Note-taking? Wedding invitations? Your task and personal preferences will determine the type of nib you’ll want to use. For quotidian purposes, a stainless steel nib with a fine, round tip will suffice. But if you’re signing the Declaration of Independence, you might want a signature that’ll stand out. For that, consider using a 14-karat gold italic nib. Even better: Try a variety of nibs and decide which one you prefer—which one delivers the smoothest, most satisfying writing experience for you.
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Stay Tuned for More
There you have it: Nibs 101. But that’s only the beginning. Stay tuned for posts and tutorials that dig deeper into these topics. And be sure to hit the "Follow" button to be notified about future posts from this account. In the meantime, if you have questions or comments about this post, or about nibs in general, leave ‘em below. Or, if you have personal recommendations or nib tips to share, we’d love to hear them—and see pictures, too!
thumb_upkccarl, Wasi64a, and 57 others
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Jacobus57
89
Dec 9, 2018
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Please stop posting this garbage article. There are several people here--myself included--who have repeatedly pointed out its weaknesses and who are capable of writing a fact-based piece. Or, you could just pull it down and have nothing, which frankly is better than offering an article burdened by so much misinformation.
Dec 9, 2018
Jacobus57
89
Dec 2, 2018
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Massdrop, PLEASE take this misleading piece of crap down, and either commission a decent article or link to a credible source.
Dec 2, 2018
Hcwiseman
5
Sep 20, 2018
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Poorly written.
Sep 20, 2018
Jacobus57
89
Sep 17, 2018
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Beyond being poorly written, this piece is shot through half truths and misinformation. If you want serious, FACTUAL information about the complex subject of nibs, spend time digging around Richard Binder's site, watch credible YouTube videos, and follow some nibmeisters on social media. I sure hope this piece was produced gratis.
Sep 17, 2018
Mando101a
1
Sep 9, 2018
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Very helpful...
Sep 9, 2018
FlaRider
8
Aug 30, 2018
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Love the discussion and all the information. Thank you, all! What about stubs - what are they, what do they do?
Aug 30, 2018
anthony.cary
122
May 13, 2018
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I'd suggest clarifying this part about nib shape and italic nibs: " wide lines when applied perpendicularly to the paper, but thin lines when applied parallel to the paper" I think you mean parallel to the *lines* on lined paper, and perpendicular to the lines on the paper. If the pen was parallel to the paper, it'd be lying flat on it and not writing :) Otherwise, great work!
May 13, 2018
RFeiertag
291
Apr 22, 2018
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In case anyone is in the mood for a little humour:
https://www.newyorker.com/humor/daily-shouts/comments-from-the-fountain-pen-forum
Ruth
Apr 22, 2018
markdwight
22
MarkD_RickshawBagworks
Jun 27, 2018
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LOL! Thanks for the link. :-)
Jun 27, 2018
RFeiertag
291
Jun 27, 2018
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You’re welcome, Mark. After all, while Mr Bennet says, “For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbors, and laugh at them in our turn?” Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice,
we might as well chuckle at ourselves in addition.
Ruth
Jun 27, 2018
CraigLewis
248
Apr 20, 2018
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Actually, a key point with a flexible nib is not only its ability to spread, but also how quickly it returns. That's what is required to create the smooth, flowing lines.
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(Image copied from http://www.flexinibpens.com/shading/)
But this level of control takes, quite literally, years to develop, and even signing in this manner will take considerable time to execute.
John Mottishaw is generally acknowledged as the top nibmaster in the US today. His site, nibs.com, has a wealth of information.
https://www.nibs.com/content/fountain-pen-nibs
Apr 20, 2018
CraigLewis
248
Apr 21, 2018
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There's two separate points there...using a flex nib, and actually doing full-out Spencerian. :) I've seen Rob Morrison doing it, but that was a LONG time ago at the LA Pen show. (We're talking 20-odd years ago.) I think the hand/wrist position is more open than one commonly sees with regular nibs.
And he may have also been using the index-middle finger grip, which is more neutral. I played with that but never got it down pat.
You may well be right about unbalanced stress...and stress in general *is* a fundamental issue with flex. The more flex, the more susceptible to ongoing metal fatigue, ultimately leading to a sprung nib or a cracked tine. Or sometimes a crack at the base of the nib.
In some ways this is a better example...still showing a LOT!!!!! of line width variation, far more than most will ever want. Also copied from the web site I cited earlier:

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The hairlines are very fine; the emphatic downstrokes are, what, 5-6 times wider. If you wanted to try this.....and this is a lot closer to 'typical' use of flex, with consistent heavy downstrokes and lighter cross-strokes...is the sheer ink flow you need. The J and the C...the feed has to keep up. Narrow-shouldered cartridges (the vast majority) very rarely can keep up. Note that this holds for very broad nibs too, sometimes...3x broad or some big, fat stubs.
I wouldn't recommend a flex nib for a newbie, or as one's only FP. A soft nib or a semi-flex nib....no, they're not quite the same...is easier to handle while still allowing expressiveness to enter into your strokes. If you want a flex nib, great, but be prepared to practice with it.
Apr 21, 2018
GSP1888
28
Jun 27, 2018
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Agreed. John is known as Mr. Nib for good reason. Also agreed that flexibility means flex in BOTH directions. Having been around pens for more than 50 years it is my belief that the most flexible nibs are lost on the majority of users, but a necessity for calligraphers and other artists. To find the best nib you must simply experiment. Every person's grip, pressure, writing style is unique. Keep in mind too that nibs can adapt to your use with time.
Jun 27, 2018
russelltdog
8
Jan 9, 2018
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Great info on anatomy and function of nibs,
Jan 9, 2018
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