Jul 22, 20169242 views

Massdrop 101: Intro to Nibs

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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
EranOron, grindilu, and 55 others

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.
Massdrop, PLEASE take this misleading piece of crap down, and either commission a decent article or link to a credible source.
Poorly written.
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.
Very helpful...
Love the discussion and all the information. Thank you, all! What about stubs - what are they, what do they do?
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!
In case anyone is in the mood for a little humour:
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LOL! Thanks for the link. :-)
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.
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.
(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.
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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:

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.
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.
Great info on anatomy and function of nibs,
Any guidance on the best nib to use for a left hander would be greatly appreciated!
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A properly tuned fountain pen requires literally no pressure to put down a line. While some older nibs--I'm thinking of some Esterbrooks--were designed for pressure to allow the user to use carbons, this was not the and is not now the case with most FPs.
Dinner now, but reducing smear is more a donation of your ink and paper. Using a drier ink on more absorbent (usually cheaper) paper will help you more than anything else.
For more information, here's a great article about nibs with even more examples and details: https://www.jetpens.com/blog/fountain-pen-paper-recommendations/pt/730
Other fun facts:
*On modern nibs, the breather holes aren't really necessary, they are more for a traditional aesthetic. *Most nibs are tipped with "iridium" - which isn't really iridium any more - but a similar hard metal alloy. *What separates a quality nib from cheaper is often how this tipping is applied and how precisely the slit is cut *When using micro-mesh or similar, we recommend not going below 12000 grit unless you are looking to reshape the nib. 12K is plenty for smoothing. *When smoothing, be careful with side to side motion as this can take material from the inside of the tip, causing baby bottom which will cause a nib to false start. *Gold can be softer (not necessarily more flexible) than steel - and gold absorbs vibrations better than steel - however the higher quality steel now used in better brands absorbs vibrations better and so are closer than ever in performance vs. gold.
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If you prefer that nib after having compared them at length, then that's great. You found something that you like.
I was simply pointing out that some of the claims that FC made above were, IMO, a bit fishy.
Sorry to sound a bit fishy guys. ;-) This is what was passed to me from the Sailor tradition, through Mr. Nagahara (and his late father) and Mr. Masuyama. But maybe it is steel "produces more vibrations" than absorbs less vibrations. The point being that the tips are of the same material, so often scratchiness is what you are feeling transmitted up through the hand, and it not always just the smoothness of the tip - though of course the nature of the tipping is a fundamental key to whether vibrations are caused, as is paper. Obviously gold is softer than steel. Either can be springy based on the formulation. For my personal handwriting, I cannot tell a lot of difference with modern nibs, and that's the majority report we get from our clients. But some very much can feel a difference and the gold is worth it to them. Some have both gold and steel in our pens, used for different purposes. 20 years ago when selling fountain pens, the difference was more marked and clear, but then gold nibs dominated on most fine pens as the price of gold was less. From our perspective, we are objective and provide both options on all pens, to suit individual preference. We just try to make folks aware that it's not a given that gold will be better for them.
Sharbait, by performance, I mean all the other aspects of a nib that are important. Ink flow, smoothness of tip, dry out times, and so on. Many factors are equal, feed, housing, section, barrel, air chamber in the cap.
On the breather hole issue - there is a lot of debate and always has been, but most believe the holes were initially put in for air purposes. This was confirmed by an old Koh-I-Noor engineer we spoke with recently who was involved in the production of a lot of brands decades ago. He felt strongly about it, but that's still just one perspective. I personally think it was serendipitous perhaps that it also mitigates pressure on that point. Modern nib makers will offer them to us either way, and in our music nib, with two slits, we omitted the breather hole, and have never seen one split. Same with Lamy Safaris, etc etc. Granted - perhaps stronger materials are used now, and perhaps there isn't a fully definitive answer on that point in history. That all said, the original point remains that they are there today mostly for tradition of style as they aren't necessary for anything really functional.
Appreciate the conversation and debate. Cheers - Scott F.
Enjoyable as always. Still using my Pilot ( med) fountain pen...the same color as in your photo!!
re adjusting nibs.
You can find a LOT of info on the internet. CAUTION: There are a lot of so called experts out there that don't know what they are doing. Find other instruction that backs up anything you read/see.
BUT, the only way to learn is to actually do the adjusting yourself on a pen. CAUTION. Whenever you tinker with a nib, there is a chance that you can damage/destroy it.
There is a saying "the tuition of learning, is destroyed pens."
This is why the recommendation above, to first learn how to do the adjusting on a CHEAP pen, where if you damage the nib, the $$ lost is minimal. IOW, do NOT learn on your EXPENSIVE pen.
CAUTION: Smoothening a nib. In my experience, 90+ % of the time a scratchy nib is a nib that is out of alignment, and does NOT need smoothening, just aligning. Smoothening is a dangerous task, and should not be done without a lot of thought. When you smoothen/polish the nib, you are REMOVING metal from the nib. This is a "one way street." Once you remove the metal, you cannot put it back. If you ruin the nib, an expert nib tech might be able to salvage the nib (if you did not damage it too much), if not, you have to pay $$$ to replace the nib.
You will NEED a 10x loupe to see the details of the nib. You CANNOT see if the tip is aligned without the magnification of a loupe. 10x is adequate and is used by most people for most of their work. 20x is used when there is a problem and you really have to look at the details of the nib. I use my 10x 99+% of the time, the 20x gets used less than 1% of the time. A good 10x loupe is a Belomo (about $33 on Amazon). But it does not have a light, so you need a good desk lamp or open window. I use a cheaper Chinese loupe, only because it has a light, as I usually am where I don't have good lighting.
Using a P 1500 special sandpaper Waterproof Auto-Paper Klinhspor (PS11A) I get very good results to give me a smooth writing. (use it only wet, with water or the same nib ink, or you loose nib material, do not repeat many times the process or you loose your entire nib point!, be careful) I use it writing 2 to 6 times on this wet sandpaper, testing each time on normal paper what I get (over over again, over the same zone of the sandpaper surface) the words I find the "difficult" or harsh to write on paper. Ink actuated as water and thats good with this sandpapers for auto-part painters. I do this with low / medium price nibs ...
For me, material doesn't make a great nib, craftsmanship does. Steel nibs with great quality control beat gold-plated nib without such control anyday
Another great post! I'm learning a lot. I personally prefer extra fine, fine or italic nibs.
Ditto. I write small, so EF or F works best for me everyday, but I love adding flourish for ink testing and addressing envelopes, so italics are perfect there. :)
Thanks for another useful article. This is a great series for those of us who love fountain pens and those who are learning to do so.
I'd love to see another with more details on the different kinds of nibs (fine, medium, broad, flex, calligraphy, oblique, etc.) with pictures of the lines they produce.
Hi Ruth @RFeiertag! I'd love to go into more detail over some of the specialized nibs. I've put this subject in my pipeline, and hopefully I can work on it soon. :) Thanks for the idea!
AWESOME! I look forward to learning even more!
It would be great if Massdrop came out with a good article on adjusting/tuning nibs (or if someone could provide one). I have found some good information in various places on the internet, but a single strong introductory article would be nice.
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Thanks : ).
It would actually be horrible if Massdrop did this, because it would be a shite article. There is a wealth of information available on nib running, and if you can't find it through searches and aren't willing to take the time to do research, you shouldn't be tuning nibs.
One note, unless the nib is designed to be flexible, flexing the nib is referred to as "abuse." You will damage the pen.
Also, don't give up on a pen just because the nib isn't quite perfect out of the box. Most will need at least slight adjustment new out of the box to make them perfect.
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I need to try this again.
The first, and only time I did this mod, the feed wasn't quite flush enough to the nib for continuous ink flow, so it was really patchy. Then three days later the nib got all rusty and super stuck, so I just threw the whole thing out.
I do have some of the fancy Ti G nibs to try out next time... :D
Any one that is CHEAP. All you are interested is the nib, not the pen. And not limited to Jinhao, but any of the Chinese pens. Also look at the "Dollar, 717," when purchased in quantity, is pretty cheap.