Modern Nibs: The Dissenting View

There may well be some among those of you who read these witless ramblings of mine who buy modern pens as well as old ones, or even (heaven forfend) only buy new pens. If you count yourself among this number, stop reading now. Pass by on the other side of the road and don’t look. It’s going to get messy in here and it will upset you. Why expose yourself to that?

Almost all of my interest in – indeed, obsession with – writing instruments resides in those made before the ballpoint watershed: around 1965 or 1970. After that, whether at work or at home, whenever you needed to jot something down, you reached for a ballpoint pen, and such fountain pens as continued to be produced were no longer quite the same as they had been. The market became a collection of niches: pens were made for school students, for people of a resolutely conservative nature and for collectors. The very economic basis of pen production changed. I would contend that the nature of the pens produced changed too. The mainstream primary writing instrument form of fountain pen had gone, never to return.

There are a number of problems with modern fountain pens that I could take issue with (and may on a future occasion) but they all pale into insignificance compared with the worst one: nibs. Many, indeed most, modern nibs are as rigid as a ploughshare and just about as thick. Often they are unnecessarily large. This, I suspect, is to provide a surface for the badly-executed, childish curlicue engravings that deface almost all modern nibs. The most egregious fault, though, is the application of a huge, globular blob of tipping material. I look at these spherical tips and fear that the stocks of rare platinum-group metals they are composed of will not see out the decade. Maybe not even the year.

It is as if these nibs were made by someone who had never actually seen a nib, but had had one described to them, though not particularly well. They have many of the characteristics of a traditional nib, and even look like one, from a distance, if you half-close your eyes. They do, in many cases, get the ink from the reservoir to the paper but that’s about it. Because of that tipping blob and their rigidity, they write like a ballpoint, in both feel and line. My view would be that if you want to write like that, stick with the ballpoint. It’s better at it. Why, one asks, have nibs come to this? The answers seem to be (a) cost and (b) demand. We are told that it would be too expensive now to produce a nib of yesteryear. Frankly, I dismiss that argument. Modern pens cost a lot. In moments of foolishness (to which I am prone) I have bought a few. All have cost more than my television set. Many cost more than good second-hand motorbikes I’ve bought. At those prices they could hand-make the nib from smelting the metal up to the final polish and still have a monstrous margin. Secondly, we’re told that people don’t want nibs of character or flexibility. They want pens that write like ballpoints. That’s what they’re used to and they would break a more delicate nib. That’s a little insulting to the fountain pen user, isn’t it? I know quite a few pen people. They’re generally intelligent and have pretty good manual dexterity. This argument, it seems to me, goes along with the one that says that writing with a flexible nib is incredibly difficult, requiring the precision of hand and lightness of touch of a brain surgeon. These are bogeyman tales told to frighten fountain pen buyers away from demanding that manufacturers make a decent nib, it seems to me.

Instead, having re-mortgaged their house to buy the latest Italian or Japanese offering, the poor fountain pen user must spend even more money to have the pen made usable. He sends it away and waits six months until the “nibmeister” of choice deigns to hack at his precious nib with a grinder. All of that keeps the nib mechanic in yachts and 30-bedroom mansions, but what does it say about the pen manufacturer? And even worse, about the pen buyer who tolerates this nonsense?

I contain my amazement as best I can and return to the safe haven of my old pens. Even there, to my horror, the blight of the modern nib causes trouble. Now and again, an aficionado of modern pens will decide to try one of those “vintage” pens he hears so much about on the pen boards. And he buys one. From me, bless him. When his long-awaited antique treasure arrives, he examines the nib, sees how little tipping material there is on the nib, and accuses me of having sold him a worn-out pen. Case in point, some time ago I offered an English Parker Duofold Senior on eBay. The pen was in pristine condition, barely used, with all its original tipping material present. For their time, these pens sported a good lump of tipping material, but of course it is a mere fly-speck compared with a modern pen. The purchaser was much aggrieved with me and copied me a picture of a brand new Duofold to show me what the nib tip should look like. In reply, I sent him several images of 1950s Duofold nibs that I found in a Google search for comparison, but he remained unconvinced. My explanation that modern nib-makers apply tipping material with the profligacy of a lottery winner in a jewellery shop was dismissed as fiction. I took the pen back. So it goes.

If you ignored my warning at the beginning of this tirade and are now filled with ire and outrage, comfort yourself with the thought that my opinion is only one among many. I’m clearly an embittered old curmudgeon and there’s no truth in what I say. Return to your brand new Laban or Montegrappa and study your reflection in that shiny globe on the end of the nib. You’ll soon feel better.

5 thoughts on “Modern Nibs: The Dissenting View

  1. Thank you for such a rollicking good read! Your vent had me laughing all the way through, and the snipe at the end was a deliciously masterful flourish. I always look forward to your opinions and advice – this one is a keeper.

  2. Thank you. A post like this is a kind of reckless, rush-of-blood-to-the-head pleasure, and makes a relaxing change from the careful rigour of the more technical articles.

    You have to let yourself go now and again…

  3. I wonder if handwritten, scanned posts would add a little more colour. I was just looking at pictures of old letters, and flexible nibs add so much more character to handwriting. Although I sadly only own new pens, I agree with your rant. Old pens, at the moment, are beyond my budget. For those I’ve come across.

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