Nibs, Ancient and Modern

How do we evaluate modern nibs? They are quite different from the old ones I handle every day but they are not all the same. We are entitled to criticise those modern nibs that we find identifiable faults with, but they are not all guilty of the same difficulties.

Without going into the details of traditional and current nib-making (which I couldn’t really do anyway) the main thing that stands out is that the older nibs had a considerable degree of individual hand-work. If I were to collect a dozen pens with the Swan No 1 nib, I can confidently say that no two would behave exactly the same. This is not true of modern nibs.

One of the complaints that frequently comes up in discussion is that modern nib manufacturers do not produce flexible nibs. Some have tried but most users maintain that the results do not compare with old nibs. Why is that? I suppose there are many reasons. One of them is not that modern nib manufacturers cannot make flexible nibs. Of course they could. The main reason they do not do it is because the demand is not really there, or at least not at a level that would make such production cost-effective. Most modern fountain pen buyers don’t care about flex. Those that do are best served by vintage pens or dip nibs.

What else? Many complain about the big blobs of tipping material on some nibs, often polished to the point where there is no possibility of feedback. Some say that these nibs are made now to cater for those who grew up using ballpoint pens and cannot adapt their writing style to use “proper” fountain pen nibs. That’s not entirely true, though it contains some truth. Big blobs of tipping material have appeared on nibs since time immemorial. There was a demand for them long before the ballpoint was thought of. It is true, however, that such tipping is much more common now, especially on pens designed and/or manufactured in the West. I think that it’s true that this style of nib does, to an extent, cater to those who cannot change their style of writing from the ballpoint. Is it wrong to provide a nib for that section of fountain pen users? Such users must be quite common, common enough to justify the lump of tipping material.

I think the complaints could only be justified if other nibs were not available. I dislike that kind of nib myself but I have no difficulty in finding modern pens that have nib tipping that I like. So far as brands go, I have success with Sailor and Pilot – and probably lots of other manufacturers I haven’t tried. After all my main interest is in vintage pens. I’m writing this with a 1930s Parker with a fine oblique nib which is an absolute charm.

And thereby lies another solution: even the brands which turn out ball-end nibs often offer other styles, at least some of which will work well – italics, stubs, obliques, fine and extra-fine nibs which may suit better.

Make no mistake about it; I remain convinced that the best writing experience comes from pens made before 1960. I agree that there are some manufacturers out there today – some of them household names – who make pens with nibs that are unsatisfactory for people who have skill and long experience in writing with fountain pens. But there are superb new nibs too.


11 thoughts on “Nibs, Ancient and Modern

  1. the older, broad-tip-with-flex nibs are most likely a reflection of the fact that prior to 1945 everyone wrote with a f.p., and there was massive influence and pressure from the world of schools and businesses that influenced people to write with character – thicks and thins etc. – almost a copperplate hand …… hence there was a demand, and a good supply, of nibs suitable for this kind of writing.
    Hand-writing is now a minority pursuit – joined up cursive, at least by the majority of folk, is seen as unimportant in an electronic age, so why make a 14 ct. thin tipped flex nib – it takes skill to use it with effect – and there’d be too few buyers. So likely not a commercially viable product.

    My opinions only of course. I had three M.T. arrive today – all with broad tips with flex, including one with an over-under feed. Despite not having a ball of tipping material, they still write beautifully, and I can dip test and indulge their line variation and nod toward copperplate.
    Of course, I don’t really write, so you might say such character is lost on me – but Swans are such desirable old pens – they ooze history:-)

    1. In my experience, those whose professions required them to make a permanent record – registrars, officers of the court and so on – used a roundhand style with thin upstrokes and thich downstrokes. Most ordinary people didn’t do that. I have my husband’s grandfather’s account book for the late thirties and wartime. It was kept by his daughter who used a firm medium pen. No fancy swirls or different strokes.

      Of course it doesn’t pay to over-generalise these things. Ther will be plenty of exceptions in both directions.

  2. Deb, and Paul.
    I bow to your mature overviews of what can be quite a reactive subject. And of course you are right Deb, there are many lovely nibs still being made by several companies.

    As a passionate practitioner of English Roundhand and the style of handwriting typified by the incorrectly applied term ‘Copperplate’ , I collect and use many of the old nibbled pens, with soft flexible ones being to my thinking the epitome of nibs for beautiful handwriting. Obviously with humble acknowledgement of the dip pen nib.

    However, beautiful handwriting can be achieved using a wide variety of writing instruments and depends entirely on the ability and diligence of the user.
    I myself adore the Phileas ! and actually have a full set of them. But for sheer orgasmic writing pleasure, to me nothing compares with an early gold needlepoint superflex, and I collect and guard the ones I have jealously.

    It is all too easy to confuse an objective sociological interest in handwriting and its apparent demise , with a subjective passion for the beautiful nibs from previous times, and I find myself crossing that line all too often.
    Stepping back and reading more balanced viewpoints keeps me honest and I thank you.

    Ever so ‘umble…Rob.

    1. I had one of those needlepoint gold dip nibs that you speak of, a Mabie Todd. I couldn’t make it work – lack of contol. I recently passed it on to someone who can use it. I agree that the Phileas is a very fine pen, one of the exceptions for its time.

      Why is “Copperplate” wrong?

  3. Hi Rob – would defer to your skill and knowledge as someone who actually writes – and apologies if I used ‘copperplate’ incorrectly:-) Have to say that I’m a collector first and foremost, and cherish for their overall history, rarity and attractiveness. I almost never write, so shouldn’t really comment on an activity about which I know little, other than what I see as the pleasing ‘antique hand’ produced by older broad flex-tipped nibs – as opposed to modern blobs. Modern tips are generally smooth and reliable, but don’t have the ability to reproduce that older style of ‘hand’ – though having said that, I see Deborah comments that alternative tips are available – they must be uncommon, as I don’t recall seeing them.
    Another nib characteristic that appeals – and again I think it’s a vintage thing and possibly no longer produced – is the spoon tip. This treatment of the business end of the nib goes back a long way, though I’ve seen it on some U.K. pens such as Platignum, Mabie Todd.

    My opinion remains that if there was a real public demand to bring back flex-tipped nibs – and not blobs – then am sure this would be seen on being sold currently in stationers.

    1. I’m sure you’re right about demand. There is sometimes an impression given that the pen world longs for modern flex but there is no real evidence that this is so. If there was the entrepreneurs of pen manufacture would be cashing in on it.

      When I talk about good modern nibs I mean just that. Not some evocation of a bygone era but pens that deliver good ink flow to a well-cut, precise nib. Platinum, Pilot and Sailor all sell good examples. But they’re for writing with, Paul, not looking at.

  4. Hey Paul, I can completely empathise with your love of the designs and quality of those beautiful pens of yore. I have that in spades !
    And, Deb is spot on about there being the odd pen maker around that does still cater to what is hopefully a growing market for ‘writer’s nibs’.

    I had a go with a Pilot Custom Heritage FA a while back and were it not for the price , would likely have one now.

    Fountain Pen Revolution put out a flex nib they call ‘ultraflex’, and although I haven’t bought one of them, …….( looks from side to side ) I have ‘dremelled ‘ one of their ordinary flex nibs way past the configuration they have , and it has made a nib that is as flexible as many of the ‘real thing’.

    Then, there’s the ‘ Zebra G hack’ whereby their dip nibs , which are just wonderful, are made to fit in certain modern pens, making them the equal of any flexible nib of old, albeit in spring steel instead of lovely lovely gold.

    I have too, a few of the ‘spoon tip’ nibs in various dip pens, but find them very boring ! Maybe suitable for …showcard lettering . Ala Speedball ?

    I was at first shocked to learn that people who either didn’t write, or had what could only be described as terrible handwriting, actually collected pens. But have since reversed that essentialist opinion to a much more inclusive one. Eats humble pie !

    And one more admission , I have many many outstanding pens with firm smooth tipping, my ridiculously large collection of Parker 45s which I love dearly , for one example. And I’m not too proud to say there are some Jinhao pens that I have a few of , that if I were a major pen manufacturer, I would be slightly worried about taking my market share !!

    All up, there’s room for all of us …even the ink freaks !!

    Keep the faith ..

    1. Yes, I think even the FPR Ultraflex might need a little help to compare with a Waterman 52 or a Swan. I also have a Zebra G/Jinhao combination and it is very good. Especially if I was any good at using it! The spoon nibs that Paul refers too are different from the dip pen nibs. The tip of a fountain pen nib is depressed at the end, effectively turning the writing edge a few degrees. That’s usually combined with flexibility and makes for a different writing experience, especiallty with a fine point.

      The Parker 45 is an admirable pen.

      My next article (if I ever get the time) will be about one of those modern, inexpensive Japanese pens that I enjoy so much.

  5. Deb. From the research I’ve done, there’s a lot written about the term ‘Copperplate’ and it refers pretty much only to the actual process of transposing English Roundhand ( or I suppose, any other form of handwriting) to a copper engraving plate by a master engraver .
    What then appeared in print was often called ‘Copperplate’ but it had been quite severely perfected by the engraver and wasn’t a style of handwriting per se.
    So technically, nobody writes ‘copperplate’.
    I’ll be happy to have this info corrected or updated.

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