Rambling About Nibs

Hans Gilliams raised an interesting point: many vintage pens came with all sorts of nib shapes – needlepoint, fine, medium and broad obliques (left and right versions), medium, broad and extra broad among several others. Many well-known modern brands offer far fewer options, mostly fine, medium and broad. Some even only offer fine and medium. There are some honourable exceptions. Graf von Faber Castell offers extra fine, fine, medium, broad, medium and broad oblique. Platinum 3776 comes in a veritable host of nib types.

Of course I haven’t written with all of these pens and cannot comment on how good their nibs are. Modern Conklin offers quite a range but having had one of their stubs I can report that it had a huge blob of tipping material and wrote just like a broad. Pelikan offers EF, fine, medium and broad but again, my experience of them was not especially pleasant. My fine had a round ball tip and I found it most unsatisfactory to write with. Baoer provides what they call an oblique; again, a large lump of tipping material, ground down and polished on one side. Not a very satisfactory oblique!

When the fountain pen was the main writing tool, people had a greater awareness of what they needed to write as they wished. I have no doubt they could be very specific about what they wanted and some manufacturers responded very well. Mabie Todd, for instance, in their adverts, offered a huge range of different points. I’ve handled a great many Swans over the years and have enjoyed that variety. No great blobs of tipping material here! Conway Stewart, too, provided several different cuts of their nibs.

Why the change? In the post-war period the ballpoint gradually took over as the primary writing instrument and a generation of writers learned to hold their pens vertically and apply the pressure the ballpoint required. Fearing that the earlier type of nib would be damaged by these writers, fountain pen companies and nib manufacturers began making a more robust nib with a large blob of tipping material that would withstand the heavy pressure applied and would replicate the effect of the ballpoint.

Or so the story goes. It seems a reasonable explanation to me. In recent years nibs have improved slightly in response to writers’ requests. I emphasise “slightly.” Personally I like firm nibs but I don’t like the ball tip that many manufacturers still stick by.

Though I think that the reason I have given above remains the main one, there are probably other reasons related to cost of production and maintenance of warranties. Of course, along with everything else, the truly flexible nib has disappeared but that is ground that we have covered often before.

3 thoughts on “Rambling About Nibs

  1. Deb. As much as many folk like to think that Ye olde days were swamped with ‘wet-noodle’ nibs and the flowery English roundhand they could produce, my experience trawling the sites that do offer used gold nibs, is that the majority of ones that are on offer are …fine-medium firm ! with semi-flexible coming in second (whether in stub ,oblique, or other.) and super flexible ones being quite rare, (and it must be said, outrageously expensive ! )

    My earliest ink pen experience was with an italic dip pen nib, followed by the ubiquitous Platignum, again with a steel italic nib. Great round gobs of tipping were certainly much less common then .

    The logic of the argument that the ballpoint is largely responsible for the round tipped firm modern nibs is pretty watertight in my opinion…

    The subject has as you say been covered often, but it’s super interesting, so I hope, will continue to be expounded upon.

    1. I’m not sure that sites that offer used gold nibs would be a good way to assess the variety of vintage gold nibs. Buying whole pens over many years, I would agree that firm fine and medium are most common as one would expect. However, certain brands, especially Mabie Todd and De La Rue and to a lesser extent Conway Stewart, turned out specialist nibs as a surprisingly high proportion of their total output. It is unfortunate the really flexible nibs have become so expensive but that’s the market, I suppose. I’ve never understood the appeal. If you want flexible use a dip pen!

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