Nibs & Things

Most of my customers buy pens to write with. I also have a few who are collectors. Just because they collect doesn’t mean that they don’t write with those pens. Most do.

I see Swans in rare patterns and styles occasionally in eBay and if I am very, very lucky I’m successful in getting one now and again. Mostly I’m outbid. Collectors have sharp eyes and if a couple of them spot a rarity the price rockets beyond what would be sensible for me as a restorer to bid. There are restorer prices and collector prices, the latter often being very much higher.

I appreciate my collector friends. Within their area of collection they are the experts and many have vast knowledge of the whole field of British pens. Many are very generous with their hard-won knowledge, accumulated over many years.

Writers – sometimes the same people as the collectors – look for a specific nib. Many, usually at the beginning of their love affair with pens, look for that uncommon thing, the wet noodle. They have learned enough to be able to tell me that they want a fine superflex with enough flow to sustain those wide-open tines, and instant snap-back.

Among Swans and Blackbirds such a nib is almost a chimera. There are plenty of flexible Swans but I see a pen matching the description of a “wet noodle” once in a long, long time. My advice to those writers is to try Watermans and expect to pay a lot of money. I don’t price my pens by the behaviour of their nib; I have a very straightforward method that keeps the price down as far as I can but does not send me to bankruptcy.

Those who look for nibs of other specifications, the stub, the Relief and needlepoint (among other types) are more likely to find what they want, even if there is sometimes a wait. Mabie Todd produced a large range of nibs to suit their clients and those clients seem to have come to them often for the less than usual nibs.

In buying pens it’s often potluck with nibs. I depend on photos and descriptions and many sellers are not very good at either. Even when photos of the nib are clear and close up, it often depends on the angle: is that a stub or an oblique? Some people insist that long tines invariably mean flex; of course they don’t. I’ve had many pens with long tines that are completely inflexible and other short, stubby nibs with glorious flexibility.

I’ve had, perforce, to learn to repair nibs, to remove the bends and wrinkles from those that have been dropped and the vintage pens I deal with have been around long enough to have accidents. Nib straightening is a business that varies from the delicate to the brutal. I try to improve them quickly as repeatedly bending a nib will change its temper and behaviour. There’s a lot of tine-moving with my fingers. I have one of those useful microscopes that works with the computer and I use that to check the accuracy of my work. After that it’s the big bends and for them I am grateful for Laurence Oldfield’s nib tools that I use all the time. Sometimes nibs are very badly bent and wrinkled. With those I do my best but I’m not always successful. My little jeweller’s anvil gets set up in the vice and a plastic mallet is sternly applied through a protective sheet of rubber. It astonishes me how often this takes the very worst of the damage out of a nib. There will be more refined work to follow but it all depends on those first, well-aimed blows.

I love every part of pen work but especially getting nibs to write properly. It’s one of the main reasons I stick with gold-nib pens. Steel is not so malleable and my success rate with it is low. I try to ensure that those old nibs write as they should when they reach your hand.

6 thoughts on “Nibs & Things

  1. Just a note to tell you that I really enjoy your posts. I’m a hybrid collector/user and many of my pen friends simply don’t understand appreciating some rare or custom pieces purely for their craftsmanship and artistic value. I understand their point of view, but to me it’s the same with my ancient coins. Yes, when they were produced they were pedestrian tools’ meant to be used. Nonetheless, I’ll hold on to them and keep them out of my change jar. Best.

  2. This is a stimulating and thoughtful post. It encourages me in my limited efforts to rescue the occasional bent nib and your posts never fail to further my education.
    Many thanks.

  3. Thank you! A breeze of fresh air blew through my mind while reading your
    Interesting commentary about nibs. I found a small box of nibs in a junk shop
    I must look it out and send you a picture of these little word writers, Rob.

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