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.
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.
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!