If you’re just getting started in the world of fountain pens, choosing which nib is best for you can be completely overwhelming. There are different nib materials, nib sizes, grinds and manufacturers to sort through. Even I get overwhelmed just thinking about it. Still, I’m here for you. In this article I want to go over some of the more popular nib options that you’ll find when purchasing a new fountain pen. The goal is to help you more confidently decide what will work best for you so that you can enjoy your new pen once it arrives.
Why Does The Nib Matter?
It seems that pen bodies get all of the attention. It’s easy to see why. They are the most obvious part of a fountain pen. They are colorful. They’re what you hold when you write. The cap even covers up the nib and keeps it protected (and hidden) when you’re not writing. So while the body shape, color and material may strongly influence your pen purchases, the nib is what actually puts ink on paper and makes up a good portion of your overall writing experience.
Most people are going to choose a pen based on how it looks, not which nibs are available, which is totally understandable. This is especially true if you’re not spending thousands of dollars on a pen that has exotic nib choices. So most of the time your nib options will be somewhat limited based on which pen you’re choosing. Still, you will have a few choices to make and maybe even the option to upgrade nibs, which is what we’re going to take a look at below.
Not using a new pen because you don’t enjoy writing with it is not only sad, but entirely avoidable.
One of the biggest decisions you can make when it comes to nib options is what the nib is made out of. Steel nibs are the most prevalent option and for many pen manufacturers are the only option available. Many manufacturers who make mid-range pens and almost all high-end pens use gold nibs. Some pen makers who use nib units will offer a titanium nib option. Let’s take a closer look at each of these materials.
Most fountain pen manufacturers make at least one pen with a steel nib option and for some steel is the only option. While steel may be the most common and least exotic nib material, it is by no means a bad option. On vintage fountain pens, gold nibs were much more common and steel nibs were definitely inferior (in most cases), but on modern pens steel nibs are fantastic. They are durable and are not nearly as fragile as gold or titanium. They won’t rust. They are smooth to write with. They are inexpensive. In short, they are a great option for beginners.
Some manufacturers also offer flexible steel nib options. While steel is not a very flexible material, they are able to modify the nibs to flex with added pressure. These are significantly less expensive than a flexible gold nib, making them very popular with people who want flex without having to spend an arm and a leg to get it.
Many manufacturers offer gold nibs as an option and they are generally regarded as providing a better writing experience than steel nibs. Why is that? Gold is a softer material than steel, so it tends to offer a bit more give when writing, giving a softer writing experience. While many vintage gold nibs have a good amount of flex, don’t expect significant flex from standard modern gold nibs. Most have little to no line variation, although there are some “soft” nib options (such as a Pilot Soft Medium or Soft Fine) that will provide some line variation when writing. To get a true flexible nib, you’ll need to find a manufacturer who offers one.
What are the other benefits to having a gold nib versus a steel nib? There aren’t many. There is always the prestige and style points a gold nib offers. Gold nibs are gold colored, although many also come in a white gold, making them look just like a steel nib. That’s about it! In fact, it has been speculated that pen manufacturers only offer gold nibs on their higher-end models as a way to justify the higher prices of the pens.
Titanium fountain pen nibs are a much more modern option and fall somewhere between gold and steel nibs. They are generally less expensive than gold, but definitely more than steel. They are stronger than gold, but interestingly are more springy. While gold nibs are generally regarded to provide a softer writing experience, titanium is usually referred to as bouncy or springy, giving some line variation to your writing. They also offer a different quality of feedback, which is not as smooth as either gold or steel. They are mainly only available from third-party manufacturers and won’t be an option for most pens on the market, but are still worth considering if you have a pen that accepts them. I would highly suggest using one before purchasing one to see if you like the material or not.
Another decision you may be faced with is the physical size of your nib. I’m not talking about Fine, Medium or Broad. I’m talking about 0.25 inches long or 1 inch long. For almost every pen out there, it will only have one nib size available, but it may come into play if you’re deciding between two different pens with different nib sizes. Even though they both cost about the same, a Pilot Vanishing Point has a very small gold nib, while a Pelikan M205 has a much larger steel nib. Should the size affect your decision? In a word: no. There are many, many differences between those two pens that are much more important than the physical size of the nib.
So why does nib size even matter? It does affect how the pen feels when you write with it. For example, Pelikan comes in many different pen sizes, each with a different nib size. An M800 is a much larger pen and has a much larger nib than an M200, which is a much smaller pen. That larger nib will offer a different writing experience (and not only because it’s gold and the smaller nib is steel). In general, larger nibs have longer tines, which are more prone to have a bit of give, especially on gold nibs. So larger nibs are more likely to offer a softer writing experience.
Nib Grinds and Line Width
One of the biggest decisions you’ll have to make with any pen purchase is what line width you want the pen to lay down. This is the typical Fine, Medium or Broad nib option. Of course, this isn’t a simple decision to make. The actual line width is going to vary greatly from manufacturer to manufacturer. Even though they are both Japanese, a Pilot Medium may be different from a Sailor Medium. A Sailor Medium is definitely going to be different than a Pelikan Medium. This is due to the fact that each country has a different writing style and the nibs are made with those writing styles in mind. In general, Japanese pens have smaller line widths than European or American pens.
So how do you even start to decide which nib size is best for you? Goulet Pens has a tool called the Nib Nook that allows you to compare writing samples of different nib sizes from different manufacturers. This might be a good place to start if you’re looking for the finest fine nib or the biggest broad nib around.
Another option is knowing your own personal preferences when it comes to writing. Do you tend to write smaller letters that are close together? A fine nib is likely going to work best for you. If you like to write bigger and spread things out a bit, a broad nib might fit your writing style better.
Don’t assume that Fine, Medium and Broad are your only options. Many pens also come with stub options. Stub nibs are great for adding a bit of visual interest to your handwriting. They are basically wide and thin, which gives you a wide downstroke and a thin horizontal line when you write. In some ways it imitates the look of writing with a flex nib, but without the added cost or effort. Still, stub nibs are a mixed bag. Their width is usually much bigger than any broad nib, so you’ll need to write fairly large to keep your writing from merging into an inky mess on the paper. They are also not as smooth to write with as a regular nib because they have so much surface area in contact with the paper.
On more expensive pens, you’ll find more exotic nib options. Many will offer double broad, extra fine, oblique, italic, music, zoom, fude, and many other nibs geared towards specific writing styles. While all of these give your writing a different look and offer a different writing experience, they are not something you’ll encounter in less-expensive fountain pens. I’m not going to spend the time going through all of the different nib styles here.
I do want to mention the option of getting your nib ground into something different than what it started out as. Nib grinding is a service performed by trained professionals, or nibmeisters, who add or remove material from the nib of your fountain pen and transform it into what is essentially a different pen. This is a great way to get a more exotic nib on a pen that previously had a simple Broad nib.
How does one go about getting their nib ground? Many nibmeisters set up shop at pens shows and grind nibs all day long. Getting a nib ground in person is the best option, as you are able to sit down and have a conversation with the person grinding your nib and let them know exactly what you’re looking for. They can also observe how you hold and write with your pen, giving you a custom grind just for your writing style. If attending a pen show isn’t possible, you can also mail your pen to a nibmeister to have it ground. Some boutique pen companies even have a resident nibmeister who will custom grind your nib (for an additional charge) when you purchase a pen.
While you may be in love with a particular fountain pen, you may have heard bad things about the quality of the nibs. For example, while I haven’t personally experienced it (and don’t own one), I haven’t heard many good things about the quality control on Visconti nibs. Because of this, even though I may like the look of a Visconti pen, I probably wouldn’t buy one without trying it first if there was a chance I’d get one with a bad nib. On the flip side, Sailor is generally regarded to have some of the best and most consistent nibs around. Based on this, I wouldn’t hesitate to order a Sailor pen if I came across one that I liked and couldn’t test out first.
For most fountain pens, the only available nib is going to be made by whoever manufactured the pen. Some boutique pens will come with a variety of nib options, including nibs from different manufacturers. You’ll see nibs from Goulet, Edison, Nemosine, Franklin Christoph and more. The thing is, most of these are originally made by two main manufacturers: JoWo and Bock. If you care to dive into internet conversations, you’ll discover that each brand has its own pros and cons and I’m not sure that one is necessarily better than the other. The only reason I even mention nib manufacturers is in case you are torn between two different pens that may in fact have the exact same nib, just one has been rebranded and one has not.
My fear when writing an article like this is that I give you a ton of information, but in the end didn’t actually offer any advice. Here’s the biggest piece of advice that I can give you; if possible, try out a variety of nibs from different manufacturers to see what you like. This can be done with pen friends or by visiting a pen shop or pen show. If this isn’t possible, then here is the order of steps I would take when figuring out which nib will work best for you:
- Analyze your writing style – Decide if your writing will be best suited by a more fine or broad nib. Try writing with other writing instruments and see how you like the line size. Does a fine mechanical pencil feel better than a Sharpie or is it the other way around? This should give you a general starting point of Fine, Medium or Broad.
- Figure out the difference between brands and line width – You don’t need to do detailed research here, but if you’re considering a German pen and are only familiar with Japanese pens, a little research into how different of a line you can expect between two different brands would be time well spent, as it may mean choosing a Fine nib instead of a Medium nib.
- Do you want to add any variation to your writing? – If you’re happy with a consistent line throughout your writing, you don’t need to consider a stub, flex or anything fancier. If you do want to have a little line variation, a stub is a great starting point that typically doesn’t cost much more than a standard nib. TWSBI, for example, offers stubs in many of its pens for the same price as a standard nib.
- Compare your options – Like I mentioned at the beginning, most people choose pens based on how they look, not the nib options. You probably already have a few pens that you’re considering. Take the above information about your nib preferences and see what’s available. Maybe one pen stands out as having exactly what you’re looking for in a nib, while the other doesn’t. If so, decision made!
When shopping for a new pen, it’s tempting to upgrade yourself for no reason at all. “I definitely need a gold nib. It’s more expensive so it’s got to be better, right?” “I need to upgrade to that higher pen model because it has a bigger nib.” “Exotic nib options available? Why would I even consider something as mundane as a Medium?” Don’t fall into this trap! While many people do have a legitimate reason to upgrade (maybe it’s simply because they can, and there’s nothing wrong with that), spending less on a pen does not make it an inferior pen. I have plenty of pens that have simple steel nibs and cost less than $50 that I love using.
Fountain pens are complex and have a lot of variables that can play into your writing experience. The nib is one of the most important parts of a pen and can have the biggest impact on your overall writing experience and how your handwriting looks. Choosing the right nib for your writing style, while not an easy decision, is very important. Choosing a nib that doesn’t fit your writing style can not only make your handwriting look bad, but can even cause you to not enjoy using a pen. To me, not using a new pen because you don’t enjoy writing with it is not only sad, but entirely avoidable. So take the time to do a bit of research and put a bit of thought into your nib choice so that, once you have it in your hands, you can’t stop writing with your new fountain pen.