If you ever start using or collecting vintage fountain pens, chances are you’ll end up with a gold nib that is no longer shiny. While it may still work just fine, wouldn’t it be nice if it looked good, too? I’ve got a very simple trick that you can use to shine up almost any gold nib that has seen better days.
Why Do Gold Nibs Tarnish?
If you’ve ever wondered why gold fountain pen nibs tarnish, you’re not alone. Most people know that pure gold doesn’t tarnish, so why do pen nibs? You may have seen ancient jewelry that was made with gold that looks as good as the day it was made. That’s because this was gold that hadn’t been mixed with other metals. Fountain pen nibs, and any gold that is not 24k gold, has other metals mixed into it in order to make it stronger and more suitable for daily use. Most fountain pen nibs are either 18k or 14k gold, meaning that they will tarnish and lose their luster over time. Fortunately, tarnish is quite easy to remove, so let’s see how it’s done!
Removing Tarnish From Fountain Pen Nibs
To start with, what is tarnish? Tarnish, as far as fountain pen nibs are concerned, is a coating that forms on the surface of metals when exposed to oxygen. As you can imagine, it’s pretty much inevitable since we’re constantly surrounded by oxygen. Fortunately, tarnish only affects the outermost layer of a surface and will not destroy an item like rust would. It is also easy to remove. All it takes is polishing with a very light abrasive that will remove the tarnish but leave the underlying surface undamaged.
Polishing A Fountain Pen Nib
You’ve probably used a silver polishing cloth, sometimes referred to as a Sunshine Cloth, to make your jewelry or silverware shine like new. Well guess what… you can do the same thing with your fountain pen nibs! Simply use a polishing cloth on your nibs and carefully wipe away the years of tarnish. I say carefully because you don’t want to snag the tip of your nib in the cloth and either drop your pen or bend your nib. On less expensive, plated nibs, you can also rub away the gold plating with too much polishing.
My preferred technique is to start near the pen body and wipe towards the tip of the nib. Ideally, instead of holding the pen stationary and moving the cloth, you will hold the cloth stationary and move the nib across it. Both of these techniques will minimize the chances of you accidentally dropping the pen that you’re working on. As an added precaution, be sure to work over a soft surface like carpet in case you do drop your pen. You can also work on specific trouble spots by polishing in very small circles. You’ll want to be more careful near the very tip of the nib so you don’t damage it.
I’ve found that spending anywhere from 30 seconds to 2 minutes on a nib can make it look completely different! Take a look at the nib below. There was a little discoloration near the tip of the nib. This is pretty common for older gold nibs. With a little work, the discoloration was removed and the nib was shining like new.Here are another two nibs that were looking a little dull. Again, by spending less than a minute polishing each nib, they were gleaming! In some extreme cases, you can hardly tell that the nib started out gold. This Waterman nib looked horrible before I polished it. It had years of tarnish and I wasn’t sure it was going to clean up at all. While it took a little more work than the other nibs I’ve shown you, it still only took about 2 minutes to make it look like a completely different nib!
Simichrome is a polishing compound that I originally started using to polish fountain pen bodies. While it is a bit more abrasive than a polishing cloth, it doesn’t pose any threat to gold fountain pen nibs. Where you do want to be careful using it is when polishing anything that is gold plated (including plated nibs). It is abrasive enough that it can rub off the gold plating, exposing the metal underneath.
To use Simichrome, apply a very small dab of it to a soft cloth. Rub it into the cloth a bit, then rub that cloth onto whatever surface you want to polish. In this case, it’s your nib. Be careful not to get a lot of Simichrome into the open parts of your nib. Since it is a paste, it will rub into any crack and stay until it is rinsed out. This is definitely something you’ll want to do before filling your pen so that you don’t get any Simichrome into your ink.
Yes, you read that right. Toothpaste can also be used to polish your nibs! Toothpaste has small abrasive bits in it and works in the same way that Simichrome does. I’ve heard that gel toothpastes don’t work, so if you want to try this, stick with a pasty, opaque toothpaste.
Other Uses For Polishing Methods
While any of these polishing methods can be used for nibs, they can also be used on other parts of your pens. I mentioned that I originally started using Simichrome to polish fountain pen bodies. If you want to get your pens shining like new and remove some of the micro-scratches and abrasions, a little Simichrome can work wonders. You’ll want to be careful around any metal parts on your pens, but on plastic you can be fairly aggressive. The nice thing about something like Simichrome is that because it is not very abrasive, it works very slowly. Put some on your pen, polish for a minute, clean, check your work and see if it needs more polish. Repeat until you’re happy.
I haven’t had very good luck using a polishing cloth on pen bodies. I just don’t think it’s abrasive enough to make a difference. Maybe it would work for a final polish, but it’s definitely not a very good starting point.
If you have a particularly tarnished surface that a polishing cloth isn’t working on, Simichrome is a great option. Not only does it contain abrasives, it also has cleaning agents in the paste that can help to speed up the polishing process. I’ve had some pieces of antique silver that are nearly black that weren’t affected by a polishing cloth, but with a little Simichrome brightened up fairly quickly.
A Few Notes
I’ve mentioned gold nibs this entire time. Will this work to remove rust from steel nibs? Unfortunately, it won’t. These polishing methods only work to remove tarnish. If you have an old steel nib that is rusted or has other discolorations, this technique won’t work to clean it up. It also won’t completely remove all wear on a nib. If you look closely at that nib that was heavily tarnished, there are still a few darker spots that I couldn’t remove where I’m afraid the actual nib was cosmetically damaged. It’s possible they could eventually be polished out, but I wasn’t able to with a polishing cloth.
Another step that I would recommend is to clean and wash your nib after polishing it. Silver polishing cloths work because they have a very fine polishing compound embedded in them. While it may not be bad to get this into your ink when you fill your pen, it’s always best to not take any chances and clean your pen before filling it. As you can see in the last photos, you’ll also end up with some fibers from the cloth on your pen, so by washing it off, you will remove any small fibers that might be sticking to your pen.
What’s My Favorite Method?
The first thing I reach for every time is a polishing cloth. They are always ready, quick and easy to use, and (most importantly to me) are not messy. For really tough bits of tarnish, or for polishing pen bodies, Simichrome is my first choice. I’m happy to have a bit of mess if it saves me a significant amount of time. While I have tried toothpaste just to see how it works, I’ll always choose Simichrome over toothpaste since I already have a tube of it.
If you have any pens with tarnished nibs, I hope you give one of these methods a try. They are quite easy and inexpensive and you’ll be amazed at how big of a difference they can make. Please do let me know how they work for you. Also, if you have any polishing methods that you use but I didn’t mention, I’d love to hear about them!
Disclaimer: Any time you are working on a pen, do not attempt anything that is outside of your comfort or skill level. If you are unsure whether or not your pen may be damaged, it is best to have a professional do the repair.