Richard Binder nibs
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|Most pen collectors, as they acquire and use new pens, discover an interest in nibs that are designed to produce exaggerated line variation: italics, oblique italics, and stubs, and also flexible nibs. These kinds of nibs, frequently called “specialty nibs, ” are introduced in If you have not read that article (in which the basic nib styles are illustrated graphically), you might want to do so before continuing with this one.|
|The illustration to the left shows the basic parts of a nib’s anatomy.|
This article describes many of the various specialty nibs, illustrating them with writing samples and relating them to particular uses and styles of handwriting.
A Little History
The first pen was a hollow reed. Someone, thousands of years ago, discovered that a dry reed cut at an angle across one end and split to form two tines, would deliver a controllable line of ink. Better yet, such a reed could store a small quantity of ink within it and feed that ink down the slit to the writing surface for more than just one or two strokes. But reeds required frequent resharpening or replacement as the ink softened the reed and friction with the paper wore it down. A more durable solution was the quill pen, which was the high-tech writing implement for many hundreds of years. Steel pens, developed during the early 19th century, were a tremendous advance. They could be mass produced inexpensively, and they were much more durable than reeds or quills. To use a steel pen, which is not a complete pen as we think of it today but rather only the part we call the nib, you insert it into a handle (called a pen holder).
Reeds, quills, and steel pens are all “dip pens, ” because they draw their ink supply from an inkwell into which they must be dipped frequently. Fountain pens, of course, carry their own ink with them, freeing the user to write anywhere. For some time after its appearance, the fountain pen was given its full two-word denomination in order to distinguish it from an ordinary pen (a nib). Modern nibs are usually made of gold or steel and are tipped with a hard alloy, commonly called “iridium, ” that protects them from wear.
All of these pens have in common their basic nib shape, and it should be obvious that by modifying the shape you can modify the way it writes. If you cut it to a fine point, you get a fine line. If you cut the tip off, leaving a slight flat spot instead of a round point, you get a line that is broader in some directions than in others; this is the “stub” effect. The bigger you cut the flat, the greater the line variation you can achieve. You can also achieve line variation by making the pen so that its tines flex during use; this is a natural outcome of using a more flexible material, such as a quill, and this is why many documents from the 18th century exhibit line variation produced by the flexibility of a quill pen. Steel pens can also be made with varying degrees of flexibility. The following figure shows a writing sample produced in 1806 by a needle-pointed steel pen. Note: this image is 2x actual size.
Here is a second steel-pen sample, this one produced in 1861 with a pen that has some obvious flexibility. This image is actual size.
The above samples were taken from books in my family library.
The Stub Nib
Strictly speaking, you can create a stub simply by shearing off the point from the end of an ordinary nib. In practical terms, this isn’t a particularly good idea, because you will end up with an irregular sharp edge with no iridium to protect it from wear. So a nib manufacturer creates a usable stub by welding an iridium pellet onto the nib and shaping the resulting hard tip to make it straight across with a smooth surface, in much the same way as an ordinary nib’s tip is shaped to be rounded somewhat like a ball. Most stubs today are shaped with the underside of the tip’s edge fairly well rounded so that you can write rapidly with them. There is a more pronounced “sweet spot” (the area that writes with the greatest smoothness) than with a round nib, but it’s easy to find, and with a minimum of practice you can stay in it and write at what is essentially your normal speed. The following figure illustrates a stub nib, seen from the underside, with its sweet spot indicated in red.
A stub nib can be made to produce extreme line variation; but the more extreme the variation, the less smooth the nib will be. Most stubs produce only a moderate amount. People whose handwriting is small can generally use a fine or medium (0.6 mm - 1.0 mm) stub to write normally. The following figure shows an 0.8-mm medium-fine stub nib (actually a special grind that is slightly modified from the usual stub) and a handwriting sample from it: