This post stems from a question a friend asked me, and it was worded pretty much the same as the title of the article. I’ll give you a brief overview of how a nib works and describe two of my current favorites. There are many types of nibs and writing instruments for that matter. In this article, I will focus on two types: a broad edge nib and a pointed flexible nib. Here are a few names you may have seen me use in the descriptions of work I post on Instagram:
A Nib, Defined
An ink pen is made up of 3 main parts: the handle with which you hold it, the area that holds ink, and the piece that dispenses the ink onto the paper. In our case, this piece is called a nib, and our pen is called a dip pen. A nib is made from flexible steel and some are more flexible than others. A nib has a slit in the middle of it that goes straight through to the writing edge of it where it will meet the paper. This slit creates two tines. Slight pressure on the tines causes them to spread away from one another. If there is ink on the nib, its surface tension will cause it to be drawn across the divide of the tines as it flows down toward the paper, causing the strokes you see in calligraphy. A nib will also deposit ink if the tines are together. We call it a dip pen because we dip the pen in ink in order to load the nib.
But Why Did You List So Many Nibs?
There are two main styles of calligraphy — broad pen and pointed pen, and the nibs used for each style differ in shape and function. More than the variations of calligraphy are the people using the tools and their preferences! Hence, many makes and models of nibs.
Broad Edge Steel Nibs
The nice thing about dip pens is that they are made of metal and their edges stay nice and sharp. Many shapes in broad edge scripts are drawn with the edge of the nib, sometimes even using a broad stroke that transitions to a line made using the edge of the nib. Quite fun to do, I might add. It’s also possible to sharpen steel nibs, to my knowledge, though I haven’t learned how to just yet. Taking care of the tools drastically increases their longevity.
The first metal broad nib that I liked was the Brause Bandzug. It comes with a reservoir attached to the top of the nib to hold more ink. I always had success with it, especially after I figured out how to get the reservoir off and clean it properly. Then I was introduced to the Mitchell nibs. They are slightly flexible and hold ink well without the reservoir being attached. Lovely. Love them.
Let’s take a look at one type of broad edged nib. The one pictured above is a Mitchell 2 1/2. The numbers that follow it in this case tell you about the size. With Mitchell nibs, as the number gets smaller, the nib gets wider. The flat edge of the nib is the main writing surface, although marks can be made with the corners of the nib. Some scripts require parts of letters to be drawn and filled in in addition to writing with strokes. In the above photo, you might also see the slit toward the tip of the nib that divides it into tines. You’ll also see a hole in the center of the nib and an indentation. This is sometimes called the eye or the vent and it helps to hold the ink. Here’s a view of the nib from the side to help illustrate where the ink stays:
How a Nib Works
The tines spread in order to allow ink to flow to the paper. We already have gravity helping us with that, but having that extra availability of ink helps to keep the flow of the writing moving along. The tines open with slight pressure applied on the downstroke, or drawing the pen from the top downward on the paper. Here’s a picture of the Mitchell with the tines opened:
You probably wouldn’t open the tines this wide during normal writing, but this added capacity makes it easier for the user to write with the nib. I’ve tried a few other broad nibs and writing is more frustrating without the ability to get the ink onto the paper! Lots of stopping and starting.
Basic use of a Broad Edge Pen
For many scripts, broad pens are held at a consistent angle. For the sake of example, I’ll use a 45° angle. This means 45° to the slantline, or the angle which all the letters lean toward, which can even be no slant at all. These lines are either drawn or printed on the page you’re working with, or they can be on a guidesheet underneath the page you’re working with.
I often make a mark somewhere on the page and periodically test the angle I’m holding the pen at against it, just to keep the width of my strokes consistent. If you are starting at the top of the line and drawing the pen toward you, you will be making a broad line. If you are starting at the top of the line and pushing the pen along the 45 degree angle, you will be making a thin line. Most lines in broad edge script are, well, broad, with the connecting strokes just big enough to allow for legibility.
Pointed Flexible Nibs
Pointed flexible nibs offer freedom with how narrow or wide to make your strokes depending on script, size, and preference. Let’s take a good look at a Hunt 22:
Similar to our friend Mitchell up there, you can already see both tines and the reservoir. The grooves on either side of the nib add to the range of motion for the tines. Generally as a rule when writing with a pointed pen, pressure is light and the tines are closed on the upstroke, or movement from the baseline upward. The lines formed by this type of motion are called hairlines and the sharper the nib, the finer the line. Pressure is only applied on the downstroke and not much is needed to get the tines to splay. Speaking of, here’s a photo with pressure being applied to the nib:
The width of the points of the tines from each other become the width of the wide stroke, and the penman has control of the width of these strokes.
Pointed Pen Scripts
Like broad pen hands, or styles of writing, pointed pen scripts are also written at a consistent angle to the baseline. Since the point of the nib is so fine, a delicate script can be achieved with it.
Okay, But How Do I Write With a Nib?? Hold it in My Fingers??
Oh yeah, that part. Mainly, the handle, or holder that I work with is called a straightholder made by Speedball. Inexpensive and durable. It’s always worked well for me, but if this one doesn’t work for you, rest assured there are plenty on the market and you should try others until you find one you love. This is what the Speedball holder looks like next to each nib I described above:
The end of the nib opposite the writing edge is curved and fits into the end of a holder shaped like one of these two:
The nib fits snugly and doesn’t move around. This type of holder is used for both broad edge and pointed pen scripts, except for a cursive hand called Spencerian, a fine and bouncy pointed pen script with lovely capital letters. For this script, we use what’s called an oblique holder and it looks like this:
You can see that the handle is the same as the straight holder, but there is an extra piece called a flange that holds the nib in place at a set angle. The flange can be adjusted to both the nib and the user for optimal comfort and letters.
Other Writing Instruments
Yes, there’s more!
I’ve seen a penman deftly write with a toothbrush, the hashtag reading, “Skills, not tools”. I have also seen a rake in beach sand. A push broom on a brick wall. A piece of cardboard in the snow on a car windshield. If you love letters and making marks, please don’t hesitate to use what you have and start now. Hand in hand with all your tools goes dedicated study of the scripts and lots of practice.
I hope this post gave you a good introduction to nibs and their uses. Please don’t hesitate to leave a comment or shoot me an email with any questions or thoughts, and thank you very much for reading this article!