This post stems from a question a friend asked me. I’ll illustrate the answers using a pointed flexible nib, the Hunt 22B, and a broad edged pen: a Mitchell 0. Before beginning to work with a metal nib, it’s helpful to develop a lightness of touch because if you press too hard while writing, ink will pool everywhere. Check out the section How to Hold a Pen for a few tips on lightening your grip.
A Nib, Defined
A nib is made of flexible steel. It has a slit in the middle of it that goes from the writing edge up to the reservoir, splitting the nib into what are called tines. Slight pressure on the tines causes them to spread away from each other. The ink will spread between the tines as it flows down toward the paper, making a stroke. A nib will also deposit ink if the tines are together.
Broad Edge Steel Nibs
Below we have a Mitchell 2 1/2, tines closed and open. Numbers on a nib 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. The slit starts at the writing edge and goes up to the divet in the middle of the nib: the reservoir.
Writing With a Broad Edge Pen
Broad pens are held at a consistent angle to the slantline, or the angle which all the letters lean toward. 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 (Check out Tips for Guidelines and Why You Need Them). I mark the pen angle somewhere on the page and periodically test the angle I’m holding the pen at against it as I work. 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.
If you’re working with a dip pen on a broad edged script, you might want to work on a surface slightly angled down toward your body. I didn’t start off working this way, but it changes the angle of the nib to the paper which makes the flow of ink to paper slower. The ink won’t blob onto the paper this way and the strokes stay more consistent. As I’m sitting at my desk, I use a drawing board that rests in my lap and against the edge of my desk. Not fancy, but useful.
If you’re working with a pointed pen script, a flat surface is suitable.
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, the nib is split into two tines from the point of it through the reservoir. The curves on either side of the tines add to the tines’ range of motion. Generally as a rule when writing with a pointed pen, pressure is light and the tines are closed on the upstroke, or when you’re moving the pen away from you. These lines are thin and are called hairlines. The sharper the nib, the finer the line. Only apply pressure when you’re pulling the pen toward you. You don’t need much pressure for the tines to open.
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.
Penstaffs firmly hold the nib in place as you write. I mostly work with a straight holder. It’s always worked well for me, but there are plenty on the market and you should try others until you find one you love. This is what the penstaff looks like next to each nib I described above:
The back end of the nib is curved and fits into the end of a holder shaped like one of these two:
This type of holder is used for both broad edge and pointed pen scripts.
So uh . . . I think that’s all I have to say about nibs! I hope this has shed some light on calligraphy in general and how you can work with nibs when you try them out. If you leave any questions, comments, or video requests leave them in the comments and I will be happy to address them. Check out the Learn page for more articles about starting out with calligraphy.