Here’s the thing about fountain pens, and fountain pen people… we like choice, we like there being enough options to cover basically any potential use-case or look that we want. (See also: the number of ways we have to fill our pens. As such, there’s a variety of ways to actually produce the nib on a fountain pen, also giving a variety of different results. And that is what I’m going to lightly explain today.
To clarify, the nib is that big, metallic, pointy thing on the end of the pen that you touch to the paper to write with. The slit down the center is where ink travels, and the rest of the features, well, are outside the scope of this post.
Nibs come in a few different sizes, the most common are Extra Fine (EF), Fine (F), Medium (M), and Broad (B), though there are some other uncommon ones. Japanese nibs are usually about one size smaller than their western counterparts, a Japanese M nib is the same as western F, their F nibs are smaller than our, and their EF is just… microscopic, really. Japanese pens also do not usually have broad nibs, as it’s just too big for Japanese writing.
A note for later: italic nibs go off the millimeter width of the long side, instead of standard classifications.
LAMY makes a left-handed (LH) nib, ground in such a way that it’s more forgiving of the steeper and less straight-on angles that lefties have to hold a fountain pen at. However, it’s usefulness is… not the best. I’ve not seen LH nibs from any other manufacturer, meaning that if you’re a lefty and you like that, then you’re kinda locked to one company. However, I will say that if you’re a lefty that enjoys fountain pens, look on the finer side. Finer size pens means that they’re putting less ink on the paper. Less ink on the paper means that the ink will dry faster, and you won’t have the dreaded smear of ink on the side of your hand as it travels across the paper (source, one of my best friends is a lefty, and I got him into fountain pens. We learned how to mitigate that problem pretty quickly).
Besides the size, a big part of what makes some particular nib special is its shape. Not all nibs, when it comes to what actually matters for writing, are the same shape, there’s differences that change some characteristics.
Normal nibs should have an even line thickness in every direction, and usually have a little bead of iridium alloy (or some other pretty hard metal alloy that resists abrasion) at the tip to prevent them from wearing down. These are called ’tipped’ nibs, those that don’t have this are appropriately called ‘untipped’ nibs. Again, most are tipped. Just that it’s not a requirement. Besides that though… it’s just a normal nib, there’s nothing too special with these.
Italic / Stub
Italic nibs do not have tips (the iridium alloy ball), and are ground being wider than they are tall.
The result of this is a pen that writes with a really thin line sideways, but with the full width of the nib when going vertically, giving your writing a more 3D, ribbon-like appearance.
Stub nibs have rounded, smoothed edges, where italic nibs are a much harder stop, ground with an almost squared-off corner. “Cursive italic” is a cross between the two. As for why that makes a difference, the rounded ‘stub’ nibs are smoother and better suited to everyday writing.
Oblique nibs are like italic nibs, but ground on an angle (as in if you hold the nib up vertically, one tine, or side of the center slit, will literally be shorter than the other because the slant angle), meaning that a diagonal stroke is the thickest, instead of just straight vertical.
Normal nibs have two tines (bits that touch the paper) separated with a single slit for ink flow. Normal nibs are also usually not flexible, or at least, are not meant to be flexible. However, as you might expect, this doesn’t hold true for all of them, there’s two special outliers to the standard nib formula that I can think of: music nibs and waverly nibs.
Flex / Soft Nibs
Flex and soft nibs are flexible, where pushing down harder spreads the tines, giving you a broader line. Usually this results in your writing having thicker down strokes.
You have to be careful, too much pressure will either permanently bend the nib out, or even before that, break the surface tension so you’re not drawing a solid line anymore, but two thin, parallel traces, an effect dubbed ‘railroading’ by the fountain pen crowd.
Music nibs were traditionally made for… well, writing music (not composing, just writing. Also, in some cases, called engraving). They have three tines and two slits down the nib, resulting in a very wet flow, and are ground for being held at a high angle to the paper, and are usually italic to some degree.
As a result, they have a very distinct look, but there’s no real practical purpose for one, unless you want to make yourself feel like Tantacrul, if Tantacrul was as big as he is today back in… well, too far before my time for me to give an accurate number.
If you’re a fountain pen person, the first time you see one of these, you will think it’s been dropped, bent, and is ruined.
One of the rarest that I’ve seen, waverly nibs are bent up and backwards, allowing for another form of width adjustment: the higher an angle you write, the thinner a line you get. As to why… don’t ask me, but it’s a thing so I’m putting it in here.
Anyways, I think I’ve made my point (and a handy reference) well enough — there’s plenty of nib types, shapes, and styles, you can probably get whatever effect you’re looking for if you just find the right nib for it.