His Nibs

19 01 2021

So, a very good friend once bought me some “dipping pen” nibs. You know – the type you put on the end of a wooden or plastic holder, dip in ink, and write with sumptuous copperplate or italic majesty.

Source: Wikipedia – Copperplate

I was particularly impressed by the thoughtfulness to source so-called “left-oblique” italic nibs to cater for my sinistrality. Mitchell, a UK manufacturer cater for we cack-handed folks.

Source: NotJustACard

Like many others before me, I quickly discovered that the nib itself is merely a tool, and the tool at the other end of the handle needs to practice significantly more than most are prepared to! Over the intervening years I have learnt much, such as…

  • That the nibs themselves often come with a rust-resisting waxy lacquer on them, when new. If you don’t remove this, then the nib surface remains hydrophobic… resisting water-based inks (like 99% of what you’ll probably try to use). This means the nib won’t be able to hold much ink and as a writer you’ll be frustrated, re-dipping your nib every letter or two. Hardly practical or enjoyable.
  • That there are many suggestions of how to prepare the nib by removing this lacquer. These range from simply sucking it for a minute to let your saliva dissolve the lacquer, dropping it in recently boiled water for a while (scientifically flexible duration), sticking it in a potato for a 30 seconds or so, or even passing it through a match flame a couple of times. (I don’t recommend this myself – see below). Personally, I always let my new nibs sit for a while and a half in rubbing alcohol. Any alcohol will do, though I don’t recommend your dad’s best single malt. it’s just a solvent for the wax. Acetone (nail varnish remover) will do too.
  • That the nibs are actually intended to be disposable. Professional calligraphers who make a living from wedding stationary often discard a nib after only 100 or so “pieces”. Say 30 invitations with address and return address. They’re typically made from relatively low quality steel and the “pointed nib” variety can be easily bent or damaged. Say by heating them in an open flame…
  • That there are more kinds of paper than there are shops selling them. Lovely-looking papers can unexpectedly be abysmal to write on with a dip pen. In photography, a technically good photo is a result of balancing exposure, aperture and film/sensor sensitivity. All three need to be in equilibrium. With writing the equivalent trio of influences is paper, ink, nib. With the appropriate nib and ink you can write on pretty much any surface. However, for any given ink/nib combination, by implication – only some papers will give good results. Beginners will do better with shiny papers – they allow the nib to glide more and tend not to “feather” as much (allow the ink to spread away from the written line along the paper fibres). A less pointy nib will not be so scratchy and therefore not be so unfamiliar. Once some basic confidence has been established there’s nothing stopping one pushing these parameters to find what really excites you.
Source: JetPens – Feathering

The biggest learning for me though was that amongst the huge plethora of nib styles there are a family with rounded ends. Not “tipped” like a fountain pen nib, which is smooth and rounded in 3 dimensions, but smooth enough to stop most clumsy beginners from skewering paper. Find one that can hold a reasonable amount of ink (in my case a Speedball B5½), and you can write just as easily as with a fountain pen, but with the advantage that you can swap ink colours in seconds. Sure, fountain pens are always going to have the edge when it comes to ink capacity (that WAS their reason for being developed), but swapping inks is definitely fun!

So here was a writing tool that I could play with, without worrying about becoming an expert at Spencerian calligraphy. I could just write normal letter, envelopes and stuff but with inks I wouldn’t want anywhere near my fountain pens. Not that they’re particularly rare or valuable, but I still have a soft spot for them. I don’t feel comfortable putting iron gall inks in my fountain pens for example, even though they CLAIM to be fountain pen safe. They can be pretty cool though and are waterproof – particularly good for those international envelopes. In fact… any envelope from BC’s “wet coast” can benefit from having its address written in waterproof ink.

Mid December, I ordered a few new nibs to expand my options and try some new things. I placed one order with Blots Pens in Northern Ireland, UK. I’m still waiting for that, but it’s only been 5 weeks, and Christmas got in the way. I know from a family member working at the Royal Mail that they were told not to even handle second class post, so they were plainly snowed under over the holidays.

The second order was from John Neal Books in North Carolina, US. That was ordered on 17th December and turned up today. The nibs were very well packed in an envelope inside a foam-lined box. Potentially previously used for jewellery. Very fancy. Relishing “the unboxing” I noted some odd though ultimately unimportant things…

Firstly the packing slip mentioned a “Commercial Catalogue” as it was a first order on my part. Zero value for the purposes of customs, but apparently weighing 0.1875lb. Pretty specific. And also not present. (Probably cheaper for me that way… could be tempting!)

Next, I noticed that the country of origin for one of the nibs (Leonardt #30 Drawing Nib) was written in by hand. Not odd in and of itself – perhaps it wasn’t known when the packing slip was printed. However, what was odd was that it said “Germany”. Despite its admittedly Germanic sound, Leonardt is a sub-brand of Manuscript, a well-known British company. To top it off, the nib quite plainly says “England” on it in block capitals (Birmingham likely wouldn’t fit)! OK, so I freely admit that this is very anal of me, but this is one of only a handful of calligraphy specialist dealers in North America. Surely they should know more about the brands they carry…

Finally, I was pleasantly surprised to see that whoever had packed the nibs in their neat little manilla envelope had crossed their 7 in the continental style. (Plainly I’ve read far too many Sir A.C. Doyle books in my time!)

I was eventually ready to open the little envelope and look at my new acquisitions:

A bevy of nibs

I was a little too liberal with my purchases (a large glass of Malbec was involved, I recall), and as you can see from the above image two of the nibs are narrower than the others. These were originally intended for mapping and technical drawing and require a narrower nib holder to the usual writing nibs. Oh well: an excuse to buy more writing paraphernalia…

So, from left to right, the nibs are:

  • Brause 66EF: Also known as the Arrow Nib. You’ll see the cut-outs at the side, and this nib promises a bit more “flex”. Nominally an Extra Fine nib, until you engage that flex. Looking forward to playing with this one.
  • Brause 511: Another narrow nib, intended for fine hairlines.

Despite being designed for a narrower nib holder, these two nibs do in fact fit – slightly uncomfortably – in both my plastic and wooden Speedball holders.

  • Hunt 513EF: Extra fine, as you’d expect from the name. Note the large bowl or “globe” as is embossed on the nib. This is to maximise the amount of ink suspended by surface tension and allow longer stretches of writing between re-dips. This is the big brother of the Hunt 512 that I already own. Both are bowled and both have slight tip modifications to reduce snagging on fibrous papers.
  • Leonardt #30: (Clearly embossed with its country of origin. Just sayin’…). Virtually identical size/shape “blank” to the Hunt 512, though formed slightly differently into final nib. Slightly smaller than the Hunt 513EF above, but roughly the same shape. More of a downward curve in the bowl towards the tip, and no modification in the final half millimetre like in the Hunt nibs. Could be scratchy…
  • Brause Ornament nib (0.5mm): This is the smallest of the Ornament range. It has a tip modification to offer a smooth round writing tip. In theory this should write similarly to an F fountain pen. It has an under/over reservoir to really maximise the amount of ink the nib can hold onto between re-dips. I bought this to compare to my existing Speedball B5½ nib which nominally has a 0.8636mm nib (Spot the American brand!), and essentially a B line in a western fountain pen nib. A Speedball B6 offers a 0.381mm line (pretty specific there!) which is more at the EF end of the spectrum. Looking forward to finding out.
  • Brause 76: Universally known as the Rose. Brause worked hard to recreate properties found in vintage nibs, and this is the result. Note the cut-outs again to encourage flex.

So – looking forward to giving them a dip in rubbing alcohol and seeing how they perform. I expect all but the Ornament nib to be challenging, simply because of my lack of experience. Come back later and see how it turned out, and thanks for getting this far!


Write on…



One response

20 01 2021
More of His Nibs | Quieter Elephant

[…] new dip nibs yesterday. If you missed it and want to catch up on the fascinating story, you can click here. If you didn’t miss it, you already know it was far from […]

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