Nibs, the business end of every fountain pen. Contemporary nibs and vintage nibs are cousins, opposed to siblings. The terminology used by one group doesn’t always accurately transfer to the other. Generally speaking, quality vintage nibs are held in high esteem compared to their cousins and there is a trend to add vintage nibs to contemporary pens to enjoy the characteristics and nostalgia of the vintage nibs, not found in contemporary nibs.
Contemporary nibs often have elaborate and intricate scroll work stamped or etched into the nib making that nib a piece of art unto its self. Not functionally necessary but it does provide an “ooh-ahh” moment for the owner.
Photo credit: Nibs.com
These nibs have a writing quality letter stamped on them. Round nibs typically fall into one of four tip sizes: Extra Fine (EF), Fine (F), Medium (M), and Broad (B). Italics or oblique nibs are not round, they have an angled straight writing surface and are often associated with the same quality designation or in mm based on the width of the point.
Vintage nibs usually (Esterbrook being the exception), are imprinted with a single-digit number. This is the case from the 1880s up to WWII. These numbers have nothing to do with the writing quality of the nib, nor the size of tip (fine, medium, broad, etc.), nor the flexibility of the nib. The numbers indicate the size of the nib – not the size of the point.
It gets better, assuming the nib has a number, theses numbers are inconsistent from manufacture to manufacture. A #4 on one nib may equate to a #2 on another nib. Warranted nibs are notoriously inconsistent since they were produced by many different manufacturers.
Early inks tended to corroded steel nibs, then with the introduction of fountain pens gold nibs are adopted as the standard in lieu of steel nibs because gold doesn’t corrode. Vintage gold nibs could be easily manufactured in various degrees of hardness and flexibility.
Gold and most steel nibs are tipped with an alloy, normally using metals from the platinum group to act as a hard, wear resistant, writing surface. Vintage nibs were initially tipped with iridium; however, Tipping alloys have not contained iridium since the mid-1950’s – due to its rarity and high cost. Osmium, rhenium, ruthenium and tungsten are most common in the alloys of today used to tip a nib.
The color of a nib does not indicate whether it is made of gold or steel. Nibs are available in steel, gold, and black colors. Some gold nibs are plated with a silvery metal like rhodium while some steel nibs are gold plated as a cheaper means to prevent corrosion from contact with ink. Real gold nibs will have an imprint specifying its gold content, usually 14K or 18K.
The primary difference between contemporary steel and gold nibs is the ability to flex. Flexibility occurs while writing, when pressure is applied causing the nib tines to spread, applying more ink to the paper.
The springiness of a gold nib will come down to it’s shape and how the gold was alloyed, more than the amount of gold it contains. Because a gold nib will naturally flex, the nib will have a little more “give” providing minor line variation – flexibility.
The smoothness and feedback associated with a contemporary steel or gold nib is the same because both nibs are using the same tipping material. The difference and cost is based on the material behind the tips.
In the world of contemporary nibs, gold and steel nibs are readily available. Stainless steel nibs have retained the stigma associated with vintage steel nibs – being inferior and cheap. Those nibs manufactured in Asia (excluding Japan) are often of lessor quality than those manufactured in Germany. Assuming as consumers we purchase quality nibs, the difference between a steel nib and an identical gold nib is a couple hundred dollars due to the price of gold, and as a consumer, if the need or want of a flex nib is not needed then a steel nib is a much more attractive alternative.