Back at the end of May, I posted Lines and Grinds Part 1 over at Inkpothesis covering the basics of nib selection– my take on a guide to choosing a nib.
Once you get a handle on choosing nibs, there’s a giant rabbit hole waiting for you on the other side: customization. I’ll make the same disclaimer here as I did in the part one. Nibs are very person-specific. Knowledge about nibs can be chock-full of research but a large majority will be experience and personal opinion. That’s just as true with customization as it is with choosing a nib, so read the rest of this guide through that lens.
Speaking of lived experience, I owe nearly everything I know about nibs to Dan over at The Nibsmith. When the pen show circuit is in full swing, you can find me behind the Nibsmith table at many shows. Through those shows, I’ve gotten a behind the scenes view into lots of different people getting their nibs worked on, and naturally accumulated a decent collection of various grinds. All of the nibs in this post were ground by Dan.
Italics, Architects, and Needlepoint Nuances: Navigating Nib Customization
Let’s start with this. You could stick with normal, out-of-the-box nibs on every pen you ever buy for the rest of your fountain pen life and live happily ever after. But when you’re ready, prepare yourself, because this, my friends, is where things get really fun.
Beyond the width of the nib, the physical size, and the material (all covered in Part 1)– the shape of the nib can also be altered. Nothing produces larger differences in your actual writing than this type of customization.
Some companies offer certain nib shapes like factory stubs and italics, but let’s save those for the outliers section. In my opinion, the best way to experience different nib shapes is to hand over your pen to a nibmeister and let them work their magic.
An oversimplification: When you start thinking about sending your pen off to get a specialty grind or sitting down at a show to get nib work done you should be focusing on the result you want on the paper.
Even more simply: the primary purpose of a nib grind is to impact the look of your handwriting on the page.
For the sake of comparison, throughout this guide I will compare my writing with different nib grinds to the TWSBI M Nib. As you can see below, an un-touched nib is rounded on the end- and that tipping portion is where nib grinding will change the shape of the nib itself, and subsequently the shape of your writing.
Before we jump head-first into nib grinding, let’s discuss two basic things that you can ask a nibmeister to do to a nib that don’t necessarily change the shape of the nib.
Tune & Smooth
If you have a nib that isn’t writing as smoothly as you want it to, or just doesn’t feel right— first, you should stop and consider the variables. Clean the pen. If that doesn’t work, change the ink. If that doesn’t work, change you paper. And if none of that works, it may be time to consider sending the nib off for some love.
In my opinion, tuning or smoothing a nib might honestly be the best $25 you can spend transforming a pen from a “just-ok” or problematic pen into one of your favorite writers. I’ve spoken before about how having some of my vintage finds tuned turned them into a permanent part of my daily carry. If you’re on the fence, it is definitely worth trying at least once.
Disclaimer: You will often hear that tuning and smoothing is something you can learn to do on your own. I agree. However, I wouldn’t recommend trying it on any pen you really care about unless you’ve practiced and perfected your technique on several other pens you’re willing to throw away. I’ll level with you. I can only speak to my personal experience, but I have attempted smoothing my own pens on multiple occasions, but the result has never been as good as when I get it tuned by an actual nibmeister.
When you ask for a nib to be tuned, my advice is to give as much information as you can about what specifically about the writing experience you would like to change. In general, there are three things I consider asking about:
- I want the pen to feel smoother on the page,
- I want to pen to write a little wetter, or
- I want the pen to write I little drier
Anything beyond that requires more significant grinding and customizing.
If you choose the wrong nib initially (and your choice was aimed too broad) another thing you can consider is getting the nib width reduced. In addition to taking a broad to a medium or a medium to a fine- you can also get nibs finer than typically available in standard line nibs. Some call this UEF, or ultra-extra fine, or even needlepoint. The point here is if you’ve tried an EF nib and it’s still not fine enough for your taste, consider sending one off and asking for a reduced width. Another instance where reducing the width of a nib is helpful is when you want to purchase a pen from a brand that is known to have thicker than usual nibs (eg. Pelikan), and you would like your EF to be a little more EF and a little less M. (Note: From what I understand, reducing the width of a nib is a time- consuming and labor intensive process. But, its not meant to change the shape of your writing or the nib- so that’s why I pulled it out separately from the nib grinds below.)
With those two options covered, that brings us to maybe my favorite of all rabbit holes in the fountain pen hobby.
Nib Grind Rabbit Hole Level One: The Stub
The first thing you can do to a nib is change the tipping of the pen from the typical round or rounded shape to a square or square-ish shape. This shape creates line variation by making your downstrokes thicker than your side strokes as you write. The amount of variation is largely dependent on the original size of the nib. Broader nibs produce broader stubs, and more line variation than finer nibs.
Nib Grind Rabbit Hole Level Two: The Italic
In my mind, an italic is a square nib without the training wheels. Stub nibs are square nibs that have intentionally rounded edges to make the writing experience smoother, but the rounded edges also make your lines in your handwriting less crisp.
On the other hand, italics are fully squared off nibs without (or mostly without) the rounded edges. Less rounded edges give you a writing experience that is usually a little less smooth and lines that are significantly more crisp and square. There are several types of italic nibs with various amounts of rounding (eg. cursive italic), so it’s worth asking about specifics when you’re getting work done, but I will just leave it at that for now.
Nib Grind Rabbit Hole Level Three: The Architect
Here’s where things get really fun. An architect grind is squared in the reverse direction of a stub or italic nib. This shape creates line variation by making your side stokes thicker than your downstrokes. Again, the amount of variation you see with an architect is largely dependent on the original size of the nib.
Some additional notes about architect nibs are needed. Grinding an architect is meant to be specific to the angle that you hold your pen in relation to the page. If someone who holds their pen at a very high angle gets an architect grind, and someone who holds their pen at a very low angle tries to use it- the second person will not get a great idea of what an architect grind is meant to be. Every architect grind has a “sweet spot,” and if you use enough of them you can start to immediately identify where that sweet spot is. There is one specific spot on the nib that produces significant line variation while still feeling smooth on the page. If it’s ground correctly, you should easily hit that sweet spot at your normal writing angle.
Because writing angle is so important, many nibmeisters, including Dan, ask for photos of your writing angle to be sent in when you submit a nib to get an architect grind. Or if you’re in person at a show, expect them to want to see you write before they begin.
Very fine architects are very fun and produce a unique look on the page, but they are definitely more finicky and specific to the individual that had the nib work done. Broad architects are a little more forgiving and smooth, and a pretty good starting point if you’ve never had one ground. One of my favorite grinds of all time is an architect on a Broad Sailor nib (which is a Japanese broad so keep that in mind).
Even more fun for throwing ink down on the page is taking a speciality nib like a Sailor Zoom nib or a Platinum Coarse Nib and getting an architect grind. Due to the amount of tipping on these specialty nibs, they are particularly well suited for the architect grind because they can produce some very wide side strokes and extreme line variation. Maybe not an every day writing pen for everyone (although I use them as such), but highly recommended if you’re looking for something fun that really shows off ink.
Nib Grind Rabbit Hole Level Four: The Naginata-Togi
And finally, probably one of the coolest looking grinds you can get on a pen, the togi. I’ve made Dan grind two of these suckers for me over the last year– one from a Sailor Zoom Nib, and one from a Platinum Coarse Nib. They are two of my favorite nibs in all of my collection. This very well may be my “deserted-island” nib grind.
Just like the architect, broader and speciality nibs with the largest amount of tipping are the best candidates for the naganata-togi grind if you want the greatest amount of line variation. The thing that separates the togi nib from other nib grinds is that the width of your writing (both horizontal and vertical lines) changes with the angle of your pen to the page. When you hold the pen at a lower angle, you get broader lines, and when you hold the pen at a higher angle, you get thinner lines. The amount of variation you get can from this type of nib is unlike any other type of nib modification.
Since both of my togi nibs started life as very broad speciality nibs, the line the nib produces at a “normal” angle for me is decently broad. But if I want to sneak in some tiny writing, I just change the angle. In a way, it’s like having multiple nib sizes within one pen. The Sailor Zoom nib has a similar effect with writing angle, but the togi adds a crispness and character to the writing that the Zoom’s ultra rounded nib can’t match.
There are definitely other crazy things that you can ask to be done to a nib, but the above options are by far the most common and definitely a really good starting point for most types of grinds people ask for for their pens.
If you have any questions about Part 1 or 2 leave your comments below, because a bonus round Part 3: Outliers and Q & A is coming at you soon.
DISCLAIMER: The items included in this review were purchased with my own funds with the exception of a few of the grinds which were completed in exchange for pen show labor. 🙂 Please see the About page for more details.