The frustrating pursuit of a functioning nib… is it too much to ask?

I buy a lot of pens. All kinds of brands. All kinds of price ranges. Steel and gold. Fine and broad. From many different pen shops.

I assume that most of the time, the pen arrives ready to write. But sometimes the nib lets me down. And that “sometimes” is starting to feel like “too often”.

What do I mean by “lets me down”? I’m not talking here about a nib that’s not to my taste — it might be a little drier than I like, have a bit more feedback, or simply not be sized to my expectations. Instead here I mean when a nib is very scratchy, misaligned, hard starts or skips, or is dry to the point of feeling like the pen has run out of ink.

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This Graf nib should never have left the retailer like this.

Let’s break it down and see how real this problem actually is.

I’ve grouped all the pens I’ve bought since the end of September 2018 into four categories — consider them grades A through D.

THE WINNERS

This elite group wrote perfectly out of the box, in their own ways.

  • Montegrappa Extra, F — nice and smooth
  • Aurora Optima, F-flex — a little dry for my tastes, and no flex as advertised, but a perfectly functional nib with expected Aurora feedback
  • Graf Classic, F — smooth, distinctive, good flow
  • Visconti Van Gogh Dr Gachet, M — wonderfully easy writing
  • Esterbrook Estie, M — joyous free-flowing medium, EF full of personality
  • Milim Pocket Pen, F — fuss-free Schmidt nib
  • Montblanc 149, M — perfect with just a little feedback
  • Leonardo Momento Zero, F — wonderfully smooth and springy, good flow

THE RUNNERS-UP

These pens generally write fine, but with one or two hiccups.

  • Pineider La Grande Bellezza, 1.3 — massive stub writes just fine, but feed doesn’t quite keep up and often needs a tap on the page to start.
  • Parker Duofold, M — a little dry, but main problem was some skipping, because overpolished.
  • Visconti Van Gogh Room in Arles, M — too dry, needed flossing and smoothing

THE ALSO-RANS

These pens were salvageable, but needed significant work to write well.

  • Diplomat Aero, F — criminally tight out of the box, barely wrote at all without serious pressure. Had to razor the feed, shim the nib and do a lot of buffing to get a decent line. Bought from Goulet.
  • Sheaffer Legacy Heritage Brushed Gold, B — unbelievably wet, and tines refuse to stay aligned. Usable with a dry ink, but still needs professional attention. Bought from Beautiful Notebooks.
  • Desiderata Soubriquet, Nemosine, 0.6 stub — dry as the desert, tiny sweet spot, squeaky, one of the worst nibs I’ve ever used. But an easy fix. With flossing and smoothing, became wonderful. Bought from maker.

NON-STARTERS

These pens are broken. No question.

  • Aurora Talentum Black Ops, Italic — I’ve never had a pen hard start, squeak and scratch like this one. Feels like a nightmare. From Iguanasell, email sent requesting help, awaiting reply.
  • Graf Guilloche Burnt Orange, M — nib grossly misaligned, possibly sprung. From Write Here, shipped back today and waiting for a replacement.

So what now?

That’s five problem nibs, versus 11 good or perfect ones. In other words, more than 30% of the pens I bought put a frown on my face. Not a great result.

If I hadn’t experienced so many different nibs, manufacturers, inks and papers over the years, I’d be much less confident about sticking to my guns and saying “nah, this nib ain’t right”. There are probably thousands of writers out there who were excited to get their first proper fountain pen, had a terrible experience, put the pen in a drawer and went back to ballpoints, feeling stupid and that it was all their fault.

But it wasn’t.

My experiences just in the past few months show that pens of all sorts arrive with minor, moderate or fatal nib problems. Fines, mediums and stubs all turn up with issues. It’s not a question of price or material: three of my five failures had gold nibs, while my cheap TWSBIs have all been flawless. It’s not a question of in-house vs outsourced; I’ve had good and bad experiences with in-house manufacturers like Aurora and Sheaffer, and equally mixed experiences with Bock and JoWo.

National stereotypes won’t save us. In fact, while I’ve had great experiences with German Lamy and Japanese Platinum, I’ve also had almost universal success with Italian Visconti. At the other end of the spectrum, over the years I’ve had multiple dodgy German Pelikan nibs, as well as Bock nibs with off-centre slits and uneven tipping and Kawecos with serious baby’s bottom, and dry, overpolished nibs from Japanese Pilot.

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An off-centre slit causes huge problems

All of which means: there’s no easy way to avoid nib problems by sticking to particular manufacturers, materials or nib sizes.

So why does it happen? Partly it’s down to the manufacturer, whether that’s in-house like Aurora or bought-in from Bock or JoWo. If they don’t bother with QC, we’re all screwed. A good specialist retailer can catch many problems, particularly if you ask them to check your pen before shipping — but the reality is that most retailers give no more than a cursory glance at what they ship, especially during busy periods. And not all pen retailers are staffed by experts who know what to look for (hi Amazon).

There’s also the dark shadow of the fellow pen buyer. My Graf Guilloche and Sheaffer Legacy were both bought from retail shops, probably as old stock — and their damaged nibs are quite possibly the result of heavy-handed customers trying them out in person. All it takes is one hard push into the paper to ruin a nib, only to have the pen boxed back up by the assistant, ready for me to buy.

Unfortunately, I feel the onus is often on the buyer to prove that there’s a problem — did they cause it by being hamfisted, even dropping the pen when they unboxed it? Many shop assistants will be convinced that it’s down to the wrong paper or ink (you can only use Pelikan inks in Pelikans!), or believe that pens are supposed to be dry and scratchy. Unless you really know your stuff, there’s a risk of being branded a hypochondriac and charged a restocking fee (I had Cult Pens argue with me over a Pelikan nib until I sent them a video of the pen writing along with a link to my blog and said look, I know what I’m talking about).

I have no concluding words of wisdom. All we can do is keep standing up for our consumer rights, trust our guts, and buy from reputable retailers who will do right by us. And keep our fingers crossed that things get better.

11 thoughts on “The frustrating pursuit of a functioning nib… is it too much to ask?

  1. “dry, overpolished nibs from Japanese Pilot.”
    Me too! I have two Custom Heritage 92s that have been uninked most of the past five years as they are skippy and dry. Is there a way to fix them, do you think?

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    • Same way as any other nib: use a brass shim and/or thumb pressure to open up the tines. Use a razor blade to enlarge the ink channel in the feed. Use micromesh or a nail buffing stick to refinish the tipping. Experiment on cheap pens first!

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  2. These problematic pens are not cheap, and I am really sorry to hear your stories.
    My pelikan suffered the same misaligned point and off-spot issues, and it broke my heart at the time.
    Is there a way for us as customers to submit our experience and come up with a flaw rate for each brand collectively?

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  3. Is there maybe a little arrogance from the manufacturing here, or are quality standards generally slipping.
    I look at nibs and if the slit is off centre or there’s not a generous amount of evenly applied tipping material I say no thank you. Retails don’t like me for it, but we’re not buying Bib ballpoints here

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    • Well, I can’t comment on the attitudes — it may just be that QC costs money and makes the pens uncompetitive. Most of the time the retailers I’ve found are genuinely keen to please, and when I climb down off my soapbox I don’t feel poorly treated. But yeah, you’re right — these are not Bics, they’re “fine writing” instruments and I don’t think it’s excessive to expect them to function.

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  4. Pingback: The magnificent seven: week four | UK fountain pens

  5. The only nibs I’ve had problems with are Visconti:
    3 Van Gogh and 2 Rembrants; all were purchased at different times; all failed.
    That was a waste of $1,000+

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  6. I always figure a finicky nib is part of the “fun” — kind of someone who buys a vintage moped or weird watch. Almost certainly the QC is easier with ballpoints. Otherwise we’d all still be using FPs!!

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