How do you spot a ‘bad’ nib?

It occurs to me that I have written a lot recently about ‘bad’ nibs, and it may not be completely clear what I mean by that.

Here’s what I look for when I get a straightforward F or M or B nib — one with a round ball of tipping that’s designed for general use.

First, I take a look at the nib under a loupe. I use a Belomo 10x — simple but effective.

  • Looking from above the nib, is the slit cut down the centreline of the nib, from tipping to breather hole? Can you see the ink feed channel in the top of the feed centred through the breather hole?
  • Are the decorative stampings clear and properly aligned? Is any colouring on the nib (eg when the nib is two-tone) aligned with the stampings?
  • Is the tipping evenly shaped, and evenly sized, and are the tines of the same length?
  • Is there a gap between the tines leading to them touching just at the tip? If you can’t see a flash of daylight between the tines, they might be too tight to let ink through.
  • Looking from the front, with the point towards your eye, are the tines aligned to present a smooth surface to the paper?
  • Again looking from the front, does the nib look like it’s flat against the feed, or is it rotated one way or another?

Cosmetic problems don’t always produce a writing problem — but they often lead that way, and besides, depending on the price of the pen you may want one that looks perfect.

Next, fill the pen, wipe off the nib and feed, and get ready for a writing test. I never do a writing test just by dipping the pen in ink — sometimes problems are caused by the feed or the interplay between the feed and nib.

Take a piece of your usual paper and use an ink you’re familiar with, and know to perform well in other pens.

Uncap the pen and start writing something that you don’t have to think about. Quick brown fox, the alphabet, your name, whatever — just something you can smoothly and quickly write while being able to pay attention to something else, namely the pen’s performance. Here’s what to look for:

  • Does it start writing immediately? Or do you need to tap, press or scribble to get it to start? (This can be a sign of a feed problem, tines that are too tight, or a ‘baby’s bottom’ on the tipping that is holding the surface of the ink away from the paper fibers.
  • Does it lay a good clear line? Not all nibs have to be firehoses, but the ink should be saturated. One way to check is to scribble a few words then try to smear them with your fingertip after just a few seconds. They should smudge.
  • Does it skip, stutter or hard start during normal writing? What about when you scribble fast? Even an intermittent hard start at the beginning of words can drive you crazy and can be difficult to troubleshoot.
  • If you wiggle or gently shake the pen with the tip down, does it drip or leak?
  • Does the pen write under its own weight? You shouldn’t have to press to get a line that doesn’t skip in any direction. For writers with a light touch like me, this is critical.
  • Does the line stay consistently saturated and flow evenly even after half a page? Or does it start to dry up and grow fainter? Do you need to prime the feed by advancing the piston or converter to get it to flow again?
  • What happens when you gently apply pressure during a downstroke? Does the nib flex or give? Does the line get wetter or wider? Does it ‘railroad’, or skip, when the tines spread out? Does the nib dig into the paper?
  • Is the nib consistently smooth in all directions? Some brands have more feedback than others, but it should be similar in upstrokes, down, left and right. If one direction is rough, it suggests a sharp edge on the grind or a misaligned tine. Generally easy to fix.
  • Is the level of feedback consistent with the nib width? It’s generally accepted that broader nibs will be smoother than EF.
  • Is the nib very sensitive to position, eg the angle against the page (laid down or near vertical) or whether you roll it a little to one side? In other words, does it have a pronounced sweet spot?
  • Is the nib well seated in the pen such that it doesn’t wobble, click or move during writing? Does it ‘sing’ as you write?

Naturally italics, needlepoint, architects and other speciality nibs won’t follow all of these rules, but to me this checklist covers the basics you should expect from a well set-up nib on any mainstream pen.

If you identify any misbehaviour in the first half hour, either visually or through the feel of the writing, you can decide what to do about it: whether to ask the brand or retailer for help, send it to a nibmeister, swap to a lubricated ink, change paper, live with it, or try to fix it yourself.

But the first step is being able to identify that there’s a problem, describe the precise nature of that problem, and spot what might be causing it.

Did I miss anything?

6 thoughts on “How do you spot a ‘bad’ nib?

  1. A great checklist for a new nib! If only this was done before the pen arrives!
    One tip I got from an SBRE Brown video is to keep writing for a full page of A4, to check whether ink in the feed is being replenished from the main ink reservoir, and whether air is getting up into the reservoir to fill the space left by used ink. If you get ink starvation there is a problem with the feed.

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    • It’s a good tip! I suggested writing for half a page:

      “Does the line stay consistently saturated and flow evenly even after half a page? Or does it start to dry up and grow fainter? Do you need to prime the feed by advancing the piston or converter to get it to flow again?”

      …but maybe a full page is a better idea. I’ve certainly had pens suffer from this over the years and it’s really frustrating.

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      • I need lessons from you two. Not sure when I last wrote half a page – not joking either. I’ve certainly had my share of flow problems though – I still dip test pens when I can at shows as you can at least test the tipping out, but I’ve had a few where once filled they’ve been dry as anything.

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  2. “Did I miss anything” – It’s tempting (and not entirely flippant) to suggest that sight of the name Bock should be enough to encourage you to move swiftly on. I’ve had such poor results with their stock nibs that I’m wary of anything bearing their name.

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