Introduction to Dip Pen Nibs
- Dip pens
- Parts of a nib
- Nib holders
- Nib cleaning
What is a nib?
What kinds of nibs are there?
Nibs come in many different materials and shapes but are divided into broad and pointed tips.
- Broad nibs have a chisel tip and are generally used in calligraphy.
- Pointed nibs are used for writing and drawing, since they are sensitive to pressure and allow for line variation.
Parts of a basic nib:
- Tip (point)
- Slit (split, ink channel)
- Vent hole (breather hole)
- Body (shank)
- Company imprint
- Base (tail, heel)
Reservoir Attachments on Broad Nibs
In addition to the regular nib parts, some broad calligraphy nibs have complex reservoir attachments to hold ink (located either on top or bottom). These are fed with a dropper or brush, rather than being dipped directly into ink.
How does a nib work?
In the words of Tyler Dahl, nibs work by a controlled leak. In the case of dip pens, you simply dip your nib into dipping ink (or place a drop of ink in the the reservoir if your nib has this attachment). Surface tension keeps ink in the reservoir so it doesn’t leak out all over the place.
When you press the nib to paper, capillary action draws the ink down the ink channel into the slit and onto the paper. This allows ink to flow in a controlled way when you press it to paper, creating a beautiful line.
Dipping ink: You don’t have to submerge the entire nib–just enough to get ink into the slit (ink channel).
Smooth surface: I like to draw on smooth paper (Smooth Bristol is my favorite). Sketchy or pulpy paper catches on my nib or can get stuck in the tines.
In general, the more flexible a nib is, the more dynamic its line. It’s not just the material that affects flexibility but also how the breather hole, ink channel, and tines are constructed. Really soft metals are valued in dynamic, pressure-sensitive nibs and can almost feel like a brush in your hand. A well-made flexible nib will “spring” back into shape without disfiguring the nib tines. A stiff nib will create a rigid line with very little line variation.
A dynamic line allows for more line variation (thick to thin) in the stroke. A rigid line is more constant and technical.
Constructing the Dip Pen
The nib base slides into a matching nib holder, creating a complete dip pen. Once the nib is secure, you dip it into ink.
How do I put it together?
First, you need a nib holder that fits your nib. Different nibs often need different nib holders. Check the item listing and manufacturer details to be sure before you buy! Jetpens.com does a great job listing compatibility requirements for their pens and nibs.
I like this model pen holder (Tachikawa Model 36) because it has two different slots and fits both smaller round nibs and regular drawing nibs.
Weighing Pros & Cons:
What’s great about nibs? What’s not?
- Easy to clean
- Different tips provide line variety
- Capable of beautiful line variation
- Cleaning required
- Setup and clean workspace required
- Less portable than some sketching tools
- Different nibs may require different nib holders
- Requires separate purchase of dipping ink
Brief nib cleaning & upkeep:
Good habits are important to keep your nibs healthy. Dip pen nibs are a little easier to clean than engineering or fountain pen nibs, so take advantage of this and do it after each use.
You can clean your nibs gently with dish paste, ammonia (glass cleaner), or commercial pen cleaner. Commercial pen cleaner allows you to soak nibs without the risk of rusting.
Pointed nibs can be rubbed with a soft cotton cloth or microfiber (pulpy paper can catch on your nib tines). Broad nibs can be gently brushed with a toothbrush to get in the nooks and crannies of the more complex reservoirs.
Afterwards, rinse thoroughly with cold water (never hot) and gently massage with soft cotton or mircofiber before setting to air dry.
Wooden holders: Be careful cleaning wooden holders. Some commercial cleaners can damage them. Use gentle cleaning agents; do not soak wood.
Waterproof ink: When waterproof ink dries, it’s difficult to remove. If it dries between the tines or reservoir, it may disturb ink flow. Make sure to clean after each use to prevent this from happening!
Wet nibs: If left to sit in water, many nibs will rust. Commercial cleaners are oftentimes specially created for a good soak, but I don’t recommend ever letting a nib sit in water. It rusts too quickly! Properly clean and dry all pen nibs, reservoirs, and metal-grip pen holders.
Burning nibs: Manufacturers coat their nibs with a protective coating to prevent rust. Sometimes, this needs to be removed to make the ink flow better. A common myth is that nibs need to be burned to remove their protective coating. But even flash-burning changes your metal’s temper, can subtly warp your nib tines, and can lead to a brittle nib in the longterm.
Remove manufacturer’s coating: To remove the manufacturer’s protective coating, gently wipe down your nib with acetone (nail polish remover). You can also use a soft toothbrush to apply it to more complex nibs. Some users recommend using a bit of dish washing liquid, baking soda, toothpaste, ammonia, or gum arabic. For brass nibs, you can use brass cleaner. No burning or tine-warping required!
Dry your nibs: Once the coating is removed, your nib is susceptible to rusting, so clean and dry it religiously after each use. Once your nib rusts, it must be replaced.
More nibs to come…
We’ll discuss nibs in-depth and review some of the most common types: G, Mapping, School, and more. Keep an eye out for some cool techniques,too!