If a person enjoys writing with a fountain pen, it is probably
for several reasons. High on the list is the feel of pen on
paper, as it glides effortlessly across the surface. Writing
with a scratchy nib, on the other hand, is a less than pleasing
activity. Anyone who uses fountain pens regularly has had
this other experience. I have often been asked if there is
anything that can be done at home to cure a scratchy nib and
know that there is, but am concerned that the cure sometimes
creates more problems than it solves. The following discussion
is based on the steps that I take to troubleshoot a scratchy
If a nib that previously wrote smoothly has suddenly turned
scratchy, it has probably suffered some sort of trauma. The
most common being misalignment. If bumped or dropped one of
the tines can move in relation with the other. This is the
first thing to look for. Misalignment puts one tip ahead of
the other on the paper, exposing a sharp inner margin of the
tipping to the paper. It also can play havoc with consistent
ink flow. In order to see the out-of-alignment tipping, a
ten-power loupe is necessary for those of us with mortal eyes.
The following procedure is only for the brave, who realize
that the pen might end up in other hands for the problem to
This nib is sprung up on the left tine.
Or it is for a pen that is a "trainer pen"
not necessarily a "writer".
Hold the loupe close to your eye while pointing
the tip of the pen toward the loupe. This all occurs within
a few inches of your face. Look for a close symmetrical arrangement
of the tipping, with both tips at the same level and little
or no space between the "iridium" shapes. (A very
firm nib will have a very small gap, where a flexible nib will
be touching.) If you see one side more than 5% above the other,
test the tips by gently moving the low side up with your fingernail.
If it moves up an equal 5% amount above the first side, try
the other side to see if it moves up again to its original position.
If this is what occurs and the tines are of the firm kind, you
have a well-balanced nib.
up on the right tine and the left in succession, we see if the
tipping is balanced.
If one side is well above of the other and always
averages there, you have isolated the likely reason for scratchiness.
OK, if this is the case, look to see if the nib is centered
on the feed. If it is pushed off to one side, the cure could
be simple. Gently push the nib back to center on the feed. Push
from the middle of the curve of the tine, not from the shoulder
and not from the tip. If you have gone too far, gently push
again from the other side, this time taking care to move the
nib only a small amount. Repeat this process until the slit
lines up with the center of the feed. (There are some nibs and
feeds that write best when they are not lined up, but that discussion
is for another time.)
This is a well balanced nib
Always, the test of a well-adjusted nib is on paper and with
ink. The ink acts as a lubricant and the paper offers resistance.
If the nib still feels scratch, it may have sharp corners
or edges that are catching on paper. At this point, I like
to draw big circles and ask myself where on the circle the
scratch is the most pronounced. I put an arrow to show the
direction of the circle and, using pencil, mark the part of
the arc where the scratch occurs. Then, returning to the loupe
or to a microscope if you have one, look for that leading
edge. It is most likely on the inner margin, where the slit
meets the writing surface.
Now comes the tricky part. You will need some Micromesh 10,000.
It comes as 3" by 6" sheets of abrasive on a rubberized
fabric backing. I like it, rather than a hard surface abrasive,
such as an Arkansas stone or Mylar disks, because it gives,
sinking under the weight of the tipping. I like to put the
Micromesh on a small stack of newspaper, to add to the cushion
and the sinking effect. With ink in the pen, move it on the
Micromesh two or three times in the direction of the scratch.
Return the nib to the paper and draw that circle again. If
you have caught the sharp edge or corner against the abrasive,
it should have gone away. Repeat the process taking care to
observe the effect of the smoothing with your ten-power loupe.
Warning: Micromesh, even though it leaves
a polished surface, is extremely aggressive. Overusing it can
remove the tipping material from the end of the nib. This smoothing
process can yield the exact opposite from the intended result.
It can create a flat foot on the tip, making sharp edges in
Because another person does often not like one person's tastes
in the tip of a pen, the process of smoothing is more art
than science. Below is a list of attributes that various tips
may contain which will appear positive in one light and negative
in another. Understanding these parameters will help the writer
in choosing their own compromises.
point. Because it is capable of very small marks it
is capable of making notes in margins. Currently there are
several kinds of throwaway pens that make extremely fine marks
and they are not difficult to use. These pens operate in a
different way from fountain pens and may be the best solution
for some writing situations. But we all know our own reasons
for choosing to write with these instruments. Preferred by
most of our grandparents, the extra-fine point can be very
legible. But, if used with all but the lightest touch, the
extra-fine point will have excessive "tooth" and
be experienced as scratchy.
2. Round inner-margins. Many pens tips today are sold with
rounded inner margins. This is roundness at the place where
the slit meets the paper. Manufacturers do this to insure smoothness.
However, skipping can result. If ink does not reach the paper
when the tip touches, the writing can be frustrated with skipping,
especially on the initial stroke. Some work with Micromesh can
"break in" the tip so that it does not skip. By removing
some material from the tip, the slit is brought closer to the
writing surface, making the intimate contact between ink and
paper possible. (But, see warning above.)
Pelikan M800 BB nib suffers from a couple problems. First, the
tipping is not perfectly aligned and second, notice that the
place where the ink would touch the paper is concave and would
3. Creating a foot. The foot will act as a plane under which the ink will
flow. When working with a light pressure, on the right paper
and at the right angle, the nib will hydroplane. This effect
can happen for one person and not for another. It also can be
elusive. The "flat" necessary for this effect, if
it has sharp edges can catch and drag. A tip with a foot can
be heaven or hell.
A scratchy flat-footed tip
4. High-angle foot or low-angle foot. Nibs are created and
pens are sold with the average writer in mind. Because the smoothest
point will have a rounded but flat "foot" at the angle
where the writer tip touches the paper, each person's foot is
slightly different. Most people write holding the pen at about
55 degrees above the paper. Those who prefer a higher angle
or lower angle may find that the way the tip is cut is not good
for them. Again, using smoothing cloth, a new foot can be customized
at home, which feels right for the writer. (See warning above.)
Side view of a flat-footed nib
nibs write smoothly. All things being equal, a wet writing
nib will feel smoother than a dry one because the ink acts as
a lubricant and the more ink under the tip the smoother the
pen will feel. A pen that delivers too much ink can be a nuisance,
leaving a wet mark that takes a long time to dry and bleeding
into the paper. The bleeding reduces legibility and can be less
than attractive. A simple adjustment can be used to increase
the ink flow of a nib. Decreasing is more difficult, so beware
of overdoing this adjustment. This adjustment is not for the
faint of heart, as the nib can easily be made to write more
scratchily if the tines do not balance. (See paragraph 2 at
the top of this article.)
Increase the ink flow: Holding the pen on a large open desk
with the nib pointed upright, and looking at the underside of
the nib (the feed), catch each shoulder of the nib with your
thumbnails. Pull gently apart while pressing down gently on
the top of the nib. It is best to have light coming through
from the back so that one can see the slit gap open. Proceed
with caution, testing the pen after each effort. Because the
nib will need to be tested after each try, you will want to
have paper towels at the ready and not be headed for a dinner
engagement, as you will most likely get ink on your fingers.
Increasing ink flow
Decreasing the ink flow is more difficult, as the nib may
have to be removed from the pen. Some minor decrease of the
ink flow can be accomplished by pinching the shoulders together
As may be noted from the above, a smooth nib is the result
of several dynamics. The process of balancing a nib requires
skill and patience. The rewards are great, but pitfalls abound.