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Brushing Up on Sailor Nibs

By John Mottishaw

Originally published in PenWorld Magazine, Vol 25, No.2, February 2012.


A recent pen clinic in Los Angeles, co-sponsored by my company, Classic Fountain Pens, and Itoya Inc., the North American distributor for Sailor pens, gave West Coast pen enthusiasts a rare chance to meet Yukio Nagahara, Sailor's chief nib designer. Nagahara also shares the responsibility, along with his father, Nobuyoshi Nagahara, of personally handcrafting each of Sailor's specialty nibs. These are called Nagahara nibs in honor of their development by the elder Nagahara.
Brushing Up on Sailor NibsRay Shields knew what he wanted the moment he walked through the door. As an artist manager and music producer, he had been to Japan many times, so he knew how to address Yukio Nagahara–Nagahara-san, the san a title of respect. "Cool Ray," as we call him, was the last appointment of the day, and by this time the pen clinic had taken on a relaxed atmosphere. Nagahara had now spent many hours behind his grinding and polishing wheels, an optical loupe in his right hand. After choosing a pen at our table, Shields carried it to Nagahara for his adjustments and customization, and the nib master set to work immediately. When he was finished, he returned the pen to Shields, who tested it with ink on paper. A big grin spread across his face. It was exactly what he wanted.

I was curious to see what Nagahara-san had done, so with Shields's approval, I took the pen and nib to my microscope and took a look. I could see the careful rounding and crispness that had brought that smile to his face. When I handed back the pen, I saw a similar smile on Nagahara's face as well.

Brushing Up on Sailor NibsThe year 2011 marked Sailor's 100th anniversary. The main reason for the brand's longevity is the quality of its nibs– even the standard nibs are the match of those made by any pen maufacturer in the world today. Sailor's fine and extra-fine points are unsurpassed for conisistency and smoothness. These are the most difficult to make, especially as they are even finer than their Western counterparts.

The standard nibs are most similar to what westerners normally expect from writing tips, ranging from extra-fine through broad and including a music nib, which resembles a traditional Western stub. This group also includes the Zoom nib, which has no clear predecessor in Western nib styles and which points the way towards the more exotic specialty nibs for which Sailor is also known.

The Zoom nib is something like a standard extra-broad tip, but that is where the comparison ends. The Zoom has a triangular-shaped writing surface with the point of the triangle at the tip. The angle at which the pen is held determines the line width, making this a versatile writing instrument in the hands of a practiced user. Held at a high angle, the point is a fairly dry medium-fine. At a low angle, it produces a wetter double-broad footprint. Flipped upside-down, the mark is good for marginalia, very dry and fine.

Sailor's specialty nibs often share this property of offering varying line width depending up on the angle at which they are held. Inspired by the art of Japanese brush painting, artists often find these nibs quite useful. And like the Zoom, most specialty nibs offer interesting results when used in the upside-down position as well.

"The brushstroke was the inspiration for the first Nagahara nibs," Nagahara explains through an interpreter after the clinic, his hands still lightly stained with ink. "There are two important brushstrokes in Japanese Kanji. One is a curved stroke downward, and the other is a downstroke with a quick tail, looking something like a check mark. Our nibs have a thin downstroke and a thicker cross stroke, which can emulate these brushstrokes. It is also desirable to have a tapered tail at the end of the mark. Our Nagahara nibs are good for that as well."

The specialty nibs vary all the way from the needlepoint Sai-bi Togi to such extremely broad nibs as the King Cobra and King Eagle, which can put down as much ink as marking pens. They also include the Naginata sword nibs, which behave somewhat like the Zoom, except with greater refinement. The downstroke remains consistent at any angle, while the cross stroke becomes finer at higher angles and bolder at lower angles.

Brushing Up on Sailor NibsThe Naginata nibs have undergone an evolution, Nagahara confirms. With the nibs be makes himself, there is a much greater difference between the narrow downstrokes and the broader cross strokes than in those made by his father, who creates rounder and smoother tips. "My father made nibs for his generation, and they wanted rounder nibs, softer and bolder, with smoothness being a top priority. My nibs are sharper, as requested by my customers. They want a nib that has a very narrow downstroke and a much broader cross stroke, more difference in the line width. On my nibs, the angle of the paper is crucial; on my father's it is less so. My nibs might be harder to use, but they offer multiple uses for the same nib."

Even more complex and innovative are the Cross and Cross Concord nibs. Because these nibs are layered–two nibs are stacked on top of each other–they are capable of great variation and scope, producing fine top-of-tip lines and juicy, triple-broad cross strokes. The Cross Concord nib is clearly intended for writing in the conventional position, producing a medium line. Flipped upside-down, it produces a highlighter-like cross stroke.

Comparable in function to the Zoom, the King Cobra–like the Cross and Cross Concord– is actually two nibs, one welded to the top of another. The top nib has a medium point, while the bottom nib resembles a splayed triple-broad tip. This nib ratchets up the writing experience by offering an even greater range of line widths with a brush-like amount of ink. The combination created a triangular footprint capable of great extremes of line width in any direction, depending on the angle at which the nib is held.

Perhaps the ultimate Sailor specialty nib is the appropriately named King Eagle. Created by welding three different nibs on top of each other, this nib is like a Naginata-togi on steroids. The King Eagle delivers huge, wet, wide lines on the cross stroke, while providing much narrower downstrokes. This king among nibs perfectly exemplifies what Sailor's Nagahara nibs can do. Like all of the specialty nibs, this one is available with the Emperor tab, a device for providing a little extra ink near the tip for the instant demand of ink on a fast stroke.

Brushing Up on Sailor Nibs
(photo at right: Sailor fan, Ray Shields with the pen Yukio Nagahara adjusted for him.)

The work that led Nagahara's father to develop the nibs that now bear his name began when he was only sixteen years old–in 1948, in the nib production section at Sailor's Hiroshima headquarters. He acquired his skills and techniques from senior associates during those post-war years. The first Naginata-togi sword nibs were made at pen clinics at the specific request of customers. Demand increased, as many Japanese customers wanted a fountain pen capable of emulating "small brush" calligraphy. In time, the demand for these unique nibs spread throughout the world.

Nagahara had watched his father crafting nibs from an early age, but it was not until he was in his mid-thirties that he moved from Sailor's sales department into a role as his father's apprentice, assistant and, ultimately, successor.

"When I first started making nibs, my father told me to just make a Nagahara nib. He did not guide me–he said, 'just make it.' Of course, I had been watching him make nibs since I was a little child. I was just given a blank–a nib with a big ball for the tip. I cut it down to the long sword shape."

Naturally, with time, Nagahara's technique became proficient–it now takes him just ten to twenty minutes to craft some of the less complex Sailor specialty nibs, though, of course the results come from years of development on the part of both his father and himself. When asked if any new specialty nibs are in the works, Nagahara nods eagerly, but when asked for details, he gives a sly smile and replies in English, for almost the only time during our talk–"top secret."

As Sailor's master nib craftsman, Nagahara takes as much pride in the standard Sailor production nibs as in the specialty nibs that he hand-crafts himself. When asked about Sailor's reputation for creating extremely reliable, smooth-writing nibs, even at the finer end of the spectrum, he explains that special attention is paid to shaping and smoothing the surface of each tip. He also credits special evaluation teams at Sailor that inspect and test each nib before it is shipped.

With his father still crafting nibs but no longer choosing to travel, it is now Nagahara Jr. who carries on the family legacy at Sailor pen clinics throughout the world. Having held clinics in India, Israel, France, England and Germany, he says that it is those in America that he finds the most interesting. "Americans are the most interesting because of the huge range of writing styles. They hold their pens in a variety of most interesting ways."

Though many customers prize the Sailor specialty nibs as much for their appearance as for their writing qualities, Nagahara explains that for him, form always follows function. The appearance of the nib is dictated by the way it writes. But when asked what his main objective is in nib work, Nagahara-san replies, "to make the customer smile."

- JOHN MOTTISHAW taught drawing, design and sculpture at Santa Monica and Pomona colleges while pursuing a career as a wood and metal sculptor. He currently runs Classic Fountain Pens, Inc.


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