The Anatomy of a Nib
The nib is an elegant answer to a question of aesthetics and function. It has a characteristic shape that, with a few notable exceptions, has remained very much unchanged for one hundred years.
In an effort to recognize a common language about pen nibs, I have given this article over to examining the nib's anatomy. The following are terms in use, as well as an outline of the structure of pen nibs. Nibs are sometimes confusingly called pens, probably dating from the time when dip pen nibs were sold as replacement pens and were held in holders that could also be purchased separately. This confusion continues today, encouraging people to think that replacement nibs for vintage fountain pens are readily available.
The body of the nib provides the shape and rigidity to hold the tines in position to write. It also provides a cover for the flow of ink and the return of air along the feed. The rolled top surface of the nib makes an ideal billboard for the maker's name, logo or any other design IMPRINT that they want to display. The use of a second colored metal, such as a platinum wash, on top of the gold base, offers an even greater range of design possibility here. The shape of the body can be described as a sectioned and truncated cone. It is manufactured by stamping and rolling the shape from a tapered sheet of gold. A nib tapers from the tines and shoulders down to the tail where it can be as thin as 3 thousandths of an inch thick. In its thickest area, near the point, it can be 30 thousandths of an inch, comparable to half the thickness of this publication. None of the nibs made today use anywhere near as much gold in the body as some of the big ones from the 20's and 30's such as some Sheaffer's Lifetime nibs.
Base, Tail or Heel
The base, the thinnest part of the nib, and a simple vault shape, fits into the tubular section and is held in place by the feed. (The section is the part of the pen that joins the feed and nib to the barrel). The feed fits under the nib and is responsible for both providing ink to the nib and wedging it firmly into the section.) Because the shape of the nib is opening wider as it moves away from the base, it will only fit into the section so far. Some nibs have a deep base stamp, such as the star shape on the bases of many Parker Vacumatics. This star was Parker's lifetime guarantee, and entitled the owner to a replacement of the nib for thirty five cents. This stamp is also there to make the nib fit more firmly into the hard rubber section. (Occasionally I find nibs that have had this sort of treatment, probably performed by some repairperson on a loose nib.) The other kind of mark sometimes found on the base of nibs such as the maker's code for size, found on Waterman's Hundred Year nibs marked "18", the oversized, or "17", the standard size. These imprints were helpful in assembling the pen, but were not intended for the consumer's eyes.
Vent Hole or Breather Hole
The vent hole, which exists on most fountain pen nibs, provides the space for air to travel back into the pen to replace the ink that is consumed in writing. (It is notably absent on dip pen nibs). It serves a second function by stopping the slit, that separates the tines, from continuing as a crack up into the body of the nib. When the pen is used, a great deal of tension is placed on the gold metal where the slit ends, Were it not for the vent hole, many more nibs would be split. (As it is, most splits and cracks originate at the vent hole. This is the first place to look for defects when evaluating the condition of a nib.)
Vent holes have come in a number of different shapes. The most common is the heart, found on many Waterman's, Parkers, Sheaffer's, and Eversharps. In fact the word heart is sometimes used to mean vent hole. A round vent hole is seen on most vintage Parkers, but other shapes such as the "key hole" and a "pointed oval" can be seen on some early Parkers. Waterman's used quite a number of shapes, besides the "heart" including the "key hole" in the early 30's. Before Waterman's standardized their nibs, they manufactured or had manufactured a number of nibs with unusual vent holes, the "hole and horseshoe" and a "six pointed star". Conklin extended the use of the "crescent" shape, from their very successful filling system, to the shape of their vent hole in their nib.
Shoulders or Web
The shoulders of a nib are the widest part and give the tines their rigidity. Extending the analogy of a foot, the heel is the base and the web is the widest part. Generally speaking, a nib with the appearance of wide shoulders is a rigid nib, and conversely, one with narrow shoulders can be more flexible. (Occasionally if something happens to either widen the shoulders or narrow the inner cap on the lid of a pen, the nib will no longer fit easily into the cap. This situation makes it impossible to keep the nib in proper adjustment.)
The tines are the two sides of a nib divided by the slit. (There are three tines in the case of music nibs). They are relatively longer in the case of flexible nibs and shorter and thicker in the case of stiff or hard nibs, such as "accountants", or "firm" nibs. A nib can be made more flexible by reducing both the width and the thickness of the tines. However, a nib which is not somewhat flexible to begin with is not a good candidate for this operation.
The slit is the space which ink travels down to the paper by means of capillary attraction. It is cut into the nearly completed nib up to the vent hole and is rarely is more than 4 thousandths of an inch wide. While it is not rocket science, the proper way to adjust a nib is to create just the right amount of space in the slit. Then everything else will fall into place. ( A fine or flexible nib must be adjusted tighter than a broad nib, which needs greater ink flow.)
Sometimes known as iridium, or tipping material, this is the hard surface metal that contacts the paper. Welded, soldered and/or fused to the gold, this material is made of very hard stuff. Originally tipping material was composed of crude unalloyed, unsmelted, and impure bits. These fragmentary bits had been ground to a workable size before they were attacked to the gold. (I had a piece of this material off of a ca. 1920 Waterman's #2 nib assayed. The results were as follows: osmium - 44.%, iridium - 54.%, Copper - 0.50%, Gold - 0.24%, Silver - 0.70% and possible trace of Ruthenium. Pacific Spectrochemical Laboratory, Inc.) Many of these tips show flaws under a microscope, some of which impair the writing quality.
All the modern tips, starting in the 30's are made using alloys of iridium, osmium, ruthenium and/or small amounts of other metals. Parker coined several terms in their advertising such as Octanium, meaning an alloy of eight metals, used in the early 50's in points of Parker 51 Specials and Parker 21s. The 1949 Parker Aerometric 51 used what they called a "plathenium tipped point". These smelted pellets, with the exception of the few that have air pockets in them, are all superior to what was available during the "golden age" of fountain pens. However, the other, and no less important, aspect of tip quality is the shaping and finishing. This is where a great deal of hand work is still employed and where many of the early nibs excel, especially the fine and extra fine points. The way that the tip is ground, polished and adjusted has a great deal to do with the way it writes.
For me, the nib is the most interesting part of the pen. It is a combination of critical function and remarkable aesthetics. Without external power it delivers a measured amount of ink to paper. It transfers gestures of the hand, revealing something of the sensation of writing, and recording it for future use. The shape of the nib, as it projects from the pen, is a functional artifact from the 19th century that seems likely to be appreciated into the 21st.