Fountain Pen Design

Function, Development, Construction and Fabrication

4.1 Nippy Nibs


For any pen, this is the point of action,
Ink is transferred to paper,
Its motion traces a lasting line.

Thought leads the course and its sequence, to meaning.
The focus of writer and pen maker merge,
Aiming for ease of writing.

The continuous line by the pen’s obedience
Comforts the writer and frees the mind.
The pen maker has accomplished his task.


The Magic about Nibs

Early nibs, pointy implements, were intended to fashion with some fluid (which would dry) detailed, contrasting marks on a surface with the intent to last.  One could easily imagine them having preceded the invention of the wheel, surpassed only by the sharp edge of a splintered flintstone.  Metal nib production is the oldest technology, definitely in the field of pens with the beginning of mass-production reaching back as far as the early eighteen hundred. This was, of course, long before the advent of fountain pens, at a time when a writer would fit the nib into a holder and had inky fingers.

At the time I went to school, that’s how we learned to write with ink in the third year… after we had left behind the chalk pencil on a slate and the pencil in a book with lined pages (before the eraser).  Washing had become useless for our stained fingers, especially the thumb, index and middle fingers because they were so saturated with ink; and so was the timber of the desk around the inkwell.

More accomplished writers suffered from an aching longing of being able to write as long as possible before needing to interrupt the flow of writing, the flow of thought.  I remember having nibs with small metal pocket attachments, which would hold a drop of ink by capillary force, which were often loaded with an eyedropper.

When I started investigating fountain pen production in the company where I was employed, the nib production people were the most unwelcoming, could I say hostile? They just did not want to tell me anything, not about the manufacturing, the reasons behind specific processes or the function of the nib. Their behaviour spurred my curiosity, my drive to find out their secrets.  Being a congenital questioner is the innate prerequisite for being an ingeneer.

After a while their behaviour gave me an inkling of the real situation when I suspected, they did not know as much as I thought. In conniving ways, I would ask them questions on fundamental ingeneering stuff pertaining to nibs, and their answers revealed their lack of knowledge.  Or, maybe, they just did not want me to notice, how antiquated their production methods were.  Either way, they behaved as if they were the prima ballerina of manufacturing, and rightly so.  Their nibs were world-renowned for form, function and durability.

Only later, after working with them when they ran into a problem which they couldn’t solve on their own, I discovered, these manually highly skilled people deserved all my respect.  However, before this happened, my attention was pulled towards some other pressing problems in another section of manufacturing.  Nibs were working well, so I let them go for the time being.

During my research, I found a copy of an original article in the Scientific American about Nib Manufacture in 1879. I transcribed it; you may find the information as much insightful as I did.

The Function of the Nib

The purpose of the nib is to bring the ink to paper and fine-control the ink’s supply. Ink flows when the nib touches the paper and stops when lifted off the paper. How does it do that without using a microprocessor, or as one would assume nowadays, an app on your mobile phone?

During my investigations on the function of the nib (as well as fountain pens), I found a few myths out there. As an ingeneer, those irrationalities make me smile and wonder where they originate from. As an artist, I can fully appreciate their value in solidifying an emotional bond between the user and their product.  From this place, the original title of my website originated, Fountain Pen Magic; now I wonder why I have changed it.

The “Breather-Hole”

Traditionally, nips had no hole.  One can come up with several reasons which advocate a hole, however, in most fountain pen designs it has nothing to do with breathing, letting air into the ink reservoir.  But then, one just never stops learning.  After studying the feed of the Marukin Eyedropper of 1934, which has the air-canal on the top, the breather-hole does what its name says.  Yes, some designs have a hole in the nib for breathing purposes.

In cases where nibs are combined with feeds having their air-canals below, the hole’s primary function is to determine the end of the slit and hide inaccuracies during the slitting process.  It firmly establishes a definite endpoint of the slit; its diameter influences the elasticity of the nib considerably. It also helps to position the nib in the jigs of manufacture.

Breather hole and feeder cross section

Diagram 1 – “Breather-hole” and feed cross-section

Furthermore, it reduces the stress at the endpoint of the slit by distributing the occurring forces across a larger area. Slits ending without a hole may show fatigue stress cracks after some time.

In diagram 1 I show the location of the “breather-hole” in good feed design.  I have drawn a feed with a ducted ink canal where the ink is not exposed to air via the hole. If it would be, then the ink in the canal under the hole can dry out thus creating a plug, the end of all ink flow.

To mention it in this context: the breathing (allowing air to enter into the ink reservoir) is easier to adjust (during construction) and control during writing when the air canal runs separate from the ink canal, preferably along the underside of the feed. More about this in the section about the feed, namely:  Application to the Feed.

Control of Ink Flow

The ink travels along the capillary of the feed, and at one point the upper wall or edge of this capillary is replaced by the underside of the nib, see diagram 2. The ink is not supposed to notice this cross-over but be attracted into the slit of the nib by its increased capillarity and wettability.  For that reason, it is imperative that the metal surface is as clean as sterilised; and further, the construction feed-nib mounting has to compensate all tolerances so that no gap occurs. At this point, the ink has its first contact with the nib.

Diagram 2 — Nib and Feed cross-section with ink crossing over

Preferably, the “breather‑hole” is located behind this point of contact. Otherwise, it will hinder this cross‑over from the narrow capillary in the feed into the slit and expose the ink to air which makes it dry out, thus causing an ink clot which is hard to remove.

nib feed cross-section

Diagram 3 — Nib and feed cross-section

In diagram 3, the cross-section at the cross-over shows that the nib sits snug on the feed which then retracts from the inner shape of the nib to reduce any distraction for the ink to be sucked sidewards.  This can be achieved through the nib radius being larger than that of the feed which will assure the tightness and compensate for manufacturing tolerances.

Further down towards the tip of the nib the capillary in the feed and in the slit of the nib run parallel to each other.  The width of the slit narrows further while the width of the capillary of the feed remains constant, which provides plenty of invitation for the ink to cross over to the nib.  Furthermore, the Capillary Force of the slit increases with the narrowing of a slit, thus quickly sucking the ink towards the bead at the tip of the nib.

In the section about the setting of the tines on the page Nib Manufacturing, I will talk about the tricks to entice the ink to jump over onto the paper.

The maximum flow of ink is determined by the design of the feed, but whatever is delivered then onto the paper is controlled by the slit cross-section (thickness of the nib multiplied by the width of the slit) which can vary according to writing pressure. This is another reason why the increase of material thickness of the nib towards the tip is advantageous; the thicker the material, the more ink can be delivered to the tip.  Another variable is the absorption rate of the paper which is outside our control but certainly must be considered.

It is a natural habit of writers to apply more pressure onto the nib if they want a wider line; hence, bring more ink to the paper.

But this has its limits. Pressing the nib against the paper beyond a given point, and increasing the slit width, can cause the ink to retract up the slit causing the flow of ink to reduce, in the worst case, to stop. It is a finely tuned balance and requires the skilled operation of a writer.  “Skilled operation”, a requirement demanded from the writer, which is the most overlooked difference between fountain pens and other writing implements, which I will not mention here.

What is the Purpose of the Slit?

It is for transporting and holding a small amount of ink and giving the writer the opportunity to vary the line width of writing. If the nib is well-designed this should not affect the saturation of the line, which had been one of the few design criteria at my time (~1980).  I have learned (2012+) that many fountain pen writers like the variation of colour saturation.  Times change, as they do.

To investigate the slit’s purpose in more detail, allow me to move one step back. What is the purpose of the nib? Essentially, to transport the ink and cause a fine line on the paper. You can use any pointed piece of wood (toothpick)… even a nail, glass or quill (without a slit) to perform this. Try it; it will give you a sense, a feeling for the action at the tip. For example, try to hold a drop of ink on a needle and make it pass over onto paper. Interesting.

The challenges you will find are: initially, you have to tap the tip onto the paper to initiate the crossover and then you may create a blob because all the ink discharges in one go. It needs a bit of fine-tuning, feel inspired to play. That’s what the uninitiated calls the early investigations, the search for orientation in the ingeneering process.

Fraying the toothpick certainly helps (fibre pen, brush) to release the ink in a more controlled fashion. And if you push your frayed toothpick a bit more, the line will widen. If you are an enthusiast of writing Chines characters, you would be an expert in this action.

The slit, as a singular form of fraying, helps the flow of ink, but in consequence, the sensitivity to pressure increases when the slit widens more readily. For those who would like to have a reasonably even line width, I recommend steel nibs, the shorter, the harder and the more even the line width. On some fountain pens, the nib is almost completely covered and hardly more than the tip is exposed. One could mistake them for a ball pen, in looks as in writing.  Drawing pens with tubular points provide the ultimate consistency, but they can be a bit scratchy, which can be reduced with 1000 grid polish paper, something we did during my years of drafting in the nineteen-sixties.

For those who see the variation of width as part of their creative expression, there are flexible nibs specially designed for this. Like most nibs, they are made from work-hardened stainless steel, flexible nibs just more so.  Some are even hardened through heat treatment which can be told by the tempering colours.

Steel or gold?  Nibs manufactured from either material can perform excellently if the designer understands the material and the mechanics of a nib.  In my briefly expressed opinion, gold costs you more, that’s all.


This concludes the introduction of the function of the nib.  There are further aspects to consider, which I explain in detail in the following articles.

How to start with designing a nib?  What happens at the tip?  What are the basic mechanics in the movement of a nib?  The answers you can find out in the chapter Nib Mechanics.  To further your understanding of the mechanics of the nib, explore the chapter about Material Technology.

In the chapter on Nib Materials, we talk about the beads for the tip, gold and steel, a comparison of the latter as well as their suitability for the job, on which I expand in the chapter on Stresses and Strains.

Stories and details on the manufacture of nibs you find in the chapter Nib Manufacturing with an excursion into the past… Nib Manufacture in 1879.

In the chapter Design of Fountain Pen Nibs, I focus on how all the above applies to the function and shape of the nib, such as the ink transfer from feed to the nib, where the nib bends when applying writing pressure and why the slit widens under this condition.

Responding to debates on several forums on flex nibs on the Fountain Pen Network website, as well as their contribution and support, I wrote a big chapter on Flex Nibs, which also provides you with in-depth information on nib design and reason for their particular behaviour and as they respond to modifications of their shape.

Yes, there is a lot to say about this pointy thing.

Above all: Enjoy!


Amadeus W.

14 September 2014

Continue reading about Fountain Pen Nib Mechanics

A moment ago, I was led to a website on nibs, the various styles of tips and other technicalities.  Very impressive.  If nibs are your thing, have a look, too.  Franklin-Christoph Fine Writing

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