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A Beginner’s Guide to Fountain Pen Nibs

Looking to get yourself a fountain pen, but not sure what nib to get? This article is going to try to help, but as this is very much a matter of personal taste, we can’t give you a very definite answer. If you really have no idea, going with a Medium nib is probably the best choice, as it’s right there in the middle, and if it’s not right, it’ll help you to know which way to go next.

A little word on changing nibs first - some pens, like most Lamy pens, can be ‘nib swapped’ - you can change the nib later yourself if you realise you’d prefer something different. It’s not too difficult to do, and the nibs aren’t too expensive. With some pens, even if replacement nibs are available, they can cost a significant percentage of the cost of the pen, so if you think you might change your mind later, it’s worth considering when you choose your pen.

Fine, Medium, Broad

While a few fountain pens have no choices at all, many of the most popular pens have the choice of fine, medium or broad nibs. The difference is exactly what you’d think - Fine writes a thinner line, Broad writes thicker. Fountain pens generally write thicker lines than ballpoints and most rollerballs, so if you find most pens a bit broad, go finer with a fountain pen.

Finer nibs do come with a slight downside, though - the finer the nib, the more ‘scratchy’ it will tend to feel. A smaller tip touching the paper will never feel as smooth as a big wet nib tip. So if the smoothness is one of the reasons you’re wanting to try a fountain pen, you might want to go a bit broader for more of that feeling.

More Choices! Stubs, Italics, Obliques, Architects!

There might be a lot more choices of nibs, depending on the pen you’re going for. To start with, we’d recommend sticking with Fine, Medium or Broad, until you know a bit more about what you want, but what do all those choices mean?

  • Italic nibs are for calligraphy - wide push-pull strokes, with narrow side-to-side strokes. A true italic nib has crisp edges, which makes a bit of an acquired skill to write with them. You may occasionally see a ‘cursive’ italic nib, which is a little more rounded on the edges, to be more forgiving. And many ‘italic’ nibs are a little rounded off anyway, but still unlikely to be what you’d want to start out with.
  • Stub nibs are similar to italics, but even more rounded off. You can think of them as an italic nib that’s made for day to day use, not just calligraphy. Still not a choice we’d recommend for beginners, but they can be used for normal writing much more easily than an italic.
  • Oblique nibs are often misunderstood. People often think it means the same as italic, but it’s really about the angle the nib is cut at, so you can write with the nib at a different angle. It’s almost always in conjunction with an italic nib, but the end is angled instead of straight. A bit specialist unless you’re a calligrapher.
  • Architect nibs have long been fairly rare speciality nibs, but seem to be gaining some popularity recently. They’re made for wider side-to-side strokes, with thin push-pull strokes. It makes a writing style often seen in architectural plans, but can also be useful for Arabic calligraphy. Again, unless you know it’s what you want, we’d steer clear of these for normal writing, especially for beginners.

Softly Flexing

You may also see nibs described as ‘flex’ or ‘soft’. Flex nibs bend when you apply pressure, usually widening out for varied lines. Soft usually means ‘a bit flex’. These can be perfect for art and calligraphy, but it’s another acquired skill, and too much pressure can damage an expensive nib. We’d suggest trying out dip pens with flexible nibs first to see how it works for you.

Left-handed Nibs

Richard Binder, who is one of the world’s top experts on nibs, says there’s no such thing as a left-handed nib. But some manufacturers make them. So what are these non-existent nibs? In most cases, they’re fairly standard rounded nibs, but rounded off a bit more, making them more forgiving of the angle you hold the pen at. If you’re left-handed, they might be a little better for you, but most left-handed people are fine with ‘normal’ nibs - the usual options are not ‘right-handed’, so you probably don’t need a special left-handed nib.