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Fountain Pen Nib Materials

Gold? Steel? Iridium? Titanium? What should you be looking for? Is it worth the extra money to get a gold nib? And why is the tip made from Iridium? Let’s find out.

The Tipping

The part of a fountain pen nib that touches the paper is the tip, or tipping material, sometimes called the ‘point’. All but the very cheapest pens have tipping material, and it’s almost always ‘Iridium’. Except it probably isn’t. Iridium may have been used very early on, but there’s usually little to no actual iridium in the tipping material.

So what is iridium? And why say that if it’s not really iridium? It’s a very hard metal that won’t wear away from rubbing on paper. When nibs were almost all gold, if the tip was left as plain gold, it would have worn away when writing - very slowly, but enough to wear out with enough use. The earliest hard tips were probably either iridium or an alloy containing it. And the term just stuck.

So as much as it may annoy chemists and metallurgists, in the field of fountain pens, we just use the word ‘iridium’ to mean a hard alloy on the tip of the nib.

Gold or Steel?

So the part that touches the paper is the tipping material anyway, not the gold or steel the nib is made from. In which case, does the main nib material matter at all? Well, here’s where we’re a little torn. Because it doesn’t really make a lot of difference, honestly. But pens with gold nibs are more expensive, so we usually make more money when we sell them.

There are a couple of arguments usually made in favour of gold nibs. Gold doesn’t react with inks, while steel can, especially with some specific types of ink like iron gall inks. But those types of ink are fairly unusual these days, and steel has become much more resistant to this sort of damage too. With modern steel and almost any ‘normal’ fountain pen ink, there’s no risk of the ink harming the nib.

Some people also say gold is more flexible, and gives a better writing feel. And gold is more flexible than steel, for the same thickness, and high-carat gold. But we’re not convinced that translates to flexibility in the final nibs. If you want a really flexible nib, you’d want a dip nib, which would be steel.

The thing that is probably true for the most part is that gold nibs are usually more expensive, and made with more care. It pushes the price of the pen up, but also tends to mean the nibs are made better, with more testing. So if you were to compare a random selection of steel and gold nibs, it’s quite likely the gold ones would be better on average. Just not necessarily because of the gold material.

Other Materials

That covers the vast majority of nibs available. But a few brands do now have titanium nibs, often to make more flexible nibs. Titanium used to be quite troublesome, but modern alloys and techniques mean it can make very good nibs now. Alloys of Palladium and Silver have been used too, sometimes with very good results, but are rarely seen now.

So Which Is Best?

If you want the best, and you don’t mind paying for it, a gold nib isn’t a bad idea at all - even if the material doesn’t necessarily make it better, it’s more likely to be a good nib. But if you don’t want to pay the extra for a gold nib, steel is just fine - it’s the tipping that touches the paper anyway, and steel nibs can be every bit as good as gold.