Tale of a Vandal Pen User: Nibs Part 1 – Custom Italics

My favorite writing experience is with an italic nib because it adds a bit of flair, or even some dignity, to my writing style scrawl. True to my vandalizing nature, I’ve spent some time grinding my own nibs into italics.

My first attempts were on Autopoint Big Cat fountain pens, followed by a few super cheap Jinhaos. A few years later, I bought a slew of cheap Heritage #6 nibs to practice on. While these nibs are no longer in production, the Heritage nibs fit somewhat decently in a Bock or JoWo collar.

It was sort of “easy” to make a decent and crisp italic nib. Not so easy, or even possible, to make a smooth one. My tools are crude and quite limiting, based on a variety of grit papers. Maybe someday I’ll upgrade my tools, and find out what other messes can be made with nibs. Or not. Life is short, and I prefer to use my pens rather than play with them. Uh… mostly. Yeah.

Confusifying Custom City

Fortunately a wide variety of nib grinds are offered by custom nib specialists, AKA nibmeisters. Fees range from $30 to $55 or so.

noun meis·ter
someone who knows a lot about something : someone who is an expert in something—from the Merriam-Webster

Customized italics—oh dear, another learning process?

Early on, I discovered crisp italics were not for moi, even those ground by the greatest of nibmeisters. These types of italics annoy and hinder my fast writing methodology. A calligrapher I am not.

Deb Kinney wrote to me recently that

Folks want line variation and smoothness and that is what I give them.

Ms. Kinney is my favorite nibmeister. She’s been modifying my fountain pen nibs since 2008 or 2009. I forget exactly.

Note: Deb has been modifying nibs since 2002!

What nibs you like, and what grinds you prefer, are very personal, so if there’s someone else who is your favorite go-to nib-tech, no worries. He’s just not mine, ay?

The Kinney Experience

A nibmeister extraordinaire, Deb’s well-known in pen circles, and yet still relatively unsung in the public forums/social media circus. She’s a fountain pen collector, and a pen restorer, as well as a nibmeister. She’s been at all those things for many years now. She’s also a co-founder of the Triangle Pen Club in North Carolina.

beloved Kinney .6mm CI
beloved Kinney .6mm CI

Deb can be found in person at the D.C. Pen Show, and the Triangle Pen Show. You can also find her on Facebook, or contact her via The Pen Connoisseur. There are rumors circulating that when she’s able to retire from her day job, she’ll hit more pen shows.

Deb came recommended to me several years ago by pen folk I respected, and her nib grinds perfectly suited my scrawl.

In the beginning, she ground both a crisp italic and a cursive italic for my pens, so that I could figure out which italic I might like best. Crisp italics are interesting, but honestly not my thing. It was easy to decide in favor of Deb’s cursive italics.

Even though I’ve fewer examples left in my pen hoard today, Deb has customized more nibs for me than anyone else. She ground the nibs of many fountain pens that have since been re-homed.

Why is Deb my favorite? Because she translated my email gobbledegook into something meaningful, never treated me like an idiot, and returned to me an incredibly smooth nib with lots of variation. And when I asked for another, she repeated it. Over and over and over. (Despite my never having met her in person, ay?)

Certainly curiosity led me to try other nibmeisters. Often what I experienced was that a CI came back with a smaller sweet spot or a sharp edge or some mystical thing that was not quite right for moi. Perhaps due to not having these grinds done in person, ay?

And so with other nibmeisters I began asking for a stub grind, which I found more suitable to my writing style.

When I went back to Deb recently, she reminded me that it’s a CI (cursive italic) I’m after. So, yes, it can be very confusing when exploring multiple nibmeisters.

I asked Deb what she wanted you to know about the Kinney experience. She wrote me that,

I often have to explain the difference between CI, Stub and Crisp Italics. In part, I think it is due to nibmeisters making up new words to describe a concept for a nib, and people just sticking to what they know.

So I find if I listen to people I can often get a sense of what they want and forget terminology.

She also wrote something else really lovely,

The thing I love best about being a nibmeister is being able to modify someone’s nib in person and see the “wow factor” on their face when they try one for the first time.

With one exception all my CIs are, and will continue to be, by Ms. Kinney.

A bevy of Kinney CIs
A bevy of Kinney CIs

Do You Know Where You’re Going To

How do you find someone to grind you a cursive italic, a stub, or whatever your jones may be? Paraphrasing a wise person, anyone can grind a nib; the question is can he or she create a great grind consistently, nib after nib?

The most common answer people give: “go to a pen show.” Well, if you can that’s perfect! I’ve not yet been to a pen show. My schedule has not allowed it. The in-person work may be most important when dealing with folks who are newer at the nib grinding trade, and you can hand the pen back and forth.

For those of us on islands without in-person nibmeisters to go to, what do we do?

Me, I talked and talked and talked to those whose, uh, penchants were similar to mine, and got their best recommendations.

Then I pursued those recommendations.

And then I decided for myself whose work best suited me.

That’s all you can do, in-person or not. It can be costly either way.

You can and should find out how long someone has been grinding nibs, and what experiences both good and not so good others have had. The latter can be difficult to find out about because, generally, you will find many of those conversations in private rather than in public. ‘Tis a dilemma of sorts, although not insurmountable.

Many of us take leaps into the unknown because we can’t make it to pen shows. Not an easy leap to make, but it can be rewarding.

Customs in the Hoard

Next year, I’ll likely add one or two more JoWos CIs, and a 2nd VP CI (all ground by Deb) to the hoard. These will be replacements for really nice customs by other folks that I’ll be re-homing. (They’re just not quite what I want. Like too broad, or too wet, or too small a sweet spot. A bit like Goldilocks, okay?)

As of this posting, the following custom italics are the keepers in my pen hoard:

  • Medium Edison/JoWo ground by Deb to .6mm CI
  • Fine JoWo ground by Deb to .5mm CI
  • Medium Pilot VP ground by Deb to .5mm CI
  • Broad Namiki Sterling ground by Deb to .6mm CI
  • Medium Platinum #3776 ground by Shawn to .5mm Stub
peace2
click on above image for closer look

Wait a minute—what’s that name thrown in next to Deb’s, you ask? Shawn? Who? Shawn Newton, of course.

The Newton Experience

Recently, I asked Shawn to build a new section for my small Danitrio Cumlaude. The section was for a Platinum #3776 nib. Originally I planned to send the nib to Deb, but since Shawn had the nib in order to fit it to the new section, I asked him to see what he might do. That is, I asked him for a stub.

Gotta say I was very nervous. I’m pretty picky about my nibs. Shawn knew who he had to live up to.

The Platinum #3776 nib is perhaps one of the more difficult nibs to throw at someone for the first time. Well, not Shawn’s first time with the #3776; I mean my first time for a Shawn stub grind.

The #3776 has a funky personality that gives a lot of feedback. It’s not glossy smooth like a Pilot nib, and some people mistake the #3776 for (yuk) scratchy. The #3776’s one of my favorite nibs.

whew… what a great relief… 

Shawn did a great job! Can he do it over and over? Dunno. I’ve just the one. Yet knowing a bit about Shawn’s talents, I suspect he can.

Singular Newton
Singular Stub

Some of you may remember my ratty, old #3776 F nib that a famous, wonderful nibmeister restored for me. Shawn tuned it again when he made my Shinobi, and now that nib sings in a way it never did before.

I asked Shawn what he wanted you to know. He wrote me that,

If you’re new to customized nibs, I want to know what you want from your pen. If you don’t know what you want, then I recommend playing with others’ pens or finding inexpensive pens that have stub or italic nibs on them already (like the Pilot 78G or Plumix for example) to get a taste of what’s out there. If you normally write small and gravitate towards fine and extra fine points, you may not love a broad cursive italic. You might, but it’s better to try before you modify or buy.

Shawn appears at certain pen shows, too. Plus you can find him through his website, or on Instagram.

Normally I would say, you take your chances in getting work done by someone who hasn’t been at it a long time. Shawn hasn’t been at the game as long as the more renown folks, but there’s something extraordinary about Shawn and his relationship with pens and nibs.

If you’re going to the fun of having Shawn make you a pen, perhaps you should take advantage of his nib work. I wouldn’t hesitate to do so again.

And so, Shawn’s the other nibmeister whose work I’ll keep alongside my Kinney custom nibs.

Random Thoughts

Regular readers of the blog know that fanciful, beautiful handwriting skills are not to be found herein. I’m the example of a writing schmo who just likes a little pleasurable “oomph” feeling while scrawling. The oomph is for me, not you. ha-ha-ha! For fancy, beautiful looking writing, you know where to go.

Here’s an example of a stock nib with no variation compared to a cursive italic:

Both JoWo #6 18K nibs, an EF and modified F.
Both JoWo #6 18K nibs, an EF and modified F. (Click image for closer look.)

Here’s what a JoWo Fine nib modified into a CI looks like next to an unmodified JoWo Fine:

Both JoWo #6 (one with Edison logo; one without)
Both JoWo #6 (one with Edison logo; one without)

Note the unmodified nib on the right is somewhat rounded at the top; the modified on the left, more chiseled.

CI and plain F JoWo nibs
CI and plain F JoWo nibs

I’ve had custom nibs in gold, titanium, and steel nibs. In my experience, the customized steel nibs tended to show ink corrosion within a few months of use. (Unlike my unmodified steel nibs.) Maybe caused by the wonderful Sailor and Pilot inks I use? Dunno.

Titanium nibs are interesting, but also not my thing.

Disagree all you want, but I still find gold nibs flow better than steel, and are smoother overall. Economics and the growing cost of gold nibs make them harder to reach these days. (Although right now, values can be found, especially among Pilot and Platinum fountain pens bought direct from Japan.)

Re. sizing nibs: I’ve long preferred very fine nibs to write with. I used to fuss and ask for custom italics at “.3mm or .4mm,” tiny, tiny, tiny. As my eyes age, super extra fine nibs don’t suit as well.

We evolve, ay?

Now .5mm seems to be my preferred size in a cursive italic. Even so, I don’t fuss too much over asking for ##.mm anything. I just hand over a medium or fine nib, and have a good idea by now of what will come back.

Different nibs will provide different writing characteristics. That is, a JoWo 18K nib will not be the same as steel JoWo, or as a Pilot or Platinum 18K or 14K nib. A VP 18K nib will not be the same as anything else on the planet.

JoWo nibs are used by a lot of brands, and so there will likely be similarities among an Edison or a Bexley or a Franklin-Christoph nib.

In my writing scrawl samples, I’ve noted the original point of the nib (fine, medium, etc.) and what the nib was ground into, such as .5mm. That said, however, different inks and different paper will produce slightly different CI sized lines. For example, my Namiki Sterling CI nib will write a thinner or broader line depending on the paper, ranging from .5mm to .8mm!

And so, IMHO, take the .mm sizing stuff with a wee bit of salt.

I have spent time measuring my lines with a loupe that has a scale. I do think you have to measure the line a nib lays down. If you go by the measurement of the nib itself, well, you may wonder why the line is not as you expect to be, especially given the variances caused by inks and papers. If you require a consistent .2mm line each and every time you write, no doubt you’ll perfect your paper and ink to allow that, ay?

Favorites? Uh…they’re all favorites, or else they’d be… gone.

The custom nibs I use most frequently are the ones that live in daily writing pens: the JoWo CI from the Fine nib lives in my Banana Slug, and the Platinum stub lives in my Danitrio Cumlaude.

The Vanishing Point CI nib is in my pocket frequently, housed in either my Pilot Decimo or Fermo.

The broader CI JoWo nib lives mostly in my Edison Glenmont, and the Namiki CI nib is in the Sterling Turtle. Both of these pens are letter writing pens; not used daily.

As always, reminding you: I’m not an expert. I’m wrong about things sometimes, too. I’m just that schmo sharing my own experience.

In the scrawling sample below, you will see that some of my CIs write very wet and broad, some much dryer and thinner, and some with more line variation than others. The paper used in the writing sample is from a Maruman notepad. Ink is Waterman Blue-Black.

All Kinney CIs
All Kinney CIs (click image for closer look)
Newton Stub
Newton Stub

Of course, you can’t experience the writing sensation of these nibs via the blog, and so you have to take my word that these Kinney and Newton customs are smooth and pleasurable to write with. (They are!) You can, however, see the different line characteristics the nibs have, even when using the same ink and paper.

Lastly, yet not unimportantly, the fountain pen community is made up of schmoes, some expert pen folk, small businesses, and a lot of non-Amazonian human beings. Be kind to them and to each other, ay?

Happy Everything to you! I look forward to sharing the New Year with you.

Some Links

Nibs Part 2 – Off-the-Shelf Stubs

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2 thoughts on “Tale of a Vandal Pen User: Nibs Part 1 – Custom Italics

  1. A very informative post. Thanks for sharing your experiences. I keep changing the angle with italics and stubs so I often don’t get a consistent line width. Some angles do seem to impart more “personality” into the lines – especially with stubs.

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    1. Right you are, Ken! Try as I do to hold my pen correctly, inevitably-especially when I’m tired-different angles, uh, happen. Thanks for taking the time to both read and comment! I appreciate that.

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