How to get a better line from your fountain pen’s nib

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One of the finest and longest-lasting gadgets you can buy is a decent fountain pen. Like most items of good quality, maintenance and repair can keep them in action for years, if not decades: you can pay an expert, or you can learn to do it yourself.

Ludwig Tan’s how-to guide on grinding nibs saved me a bunch of cash getting an old Parker 51 writing smoothly again, and all you need is an Arkansas Stone, fine-grit emery paper and, finally, something only slightly rough, like crocus paper or a brown paper bag. As these are items you likely already have, it’s practically free!

There’s another article I wished I’d had at hand, though: Wim Geeraets’ Nib grinding experiences has more technical detail, such as the best grade papers to use as you proceed.

Update: As wisely indicated by commenters below, you should only do this with cheap nibs until you know what you’re doing.

About Rob Beschizza

Rob Beschizza is the Managing Editor of Boing Boing. He's @beschizza on Twitter and can be found on Facebook too. Email is dead, but you can try your luck at besc...@gmail.com
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10 Responses to How to get a better line from your fountain pen’s nib

  1. cowtown says:

    Oh god, the Pilot disposables are monstrosities with pinched-metal nibs on the tips. They are worse than the sort of cheap, scratchy crap that made most people happy to do away with their fountain pens forever. The Parker Vector (if you can find one in the States) or it’s technoligically identical cousin the Reflex are much better options, though I’ve had better luck with off-brands with german-made no-name steel nibs. Just make sure there’s a “blob” of something at the tip and not flattened, pinched metal.

    I dabbled just tiny bit with pen restoration and nib grinding. I have one Chinese Parker 51 knock-off that I took from an XF nib to a nice BB stub. Also repaired a vintage no-name button-filler and then clipped and ground the nib to a serviceable italic. I write on paper so rarely now that I’ve regressed to the point of using whatever is at hand, but I still love my Fountain Pens.

  2. hohum says:

    I know I’m late to this party, but I’ve been using FPs for a long time now and am glad to see one of my loves discussed on BBG – one which I had not expected to see!

    One looking to get nibs redone professionally, or even one who just wants an explanation of a broad range of nib styles might have a look at Fountain Pen Network message boards which is a great community for people who are into FPs or even just writing in general.

    I’d also like to suggest, if you’ve done some practice on very cheap nibs (as others have suggested) and are looking to take the next step, a Pilot Vanishing Point. While the pen itself will run you about $100, it is a great writer and its retracting point mechanism is a clever trick. This is the pen that got me through college – beyond clever trick, the retracting point makes it great for note-taking. Also, while the pen is pricier than the lowest-end pens, extra nibs can be picked up for around $20-30 if memory serves me, making them great fool-around pens.

  3. AirPillo says:

    Pilot also happens to make a line of inexpensive disposable fountain pens which nonetheless last quite a while.

    I use one on all of my checks and on anything where what I’m writing isn’t just chicken-scratch to be read by myself. I bought it two years ago and it’s still writing just fine.

  4. japester says:

    Another chiming in on a topic of much love.

    I’ve spent many a happy hour writing with fountain pens. I have a Lamy for work based writing and a large set of Mitchell dip pens for medieval writing.

    I won’t ever sharpen the Lamy. I would never have thought that a ball tipped nib would ever need regrinding.

    The Mitchells, however, get sharpened on a semi regular basis. Generally, every time I take them anywhere near paper. It is quite disturbing to see just how abrasive paper can be. I much prefer writing on vellum or parchmentine. It’s less abrasive and the ink sits on the surface, rather than sinking in.

    Oh, and I use 1000 grit wet and dry paper on a piece of glass as my grinding surface. It’s significantly cheaper than a stone. It’s also very easy to scratch the surface of a stone, especially the good soft ones.

  5. Anonymous says:

    Another way to safely hone a fountain pen nib is to buy one or two 8.5×11 sheets of Mylar drafting film. It has an abrasive quality much lower than sanding or finishing paper. Find the rough spot in your pen by feeling its drag when writing, then repeat that motion with an inked pen on the mylar…repeatedly. I like circles since it covers both push and pull motions of writing. Doing this slowly smooths out the scratch to leave a great writing pen.

  6. retrojoe says:

    Please remember that it’s also very easy to ruin a fountain pen nib doing this the first time. A Parker 51 nib is expensive enough to replace or have re-tipped, while an old oversize Mabie-Todd or Waterman’s will be even more.

    Please practice on something like the afore mentioned Pilot disposable or a Parker Vector before trying it on a 14k version. When I, and the pros, do this we use abrasive paper with grit less than .5 microns to finish up.

  7. dystopianforhire says:

    #6: the nib units are now around $50 retail, though some looking around on auction sites can still find them for less. I have 5 (for two VPs) and am hoarding them as barter tokens when the cash economy collapses….

    *tinfoil hat off*
    I’m always in favor of DIY lessons being posted, but would have to agree with the cautions already raised. By all means, grind your own nibs, but don’t start on a valuable pen. There are several disposables that write well (and I include the Pilot Varsity among them – mine are utterly reliable). There are also a number of “school pens” still available for $20 or less retail that are great starters.
    If you prefer vintage, and want even more DIY lessons, browse the ‘Bay and save a pen or two from being tossed out. There are literally tons of less-collectible pens out there that just need a good cleaning and flushing and perhaps a new sac to be ready to write.

  8. Anonymous says:

    I personally miss the “stylo tip” model of plastic tipped disposable pens from Pentel. Why did they get rid of it?

  9. stratosfyr says:

    Some time ago I took a dry crowquill pen and simply wrote on a piece of super-fine automotive sandpaper (something like 400 grit) until it was exactly the right thickness and angle for my hand. It gave an ordinary pen a bit of an angle, and since it was just a crowquill and I have no calligraphic skill anyway, it was a good cheap option.

  10. Diamond Jim says:

    Echoing earlier comments, Wim Geeraets is both very insane and very, very lucky. If he’d ruined his Pelikan M800 nib a new one would have cost him around two Franklins. A new Waterman Edson (whose nibs, unlike Pelikans, are not removable and interchangeable) will run you a grand. Teach yourself to modify your own nibs on cheap pens by all means, but if you go high end, turn to the experts. They’re not hard to find, not that expensive, and in my experience (I’ve dealt with one of the best-known for a decade now) deliver superlative results and are exceptionally nice people into the bargain.

    Of course, if you have–and use–your own ultrasonic cleaner, ignore everything I just said.

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