Truing Your Pen Nib


Or shaping the tip of your metal detachable nib.

Why on earth would you want to do this?

There are many reasons but the two main ones seem to be:

1 – Getting a sharper clearer line when writing with the nib

2 – Fixing a worn out nib

When using a feather quill pen one of the final cuts you make is to sharpen the tip instead of leaving it cut flat.  This creates a a more precise tip that delivers ink to the support (page usually,) better.  It also produces much better hairline thins in your calligraphy.  Without special metal working tools you can’t “cut” a metal nib to do this.  So many calligraphers believe they should just leave their tips the way they are and just deal with it.

A more intrepid and determined scribe won’t accept such mediocrity.  But how does one shape the tip of the metal nib?  By shaping the tip typically using sand paper or crocus cloth.

Typically the pen nib is flat when new and rounded after being used.  This isn’t always true but this seems to be what normally happens.

 

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To mimic the sharpened pen of a quill pen we want to get our nib tip to look like:

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This shape seems to be better for delivering ink to the support (typically a page) with more control. This means less blobbing, better ink flow and better hair thin lines.

How do we make that happen?  I recommend using crocus cloth or sandpaper.  Place the nib tip on the paper and pull it toward with the bottom of the nib in the direction you are pulling.  I recommend an angle of between 30 degrees and 45 degrees to the crocus cloth.  This will provide you with a sharpened pen for between 45 and 60 degrees.  You can of course sand it to flat if you desire, (not that I recommend it.)  The technique and process are the same.

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Try to pull only in one direction.  You will be tempted to rub back and forth to make things go faster.  In my experience that just causes problems you don’t want to deal with.  Yes, you will develop a “lip” on the side you are pulling away from.  Simply turn over the nib and pull it toward you a few times to get rid of this lip.

Can you use a lower grit sandpaper?  Yes, you can.  i just don’t recommend it.  That said, find what works for you and the brand of nibs you use the most.  You may find you like a lower grit sandpaper. This is one of those things where if it works for you, it probably isn’t wrong.  Yes, you can use a metal file if you wish.  I recommend you use a fine or very fine file if you do.

Hand drawn diagrams are nice, if a bit rough.  What does it look like when you do it for real?

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Crocus cloth and pen nib.

Notice the “grooved” or “discolored” area?  That is where the nib has been pulled repeatedly to sharpen the nib tip.  The angle of the nib is roughly 30 degrees to the surface of the crocus cloth.  I personally prefer crocus cloth as it is about 700 grit equivalent and doesn’t leave grit in the capillaries of the nib.

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A view from above.  This system of shaping your nib tip works for new nibs you want to get sharper and it works to fix nibs that are starting to get rough and are catching when then shouldn’t.

To fix burrs and lips caused by use you simply follow this procedure where the problem is located.  Most often a “lip” will occur on the top of the nib tip and so you will need to flip the pen over so the top is where you are removing metal.  Typically this takes very little time, often less than a minute.  Burrs can be a bit more tricky as they can and do develop on the corners of the nib tip as well as on the top of the nib tip.  The process is the same kind of movement.  Just put the problem area on the surface you are using to true up your nib.

Fair warning.  If you sharpen your nibs expect them to wear down more quickly.  You have thinned the metal of the nib which makes it weaker.  So you are trading off precision and durability.  The thinner the metal at the tip the less durable the nib tip. The more durable the nib tip the thicker the metal at the tip.

How long does this take?  That depends on the qualities of the metal your nib is made of and the crocus cloth or sandpaper you are using.   Simply getting rid of a burr on the nib can take less than a minute.  Sharpening your metal nib can take up to 15 minutes but in my experience takes less than five minutes.

ADDENDUM:

Some conversation has come up since publishing this post.  A very valid point was made about truing the nib “upside down” instead of the way I am showing it with down side down.

Why is this valid?  More accurately it can be valid.  It all depends on how you hold the pen to the support.  If you hold the pen perpendicular to the support then it won’t matter which way side you sharpen from.  If however you write the way I was taught was improper and hold your dip pen at an angle similar to that of  a modern ball point pen the advice to sharpen the nib upside down helps to decrease nib to paper surface and ink drop touching.

Personally for me I don’t have this problem writing with my hand made inks with the pen close to perpendicular to the page.

 

6 responses to “Truing Your Pen Nib

  1. I have used acrylic nail file/buffers. (Drugstore/beauty supply). They have four sides/grades, one a polisher.

  2. I recommend a black hard arkansas stone initially. You can finish it off with polishing cloths and the crocus paper.

  3. Janet, you may have noticed that I put an addendum on the bottom of the article discussing “from the top,” as well. You are correct that this is a valid and good way to do it as well. I have a better experience with doing this from the bottom than from the top myself. I am willing to bet that this is one of those things that will vary from calligrapher to calligrapher. And that it varies from writing technique to writing technique. I write with my pen as perpendicular as I can and I teach it that way as well. The underside sharpening seems to work best for me. Is that because of the way I hold the pen to the paper? Or is that because of other factors? I don’t know. But experimentation over time may provide some interesting insights about how one sharpens one’s nibs and the affect it has on one’s writing.

    The diagram itself represents the “flat” tipped nib prior to being “sharpened.”

  4. I’m not sure about your diagram of the quill – the last cut of a quill is the other way to how you’ve shown. Have a look at Writing Illuminating and Lettering (E Johnston) Figure 31 for example. This will give a sliver of pen edge to write with. Your diagram will give a rectangular block of pen in contact with the page, so thins will never be very thin. I believe the work to thin down a nib should be done on the top side, not underneath.

  5. i have to admit, i’ve never heard of crocus cloth. i’d probably do this with my soft and hard arkansas stones and then polish it with a surgical black (obviously making sure all oil residue is removed with alcohol before i try using it hahaha).
    thanks for posting this entry and for the fine work you did in it.

    speramus optima, pessima parate

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