Grinding Your Own Nibs - Ludwig Tan
I enjoy the contact with other pen enthusiasts. Through correspondence with Ludwig Tan I am pleased to share with you his article on Grinding Your Own Nibs.
It confirms for me that grinding nibs is not something I will take up, but it is an interesting article and brings to mind the skill associated with fountain pens. May we all hope this skills are not totally lost.
The article was published in the journal of the Society for Italic Handwriting, Writing Matters, autumn 2000 & Spring 2001.
Few italic writers will have abandoned their quest for the perfect pen - their 'Holy Grail', as Graham Last aptly calls it (Writing Matters, No.1). Despite being a fountain pen enthusiast myself, I have yet to encounter this elusive instrument of perfection: a pen that is a delight to behold, writes flawlessly, has a pleasant writing feel, and transforms one's handwriting for the better - a pen that is an extension of the hand, rather than an impediment to it.
Appearance, however, is to enthusiasts of the Italic hand arguably the least important attribute of a pen; what matters most is how it writes. In recent months, by grinding nibs to suit my own hand, I have come a little closer to finding my ideal writing pen. I was first introduced to the art of nib-grinding about three years ago when Leong Khoon Kin - a fellow pen-collector in Singapore, and an accomplished Italic writer - gave me a Sheaffer Triumph Imperial fountain pen with a nib he had ground precisely to suit my writing. After having struggled for years with pens that capitulated on laid surfaces, dried up after a few days' non-use, or whose ink flow failed to cope with my usual rapid pace of writing, this pen came as a revelation. With some experimentation, and under Mr Leong's guidance, I have recently begun to understand more intimately the process of nib-grinding.
In this article - which will be necessarily lengthy and detailed - I shall describe how monoline (round-pointed) nibs can be ground for Italic use, thereby overcoming some of the limitations of manufacturers' products. I hope to show what an amateur such as myself, without professional experience with pens, is able to achieve following a simple procedure and using some easily obtainable tools.
Why grind your own nib?
Choosing a fountain pen - what is available?
There are two main types of fountain pen nibs: those which are not tipped. and those which are tipped with a hard-wearing metal (usually iridium). Most inexpensive fountain pens fall into the first category. Without an iridium tip they do not last long and may have to be sharpened frequently, particularly if one has a heavy writing pressure. Pens with un-tipped Italic nibs include Manuscript, and the calligraphy ranges by Pilot, Parker, Sheaffer, Rotring (literally 'red ring'), and Lamy.
Pens with tipped Italic nibs are more costly. These nibs are made of steel, gold plated steel, or solid gold (14 or 18K), and generally tipped with iridium. Whether a nib is made of steel or gold makes little, if any, difference to writing performance. Where the difference lies is writing feel: steel nibs are generally rigid, while gold nibs can either be flexible (e.g., Parker Sonnet, '75') or rigid (Parker Duofold, '51'). Some writers prefer flexible nibs; I favour rigid nibs as they tend to produce a cleaner, more defined writing line, and their ink flow is likely to be more consistent. Two manufacturers which cater to the Italic writer's needs are Sheaffer and Parker. Sheaffer has a stub nib for most model ranges from the Triumph Imperial upwards, but these in my experience are often imprecisely ground. Parker used to have Italic nibs for most model ranges but this is true now only of its flagship, the Duofold, whereas the Sonnet has a stub nib option. (Technically, a stub nib is like an Italic, but with a less sharp thick-thin contrast for smoother and more rapid writing.)
When buying a pen, it is always advisable first to ask about nib options and to have your pen fitted with a factory-ground Italic nib where possible. Larger authorized dealers usually have several nibs in their exchange tray and you should ask to try as many of these as you can. Because nibs are often finished by hand, no two are exactly alike: one 'medium' may be broader than another. Most manufacturers have a nib exchange service, so if the dealer does not stock your desired nib, the pen can be returned to be fitted with the right nib.
A nib should be ground only as a last resort, especially if you have found a pen that writes superbly but does not have an Italic nib. It should also be borne in mind that grinding a nib privately may result in the manufacturer's warranty being annulled. I recommend two high-quality and lasting but affordable pens, the Parker Frontier and the Sheaffer Triumph Imperial. The Parker is available in a range of finishes, with U.K. prices from £9.99 to £19.99. The gold-plating on the nibs and cap-clips of the more expensive models is of an exceptionally high quality. The less easily obtainable Sheaffer is available in the U.K. in only one finish - stainless steel cap and barrel, without gold-plating - and costs £21. Both pens are superb writers, but the Parker tends to dry- up after a fortnight or so of non-use (even with the recommended Quink!), especially if stored upright, while the Sheaffer unfailingly writes the first time even after several months' neglect.
Both the Parker and the Sheaffer are sold with standard medium monoline nibs, though the Parker has a broader point. The Parker has an 'Italic' option, but this is too broad for everyday writing, and better suited to calligraphy; it also has no iridium tip. The Sheaffer is available with stub nibs and these should be tried first as some may be quite excellent. The nibs are not graded for size but range from medium to broad
If you decide to buy either pen to grind yourself, imagine a line running across the widest point of the tip and assess for yourself whether an Italic nib of that width is sufficient. If it is not, ask to get the nib changed to a broader grade. If you normally use a fine or extra-fine Italic nib, the standard medium monoline should suffice; but if you prefer a medium or broad Italic, try to get a broad or very broad nib. Remember that when you grind an Italic nib from a monoline, you generally end up with a nib one size smaller. However, left-handers will find that grinding oblique nibs from standard ones gives them at least the same width as the monoline - a rare instance where pens work to the left-handler's favour! The Parker's iridium tip is longer and wider than the Sheaffer's, and will actually yield a medium (or broad-ish fine) Italic - it is therefore the obvious choice for writers favouring a broader writing point, especially if a broad nib cannot be obtained for either pen.
You may wish to try grinding these pens only after you have gained experience and confidence. For a start you might like to practice with an inexpensive pen. For L.K. members I recommend Woolworth's Standard Cartridge Pen, or W.H. Smith's Graduate Pen, both have iridium points and cost £2.99. If you are buying other pens, make sure that these have genuine tips, not ones that have been pinched into shape from the same sheet of steel forming the nib.
GRINDING YOUR NIB
We can now undertake the task of grinding a nib. These are some things you will need:
- Suitable fountain pen
- Grindstone (such as Rotring Arkansas stone)
- Crocus paper (or emery paper, grade 8/0)
- Powerful magnifying glass (but preferably a jeweler's 10 or 20x loupe)
- Razor blade (optional)
- Bottle of ink
- Jar or glass of clean water (cold or at room temperature)
- Cutting mat, or some other non-slip work surface
- Any writing paper you normally use
- Serviette, or some other smooth, lint-free tissue paper
- A steady hand!
Preparing the pen
If you are working on a pen that has been filled with ink, expel the ink, soak the nib to remove any excess ink and ink sediments (which fill the inner recesses of the feed and collector), and allow the pen to dry. It is preferable to work on the pen with the nib fitted onto the barrel, but with the cap left off, as this will give you better control when grinding.
Now immerse the dry nib in a bottle of ink for about two seconds, then remove the nib and bleed off any excess ink along the inner mouth of the bottle. You will now be able to write with the pen as if it has been filled with ink. On your progress sheet write a few words, such as The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog, as well as some crosses and zig-zags. This is how the pen writes in its monoline form. (Leave some space around your lines, because when the grinding is completed you may wish to write in that space to contrast the way your new Italic nib 'rites with the way it did before.) Now rinse off the ink in the jar of water, and wipe the nib dry with a serviette.
Understanding the shape of an Italic nib
The object of grinding your nib is to end up with a chisel. Looking from the side, your Italic nib should look as in Fig. la (not strictly a chisel) or 1b:
Fig. 1b is more difficult to grind but will produce finer hairlines and continue to write sharply for longer. Calligraphers often sharpen dip-nibs before use to achieve a maximum thick-thin contrast; this can also be done with fountain pens when their nibs become blunt. This process will be described later (as Step 5). A nib ground as in Fig. 1b writes more sharply because the angled edge means that a smaller area of the nib is in contact with the paper. Conversely, it would be wrong to grind the nib as below because too much of the edge is in contact with the paper, resulting in unsatisfactory hairlines:
Looking down upon your nib, your pen should have a flat (not rounded) writing edge, which can be straight, or left- or right-oblique:
A left-oblique nib is used by left-handers who write with the hand below the writing line. A straight nib is used by right-handers, as well as left-handers writing with the hand above the writing line. A right-oblique may be preferred by writers who find that a straight nib does not suit their hand; many vintage pens and some older dip-nibs for calligraphy are cut slightly right-oblique.
STEP 1: FLATTENING THE BASE OF THE NIB
The first step is to flatten the base of the tip. We wish to take away the shaded area below:
The base should be ground as horizontally as possible, not at an angle, because a horizontal base minimizes contact with the paper, giving a sharper hairline:
Place the Arkansas stone flat on the cutting mat, and align it to one edge. Hold the pen with your palm facing downwards, and with the base of the nib's tip resting on the Arkansas stone. Press upon the top of the nib section with your forefinger to apply pressure while grinding. Begin grinding the base with short left-to-right motions, with only your elbow resting on the table and acting as a pivot of movement. The following illustrates this from your point of view:
Grinding with short strokes makes it easier to keep the pen at a constant angle. In the beginning you may use a moderate to heavy pressure to flatten the base. but as you get to the 'decisive stage' of the grinding, when the nib is assuming its final shape, you should release your pressure to a light to moderate pressure to avoid over-grinding it. At this stage it \would help to apply a drop of water on the Arkansas stone to act as a lubricant (or, simply dip the nib in water).
When you have reached (as your unaided eye suggests) the end of this grinding process, rinse the nib in water to get rid of any metal shavings, and wipe it dry with the serviette. Placing the nib against a light background, and with the tip of the nib illuminated by the table-lamp, use your magnifying glass (avoid staring into the lamp) to check that the base is completely flat, and not wavy. If the nib is unsatisfactory, repeat the grinding process as above.
There are two good reasons for avoiding excessively heavy grinding pressure. One is the danger of breaking the iridium tip off from the nib, a very real risk if you are working on an older pen. The other is that the tines of the nib will flex under heavy pressure, resulting in a wavy, uneven base. This most seriously affects highly flexible gold nibs, but the rigid steel nibs of the Parker and Sheaffer are rather less susceptible. Nevertheless, a lighter pressure is always well advised since the changes to your nib will come about more gradually, and costly mistakes brought about by enthusiastic over-grinding can be avoided.
STEP 2: FLATENING THE TOP
This is performed in exactly the same way as in Step 1 above, except of course that the pen is now facing downwards upon the grinding surface. As the top gets flatter, continue grinding it at a slight angle towards the writing edge. Your nib should look thus:
STEP 3: FLATTENING THE WRITING EDGE
(OR, ACHIEVING, OR CHANGING, AN OBLIQUE ANGLE)
The object of this step is to wear down the rounded protrusion, shown as the shaded area in Fig. 8a below, to achieve a square tip or writing edge as in 8b:
This is the trickiest step of the grinding because of the difficulty in keeping the pen upright and at a constant angle to the Arkansas stone. Hold the pen upright with your thumb, forefinger and middle finger, with your wrist resting (on the table, but again with your elbow - as the pivot of movement. Grind only in one direction - that of a broad down stroke - using light to moderate pressure, applying a drop of water on the Arkansas stone to smooth the action. If the top of the nib faces you, then you will be grinding with the pen moving away from you. The pen should be held completely vertically if you are grinding a straight Italic, but at an appropriate angle to achieve an oblique edge:
As in Steps 1 and 2, release the pressure when you find that you are getting your desired edge. The time to stop is when you have both tines perfectly straight and aligned, and the writing edge has met both the flattened top and base to create a square chisel. Check the result with the magnifying glass, after having rinsed and wiped the nib. Ensure that the corners are square, not rounded:
You have now finally created your chisel edge and your nib has a generally Italic I, form. After inking your nib, try \writing on the progress sheet, beginning with crosses and zig-zags, then whole words. Your nib will be very scratchy, especially on upstrokes, and you should use only a very light writing pressure to avoid pulling fibers out from the paper and jamming the nib. Check that the writing line is clean and consistent (not jagged at the sides), and that the nib is writing at an angle suitable to your hand (i.e., straight or oblique). You will now have a fairly good idea of how the finished nib will write. However, if you find the nib too broad, you can grind it to a finer width following Step 4 below.
STEP 4 (OPTIONAL): GRINDING A NIB DOWN TO A FINER WIDTH
A nib can be made finer by grinding down both sides of the nib. The pen should be held as in Steps 1 and 2, but with the nib now resting on its side on the Arkansas stone:
As in Step 3, grind the nib in the direction of a down stroke. Use roughly the same pressure and number of strokes for either side of the nib. After every few strokes, ink your nib and writing a few words to check that the width is correct.
Having now ground your nib to an ideal width, you will probably wish to sharpen your nib further to ensure that it writes sharply for longer, following Step 5 below. However, this process is not strictly necessary and you can choose to do so only when your nib gets blunt, or when you have gained confidence and experience in grinding your own nibs.
STEP 5 (OPTIONAL): SHARPENING THE CHISEL POINT (OR, SHARPENING A BLUNT NIB)
This is done by holding the pen at a constant angle of approximately 30 degrees. from the horizontal and with the nib facing downwards, and dragging the pen along the Arkansas stone in long strokes. You should begin grinding with moderate pressure. As the grinding nears completion, however, use a light pressure.
This is admittedly a very delicate process as it is extremely difficult to grind both tines equally, thus making a light grinding pressure necessary when the nib is taking shape. Check your results with the magnifying glass after every two or three strokes. You should end up with a sharpened chisel, as follows:
Your nib is now almost ready for writing. But first its rough edges will have to be polished off before it becomes smooth enough for everyday use.
STEP 6: POLISHING/SMOOTHING YOUR NIB
The first task is to smooth both corners of the nib. This is done by dragging the I nib on its side and on each tine, beginning with the pen almost horizontal to the crocus paper and gradually pulling it upright, applying light pressure as it I rounds the corner. The left and right tines should be ground equally. Guard against excessive grinding, which will result in your nib becoming finer than you desire.
The next task is to smooth the chisel edge. Holding the pen as horizontally to the crocus paper as possible, and with the nib facing upwards and resting flat on the crocus paper, pull the pen gradually upright. Some very light pressure may be useful when the pen is upright:
Next, repeat the above, but now with the nib facing downwards:
Now, you should round off each corner of the bottom writing edge by placing the pen on each corner, and making a few very light sweeping motions on the crocus paper, each time moving in a different direction. This is difficult to illustrate accurately but the following figures will show the difference between an undesirable sharp corner (Fig. 17a) and the desired smoothed one (Fig. 17b):
Your pen is now very nearly ready for writing, having undergone the preliminary stage of smoothing to remove the most offending rough edges. Using the razor blade, clear away any metal shavings that may have become lodged in the slit between the tines. (You are strongly advised to skip this step if you find it too risky.) Carefully introduce the razor blade at an angle into the slit, from the top of the nib (not the bottom writing edge as even more roughness will result), guide it slowly downwards, then upwards, and slide it out gently:
Rinse the nib in water and dry it on the serviette, then ink the nib, taking care to remove any excess ink. Now write a few words on your progress sheet with the pen. You will notice that the nib is very much smoother than before.
However, you will wish to remove any minor roughness that remains. This is the second stage of smoothing, in effect a 'trouble-shooting' stage where you will be writing with your pen in different directions and held at different angles, alternating between the writing paper and crocus paper. As the crocus paper is best kept dry, rinse your nib and dry it with the serviette. Now write several 'phantom' words on the paper - this will identify the strokes that are still scratchy. Moving on to the crocus paper, write the same words very lightly, tracing in particular the same scratchy strokes to polish away any rough edges. You should write much larger than normal as this would help to magnify) - the trouble spots. You will find the pushed broad strokes producing some roughness, especially the tails of such letters as f and g. In fact you should choose test words containing these elements. My favourite is Pfingsten, meaning 'Whitsun' in German, which I write in minuscule's and with exaggerated descenders and an overhead ligature between sand t. Other test words are suggested below:
Other useful test patterns include an upright figure-of-eight (and a flourish of I similar shape), a swash capital G, and a thin line going back and forth:
The above test words and patterns should be written on the paper several times and with normal writing pressure to help you identical the problematic, scratchy strokes. Switching to the crocus paper, trace the same strokes and patterns, but with much lighter pressure, to polish off any roughness. You should perform these tests \while holding your pen at your usual angle to the paper, but intermittently also with your pen more or less upright than normal: this will ensure that your pen writes consistently smoothly within the minor variations in pen hold that occur in daily writing. Any roughness that remains at this stage will come mainly from the slit in the nib, the writing edge, or the comers of the nib. The test patterns shown in Fig. 20 above will smooth out any roughness in the slit or the writing edge, while the procedure relating to Figs. 17a and b will help polish the comers. Repeat any of the above from Fig. 14 on towards as necessary to identify and remove any remaining roughness - while remembering to use very light pressure.
The smoothing process is finished when you feel that your pen is sufficiently smooth to write with, while giving you a satisfactory thick-thin contrast. The final stage of polishing is really when you begin using the pen regularly and the nib gradually gets worn or run in - much like the engine of a new car - in time shaping itself to your hand. Once you are satisfied with your nib, rinse it in water, wipe it dry, and proceed to fill the pen with ink.
FINALLY, you can now begin writing with your newly-ground Italic nib! Write your first words with your pen, on its own ink supply, at the start of your progress sheet: the contrast between how it writes now and before should be clearly evident. It is hoped that you will have much success in your efforts, and that your pens will give you many years of writing pleasure.