Dear Schin, I am so glad I found your valuable and inspirational website. Thank you. I have just started out to improve my handwriting. Whilst I have ordered two oblique penholders from Brian the Lion, I am currently using a straight penholder and a Spencerian 1 nib – and I love it. My question is, when do you know when to change a nib? I write letters that are A4 in length. How many pages can I expect from my Gillot 303, 404 and Spencerian 1 nibs?
old nib vs new nib
I’m glad you like my blog and I hope you will enjoy your new Brian Smith holders
It’s hard to say when one should change the nib, there are so many factors in place that can add to the wear and tear of the steel. Just like how a car’s MPG is determined by how one drives the car, a nib’s PPN (‘page per nib’? lol) can depend on how one uses and cares for it. And no, it’s not possible to keep using a nib forever until the tip falls off, because as it wears off, the tip gets corroded and wonky and it will affect your writing and thus affect your improvement. Worse still, if the metal is fatigued enough it may snap and put your eye out!
Here are some factors that may contribute to nib wear:
– The ink used: If you are using iron gall ink or any other acidic ink, rest assured that the acid is slowly eating away at your nib, particularly the fragile areas such as the tip! This cannot be reversed and is the main reason why a nib needs changing so often. A chrome plated nib like the Japanese Nikko/Zebras do last longer, which is why they are recommended to beginners.
– The paper used: I find that if one is using a smoother paper, the nib isn’t as heavily taxed. But if one uses a rough sandpapery paper where there’s lots of scratching or fibers getting stuck in the nib, then it is more likely to wear out quicker.
– How clean it was kept: A dirty nib will rust or crust much faster than a clean nib. Here’s a dirty secret.. many years ago when I was still a teenager playing around with dip nibs for drawing comics, I didn’t even know a nib needs to be changed or washed. I used a thick sumi ink on a Hunt nib and never cleaned it.. for months of daily use. Yep, at the end it was completely stuck on the holder and coated with layers of ink and won’t even flex anymore! Basically I was drawing obliviously with a stick crusted in ink. I wish I kept one of those monstrosities.
– How often it was used: Of course, if you only write a letter a week and keep a clean nib, then you’re is probably okay. But if you write 2 letters a day, no matter how clean the nib is, it is more prone to wear.
– How it was used: If you’re just writing letters with a fine line with minimal flexing, then it’ll last longer. But if you’re applying pressure every other word or using it to write large engrossers script, then of course it will wear out faster. I’ve heard of masters using a new nib to write a really large, dramatic word with a really heavy stroke.. and having to throw away the nib right away as the nib will be too fatigued! Keep in mind a steel nib is like a rubber band.. nice and taut at first, but if you keep applying pressure, at one point it will just lose its springiness and that’s that, time to get a new rubber ba- I mean nib.
Below is a pic of two of my well used Leonardt Principal nibs and on the right is a brand new Principal. It looks exactly the same but you can see how it’s starting to rust, discolor, and even looks thinner and more tired than the new guy.
So how to determine when to change it? Well a method that Michael Sull taught me was to gently run the nib up your thumb. If it starts to catch in your skin, then the metal has gone too sharp and is probably too scratchy for good use. Sometimes I keep on using it though, because I’m weird and actually like tooth in my nibs. So this is your first sign.
Another bad sign if the tines are split, like how you can see light showing through it at an angle. That means I’ve pressed too hard and the metal has been stretched too far. You can still kinda use it, but the line quality is no longer very good. Better change up, or this is the last warning from your nib.
Also keep your eye on your nib and try to familiarize yourself with it. I love my Leonardt Principal and am quite familiar with its line quality, and can tell if it starts to feel a bit ‘off.’ Of course.. nibs are expensive and it can be a little painful to change up, but let me illustrate below. I’ve written something using one of my super old Principal nibs and with a brand new Principal nib. Both are exactly the same kind of nib but they look like completely different makes..
I wasn’t pressing down or anything! The top has been so worn that its default line is now much thicker. The new nib is still untouched by the ravages of nature and the line is so much lighter and finer. You can still keep the old nib for larger work which do not require fineness, but it’s not ideal for practicing fine writing anymore. Now to really change up!
Hope this helps!