This post stems from a question a friend asked me: “Nib?! What is a calligraphy nib??”. I’ll illustrate the answers using a pointed flexible nib, the Hunt 22B, and a broad edged pen: a Mitchell 0. Before beginning to work with a metal nib, it’s helpful to develop a lightness of touch while writing. If you press too hard on a calligraphy nib while writing, ink will pool everywhere. Check out the section How to Hold a Pen for a few tips on lightening your grip!
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A Calligraphy Nib, Defined
Calligraphy nibs are made of flexible steel. Most of them have a slit in the middle that goes from the writing edge up to the reservoir, splitting the nib into what we call tines. Slight pressure on the tines causes them to spread away from each other. The ink will spread between the tines as it flows from the reservoir down toward the paper, making a stroke. A nib will also deposit ink if the tines are together.
Broad Edge Steel Nibs
Below we have a Mitchell 0. The first photo shows the tines closed. The second photo shows the tines opened as I apply pressure to it. The flat edge of the nib is the main writing surface, although you can also make marks with the corners of the nib. The slit starts at the writing edge and goes up to the divet in the middle of the nib: the reservoir.
Broad Edge Scripts
Writing With a Broad Edge Calligraphy Pen
Broad pens are held at a consistent angle to the slant line, or the angle which all the letters lean toward. These lines are either drawn or printed on the page you’re working with, or they can be on a guide sheet underneath the page you’re working with (Check out Tips for Guidelines and Why You Need Them). I mark the pen angle somewhere on the page and periodically test the angle I’m holding the pen at against it as I work. If you are starting at the top of the line and drawing the pen toward you, you will be making a broad line. If you are starting at the top of the line and pushing the pen along the 45 degree angle, you will be making a thin line.
Pointed Flexible Calligraphy Nibs
Pointed flexible nibs offer freedom with how narrow or wide to make your strokes depending on script, size, and preference. Let’s take a good look at a Hunt 22:
Similar to the broad edge nib, a pointed calligraphy nib is split into two tines from the point of it through the hole in the nib. This hole serves as the reservoir. The curves on either side of the tines add to the tines’ range of motion. When writing with a pointed pen, keep the pressure light and the tines closed on the upstroke, or when you’re moving the pen away from you. The sharper the nib, the finer the line. Only apply pressure to a pointed nib when you’re pulling the pen toward you. Calligraphers call this motion a downstroke.
Pointed Pen Scripts
Like broad pen hands, or styles of writing, we write pointed pen scripts at a consistent angle to the baseline. Since the point of the nib is so fine, you can write a delicate script with it.
Penstaffs firmly hold the nib in place as you write. I mostly work with a straight holder. It’s always worked well for me, but there are plenty on the market and you should try others until you find one you love. This is what the penstaff looks like next to each nib I described above:
The back end of the nib is curved and fits into the end of a holder, or penstaff. It’s used for both broad edge and pointed pen scripts.
I hope this has shed some light on calligraphy in general and how you can work with nibs when you try them out. If you leave any questions, comments, or video requests leave them in the comments and I will be happy to address them. Check out the Learn page for more articles about starting out with calligraphy.