A scratchy nib is one of the most common issues with a fountain pen. Probably 70% of our repairs include some kind of nib repair. As a result, the topic is one of the most enduring in the pen community, both in real life and online.
As with so many popular subjects, opinions abound, and thus questions. Having repaired thousands of pens over the last twelve years, I thought I would publish this list of nib smoothing “frequently asked questions”.
Why is my pen scratchy?
The simple answer is: damage. The tines of a nib, and the tipping on the end, must remain carefully aligned. This allows for proper ink flow, and smooth writing. Nibs made of gold can be bent–some quite easily–out of alignment. Normal use shouldn’t be a problem, but there will be a problem if you: drop your pen; try to flex it too hard; insert anything foreign (like a thin knife, perhaps to clean it out).
Are some pens more prone to scratchiness than others?
The more history a pen has, the more likely it is to be damaged in this way; a vintage pen found in an antique shop will probably need some nib work! Also, any nib with gold content over 14k (58.5% gold content) will be more prone to damage.*
What is the best way to smooth my scratchy nib?
Honestly, take it to a professional. Nib smoothing is one of the most challenging aspects of pen repair. It is easy to make the problem worse. And, because there is a limited amount of tipping on each pen, you could actually destroy the nib.
But I really, really want to smooth my own nibs! Do you have any suggestions?
I do, but proceed at your own risk!
- Start with pens you don’t care about. You will destroy the first few.
- Richard Binder has kindly and generously provided the notes from his nib smoothing workshop. They are excellent, and include detailed instructions for general nib smoothing. Read them thoroughly before you begin. If you do, you will destroy one less pen when practicing.
Where can I get nib smoothing tools?
You don’t need many tools. Here is what I use (with the caveat that this is a steep learning curve, and you embark on it at your own risk). I have no affiliation with any of the links below, and this content is not sponsored.
- 3M Micro-mesh sanding pads, with foam backing. I use three grits: 12000, 6000, and 3600.
- Strips of wet/dry sandpaper. I use 1000 grit. This is for smoothing sharp interior corners of the tipping material.
- Brass foil, for cleaning out the slit. I often use the 0.0015″ thickness. The variety pack (listed at the link) will keep you going for a long time.
- A magnifier. What you get depends on your needs and preferences. Try to get something hands-free, like a visor. Don’t ask what I use, because it probably cost more than your car. ; )
- Mini-pliers. Only use pliers with smooth jaws, and use some of your new sandpaper to smooth the sharp edges. The best are small modelling pliers used by the mini-fig crowd (think Warhammer). You get what you pay for (a good brand is GodHand, from Japan).
- Good lighting. If you have a ring light for zoom that would work well.>
Are there any secret tips that no one talks about?
It mostly has to do with experience and motor-muscle memory, which can’t really be talked about. However, I have a few pieces of advice.
First, if you have struggled for what seems like hours, and the nib is still scratchy no matter what you do, the tipping is twisted. I find this happens about half the time. This is an advanced job, not for beginners: send it away.
Second, a warning about hooded pens, like Parker 51s. Most nibs can be worked on while still in place on the pen. Hooded pens are the exception. If you try to work on one of these with the hood on, you will almost certainly damage the hood.
Third, super fine and flexy nibs are advanced. You need the experience of working on firm, broader nibs before tackling the subtleties of a nib that moves around while you write. And small tipping means less chance for failure, and the need for greater magnification.
In summary, nib smoothing is a challenging, but important pen repair skill. Much of that skill is learned the hard way, by practicing and absorbing collateral damage (i.e.: dead pens). But with persistence and hard work you can learn how, and never have to endure a scratchy pen again!
*To be fair, it’s more complicated than this. Gold alloys can be hardened, both in manufacture, and over time through use. But the more gold in the mix, the less hard the alloy will be. A 22k gold nib will never harden enough to be flexy, no matter what the manufacturer claims. You can’t pay enough to change the laws of physics! [Go back]>