This post is third in a series about the technical aspects of fountain pens. — by Tracy McCusker
I have spoken at length about the anatomy of fountain pens in this series: how to identify interior parts, how the feed system works, how ink interacts with nibs. My main theme has been function over style because it’s all too easy to get sucked into a pretty carbon-fiber or tortoise shell barrel without thinking about the most important bits.
But there are points of style that can’t be ignored when thinking about functional pens. Style is the first consideration that I make when I reach for a writing instrument. When I write my daily journal pages, I want a cheerful, well-flowing pen to keep my mood light. If I am drafting the first scene of a novel, a no-frills pen that’s a hard-worker is my go-to selection. For editing, a pen that won’t dry out while its uncapped is my choice.
These considerations aren’t so much about how a pen looks, as they are about how the pen nib is styled. There are three main styles of nibs: an open nib, an inlaid nib, and a hooded nib.
The open nib is the standard nib that you see on 95% of modern fountain pens. It is called an open nib because you can see every part of the nib (it’s narrow base, the flare of its shoulders, the breathing hole, and its tines). The nib protrudes from the pen body to draw attention to itself. Open nibs can be plain or ornamented with filigree because their design is meant to impress. Open nibs can suffer from ink drying out if it isn’t in use. Their open design often allows nibs to be easily replaced or tweaked if the feed system goes awry. It’s no wonder that the open nib is so popular; the brazenness of a bare nib sets fountain pens apart from ballpoints.
While the open nib is the most popular of all nib styles, I prefer variety in my nibs. As a fan of both ballpoints and fountain pens, I don’t feel the need to flaunt open nibs if they don’t suit the pen design (and I honestly feel like most pen design isn’t served by sticking to standardized open nibs). I keep an eye out for open nibs that aren’t of the standard shape or size. The Lamy Studio has an open nib in a non-standard style; its short rectangular nib integrates into modern angles of its body.
Hooded nibs are the exact opposite of open nibs. They are also incredibly rare on modern Western pens. The nib’s body and shoulders are covered by a piece of plastic or metal. A hooded nib often doesn’t look like a nib at first glance. The hood has two advantages and a feature that’s seen as a drawback. It keeps ink from drying out quickly on an uncapped pen and it allows a writer to grip the pen close to the tip. For people with small handwriting or just a desire for precise motion, the hooded nib is appealing. The drawback feature is that the hood creates a rigid nib. Rigid nibs are uniform in writing—almost like a ballpoint. For people who buy fountain pens for flex, or for the gentle swooping change of thick-to-thin lines, hooded nibs don’t provide those lines at all.
It shouldn’t be a surprise that I am a great fan of hooded nibs. I write at length and for a variety of business purposes. I prefer a pen that will take to being uncapped, and will write with relative uniformity. The small, thin lines that can come from a hooded nib are fantastic for making small notations (for this reason, hooded nibs are sometimes sold as “accountant nibs” online).
Finding a good hooded nib is difficult because of their relative rarity. The most popular hooded nibs are found on vintage Parker 51 and Parker 61 pens. Chinese pen maker Hero makes an array of Parker 51 clones that hold up well to everyday use. For a new twist on the hooded nib, Namiki-Pilot’s Vanishing Point pen has a retracted hooded nib.
The last nib style is the halfway point between a hooded and an open nib. Like the open nib, the inlaid nib is visible from the top. Like the hooded nib, its feed system is hidden by a piece of plastic or resin and not easy to repair. The inlaid nib gains some of the dependable uniformity of the hooded design because it is usually mounted on a pen body. It, however, remains a style fixture in modern fountain pen manufacture because it celebrates the presence nib as a design feature. Inlaid nibs are often integrated into the pen body in astonishingly sleek designs. An inlaid nib is unforgettable. Unfortunately for pen aficionados, inlaid nibs are even rarer than hooded nibs, as there are not as many vintage inlaid nibs pens as popular as the Parker 51, nor are there a flood in inlaid nib clones on the market.
My earliest experiences with fine fountain pens were with an inlaid nib. It should be no surprise that the Waterman Carene that I’ve spoken highly of on this blog have inlaid nibs. The Carene is one of the few non-vintage inlaid nibs on the market. Other inlaid nibs are pseudo-inlays, like the Montegrappa Nerouno Linea (the nib juts beyond the pen body, so it is not a proper inlaid nib), or have been discontinued, like the Cross Verve. A collector can usually find vintage or discontinued inlaid nibs at a price. If an inlaid nib is the object of your attention, finding a list of pens with inlaid nibs can usually be found on fountain pen collector message boards.
Nib style can be an important stylistic decision to make, though one that’s usually made for the pen already given that the majority of pens have default open nibs. Despite my own quest for variety, there is nothing wrong with an open nib. Most fountain pen buyers start out with open nibs. Only after buying a few pens do debates over the suitability of open and hooded nibs arise among collectors. What it boils down to is this: open nibs are the gold standard, but hooded nibs are worth a try for their workman-like dependability. Inlaid nibs carry a hefty price tag but are incomparably gorgeous.