The blog of Richard Thompson, caricaturist, creator of "Cul de Sac," and winner of the 2011 Reuben Award for Outstanding Cartoonist of the Year.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

More Late Night Nib Talk: My New Favorite Nib

Warning; this is mostly for appreciators of pen nibs, also known as nibophiles, pendemaniacs and nirds.

In an earlier post, I'd driveled on at length about my favorite pen nib, the Hunt ##101 Imperial, shown above. I use a dip pen nib every day of my life and am therefor a leetle obsessive about them; a bad one can send me into a funk that poisons the whole household and probably scars my children permanently, but give me a good nib and I sing & dance like Donald O'Connor (which also scars my chi- but, never mind). Nibs can vary in quality within their species. Get 30 nibs of the exact same kind and hold them in your hand; half of 'em are OK-ish, 10 of 'em are decent and 5 are sweet, and, if you're real lucky, one is immortal, a Nib for the Ages (that adds up to 31, I know, I know). It all depends what you're after, of course. I'm after one that draws fine lines effortlessly, on edge or square on, upside down even, and does fat lines without spreading out too far and compromising the ink flow. It's usually immediately apparent how well the nib is going to perform, just by the feel of it dragging on the paper, or the tiny variations in shape of the tines. It's this finely calibrated nib-sense that makes my wife's eyes roll audibly in her head if I so much as say the word "nib".

Now, the Hunt Imperial nib is good for drawing, but it was designed for ornamental calligraphy, specifically copperplate or Spencerian calligraphy. This style, popular in the 19th century, used a fine pointed nib with flexible tines allowing for great variations in line width by hand pressure instead of nib width and angle, and it demands great skill and a good bit of flair to pull off. The 19th century was an explosive period for steel nibs, as I'm sure you'll remember from your high school history book, chapter 21, "The 19th Century; An Explosive Period for Steel Nibs". Though steel nibs (actually often bronze) had been around for a while, maybe as long ago as ancient Egypt, they were inferior in line-quality to reed pens or, later, quills. Quill pens were cheap and fairly easy to produce as long as enough geese were handy, but didn't last long and needed sharpening often. By the early 19th century, steel nibs were much improved in quality, but were horrendously expensive, costing about two day's pay for a laboring man. And they were produced laboriously by hand, being carved one at time out of a block of steel with a putty knife (this part's not true). But, as with the manufacture of most things during the Industrial Revolution, improvements were made.

Birmingham, England was a center for the production of small metal objects, toys, jewelry, buckles and such, in fact it was one of the first manufacturing towns in the world, and the Jewellery Quarter is now an historic neighborhood. It was there in the early 1820s that John Mitchell began to apply button making technology to nib making, using a series of hand presses to shape, pierce and slit the nibs. Within ten or so years dozens of nib manufacturers had sprung up in the area, among them the firms of the Mitchell Brothers, Josiah Mason and Joseph Gillott, and at their peak they employed over 5,000 workers and produced an astonishing 1,500 million pen nibs a year, which wasn't too short of the world population at the time. Needless to say, the price of a steel nib dropped, from 12.5p each to 1.25p for a gross (144). At least one historian has said that this sudden affordability democratized writing and certainly it boosted literacy.

Though John Mitchell may have been the first (there's some conflict in the sources I've found; most such advances are simultaneous impulses), Joseph Gillott (pronounced GILLott, his bust pictured above) seems to have been the man who most perfected the art & science of nib manufacture. From the book "Forty Years of Ink";
It was Joseph Gillott, however, originally a Sheffield cutler, and afterwards a workman in light steel articles, as buckles, chains, and other articles of that class, who in 1822 gave impulse to the steel-pen manufacture. Previous to his entering the business the pens were cut out with shears and finished with the file. Gillott adapted the stamping press to the requirements of the manufacture, as cutting out the blanks, forming the slits, bending the metal, and impressing the maker's name on the pens. He also devised improved modes of preparing the metal for the action of the press, tempering, cleansing, and polishing, and, in short, many little details of manufacture necessary to give them the required flexibility to enable them to compete with the quill pen. One great difficulty to be overcome was their extreme hardness and stiffness; this was effected by making slits at the side in addition to the central one, which had previously been solely used. A further improvement, that of cross grinding the points, was subsequently adopted. The first gross of pens with three slits was sold for seven pounds. In 1830 the price was $2.00; in 1832, $1.50; in 1861, 12 cents, and a common variety for 4 cents a gross. About 9,300 tons of steel are annually consumed, the number of pens produced in England alone being about 8,000,000,000.

Gillott's firm produced many varieties of pen nibs, especially nibs designed for copperplate lettering. Their #303 was (and is) one of their most popular. But their greatest creation, their gold standard, was the fabulous Gillott Principality.

Jeez, just look at that sweetheart, isn't it a pisser? As far as I can tell, it was only in production for a little over 20 years, but it was unmatched for flexibility and ease of ink flow. If you compare it to the Hunt Imperial, you can see the similarities, but also some differences, like the grinding marks and size of the vent hole. And how it just looks better made overall. One mark of a well-made nib is a slight concavity of the tine's outer profile; it means they fit together evenly and therefor will work better.

OK, my eyes are starting to roll audibly in my head. Suffice it to say, the Principality is one of the peaks of a now-diminished craft, and it's one that people who collect such things pay good money for. God knows how many hundreds of thousands, or millions, of these fine bits of steel were produced in the late 1800s, but the day when you could buy a gross for a few bucks are long gone. About six years ago a collector sold a gross of the Principalities as fund raiser for the Leukemia Society on eBay for $1,525, and individual ones go for about $20, or two days wages for a laboring man, if he has a crummy job.

It's too late to make a long story short, but I just bought one of these things, unused, on eBay for less than $20, and I'm scared to touch it. And not just because the oil on my hand might effect the surface (many nibs have a coating that should be removed somehow so ink won't bead up on the metal; some old-time penman supposedly used to pop the nib into their mouth and let saliva do the trick, and no, I'm not going to try it). What I'm going to do is, seal it in lucite and put it in a tank filled with helium then bury it in the backyard. And when the economy heads south and nobody's buying cartoons, I'll trade it for fuel, liquor, breadfruit and copra.

But in the meantime, guess what? The nib manufacturing firm Hiro Leonardt has started producing a nib closely based on the old Principality. It's called the Leonardt EF Principal, and I bought a handful of them, and dang, it's a nice nib to draw with. I'm sure I'm not using it correctly, as it's meant for ornamental lettering on smooth paper with iron gall ink instead of drawing goofy cartoons on vellum bristol with India ink, and I can feel it pulling ahead of me, like a racehorse forced to pull a garbage wagon. Maybe it's embarrassed. But it's also more responsive and better made than most of today's nibs, which for the most part are stamped out of aluminum foil by poorly-trained lemurs. So there ya go, a ray of hope in a dark world.


angryparsnip said...

OMG ! memories....when I went to school, you could always tell the art students we had ink on our tongues because we were always putting the nib in our mouths. We all had to buy the cheaper ones so I think we though "gee it might help " weird !

The part were you talk about the pen feeling on the paper, I like the way my pencil, paint feels on the paper, that why I don't use a computer. My daughter does Fabulous computer work but I just can't.

David C. said...

Yes, that's all well and good, but, as a nib-newbie (why do I hear the strains of "Good Morning, Starshine" rolling around in my head?) I am inexplicably interested in whether and how you solved the Funky ink dilemma. Please.

David Hagen said...

As informative and far more entertaining than the History Channel.
Richard, you could host, ""Nib Talk!"

Tom R said...


I am not WORTHY!

arcticcircle said...

My eyes aren't rolling. Make this a weekly feature! Sod the cartoon drawing, we want more nib talk!

My current favourite is an extrafine Perry & Co. No. 227 (London) bought in an antique shop in Healesville. What are the chances of finding another one of those?

LW said...

those look a tiny bit like my absinthe spoon

Unknown said...

The Hunt 101 is my favorite too! I work primarily on papers and it's the only nib that gives a wonderful line and doesn't tear at the paper.

I read in a "how to draw comic books" book that Hunt covers it's nibs in a clear plastic that must be burned off with a flame or boiled away. I'm far too lazy to do this myself.

Alex Hughes said...

Nice article!

If you're ever over this side of the Pond, in the Birmingham area you might want to check out the Pen Room - a museum dedicated to the history of nib manufacture in the city.

Alex Hughes said...

Oh, and by the way, it's actually pronounced GILL-OTT, as in a fish's gill. I used a Gillott 1290 for the last 15 years (although I've more recently 'gone digital'), and my old studio was a stone's throw from the former Gillott factory.

Mike Rhode said...

Awesome post, man.

zero hour said...

ahh the Hunt 101, my usual for years.I started using it upon recomendation from Jaime Hernandez, his usual tool.
I just went back to it and some nameless manga nib from Japan for inking after using a SUMI brush for several years. For a while,for some reason, the nib was unavailable.( at least in these parts) I have a collection of assorted nibs going back to my school days..I can't seem to part with,even though their services are no longer needed.LOL

And yes, I put my new nibs in my mouth, try it sir, they won't bite!
(It's a BONDING thing...hee hee)

Mahendra Singh said...

Mr Thompson is in NoVa so he might have fond memories, as I do, of going to Visual Systems on Lee Hwy (near Joes Pizza & Theismanns resto?) & buying up fistfuls of nibs for chump change … they used to stock those lovely Brause 66EF nibs, which are quite flexible yet tough and would probably suit his style nicely

my stepdad would get me "liberated" entire boxes of Hunts from his job (an AD at Ft Belvoir) but I came to prefer the Gillot 1950 on mylar for my style

yeah, baby, talk nibs to me, real slow!

richardcthompson said...

Angry P, I remember a teacher in grade school telling us not to suck on ballpoint pens. And I remember they (the pens) tasted kinda like what mimeograph fluid smelled like. And yeah, I can't really do much with the computer somehow, either.

David C, I'm still using the funky ink, mostly because it hasn't gotten any worse, yet. The earth says Hello!

David H, I hope to line up sponsorship soon!


Hungry D, thanks, it was fun! I looked for a Perry 227 at and they didn't have any. You might own the lone existing specimen.

Lukas, hey, I'll try it for that!

Eric, me too! And me too!

Alex, I will. And thanks, I'll fix that, I've pronounced it "Jhill-o" to myself for years (I don't think I've ever said it out loud) and I saw "JILLut" at a pen website. Gill ott makes more sense.

Mike, thanks!

Patty, ok, but if I swallow 'em I'm coming over there to haunt you.

Mahendra, yes! Visual Systems is gone, and so are JF Thomas, Adcom and Theissman's, but Joe's is still here, and I got pizza there just yesterday.

Mahendra Singh said...

mmmmm, Joe's hippie roll!

Mecha said...

Ahh memories... my particular fave nib is the R. Esterbrook 355. Also much easier to come by than the Gillot nibs, though I have a handful of those too (I got lucky... several of the inkers who taught me sent me random nibs to try haha).

msacco said...

I love your nib speak.
I do Ornamental Script and used modern 303 for practice. Vintage Spencerian for better work. I have 5 mint unused Principalities from the Bay too. I'm saving them for when my skill warrant such a beautiful and well-crafted piece of nib-making art.

Dave M! said...

This is simply terrific. I create and teach ink-on-paper comic books. As a fan of Ben Oda, Artie Simek, John Workman and Clem Robbins -- to name a few -- hand lettering with the Ames Guide and Speedball/Hunt nibs is a lost art.

At Ames 3.5, I've settled on shaved-down C-6 nibs with B-6 for bold (Speedball B-6/B-5 works fine for Ames 4.5). A few old-school Marvel/DC pros have recently convinced me to try the FB-6. Luckily I found an online vendor Paper & Ink Arts. Can't wait to see the results!

Someday I'll try the nib you recommend in the article. Until then, please accept my thanks.

David Marshall
My Comics |
My Comic Book Class |
My Portfolio |
My LinkedIn

brou said...

Sorry to post a comment on an old article but I was wondering : nibs wear out, they become too flexible and they can break... How often do you replace a nib ? ("often" quantified in time or number of drawings or pages or strips...) Thanks.

richardcthompson said...

I buy a bunch of new ones every few months from But when I'm drawing I'll pull out a new one as the one I'm using clogs up or gets unresponsive. I put the used ones in a little jar with some ink-cleaning soap and let them soak for a few days then rinse them off and put them back in the box of nibs and hope they're all still good for future use. Some are and some aren't.

brou said...

Thanks !
(so you don't wash your nib regularly, you just use it till it clogs up ?)

Unknown said...

hiii, i have only used speedball c6 as a flexible nib. i just got a hunt 101, but i cant make it work well. its not that the ink dosent last. but it just dosent hold at all. i try to do a wider line and all the ink just flushes out of the nib. leaving just traces of the two tips of the nib... like a double line. i tried holding the nib under fire so it gets a little more scratchy and holds more ink. but it just dosent work at all... can you think of anything im doing wrong so i can correct it? it would be greeaaat help.
thank you!

Qin Leng said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Qin Leng said...

Hi Richard,
as an illustrator, I am also obsessed with the search of the perfect nib for inking.
Your recommendation is definitely something I will be looking into.
I have one question for you. I usually work with acrylic ink, but I would be curious to know which brand of India ink you use? I've tried some that aren't dark enough, and others that bleed awfully on paper.
Would you have any recommendations? that would be much appreciated.
thank you!

Mahendra Singh said...

The FW acrylic ink is excellent. Wipe your nibs with ammonia-based window cleaner afterwards, don't waste money on ink-cleaners … this ink is not so good for brushes though.

The perfect nib … it only exists in myth? I like the Brause 66EF more and more …

richardcthompson said...

Hi Qin,

My favorite ink is Dr.Ph.Martin's Black Star Hi-Carb, which is harder to find and more expensive all the time. It's very dense and waterproof but not gummy or thick. Google it & good luck!

richardcthompson said...

Hi Valeria,

You might just have a bum nib. They can be vicious, untrustworthy little things. Sometimes if it's not holding ink I wash them with soap and water to get the coating off. Or lose my temper and break it. I haven't been all that helpful, have I?

Anonymous said...

I've tried just about every trick in the book to get that coating off some nibs, but you will be surprised how much more ink they "hold" once that waxy coating is gone. Running them through a flame, top and bottom, seems to do it the fastest. Some recommend other chemical methods, but that seems the fastest. Saliva doesn't seem to get enough of it off for me. Well worth it.