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A field guide to Japanese Nibs


kamakura-pens

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I've been working on a little essay, and I thought I would share it here. The new people to Japanese pens may find this helpful, but I hope some of the veterans could help and point out if I am missing anything obvious that should be in the essay.

 

Thanks for your time guys,

 

Stay Well

 

Dr. Ron Dutcher

http://www.kamakurapens.com

 

 

No two writers are the same. That is a very simple self-evident sentence, but when it comes to pens it becomes very important. Pilot pens realized this back in the 1920’s as they tried to move the traditional Japanese writer away from their brush pens to the new fountain pens. Brushes could be cut and shaped easily to fit each individual; pen nibs were not so easy. So Pilot created a spectrum of nibs, and soon the other pen makers followed their example.

 

Pilot today still carries many of these nib styles on their Custom line of pens. These names and explanations are not easily understood in the west, and as it turns out, many pen sellers in Japan also seemed a little confused. On the online pen forums and in my e-mail inbox, I regularly find questions about all of these nibs.

 

A while back I found a small collection of the Pilot Times, Pilot’s inhouse publication used to educate their salesmen and distributors. A series of articles detailed the different types of nibs, how they differed, and what kind of writing was suitable for each nib. So going from the finest to the broadest here is the spectrum of Japanese nibs.

 

Another thing to keep in mind is that Pilot and the other pen makers did not always mark their nibs as what style they were. The distributor, or as most often the case, the stationary shop proprietor was originally supposed to be trained so that he could identify the nib at just a glance, but inevitably confusion crept in, and the constant complaints forced Pilot to mark their nib points.

 

The Bookkeeper nib. Usually marked BK :

This was a specialty nib designed for accountants and the characters you would expect to find slouched over a ledger in a Charles Dickens novel. The nib was an extra fine point, extra long and extra stiff. The nib blank was thicker than the regular nibs. What made it interesting is that the iridium was ground into a perfect square shape. This made for nice sharp lines, and the writer could use it to make long thin ruled lines in a ledger, but you had to use a light touch and be careful when writing with this nib. One wrong move and the writer could twist the tines, ruining an expensive pen. Since the nib was so fragile, Pilot long ago stopped manufacturing this design. I have only seen one example of a Pilot Bookkeeper nib. It was on a 1926 Pilot Laconite pen. If anyone has such a pen in their collection, I sure would like to see it.

 

The Posting nib.

Pilot designed this nib especially for Japan’s early post office cards, hence the name. These postal cards were significantly cheaper to mail than an official letter, and thus most business mail and informal correspondence was done on these cards. Even today, the postal card tradition continues as the Japanese send “nengajo’s” (New Year’s postcards) to everyone they know during the holiday season. In the 1920’s these cards were made of a soft, loose fiber, paper that was ideal for brush pens, but not so easy for fountain pens to write on them, so Pilot engineered it’s Posting nib. This nib has a long nib blank with a fine or extra fine point, and with little flex. The iridium point is specially ground to be super smooth. The interesting thing about this nib is that it has a slight downward curved point that helped make a darker line on the soft paper. Pilot still makes this nib today and it is ideal for people who write fast like journalists or university students taking notes, or people you like to use soft paper.

 

The Fine nib.

The Japanese work horse nib. During the 1920’s Pilot explained to its salesmen that 90% of the pens in the West were made with Medium or Broad nibs. These were not suitable of writing the complicated Japanese kanji characters. So 90% of all Japanese nibs were either fine or extra fine. Of course this was true, but the tone suggests that Pilot was competing with the Waterman pens that the Japanese viewed as superior, luxury pens. Pilot was the Chevy trucks of the 1920’s Japanese pen world, while Waterman was the Mercedes Benz, and Pilot fought hard to change this image. Pilot’s fine nibs used a medium length nib blank with medium flexibility.

 

The Stenographer nib. Usually marked STENO

Before tape recorders, copy machines, and typewriters became popular and affordable, the occupation of stenographer was commonplace. These office people did nothing but make copies, take dictation and write letters. A pen was in their hand all day long. To make their jobs easier, various shorthand languages were developed and pensmiths designed nibs just for them. The Stenographer’s pen usually utilized a longer barrel than usual, to hold more ink, and often the barrel was thinner since stenographers were often women and thus had smaller hands. The nibs had to be made so that the stenographer could write as quickly as possible. At the same time, Japanese business writing preferred sharp line characters. Pilot’s stenographer nib utilized a long nib blank with medium fine point and with very little flex. The iridium was ground to make it smooth, but still a little square. These nibs had a little tooth to them, but not enough to slow down the writing speed. Interestingly, most of the Steno marked Pilot pens that I have found were the war-time shiro nibs. I also find a lot of 1950’s Pilot Supers and a few early Pilot Elites with this nib. Today, Pilot makes a Fine Medium nib, that is stiff and smooth, and this is about as close as you can find that compares with the old Steno nibs. If you get the chance try writing with one of these nibs. It is an interesting experience.

 

Script Nib. In the late 1950’s Pilot phased out the Stenographer nib and replaced it with their Script nib. This nib was very similar to the Stenographer’s nib, but with a rounder grind on a larger ball of iridium. They were designed for people who had to write quickly for long periods of time.

 

The Medium Nib.

This nib is like the fine, only a little broader. In 1926, these pens were popularly placed in the fancier Pilot overlay pens. They were not often used for every day writing, but more for everyday signing. Think of a pen that a lawyer or a businessman would like to use to sign every day checks and contracts. Pilot’s medium nib used a medium nib blank with a medium smooth point with medium flex.

 

The Falcon Nib

When writing Japanese calligraphy with a brush it is easy to vary the line width by how much of the brush tip you allow to touch the paper. With a gold nib this is not the case. A flexible nib allows for line variation by how much pressure you give the nib, which spreads the tines apart. It is easy to make a nib more flexible by making the tines longer, but this leads to a common problem. If you flex the nib and overextend the tines, the ink flow to the paper breaks. The Falcon nib solves this problem. Pilot took a Medium length nib blank and cut out crescents on each side of the nib. The nib looked something like a birds beak, hence the name. This design creates a nib that can make a medium line with no flex to a very broad line with more pressure and since the tines are shorter, there is no flow problem by overextension. One of my most prized Pilot Namiki pens is a 1926 lever filler with a Falcon nib. I have found a lot of Falcon nibs on 1950’s Pilot Supers and one some of the early Elites, but this is a rather rare nib. If the Japanese were going to write in their elegant school-learned calligraphy, it only seemed proper to use their brush pens. Writing old-style with a modern fountain pen just felt a little out of place. Pilot makes a falcon nib today, but I haven’t tried using one yet.

 

The Manifold Nib.

Back in the days before typewriters and copy machines, offices tried to become more efficient by using manifold books. These were books with leaves of alternating carbon and writing paper. A writer could make two or even three or four copies of a page at once by writing in one these books. However you needed to press down very hard with a pen to make the bottom pages legible. For this purpose, Pilot introduced the Manifold nib. The nib consisted of medium length blank with a medium smooth point with a little larger ball of iridium than the other nibs. The tines were short and the nib was made as stiff as possible with virtually no flex at all. With one of these nibs you could press down on the paper as hard as you liked and you couldn’t harm the nib. The desk might break before the nib gave way. Even though no one uses fountain pens for carbon paper anymore the Manifold nib has continued to be popular. And Pilot still offers this nib today. I often keep one of these with me as a lender. It is an ideal nib for the newbie to start with.

 

The Waverly Nib.

For left handed people or people who needed to write on very rough paper, Pilot developed a medium length, medium point pen. The tines were curved in a wave shape to increase the smoothness. Pilot officially named this the Waverly nib. However, to everyone who worked for Pilot the nib was known as the Mantis Tummy, because the curved rounded shape resembled that part of the insect. The pen is a medium to broad nib point with a unique curvature and an extra large ball of iridium that is ground to be perfectly smooth. The nib is similar to the Waterman Yellow Nib. This nib type was more expensive than the others, and I have never seen one on a vintage pen except for those in early Pilot advertisements. Pilot makes this nib available for their modern Custom pens, but I haven’t tried it yet.

 

The Coarse nib

I often see people confused about this nib. It is basically what we think of as a Broad Nib. In the 1920’s Pilot only offered a Coarse nib with medium length tines and a little flex, named after the coarse brushes that writers would use for large writing. In the 1950’s Pilot offered Broad and Coarse points, and the coarse points were more of an extra broad.

 

The Half Stub Nib

In the 1920’s, Pilot offered a pen point marked HS. I found one of these a while back and it was this nib that made me interested in researching this article. As it turned out, the pen was a Half Stub. A Coarse point with medium short tines and a little flex.

 

The Signature Nib:

This was what we would think of as a triple broad point nib. The Japanese couldn’t write their kanji characters at standard size with this pen, but it made a nice big, bold signature. These nibs were typically placed in the early Pilot overlay pens and in some of the maki-e pens. These were not everyday writing pens, but something you would like to use to sign your name at a wedding, or signing an important contract. Again, these are very rare in the vintage pens, but I can occasionally find them on 1950’s and later pens.

 

The Stub

As you would suspect, a broad point with short tines, and no flex. Not a very popular point in Japan, and quite rare on the vintage pens. If you spot one, grab it.

 

The Oblique

These nibs are stubs with a diagonally cut points, and used for italic style writing Though Pilot made these nibs as early as 1920, I have never seen one in a vintage pen or heard from a collector who had seen one.. Before the war, there was a large community of Europeans living in Yokohama, and I suspect this nib was made mainly for this niche market.

 

The Music Nib:

In recent years, this nib has become rather popular. Basically it is a triple broad stub with three tines to assure an even flow across that broad point. The point is ground into a square shape. The original idea was that you could use this nib to write musical staffs and notes. The nib makes a very broad stroke on a down stroke and a fine point on a horizontal stroke. By holding the nib diagonally you can create line variations and even do italic style calligraphy. I have seen one of these in a pre-war pen, and a few in 1950’s and 60’s pens, but they are hard to find. Pilot and Platinum make three tined Music nibs in their modern pens, and Sailor offers a broad stub pen with a square shaped point that they call a Music pen, but it only has the usual two tines. These are very fun pens to write with, and if you haven’t tried one, you ought to add one to your daily rotation.

 

The Duopoint.

Pilot claims they made this nib and that it was popular in the 1930’s, but I have never seen one. On the other hand I have found a lot of 1930’s, 40’s and 50’s Sailors with this nib style. The nib is ground so that it may be used on both its top and bottom. The top side is a fine point, and the writer could flip the pen over and write with the bottom edge of the nib to make a broad line.

 

http://www.kamakurapens.com/Logo-1.jpg

 

Dr. Ron L. Dutcher

www.kamakurapens.com

Kamakura Pens on facebook

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Thank you very much for the nice and instructive reading. I love japanese pens.

Is it possible to see a picture of the Falcon nib of your Pilot/Namiki pen from 1926 ?

 

Regards,

Dimiter

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This is a great contribution, Ron. Thank you so much.

 

I am afraid I am one of those people who wants "to use" knowledge. If I were to use the information from this article to order a custom nib, would a Japanese firm understand my nib preference if I used English? For example, if I wanted my next Nakaya custom pen with a "Half Stub" and I asked for that nib type by name in English, is that nomenclature intelligible to the Japanese?

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Thank you, Ron! It's not easy to find information on Japanese pens (in English) -- your essay is very helpful.

 

Lisa

Love all, trust a few, do wrong to none.

 

Lisa in Raleigh, NC

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Ron:

 

Great post thanks! Very informative.

 

I would love to try one of those posting nibs. I write fast when taking notes and love thin points. Anyone have any suggestions on who might carry them?

 

Thanks!!!

 

Alex

"I know that you believe you understand what you think I said, but I'm not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant.” - Robert McClosky
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Ron:

 

Great post thanks! Very informative.

 

I would love to try one of those posting nibs. I write fast when taking notes and love thin points. Anyone have any suggestions on who might carry them?

 

Thanks!!!

 

Alex

 

 

Pens by Pilot with POSTING nibs were common into the 1960s and show up on Yahoo Japan Auctions all the time.

stan

Formerly Ryojusen Pens
The oldest and largest buyer and seller of vintage Japanese pens in America.


Member: Pen Collectors of America & Fuente, THE Japanese Pen Collectors Club

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Wow. Great reading.

 

Can the mods "pin" this article? I think it belongs in the reference section.

 

Sincerely,

 

Yumbo

Gustatus similis pullus!

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The posting nib, the falcon and the waverly (mantis tummy :D) nibs all sound fascinating. I think it's would be neat to have pictures showing the details of these nibs as they are described.

 

All in all a great read!

RAPT

Pens:Sailor Mini, Pelikan Grand Place, Stipula Ventidue with Ti Stub nib, Pelikan M605 with Binder Cursive Italic, Stipula Ventidue with Ti M nib, Vintage Pilot Semi-flex, Lamy Vista, Pilot Prera

For Sale:

Saving for: Edison Pearl

In my dreams: Nakaya Piccolo, custom colour/pattern

In transit:

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Thanks for such a great post. I'd love to try some of these, especially the posting nib.

 

I agree with Yumbo; this would be a good article to pin somewhere.

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It's disappointing that they don't appear to make any sort of 'edged' nib with which one can get width variation(italic-type) ?

If you make people think they're thinking, they'll love you; But if you really make them think, they'll hate you.

 

Don Marquis

US humorist (1878 - 1937)

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This is a great contribution, Ron. Thank you so much.

 

I am afraid I am one of those people who wants "to use" knowledge. If I were to use the information from this article to order a custom nib, would a Japanese firm understand my nib preference if I used English? For example, if I wanted my next Nakaya custom pen with a "Half Stub" and I asked for that nib type by name in English, is that nomenclature intelligible to the Japanese?

 

The Nakaya guys should know what a half stub is. I am working on some scans and images for this essay, so hold on. If you have the image, it would help you clear up any miscomunication with the Japanese manufacturers.

 

Stay Well,

 

rd@kamakurapens.com

 

http://www.kamakurapens.com/Logo-1.jpg

 

Dr. Ron L. Dutcher

www.kamakurapens.com

Kamakura Pens on facebook

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Isn't there something called an "emporer nib?" I THINK it's like a nib with a piggy back nib on top? I'm not being very clear. I've not seen one in person, only pictures

on the internet... Is that a variation of one of the nibs in your great discriptions above?

Maybe it's one that Pilot never made?

 

cheers

skyp

Edited by Skyppere
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Isn't there something called an "emporer nib?" I THINK it's like a nib with a piggy back nib on top? I'm not being very clear. I've not seen one in person, only pictures

on the internet... Is that a variation of one of the nibs in your great discriptions above?

Maybe it's one that Pilot never made?

 

cheers

skyp

 

 

You are refering to Sailors Cross Emperor nib.

http://www.kamakurapens.com/PenImages/SailorCelluloidGold5.jpg

 

Sailor has quite a collection of unique specialized nibs, and you could write a feild guide just for Sailors line. I have not tried them all of Sailors nibs yet, but those who have swear by them.

 

Pilot makes a large oversized lacquer pen that they call the Emperor, with a huge gold nib.

http://www.kamakurapens.com/Logo-1.jpg

 

Dr. Ron L. Dutcher

www.kamakurapens.com

Kamakura Pens on facebook

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  • 5 years later...

Interesting read, ok it took me sometime to find it but informative anyway.

Money may not make you happy but I would rather cry in a Rolls-Royce

 

The true definition of madness - Doing the same thing everyday and expecting different results......

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  • 9 months later...

What an awesome article. Is there an updated version/version with pictures anywhere?

 

Thanks for putting this together.

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Only just found this one (thanks for the bump, johntdavis :thumbup: ) : an amazing compendium. Thank you all.

I am no longer very active on FPN but feel free to message me. Or send me a postal letter!

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  • 2 months later...

Excellent information. I had questions about Japanese nibs, and you answered many of them.

Franklin-Christoph, Italix, and Pilot pens are the best!
Iroshizuku, Diamine, and Waterman inks are my favorites!

Apica, Rhodia, and Clairefontaine make great paper!

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