CHOOSING A PEN FOR SCRIPT
Comparison of Flexible, Pointed Nibs by Caroline Paget Leake
aim is to make beautiful letters, our hope, to take pleasure in
the experience. The pen we choose can help or hinder us: will it
reward our touch and reliably produce the marks we intend - or will
it balk, skip, catch in paper, and frustrate our efforts to produce
the finest work we can?
pointed flexible nibs used for Copperplate and other script styles
are sharp, sometimes fragile, and notoriously tempermental. They
vary in size, durability, flexibility, and disposition, and the
process of writing does not feel exactly the same with any two of
them. A nib's "action" - its relative flexibility or stiffness
- will affect individual preference. Can you control it, and write
with the degree of precision your require? Or does a very responsive,
limber pen feel more alive, more inspiring in your hand?
each task imposes particular requirements, and for optimal results
a pen appropriate to them should be chosen. This preliminary step
involves knowledge of the nibs available, and some experimentation
with the other materials to be employed. Here, then, are some initial
considerations, followed by a comparison of the pens themselves.
While all flexible nibs wil form letters at a range of sizes, certain
of them are more suited to large, medium, or small writing. For
example, though a large nib can be used for tiny lettering, its
(relatively) thick hairlines, at that reduced scale, will produce
a heavy, inelegant result. Nibs, which render an extremely fine
hairline, on the other hand, will produce large letters in which
the spidery thin strokes look out of proportion to letter size.
For the purposes of this discussion, writing size will be defined
as the x-height measurement, or height of a lowercase "a".
When recommended writing sizes are given for th various penpoints,
they are intended to be approximate.
of paper/type of ink.
On what surface will the writing be done? Very smooth papers (plate-finish
bristol, for example) present the least resistance to any pen. But
certain envelopes, placecard and decorative papers (like Canson,
watercolor of handmades), have textured surfaces which can cause
finer points to catch on upstrokes. Results will range from momentary
frustration to an inability to use the point on that paper, at all.
Rougher surfaces also tend to thin hairlines to a degree (while
very smooth papers, as well as envelopes on which a return address
has been printed, may cause the ink to spread a little. Ink is also
a factor. Viscous inks (like Japanese sumi, or Ziller's) produce
thicker hairlines, while the more watery Higgins Eternal will provide
the thinnest. This it'spossible to "beef up" hairlines
from a very delicate nib, or keep thicker ones in line, by matching
nib to ink to paper.
among "identical" nibs.
Individual nibs of the same type, from the same manufacturerm can
vary in smoothness, thickness of hairline, and flexibility. In any
dozen, you may find several that are a delight, a number that work
acceptably, and a few disappointing ones. Sometimes one will turn
up which has been damaged during the manufacturing or shipping process,
or which was cut unevenly in the first place. (This is especially
true of the very tiny, fragile nibs). Therefore, when auditioning
a new penpoint, I recommend always trying out a number of "identical"
ones, before dismissing that style completely (or ordering 10 gross!)
The ways in which any two people weild a pen - the looseness or
firmness of their grip, the angle at which the pen shaft is held
relative to paper, the force, speed and sensitivity with which strokes
are made - are probably as infinitely varied as snowflakes, or fingerprints.
Given the fact that each style of penpoint responds uniquely, and
will even perform differently depending on how it's used, there
is bound to be divergent opinion (as well as preferences, passionately
defended). The terminally heavy-handed may always have trouble using
very fine, sharply pointed nibgs. Some people, accustomed to the
predicatble action of a stiff or stable penpoint, may be thrown
off balance by the unconstrained response of a highly flexible one.
Perhaps the greatest success is to be achieved by cultivating the
hand until it welcomes these differences, making a wider range of
choice possible, even inspiring variations in the script itself
in response to subtle promptings of the tool.
steady, durable: Hunt 101, Gillot 404, Hunt 56
These pens are suitable for writing at x-heights from 3/16"
to 1/4", on all surfaces from smooth to textured. They are
more easily controlled than the flexible nibs described below: that
is they will open up to create healthy swells when enough pressure
is applied, but the pressure must be firm and intentional. Their
steadiness and durability make them excellent for student practive.
For work to be reproduced, their hairlines are strong enough to
tolerate reduction. They are less than ideal for very small handwriting.
flexible of these, and with the most flar, the Hunt 101 is capable
of even larger writing (x-heights above 1/4"), and bold swells
- good for decorative headlines. It gives finer hairlines than the
Hunt 56 or the Gillot 404, but has a tendency to catch in rougher
papers on the upstroke.
Gillot 404 has a stiffer action, and though I have come upon some
that wrote smoothly indeed, currently many of these nibs have a
scratchy feel to them, and can produce as result which is disappointing
in its lack of delicacy.
Hunt 56 is comparable to the Gillot 404 in flexibility and width
of hairlines, but writes more cleanly overall.
Hunt 99, Gillot 170, Brause EF 66
These are smoother-gliding and more responsive than the three described
above. Because less pressure is needed to open them up and create
swells, they have a feeling of "bounce" and aliveness
lacking in the stiffer pens. Such flexibility makes smooth transitions
from thin to thick somewhat precarious, however, requiring greater
skill to control. Less sturdy, these nibs can become distorted by
a heavy or irregular touch, especially on textured surfaces.
Hunt 99 is extremely flexible, smooth-gliding, and capable of the
thickest swells of all the points described. With it one can effortlessly
produce very large, bold text (a title or certificate heading, for
example, which is to be contrasted in a design with smaller letterforms).
It is suitable for script with x-heights down to around 3/16",
and produces hairlines comparacle to those of the Hunt 101.
Gillot 170 is a smaller nib but quite flexible for its size, appropriate
for writing at x-heights from 3/16" to 1/4". It is comparable
in smoothness to the Hunt 99, with similar hairlines.
diminutive Brause EF66 is uniquely constructed to make it amazingly
flexible and resilient. Moderate pressure is enough to create swells;
press harder, and truly dramatic bold strokes are possible. Hairlines
can be quite fine, making this penpoint versatile enough for writing
at x-heights down to 1/8". Note that its shaft has a tight
curvature, and requires a specially sized elbow holder.
hairlines: Gillot 303 and Hunt 22B
are stiffer than the flexible points just described, produce very
thin hairlines, and are a good choice for delicate script at x-heights
from 3/16" to 1/16". The Gillot 303 is the more sharply
pointed and flexible of the two, while the Hunt 22B requires firm
pressure to produce a swell. Both tend to catch and quiver on upstrokes,
and have a scratchy feel, but will perform acceptably on moderately
textured surfaces. For very small writing, they are far easier to
work with than the superfine nibs discussed later.
A genuinely "rigid" nib would produce no thick strokes
at all, so the Gillot 1068A is not in fact rigid - just very, very
stiff. Depending on the amount of pressure exerted, it can be made
to open and create a medium swell - but this must be done with some
force. Ordinary pressure will produce script ranging from monoline
to what I call "featherlight" - letterforms with intentional
little contrast between thick and thin. If you are working in this
style such relative rigidity is an advantage: there's little chance
of losing concentration for a moment and creating one thick stroke
in the middle of a light, featuery piece of text. Another application
might be Spencerian, with extra pressure applied to the occasional
swell and to the capitals.
with charisma: Hiro 40, Brause Steno 361, and Hiro Crown.
These are large, durable, unusually shaped pens which perform well
and feel like quality. They are at most moderately flexible, and
appropriate for writing at x-heights of 3/16" to 1/8".
All feature long shafts which must be inserted far enough into a
holder to bring the point into good writing position; the Blackwell
Holder or other metal flanged holders will accommodate them, but
not the Speedball black plastic holder.
known as the "blue pumpkin nib" because of its dark blue
color and curvy, domed shape, the Hiro No. 40 seems, in my hand
anyhow, to exert an unmistakable personality: neat, poised (even
demure), highly self possessed. Hairlines are fine and uniform,
upstrokes smooth. Swells are limited in thickness: if you press
too hard, this nib will smartly dump its reservoir of ink in a little
pool on the page! But its crisp, refined letterforms more than make
up for that bit of mischief, and writing with it is a pleasure.
Brause Steno 361 closely resembles the Hiro 40 in shape, but produces
thicker swells and hairlines, and travels even more easily upwards
and around curves.
bronze colored Hiro Crown appears at first merely to be a nice,
pleasantly bouncy, reliable penpoint with few surprises. Its hairlines
are clean and steady but not as fine as the Hiro 40s, its swells
moderately thick at best. But it is exceptionally around the sweeping
curves, ellipses, and spirals characteristic of flourished ornamet
in Copperplate. In rendering such designs, the Hiro Crown's lack
of "surprises" is the secret of its success: it seems
simply to cooperate, and produce the intended shapes - without balking,
flattening curves, or depositing a thick stroke too late or too
soon - how wonderful.
flexible, delicate: Hunt 103 and Hunt 100. These are very sharply
pointed, somewhat fragile, and suitable for writing at x-heights
of 1/8" or less. On downstrokes they are resilient (will spring
backinto shape after moderate pressure) and intoxicatingly supple.
They are cut from thinner metal than the nibs discussed so far.
Their responsiveness and delicacy are compromised by a maddening
tendency to catch, skip and spatter ink on upstrokes, more frequently
than sturdier pens. An extremely light and sensitive touch will
help, as will maintaining the penholder at a low sloping angle relative
to the page (say, 20-30 degrees from the horizontal) while writing.
An alternative is to insert the penpoint into a Speedball holder
with the middle of the nib turned in slightly toward the handle,
which also serves to lower the angle at which the nib approaches
enough care, the Hunt 103 can be used on smooth surfaces to produce
small script in which lush, graceful swells provide dramatic contrast
with its very fine hairlines.
Hunt 100 is similar in feel but smaller, somewhat finer, less flexibly
and more fragile than the Hunt 103.
and fragile: Gillot 291 and Gillot 290. These are by far the smallest
and most delicate penpoints described here, and for truly infinitesimal
script (x-heights under 1/16", which really thin hairlines),
may be the only means to achieve the look you want. But prepare
to be patient. Their tips are filament-thin and catch relentless
on upstrokes, while too much pressure on a downstroke causes them
to bend - and stay that way. They quickly sustain damage from movement
oer even the smoothest papers, and most be replaced frequently.
I would not like to be left alone, late at night, with a quantity
of placecards to inscribe and only these nibs to depend on. I've
found it helpful, however, to have a few of them on hand for retouching
letters made with large pens: they produce a stroke so fine that
hairlines can be strengthened, or other minor alternations made,
invisibly. Of the two, the Gillot 291 is a bit stronger, the Gillot
290 is slightly finer.
small but sturdier: Hunt 108 and Gillot 659. Good news: there are
tiny nibs which hold up to the demands of writing. These two are
constructed with tubular shafts (like those on a crowquill) which
add measure of sturdiness and stability.
Hunt 108 is somewhat larger and more flexible than the 659, suitable
for writing at x-heights from 1/8" to 1/16" if the surface
is smooth enough. It tends toward shaky hairlines on the upstroke,
however, and does not work as well on rougher papers.
Gillot 659 performs more reliably on moderately textured stock,
delivering letterforms as small (x-heights around 1/16") and
hairlines as delicate as you will likely ever need. It is resilient
after light pressure. (Because of their small-radius tubular shafts,
both of these points require a specially sized holder).