Dip Nib Primer

(This is a guest post by Nick Folz. You can find more of Nick and his work on Twitter, Instagram, and Tumblr.)

I have friends that will go on endlessly about the quality of vinyl records. They lambast me for using a streaming service as my main mode for music. Records are slightly inconvenient, they are large and delicate, but they like the ritual. I tend to lean on the convenience factor and they lean on the quality angle, but in the end we agree, music is good.

I like to think of dip nibs vs. fountain pens the same way. Yes, there is a large difference, but what it boils down to is convenience and variety.

Dip nibs are traditionally more flexible, cheaper, come in a wider variety of styles and you can change ink dip to dip if you feel like it (with a quick dip in water and a wipe with a paper towel, of course). The flip side is that you don't have to break out an inkwell and a handful of paper towels every time you use a fountain pen. Yes, they are similar, but they are also two very different beasts.


A Quick Intro:

Let’s start with the holder. In case you are totally new to the concept, this is the part you hold. They are the handles that you stick the nib in, some are made for only one type of nib and others fit a wide variety of them. You could really use a stick from the yard with a slit cut into it if you wanted to, but let’s take some convenience where we can. I am using the Tachikawa nib holder, which is built to accommodate several different types of nibs by having several different sized plastic circular recesses in its tip. Plus, the Tachikawa has a cap that can fit over the nib, which is nice! You push the non-pen tip of the nib into the tip and it grips it (tight enough not to drop it but loose enough to pull it free). When first buying equipment, make sure your holder works with your nib. Nothing takes the wind out of your sails like getting incompatible equipment.

Next up is to choose your nibs. These are the metal parts you dip in ink. Nibs come from the incredibly fine and stiff, to the very flexible and inky. Some come with "reservoirs" to help hold more ink per dip, some are cylindrical, some are spoon shaped, some are flat and some are unconventionally shaped. The good news is they are all pretty cheap (a bunch of nibs are sold in packs for 3 for $4, so go crazy and pick a variety). Read reviews and see what people say, but it is going to come down to personal preference. Your first nib might be too stiff and eat paper like a shredder or it might be too sharp to draw against the grain without snagging. Pitfalls are many, but don't despair! It is worth it once you find that perfect fit.

My current favorite is the Brause Blue Pumpkin Nib. It hits the sweet spot for me: Good line variation, not too rough against the grain, can do fine hatching and can drop a nice thick line. It doesn't hold a ton of ink, but you can get a reservoir for it.

Now time for ink. For you fountain pen ink fanatics, this will be a lot of fun. The doors are blown open and you can try any sort of ink you like. That dreaded India Ink that would clog your priceless pen into a worthless stick in less than an hour? Yup, pick up a bottle. This is a safe space. I tend to prefer the India Inks with shellac because they dry quicker, have virtually no bleed and are waterproof (if you are going to ink wash over them). The things that would make a terrible fountain pen ink are what make it perfect when using a dip nib. I like brands that have a dropper built into the lid and a large enough opening to see my nib when dipping. Most are made of glass, so treat them with kindness and respect. Lots of colors are available but I would start with a simple black.

Lastly, paper. I lean towards a higher weight paper with a bit of tooth. Bristol Vellum is my favorite but any 80 lb weight sheet is going to be fine. Nibs can be much more finicky about grabbing paper, and if you are starting with standard cheap copy paper you are going to be eating through the sheet and digging fibers out of your nibs with inky fingertips. If you plan on ink washing, go for a heavier stock, even the highest paper weights want to buckle a bit when water is applied. You can get a board and tape the sides down with some painters or masking tape, but I would recommend just trying out some basic nib strokes before we go whole hog into a wash. (See illustration.)

Down To Business:

Hooray! Time to draw (or write)! Grab a bunch of paper towels, your ink, nib, holder and paper. Dip your nib in the ink and make a few simple lines, pulling the pen towards you, testing the tines. Do a few swirls and dip the nip in the ink differently each time you dip. Dip a just a bit and see how fine you can write. Dunk the whole nib in and see how much you can write with a full load of ink. Now press your luck till you make a few mistakes, better to know how far you can push each nib until it dumps too much ink. Switch nibs a few times. Make a mess.

Take a moment and enjoy the ritual of it. Ink is, by its un-erasable nature, unforgiving. It is also its own best teacher; it will punish your mistakes. If you are an artist struggling to hold a solid line or going for a less sketchy look, ink is going to force you into working more methodically with carefully laid lines. I usually ink over a loose pencil sketch and if you are drawing I would recommend the same.

I feel like I should say that I am not a dip pen aficionado, nor a world renowned artist. So please grant me a grain of salt when reading some tips and tricks I have discovered over the years when inking with nibs, and please comment with tips of your own:

  • Give yourself plenty of room and place things accordingly, make sure your inkwell is close enough to dip but out of the way when drawing.
  • If you are right handed, start at the top left corner of the page and work diagonally down to the lower right, lefties, start at the upper right and work to the lower left. This keeps you from placing your hand over the fresh ink.
  • Don't be afraid to break the above rule and rotate the page. Nibs work best when drawing towards yourself and while they will still work when going left to right or away from you, you won't get the flex or variation you are using the nib for. Even worse, a nib tine might snag the paper, ripping it or unloading all of the ink in one spot. So spin the page when needed, just watch out for wet ink.
  • When laying down ink I tend to make longer, smoother strokes with the bare minimum lines. It leaves a cleaner impression on the finished art.
  • Let the ink dry before you go back to add details, even a stray pinkie finger can wreak untold havoc with not-quite-dry ink.
  • If your nib dumps too much ink in one spot and leaves a tiny pooled up line, rip a piece of paper towel and gentle touch the tip of the towel to the ink. It will suck up much of the excess and possibly save a drawing.
  • Dip early, dip often. Don't overload the nib and beware the dry line. You can keep an eye on the vent hole, once you see the ink thin or disappear in the vent hole, you had best finish your line or lift from the page early.
  • Paper towels are your best friends, seriously. Keep at least two around, grab the roll if you are clumsy. (I grab the roll.)
  • Keep a shot glass of water so when you are finished inking, or when you switch nibs, you can drop them in it to rinse. Or you can drip a few drops of ink in the water to use as a wash.
  • Wet your nibs down in water to clean the ink off of them when done. Dry your nibs before you store them, they are not immune to rust.
  • Find an old jewelry case, altoids tin or other small container to keep your nibs. They are mindblowingly easy to lose.

If you are interested in Dip Nips I would highly recommend you check out this handy guide from JetPens. It features a nib holder chart and does a basic overview of nibs.

Final Points:

Dip pens biggest down fall is one of the things I like most about them. They are unruly, inconvenient and impractical for travel. It forces you to stop doing everything else, focus on one thing and lower the volume on life. Sit and listen to nothing but the near silent "skrit" of nib on the paper as it tells the outside world the secrets of the inside of your mind. I won't argue that a supremely well-made fountain pen can do what a decent nib can do (usually better), but I am going to bet that it will cost you more. You will always win convenience with a fountain pen, but lose a touch of ritual. In the end, I think, putting ink to paper is good, don't you agree?

(Disclaimer: Some, not all, of the products were provided for me free of cost but I am not otherwise being compensated for this review. The opinions contained are my own.)

Posted on August 20, 2015 and filed under Dip Nib, Tachikawa, Brause.