Choosing A Pen for Script

Comparison of Flexible, Pointed Nibs by Caroline Paget Leake

Our 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?

The 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?

Furthermore, 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.

Writing Size.

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.

Type 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.

Variations 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!)

Individual Touch

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.

Large, 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.

Most 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.

The 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.

The Hunt 56 is comparable to the Gillot 404 in flexibility and width of hairlines, but writes more cleanly overall.

Flexible: 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.

The 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.

The 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.

The 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.

Fine hairlines: Gillot 303 and Hunt 22B

These 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.

Gillot 1068A (“Rigid”).

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.

Nibs 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.

Also 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.

The 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.

The 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.

Small 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 the paper.

With 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.

The Hunt 100 is similar in feel but smaller, somewhat finer, less flexibly and more fragile than the Hunt 103.

Tiny 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.

Very 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.

The 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.

The 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).