Testing, Testing…Tiny Nibs

Tiny nibs test; freehand sketches from photos of bees in our garden; Strathmore 300 smooth vellum; the originals are about an inch high

Steel pen nibs were made in a seemingly endless array of sizes and designs for over 100 years. There are a very limited number still being made today. All of them are based on the necessary shape of a barrel that was curved, plain at one end to fit into the holder and the slit for the writing point at the other with the “ink reservoir” behind it. The curve is what holds the ink in place.

I’ve been accumulating a large and various stock of nibs for a little over a year now and will be sharing the various “makes and models” here on the SketchWild blog. I recently bought a batch of very rare Esterbrook #351 ‘Superfine’ nibs. I have a “tiny” collection of tiny nibs now and I thought it would be fun to do a side-by-side comparison of them.

One thing I recently learned, which makes perfect sense, is that these small very fine nibs can fail to “run” if the ink is too viscous. And I’ve had that problem, particularly with the Hunt 100. The Esterbrook 351 wasn’t keen on that ink either, the otherwise admirable Carbon Platinum. Noodler’s American Eel worked fine, as did the walnut inks I bought from an Etsy seller in Russia, Bukvawood.

Here’s a comparison of my smallest nibs compared to the Esterbrook Falcon 048, the most popular nib the company ever made, to the point, so to speak, that every company had to have at least one nib in the “falcon” shape in its product line. From left to right from the Falcon is a Gillott 290, Gillott 291, Gillott 1000 and then a Hunt 100 and an Esterbrook 351. They all require respect and a light touch. A pen and ink artist of the past characterized one of them as having a “short but happy life”. They are all quite flexible and despite being made of excellent Sheffield steel the pressure needed to vary line width eventually causes metal fatigue, the tip doesn’t close together and at that point they’re done.

As to paper, I did try a couple of them on my favorite Strathmore 300 vellum bristol, which only has a bit of tooth, but even that was too much so they snagged and/or spattered. I switched to the smooth vellum version and they were MUCH happier and a joy to sketch with, albeit still with a very careful, light touch.

More freehand test sketches from my own photos; the original drawings are from 1-2″ high

Here are some of the pen and ink artists who have used or recommended these nibs. I’ll be doing blog posts about them in the future. All of them are also authors of pen and ink instruction books which I own:
Gillott 290: Henry Pitz, Arthur Guptill, J. Hullah Brown, John Austen, Grant Wright
Gillott 291: Henry Pitz, Arthur Guptill, J. Hullah Brown, Charles D. McGinnis, G. Montague Ellwood, John Austen, Grant Wright
Gillott 1000: Arthur Guptill, John Austen
Hunt 100: Henry Pitz, Arthur Guptill
Esterbrook 351: I didn’t know this nib existed until I found it for sale a couple of weeks ago on ebay.

The Gillott 290 and the Hunt 100 are not too hard to find via ebay or Etsy. Be sure with the latter to find out if what is on offer is vintage or new. The method of manufacture is very different in the new vs. the vintage ones, another topic for a future blog post. The new ones are much less expensive and may have a different finish than the vintage versions.

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