I've wanted to write a piece about custom nibs for a while. As the "pen world" explodes in popularity (well, at least relatively speaking), more and more people are discovering the world of nib customization. And at the same time, more people who have been tuning and grinding their own nibs at home have begun to transition their hobby into a small business. Only a few years ago, There were but a handful of reliable people who performed nib modifications. (Mike Masuyama, Richard Binder, and John Mottishaw, to name a few.) Today, there are even more, including Mark Bacas, Tim Girdler, Linda Kennedy, Dan Smith, and Shawn Newton. There's enough demand to support multiple people plying their trade, and I know of several individuals experimenting at home who may "go public" in the future.
What exactly is a custom nib?
The majority of fountain pen manufacturers offer nibs in four standard sizes: extra-fine, fine, medium, and broad. These "factory" nibs have round tipping material and produce a uniform line of writing that has little variation, meaning that the pen writes with a consistent line width in all directions. While it's become increasingly common for manufacturers to offer stub nibs (discussed further below) in 1.1mm and 1.5mm widths as part of their standard line, and certain manufacturers offer double or triple-broads, ultra-extra fines, obliques, crisp italics, and other specialty nibs. But even these are not truly "custom".
As I consider it, true nib "customization" involves sitting down at a table with the nib technician (or "nibmeister", as some might call them, though I prefer "nib technician" and will use that term here for simplicity's sake), having him or her watch you write, and adjusting the nib specifically to your writing style, accounting for various factors. Of course, this process often involves a nib "grind," (i.e., changing the shape of the tipping material using a grinding stone, wheel, or a rotary tool) but it can also involve smoothing the nib on sandpaper and/or mylar sheets, increasing or decreasing ink flow to the writer's preference, resetting the nib and feed, or aligning the tines. When you walk away from an appointment with a nib technician, you should have a pen that writes perfectly for you and your writing style.
That said, part of what I love about nib customization is the ability to get unique nib grinds. I'll briefly walk you through a few of my favorites:
Cursive Italic. A traditional "true italic" nib has little-to-no tipping material, is cut square across the tip, and has very sharp edges. I've found sharp italic nibs very difficult to use for daily writing (as opposed to calligraphy) because the sharp edges snag the paper, and the lack of tipping material makes the nib prone to skipping unless the nib is held at exactly the proper writing angle. A cursive italic nib captures most of the excellent line variation of an italic nib, but slightly rounded edges and a bit more tipping material makes it a better choice for daily writing. The cursive italic has become one of my favorite nibs for use at work, in part because it's not as wet as a stub and therefore works better on cheaper grades of paper. I have cursive italic nibs in various widths, ranging from .4mm (a fine) to 1.0mm (a broad).
Stub. The stub nib is the most common "gateway" nib grind that people start with, in part because the difference between a stub nib and a standard round nib can be subtle. A stub nib is squared, like an italic, but generally has much more tipping material and the edges are even more rounded off than a cursive italic. The result is a nib that's very smooth to write with, but can be wet. For this reason, I find stubs hard to use on a daily basis at work because they bleed through the paper.
It may be helpful to think of Italics, Cursive Italics, and Stubs as steps in a progression, from "sharpest" to "smoothest" nibs, or from most to least line variation. Italic nibs will have the most line variation, meaning that your horizontal cross-strokes will be much thinner than your down-strokes. Cursive Italics will create almost as much line variation in your writing, but will be much easier to write with for most people due to the edges not catching the paper. Stubs won't show as much line variation, but will also be noticeably smoother writers than both italics and cursive italics.
Architect's Point/Hebrew Italic. Some traditionalists think the Architect's nib is "trendy" or a "fad" that will go the way of the dodo soon. I hope not. It's quickly becoming one of my favorite grinds. An architect's nib is a stub or cursive italic "in reverse", meaning that it's ground to a wedge-shaped point. As a result, your handwriting will have broad cross-strokes and narrow downstrokes. The point is to mimic the script and writing style of architects and draftsmen. I like this grind because it allows me to write fairly small while still giving my writing some personality.
Needlepoint. A "needlepoint" is a nib that's been ground to a super-fine point. It's sometimes called a "Japanese extra fine" or "ultra extra fine". I don't currently have any custom-ground needlepoint nibs in my collection, though I do have a Platinum Ultra-Extra fine stock nib that's been tuned by Mike Masuyama, and it's a favorite writer for note-taking and annotation. Needlepoint nibs are becoming increasingly popular.
Where To Start with Nib Customization
My own adventures with custom nibs started at a pen show (the 2013 Ohio Pen Show, to be exact). What I did - and what I recommend most people do - is start with a simple nib tuning. You'd be shocked at how much difference these simple adjustments can make. While most nib technicians accept work by mail, I've had the best results with in-person adjustments at pen shows. Once you know what you like, and you've worked with a nib specialist a few times, then it's very easy to send work to them via mail. If you can't get to a pen show, and have to send your pens off, nearly all nib technicians will work with you to get the pen writing exactly how you like it, though you may have to send it back and forth a time or two before it's "perfect".
In terms of custom grinds, I started with stubs and then progressed to cursive italics. As I mentioned above, the stub provides a gentle introduction to line variation, and once you get used to writing with a squared-off nib the cursive italic can really make your handwriting pop. But go slowly! Once you enter the world of custom nibs, it's tempting to get carried away and convert all of your old, "boring" nibs into stubs, needlepoints, etc., before you know what you like.
I'll close by noting one option that's become increasingly popular: Franklin-Christoph's Masuyama-ground JoWo nibs. Franklin-Christoph has partnered with Mike Masuyama to offer a line of pre-ground stubs, cursive italics, and needlepoint nibs that can be fitted to pretty much any of the pens in their lineup for a slight upcharge, which is much less than the cost of having Mike grind a custom nib for you. Granted, these nibs won't be ground or tuned specifically for you (unless you visit them at a pen show), but I've had very good results. Bonus: Franklin-Christoph uses No. 5 and No. 6 JoWo nibs, which are interchangeable with other JoWo-compatible pens like Edison and Bexley.
For further reading, you can visit the websites of any of the nib technicians linked above. Most of their web pages contain excellent descriptions of the various services and grinds they offer. I don't claim to have discussed all of the available customizations out there: there are many, and learning and trying all of them is the fun part of the journey! Enjoy!
Disclaimer: The pens pictured in this article are pens from my own collection. This article may also contain certain links to affiliate sites, in which I may be compensated a small amount if you end up purchasing something.