Intro: A Steel Dip Pen Nib
Ever since one of my school years where our form class (or home class) was in an art building I have been fascinated with Dip pens and Fountain pens. Eventually I splurged and bought a bottle of ink and a cheap ($25) fountain pen. Two years down the track, I'm still using that same bottle of ink and same pen.
But every time I use it I think:
'I spent $25 on this pen. Why can't I make it? They made them in the 1800's'
But before I can make a fountain pen, I need to make a nib. The nib of a dip pen is similar, and the skills should be able to be transferred over.
So, after a couple of tries I have got making steel pen nibs down to an art. For $2.00 at the local dairy I can get the materials to make 6 or 8 nibs. I've no idea how long they will last, and they are quite fragile, but it's a good start.
Step 1: Materials and Tools
- A steel mint can or other, really thin sheet steel. (My mint can was 0.02mm* or so)
A pair of scissors you don't mind cutting thin metal with.
120 grit sandpaper
2400 grit sandpaper (the finest stuff you can find)
A metal rod about 5-8mm diameter (I used a screwdriver shank)
Really tiny drill bit (or a pocket knife)
It will take about 30 minutes.
You will be cutting open a metal mint tin, things are sharp. I cut myself. Be careful.
And, as always, If you have any better ideas about any of the steps or the process in whole, please tell me!
* According to a reference given on the next step, the 'proper' thickness for a steel nib is 0.02mm (or 1/120"). Sheer coincidence that a mint tin is nearly exactly that!
Step 2: Research
Before I could start hacking metal, I had to know what I was trying to do. I was lucky enough to have two fountain pens to examine, but I also found some good other sources. If you have trouble with getting your pen to write, have a look at some of these:
Different Types of Nibs
And the best resource that covers everything from designs to problems. If you read nothing else before starting, read this.
A guide to nibs - the basics and beyond
And some older texts:
Goose Quills to Fountain Pens (1916) Covers tempering nibs quite well. While I didn't do this this time, it may be worth trying.
Step 3: Getting at the Metal
So, we have this round mint tin that we want to make a nib out of. The first thing to do is to flatten it all out into a single sheet.
The way this is done is to cut it open!
Get a pair of scissors and cut down the seam used to make it into a tube.
Now cut around the bottom.
Flatten it out as best you can, and trim off any sharp catchy bits.
- Flatten it by crushing it between two metal plates.
- It doesn't have to be too flat as we will be curving it later! But the flatter, the better.
Step 4: The Start of the Nib (The Hole and the Curve)
We now need to start on the nib itself. For this cut a rectangle of metal about 2cm by 6cm.
Drill a small hole in it to act as a breather hole, and to stop the nib splitting (though there's not much chance of that unless you temper it)
I used a pocket knife to drill the hole, as it was cold outside and I was lazy. It's about 1mm in size, and really shouldn't be much bigger. So use the smallest drill bit you have, and, preferably a drill press.
It should be about 1.5cm from one end of the rectangle.
Clean off any swarf with a sharp craft knife.
All ink pen nibs are curved to give them strength. Wrap yours around the shaft of a screwdriver or some other 5-7mm metal rod. This will be the 'former' for your nib. Any time the tines get out of alignment, you can slide it back onto the metal rod and press it round again.
Use a small metal plate to help bend the plate around the metal rod.
If you haven't already taken off the plastic coating, make sure it is on the outside when you wrap it. We will sand it off later.
Step 5: Cut the Slit and Shape It
Why didn't we do this earlier? Surely it's easier when it's flat? Yup, it's easier to cut, but then it's hard to make round without the tines popping up akwardly. Good luck getting it round if you've already cut a slit. It can but done, but is just time consuming.
Cutting the slit:
Because it is already a tube, and you have to end at the hole, you have to be accurate to not get a twist in the slit.
But in the end, all it comes down to is cutting a slit with a pair of scissors.
Now you have to widen it. BE VERY CAREFUL HERE. This is where you will ruin your nib. You want the slit to be wider than a single cut, but not more than absolutely necessary. 0.2mm is the maximum width you are looking for. Aim for the thickness of a piece of paper.
Making the tines straight again:
After the cut, the tines will pop up at odd angles. Slip the nib back onto your metal rod and re-flatten it.
It doesn't matter if the slit seems to get a little wider near the tip. We'll fix that later.
Shape the Nib:
Go google 'fountain pen nib' and look at the variation in designs. Pick one you like and try to mirror it. As I discovered, the shape of the shoulder and the rest of it doesn't matter.
I recommend leaving a ring at the end of the nib, so when you're done you can attach it to a handle just by slipping it over.
Making the tines straight again:
Yup, you'll have to do this often.
Step 6: Finishing the (initial) Construction
All that's left to do of the building is to remove that hideous plastic coat. 120 grit sandpaper makes fast work of it, and then polish it as best you can with anything finer you have lying around. It isn't that important, the 2400 is for later....
You can also use the 120 for rounding the tip very slightly. and for fixing any slight differences between the sides.
Step 7: Getting It to Write
If you take your newly finished nit, dip it in ink and scratch it on some paper, it won't write
That's because the tines will be spread apart slightly, or slightly up/down misaligned. Have a look at the reference I posted in post 2 if you want more detail.
When I first tried to make dip-pen nibs, I sorted these issues by hand, which took ages, and was unpredictable.
But now I've found a better method to fix this. With some care, it greatly shortens time to get it writing properly.
Word to those who come here wanting to fix fountain pens, don't do it this way. It will probably break a tempered fountain pen nib.
Turn the nib upside-down, and while pulling it backwards, apply some pressure down on the nib. Do this gently and a couple of times. This moves the tines together, as well as (mostly) aligning them up/down. Amazing huh!
Do it until there is only a tiny gap between the tines, making sure they don't overlap each other at all. If they overlap, you've applied too much downwards pressure on the strokes.
It will now write, but will be quite scratchy and horrid. You also won't be able to 'push' the pen, meaning only down strokes towards you and across are possible.
To sort this out, lay out the 2400 grit sandpaper flat, and write on it! This will flatten and smooth the nib perfectly for the way you write.
If your pen still won't write, because the ink is not quite reaching the end of the nib, you can try sharpening/flattening tip of the nib with a bit of fine sandpaper.
Step 8: Make a Handle
Grab a section of dowel, sand it so it fits into the cylinder you should have left at the back of the nib, and slide them together.
The springiness of the metal means that it will clamp itself in place if the dowel is the right size.
If this doesn't work, then find some other method that does: glue, slit in the dowel. Be creative.
Using the dip pen:
The basics is to dip it in ink, pull it out and write
- But often it will come up with too much ink at the tip and blotch, so touch the tip briefly to the side of the ink-pot to let the excess drain. Don't worry, the ink in the channel will stay there.
- Try to avoid pushing the pen. While you can while writing, if you are drawing straight lines, do them in line with the pen.
- Press lightly, the nib is flexible and can deform. Not like a ball-point.
- Hold it quite flat to the page.
Step 9: What Next?
The end goal is to be able to make a fountain pen. That is still a long way off. I have to play with feeders to the nib, find the standard size for attaching an ink cartridge, make a proper chassis and so on. I've no idea if I will ever actually make a fountain pen but it's a nice plan.
But there are a few things I'd like to try before I start doing that:
- Heat-treating (tempering/hardening) the nib to make it last longer and be less flexible.
- Other materials. I've tried coke can and tin-can and neither worked, but I'm sure there are some better ones out there. I don't have the resources to work titanium or the money for gold either....
- Different shaped nibs. Currently I'm happy if they write well (which this one does), but I need to do some more research into the design of the nib other than just making it work reliably.
If you have any bright ideas, post them below, and I may try them!