The ever-growing debate of what the smoothest nib is, how smooth a nib really should be, and whether perfection can ever possibly be achieved is definitely one of the most heated ones within the pen community. But what is it that makes a nib smooth? What do we mean by “soft” nib? And whoever thought of describing it as “like writing on glass”? Writing on glass with metal sounds like one of the most unpleasant things to do. 

Let’s start at the top tip.

To understand what makes a nib smooth, we’ll need to look into different factors that will give off said sensation. The first being the tipping material. As mentioned in ‘Tine Adjustment‘ the very first thing to look at is whether the tines are aligned well. The correct ‘diagnosis’ in this case is vital. Should one attempt to use any sort of polishing abrasive on misaligned tines, they run the risk of, for instance, creating a so-called “baby’s bottom”. More on that later.

What, however, is this tipping material we speak of, and why is it important? Tipping material, often referred to as the ‘iridium point’ is the a small metal ball at the very end of the nib. Said metal ball is made of an extremely hard alloy, which will take a lot longer to wear down than the material the rest of the nib is made of. While previously (pre 1920s) largely consisting of iridium alloys, there has since been a shift into other very hard metal alloys to take the iridium’s place, such as ruthenium and osmium. 

However hard a material may be, however, the fact that it is used to write on any kind of surface will cause a certain amount of abrasion, often resulting in microscopic unevenness of the surface of the tipping. And since the paper one is writing on, too is made up of a landscape of microscopic bumps, even if not visible, the sensation of these two colliding is naturally magnified through the nib up into the hand and often perceived as scratchiness or feed-back. Therefore, highly fine-gritted abrasives, such has polishing paper, are used to eliminate such bumps in the surface of the tipping as much as possible. 

The nib material comes into play to further enhance the feeling of a smooth writing nib, as the ‘softness’ or ‘flexibility’ of said material often functions as a shock absorber, not unlike the suspension of a car, to avoid the feeling of scratchiness or feed-back. One will have to use the terms ‘softness’, ‘bounciness’, ‘flexibility’ or ‘spring’ with a grain of salt here, as they often don’t mean what people believe they mean. 

For further information I would like to recommend episode 9 of The Nib Section Podcast, where all these details and distictions are discussed in great detail by members of the Fountain Pens Oceania community podcast.

The ‘baby’s bottom’, on the other hand, is the descriptive image pen people have given a nib that has been over polished, as shown in the left picture above. The edges of the nib slit have been rounded off so much that the tipping material resembles a baby’s bottom, which will often lead to hard-starts, skipping or no writing of the nib whatsoever, as the ink’s surface tension is broken before it can reach the surface it is meant to be writing on. It is therefore advised to go about one’s polishing business with care.