NIBS: Which is the Best; Solid Gold, Stainless Steel or Alloy?

Is a Solid Gold Pen Nib Worth the Extra Cost or are or Modern Alloy Nibs Just as Good?

For most people, including myself, the goal is an amazing writing experience rather than simply having a beautiful pen.

I’m always excited about writing a new article for our blog because it gives me the opportunity to clarify misconceptions and address common issues that fountain pen users often confront when choosing the right pen.

This article isn’t an exception.

Many think that a gold nib is absolutely necessary to have the best pen writing experience.  I disagree, because there are other important factors in play.

Before we dive into the similarities and the differences between gold and other nibs, it makes sense first to touch on this historical aspect of fountain pens.

Fountain pen writing still brings tremendous joy, excitement, and obsession to pen users. It is a great improvement over the steel dip pen since it supplies ink from a reservoir which improves writing convenience and speed.  L.E. Waterman’s advertising at the time, for example, asked readers to join the “Society of Dip No Mores.”

Given that early inks corroded steel nibs in use as the time, the introduction of fountain pens was a opportunity for gold nibs to lead the way — thus, they were adopted as the standard in lieu of steel nibs.

More importantly, gold nibs could be more easily manufactured in various degrees of hardness and flexibility, which also helped them to gain traction over steel nibs.  

But there’s more.  At the time, gold nibs were also improved by being tipped with an extremely hard material, usually rutheniumosmium or iridium (for the rest of this article we’ll simply say “iridium”).  This enhanced their lifespan indefinitely by protecting the gold tips of the tines from wear (for example, most 120-year-old gold nibs still work today as they did the day they were made).  Their steel predecessors needed very frequent replacement.

Alloy nibs make their Debut

During WWII, gold was needed for the war effort, and German pen companies began switching to alloys instead.  Montblanc replaced their gold nibs with a nib made from an alloy of 11% gold, 49% iridium, and 40% palladium.  Many users claim that the alloy Montblanc nibs write better than their gold nibs!  At the same time, Pelikan replaced their gold nibs with a nib either made from palladium or chromium-nickel.  Soennecken, Osmia and other German pen manufacturers followed suit.  Post-war, the German pen manufacturers were all able to switch back to solid gold nibs.

Today’s Nibs

Waterman CF Fountain Pen

Waterman CF Fountain Pen

Today, except for the most inexpensive “starter” pens, steel nibs for fountain pens have for the most part been replaced with gold, stainless steel, Titanium, and modern alloys.  Nakaya , for example, makes their nibs from an alloy of 65% of Iridium, Osmium, Ruthenium and 35% of platinum and other metals.

Almost all modern fountain pen nibs (whether solid gold, Titanium, Stainless Steel or an alloy) are tipped with iridium at the end of its tines.  This means that the part of the nib which touches the paper is the same irrespective of the underlying metal of manufacture.  It’s only the iridium which touches the paper.  There are of course still some inexpensive pens which are not tipped with iridium.  

Differences Between Gold & Modern Alloy Nibs

Let’s dive into the differences. 

1. Cost

A  major consideration when buying a fountain pen is cost. Generally, fountain pens with titanium, stainless steel or alloy nibs can be had at a significantly lower cost than those with solid gold nibs.  With the economy in the doldrums the last several years, many of the major pen manufacturers, which previously only offered gold nibs (other than for their lowest level lines), have now added higher priced lines with non-gold nibs, making the pens less costly both for them and for their customers.

Of course, there still are high-end fountain pen brands that sell expensive gold-nibbed pens. They succeed at this because they are trusted luxury brands and buyers gladly pay for the brand recognition or because they simply like writing with a gold nib.

I believe that all lower cost beginner or entry-level fountain pens are made with alloy nibs. These nibs are the right place to start your fountain pen experience.  Then experiment in the pen shops with other types of nibs as your pen writing experiences broaden.  

You’ll be able to determine what interests you more, for example, the smoothness of the nib, nib flexibility, the type nib (fine, medium, etc.) and, the material of construction or the technology of the pen.  You’ll learn what it is that you appreciate the most and are willing to spend your money on.

Lots of pen users love the nib on their new pens right out of the box.  Others immediately have the nib on their new pens reground or otherwise adjusted by a nib-meister, whether the nib is gold, titanium or Stainless Steel.  These decisions are strictly personal preference, and it is wonderful to have so many options.  

2. Smoothness

What makes up a smooth writing pen generates discussions on social media and discussion boards, some quite heated.

I believe what determines the smoothness of nibs, for the most part, is the quality of the nib tipping material and the quality of the grinding and smoothing of the material.

Heraeus Precious Metals, which provides most of the world’s nib tipping materials, sells two different hardness tipping material. I believe the harder, higher quality material produces a smoother nib. But this helps us little, as we don’t know which hardness each manufacture uses for which of their pens. Your trial and error can only tell you which writes smoother for you.

Having used many fountain pens, I can say from experience that neither gold or non-gold nibs have the edge on smoothness. 

Smooth Writing Pen

3. Flex

Flex nib Pen

Flex Nib Pen; Source: Reddit

What’s flex?

Flex is a concept which occurs when increased downward pressure on the nib causes the tines to spread.  We have a Nib Flexibility Scale on our website.  

As the spreading of the tines continues, it creates a wider line, putting more ink onto the paper. Different parts of the stroke, up, down, sideways, angular, allow for variation of pressure, creating character and shading which no other type of nib can create. The more the flexibility of the nib, the greater the character and shading.

How you write matters. Some writers use a lot of pressure when writing, others use just the weight of the pen itself. Personally, I adjust my pressure to use just enough to separate the tines on down-strokes. Having used many fountain pens, I can say from experience that recently, with the introduction of flexibility to modern alloy nibs, I’ve now written with alloys which are beginning to approach the experience I enjoy with my personal top nib preference: a fine-italic point and highly flexible. They are not quite there yet but are getting closer.

Solid gold nibs can further be altered to add more flex when the underside is thinned, along with other techniques. Our observations may vary, but I personally believe that 14k nibs react much better to this thinning than 18k.

And talking about the flex, be it a gold nib or one of the newer alloy nibs, every fountain pen user should treat him or herself to the writing experience of a flexible nib, to appreciate and evaluate the performance and witness enjoyment for themselves.

4. Corrosion

Corrosion on Nib and Section Trim

Corrosion on Nib and Section Trim;  Source: Pinterest

As earlier stated, gold nibs were adopted as a standard in lieu of steel nibs because traditional ink at the time had corrosive properties.

At the time you would have seen vintage steel nibs which had been gold plated.  This provided a cheap way to coat the pen in gold.  Besides appearance (looking like gold), the gold-plating helped to prevent corrosion from contact with ink, at least until some of the gold plating wore off.

We know that solid gold nibs are less susceptible to corrosion than pure steel, even if gold plated.  But this argument isn’t very relevant to modern nibs.  With the quality of stainless steel, titanium, and alloys used for today’s nibs, along with less corrosive inks, gold plating offers a visual appeal rather than a protective function

Why Use A Solid Gold Nib?

Even though alloy nibs are beginning to compete with solid gold nibs characteristically, many fountain pen buyers still prefer a solid gold nib over an alloy nib for these reasons:

  • Flexibility: Even though alloy nibs are catching up, at this time gold nibs are considered to be the best as they can provide greater writing character and a more flexible degree of line variation. Interestingly, a gold nib has the capacity to adjust to one’s handwriting style because it’ll break-in over time.  Vintage fountain pens generally provide the best nibs in terms of flexibility, especially vintage Waterman pens, vintage Omas pens and vintage Montblanc pens, three of the most collectible pens.  Our vintage pen catalog always presents pens with various degrees of flexibility.

  • Prestige and presentation: In today’s world, prestige matters. Much thought goes into a fountain pen with a gold nib. The design and the uncompromising craftsmanship makes it a joy to own and use while also enjoying unparalleled aesthetics.  One which is more than just a preferred writing utensil, but one, fitted into a luxury pen, which is truly prestigious.

The Pen Nib Verdict

Essentially, there’s really no one-size-fits-all approach to choosing your nib material.  There are pros and cons to each.

The gold nib is inherently not better than a steel alloy nib. It all depends on your preference and your vision of how your pen should write. 

We have some amazing and expensive vintage fountain pens in the marketplace with alloy nibs — and considering you’re paying three to five times the cost of an entry-level pen, you might wonder why they don’t include a gold nib. The answer is simple; alloys are getting better and reduce manufacturing cost and increase manufacturer, distributor and dealer profit.

Alloy nibs can be smooth, can be flexible, and can be ground to any nib style you would like. Its all been done (although it has not been done to all alloy nibs). So know what you are looking for and whether you like the pen with alloy or need to buy one with a gold nib to get the writing experience you want. For example, if you’re looking for a modern pen fashioned with alloys which provide extreme flex (like you can achieve with vintage gold), try the Namiki Falcon.

Some pen lovers prefer manifold (very stiff) to appreciate total control while making sure that every drop of ink ends up exactly where they want it with no flex, no surprises, and definitely, no line variation. Either gold or alloy nibs can provide this.

Others enjoy fine, extra-fine or even needlepoint (accountant) nibs so they can write very small or in very small spaces. Either gold or alloy nibs can provide this.

Whether you want stiff, flexible, fine, medium, broad, stub, oblique, italic many modern alloy nibs can accommodate your preferences and compete well with gold nibs. But don’t be in a hurry to assume that all alloy nibs will deliver just what you want, because not all will, just as not all gold nibs will.

There’s really no one-size-fits-all approach to choosing your nib material. There are pros and cons to each. The gold nib is not inherently better than a steel alloy nib. It all depends on your preference and your vision of how your pen should write. The most important key to consider in the writing performance of a fountain pen is the adventure of how well the nib flows across the paper with the characteristics you love. Experiment with both gold and alloy — you’ll be glad you did.

I do believe it’s 100% possible to make an alloy that offers as much smoothness and excitement as a solid gold one. The technology is getting closer and closer. And it will succeed because without the gold the pen can be priced for a broader market. That being said, I believe that in the minds of most pen lovers, a fountain pen is neither “supposed” to be gold nor “supposed” to be Stainless Steel, Titanium or another alloy. What it is supposed to be it based on is the characteristics you, the user, wants.

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  1. Steel for Nibs
    Posted January 30, 2020 at 6:53 am | Permalink

    Steel is possibly one of the most stunning discoveries of all time. The metal is not only a boon to the construction industry but a revolutionary step forward into what might have always been the future!

  2. Terrence
    Posted August 3, 2020 at 9:24 pm | Permalink

    Very informative.mThank you

  3. John Smith
    Posted November 24, 2020 at 12:30 am | Permalink

    I very much enjoyed this article; after finding my old fountain pen from 4th grade, I was delighted to find them still in use to this day after 6 whole years!

  4. charles stemple
    Posted December 15, 2020 at 7:03 pm | Permalink

    I have been a pen collector and restorer for many years now and have always concentrated on the condition and beauty of my finished treasures. However your article has sparked an interest in me to pursue the writing qualities and round out my pen knowledge. Many thanks.

  5. Gregory Cope
    Posted January 24, 2021 at 7:00 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for an even-handed and scholarly piece, Gary. You are skilled at promoting and celebrating the joy and delight we all can find in our pens.

    Hope you wrote the first draft longhand, as one used to say (I still say), with a favorite pen with a nib that surprised you!

    • Gary Lehrer
      Posted January 25, 2021 at 6:28 pm | Permalink

      Thank you, Greg, for the kind words. Gary

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