Basic steel pen anatomy.

There’re not a lot of authoritative documents on terminology, so I figure we should get some basic vocabulary defined up front. That includes the parts to a pen, and how we identify a pen.

Not everyone will agree with all of my terms or definitions. I welcome productive discussion, and suggestions for alternatives.

General terms

Pen: Before fountain pens, a “pen” was a writing implement. It could be a general term for any writing implement that used ink, or, starting in the 19th-century it meant what we now call a pen nib. You would write by dipping a pen, held in a holder, into ink.

Nib: A later term for a pen that began to be used to differentiate a dip pen from a whole fountain pen. When the pen became just one part of a whole fountain pen, then it started to be called a nib.

Pointed pen: A type of pen that has a pointed tip. Contrast this to a broad-edge pen.

Broad-edge pen: A type of pen where the tip is cut across rather than comes to a point. Broad-edge pens can come in many styles from very fine stubs to broad, sharper points used for decorative writing and engrossing.

Style: Each pen has a particular style. Most manufacturers made a number of different styles. These styles are differentiated by several factors.

Shape: Pens come in many shapes. Some shapes have known names, like the Falcon, others do not. Shape is one aspect of a pen’s style

Finish: Most pens were made of steel, though there are some exceptions which are still counted among steel pens. Over the steel, as a protective measure to reduce corrosion, these pens are given a coating. This coating is usually in one of five main types determined by their color: grey, silver, bronze, gilt and black. This is the finish of the pen. Many pens were available in multiple finishes, and a different finish indicates a different style even if all other aspects are the same.  For most pens, when you see another metal associated with them, like aluminum, silver, etc… it refers to the coating, not the main material of the pen.

Name: Many styles of pens were given names to help with marketing. Often, names were related to a profession to which the pen was mainly marketed, such as Judges Quill, Bank, or Commercial. Others tried to market a pen to a particular school of penmanship, especially the short-lived fad for Vertical Penmanship. Most every major company produced a “Vertical” pen in the last decade or so of the 19th-century.

Number: The main way of distinguishing styles, is often by the numbers. It’s not uncommon for a single number to change names over time. Esterbrook is notorious for this.

Flexibility: Flexibility refers to a couple of aspects of a pen. One is how far apart the tines of a pen will be able to spread during normal use (flex), the other is the force needed to spread the tines (spring). Today, especially in these flexible-fountain-pen-mad days, flexibility tends to only be measured in spread. In the old days, it was more complex, and instead of flexibility, the pen makers often talked about “action.” This involved both kinds of flexibility as well as smoothness.

Tip Modifications: From the very beginning of steel pen manufacturing, it was clear that a pointed pen could be scratchy. Makers tried all kinds of ways to alleviate this problem. There were two main ways of fixing this issue: adjusting the tip so that it doesn’t come to a sharp point, and to create stub nibs (see Broad-edge pen above).

Turned up tip: One of the two main ways of adjusting the tip is the turned-up tip. In this technique, as the name suggests, the tip is actually turned up slightly so that you are writing with the flatter underside of the tip rather than the sharp end.

Round Point/oval point/bowl point: The other technique was to emboss in the very tip a small, round, indentation. This causes the pen to contact the surface of the paper on this round indent rather than the sharp tip. Another term for this was a Ball Point Pen. I hear this name lives on in some kinds of modern writing instruments.

Parts to a pen:

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  1. Tip, or sometimes the point
  2. Axis of the pen. The imaginary line along the pen from tip to heel.
  3. Slit. The cut made at the front of the pen to create the tines. There can also be side slits, which are slits made along the side of the pen to increase flexibility. Side slits can be a simple slit, a t-shaped slit or even a cut-out which removes material.
  4. Tines. The main part of the pen separated by the slit that causes ink to flow and can give shading to writing. Most pointed pens have two tines, but there are some rare pointed pens with three. Laundry pens usually have no slit and therefore only one tine
  5. Hole. This small opening cut into the body of the pen is subject to more confusion and misapplied confidence in naming than any other part of the pen. I’ve seen it called a breather hole, a gravity well, and others. I’ve decided t just call it a hole. That’s really all it is. It seems to serves two main purposes: to prevent further splitting of the slit, not as much of an issue with steel pens as it is with gold pens, and to add to the flexibility of the tines. It doesn’t store extra ink of any significant amount, nor does the nib need to breathe like a fountain pen. These holes can come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes, and can even change over time in the same nib as the dies used to stamp out the piercings change.
  6. The grind. Some nibs were ground on an emery wheel. This grinding away of a small amount of the steel is mainly used to increase the flexibility of the tines. Grinds can be single grinds, where the grinding is down by the tip and the lines are perpendicular to the axis of the nib. They can be a double grind, where the nib is ground again around the hole with the lines now parallel to the axis of the nib. And a few fancy nibs may even have a third grind behind the hole, toward the heel, usually for decorative purposes. In the UK, pens were hand ground much later than in the US where labor was more expensive. Here, companies first went to a quick and inexpert grind, then tried stamping lines into the tines to get the same effect, and eventually just eliminated it altogether, especially as taste in pens moved more towards stiffer pens in the days of business penmanship and carbon paper.
  7. Shoulders. The shoulders of the pen are where the tines transition into the body of the pen. You can sometimes find side slits at the shoulders.
  8. Body of the pen. The body is the part between the tines and the heel of the pen. In some pens there is a distinct heel, in others it’s a continuous line all the way to the end. In those cases, the heel is found toward the end and would be defined as just the part that goes inside the holder.
  9. Embossed design. Some pens will have an embossed design between the body and the heel. This is not common, but it is seen on some older or European Pens.
  10. Heel. The part of the pen which is inserted into the holder.
  11. Imprint. The imprint is any writing on the pen usually comprised of a maker’s name, a number, name for the style, and often a location.

I’m sure there will be other terms that come up and I will continue to add to this page as I go along. Feel free to suggest other terms for me to add.

3 thoughts on “Basic steel pen anatomy.”

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