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All about IPG fountain pen nibs - they are not all what you might think

All about IPG fountain pen nibs - they are not all what you might think

Phil - Beaufort Ink - 25 Jun 2020 09:00:00Other articles...

From time to time I spot ill informed and sometimes frankly misleading explanations of so called IPG nibs on line, including on occasions, on websites run by people selling pens and nibs. It seems it's high time then, that one of the most widely perpetuated myths about fountain pen nibs is dispelled. If you’re new to fountain pens, or pen making, or you’ve never looked into nibs very much, the following might come as a surprising revelation to you, and if you already have an understanding of the origin of nibs, this may well alter your perceptions a little.

Myth -  Fountain pen nibs stamped “Iridium Point Germany” are either made in Germany or the tipping material was sourced from Germany.


The fact is that although there are exceptions, fountain pen nibs stamped “Iridium Point Germany” largely speaking do not come from Germany - they come from anywhere but Germany, mostly the Far East or the Indian sub-continent, nor does the tipping material come from Germany.

One of the inferences that you're going to get here as you read on, is that with good reason, cheap IPG nibs are widely regarded as being not very good, and I can’t disagree with that, but this is destined to be a fairly long article I’m afraid, and I quite understand if you don't want to invest the time to get to the end right now. Fair enough, no hard feelings - you can just take on board what you’ve read so far. However, if you’re interested in a little more of the background and the justification for the above statement, I invite you to read on to the end.

Nib making in Germany is synonymous with quality. The two main manufacturers there make nibs for an astonishing proportion of commercially made fountain pens, and if you own a pen that was commercially made in the Western hemisphere, there is a very high chance that it has either a Bock nib of a Jowo nib, irrespective of what might actually be stamped on it. There are some excellent Japanese nibs available in pens nowadays too, but the best nibs, readily available, mainly all come out of Germany. Beaufort Ink are agents for Bock nibs, made in the small German university town of Heidelberg, which we ship to the four corners of the globe on a daily basis, such is their reputation for quality.

Once upon a time, German nibs were often stamped "Iridium Point Germany". They had iridium points and came from Germany, so not an unreasonable thing to do you might think, and no-one would disagree. However, there are always plenty of people around the world who are prepared to produce cheap copies of another persons intellectual property in order to get a slice of the action, and so the Chinese started to produce fountain pen nibs, which of course they also stamped "Iridium Point Germany".

India followed suit too, and probably several other countries, so the Germans, not wishing their nibs to be associated or confused with cheap, inferior, imported copies, largely stopped using that stamp, which means that if you see it on a modern nib, (and the market is flooded with them), although there are exceptions that do actually come from Germany, it's a general indication that the nib hasn’t ever been any closer to Germany than Shanghai or Mumbai. They are colloquially known as IPG nibs.

Some people speculate that the tipping material (or point) must therefore come from Germany in its raw state, or how else could they legitimately be stamped Iridium Point Germany?  That may well be true in some cases, and it would be nice to think it were true in all cases, but it isn’t. Realistically, and with the greatest of respect to some learned and highly regarded individuals who have written or otherwise voiced an opinion on the matter, it would be a stretch too far to imagine that a manufacturing ethos which has no compunction whatsoever about producing copies of almost anything for financial gain, would give a damn about whether or not the stamp is legitimate. As I’ll explain in a moment,  importing raw materials would in any case be both cost prohibitive and pointless, so the IPG stamp really is, in most cases, simply intended to make you believe that the nib is far better than it actually is.

In preference to pure iridium, the genuinely German nibs these days use precious metal alloys for the tipping  -  I don't believe that any manufacturers at all still use pure iridium except maybe in minute quantities as part of an alloy. Iridium is a member of the platinum family of precious metals, it’s amongst the rarest metals on the planet, and it costs a fortune. At the time of writing, the price is more or less £1300 per ounce - I’ve just looked it up. Go back to the latter half of the 19th century though, and the use of iridium was widespread - it hadn’t long since been discovered, and being both hard as nails and one of the so called Noble Metals, (therefore both hard wearing and corrosion resistant), it provided a solution to the problem of how to overcome the softness at the tip of a gold nib. Carbon steel quickly rusts and stainless steel hadn’t yet been invented, so gold was the metal of choice from which to make a nib. Without protection at its tip though, gold would simply wear away in use quite quickly, therefore the discovery and use of iridium completely changed the game.

Things move on however, and both science and technology improve, so with the discovery over time of other precious metals, together with the knowledge of how to alloy them, elements such as ruthenium, tungsten and osmium came into common use. They can be combined, sometimes with other elements too, to produce a similar result to pure iridium, and are a whole lot cheaper. The terms “iridium point” or “iridium tip” haven't really ever gone away though, and are commonly accepted nowadays as a synonym to describe any nib that has a tipping material applied - a bit like doing the hoovering, writing with a biro, or blowing your nose with a kleenex. Therefore, all tipped nibs are said to be iridium tipped, but ironically they contain little or no iridium.

But, and here’s the thing, if you’re going to produce a fountain pen nib as cheaply as possible, you need to cut costs - you need to use cheaper materials, and you need to find ways of manufacturing the end product economically, which may well involve finding completely different raw materials that can be adapted to a cheaper process. And so it is with tipping material, which if the nib is going to be cheap, can no longer be a precious metal.

The price of ruthenium when I checked it earlier was about £200 per ounce and osmium was around £320 per ounce, which although a vast improvement on the mind boggling sum commanded by iridium, are both still way too expensive to use on nibs that wholesale in bulk for less then 20p each. Hard alloys are time consuming to grind and shape too, and time has to be paid for. If you’re going to produce a cheap nib, you need to do it quickly and in large quantities - those with precious metal tips are more expensive not only because the materials cost more, but also because the manufacturing process takes longer.

Enter, stainless steel.

Yes, cheap IPG nibs have nothing more in the main than stainless steel tips, which isn’t actually that bad a choice for a cheap tipping metal. It’s never going to be as good as precious metal alloys obviously, not least of all because it will never be as smooth, but it’s acceptably hard wearing, and it doesn’t corrode that easily either. It’s a lot easier and quicker to work than rock hard precious alloys too, and best of all, it’s commodity price today when I checked earlier was around £1600 per ton, not a hefty £6million per ton for ruthenium or a staggering £41millon per ton for iridium.

I’m not going to state here that all IPG nibs made outside of Germany have stainless steel tips, in fact I’m quite sure that some of them don’t. Most of them do however, and if you don’t see how that could possibly be correct when the nib quite clearly says Iridium Point, then ask yourself, how else you're going to make and sell a nib for less than 20p and still turn a profit. While you’re at it, ask yourself if, at £1600 per ton, you would go to the bother of importing common or garden stainless steel all the way from Germany in order to legitimise the stamp on your nib, particularly if producing cheap copies doesn’t prick your conscience, and especially considering that around 70% of the world’s stainless steel production comes out of China and India in the first place.

Yes, that’s right - cheap IPG nibs do not come from Germany, and neither does the tipping material.

I said near the start that with good reason, cheap IPG nibs are widely regarded as being not very good. Let me be clear though - the problem with them lies not so much with the country of manufacture, nor even with the raw materials used to make them. The problem with cheap IPG nibs lies with that third, inevitable victim of cost cutting which so far I haven’t mentioned - quality control.  

It’s perfectly possible to come by a good example of a cheap IPG nib - they do exist. It’s also true to say that some IPG nibs do actually come from Germany. Most of them don’t though, and if you’re lucky enough to have a cheap one which is nice, it’s either a result of good fortune, or a result of not realising that better nibs are available at a reasonable price - a bit like realising the limitations of your car once you've driven something better. They can sometimes be fettled and tuned if you have the knowledge and skills to do so, and quite pleasing results can be achieved on many as a result. Others don’t offer such promise however, and are perhaps better consigned to a place of rest.

The overriding message here is that the country of manufacture, the materials and the origin of the materials make less of a difference to a cheap IPG nib than the reduced level of quality control, which means that unless you can try out the nib before you buy it, you are never going to be assured of consistency. Its fitness for purpose is really just down to the luck of the draw, and sad to say, more often than not they are under par.

Caveat emptor.

There is some good news though, which is that the geometry of virtually all cheap IPG nibs conforms to the same geometry as genuine German nibs. After all, they’re copies. It means that the IPG nib you decide would be better off in the bin or steadying a wobbly table, can more often than not be changed for a decent Bock nib. You might well have to swap your new Bock into the existing housing that came with the pen, but usually they’re a good fit.

Jinhao, Kaigelu, Moonman, PensBBS, Baoer, Italix, Muji. The list goes on. Virtually all pen kits too. They can all be swapped.

No matter how much or how little you paid for your pen, or if you make pens and you want it to be a good writer, it will only ever be as good as the nib in the front of it, so by swapping out a cheap IPG nib for a good quality Bock nib, which needn’t be expensive, you’re likely to hugely improve the qualities of the pen as a writing instrument.


Bock Fountain Pen Nibs

Phil Dart
June 2020




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