Waterman's No. 5 music nib

Music Nibs

Updated June 28, 2022

It has been a lifelong endeavor to seek the perfect writing instrument for music composition. And I think I just found it. This is a Waterman’s music nib. I am quite privileged to own one, as these are notoriously rare and expensive.

I would like to share my knowledge and experience using music nibs in my work. There are many wonderful videos and blog posts showing vintage music nibs in action, however almost all the reviews are done by people who don’t write music on a daily basis. My hope is that you will be more informed on the purpose of these nibs as well as how to properly use them.

First, let’s debunk the great myth that a 3-tined nib is a music nib. It’s true that a majority of music nibs have 3 tines, yet it isn’t a prerequisite as many italic cut dip nibs come with 3 tines. A music nib has 2 main characteristics:

1) It is a semi-italic cut nib, which means it is cut flat across the tipping material.

2) It is flexible.

Most modern-day “music” nibs lack the latter characteristic. Flex is needed to produce slurs, ties, staccatissimos, and other diacritical markings. An italic-cut nib alone does a sufficient job at producing the necessary line variation for these markings, however it doesn’t get near the expressive quality and clarity a flex nib provides in accentuating handwritten music notation.

Here is a closeup of an Edward Elgar manuscript from the early 1930s. After hours of close examination and study, I am fairly certain this was written with a 3-tined italic dip nib, which has moderate flex.

Let’s first take a look at these whole rests. This to me is a dead giveaway of a 3 tined nib. Notice how the ink breaks at the top however not at the bottom. If this were a regular 2 tined nib, the nib would just railroad and no ink would be placed. Because a 3 tined nib has 2 slits for ink to travel, if one of them dries up, it is common to get this result.

Take a look at this example I did with my C4 Speedball dip nib, which also has 3 tines. A music nib would also have this characteristic, but it’s safe to say that Elgar was indeed using some kind of calligraphy or dip nib. I don’t think he was using a fountain pen however, because the ink shading varies considerably which suggests the drying up of ink on the nib - - something only really prominent in dip nibs.

In the example to the right, we notice how Elgar forms his noteheads and beams. Like most composers centuries before him, when drawing filled-in noteheads, the notehead and stem are drawn in one singular motion, as opposed to the notehead and stem as separate strokes. You would press the nib to form the notehead and swiftly dart upwards to form the thin stem. It is the same motion for downward stems except the stems go, well, downwards. The keen-eyed viewer may notice that the downward stems are on the wrong side of the notehead. This is on purpose for speed and ease of writing. We write words from left to right, and because a music pen is held 90-degrees to the direction of writing, having stems on the left-hand side would require a pushing motion of the pen which would dig into the paper. You also run the risk of the nib inadvertently dumping ink on the crossover of the notehead, resulting in a blob. This was more common with quills as their ink flow was highly irregular and sensitive.

Music Writer nib

I have several nibs which can be used to notate music. I am going to start with the vintage Music Writer nib which I found several years back. This nib confuses me. For starters, I have found that the nib width is too broad for almost all of my staff paper. I have close to 50 lbs of staff paper from the 20th century, some from the 30s, some from the 70s and 80s. I have only been able to use this nib on the largest sized staff paper. Something you should know about nib width, when hand engraving music, we are looking for a nib that is no broader than ½ of a staff space. There are several reasons for this, chief among which is that chords and noteheads will be illegible if too broad a nib is used. Another reason is that beams, whole and half rests occupy a half space in published music. This nib measures in at about 1.5mm wide which is about 0.5mm too wide for most staff paper. I suspect this nib may have been used in jazz notation where staves are often a bit larger. That said, there is very little flex in this nib, which is probably conducive of engraving practices at the time. As I didn’t live from the 50s-80s, I cannot be too sure, and there isn’t much documentation elaborating on the practice.

Music Writer nib sample. Too broad for this staff paper

Engraving Books

There are several books on hand engraving music. This is a copy of Preparing Music Manuscript from 1963. It’s a fascinating read if you are at all interested in notation practices at the time. On page 6, the author goes over the tools for music engraving along with the proper care. Here's what they say about 3 pronged points:

Osmiroid Music Nib

The Osmiroid nib referred to is pictured below. It indeed has considerable flex and I find that it responds very well to the deft touch required to operate it. More on this later.

In another book, The Art of Copying Music there’s also a materials checklist:

This book recommends using a Sheaffer No-nonsense, or an Osmiroid Italic medium point. While I don’t have a Sheaffer, I do have a period Osmiroid with the exact nib they specify. Here is that pen. I got it a while back and it came as a calligraphy set with these interchangeable nibs. The one we are most interested in is the Italic medium point. It is approximately 1mm in width which is perfect for our needs for hand engraving music. We notice the line it produces occupies ½ a staff space, again making it possible to draw rests, beams, and noteheads. That said, there is no flex in this nib, although again, this is probably due to the evolving engraving standards.

Waterman's Music Nib

Now onto the main attraction: a vintage music nib. This is a Waterman’s music nib, probably from the 30s or so, and has been a bucket list item for me for years. When I saw an opportunity to own one, I pulled the trigger. It should be said, these are not cheap nibs. For what it’s worth, most people get vintage music nibs for the flex, however these are far from so-called “wet noodle” nibs which you can find in long points of this time. This music nib indeed has a decent amount of flex, but if you’re looking for a noodle, you might be disappointed with this one.

This is a No. 5 size music nib which I fitted to my Waterman’s 55. Obviously it has 2 slits cut down the middle which encourages heavier ink flow. We also see the relatively flat tipping material which helps aid in drawing thin stems and thick beams. In practice, the difference isn’t as apparent as we’ll see in some of the writing samples.

Waterman’s offered a handful of specialty nibs tailored for specific tasks. Here is a page from the Waterman’s catalog of 1925. Apart from the music nib, I have owned one of these Account nibs in the past. I say ‘owned’ because I thankfully no longer have it. It wrote very dry and didn’t flex whatsoever. Yet that was the intention of these nibs as they were apparently designed for carbon copies. And in that case, they probably worked well as intended. Over to the music nib, as we can see there are a couple of differences between the featured music nib in this catalog, and the one I currently own. Looking near the bottom, we can see Waterman’s only offered it in a No. 4 size.

Waterman's catalog 1925

Here is a page from an earlier catalog of 1914, and we can see here that Waterman’s is also offering music nibs as a No. 4 size by the looks of it. We also notice a lack of breather holes near the ends of the slits in the advertisements, however mine has breather holes included.

Waterman's catalog 1908

Even in this later catalog, where we see Waterman’s advertising the No.5 and No.7, they make a special mention of the music nib along with a sample of the writing. Again, no breather holes present, however that might not mean much. These music nibs were bespoke handcrafted items, and not mass produced like the main lineup of Ideal nibs. A factory worker would remove a nib before the hole or slit was made, then would hand cut the breather hole and slits, along with grinding the tip. As you can imagine, this was a laborious process which took a great deal of skill to accomplish. In turn, these nibs would be considerably more expensive for the customer. We can see evidence of the handiwork by looking closely at the breather hole placement, and notice how one of them is slightly lower than the other.

From the Waterman's catalog of 1936

Notice the left vent hole is slightly lower than the right

Writing Samples

I have copied out a passage from the Beethoven C#m string quartet, Op. 131 using 6 different nibs.

The above example is with a standard Waterman’s 52 with an Ideal No. 2 nib. Notice the consistency in the line width overall. We do see some slightly thicker beams and a mild tapering of slurs and ties. Take a look at the ends of the beams and how rounded off they are.

Compare that with the Waterman’s music nib. This should be a stark contrast. The beams are noticeably heavier and slurs and ties have a more evident contour. Notes are easier to read and there’s more expressiveness in the look of the music.

This example was written with a Mitchell 0268 music dip nib which I fitted into a vintage Paramount lever filler. I think this shows the extreme capability of a music nib. It is incredibly soft as we can see. The beams are very thick and the slurs and ties are quite evident. So far, this is my vote for looking the most ‘expressive.’

Up next is this vintage Staff Writer music nib. There is no flex in this nib, as should be apparent in the writing sample. Slurs and beams are squared off and notes and ledger lines are of equal size. As I have mentioned earlier, this nib is too broad for this staff paper. It works wonderfully as a wet Italic writer, however until I get large enough staff paper, it is not suitable for notation.

Onto the Osmiroid Italic Medium. While not a music nib, as you remember earlier, this is the nib which was used by professional engravers. I did a version using my normal ‘composer’ hand. It’s apparent why this nib was used - - the chiseled beams and sharp lines make it ideal for music engraving. Though as a composition tool, which needs to respond rapidly for the scribbling mind of a composer, I'll need to pass on this one.

Our final sample is that of a Noodler’s Neponset, and I hate to admit that it doesn’t look as bad as I had thought. The beams are well-defined, the slurs are passable and the notation is legible. The writing experience however, was awful. The tines would constantly grind into each other, the pen would hard start, and the amount of pressure needed to produce the beams and slurs was at least double from any of the other pens tested. Needless to say, I cannot recommend the Noodler’s as a notation tool and should not be advertised as such.

Let’s wrap things up with the Waterman’s music nib. Overall, I find it is a happy middle ground nib. While the lines it produces aren’t the sharpest compared to the Mitchell 0268, it is able to produce great looking music with the speed of a normal nib. I am very happy to finally own one, and I’ll continue to use it in my compositions.

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Images taken from catalogs are provided by https://pencollectorsofamerica.org/reference-library/waterman/