There are many different kinds of nib holders out there, especially if you start to get into antique models. But which one you use mostly comes down to personal preference (the two on the right are the ones I use most often). Even so, there are a few things to keep in mind. (I am only considering straight pen holders here, by the way).
Size. Will the nib holder fit your nib? This is the most important thing, but it’s not too challenging. There are, roughly, three main nib sizes: the large, like the Brause 76, Zebra G, Leonardt 30, and Gillott 404; the medium, like the Brause 511, Hunt 100, and Easterbrook 356; and the small tubular nib, like the Brause 515 and Hunt 102. Most holders will fit the large and medium sizes or the small tubular sizes. Most the ones you come across fit the large and medium sized nibs, so the only size you have to make sure you get the right holder for is the small tubular nib.
Material. Personally, I hate holding plastic. It just doesn’t feel right in my hand and if it’s hot the holder gets slippery. So, I always look for wooden nib holders. I also have a metal nib holder for my small tubular nibs. It has a nice feel, though I have a rubber sleeve on mine since the rough metal at the end sometimes rubs against my finger in an uncomfortable way.
Shape. A lot of nib holders swell towards the nib end and I prefer this to a perfectly straight holder. In addition, some nib holders will have a bit of cork near the end, which makes holding them more comfortable.
Weight. This isn’t a big deal, but overly light nib holders just don’t feel as solid to draw with. This is the main drawback I found with the e+m antique style pen holder. Obviously, you can only check weight if you get to try out the holder in a store.
Mount. This is what I really want to discuss here. The question is: how does the nib attach to the holder? This is a matter of the proper size; you want to a mount that will fit your nib. But this is also a matter of feel. If the mount isn’t snug, then your nib will wiggle a bit and affect your drawing.
Most nib holders you will find use the kind of metal prong mount shown above. The e+m, General’s, and Koh-i-noor pen holders all use this kind of mount. Basically, four metal prongs hold the nib against the inside of a metal ring. This works okay at first, but I have found that the prongs start to weaken fairly quickly. You can see this on the right above. In this case, dried ink on the nib holder actually helps keep the nib in place. This isn’t an ideal mounting mechanism. The ones on the e+m pen holders haven’t worn out for me yet, but they are also new holders. So we’ll see.
The other mount that you tend to find these days involves concentric plastic rings. The nib slides between the rings to rest snuggly in the holder. This mount fits larger nibs really well. The Tachikawa holder (right) supposedly fits small tubular nibs also, but I find that it doesn’t do so very tightly and is too big for the Brause 515. It works best with larger nibs, like the Zebra G. The holder on the left is a really nice rosewood holder by Ken Altman. I use this one with my Leonardt 30 for lettering.
Some wooden nib holders will just have holes cut into them for the nib to slide into. If the nib is the correct size, then this makes for a very solid feel since the nib is directly against the holder without any metal or plastic acting as an intermediary. The holder on the right is a rosewood carrot shaped holder. The one on the left was an oblique holder which I took the oblique mount out of. The resulting hole fits a Brause 511 perfectly (this is what I draw with almost exclusively).
All the above holders are for large and medium sized nibs. For the small tubular nibs, you need a more specialized holder.
The one I have is metal. The nib slides in between the prongs and then you turn the collar to tighten the prongs. The result is that the nib is held very tightly.
So far, the nibs I’ve shown are the kinds of ones you could find in a brick-and-mortar store or on-line. But people have been writing and drawing with dip pens for a long time. So many kinds if nib holders have come and gone over the years, and sometimes they come up for sale at various antique stores on-line.
One style of mount that you don’t see anymore is the metal collar. Basically, it’s two curved pieces of metal and the nib slides between them. This kind of mount works best for medium nibs like the Hunt 100 and Brause 66ef.
This next kind of mount I’ve encountered only once.
The nib slides into the mount and you depress the lever. This pushes metal arms against the underside of the nib, locking it in place.
This is a really cool mechanism, though I find that the lever rubs a bit against my ring finger as I draw.
And last but not least, I wanted to mention something I heard about a long time ago. You can use the cap of a Pitt artist pen as a nib holder. It only works with larger nibs, though.
(written February 12, 2016)