Custom Nib Studio’s Gena Salorino chats it out with our Katy Klassman

Last August, I sat down at the table of Gena Salorino at the DC Pen Show. I had a pen that was beautiful on the outside, but a very troublesome writer (especially given my tendency to slightly rotate my pen, oh, and the fact that I tend to press a bit too hard when writing.) Gena had been recommended by a mutual pen friend and as luck would have it, had one cancellation that day which I happily took. Just as an aside. I am somewhat vigilant about the idea that to continue the evolution of the pen hobby to be one that promotes equity, we need to have more female nibmeisters. So, when I sat down at Gena’s table, I was grateful for the possibility of restoring some joy to that fussy pen, but also happy that the work would be done by a woman (PS-nothing against you gentleman nibmeisters. I have lots of love for you all, too!) Watching Gena work on that pen was, without sounding overly dramatic, breathtaking. Careful, slow, gentle, practiced and deliberate movements that felt like a dance. Working on nibs is quiet work and Gena herself exudes a Zen-like quality while doing it. At the same time, one can easily see that she is in complete command and no matter the condition of the object in her hands, it doesn’t stand a chance of escaping her mastery. There is a humility about Gena. She seems genuinely surprised by the overly positive reaction to her work, the heaps of praise she has received and that her timed appointments are sold out weeks before pen shows. It’s enchanting and refreshing. All of this is to say that Gena is really, really, good at what she does and is also an exceptionally special and kind artist. I loved that I had the good fortune to ask her about her trajectory to become a nibmeister, her practice, and her soon to be formally announced partnership with Esterbrook.

Herewith is our conversation:

Do you remember the first time you held a fountain pen? Which pen was it and do you remember what the nib was like?

Gena: This might be a little embarrassing to admit, but I had never actually used a fountain pen until I started working at Nibs.com. I don’t remember the exact first one, but I started there doing a lot of vintage restoration. The first fountain pen I called my own was the Sailor Pro Gear Slim Starburst Galaxy with a medium cursive italic nib. It’s still one of my favorites.

How did you become a nibmeister?

Gena: I completely fell into this line of work. I had just moved to Los Angeles and was looking for work when I saw an ad for a workshop apprentice at a pen store and basically, the ad described me perfectly: someone who has obsessive attention to detail, someone who is used to working precisely at a small scale, someone who is good with their hands. I studied architecture in school and drafting and model building were my favorites; even as most of my classmates were transitioning to digital representations, I was doing all my drawing and modeling by hand. This is how I was hired at Nibs.com. I’ve also always loved being in a workshop/studio environment. I grew up hanging around my grandfather’s printing shop in Pennsylvania, and later I always had a little art studio for myself.

Which is your favorite nib to grind? Which is your favorite nib to use personally?

Gena: This is such a tough question! Even though people ask me all the time it’s hard to give a good answer, because so many nibs have different positive attributes. I love working on Japanese nibs because across the board they are expertly made and incredibly consistent, which makes my job much easier. For my own use, I adore Japanese pens, especially Sailors. But I always have a range of pens inked on my desk. Right now, I have: Pilot Decimo with an EF nib, Sailor Pro Gear Slim with a medium Cursive Italic, Montblanc 22 with a Broad nib, and a vintage Sheaffer with a medium Architect Point. There’s also an Esterbrook Estie with a broad nib. I haven’t decided what grind to give it yet (probably another Architect). I really love grinding and using Architect Points. I think they’re so interesting. And they make my standard block printing look pretty nice.

Which is your most requested nib? Why do you think that is?

Gena: I get a lot of requests for the Architect Point. I think this grind is kind of having a “moment” among pen people, as they’re finally getting into people’s hands, passed around, and tried out. I think once you try one, if you like it, you have to have one for yourself. Second is probably a combination grind of flex and needlepoint for calligraphy.

Can you describe your technical process in brief?

Gena: As for my technical process, I use a bench lathe and a series of grinding wheels. I do a coarse grind, then a soft grind and polish, and then I make final adjustments by hand.

How would you describe your style as a nibmeister?

Gena: My style is finding the middle ground between usability and the purity of the grind. I try to listen to people and convey to them what is possible. In general, I am less interested in making the ideal Italic, say, than making an Italic grind that works for its user. Our pens are so close to us, I think it’s kind of magical to get to customize a nib for the specific hand that uses it.

How do continue to learn your craft? Are you mostly self-taught? Do you seek out other nibmeisters?

Gena: I continue to learn my craft by working at it every day. Most importantly I look at and write with nibs every day. There’s always something new to learn by looking. I was trained as an apprentice to John Mottishaw for nearly 4 years, so my style is derived from his, though I would say they are no longer identical. I’m finding my own way to adjust to grinds and put my own mark on the work.

Do you have outstanding goals for yourself as a nibmeister?

Gena: My goals are to preserve this rare knowledge, to keep the craft alive, and to do this work for as long as I can.

What do you love most about being a nibmeister?

Gena: I love being in my workshop and tinkering all day. Sometimes I can’t believe I’m so lucky to have this as my job! It’s also been very rewarding going to pen shows and doing this work in person. To have people trust me with their precious pens, and then be happy with the results of my work, is a wonderful thing to be a part of. I feel so lucky to be a part of the pen community.

Tell me about the custom nib you are working on for Esterbrook and why you chose it as your signature nib.

Gena: The custom nib I’m grinding for Esterbrook is called the Journaler. It’s a medium stub grind, based on the vintage Esterbrook 9314M nib. The idea is that it’s smooth and friendly enough for everyday use, gives your writing some flair, all without being too huge for practical writing.

A heartfelt thanks to Gena for taking the time to speak with us!

Be on the lookout for upcoming news about Gena’s nib and the Esterbrook Custom Grind Program in the very near future.

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