We have investigated the field emission properties of nanotube thin films deposited by a plasma enhanced chemical vapor deposition process from 2% CH4 in H2 atmosphere. Depending on the deposition of the metallic catalyst [Fe(NO3)3 in an ethanol solution or sputtered Ni] the nanotube films showed a nested or continuous dense distribution of tubes. The films consisted of multiwalled nanotubes (MWNTs) with diameters ranging from 40 down to 5 nm, with a large fraction of the tubes having open ends. The nanotube thin film emitters showed a turn-on field of less than 2 V μm-1 for an emission current of 1 nA. An emission site density of 10 000 emitters per cm-2 is achieved at fields around 4 V μm-1. The emission spots, observed on a phosphorous screen, show various irregular structures, which we attribute to open ended tubes. A combined measurement of the field emitted electron energy distribution (FEED) and the current-voltage characteristic allowed us to determine the work function at the field emission site. In the case of the MWNT thin films and arc discharge grown MWNTs we found work function values around 5 eV, which agree well with the global work function of 4.85 eV we determined by photoelectron spectroscopy. From the shape of the FEED peaks we can conclude that the field emission originates from continuum states at the Fermi energy, indicating the metallic character of the emission site. In the case of single-walled nanotubes we found significantly lower work function values of around 3.7 eV compared to those of MWNTs. We attribute this to a size dependent electrostatic effect of the image potential, which lowers the work function for small (≪5 nm) structures. ©- - 2000 American Vacuum Society.