How to Choose a Calligraphy Pen

Written by jennifer walker
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How to Choose a Calligraphy Pen
Some tools of the trade. (Jennifer Walker)

There are basically two necessary tools for calligraphy: Something to write on and something to write with. The "with" is a calligraphy pen or brush. Each style of pen has its own benefits. Knowing what their strong points are will help you choose the best pen for your project.

Skill level:

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    Anatomy of a Pen

  1. 1

    Before you begin the process of choosing the type of calligraphy pen that's best for you, let's get familiar with the parts of the instrument itself.

    The nib is the part of the pen that controls ink flow. The wider the nib, the larger your letters can be.

    How to Choose a Calligraphy Pen
    The parts of a pen.
  2. 2

    The handle, also known as the barrel or shaft, is what the nib fits into and what the calligrapher holds and she works.

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    Ink is the third necessary component. It is built into the markers, comes in tubes for cartridge pens, and is available in bottles for dip pens, brushes and quills.

    Calligraphy Markers

  1. 1

    Calligraphy markers are the epitome of calligraphic ease: remove the cap and write. This makes them particularly useful for beginners who want to get started right away or the occasional calligrapher that wants the ink to still be fresh the next time he picks up a pen.

    How to Choose a Calligraphy Pen
    Some of my markers and what they can do.
  2. 2

    There are a variety of color choices available. Try out different brands in the store, if possible, to get a feel for how hard or soft a particular nib might be. A firm nib is beneficial for crisp, strong lines but requires even pressure to achieve the best results.

  3. 3

    The felt nib sizes may be limited, but many pens of this style come with dual tips: One on each end of the pen, giving you two sizes for the price of one. The pens in my collection, for instance, come in 3.5 mm and 2 mm sets and 5 mm and 2 mm sets.

  4. 4

    Scroll tipped pens have a notch in the end of the nib for creating double-line effects and adding flourishes.

  5. 5

    Remember basic black. Color is great but black goes with everything and will work for almost every project. Keep a couple of black pens in different sizes on hand.

    Cartridge Pens

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    Offering an increase in customization, cartridge-style calligraphy pens let you exchange nib sizes and ink colors in a single step each while still being incredibly portable for the calligrapher on the go.

    How to Choose a Calligraphy Pen
    The pen, some extra barrels, and a writing sample.
  2. 2

    Inks are available in several color. They come in small tubes and attach to the nib assembly with an easy push.

  3. 3

    Cartridge pens have two-piece barrels. The barrel holds not only the nib but the ink as well, and then screws into the pen shaft.

    Dip Pens

  1. 1

    What a calligrapher might lose in portability, you will gain in maximum flexibility. Nibs for this style of pen are inexpensive and are highly interchangeable. As the name suggests, the pen is loaded with ink either by dipping into a bottle though some come with a built-in dropper in the lid that makes the process more precise.

    How to Choose a Calligraphy Pen
    My main dip pen and an assortment of nibs.
  2. 2

    Some nibs may need an ink reservoir attached while others will have one built in. The separate reservoir slides onto the nib easily and will fit nibs of similar size.

  3. 3

    Dip pen nibs can also be used with thin paints for more flexibility in your finished product. It is best to load the nib with a paintbrush if you are using paint and the paint may need to be thinned to flow correctly.

  4. 4

    Pen wipes or some sort of tissue will be necessary if you dip your pen rather than fill it with a brush or dropper.

  5. 5

    Keep a spare piece of paper next to your project to make a few test squiggles and to make sure the ink is flowing smoothly.

    Other Tools: Brush and Quill

  1. 1

    Almost any kind of brush can be used as a calligraphy pen. To mimic the look of a traditional nib look for natural-fiber brushes with a square tip. Round brushes can also be used with a little practice and are particularly suited for the more modern calligraphy styles.

    How to Choose a Calligraphy Pen
    Brushes and Quill Pens allow room for exploration.
  2. 2

    Quills are a fun alternative to a modern calligraphy pen and give you that old-world feel. You can make your own or purchase one pre-made. A compromise between old and new can be found with quill pens fit with metal nib-holders that work just like dip pens and use the same (or similar) nibs.

Tips and warnings

  • Look for inks that are waterproof, lightfast and archival safe (also known as acid free) for the best results.
  • Check the scrapbooking aisle of your local craft store for more choices in dual-tip calligraphy pens if the fine art section doesn't have the color or width you want.
  • Dual-tip markers should be stored flat so that one end doesn't dry up before the other.
  • To get reluctant ink flowing, give the pen a gentle shake with the nib pointing down but make sure to have the cap on to keep ink drops from staining your clothes or spotting your project.
  • Ink tubes for cartridge pens are pretty much universal and very inexpensive but can dry up over time. Always have extras on hand when working on a project.
  • Pressing the nib to a tissue will absorb the excess ink if you need a quick color change but cleaning with water is recommended if you go from a dark to a light ink to avoid a muddied result.
  • Ergonomic shafts are available and should be considered if you will be spending a lot of time on this art form.
  • A quill's tip will wear down with use, so keep a small, sharp knife around to trim it as necessary.
  • Not all manufacturers use the same size barrels, so you'll need to keep track of which barrels match which pens if you use more than one brand.

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