So you’ve decided to take up the art of calligraphy. Let me be the first to say, “Welcome!” Welcome to an incredibly fun, wonderfully artistic, and most importantly, supportive, family! But where to start? It’s easy to get lost in a maze of supply recommendations and calligraphy terms.
Luckily for you, there’s no need for all that. In this post, I’ll break down the essential calligraphy tools, what they’re used for, and how they’re composed. Once you’ve read this, be sure to check out my post on specific recommendations for what brands of pens, nibs, inks, paper, and more I use in my calligraphy business every day!
Let’s jump right in!
What are they?
The best place to start in an exploration of calligraphy supplies is with the nib holders. Also know as calligraphy pens, they are pretty much what they sound like: special pens designed to hold calligraphy nibs. We’ll dive into what nibs are in the next section, but for this discussion, just know they’re the silver metal bits sticking out of the right side of the pens in the photo above.
Are there different kinds?
I’m glad you asked! Yes, there are two different kinds of calligraphy pens: straight and oblique. In the photo above, you’ll notice that the bottom pen has a nib extending straight from it. If you guessed this was a straight pen, you’d be right! This means the top pen is oblique. You can spot an oblique pen from the flange (the black plastic part holding the nib) sticking out at an angle. Some flanges are plastic, some metal, but all jut out from the side of the holder, like the upper pen in the photo above.
But why do we have two kinds? That’s a great question! Simply put, oblique pens are better for most calligraphers. They hold the nib at a better angle for achieving the graceful thick and thin lines that are characteristic of calligraphy. The tines of the nib (again, I’ll explain the deets on this next) need to be able to open on a thick line to allow the ink to flow. The only way to do this is with the nib at the right slant to the paper. So, rather than holding their wrists at cramp-inducing angles, calligraphers of yore created the oblique pen.
That said, oblique pens aren’t necessarily right for everyone. Some modern calligraphers prefer straight pens if their writing in a style that is more upright. Often times, lefties use straight pens instead of oblique, which are dominant-hand specific (the majority produced are for righties). A leftie wouldn’t be able to use a right-handed oblique with any real success. There are a few left-handed obliques made, so be sure to explore that if you’re a leftie!
What are they?
I promised you we’d get into the details of nibs, and here we are. Nibs are the metal bits that stick into the flange (for an oblique) or directly into the pen (for a straight). They’re also the only part of the pen that contacts the ink and the paper, so they’re arguably more important to calligraphy than the holder is. Just don’t tell my pen collection I said that.
Are there different kinds?
Yep, there definitely are. The two most important kinds are broad nibs and pointed nibs. For the purposes of this article, we’re going to focus on pointed nibs since they are what is used for most calligraphy.
The Pointed Nib
Above is the anatomy of a nib. The base is the part inserted into the pen and the shank is the main section. The vent hole is what allows the ink to flow. The tines are on either side of the slit and are flexible to allow the thick strokes to appear with slight pressure. The tip is what creates the thin hairlines when no pressure is applied.
Despite the simple depiction of a nib above, there are in fact dozens (if not hundreds) of various styles and brands of nibs. Some are more flexible while others are stiffer. Some have a more sharply pointed tip while others have a slightly blunter tip (not nearly as blunt as a broad-edged nib, mind you). There are even different sizes of shanks which can lead to some trouble when trying to fit them into your holder. In my follow-up post with specific recommendations, I’ll go through some of my favorites and let you know the unique features of each.
No matter which nib you decide to start with, just know that there are so many options out there. As you get more comfortable with the pen, don’t be afraid to branch out and try new nibs! Most are only a couple of dollars each, so you can go crazy a try a dozen different nibs for under $30.
Ink. What a beautiful, fickle thing. Despite the fact that I’m an ink hoarder and could talk about it all day long, I’m not going to go into too much detail here. Partly because I don’t want to lose you all after we’ve come so far, and partly because we all know what ink is, I trust. That said, just know that calligraphy ink is a unique species, so please don’t try to use fountain pen ink or some leftover printer ink refill (shudder) to calligraph with. It won’t go well, I promise. Non-calligraphy ink can spell disaster for a project, but well-matched nibs and ink can make magic happen!
Like ink, this is a topic that would seem like it needs no introduction. Everybody knows what paper is and it’s all the same, right? Au contraire, my friend. If you pull out a sheet of printer paper and try to calligraph on it, the ink will bleed everywhere, your nib will catch, and you’ll have a generally terrible time. I’ve heard more than one story of a calligrapher-in-the-making walking away from the art for a time because of tools that didn’t mesh well.
When it comes to paper, calligraphers need something more substantial than your typical printer paper. Something closer to 32 lb. weight (~48 GSM) is ideal for day-to-day practice. Thicker papers are better for client projects and final works. Also, you’ll want to focus on smooth paper in the beginning as it is the easiest to write on. Nibs just love to catch on rougher or handmade paper, so it’s best to save that for further in your calligraphy journey.
Contrary to what you might think, calligraphy isn’t just nibs and ink. There are so many other tools that can be added to your calligraphy toolbox. From brush pens and paint markers to watercolor paints and white pencils to laser levels (yep, you read that right), there’s no end to the possibilities. Always keep an open mind when imagining a project and you never know what ideas may come to you!
So now that we’ve covered what the basic calligraphy supplies are, don’t miss my follow-up post with specific supply recommendations and start building your calligraphy tool kit today!