Calligraphy tools & materials

The three fundamental calligraphy tools are: 

  • page: the writing surface (paper, vellum, wall, mug, signpost, your wrist, etc)
  • ink: any liquid colour for application
  • nib (or brush) on a handle

And your body: the way you sit, the tension (or not) in your shoulders, something in the way you move ... :-)

The relationship between these four elements can make or break your calligraphy.

Your body is up to you! I can make recommendations about the other stuff from experience.

If you want to learn well and leave things open for your calligraphy to improve, I'd say this is a useful minimum of calligraphy tools and materials to start with:

I think you will find your calligraphic life much easier if you also have: Beechwood Book Stand

  • slanted writing surface: either invest in a proper adjustable desk-easel aka bookstand with a card or plywood support, or you can, like many calligraphers, start with simply a drawing board propped against books, or in your lap leaning against the edge of the desk
  • medium, rough paintbrush, for mixing up colours, applying ink to nib etc
  • rough paper (cheap printer paper, etc)
  • drawing pencils – obviously, the higher-quality, the better, within reason
  • a decent ruler, ideally 50cm, transparent, and marked in cm and inches
  • guide sheets (pages of thick black ruled lines to put behind practice sheets: you will be best making these yourself to match your different nib sizes)
  • a good eraser (not those pink scrubby ones on pencil-ends)
  • more colours of ink, watercolour or artists' gouache paint, or fine artists' markers, for ornament and decoration – you can add fine watercolour brushes to the list as appropriate :-)

Make sure you have good lighting from the correct side. If necessary, add 'an adjustable desk lamp' to the above necessities ... good lighting is a vital part of all fine artwork, including calligraphy!

Brause Calligraphy Nibs

Calligraphy pens

Fountain-pen type calligraphy pens

Many people believe a calligraphy fountain pen is the place to start, especially as a gift. Personally I think the pros and cons balance out: 'calligraphy' fountain pens may be easy to use, but they don't give great artistic results and they're restrictive; I think you're better off with a Zig or Sharpie (see below). Granted, I did hours of practice with a fountain pen writing certificates for a local school, and it stood me in good stead. But you see that was before good quality markers came on the market, because I am a dinosaur.

Also bear in mind that the market is full of 'calligraphic' fountain pens which are actually just supposed to make your regular handwriting look more artistic and flourishy by giving it a bit of thick-and-thin contrast. They come with one nib, which is not very wide. They're often promoted as 'italic' pens. Such pens are not to be confused with fountain-type pens that are intended for writing calligraphy – they come usually with multiple exchangeable nibs that are clearly quite broad.

If you really do still want a calligraphy fountain pen, it's preferable to get one with a refillable 'converter' reservoir as well as cartridges. Yes, it seems cheaper to buy a cartridge pen but then you have to top up with new cartridges (which is how they make their money ...) If you can possibly get a pen with a piston-fill converter, you can refill as often as you like from an ink bottle, which at least gives you some control over quality and colour of ink.

Dip nibs, yay!

In the end, though, the simple historical dip nib in a holder, like the ones above right (the pic actually illustrates the Brause 2.5 mm nib), is better to work with than a calligraphy fountain pen because a dip nib gives you more control and creative flexibility, even though it may seem a little more trouble and mess to start with.

Good dip-nib brands are Michell and Brause. The holders are fairly standard. You may want to get a reservoir to clip onto the nib, too – not necessary, but can be helpful.

Calligraphy markers, also yay!

If you really want to ease into things slowly, then calligraphy markers by Zig and also Sharpie get particularly favourable ratings from beginners and more advanced calligraphers reviewing online. (Note re the Sharpie calligraphy markers that they are not permanent markers – like the Zigs, they're water-based, but made by the Sharpie brand.)

I have slowly come to believe that good quality markers are better than fountain pens: they are just as convenient, less costly, as good quality, and don't pretend to be 'the real thing'. If you get a good brand, they're lightfast, easy to use and avoid mess. Yes, they wear down in time, but then so do goose quills :-) Markers are pretty cost effective for shorter projects such as greetings cards or scrapbooking, especially if you treat them with a little care. And they are easy to manage. When I run beginner calligraphy classes, especially with children, I do a bulk buy of medium and broad calligraphy markers and that lets the students get on with learning the basics in a limited time without getting covered in ink. But personally I wouldn't use them for special work.

O.K.! With some half-decent paper, and a table, and your new pens, you're now set up to write.

Now, the slippery slope: wanting more calligraphy tools ...

So, you try it out. It's interesting. Good results looks very possible. You're prepared to commit. What are the next calligraphy tools and materials to obtain, the ones will carry you into the realm of gift calligraphy, greetings cards and (generally) your own written art? Well:

  • at least one large good nib (5mm from Brause, Mitchell, Sheaffer etc) and possibly some smaller ones (<2mm)
  • separate reservoir, if the nibs need one: Mitchell nibs do, for example
  • red ink (good quality vermilion or cadmium red artists' gouache is excellent)
  • other colours, as you desire
  • fine drawing nib, or separate mapping pen
  • one full sheet of hot-pressed 300gsm watercolour paper (eg Fabriano) for cutting/tearing into sections for good work

And ...

You make a couple of birthday cards. You do a haiku in italics, and put it in a little gold frame, and it looks fantastic. Someone asks you to write out a name on a presentation certificate, and they're pleased with the result.

Now it starts getting a lot more fun. Suddenly, you can write calligraphy, and your calligraphy tools do make a difference! So, as soon as you find you want more, I recommend:

  • another nib holder, or two, to avoid the trouble of changing over
  • more nibs, always more nibs: a very big nib ... and a very little nib ... a crow-quill or fine drawing nib, for outlining; and maybe a copperplate nib
  • Another lamp-black artists' watercolour, for mixing into water-soluble ink; and an ultramarine blue, a cerulean blue, a yellow ochre to imitate gold (or metallic gold gouache), a chrome yellow, a lemon yellow, another cadmium red, a quinacridone red, perhaps a vermilion, a viridian green, and a titanium white
  • a fine paintbrush (for example, a sable size 0) for adding ornament, colouring in, etc
  • some calligraphy 'parchment' paper, for playing around with
  • desk-easel to make it easier to write on a slant
  • an adjustable desk lamp (with a daylight bulb) or get a full-spectrum work lamp, or magnifying lamp

Further still, aka the 'hardcore' calligraphy tools list

By now, you are doing things with calligraphy tools and materials that, to the casual observer, look quite specialised. If friends come round and see you writing, they'll say things like, "I never knew you could put the ink on the pen with a brush!" and "Wow, you write it so fast!"

Now that you know a little bit about your abilities, it's a good time to experiment again:

  • fine sharp knife such as a traditional quill-cutting knife, or a scalpel (I use Swann-Morton)
  • reed pen
  • quill pen
  • Chinese calligraphy brush
  • different papers: rice, handmade, linen rag etc
  • a piece of real calf vellum -- off-cuts are cheaper, if you can get them
  • a piece of real sheepskin parchment, just to underline how much nicer vellum is
  • fine sandpaper (for 'fuzzing' the vellum surface)
  • pumice powder, for degreasing
  • gum sandarac, for tightening hairlines
  • gold leaf (the kind called 'transfer' or 'patent' on tissue sheets -- easier to handle)
  • flat gold leaf size or mordant -- water-soluble, for use on paper
  • two or three fine sable watercolour brushes, for example a size 000, a size 0 and a size 2
  • book of examples of fantastic decorated pages -- whether medieval, Renaissance, Arts & Crafts or modern
  • desk storage for your nibs, holders, brushes, paints, etc

Pretty soon you may also find that you want more than calligraphy tools, because now you've got the gilding bug:

  • one tablet of shell gold (real gold paint)
  • a book of loose gold leaf
  • glassine paper or fine silk, cotton wool etc for pressing down gold leaf
  • flat gilding medium
  • raised gilding medium (for example, Roberson's gold body, or your own gesso sottile if you're up for it)
  • an agate burnisher
  • gilder's tip, gilder's cushion and gilder's knife

After that ... who knows? You may well be teaching page decoration in evening classes at the local college, or applying for membership of a prestigious lettering-and-penmanship organisation, or organising an exhibition of your own work, or too busy selling greetings cards to go shopping.

What I do know is that nowhere along the line do calligraphy tools stop being fascinating and desirable.

The bottom line

When you've exhausted your appetite for buying and using all the fancy calligraphy tools there are, you will find yourself, like a martial arts master, starting over again at the beginning of your art, but this time understanding it to a whole new level.

Back to the simplicity of paper, ink, and nib. And a calligrapher who really knows how to use them!

In general, I get my best results using:

  • well prepared vellum, or 300 gsm hot-pressed watercolour paper
  • good-quality black ink of about the consistency of thin cream, often made myself
  • a good metal dip-pen with a carefully adjusted reservoir (Mitchell or Brause for preference)

Whatever you use, get your page, ink and nib (or equivalents) working in harmony. Experiment and adjust and troubleshoot until they all balance against each other for smooth, crisp lettering. 

For example, more absorbent paper needs ink that's less runny, and flows slowly, so it won't soak in and spread. So if you want to write calligraphy on absorbent paper, you might use a different brand of ink, and work with your page held up at a steeper angle, and keep your strokes swift and sure.

A fountain pen requires thin ink and, because the pen mechanism controls the ink flow, it needs you to work closer to the horizontal, on less absorbent paper, and to move steadily.


And don't forget about the way you move!

Happy writing!

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