Calligraphy supplies, aka 'how to spend it'

This is not a sales page. But it could save you money on calligraphy supplies.

This page lists the best suppliers I know of for calligraphy-related items.

Looking for a specific tool or material? Check out the page on calligraphy tools.

Books and book reviews occupy another section of the site.

Below, you will find:

  • a list in progress of where to buy
  • notes on finding best value (not always lowest price)
  • links to the most fabulous specialist suppliers
  • a note to myself, which you can totally ignore 

I don't earn any commissions on this page. I'll always say if I do.


Books

Abe Books (UK, USA) often have splendid bargains on obscure second-hand titles.

Amazon (UK, USA) are often the best option for books, always give a good reference point for price, but note that rarer titles are still sometimes available cheaper elsewhere.

Ebay (UK, USA) can be OK for books but watch out for high pricing and compare elsewhere before hitting 'Buy now'.

John Neale Books (USA) wonderful titles and also a great calligraphy-supplies outlet (see below for link)

World of Books (UK, USA) – another useful alternative to Amazon.

Also check:

Specialist suppliers often stock books on particular arts or techniques, so (for example) if you want a book on gilding, it's worth searching a gold-leaf supplier's site.

Calligraphers' own websites can also be a useful source of books they have written, sometimes not available at all elsewhere, often in any case at good prices.

Charity/thrift stores online are another place to browse for books you didn't know you needed: in the UK, try Oxfam Online. But there, too, do compare prices before buying.


How much should I pay? Does 'quality' matter? How will I know?

I try to answer these questions more fully below, but the guidelines I personally find helpful are:

  • Use calligraphy supplies slightly better than necessary for the job in hand.
  • Seek good value, avoid the cheap end of the market, and ask lots of questions at the expensive end. 
  • Balance total cost (including postage, tax, and import duties) against convenience and need.

Full disclosure: I'm an editor irl and old enough to remember when the interwebs were but a twinkle in Tim Berners-Lee's eye. So I'm grumpy, with standards. But my standards are flexible.

How much should I pay?

Find three different suppliers of the exact product you're looking at who all deliver to your area. Average their prices. That's roughly what the market says you should pay.

Then figure in postage and convenience, and (note to self) maybe ask yourself sternly how much you actually need the item.

Does 'quality' matter? I mean ... does it really?

Yup.

It really does.

How will I know?

Here follows below my teaching rant on this topic.

How will you know whether quality matters?

By comparing how it feels to use the cheap-ass, dumbed-down version of whatever calligraphy supplies you need for your project with how it feels to use the high-quality, high-performance version of those same tools and materials.

In the end, the quality of your calligraphy supplies has to be at least good enough not to get in the way of your calligraphic ability, and preferably good enough to help.

Granted, it also has to be the right quality for you. Some calligraphers like Pilot parallel pens. Some like quills. Some hate runny ink, some love it. There is no real alternative to trying out different tools and materials for yourself.

But that does NOT mean you can settle into your very first comfort zone and sit there like a lemon/bump on a log (delete as appropriate). Whatever your preferences, everything works easier, looks better and lasts longer when its quality is good. Even if right now you honestly believe Crayola markers are best of all.

Yes, expertise determines the upper limit on how much return you get for your money. Yes, if you're just setting out in copperplate, there is no point paying a month's wages for a hand-crafted made-to-measure nib-holder and Ewan Clayton's personally imported Japanese sumi ink.

Equally, though, if your calligraphy is currently improving through hard work, find a way to upgrade your basic calligraphy supplies. You're upgrading your own powers of creative expression as a direct result.

It's a great sensation to use high-quality materials and see your work shine. 


Wonderful and dangerous places for all those calligraphy supplies you didn't know you needed

The online shops of specialist suppliers and art stores are very often better value for calligraphy supplies than the big marketplaces, quick to deliver, and keen to maintain their good reputation for excellent products and service.

They also sell crazy-desirable items available nowhere else. Paints made of crushed rubies and jade dust – 22-karat moon gold – powdered graphite – transparent calfskin vellum – 51 varieties of agate burnisher – silverpoint holders with three sizes of wire –

Therefore, the links below constitute a danger-zone where you can lose many hours and scarily large sums without pain. I'm not an affiliate in any way: I love these places. Browse them and be happy. And don't even think about blaming me afterwards. I warned you up front.

Note: from their long experience and detailed knowledge, many calligraphy-supplies outlets can also provide advice and help by phone or email or via social media. Please remember they have limited numbers of staff, who are not 24/7 AIs, and that in 2021 things are tough – it's usually worth a wait to get a real and informative reply to your question.

International delivery options vary, so do ensure these suppliers can deliver to you before you buy, but when I last looked (2021) many of them would deliver internationally by arrangement, so, again, get in touch.

Large e-commerce platforms: Amazon, Ebay, Etsy

Amazon for calligraphy supplies

With that all-you-can-eat interface, easy checkout, supernaturally fast delivery, and abiding need to please the customer, Amazon are wonderful for products you already know and love.

The trouble with (a) making it easy for anyone to set up as a seller and (b) listing items by popularity is that small or specialist suppliers get crowded out by loud hawkers of abundant, cheap-and-cheerful crud. Amazon are working on that but it's a hard, hard problem.

Meanwhile, don't browse too trustingly:

  • know what you want, from recommendations or reviews elsewhere
  • know how much you should be paying for it
  • search for that product, brand, title or author specifically

I don't recommend browsing Amazon for dip-nibs (broad or pointed), watercolour brushes, calligraphy brushes, ink-stones, or calligraphy pens. Only buy these if you first know your brand and product. There are just too many items of dubious quality grabbing for attention.

Note that Amazon have a section called Amazon Warehouse which sells returned, slightly damaged, or not-in-original-packaging items for discounted prices. Best to compare the Warehouse results with the regular results.

Ebay for calligraphy supplies

Ebay is great for genuine bargains on previously owned items if you know enough to judge accurately the quality and worth of the offer.

Although I've sometimes got lucky in auction, I usually tick 'Buy it now' on the tab bar for convenience. Either way, under the 'Condition' tab, I check 'Used' to get rid of the new, mass-produced offerings, and change the number of items per page to '200'.

Then, I list by 'relevance' if I want the beginner books to come up first, but by 'price: high' if I want to marvel at the chancers trying to flog off a single Japanese paintbrush for £213 plus £56 postage plus (to the UK) customs duties. I mean I dunno maybe it's worth it do you think?

But assuming you know what you want and what it should cost, you can now sit back and enjoy an interesting browse of books, nibs, prints, job-lots, original handwritten letters, Mao posters of doubtful provenance, purported Victoriana etc.


Etsy for calligraphy supplies

Etsy is still a fantastic place to find high-value calligraphy supplies if you feel confident about how to identify genuine value for money.

It can be a good source of gifts for calligraphers.

Etsy is not limited to hand-made objects. It also sells vintage and antique items which can include interesting pens, knives, etc. But, according to Etsy's house rules, the beginning of the twenty-first century by now counts as 'vintage' (does that make you feel old? – it makes me feel old). Note that, in any marketplace, the word 'antique' should only be used of items more than 100 years old.

Etsy further offers creative classes and kits including calligraphy lessons, mostly in brush and modern calligraphy. I have not tried any of them, and so can't recommend any of them personally. Read the reviews carefully ... 

There are many new, mass-produced items for sale on Etsy such as brush pens, glass pens, markers etc. There are also quite a few dodgy offers, such as the expensive 'lovingly handcrafted vintage nib holder' that looks just like a standard wooden holder selling at a fraction of the price outside Etsy, or some very, very shiny 'William Mitchell nibs that are unused despite being produced in the early 1900s'. Hmm. OK. 

Be wary, use common sense, compare prices, and study reviews of the brand and product elsewhere first.


Research tips

  • Avoid making decisions based on only five-star or one-star reviews.
  • Read three-star reviews carefully, along with the longer four- or two-star reviews.
  • Check that good reviews are actually for the product you are considering (I've known unscrupulous third-party sellers on Amazon steal favourable reviews for related products and pass them off as their own). 
  • If a product has many hundreds of reviews of four stars or above, yes, that's a strong recommendation, but still make sure the product is suitable for the calligraphy purposes you have in mind.

For new books, bear in mind that self-publishing means everyone and their dog can put books online, and they do; and sometimes, honestly, the dog's book would be the better option. (Like I said, I'm grumpy.) On Amazon, use 'Look Inside', if it's available for that title. Look for reviews elsewhere, by calligraphers you like.

On brush-calligraphy instruction books, especially, I'm dubious about titles that include too many 'practice pages'. As far as I can see, this is just a way to pad out content that's a bit lacking. Books are not printed on decent calligraphy paper, after all, and an open volume is a very inconvenient surface to try to write on, especially while learning. 

Note to self: the original calligraphy supplies

You will need:

  • something to mark a symbol on that can be perceived
  • something that can be controlled by hand to mark a symbol with 
  • a viewer who can somewhat recognise skill in marking symbols
  • enough skill in symbol-marking to somewhat impress that viewer

Notes

1. This master-list has worked for professionals since the dawn of writing, so use it.

2. 'Symbol-marking' is a specialised category of 'mark-making' in art more generally.

3. 'Viewer' includes self, but self alone generates limited returns.

4. God alone can also be a valid viewer, but see 3, and also consider carefully what 'enough skill' would mean in this case.

5. 'The interwebs' is not a viewer. Address someone.