Calligraphy tools & materials

See below for info and tips on specific calligraphy tools and materials.

General calligraphy-supplies providers are a whole other page!

And for calligraphy books: click here.


The fundamental calligraphy tools ...

  • 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 (not to be forgotten) your body: your sitting position, the tension (or not) in your back, the freedom (or not) of your writing arm, where you place your weight on the writing surface, etc. Calligraphy traces movement in space and that movement is very much your own.

These four, plus the relationships between them, are the material ingredients of calligraphy.

Good light is another necessary ingredient for any sustained writing work.



Sloping writing surface

This is optional, depending on your calligraphy script and nib:

  • Brush calligraphy and brush-pen calligraphy don't need a sloping writing surface.
  • Pointed-pen calligraphy (copperplate, Spencerian) might benefit. It's about control of ink flow. A sloping writing surface takes ink slower because the pen is held at a shallower angle to meet the surface. If your pen flows too fast and blobs, use a sloping board. If ink flow is too slow, write flatter.
  • Calligraphy with a traditional dip-nib – italics, gothic etc – is easier on a sloping writing surface which helps the ink to flow steadily and under control.
  • Quills likewise I think are best on a slope. But everyone's different when it comes to quills.

I recommend you either invest in a proper adjustable desk-easel (or large bookstand) that can take a support made of heavy card or thin plywood, or, like many calligraphers, start with a drawing board propped in your lap and leaning against the edge of the desk.


Calligraphy pens

Brush pens (for modern and brush calligraphy)

Brands recommended for beginners typically include:

  • Sakura Koi
  • Pentel Fude
  • Tombow Fudenosuke (harder, finer tip)
  • Tombow Dual Brush (softer, more brush-like tip)

These all have slightly different qualities of hardness and ink-flow, so you'll still need to try a few before knowing for sure what suits you best. Firmer tips are easier to handle for beginners and also more suitable for a more formal, controlled style. Very flexible tips make it harder to get even thicks and thins, but can be more expressive for watercolour-style brush calligraphy.

And there are good brands and products other than the ones listed above. Check reviews on Amazon and elsewhere.

Check ink specs for lightfastness before choosing a brush-pen for any work which you want to last.

USA: Amazon, Dick Blick, Utrecht.

UK: Amazon, Jackson's Art Supplies.

Broad-edged dip-nibs

(... plus pen-holders and clip-on reservoirs.)

Broad-edged dip-nibs are used for any traditional Western calligraphic script which would originally have been written with a broad-cut quill, including uncials, roundhands (Carolingian, Humanistic, English cursive), the gothic family of scripts, anglicana/secretary variants, and the various types of italics.

Different nib brands have different properties. Very generally, I've found the following:

Mitchell: quite flexible, useful all-rounders, usually manufactured without a built-in reservoir.

Brause: generally stiffer. Often manufactured with a built-in reservoir.

Leonardt: in between Mitchell and Brause for flexibility, often manufactured with a built-in reservoir.

I tend now to buy Mitchells from Jackson's or Cornelissen's in the UK.


Pilot Parallel pens

Pilot Parallel pens are a fountain-pen version of the old 'automatic' pens, which themselves were a kind of adaptation of the dip pen to provide longer-lasting ink-flow while lettering large posters, etc.

Pilot Parallels have a rigid, folded, metal nib featuring multiple grooves for good ink-flow, and if turned at 90 degrees will write with the corner for fine lines.

They suit many people who like metal nibs but be warned: they are moderately hefty, and about as flexible as a shovel.

USA: Amazon, Dick Blick, Utrecht

UK: Amazon, Jackson's Arts Supplies

Fountain-pen type calligraphy pens

A calligraphy fountain pen may be easy to use, and handy to practise with as a beginner, but it doesn't give great artistic results.

A sort-of exception is the Pilot Parallel pen, which brings fountain-pen convenience to a broad, rigid, folded metal 'automatic-pen'-style nib, and which many calligraphers love.

Some 'calligraphic' or 'italic' fountain pens are stub nibs. These are 'semi-broad' nibs with rounded corners, designed to make your regular handwriting look more artistic and flourishy by giving it a bit of thick-and-thin contrast. Such pens come with only one nib which is quite narrow. They are not to be confused with fountain-type calligraphy pens which usually come with multiple exchangeable nibs of different widths with square corners.

If you do want a calligraphy fountain pen, get one with a refillable 'converter' reservoir as well as cartridges. Cartridge refills are how pen manufacturers make their money! By contrast, a pen with a piston-fill converter can be refilled again and again from an ink bottle, which also gives you some control over quality and colour of ink.

Calligraphy markers

When you want to ease into things gently to begin with, calligraphy markers (Sharpie, Zig) are an OK option. If you get a good brand, they're lightfast and cost effective for shorter projects such as greetings cards or scrapbooking, especially if you treat them with a little care.

Pros:

  • convenient and cheap
  • easy to make a mark with
  • very un-messy
  • good for teaching beginners, especially children

Cons:

  • 'thin' lines look quite thick, tendency to bleed
  • wear down in time
  • use a lot of plastic (not refillable)
  • tend to dry out over time

Inks

Inks range from gloopy to runny, washable to permanent, traditional walnut to contemporary fluorescent.

The particular ink you need depends partly on your own preferences but also very much on other factors in your writing: the type of paper you're working on, the calligraphy tools you are using to apply the ink with, what script you are writing, and whether you are working flat or on a sloping board.

In general, I'd recommend that you buy ink of somewhat better quality than you think your calligraphy needs (or deserves!). It helps.

India ink

India ink is basically carbon black (very fine soot), water, and gum. It clogs fountain pens. It is good for dip-pens and sometimes can be used to refill Pilot Parallel pens if you are willing to go off-piste.

If in doubt, Higgins is perfectly good as a standard practice ink for broad-nibbed calligraphy, and will do OK for minor finished pieces such as greetings cards, if you like using it.

USA: Amazon, Dick Blick, Utrecht

UK: Amazon, Jackson's Art Supplies

Sumi (Japanese stick-ink)

'Sumi' means 'ink' in Japanese, and refers to a similar type of drawing and calligraphy ink as Chinese stick ink. It is made of soot, collected from the smoke of burning pine or oil, mixed with animal glue and other ingredients. More on sumi here.

Liquid sumi or bokuju can be used for calligraphy but is considered inferior as an art material (a bit like children's poster paint).

Chinese stick inks

There are very, very many 'Chinese calligraphy sets' for sale containing a collection of calligraphy tools purporting to represent the 'Four Treasures': brush, paper, stick-ink, ink-stone (for grinding the ink on). Most are of average quality at best, rather like fountain-pen calligraphy sets in the West. 

Bear in mind that Chinese calligraphy is painted with very flexible brushes, and the best ink for such fluid brush calligraphy may not be the best for use with metal nibs. But you will learn more about what ink you do want by visiting somewhere like the Sunny Art Centre than you will by browsing the front pages of Amazon.

UK: Sunny Art Centre (Chinese calligraphy and art supplies), Cornelissen's, Jackson's.


Colour (paints, pigments)

Most artist's gouaches and watercolours make pretty good coloured ink diluted and used with a dip nib. Standard brands such as Schminke, Winsor & Newton, Sennelier, Old Holland can be found in any decent art supplier. Avoid very cheap brands. The good names offer better value for money (more concentrated colour and therefore longer-lasting tubes, better mixing and lightfastness).

Some traditional colours and dry pigments are less predictable for writing with. Gritty colours such as smalt or ruby will barely flow off a paintbrush let alone a nib.

Of course, any list of calligraphy supplies includes paint as paint, for ornament or illumination.

USA: Dick Blick, Utrecht (regular paints); Natural Pigments (traditional)

UK: Natural Pigments (UK), Wallace Seymour (formerly Pip Seymour), Atlantis, Cornelissen's, Jackson's.


Writing surfaces

Paper

  • Watercolour paper (get hot-pressed, if you want a smooth surface)
  • Cartridge paper (pads are less good value than loose: I get big packs of cartridge paper made with recycled coffee cups for rough work)
  • Bleed-proof marker paper (the heavier, 90gsm weight is better)
  • Layout paper (very thin, almost see-through)
  • Tracing paper (translucent; in pads or loose)
  • High-end, smooth office paper such as Conqueror or HP Premium Choice (good for rough work and general practice)
  • Calligraphy pads marked with lines, if that's your thing – I don't like them

Amazon is good for paper, usually in pads, up to A2, sometimes larger.

For very heavy paper and whole sheets, it's best to buy in person if you can. In the UK, I use Jackson's Art Supplies or Atlantis.

Vellum, parchment, etc

USA: Pergamena (vellum, parchment, goat, deer)

UK: William Cowley & Sons (vellum, parchment, goatskin, Kelmscott, all cut or in whole skins; might be worth asking them about scrap packs if you want to try some out more cheaply), Cornelissen's (cut vellum; Kelmscott vellum on request)


Gilding supplies

Most specialist suppliers that cover one aspect of gilding cover all of them. So the names below apart from Amazon are good for calligraphy supplies including:

  • real gold leaf (various shades), loose and/or transfer
  • artificial gold leaf (aka Dutch metal), loose and/or transfer
  • silver, palladium etc leaf, loose and/or transfer
  • gilding medium suitable for calligraphy (gesso type or glue type)
  • gilder's tips, cushions and knives
  • agate burnishers

UK: Gold Leaf Supplies (great range), Handover, Wright's of Lymm, Cornelissen's (I don't rate their waxed-paper transfer leaf, but the loose leaf is good and they do everything else well). 

US: Natural Pigments and note UK suppliers will often deliver to the US.

You can find real gold leaf on Amazon (UK and US) if you look for 'genuine' or '23k' or 'edible' gold leaf. Not so easy to get the other gilding tools.

Calligraphy tools for the beginner

Traditional or modern calligraphy with a nib

To begin with, assuming you're interested in broad-nib calligraphy, all you need is

  • a size 2 broad dip-nib OR a pointed, flexible nib, and a holder 
  • a bottle of Higgins Eternal or similar (diluted black watercolour would do)
  • large supply of cartridge paper and/or good office paper
  • preferably, a sloping surface to write on
  • some determination
  • a way to learn (book, tutorial, etc)

Brush-pen calligraphy

To start with, you need:

  • two or three different sizes and hardnesses of brush-pen, to get an idea of how the different tips work and which you prefer
  • decent paper: either good office paper or thin cartridge paper or marker-pen paper (suitable for brush-pen art)
  • some determination
  • a way to learn (book, tutorial, etc)

Once you're prepared to commit, the next calligraphy tools carry you into the realm of gift calligraphy, greetings cards and (generally) your own written art:

  • 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.

Etc.

And don't forget about the way you move!

Happy writing!

Return from Calligraphy Tools and Materials to the homepage

Share this page:
... or click here to make your own easy link.

Would you prefer to share this page with others by linking to it?

  1. Click on the HTML link code below.
  2. Copy and paste it, adding a note of your own, into your blog, a Web page, forums, a blog comment, your Facebook account, or anywhere that someone would find this page valuable.