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A Beginner’s Guide to Calligraphy Tools: What You Need to Get Started

Calligraphy translates from Greek directly as ‘beautiful writing’. It can seem like quite a daunting craft to master, but it’s really not. If you’re thinking of starting to get into calligraphy then this guide will help you begin your journey. We’ll show you the ropes of calligraphy and help you choose the right tools to get you started.

Like any hobby or craft, it will take a lot of practice to get to a good level. You may have already seen some videos online or were inspired by some really amazing calligraphy work. Don’t think that this level of achievement is unattainable. With some motivation and dedication, you will get there.

Most calligraphers will tell you that there is huge enjoyment in the learning process of practicing calligraphy. Some people say it can really calm or soothe them. It’s also not that expensive to get going.

First things first, you need to know what different writing instruments are out there for you. We’re going to talk you through five different tools:

  • Ballpoint Pen – The pen that needs no introduction. We’re all very familiar with ballpoint pens. In the world of calligraphy, ballpoint pens are used to make ‘faux calligraphy’. Don’t let that name disturb you though, ballpoint pens definitely have a solid place in the world of calligraphy. They are perfect for beginners and we’ll go into more detail about why later on.
  • Dip Pen - Dip pens are for the more experienced calligrapher. They hark back to the days of a quill and ink and work in similar ways. In fact, the dip pen is what eventually replaced the quill and ink. They have three parts that you need to know about: the nib, reservoir and shaft. The shaft is what the calligrapher holds when writing. The reservoir holds ink in the pen so you can write multiple lines with one dip and the nip can be interchanged depending on what script you want to create.

    Fountain Pen - Another pen you may be familiar with. The fountain pen is a classic and the pen as we know it came into being around the late 19th Century. Fountain pens are popular because of their relative ease to use. They glide over the paper in comparison to the ballpoint pen meaning you can write for longer and it just has a more satisfying feel. The fountain pen is made up of a nib, feed and a reservoir. The nib is similarly shaped to that of a dip pen so you can achieve the same aesthetics when writing. A fountain pen holds its own cartridge and has a more reliable ink flow so is a good pen to use while you get to grips with this style of pen.

    Brush Pen – Brush pens are designed to resemble a watercolour brush and as such have similar results. They have a flexible nib made of natural/synthetic hair so will feel more like a brush than a pen. They also vary in size to fit your stroke requirements. Brush pen lettering is more dependent on the pressure of your strokes and has a variety of applications from recreating more traditional styles to more modern lettering, the brush pen is a versatile instrument.

    Calligraphy Marker Pen – The precursor to the brush pen. Where using a ballpoint pen is a natural warm up for fountain and then dip pens, the calligraphy marker pen is more closely related to the Brush pen. They will offer more control over the pen and are low maintenance. They’re ideal for beginners or if you want to practice on the go. They’re relatively cheap, come in a variety of sizes and are good if you’re trying to do some large lettering.

How to Choose a Calligraphy Pen

To get going, you’re going to need one of the instruments we just introduced you to. But how to choose? It depends on your skill level and what features will suit you the most.

Let’s go back to the ballpoint pen. For beginners, the ballpoint pen is a really good place to start. As we are all very familiar with ballpoint pens, you’re not throwing yourself out of your comfort zone from the start and can build on your skills. As you’ll have used a ballpoint a lot before, you don’t need to get a feel for it and can start with some faux calligraphy. For the absolute beginner, a reliable ballpoint pen is recommended. You don’t have to use a flimsy biro either, there are some high-quality ballpoint pens that use different, calligraphy-friendly inks.

When you’re slightly more advanced, you’re going to want to move onto a fountain or a dip pen. When you are at this level, your hand pressure is going to come into play when selecting a pen. The next step up from a ballpoint pen would be the fountain pen. It has more uniformity and again, you may already be more familiar with a fountain pen. Ink cartridges will last for quite a few pages depending on how you write. So, if you’re still not accustomed to dipping your pen or want to practice on the go, a fountain pen will have a closer feel to a dip pen.

A fountain pen is more suited to beginners than a dip pen because there is less skill in using it. The ink flows through the feed and will be more reliable. You are limited in what you can achieve with a fountain pen, but it does possess a very different feel than writing with a ballpoint pen. Once you’re comfortable with a fountain pen, you’ll already have some important muscle memory and a familiarity which will help when using dip pens.

When you’re more comfortable with your skills, a dip pen is the next logical step. Dip pens are more modular. You can select your own nib, and this is where hand pressure comes into play. If you have a heavier hand, you will want less ‘nib elasticity’ which refers to how much the nib will move. You’ll see that on most nibs, they have a slit in the them which separate two ‘tines’. The elasticity refers to how much these tines move.

An easy way to see how heavy-handed you are is to write a few sentences in pencil on a folded piece of paper. Check to see how much of an impression has been made on the folded half of paper. If there is a noticeable impression then you have a heavy hand pressure. This isn’t an issue, you should just choose your nib accordingly.

With brush pens, there are more factors to consider. For a beginner, a calligraphy marker pen is recommended. You have more control over the pen but can’t really affect your line width. However, they come in a variety of different sizes and aren’t expensive, so you can play around with different sizes. When you’re more comfortable you’ll want a brush pen with either natural or artificial hair.

You can choose a brush pen by is firmness. A marker pen will be much firmer whilst bristle tips will allow the user to create more. With a brush pen, once you know what it is you want from it in terms of firmness, elasticity and type of tip the best thing to do is to read reviews and shop around for a reliable pen.

Brush pens are good for beginners because like the calligraphy marker pen, they’re low maintenance. Getting to grips with a brush is much easier than getting to grips with a dip pen as well. If you want to try out some different techniques or lettering, a brush pen is good for experimenting. They’re as easy to use as ballpoint and fountain pens but offer varying line width and more functionality.

How to Choose Calligraphy Paper

When it comes to calligraphy paper, there are a few things you should know. Essentially you want paper that’s thick and not textured. Textured surfaces like card, for example, will affect how your ink settles. Card stock will cause the edges of your script to take on a fuzzy look because it starts absorbing the ink immediately.

Some printer papers will be able to provide a good surface to write on but generally you want to avoid these. They mostly aren’t thick enough and often cause your ink to bleed.

For a beginner, the thickness doesn’t matter as much as the smoothness. You’re expecting to be a little rough anyway. If you’re just starting out you shouldn’t worry too much if the ink runs a bit on thinner paper and should instead focus on getting accustomed to the glide of the pen.

A beginner should also consider some practice paper that have layouts for you to practice on. You can find different notepads online that will have traceable layouts of different scripts and sections to practice different techniques on. Dotted grid paper is recommended as well to help keep letters in proportion.

How to Use a Calligraphy Pen

Once you have chosen your materials and supplies, you’re ready to get going. We’re going to run you through how to use a dip pen as this instrument requires more attention, preparation and skill.

If you’re getting started with a ballpoint or fountain pen, they’re fairly straightforward to use and there’s less you need to know about how to use them. You can still apply our guide to using a dip pen to any other pen to start getting used to it.

You should have four things to get started:

  • A nib
  • A nib-holder
  • Ink
  • Paper (and some scrap paper too)

You’ll want to get ink that is marketed for calligraphy. Fountain pen ink will work but it is too thin and will drip off your pen. Calligraphy ink is thicker, much easier to use and less messy.

Most nib-holders will have a universal insert that accommodate most nibs that you can buy. There are a whole host of different nibs but to start, you’re going to want a flex nib. The flex nib is really widely used and is pretty much your standard calligraphy nib. You affect the width of your strokes with your hand pressure and can do plenty of different scripts with a flex nib.

Something that’s worth noting and that isn’t immediately obvious is that nib names are etched onto the side of the nib. Calligraphers will refer to all kinds of nibs and you don’t have to commit all the different shapes and sizes to memory.

The reservoir of your dip pen will be found on the nib. Your nib may have a hole in it, this is the reservoir and the pen should be dipped into the ink just up to the point where it is covering the hole. Some nibs will have an actual reservoir that you can drip ink into with the provided squeezer or one you have sourced yourself.

When you dip, you’ll want to make sure you slowly wipe the nib on the rim so there aren’t any drips that can ruin your work. This is where your scrap paper comes in handy as you can test your stroke and ink flow on it.

You won’t want to hold the pen like a normal pen. When you write normally, you’re letting your fingers do the work. With a dip pen you want your hand to do the work. You’ll want to relax your grip and the pen should be propped up by your fingers rather than moving the pen themselves.

Keep your pen facing the same way, it doesn’t matter too much if you’re not holding it exactly like you’ve seen in videos. Your dip pen should be running almost parallel to the paper’s long sides in a North-South direction at a 45 degree angle. When we write normally, the pen tends to slump over our hands in an East-West direction.

Keep your grip loose and play around with varying pressure to get started. If you’re a complete beginner, chances are you will spill and spatter your ink and it can be frustrating. Try not to let that dishearten you and just start working up a feel for the pen.

On your downward strokes, apply more pressure to your stroke and apply much less on your upstrokes. Applying too much pressure on your upstroke will lead to spattering. It won’t go perfectly straight away so again, we recommend just having fun with it at first and familiarising yourself with the pen.

Tips for Getting Started

Here are some of our tips for getting started with calligraphy:

  • The first is an obvious one: keep calm and carry on. Starting anything new can be frustrating, but practise makes perfect. The more you do something, the easier it becomes. Try to enjoy the process of learning calligraphy. Some people describe it as meditative. Mistakes are bound to be made, learn from them and keep going!
  • Watch your posture. When practicing calligraphy, our bodies naturally want to slump over to try and improve our view. If you’re going to spend a lot of time doing this, hunching over can lead to back problems. Try and keep yourself sitting upright and if you feel any strain, take a break. Especially if you’re having some difficulty with your practice, taking a break and coming back to it after a little while is like a reset.
  • The internet is your friend. Not only is it easier to buy supplies and materials online, you can find a lot of inspiration. Instagram has a great calligraphy community that offer advice and tips. We think it’s great that this traditional pursuit has adapted really well to the internet age and it’s a great tool for sharing and plenty of people do. Taking on projects are one of the best ways to learn calligraphy and there are so many online to try and emulate.
  • PRACTICE. Another obvious one, but the only way you’ll master the craft is by lots of practice. Ballpoint pens and fountain pens are much more portable and travel-friendly than dip pens or brush pens. You can practice on your commute into work or any journey. Don’t overdo it either. Whilst dedication is good, you should be enjoying it first and foremost. If you’re feeling any pains or strains or are getting frustrated to the point where you don’t feel like you’re making progress, call it a day. The sun will come up tomorrow and you can try again.