Openinkstand Art & Calligraphy

What to buy

So you want to learn pointed pen calligraphy! Awesome! Well first you need some nibs and ink. I know what you’re thinking, you’d love to be able to find good, cheap tools in your local big box store. Well, unfortunately, the harsh reality of pointed pen is that what you do find in your local store is probably crap. Most of them will look something like this:

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These are cheap, immediately available and I gotta say, pretty crap. These are made to sell quickly, made of inferior materials and not meant to be good, long lasting tools for a serious calligrapher. Don’t worry, I’ve bought my fair share of them too as a beginner. But they’re not optimum, it’s like buying those weird fake crabsticks and calling it a seafood dinner. You want something good, right?

The best place to buy tools for the serious calligrapher is online, and that is PaperInkArts.com and JohnNealBooks.com. These two sellers are passionate about calligraphy, have great prices and are great supporters of the community!

Another place is Amazon, which I use quite often. They don’t have a huge calligraphy tools selection as PaperInkArts or JohnNeal, but a beginner don’t need too many things anyway. Below are some tools which are suitable for beginners. I hope it is useful for you.


NIBS

Each nib has its own characteristics. Some may be flexible, Some not, some may be easy and the some others difficult to use. So it’s best to try different ones just in case some don’t work for you. It’s also advisable to buy at least 3-4pcs of each nib in case of breakage, splattering etc. Nibs are meant to be disposable, so if it’s old (you can tell when it starts to splatter too much), throw it away and use a new one. Don’t feel like you need to ‘save’ it! That’s why we get 3-4 of each.

  • The Zebra G and Nikko G are beginner friendly nibs. I still use these from time to time, they are not very flexy and pretty stiff, but a beginner would need to learn the basics first before using more challenging nibs. These nibs minimize splattering.
  • The Titanium Zebra G is my personal favorite of the G nibs. It lasts longer than regular nibs, is flexier than the Nikko G and just looks really cool (it’s gold in color!). The only drawback is that it’s a little pricey.
  • The Leonardt Principal is a more advanced nib, but once you feel you’re ready, try it out. It’ll give you an entirely different experience compared to the Nikko and Zebra.

BEGINNER TIPS & TRICKS: Always keep your nib clean and dry with water and a clean napkin. Never let ink dry on it. Is your nib acting up, splattering or causing weird problems? It could be a variety of reasons, watch this video for demos on how to fix it.


OBLIQUE PENHOLDER

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Pictured: Vintage penholders from the 1900s

This is the biggie, and most difficult to find, but indispensable to your work once you get the hang of it. The oblique penholder holds your nib at an angle that makes it easier to write at a slant. You can use a straight holder, but an oblique holder makes things easier in the long run. I highly recommend getting one just to try. PS: If you’re left-handed, the oblique holder may be completely optional

  • Speedball oblique holder is the cheapest and ahem, most blargh. But it is CHEAP! Amazon sells it for $5, but PaperInkArts has it for $2! Now let me explain, I don’t really recommend this because the flange (the sticking out part) is made of plastic and not adjustable. This may be detrimental to a beginner. But I feel I have to include it because it is simply the most widely available oblique penholder, and I know how it is to just want to test out a hobby for as cheaply as possible.
  • Once you’re tired of the Speedball holder (and you will), time to upgrade to one with a metal flange and maybe a wood body. The Peerless is the next best thing at $15, or have your pick at the others here.

BEGINNER TIPS & TRICKS: I know, it feels weird to use this tool for the first time. One trick is to look at the tip of the nib when writing, not the flange itself. Let your body and arm rearrange themselves accordingly. Watch this video on oblique pen holding and positioning.


INK

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Pictured: Leonardt Principal nib, Bill Lilly penholder, Ziller ink, Old World ink

Just like nibs, different inks has different characteristics. Stay away from fancy colored inks as a beginner, as it may just confuse and deter you. Stick to simple, beginner friendly inks such as:

  • Tom Norton Walnut Ink. This is my personal favorite because it is cheap and widely available. I prefer Tom Norton’s ink because it is ready made, but you can also buy walnut ink crystals if you prefer, just add water to the crystals. For both cases you’ll need to decant some of the ink into a wide mouthed jar.
  • For black ink, use sumi ink. You can use any that you find in an art or Chinese store, but personally I prefer the Yasutomo Sumi Ink which comes in a green bottle. I feel like the texture just agrees with me more. If needed, add some water to dilute the ink. You’ll also need to decant this ink into a wide mouthed jar.
  • Now if you want to be serious and do some really precise work such as Engrossers or Copperplate script, I’d recommend Old World iron gall ink over the sumi ink. Iron gall ink is acidic and deteriorates nibs a little faster, but it can really create super fine lines that sumi may not be able to make.
  • Okay okay, gold ink. My favorite gold is Dr. PH Martin’s Copperplate Gold, just shake the bottle for awhile and the gold will be ready to go.
  • When you are ready for color, gouache is your safest bet. Don’t get cheap student quality stuff, but go for artist quality. It’s more expensive, but the pigments are richer and better quality. This is important, low quality gouache will produce really weird spotty ink! I use Holbein Artist Set but there are many other kinds that you can try. Just dilute the paint with some water, and add a drop of gum arabic if needed, to improve flow.

BEGINNER TIPS & TRICKS: If the ink bleeds, it could be three things, either you’re pressing too hard on the nib (which causes the paper to tear), the ink is too thin (don’t dilute it too much, thicken with some gum arabic) or the paper is too low quality (see below!)


PAPER

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Pictured: Ampad paper from Staples

Paper is a pain. The rule about paper is that you should use good quality ones, because that means it will be better made. Dollar store paper is not going to cut it, your nib will tear at the paper fibers and the ink will just bleed everywhere. No matter what paper you get, make sure it’s not in a huge thick book. It’s optimum to be able to tear the sheets off so you can write it flat on the table. A big thick book would disturb the movement of your hand.

  • Rhodia paper is my go to practice paper. It’s a little more expensive, but it works really well with all the stuff I mentioned above. Clairefontaine paper is similar to Rhodia as well.
  • Strathmore paper is also great for fancier work.

BEGINNER TIPS & TRICKS: I find it really hard to recommend paper, because it is the most volatile of all the tools. You can change nibs and ink, but it’s hard to change paper. So when a paper is not working for me, I first try to find a ink and nib combo that works first. Usually that works. Also, a light hand solves a lot of problems!


BOOKS

There are so many good books about calligraphy, and each script has its own books. It’ll be impossible to cover them all, but here I am gonna point out some obvious ones for beginners. As you improve, you’ll find that your book collection will also grow!

  • I began learning Spencerian script by filling up the Spencerian copybooks. Originally published by the Spencer brothers so who else better to learn from? You can fill up these books with your new nib and oblique holder or simply with a sharp pencil or fine pen. I used a 0.4mm Pilot G-Tec-C pen. The point is to learn the construction of the letters, and this set includes a theory book that explains everything.
  • Eleanor Winter’s Mastering Copperplate Calligraphy is a great beginners book for Copperplate script! I started out with this, too. Hamid Reza’s book is also super boss.
  • If you want to learn Engrossers, look no further than the Zanerian Manual. This book is a must have.

BEGINNER TIPS & TRICKS: It’s impossible to list every good beginner’s book in here, there are just so many! So I listed the ones I started out with myself. Don’t feel constricted to just these though. You can never have too many books!


OTHER TOOLS

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Pictured: Mike Sull Spencerian Saga Commemorative Pen Block

These are all optional, but nice to haves once you get your routine going.

  • Some of the inks you buy may not have a large enough mouth to admit your oblique holder, so you may have to decant some into a smaller receptacle with a wide mouth. Personally I use cheap little tealight holders, get the glass ones so it minimizes the risk of spilling. You can get these for cheap at any home goods or dollar stores.
  • It is imperative that you keep your nibs clean! Do not leave any ink to dry on your nib. I always keep paper towels on hand to clean and dry my nibs, and have developed a preference for Viva paper towels which do not leave fibers sticking in your nibs. But you can of course use anything you like!
  • Blotting paper. Once you’ve torn a sheet off your writing paper, don’t just place it on a flat table. You want to have a little cushion between the paper and your table, or else it’ll be as if your pen is writing directly on the hard surface of the table. This sounds weird, but you really want to have some bounce when you write. Just place maybe 5-6 sheets of newspaper or scrap paper under your actual writing paper.

BEGINNER TIPS & TRICKS: These are the things I absolutely need before starting to write: 1) Clean water. Always write with a fresh container of water to clean your nibs with. Dirty water will just contaminate your nib and ink and ruin your life. 2) Clean napkin. You can just throw it away when the napkin is dirty and get a fresh one. Some people use a rag, but dirty rags will contaminate your nib and ruin your life. 3) A clean desk. A clean, neat and spacious desk will allow your arm to move freely. If there is even a piece of lint or dirt in the way of my full arm movement and ruins what would have been a perfect oval, I get so mad.

WHAT TO BUY // WHERE TO LEARN // WHAT TO WRITE // WHERE TO GO