Calligraphy Pen Basics

Calligraphy Pen Basics

November 11, 2014 - Posted by Miriam to Guides, Calligraphy Pens

A nib and some ink is all you need to transform letters and words into works of art. With the right tools and some practice, you don't have to be a serious calligrapher or professional to take your writing from mundane to spectacular. However, with all the options and variations on the market, it can be overwhelming to parse through the different selections of nibs and styles. Never fear--we've blackened our hands and desks with ink to bring you some of our favorite calligraphy pens.

Things to Consider
Pen Style

There are two types of pens you can choose from: the traditional dip pen, or a regular cartridge-filled pen. Which you choose boils down to personal preference.

Using a dip pen allows for more freedom in choosing nibs, inks, and even holders, though they tend to be messy and more temperamental. When choosing holders, you can use straight holders that act as regular pens, or oblique holders, which some calligraphers prefer for more versatility in writing angles. Many left-handed calligraphers also use oblique holders to hold the pen more naturally without disturbing their work.

Dip pen.
Cartridge-filled pen.

On the other hand, using a cartridge-filled pen is much cleaner and more convenient especially if you don't want to lug a bunch of tools around. However, you are more limited in the kinds of inks and nibs you can use. Traditional calligraphy inks are thicker and will clog the feeding mechanism of cartridge-filled pens.


There are two main kinds of nibs: italic nibs and flex nibs. Italic nibs have a blunt edge, usually used for Gothic, Italic, and squared styles. These nibs don't have as much flexibility in terms of line variation.

Italic nib.
Flex nib.

Flex nibs are rounded with two tines that come to a point, and the line variation comes from the tines' ability to split. The more they separate, the wider the line width. To get the tines to separate, you apply pressure as you write. Usually, this happens during the down strokes as the nib tends to catch on paper if you do a heavy up stroke. This is the technique used in most modern and pointed pen calligraphy.

Ink and Paper

In cartridge-filled pens, it is best advised to use the ink recommended by the manufacturer. Some of these pens do come with converters which you can fill with other kinds of inks. Be careful with the ink you fill them with, since you don't want to risk clogging the nib and ruining it.

With dip pens the possibilities are endless. It is better to use calligraphy inks that have more viscosity than regular fountain pen inks--they'll cling to the nib better and give you more control when you write, especially with those tricky line variations! Some calligraphy inks even come in different colors or with chunks of glitter, which can add texture and dimension to your calligraphy.

Ink infused with glitter (J. Herbin Stormy Grey).
Regular printer paper on the left, Mnemosyne paper on the right.

When choosing paper, forgo your regular printer paper. Calligraphy pens generally dispense more ink onto the paper, and with low quality paper, bleeding is more likely to happen as a result. Choose something that is higher quality so it will hold the ink better and not bleed or feather all over the place. If you're not sure what kind of paper is suitable for calligraphy, look for paper that is fountain-pen-friendly. You can see our Fountain Pen Friendly Paper selection guide here.

Product Lines - Italic Nibs
Pilot Parallel Calligraphy Pens
4 nib sizes of the Pilot Parallel.
Video demonstration.

One of the most unique calligraphy pens on the market, the Pilot Parallel Calligraphy Pen is one of our absolute favorites. What sets it apart from other similar pens is its nib. Instead of one plate with two tines, it features two parallel plates that lay flat against each other. With this unique design, the Parallel's nib allows for ink to flow even through the squared corners of the nib, rather than just the blunt edge. Traditional italic nibs cannot achieve this since the ink in those nibs must flow through the space between the tines on the flat edge. The Parallel also features a fun option of creating gradation effects when used together with another Parallel. That, combined with its varied range of nib sizes from 1.5 to 6.0 mm and superbly juicy flow, makes it a great pen for lettering and other applications.

Kaweco Calligraphy Pen Set
4 nib sizes of the Kaweco Calligraphy Pen Set.
Video demonstration.

This is another juicy pick--the Kaweco Calligraphy Pen Set comes with a Sport pen and four different calligraphy nibs for you to play with. The ink flows as freely as it does in the Parallel, but tends to pool at the ends. The range between nib sizes is also not as dramatic as in the Parallel, but you can still get a variety of effects between the subtle variations. This pen is compact, making it conveniently portable for calligraphy on the go.

Lamy Joy Calligraphy Pens
3 nib sizes of the Lamy Joy.
Video demonstration.

This calligraphy pen is slightly drier when compared with the previous two, but it still provides nice ink flow and smoothness. This is a great choice for people who don't want to wait a long time for the ink to dry. The design of the actual pen allows for fool-proof writing. There are grooves for you to place your index finger and thumb, helping you hit that sweet spot every single time. The long pen body gives it a nice balance and comfortable writing experience.

Rotring ArtPen Calligraphy Pens
4 nib sizes of the Rotring ArtPen.
Video demonstration.

The Rotring Art Pen is another pen that lays down a wet line. It is almost the same size as the Lamy Joy but with a textured grooves on the grip. It is also the lightest calligraphy pen of the bunch, which is great for long periods of writing, but not if you prefer something more hefty.

Speedball C-Series Nibs
4 nib sizes of the Speedball C-Series.
Video demonstration.

The Speedball Calligraphy Pen Set comes with four Italic nibs with an interesting look. They have three tines instead of the usual two, a slightly angled blunt edge, and come plated with a brass reservoir to better hold ink. The angled edge allows you to hold the pen straight rather than at an angle. These nibs are used with a pen nib holder, different from the cartridge-filled pens mentioned above. They dispense ink smoothly, but using them requires practice to keep lines consistent.

Pilot Plumix Fountain Pen
Video demonstration.

Even though this is a fountain pen, its italic nib gives your writing a calligraphy effect, adding more visual interest. You can use the Pilot Fountain Pen CON-20 Converter to install different kinds and colors of inks and spice up your projects. It's a great pen for the beginner calligrapher who isn't ready to take the calligraphy pen plunge.

Product Lines - Flex Nibs
Speedball No. 101
Video demonstration.

This lovely little nib delivers an amazing amount of flexibility for a wide range of line variation. Extremely flexible, it goes from a thin to thick line with very little pressure, making it a great choice for modern calligraphy. Those just starting out with calligraphy may find it hard to control. This nib is included in the Speedball Calligraphy Pen Set.

Speedball No. 512
Video demonstration.

Also included in the Speedball Calligraphy Pen Set, this nib is perfect for beginners or those who want more control over the nib. Though not as flexible as its 101 cousin, the 512 nib is nonetheless easy to write with and would be comfortable to write with for long periods of time. The lines from this nib aren't as thick as lines from the 101, but it maintains amazing consistency, making it a better choice for more subtle forms of calligraphy such as Copperplate.

Brause 66 Extra Fine Arrow Calligraphy Pen Nib - Extra Fine Point
Video demonstration.

Don't underestimate this tiny nib! Even more flexible than the Speedball 101, this nib responds to every slight change of pressure beautifully. It can write expressively, from very fine lines to thick bold lines. We don't recommend this to those who write with a heavy hand, as it can be temperamental, but those who write more delicately will find it a joy to work with. Because of its small size, it doesn't hold as much ink, so you will have to re-dip often.

Brause 361 Steno Blue Pumpkin Calligraphy Pen Nib - Fine Point
Video demonstration.

We love the unique look of the Blue Pumpkin nib. Like its extra fine Arrow cousin, this nib has a lot of flex, though is not quite as responsive. Although it doesn't get as much line variation as the Arrow, you can still get a wide range of effects, especially after you break it in. The nib gives you incredible control, which makes it one of our favorites for writing calligraphy. It also holds an good amount of ink due to its larger size, though you may find yourself re-dipping if you're fond of flexing.

Zebra G-Nib
Video demonstration.

The beloved G-nib is often used for comics and manga drawings, but we like using it for calligraphy too. It doesn't offer as much flex as the above nibs, but will become more flexible over time.

Pilot Elabo Fountain Pen
Video demonstration.

This is technically a fountain pen, but the nib has a nice amount of flex that makes it suitable for writing calligraphy. You're not going to get all the swooping flourishes or dramatic line variations with this, but for everyday writing, it provides the perfect amount of grace and understated flair with its calligraphic effect.

Tips for Using Dip Pens
Prepping the Nib
Using toothpaste or alcohol to clean the nibs.
Burning the oil off with a lighter. Be careful when using fire.

Before using a nib with your dip pen, clean off the oil from the nib. Manufacturers coat the nib with a protectant oil to prevent the nib from rusting. However the oil causes ink to run in globby bits resulting in a mess, so it's important to clean it off to get smooth, even writing. There are several ways to clean a nib. You can take toothpaste on a gentle brush and carefully rub the oil off with a good rinse. Rubbing alcohol also works, but we wouldn't soak it for too long. Another method is to use a lighter to burn the oil off, but please be careful when using fire.

Dipping the nib into the ink directly.
Using an eyedropper to feed the nib.

After you install your nib on the holder (make sure it fits correctly and securely), you can dip it into the ink or, if you have a nib with a built-in reservoir, use an eyedropper to fill it for a cleaner and more uniform flow.

Nib Cleaning and Storage
Cleaning the nibs.
Drying the nib.

When you're finished writing, be sure to clean the nib and dry it off completely to prevent rusting. There are a variety of cleaning solutions on the market, but most non-waterproof inks will clean off well with mild soap and water. For those peskier waterproof, acrylic, or India inks, you may need a special cleaner, such as the Speedball Pen Cleaner.

Tips for Using Flex Nibs
Writing Angle
Use the nib at a 45 degree angle.
The nib will usually go in the outer circle.

The best angle to write with a flex nib is at a 45 degree angle, so keep that in mind when you're installing the nib into a holder. If the nib holder has two grooves, the nib will usually go in the outer groove. Smaller nibs will go in the smaller groove.

Not enough ink is flowing through the middle of the tines.

A common problem when writing with flex nibs is called "railroading". This is when the ink follows the two tines rather than flowing smoothly between them, creating a railroad track effect. This happens when you don't have enough ink in the nib, so be sure to dip and test often!

Calligraphy Strokes
Practice your strokes.
Now you can write beautiful calligraphy!

Getting used to using flex nibs takes a lot of practice and patience. With italic nibs, once you are accustomed to the holding angle, you can create certain styles of calligraphy easily; for example, Italic or Gothic styles. However, flex nibs are more temperamental and express each delicate flick and change of pressure, making it difficult to maintain consistency. It's good to practice down and up strokes until you are familiar with how the nib responds. To achieve a modern calligraphy look, go heavy on the down strokes and light on the up strokes, and keep the pressure the same on the downstrokes for a cleaner, more uniform look.

Finishing Strokes

We hope you've found this post helpful and that you are inspired to try some calligraphy pens yourself, whether it comes with the bold and boxy italic nibs or the delicate and graceful flex nibs. Even if your first couple of tries may not be Pinterest-worthy, with some practice and a lot of ink, we're certain you'll find a calligraphy style to call your own.

Name Nib Type Pen Style Line Width Flex Level
Pilot Parallel Calligraphy Pens Italic Cartridge 1.5, 2.4, 3.8, 6.0 mm Low
Lamy Joy Calligraphy Pens Italic Cartridge 1.1, 1.5, 1.9 mm Low
Rotring ArtPen Calligraphy Pens Italic Cartridge 1.1, 1.5, 1.9, 2.3 mm Low
Pilot Plumix Fountain Pens Italic Cartridge Fine Low
Kaweco Calligraphy Pen Sets Italic Cartridge 1.1, 1.5, 1.9, 2.4 mm Low
Speedball C-Series Italic Dip 1.8 (C4), 2.0 (C3), 3.0 (C2), 3.5 mm (C1) Low
Speedball 101 Flex Dip Extra Fine High
Speedball 512 Flex Dip Fine Moderate
Brause 66 Extra Fine Arrow Calligraphy Pen Nib Flex Dip Extra Fine High
Brause 361 Steno Blue Pumpkin Calligraphy Pen Nib Flex Dip Fine Moderate
Zebra Comic Pen Nib -G Model Flex Dip Fine Moderate
Pilot Elabo Fountain Pens Flex Cartridge Extra Fine, Fine, Medium, Broad Low

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