Some people create beautiful calligraphy using simple ballpoint pens. But they’re in the minority; most of us need a bit more help from our tools. So what kind of calligraphy pen should you use to make your handwriting look best?
Your decision will partly depend on what kind of script you want to use, and whether you want to use a calligraphy pen purely for artistic creation, or for day-to-day writing. If you’re aiming to write beautiful copperplate, you will want a dip pen with a flexible nib; if you write in an italic style, and want a pen you can take to the office, you need a fountain pen that can take a calligraphy nib. For modern calligraphy, brush pens and felt tip calligraphy pens offer a different possibility for creative work.
The simplest form of calligraphy pen is the dip pen, so called because you have to dip it in the ink every few words – it doesn’t have an ink reservoir. The most basic dip pens are cheap plastic or wood holders, into which you can insert any one of a wide range of nibs, ranging from ‘flex’ nibs like the Zebra G or Brause Rose to 2mm or even wider italic nibs. Artisan made dip pens are also available, from one-off carved pens to twelve inches long, incredibly slender turned pens made of tropical hardwoods, for calligraphers who want to spend a bit more (sometimes a lot more) on acquiring tools that are as beautiful as the work that will be done with them. For copperplate writing, oblique holders, which use a small brass flange to hold the nib at an angle to the paper, are also available.
Dip pens entirely made of glass are an interesting, but not very common, choice. The ‘nib’ is a twisted spiral which holds ink in the hollows of the spiral and gradually feeds it down to the tip. A good glass pen can give a very thin and precise line, but without any line variation; unfortunately, the quality of such pens varies greatly, so try a glass pen out before you buy, or make sure returns are possible.
Besides the advantage of being able to swap nibs easily, dip pens have another advantage; they can be used with any kind of ink, and with media as diverse as diluted watercolor, liquid rubber, or metallic paints. (You can’t do that with a fountain pen; it will get blocked up.)
One company, Desiderata pens, makes a fountain pen that will accept dip pen nibs. That gives you all the advantages of being able to swap nibs around, together with the advantage of an ink reservoir.
If you want to use a calligraphy pen for ‘regular’ writing at work, you need to look at fountain pens that take calligraphy nibs. Some pen makers offer sets of one or two pens with a number of different nibs at a discount to the price of the separate components. Kaweco Sport, Lamy Joy, and Rotring Artpen – all of them German in origin – are three well-regarded calligraphy pens with a wide range of nib sizes. The Joy and Artpen are designed with a long, tapering barrel, similar in shape to traditional dip pens; the Sport, on the other hand, is a pocket pen, easy to carry in a purse or with a notebook. None of these pens, though, is suitable for copperplate script or any other writing that requires flexibility in the nib.
Other fountain pen manufacturers also offer nibs that can be used for calligraphy. American makers Edison and Franklin Christoph have what they call a ‘modern flex’ nib, which offers line variation when pressure is put on the nib, though it is not as flexible as a dip pen nib would be. They also have stub nibs – similar to italic nibs, but without the sharp corners that make italic nibs difficult to handle at speed.
Be aware that calligraphy ink and drawing ink is not suitable for use in fountain pens. It often contains additives such as shellac which will gum up a fountain pen’s insides. But provided you fill it with the right ink, a fountain pen offers big advantages; you don’t have to dip it every few words, so you don’t need to have a container of ink open in front of you. Ribbed ink feeders (under the nib) and collectors (inside the pen) help to ensure a continuous and regular flow,
More unusual choices exist for different styles of calligraphy and graphics work. For working at large scale, the Pilot Parallel is available at widths of 2.4mm up to 6mm. Instead of a conventional nib, it uses two plates of metal which touch at their tips, giving a smooth flow of ink. Unfortunately, it has to be used with proprietary Pilot ink cartridges, though it’s possible to refill the cartridges with a syringe. Many Japanese pen manufacturers offer brush pens, which can be loaded with ink or watercolor; a brush pen loaded with water can also be used to blend and lighten previously applied paints and inks. These are a particularly good choice for artists who want to use both painting and calligraphy in their work.
Modern calligraphers don’t even need a pen. Many calligraphy teachers have their students start out working with two pencils tied together, which gives a good feeling for the way an italic nib creates letter shapes through variation in line. Graphic artists make their own ‘coca cola dip pens’ out of drinks cans, folding the metal material and cutting a blade or leaf shape as a nib. More traditional scribes still use quills (the key to success is to first soak the feather in hot water, then push it into hot sand to harden it before cutting it) or reed pens. Ink can even be applied to the page using the end of a flexible plastic ruler or a folded piece of cardboard.
Some calligraphers have one pen and stick to it. Others have mugs full of different kinds of pens, each capable of creating a different effect. You can get started for a very modest amount, or you can spend a small fortune on collecting handmade dip pens in exotic wood. The most important thing is selecting the right pen or pens for the kind of work you want to do, whether that’s journalling or graphic design, and using them creatively.