Dip pens were created in the early 19th century and continue to be in use today. They are primarily a favorite of calligraphers. In this guide, we cover the basics of dip pen calligraphy from the tools you need to the steps you need to take to draft a piece.
How to Choose a Dip Pen for Calligraphy
There is a huge variety of dip pens available on the market, and despite their smaller-than-a-thumb size, there are actually four mechanical parts you need to know before zeroing in on one. Here is a guide to choosing the right dip pen for calligraphy:
Types of Tines
A dip pen nib is made of a shank (the base), the tip of the nib, an ink reservoir (hole in the middle of the nib), and a split at the tip of the nib (tines).
When the dip pen nib is pressed onto a surface, the tip of the nib splits into two tines. Because everyone places different amounts of pressure on a pen, the tines of a nib are differentiated into three different elasticities.
If you press the pen lightly and there’s little to no impression on the other side, you’re a light-hander and a high-elastic nib is perfect for you. They are delicate but durable and responsive.
If you press down on a pen and there’s a minor (almost blurry) impression on the other side, you’re a normal-hander. Look for an elastic nib — it should not feel soft or stiff, just springy.
If you have a strong press or a death grip on the pen, the impression on the other side is most likely coherent, which would make you a heavy-hander. Search for low-elastic nibs — they are incredibly durable and expressive and split after considerable pressure.
The Tip of Dip Pen Nib
After you’ve picked out the perfect tines, it’s time to pick out a dip pen nib with the right tip. There are two types of tips available for dip pen nibs, and they represent the thickness of strokes you’re looking to draft.
These are sharp-tipped nibs. When they are pressed down onto a canvas, there is a slight ‘scratchy’ feel. They are designed for drafting hair-like lines.
These have a bigger surface area, so when they are pressed down onto a canvas, the ink creates a blot. They are designed to make thicker and broader lines and strokes.
Step by Step Guide to Dip Pen Calligraphy
Now that you’ve secured the perfect dip pen, it’s time to set the table and start drafting a signature. It’s actually not as difficult as it seems — all you need is a sheet of calligraphy paper, good ink, and the right dip pen. Here’s the complete breakdown of all the details:
Step 1: Gather the Materials
To begin, you’ll need a standard school pencil, a dip pen nib and holder you’re comfortable with, ink, and some bleed-proof paper.
Make sure the dip pen nib is flexible so that when you’re practicing different strokes, the pressure varies equally on both sides of the split.
To secure the nib, you’ll need a pen nib holder. You could go for a straight one and practice the right positioning or take the easy route and choose an oblique pen holder that’s already angled. Oblique pen holders won’t cramp up your neck and work well for left-handed drafters as well.
Dip pens are compatible with almost every ink, so you can choose any ink you prefer. If you’re a beginner, you could opt for Sumi ink or any India ink. If it feels loose, add a bit of gum arabic, and if it’s too thick, dilute it with water.
Calligraphy papers and canvases that work well with dip pens can be a bit of a chore to find. To help you narrow down the endless choices easily, here’s what you need to look for:
- It should be bleed and leak proof
- It should feel smooth and be tear-resistant
You could get an average quality sketch pad or notebook — just make sure it’s transfer-proof.
Step 2: Sketch a Line
Now that you’ve gathered the materials, take out a sheet of paper and simply pencil in vertical and horizontal lines along with a three-word phrase such as ‘my first work.’
Make sure to do it with a light touch — it should be visible but should not leave an impression on the other side of the paper.
Step 3: Trace Over the Line With a Dip Pen
After sketching the lines and a phrase, take your dip pen (making sure to hold it at a 45 to 50 degree angle) and dip it into the ink just until it hits the hole in the middle of the nib. Then, tap off the excess.
Next, go over the vertical lines in a downstroke and the horizontal lines from both sides. Once you get the hang of it, trace the phrase with the dip pen.
Step 4: Practice Different Strokes
As you start to get a sense of how the ink flows from the nib and what level of pressure to put on the pen, it’s time to venture out towards broad lines, upstrokes, and contrast between thick and thin lines by varying the pressure and speed.
Feel free to use the dip pen solely instead of the pencil-and-pen method.
Step 5: Try Hand Lettering
They say practice makes perfect, so keep practicing different shapes and sizes of lines until using the dip pen is basically second nature.
Try uppercase and lowercase calligraphy, and don’t limit yourself to traditional hand lettering. Style the letters as round or as thick as you like.
Dip pens generally work well with all inks, so try your hand at different tints to create masterpieces out of words. With the right tools and technique, dip pen calligraphy is quite easy.
Tips to Remember When Using a Dip Pen for Calligraphy
Calligraphy with a dip pen is easy if you follow the right tips. In fact, it may not take more than an hour to get the hang of a technique. Here is everything you need to prioritize before using a dip pen for calligraphy.
Clean the Nib
Always remember to wipe off residual ink with a paper towel and rinse the dip pen nib in water before taking a break or storing it in a case. This helps protect the finish of the nib and prevents ink from drying and staining it.
Touch and Tap Off
Before starting a piece, pour out a cap full of ink from the bottle into a small, compact container. Once the dip pen nib is secured to the holder, dip it into the ink just until it covers the reservoir. Make sure ink does not hit the holder. Tap off the excess to ensure there are no ink spills.
Hold the Dip Pen Correctly
The key to getting comfortable with using a dip pen is holding it correctly. Position the dip pen at a 45 degree angle with your thumb and forefinger at the top and your middle finger supporting the underside of the pen.
Apply Even Pressure
When pressing the dip pen nib onto the canvas, make sure to apply equal pressure so that when the nib splits into the two tines, ink flows consistently on both sides. This ensures that there aren’t irregularly shaped blobs sketched on the paper. It also keeps the dip pen steady and prevents slippage.
How to Maintain a Dip Pen So It Lasts Longer
A dip pen can actually last a lifetime or more if it is stored well and maintained to perfection. With the right technique, a dip pen will look as good as new every time you pick it up. We’ve jotted down a few tips to follow when using a dip pen to draft a signature:
Separate the Pen Nib
The key to keeping the durability of the dip pen nib intact is to always detach it from the holder before giving it a rinse and storing it. Whether you’re taking a 10 minute break or storing it for later use, remove the dip pen nib from the holder and place it safely in a case.
This helps keep water from moistening the wooden holder, damaging its structural integrity, and making it prone to mold growth. Also, if there’s ink clogged up in the reservoir of the dip pen nib, it won’t drip down to the handle and ruin the finish when it is stored.
Keep It Clean
The only way to protect the dip pen from rust or wear and tear is to keep it clean. This also helps prevent ink from clogging up the reservoir and damaging the quality of the pen.
Simply take a small container and fill it up with clean water. Then, swirl the dip pen nib into the container and gently wipe it off with a paper towel. Repeat the procedure until the paper towel does not stain with ink.
You could also get a special pen nib cleaner — just make sure it is compatible with the nib’s material.
Frequently Asked Questions
Are dip pens and calligraphy pens the same?
They are very similar. Dip pens are made of a pen nib that is dipped in ink and used to produce strokes of varying thickness. In a similar manner, calligraphy pens (also known as fountain pens) are manually filled with ink and used to draft sketches. The only difference is the ease of usage because fountain pens are easier to handle.
Are dip pens hard to use?
Dip pens do take some time to get used to mainly because you have to get a sense of how ink flows down to the paper and how to sketch hair-like or broad lines. If you get the right elasticity of the dip pen nib and learn to exert even pressure, you should be good to go.
How long do dip pens last?
Dip pens can last over a hundred years if they are properly taken care of. It also depends on the material they are made out of. For example, a gold dip pen is superior to a steel dip pen in terms of durability.
Dip pen calligraphy does take a bit of time and patience, but now that you know what to look for and the steps to follow, it’ll only be a matter of minutes before you can draft a solid signature.