Dip Pens 101: What They Are and How to Use Them
dip pens, old book with dip pen

Whether you’re an artist, a pen collector, or a calligrapher, you probably have heard about dip pens. They’re easier than using a quill pen, but are they better than a modern fountain pen?

Dip pens can be quite intimidating, so in this guide, we’ll simplify their function, elaborate on their advantages, and teach you how to choose and use one to write or draw.

What Is a Dip Pen Used For?

A dip pen is, simply put, a pen that is dipped in ink. Despite its basic function, it is actually used in a variety of art, such as the following:


Dip pens can be fitted with multiple sizes of nibs, which gives illustrators exceptional flexibility over their drawing.


The ease of employing different widths of nibs on a dip pen also gives calligraphers more control over the script they are writing. They can draw hairlines as well as thick, broad lines.


Cartoonists, primarily in Japan, enjoy the dip pen for its ability to behave well with multiple inks like drawing inks, waterproof inks, acrylic inks, and even iron gall inks.

Is a Dip Pen Better Than a Fountain Pen?

A man's hand holds a old dip pen

In many ways, a dip pen has largely been replaced by a fountain pen, but there are a few advantages that no modern pen has been able to compete with.

Ink Versatility

A dip pen works well with a variety of inks, such as iron gall ink, acrylic inks, pigmented and waterproof inks, and particle-and-binder-based inks. Modern fountain pens, however, can only use water-based inks.

Easy Nib Replacement

There is a great variety of nibs available for dip pens, which allows easy replacement if the nib in use gets damaged. Not to mention, a dip pen can be fitted with different sizes of nibs to create a variety of lines and effects on the canvas. This also makes color changes quite easy.

Natural Sensitivity

Dip pens naturally offer more control on the lines drawn on paper, i.e varying the pressure and speed while sketching a piece can produce thin hairlines as well as thick, broad lines. This especially complements a calligrapher’s kit.

How to Choose a Dip Pen

A dip pen is no larger than a thumb pad, but it actually has four main parts. These are the shank (base), the tip of the nib, the vent (hole in the middle), and the tines (split of the nib on canvas). Choosing the right parts allows you to pick up the perfect dip pen and create flawless art. Here’s what you need to consider:

Hand Pressure

WhenA dip pen is pressed onto a canvas, the nib splits in two (tines), which helps ink flow down. Since everyone places different pressure on a pen while creating art, dip pen nibs are made in three types of tines:

  • High Elastic: for light-handers, the nibs are delicate and need very little pressure to split.
  • Elastic: for normal-handers, the nibs do not feel as soft as high-elastic nibs or stiff like low elastic nibs.
  • Low Elastic: for heavy-handers, the nibs are stiff and need a lot of pressure to split.

Tip of the Nib

The tips of dip pen nibs are manufactured in two types:

  • Needle Point: disposes little ink on the paper and has a ‘scratchy’ feel to it that makes it perfect for hairline strokes.
  • Rounded Ball: covers a bigger area and is great for broad lines and heavy strokes.

How to Use a Dip Pen

Now that you have a good idea of how to zero in on the perfect dip pen, here is a complete breakdown of how to use one as a beginner. Spoiler alert: it’s not as intimidating as it seems.

Step 1: Clean the Nib

First, prepare the dip pen nibs (if you’re a beginner, go for a pointed nib) by cleaning them. Wet a simple rag or paper towel with water and wipe off the oily residue. Make sure to do it before securing the nib to the dip pen holder.

Step 2: Dip the Pen Into Ink

After placing the dip pen nib onto the holder, take a small amount of ink (a cap-full is fine), and pour it into a small container. Then, dip the nib pen into the ink. Make sure it covers the vent (the open space in the middle of the nib) but doesn’t hit the nib holder. When taking it out, tap the excess ink off.

Step 3: Start Writing

Lastly, hold the pen at a 45-degree angle with the thumb and index finger together (similar to holding a pencil). Then, just start writing. Practice varying pressures for thin and thick strokes. It’s best to begin with vertical downward lines then go for upward strokes.

How to Write Calligraphy With a Dip Pen

Man practicing calligraphy

Many calligraphers around the world use a dip pen for beautiful scripts, and even though it may seem more formal than using a simple brush pen, employing a dip pen for calligraphy is actually easier and yields better results. Here’s how you can do it as a beginner too:

Tools You’ll Need:

  • High-quality black ink e.g Sumi Ink
  • Compact ink holder
  • Pointed nib

Step 1: Position the Pen

First, hold the dip pen at a 45 to 50 degree angle and find the sweet spot that keeps the wrist relaxed but the pen sturdy. The nib should be able to glide through the paper. It may feel ‘scratchy’, but it should not scratch or wear out the paper.

Step 2: Practice Different Strokes

Start by dipping the nib pen into the ink just until it covers the reservoir or vent. Tap off the excess and begin by sketching vertical lines at a downward stroke. Similar to a brush pen, place a bit more pressure when pulling the pen towards you (downward stroke) and apply less pressure in an upstroke.

Step 3: Try Hand Lettering

As you get the hang of sketching lines with varying thicknesses, practice writing letters. It’s best to start with the hand lettering style you are most comfortable with. This will help you focus more on using the dip pen and less on creating a good signature.

How to Draw With a Dip Pen

Drawing with dip pens has long been a favorite of many famous artists including Rembrandt. It’s reliable, capable of producing many different textures, and quite affordable. Here’s how you can sketch a piece with a dip pen.

Tools You’ll Need:

  • High-quality smooth cartridge paper
  • Thick drawing nibs
  • Compatible handle
  • Light-resistant drawing inks

Step 1: Wipe Off the Nib

First, prepare the drawing nib of the dip pen. Boil a half-cup of water and swirl the nib inside to melt the wax coating on top of it. Then, wipe the nib dry using a paper towel. Make sure to clean the drawing nib with water before taking a break or placing it in storage. This prevents rust from wearing out the dip pen.

Step 2: Practice a Doodle

Once the dip pen is dried off, dunk the nib into the ink while making sure it only covers the reservoir hole in the middle and does not hit the handle. Now, hold the pen at a 45° angle and practice different strokes while varying the pressure and speed to produce thick and thin lines. You could also lay down different tints to color-match a sketch easily.

Step 3: Keep the Pen Moving

As the strokes of ink start making sense, make sure to keep your hand steady and move from heavily-shaded areas to lightly-shaded areas. This way the strokes are more decisive, there’s a better contrast between thick and thin lines, and every object is shaded perfectly.

How to Take Care of a Dip Pen

Old dip pen on ancient paper

Aside from using a dip pen, it is imperative to know how to properly take care of one so that it lasts longer, does not rust, and provides great value for your money. It’s actually quite easy, and for many collectors, the steps may almost come as second nature. Here is what you need to do:

Remove From Holder

Always remember to remove the pen nib from its holder before cleaning and storing it. This helps keep water from moistening the holder and ink from dripping down into it, both of which can potentially ruin the structural integrity of the dip pen holder.

Keep It Clean

The best way to ensure the dip pen nib doesn’t rust is to keep it clean. Once you’ve removed the nib from the holder, rinse it off with water and dry it using a paper towel. There are special nib cleaners available too, mainly for novelty dip pens. Make sure to wipe the dip pen nib down before taking a break, even if it’s for a few minutes.

Frequently Asked Questions

Are dip pens hard to use?

As a beginner, it can be a little difficult to handle a dip pen, but determining your hand pressure and getting the right elasticity of the dip pen nib can make your life a lot easier. Dip pens are sophisticated, last longer than fountain pens, and work with multiple inks, which makes them worthwhile.

Are dip pens good for writing?

Yes, dip pens are great for writing. In fact, they are primarily used for calligraphy. This is because they can be equipped with a variety of nib sizes, which gives artists more creative freedom. However, the flexibility of the nib does not suit rushed writing such as grocery lists or academic note taking.

How long do dip pen nibs last?

It depends on the quality of the construction. For example, dip pens made of steel and gold can last over 100 years. Generally, dip pen nibs last about 30 years if they are stored well and cleaned often.

Can I use fountain pen ink with a dip pen?

Yes, a dip pen can be used with fountain pen ink, but because it is a little thin in nature, you’ll have to add a bit of gum arabic and thicken it up. The biggest advantage of having a dip pen is its compatibility with multiple types of inks including fountain pen ink.

Final Thoughts

Dip pens are not as intimidating as they look, and having one in your kit can actually level up your art and open up a universe of creative opportunities. With the tips above in mind, pick up the perfect dip pen, start practicing, and in no time, you’ll be the master of your domain.


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