A place for Drachenwald's scribes to hang out, learn, discuss and critique each others work.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

A calligraphy set for novice scribes

At Kingdom University just past I hosted a round table show-and-tell: scribes, bring your tips and tricks, and new scribes, if you don't have any yet, bring your questions.

This proved an excellent way to spend an hour chatting about our favourite topics, and demonstrated clearly to me that when you put 3 chatty scribes together you get 4 different ways to draw a straight line.

It was delightful.

Lady Tamara asked an excellent question about 'what basic tools do I need to start?' She was interested in both calligraphy and illumination. Sure enough, she got different advice from different people, but it's still a useful starting point.

SO: I'm posting my idea of a complete novice's kit for Western European calligraphy, that you could buy online for less than £25 or around 33 Euro.

I shop in the UK, so this list relies on UK supplier examples, but I'm hoping folks in Germany, Sweden and Finland can comment on their favourite shops and any special terms in other languages to look for.

Two notes:

  1. This post doesn't cover items like rulers, pencils and erasers. They too are important tools and you can get wonderful specialist versions to make scribing easier, but you can start with whatever pencil, eraser and straight edge you have in the house. 
  2. I used a dip pen to learn calligraphy. While I've tried fountain pens, I prefer my dip pen as an adaptable flexible tool, and teach others the same way.
    It's closer to the quill, which is the ideal medieval tool but isn't for everyone. Your mileage may vary.

Nibs: lots to choose from

For starting calligraphy look for edged nibs, described in English as 'round hand' or 'Italic' nibs: these have a square end, in varying widths. Nice explanation on Scribblers blog. You can get nibs cut on an angle for left-handed scribes, but a lefty can use a square nib, and turn the page to get the correct angle.

Pointed nibs are for copperplate and 'spencerian' (18th and 19th c) calligraphy, and for medieval penwork and flourishing, but not typically for the writing-letters part.

Nibs are about 60 to 80p each. You can buy a single brand's set plus reservoir for about £8. You won't need all of them for scribing SCA scrolls, but it's easiest to learn with a wide nib and work your way 'down' to a small one.

Rerservoirs are small clips that attach to the nibs, to help the nib hold more ink. Find the ones that fit your brand of nib.

Nib holders

Strictly speaking you only need one holder and can keep changing nibs, but that's not much fun.

I do recommend buying solid plastic or wood penholders (the Speedball holder at £1.60 is the best I've found), rather than the standard round penholder, at £1.85, or a lot more) which has an insert that rusts on first use. Don't be seduced by pretty coloured handles!

If you want a holder for every nib, buy a pack of wood penholders 12 for £10.

hexagonal (£3.90) or triangular (£2.10) holder gives you 'edges' to hang onto - these can help you keep control of the angle of the nib, but cost a bit more.


Portentially very confusing because of the range available from traditional to modern.

Here's an example page from a UK shop with a range of inks.

Important terms (in English) to look for:

Inks for calligraphy, for dip pens. Drawing ink is usually thinner and runnier than calligraphy ink and doesn't give the same dense, opaque lettering. However, just to be confusing, some inks are described as suitable for both drawing and calligraphy.

Waterproof  (sometimes called permanent) and non-waterproof: waterproof ink usually has shellac or a hardener in it. If you spill it, it will not come off your clothes, furniture, pets or children.

Non-waterproof is a water-based ink without a hardener: if you spill it you can still mop it up while it is wet. It may become permanent when it dries but you have a hope of getting it off the tiles and table if you catch it when it spills. Ask me how I know...

Personally I prefer non-waterproof inks because of this very reason. While any ink will build up on your pen nib and you need to clean the nib periodically, non-waterproof washes off with soap and water, while waterproof needs a solvent.

Indian, Chinese, or Japanese ink: these terms usually describe an opaque black ink, fine for calligraphy. But it can still vary whether they are waterproof or not, so check the bottle. Chinse and Japanese inks can come in a stick you have to grind and mix yourself, something I've not tried yet.

For beginners I recommend non-waterproof liquid ink for calligraphy, so you spend more time doing letters and less time preparing materials.

Iron gall ink or oak gall ink are excellent medieval-style inks and I use them a lot.

Cornelissen has a nice selection of 'traditional' inks that I've tried: my favourites are the Hax Ink, the Scriptorium Oak Gall, and the Roberson Logwood black.

Be aware that oak and iron gall inks are slightly acidic so they can damage your pens if you let the ink dry on them. Always clean your pens thoroughly.

Acrylic inks have beautiful colours, but acrylic is a completely modern material. I recommend using the available plausibly-period inks rather than acrylic.

If you spend about £5 on pen nibs, £2 on a holder, £5-8 on ink, you still have money for


Pergamenata is my preferred material for scribing: it's a type of artificial parchment from Fabriano that takes ink and gouache well and that I can scrape, a little, like parchment.

It comes in 2 weights (230 grams per square metre, gsm, and 160gsm). The heavier weight is good for scrolls, the light one for 'letters' or cards - it's a bit light for scribing for me.

It comes in large sheets, £2.26 each, that can make between 4-8 scrolls depending on what size you want: 3 A4 scrolls, and 3 smaller ones, plus scraps. That's a lot of scrolls.

Another good paper is heavy watercolour paper, made by Arches or Fabriano. Look for a watercolour block, where the paper is stuck together in a solid block. Watercolour artists can use this as a portable drawing board; usually scribes slice off the top page with a craft knife to use one at a time.

It's 300gsm, where typical printer paper is 75-100gsm.

The hot press (HP) paper has a smooth surface good for calligraphy; the cold press (CP or NOT, meaning 'not hot press') is rougher and while it's good for painting on, it's harder to calligraph. I can't scrape my mistakes off paper, but I can paint over them.

High-quality paper, made with linen or cotton rag not plant fibres, is more expensive than pergamenata (putting me over my ideal budget), but is easier to find.

Any craft has its own special vocabulary and scribing and fine art is no different. Part of learning an art is learning the language and terms for its special tools and materials, and these are not always explained in the shop.

Some reading: 

Please comment on the tools that you think are the most important for new calligraphers to use. These examples are my opinion and I'm happy to hear others!

No comments: