For many calligraphers, cleaning calligraphy nibs is an obvious concept. Swish them around in a bit of water and you’re good! But there’s a lot to unpack there: how long do you swish? Do you dunk the whole nib in water? Do you use tap water or distilled? Is it better to use some sort of pen cleaner? Today, we’re going to take a look at these questions and more in this guide to cleaning calligraphy nibs.
1. Don’t Prepare Your Nibs Until You’re Ready to Use Them
Every nib comes coated with oils or waxes from the manufacturer. This protective coating helps to ensure that a nib stays clean and rust-free while sitting in storage, waiting to be sold. If you want to keep your nibs in excellent condition, don’t remove the coating until you are ready to use the nib. As a side note, removing a nib’s oily coating and then waiting a few weeks or months to use a nib won’t cause it any harm. The nib will just look a bit duller than brand-new nibs! I like to use a potato to prepare my nibs, but there are several alternative methods that you can use instead.
2. Clean Your Nibs with Tap Water
It might seem too simple to be true, but regular water does a great job of cleaning calligraphy nibs — no need to buy any special pen cleaners! Just fill up a cup with tap water, and keep that cup beside you as you create calligraphy. Every couple of minutes, when your ink flow starts to get impeded by ink drying on the nib, swish the ink off in your “art water” for about two seconds. Then, quickly pat the nib dry with a cloth and start writing again.
You’ll find that some inks require more dipping than others. Paint-like inks, like Ziller or Bleed Proof White, might require you to clean more frequently. Thinner inks, like iron gall or walnut, will require less cleaning. Once you’re finished writing, you’ll give your nib a final swish in the art water, then dry it off with a non-fibrous cloth (more on that in a moment).
3. Never Get Liquid Inside Your Pen
When I teach calligraphy workshops, I always demonstrate how to dip a nib in ink and subsequently swish the nib around in water at the very beginning. I do this before anyone has had the opportunity to even touch their dip pen. Otherwise, I notice that students tend to haphazardly dunk the pen in water, as you might do with a paintbrush. Here’s why we can’t do that with dip pens: they rust. If a nib develops rust inside your pen, you’ll have a lot of trouble getting it out. Worse, if you get ink inside the pen, it will act like a glue, and it’s nearly impossible to pull the nib out then! That will become a problem when the nib wears out and needs to be replaced.
If you do happen to dip your nib too far in ink or water, immediately remove the nib from the pen and try your best to get the moisture out of the pen. If you’re working with a straight pen, you might be able to achieve this with a cotton swab. Oblique pens will be tricker, and you’re probably best off just leaving the flange nib-free for a while to dry and hoping for the best! As for the nib, it’s easier to clean than the pen. Just dip the nib in water, dry it off well, and once the pen has dried, reinsert the nib.
4. Dry Off Nibs With a Non-Fibrous Cloth
Some people use paper towels to dry off their nibs, but paper towels can be more of a headache than they’re worth. Stray paper towel fibers tend to get caught on the shoulders or the tip of the nib. You often won’t see those fibers until you go to write, and then — surprise! — the tiny stray fibers pick up ink and follow their own inky agenda.
Don’t get me wrong: you can use a paper towel to quickly dry off your nib between cleanings as you’re writing. But if you don’t want to be on high alert for rogue fibers, use a non-fibrous cloth. Anything will work! I use an old cotton dinner napkin.
5. Use a Toothbrush for Cleaning Calligraphy Nibs Between Writing Sessions
If it bugs you to see ink in the crevices of your calligraphy nibs, you can use a toothbrush to try and scrub the ink off between calligraphy sessions. If you really want to get into it, use some baking soda, too. The baking soda particles might encourage ink to lift out of the little grooves in the nib!
To be honest, I never go to the trouble to clean off my nibs with a toothbrush because ink stains don’t affect ink flow. But, if you like to keep your calligraphy supplies looking nicer for longer, this is a cleaning technique you can keep in mind.
6. Accept That a Used Nib Won’t Look Like a New Nib
After you prepare your new calligraphy nib for use, it will take on a dull sheen. Eventually, you’ll start to notice stains or little areas of dried ink on your nib as well. It is important to be diligent about cleaning your nibs, but realize that it’s impossible to keep them looking like new for long. Once they start to look a bit drab, give yourself a pat on the back: that means you’re putting some miles on your supplies, which is something to celebrate!
One of the reasons I love dip pen calligraphy so much is its easy cleaning process. Really, it just boils down to regularly wiping the nib clean to the best of your ability. Follow that simple advice, and your nibs will stay usable for longer! If you have any questions, please feel free to ask in the comments, and for more detailed instructions on calligraphy concepts in general, see The Beginner’s Modern Calligraphy Online Course. Thanks so much for reading; may your nibs stay clean and dry! Warmly,