When I first decided to learn calligraphy a few years ago, I remember feeling overwhelmed by the variety of calligraphy nibs available. I wondered about the differences between them and if those differences matter (they do)! I also had trouble telling nibs apart. In this article, I’d like to revisit my confusion as a calligraphy beginner and lay out everything that I would have liked to know at that time. Hopefully, this information will help you as you move forward in your own calligraphy endeavors!
Most — if not all — nibs adhere to this anatomy below. Of course, some nibs are larger and some nibs are smaller, but for the most part, they all basically look like this:
- Tines – These are the two prongs that you use to write. On flexible nibs, when pressure is applied, the tines will spread apart to make thick downstrokes. On less flexible nibs, the tines stay relatively close together regardless of the amount of pressure exerted.
- Split – This is the split between the tines.
- Vent Hole – The vent hole (a.k.a. “breather hole” or simply “vent”) helps to regulate the flow of ink by providing a space for the ink to hang out while you are writing. Otherwise, that ink may flow to your paper too fast and cause blobs! It also provides a logical ending for the split, and helps to manage the tension put on the split/tines. If the vent hole didn’t exist, we would experience more issues with entire nibs splitting in half.
- Shank – This is the part of the nib that you secure into the holder (calligraphy pen).
- Base – This is the end of the nib, the part that you will initially put in the holder (for simple pen/nib assembly instructions, see The Beginner’s Guide to Modern Calligraphy).
- Nib Identification – This is not an official term, but this area is where you will find information as far as what nib/model you are using. Sometimes the etching isn’t very obvious, so you’ll need to look closely.
TPK’s Favorite Nibs
Now that you know about nib anatomy, it’s time to learn about specific nibs! Many calligraphers favor just a couple of nibs that they stick to after trying out several. When you compare nibs, you’ll notice differences in flexibility, material, and stroke widths. Nibs are cheap, so I encourage you to try out as many as you can, and stock up on your favorite(s)!
For efficiency’s sake, I am linking to four different blog posts that discuss the pros and cons of four different nibs that I, personally, enjoy. Of course, there are many equally wonderful nibs available on the market, but the nibs detailed below are the ones that I’m most familiar with.
Preparing New Nibs for Use
One would think that calligraphy nibs arrive ready to write with, but that’s not the case. In many instances, manufacturers add an oil or wax finish to their nibs to ensure that the nibs stay fresh and springy while in storage. Many inks don’t react well with the oil/wax on the nib, so you’ll experience ink flow issues if you don’t get that finish off!
There are many ways to prepare a new nib, and different calligraphers have different preferences. My personal favorite method is to stick the nib in a potato for 15 minutes (any longer, and the nib may start to rust)! Then, I take the nib out and wipe it off. It should be ready to write with! You can read about the “potato method” of preparing a nib plus a few other methods in this tutorial.
When you’re finished writing, give the nib a swish in water, then use a non-fibrous cloth to dry it off. Make sure that no moisture remains on the nib; otherwise, it can rust. You can either store your nibs in a little container like the Leonardt tin …
… Or, for convenience’s sake, you can store nibs upright in their holders.
General Things to Remember About Calligraphy Nibs
People often ask me how long calligraphy nibs last. Unfortunately, it is impossible to give a one-size-fits-all answer. Nib life depends on so many variables: how often you use the nib, what inks you use it with (acidic inks like iron gall and walnut shorten nib life), and your technique (light-handed vs. heavy-handed). There’s also an accident factor. For example, if you drop your holder/nib on the floor, the tines may spread irreparably. In short, there’s no way to tell how long your nibs will last, and it’s never a bad idea to buy 2-3 of the same nib at a time. They’re cheap, which gives you more incentive to embrace the “better safe than sorry” calligraphy nib philosophy!
Another thing to note is you should always shake excess ink off your nib. Failure to do so may result in a big blob of ink on your paper, regardless of which nib you are using.
I receive a lot of questions about where to buy good pen holders (a.k.a. calligraphy pens). My very favorite pens come from artisan Rodger Mayeda, who hand crafts gorgeous holders here in Colorado. As Rodger’s pens are difficult to come across, however, you may want to purchase from a different source!
No matter what you do, if you order an oblique pen, make sure you order one with a brass flange (learn why here). You can be much less picky with straight pens! To find both oblique and straight pens in your country, check out the Where to Purchase Calligraphy Supplies list.
If you have any questions or input after reading this blog post, please feel free to comment! I am more than happy to answer questions, and even happier to learn from you if you have a favorite nib or a clever tip that you’d like to contribute.
Thanks again for reading TPK, and have a great weekend!