Friday, November 2, 2012

Hand Made Calligraphy Pens

A FB friend had asked me about handmade calligraphy pens. Here are photos of a few, sometimes next to manufactured pens of similar types.

You can make a substitute for the popular "automatic" pens from England with tongue depressors, coffee stirrers, popsicle sticks and almost any other flat sided article with reasonable rigidity and a pencil or dowel rod and some masking tape. Tongue depressors/blades can often be cut with scissors to a flat edge. If scissors don't work, lay the piece on an old phone book and slice it with a heavy duty cutting blade such as a disposable blade carton knife. You may also bevel the edge with the knife by cutting it at a slant instead of straight across. Cut off and narrow the non-business end and tape it to a pencil or piece of dowel rod. You may like to use the entire length of the stirrer or tongue depressor, but I find them a bit uncomfortable to hold without trimming them and gluing them to the pencil or dowel.

The same raw materials can be used to make "Coit"-style pens, except in this instance you would notch the writing end.

If you have a product called "Stimudent" you can make an even cooler multi-line pen. I was unable to find any of the many I've made, and when I searched for Stimudents in the store I couldn't find any. I don't know if they are no longer being made or if my store just didn't carry them. They are a portable toothpick device in a matchbook-style folder. They come with two rows of attached picks and you can tear off one or more at a time. To make a multi-line pen tear off a grouping of three, four or five and tape the bottom end to a pencil. I'm sorry I have no photo to share.

I didn't make this cola pen, although I have made them before. This one is 'the bomb' to use a term kids used to use years ago (meaning 'great'.) What sets this one apart is it's 'stable flexibility' allowing smooth writing, and its fabulous spattering quality. I can get better marks with this pen than with any other ruling pen I have tried. You copy the shape (directions are available via Google searches, I'm sure) flip it over and copy it again. Fold it in the middle and attach it to a pencil with tape. This one has a neat little flap that folds over at its neck. Cola pens mimic ruling pens somewhat.

Below is a pen made from a hollow stick - possibly a thick reed of some kind. It's just been carved away at the end to form a thick 'nib'. The marks you'll get with this pen will be thick and clumsy compared to a manufactured nib, but sometimes you might like the clunky feel of the marks this one makes.

This one is one of my favorite types of pen. It is a very, very good pen that will do as nicely as any automatic pen (see above.) It is getting hard to find the report covers needed to make them, and again I couldn't find mine. Instead I have cut a report cover spine and placed it above a wooden paint brush to imitate the real thing. You cut the spine with scissors to any width you'd like. Hot glue the wider end of the spine to a dowel rod. Once its broken in you will love this pen! If you find any of this type of report cover, buy it! One spine will obviously yield many pens in almost any width you'd like. I probably wouldn't make these more than 3" wide unless I were using a very thick dowel as the pen staff.

One last 'homemade' pen is chopsticks. These wooden ones have a fairly sharp wedge, which will make a nice pen.

Besides these, you can use seashells, pine cones and lots of other natural 'tools'. Pick things up and play with them. See what kinds of marks they will make. If you find some wonderful new 'pen', share in the comments below, please!

The wide pens - especially the report cover ones - are wonderful tools for making manipulated letters like these "Bone" letters:


  1. Hello Mrs. letterlady,your post is really very informative and interesting to read through.But I am really worried about the ink retention capacity and the making of the cola-pen,how to fix the gap between the 2 leaves after folding it into one?how much gap should be maintained to retain reasonable ink flow?And one more question is about the pen that copies automatic pen.How will it reserve ink again?will I be able to make a complete letter with 2or 3 stokes if not single?Mrs Letterlady,please reply.

    1. Hi Soumen, I have added a new photo showing the gap in the cola pen. Because the aluminum is pretty flexible, you can adjust the gap. The added photo shows what mine looks like.
      These pens do not hold much ink. You can bevel the edge of the tongue depressors to get finer lines, and you have to enjoy the look of texture you can get from them. They can make a solid line on the first stroke, but often the second stroke will be streaky unless you dip the pen again.
      The report cover 'automatic' pens hold more ink, but the larger they are, the more dipping they require. These are special effect tools. They will not fully replace manufactured nibs. Their large size makes them good for titling and emphasis.
      One thing these pens are excellent for is in painting. They make beautiful strokes in paste papers and in acrylic paints on canvas, and you don't have to worry about ruining a good pen.

    2. Thank you so much Mrs. Letterlady.I have already made two report cover "automatic" pens.They are working wonderfully.I am adding photos of them in my facebook group.Please follow the link.And comment.The link is

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  3. Hi Letterlady,

    I love your helpful ideas. I've been finding Stimudents at Walmart, of all places. Also, I've had great luck making a lovely magenta ink from diced beets, which I simmer in just enough water to cover, then strain and evaporate or boil down until the viscosity is just right. I don't even add gum arabic. I once had a molding issue, but I get that occasionally with McCaffery's ink too.

    Terri Kruger

    1. Thanks, Terri! I will buy some Stimudents next time I get to a Walmart...may have to buy some beets too. Have you checked the light-fastness of them? If you used canned beets they'd probably have enough preservatives in them to keep the ink from molding, but may not be as good as with the fresh ones.

    2. I tried making beet ink last year for the first time, and haven't seen any fading in the samples I made, but it's only been a year. Mom gives me a bunch of home-grown beets and other farm goodies when I visit, so I scrubbed and peeled them to make sure there's no dirt. I've been studying everything I can about ink for the past several years. I still find it interesting.

    3. It IS interesting. Consider that some manufactured inks are still made from natural materials, and the old paints used to be made from urine and crushed gemstones, among other things. It's amazing to me how anyone thought to use such items, but the pull to create is strong! Tea, coffee, wine, berries and many other staining 'foods' can be used as ink. Dirt can make brown inks of varying colors too. I don't know about the longevity of them. I am grateful for Moon Palace Sumi, gouache, and other manufactured products, lol.
      It's nice that you have a family source for good produce. I'm sure you eat some of it too. Draw pictures of the veggies and do the calligraphy on your art with your homemade ink and you'll have quite a holistic work of art!

  4. Hi, Letterlady, great text. I got a lot of ideas from your text. I am new to the calligraphy, and I want to ask you what do you think best tool will be for making this kind of font . Since those Brause plakat nibs, or automatic pens are very hard to get where I come from, and ordering from EU is very expensive, I will have to make them on my own.

    Also, I notice for example Brause plakat nib 10mm having only two of those incisions for ink flow, while British automatic pens of the same size have a dozen. Does it need to be that much incisions or not.Thanks

    1. Thank you for reading, and for your comments. I have never had a Brause plakat nib, and I can't say which is better, but the automatic pens are very smooth and can be easily manipulated. I am sorry but I don't know the answer to your question about the number of slits in the nibs. They are only there to allow ink to flow, so I would experiment. As the nibs suggest, if your slits are wider like notches, you wouldn't want many, and if your slits are hairlines like on the automatic, more would be better. The Coit nibs are slotted for special effects - giving two, three or four lines of varying widths in one stroke. You can make another pen similar to the automatic and not shown above by cutting a slit into the top of a wooden dowel and inserting a thin piece of wood veneer. You may also have to glue it in; I'm not sure because I have seen these but have not made them.

      As to the letters you showed me, the correct pen nib would depend on the size you want the finished letters to be. They look like they could be made easily with a Speedball C series nib, or a Brause or Tape nib. If you don't have access to those nibs, try to make a report cover pen (shown above) with the size of 'nib' that you want your finished letter stems to be. I've never made a very small one, but I think it could be done. You can also try cutting a piece of aluminum to the size you want and folding it over. You can cut quills (there is a process to doing this that includes heating them in sand and removing most of the feathery bits that you can probably learn about online) or thin reeds.

      I hope this has been helpful!