Explanation of Materials

Don't sweat the small stuff

One of the common pitfalls of a beginner in any field is a preoccupation with the tools and materials that they think they must acquire before being able to participate. I used to feel this way about athletics, always wanting whatever would give me the most 'competitive edge', even if that meant spending twice as much on a pair of sneakers.

The reality of this is that until we're at least somewhat into the thick of learning something, we can't possibly hope to have preferences that are based off of anything other than superficial desires to have the 'best' or recommendations from others.

Speaking in generalities, the quality difference between something like a $25 nib and a $1 nib is minuscule to the beginner's perception. Don't stress about having the best stuff. Just spend what you need to to get started, and if you decide that you have more expensive tastes later, you can always upgrade.

It has always been a goal of mine to make calligraphy exceedingly accessible to anyone who wants to learn, so while I'm going to go through the materials that I will be using in this course, below, you should feel free and encouraged to substitute them out with more economical or regionally available options of your own.

Required Materials

That being said, for this course, you’re going to need:

  1. A pencil and eraser. Softer lead (B) is preferable.
  2. A straight edge or ruler of some kind.
  3. Some paper that you can print guidelines on (and access to printing!)
  4. Some kind of ink. Walnut or Moon Palace Sumi are what we will use in this course.
  5. A couple of flexible pointed nibs (at least three or four, since they sometimes come from the store bent and unusable)
  6. One oblique holder with a metal flange
  7. A computer with access to the internet
  8. A clean space to write

You can pick up common items at your local art store, or take a look at my John Neal Books teacher page to order online.

A pencil and eraser

Throughout this course, there will be times when diagramming a concept in pencil is far more important than being able to create it with your pen. A pencil is perhaps the most overlooked tool when it comes to calligraphy education. I can't tell you how many times sitting down with just a pencil has yielded far greater progress than actually using a dip pen.

Pencils are measured in lead hardness. B pencils are the softest, and H pencils are the hardest. Softer lead is easier to erase, and as a result, we need to be using something in the softer end of the spectrum. B pencils range from 9B (very soft) to B (slightly soft). I use a 4B pencil. Most art stores will have loose pencils and you can buy singles of any given hardness.

A good eraser will pick up 4B lead quite easily and should leave little to no residue on your paper. Alvin makes great erasers, and I use them in my studio regularly. Remember to clean your eraser regularly so that you do not smear lead previously erased on new paper. You can do this by rubbing your eraser on the leg of your pants, or a small scrap of denim.

A straightedge or ruler

For the majority of this course, you should be perfectly content to practice on the guidelines provided by the instructor. However, there will be occasions when you'd like to produce work on paper that cannot be fed through a printer, has a different x-height (letter height), or a different line spacing. A straightedge is an invaluable tool for establishing quick and square layouts on any piece of paper.

In addition to its uses when establishing writing guides, the straight edge can also be used for certain types of letter creation, like creating perfectly flat crossbars on the minuscule (lowercase) t, or retouching the sides of a long stroke like the one found in the minuscule p.

The Wescott clear grid ruler (which can be found on my JNB teacher page) is by far my favorite in this category. You can get it in 12” or 18”. I have both and I use them almost every single day. They have a metal cutting edge on one side which is useful for cutting up paper, leather, you name it. The other side is beveled, which makes drawing perfectly fine lines with your dip pen exceedingly easy.

Paper Selection

Before we can get any writing done, we need something to write on. While calligraphers are well known for writing on a large variety of surfaces, we’re gonna stick to just paper for this course. There are a few things about paper that you should know, before we get into making our recommendations:

Paper has a couple different qualities that are important to calligraphers:

Texture. When using a dip pen, paper that has a large amount of surface texture can lead to nib snags, irregular edges on strokes, and pooling of ink. When you shop for larger sheets of paper for projects, you’re likely going to want to purchase hot-pressed paper, which is smoother than its alternative: cold-pressed. Arches 90lb Hot press is a very nice paper that can be bought in a couple of colors, is very smooth, and is readily available in most art stores in the US as well as online.

My recommendation would be never to buy paper online that you have not explicitly used before unless you have a trustworthy recommendation from another calligrapher. Too many papers have subtle characteristics that make them great for everything but calligraphy.

Sizing. Another thing that can throw a wrench in your penmanship dreams is a paper that looks and feels good, but simply won’t hold ink. When you make a stroke on a paper with too little (or irregularly dispersed) sizing, the ink will be wicked into the fibrous structure of the paper and distributed along the little capillary structures inside. This is known as bleeding, and it is incredibly frustrating.

Most papers that say they are produced for ‘wet-media’ are appropriately sized for use with things like dip pens and watercolor, but since we’re using paper that can be fed through a printer, we want to make sure that it can be written on before we run off a bunch of sheets and use up that precious printer ink. The Strathmore 100% Cotton Business Stationary linked on the materials list is what I use for workshops and works pretty well. Still, make sure you test it yourself by taking a sheet and making a couple of simple strokes on it with your pen. Only print guidelines after you’ve tested!


Ink preference really comes down to the tastes of the individual. For the majority of our work in this course I’ll be using walnut ink made from crystals. These crystals can be purchased from JNB and are mixed with water. It’s as easy as making coolaid--just stir it up and you’re good to go. Start by mixing an ounce of water with a teaspoon of crystals, and increase the crystals until you have a desired darkness. Some instructors will say to use distilled water, but there’s no need for something as ephemeral as walnut ink.

As a heads up: walnut ink tends to to mold in some environments. Try not to ingest any of it while you’re working on your script (it’s harder than you think!) and keep an eye on the surface of your reservoir. If you ever notice a film floating on the top of your well, take a cotton swab and gently swish it around on the surface of your ink. It will collect the mold and you can continue using that pot with an easy mind.

Also, keep in mind that while walnut ink beautiful in its own way, is not lightfast which means that it will fade and discolor when exposed to UV light. As a result, it isn’t suitable for finished artwork or anything that needs to be saved longer than just a few years.

Alternatively, there are many different black inks worth recommending and experimenting with. While this course won’t make use of black ink very often, there is benefit in exposing yourself to different types of ink when practicing and observing the differences they play in the writing experience.

Sumi ink comes in a variety of different types, but my personal favorite is known as Moon Palace Sumi. Moon Palace is commonly known for its distinctive smell, and some people love it while others hate it. Unlike walnut, which can be left to dry on a nib over short periods of time, sumi will stain your nibs permanently if you are not careful to wash them often. When using sumi with more temperamental or expensive nibs, keep a jar of rinse water and a small washcloth nearby. You’ll likely need less than an ounce for our purposes with this course. I'll use black for several projects over the coming lessons.

Pointed Nibs

One of the most common questions asked by new calligraphers is what nibs a seasoned writer should consider using. The truth of the matter is, a truly knowledgeable and well trained writer can make use of most nibs--assuming they are in proper condition and one has the right tools to use them. That being said, there are a few qualities that I look for in nibs that I think make skillful script writing quite a bit easier.

First, let’s get on the same page about pen anatomy. I've recently begun using the terminology published on my friend Andrew Midkiff's site. I've found him to be the most straight-forward no-nonsense source for any questions I have about nib construction or manufacturing. (Andrew has a number of very informative articles published about the steel pen and I'm hoping to have him write some guests posts on the Masgrimes Blog in the near future.)

As we learn from Andrew's page, nib action can be described from two points of reference. The first, is the distance that the two points of a nib can be opened from one another during normal use. This is known as the flex. The second, is the amount of force needed to open the nib to that point, which is known as the spring.

A preoccupation with flexibility

Flex is a characteristic that beginner calligraphers tend to become fixated on, as it is what allows a nib to make lucious swells and beautiful transitions from thin to thick. While a certain amount of flexibility is certainly desirable, this really shouldn’t be a concern of yours within this course. The most common thickness of shades in our script will be right around 1mm, which even the stiffest nibs are often capable of producing.

Instead of worrying about flex, it is far more important to find a nib that works for you when it comes to spring, because that directly relates to the amount of effort it takes for you exert your will upon the page. Both the Hunt 101 and the Leonardt Principal EF (Extra Fine) are well within what most people can tolerate. If at any point you feel that you are having to push exceedingly hard on the nib to create the various strokes of Engrosser’s Script, there may be another issue altogether.

I tend to avoid the G nibs such as the Nikko or Zebra G, although I am fully aware they’re the preference of many contemporary calligraphers. In my experience, these nibs are simply too large to be properly fit into a holder, and the resulting installation places the writing point in the wrong position relative to the pen staff. Your experiences may be different, however, so I’ll encourage you to do what works best for you.

*IMPORTANT! It is important to note that whatever nib you choose, it will arrive in your possession with a thin film of oil or other hydrophobic material coating it to prevent corrosion. Feel free to leave this coating on any nibs you are not currently using, but once you decide to use a nib it must be removed. A small drop of dish soap rubbed along it with the fingers under warm water should be enough to remove it in entirety. Indicators that you haven’t completely removed all of the oil from your nib are ink not adhering to it when dipped into your reservoir, or large blobs of ink falling to the page when writing.

The Oblique Pen

Grimes, David, Oblique Pen Anatomy, 2018

The oblique pen offers two main advantages over the common straight holder.

  1. For right-handed people, it allows us to write slanted script where our nib is parallel to the thick parts of our letters (shades) with the paper only rotated only slightly counterclockwise. This will become more apparent in the Dip Pen Basics exercise lesson of this section.
  2. It allows us to elevate the point of the nib independently from the staff, which means that we can acquire a lower nib angle without needing to lower the back of our holder closer to the paper. A lower nib angle means less snagging of the point when pushing strokes, and a smoother overall action during horizontal movements.

*For left handed people, the oblique nature of the pen isn’t as helpful, but the elevation of the tip is still a benefit in reducing the chances of snagging the pen point. I’ve always recommended that my left-handed students attempt to try writing with the oblique, which means that their paper must be rotated clockwise, and their writing line will be towards their left shoulder, rather than away, as is the case for right-handed penmen.

The most important quality of your oblique holder is not the color, length, or weight. It is how the flange is adjusted to acquire the optimal nib approach to the paper. Back in the days of the Zanerian, the phrases ‘adjusted for roundhand’ or ‘adjusted scientifically’ were used to describe pens that had been modified from their stock flange positions to most accurately react to the movements and techniques required for writing Engrosser’s Script.

Adjusting your pen

In my experience, there are three measurements that are important for a flange setting, Don't feel like you need to adjust your pen right now. We will talk more about what small tweaks play into Engrosser's Script in a later lesson when they're more appropriate.

In my opinion, the most important aspects of a pen are:

  1. The skew or yaw is the ‘oblique’ angle which the linear axis of the pen nib is offset from the staff that the hand holds. With a paper rotated appropriately, a larger angle in this regard will mean that the writing arm’s elbow can be displaced further from the ribs and the nib will remain parallel to the writing slant. A smaller angle means that the elbow will need to be closer to the writer’s side. Unfortunately, most pens arrive in the writer’s hands with the flange already glued in, and as a result this angle is predetermined at the time of manufacturing. For me, this is thing that makes pens hit or miss. Almost everything else about a flange can be tweaked slightly to better fit the hand, but the skew is usually set.

  2. The pitch is the angle that the writing tip of the nib is elevated from the plane of the pen when it lies on table. The largest benefit of a higher pitch is the reduction of the chance of snagging the pen in on the paper when pushing a stroke, but there are other features to consider as well. Artists with larger hands (like me) will make good use of the additional pitch because they tend to hold their pen a bit more upright in their hands.

  3. The roll is measured as the amount of rotation that the nib is rotated inward towards the staff once it is set inside the flange. Some flanges will hold different nibs in different roll positions, so it is important to decide your preferences and adjust your pen accordingly should you decide to change nibs.

Most pens can be slightly adjusted with just your fingers, but exercise extreme caution tweaking on your pen. Any stress that you put into the metal is transferred to the wood, and if the wood is brittle or weakened, it may actually crack. If you feel uncomfortable adjusting a handmade pen that you have purchased, ask your maker to adjust it for you!

In general the best style of flange (in my opinion) is the simple Zanerian model seen in the pictures above. Bullock flanges (the ones with screws) are made to be versatile at the sake of adjustability. The more metal that is present in a flange design, the less it can be bent without causing dangerous stress in the wood.

The various materials you'll need for this course!

In conclusion

There are about a hundred different things we could go into about all of these different items and how they can be used by the professional and semi-professional. The truth is, so much of what you will learn about your materials is subjective to the way you think and the way your process works. We will check in about our tools and materials from time to time in the subsequent lessons. Please feel free to shoot me an email if you ever feel confused or unsure if a problem you're running into is tool related. I'm happy to help!