So….you’ve got your pen holder, a few nibs, a bottle of ink and some paper…now what?
What you will need:
- nib with a reservoir
- bottle of ink
- a piece of scrap paper
- dropper or small, round sable brush
- mild soap (dish washing detergent) and water
- ammonia (window cleaner) or commercial pen cleaner
- soft cloth rag or paper towels
- an old, soft toothbrush
Nib Anatomy and Preparation
First, let’s take a look at the parts of the nib:
Check the tines of your nib – sometimes old, used nibs will have the tines splayed out from the split (usually by heavy hand pressure) which will cause problems with ink flow and lettering. If you can see light behind the split, it is probably time to “retire” the nib and replace it rather than trying to fix it.
Preparing New Nibs
If your nibs are new, they will need to have the factory-applied lacquer removed (this is used to prevent rust.) I normally clean them with a bit of warm water, dish washing liquid and scrub them with an old, soft toothbrush.
Other sources have suggested dipping the nib in gum arabic or hot water – whatever method you use, just make sure that you wipe off any excess water and dry the nib thoroughly or it will rust!
Next, take a look at the reservoir for your pen nib. The reservoir is what holds the ink and feeds it to your nib. Depending on what type of nib you prefer, the reservoir will either be on top of the nib or underneath the nib.
The most common dip pen nibs will have the reservoir attached by a couple of metal tabs. The reservoir should be attached firmly. If it is too loose (e.g. slides easily off the nib), simply press the tabs in a bit so that the reservoir holds tight but can still be moved a little up and down the nib.
Speedball nibs have the reservoir attached so you don’t need to do anything – just check to make sure the lower section of the reservoir is centered and lies flat against the nib.
Mitchell nibs use a slip-on reservoir underneath the nib, while the Brause, TO and Tape nibs have the reservoir on the top. As with the Speedball nib, reservoirs on the top of the nib should be centered and have the tip touching the nib.
The Mitchell reservoir has a bend in the center and can easily be gently adjusted to ensure the tip of the reservoir touches the back of the nib.
The position of the reservoir is important as to how the ink will flow – too high up and the ink won’t reach the end of the nib; too far down and the ink will just blot.
Generally, adjusting the reservoir so that it is about 1/16″ from the end of the nib should work fine as a starting point. A little adjustment might be necessary for long nibs.
Loading the Nib
Before you can start creating beautiful lettering, you have to get some ink into the pen nib.
You weren’t just going to dunk the pen into the ink, were you?
I must confess that when I first started calligraphy (and didn’t know any better) I would just dunk the pen nib in the ink and make quite a mess. This was back in the days when calligraphy wasn’t very popular and there were no courses or workshops available.
Many years later, I was fortunate enough to attend a workshop with an expert calligrapher who demonstrated the proper way to load a pen using a dropper or a brush.
Dunking can be done, however the downside to dunking is that the pen holder will pick up ink from around the inside edge of the ink bottle and this will inevitably find its way to your fingers. Dunking also feeds an excessive amount of ink to the reservoir and nib, causing the dreaded blots.
Loading the pen using a dropper or a small, round sable brush is not only cleaner, but gives you greater control as to the amount of ink held by the reservoir. Some inks, such as Higgins, have an dropper built in to the lid.
Once you have loaded the reservoir, test the pen by drawing a few strokes on a scrap piece of paper. If the strokes have clean, sharp edges and the ink is feeding evenly, you are ready.
If the ink is blotting or the pen strokes look dry, try adjusting the position of the reservoir, and make sure that the tip is touching the pen nib.
Cleaning Pen Nibs
It is good practice to get into the habit of cleaning your pen nibs, reservoirs and holders after every lettering session. Dried ink, especially waterproof ink, can be difficult to remove and little dried bits of ink stuck between the tines or in the reservoir can inhibit ink flow.
Cleaning solutions will depend on what type of ink was used – most non-waterproof calligraphy inks will clean up well with mild soap and water. Some inks, especially waterproof inks, will require a cleaning fluid such as ammonia (window cleaner works well) or a commercial pen cleaning solution.
If possible, disassemble the pen (remove the reservoir from the nib) and clean each piece separately using your cleaning solution and an old, soft toothbrush. A toothbrush is also very handy for cleaning pen nibs that have a built-in reservoir or a reservoir difficult to remove.
Pen holders can be cleaned with mild soap and water or use the pen cleaning solution to remove stubborn, dried ink. Be cautious about using pen cleaning solutions on holders that are made of wood and have cork finger grips – some of the solutions might damage these materials – always read the labels!
Make sure that the pen nibs, reservoirs and pen holders are dry. Pen nibs, reservoirs and pen holders with metal grips will rust. I wipe them down with a soft cotton rag or an absorbant paper towel to make sure all the moisture is removed before putting them back in the box.
Dip Pen Problems
If you’re having problems with a dip pen refer to the Troubleshooting a Calligraphy Dip Pen post.