Ever wondered about the little devices that you see in your favorite calligrapher’s photographs? Maybe you were curious about that little mechanism peeking out of the blurry background in a picture from your favorite writing manual? If so, you and I have something in common! There are hundreds of articles talking about which nib to buy, or where to find paper that won’t bleed, but there isn’t much around about sharing the more esoteric tools used by professional scribes from around the world.
Here’s a peek into five unique tools that have been integral to my calligraphy business over the last year.
- A fold out magnifying glass
- A Ruling Pen (not a folded, automatic, or plate pen—they’re different)
- A high-quality Kolinsky sable brush
- A lead holder and rotary sharpener
- An ‘Ink Eraser’ knife
Before we jump into this, I’d like to say that it is very important to remember to buy secondhand (whenever possible) and to always shop responsibly. Even if you can afford something, make sure that you’re getting a good price and supporting a good business. The last thing we need as a community is for people to start hunting things down and getting into bidding wars. Everything I’m covering here is easy to find and there are plenty of them available. I’ll even give you costs for what I paid for each of them.
A fold-out magnifying glass
I was having lunch a few years ago with an older gentleman who had graduated from The Zanerian College when he dropped a heartstopping statement on me:
“All calligraphers go blind.”
He said it with such a straight face, I had no idea how to react. I laughed nervously and he started chuckling. Okay, it was a joke… We went on to talk about how detailed work can take a really heavy toll on your eyesight over the course of several decades. Traditionally, calligraphers haven’t had as many of the eye-strain-reducing technologies that we take for granted. He recounted meeting one of my script heroes, Charlton V. Howe late in his life, only to find out he had sadly become blind. I went out that day and bought a fold-out magnifier.
I picked this little guy up at a junk shop for $4. It’s got a bit of wear around the plastic ring that holds the lens, and the stitching had come out on the case, which makes it less of a case and just two protective covers and a kind of floppy handle. That doesn’t bother me, though! I love the small size of this piece of glass, and I prefer it over the awkward kind you have to wear on your head.
I take this thing to all of my workshops and make a big joke about flipping it out to look at student’s work, but in reality, I have used this $4 contraption every day for the last two years at least. I’m sure I’ll have it for the rest of my life.
Cost: $4 | Source: Vintage shop in Portland, Oregon
A Ruling Pen (not a folded, automatic, or plate pen—they’re different)
In early 2018, I made a little video about a cool dotting contraption I picked up on eBay to satisfy my curiosity about its function. That video went to the front page of /r/all on Reddit and I got to talk about engrossing and calligraphy with a ton of new people. Most of the comments were about how creepy or relaxing my voice sounded in that video, but the whole thing left me really excited about drafting tools. So I went out and bought some more.
This is a ruling pen, and it is the most incredible tool for making really really consistent lines. If you are using a dip pen to draw straight lines (on a ruler, section-liner, french curve, whatever) you’re missing out on the benefits that a ruling pen offers and probably working so much slower than you need to be.
Most dip pens are somewhat flexible. Even the stiffest pen still reacts to hand weight and change of velocity in a way that results in small variations in line width. A ruling pen is for ‘ruling’ lines and is completely inflexible. They can be tightened down to create razor-thin super-straight lines without having to move slowly and try to control the amount of pressure put into the pen. You simply place the ruler, start the pen, and zip across the page. It’s awesome.
You’ll most commonly find these types of pens in old drafting sets from the 30s and 40s, so shop around. I see them in antique shops all of the time, Make sure to check for all of the usual characteristics of tools well-cared-for: there shouldn’t be ink stains on writing end, the adjustment gears and bolts should thread smoothly, and if you’re lucky your set might even come with a protective case. (mine doesn’t have a lid so it’s a “protective tray.” ha!)
Cost: $60 (as part of a set including a dozen other tools) | Source: eBay
A high-quality Kolinsky sable brush
I’ve really only recently started working with watercolor more, but let me tell you—if you want to pursue professional engrossing and calligraphy, having a firm background in watercolor is a HUGE asset. There are so many things that can be accomplished with watercolor in the engrossing business— shading, designing, filling of letters, washes, all sorts of things! I’m personally not big on painting flowers and landscapes and stuff, but I could see how investing in some classes on the subject could be very profitable as well.
To get the full value out of breaking into watercolor as it pertains to calligraphy, you’re going to want to get a couple different brushes. That’s a topic for a different post. There’s one brush that I’ve found is more versatile than almost any other:
There are plenty of folks that will tell you to pick up a 00 and a 000, but to be honest, the size 0 brush handles just as well, in my opinion. I find myself in very few situations where I need a 00, and I’ve only ever used my 000 once.
You might find it interesting to know that the Kolinsky brushes are actually made with hairs from the tail of a kolinsky, which is a small (very cute) weasel found in Siberia. In 2013, the importation of kolinsky brushes was halted by the US Fish and Wildlife Services (FWS) because this weasel is included in the CITES agreement. The powers that be have figured out that the production of these brushes don’t actually endanger the kolinksy population, and as a result you can get them at most fine-art stores in the US or online.
Cost: ~$15/brush | Source: Local fine-art store or Amazon
A lead holder and rotary sharpener
I grew up with a dad who has always had interesting whatchamacallits and thingamabobs tucked away in the drawers of his workshop. As I got older, I became interested in how these things worked and started to ask more questions about where they came from and what they were for. Dad has always been excited to talk about them with me, and as we’ve both gotten older he has started ‘saving’ them for me whenever he comes across them.
When I told my dad that I wanted to be an artist, it was in the context of my applying for a graphic design program in Tucson, Arizona. We had a talk about how designing is a lot like engineering, and he pulled out this blue cylinder with a hole in the top.
“Do you know what this is?” he posed, mischievously. (He knew I didn’t.) “It’s for sharpening lead for a lead holder. Saves you making all of those darn pencil shavings. Kinda neat, huh?”
Up to this point, I had only ever used mechanical pencils like the kind that the popular kids always seemed to have in school. The kind where you can click the eraser down and pull the lead all the way out and push it back in over and over until the bell for third period ends. I had no idea that there were nice lead-holders that held those big chunky leads I’d seen in the art store.
It turns out…they’re amazing. You can buy different hardnesses and colors of lead, the holder tends to be a bit heavier (which I love), and by using a rotary sharpener, you will have sharper lines than you’d ever get with a traditional wooden pencil.
The only downside to this is that a couple years ago I bought a big cup full of cool old branded copy pencils and now I don’t ever use them…decluttering the studio could be another essay all on its own.
Cost: Free (dad found in a box at an auction that cost him ~$5. I see this around $5-15 regularly) | Source: Gift from Pops.
An ‘Ink Eraser’ knife
It was day two of a project I had labored over for at least six hours. The sun was high in the window frame and the temperature unseasonably warm. I got a call from Michael Gebhart who just wanted to chat about penmanship on his drive. My focus dividing subsequently into multiple directions….
The brush I use to flood outlines in one hand and my filling brush in another, I draped myself delicately above the artwork. Michael asked a question about Ink Tank. A bead of sweat ran down my temple. The word ‘discomfort’ formed from mist at the front of my mind.
As I sat back into my chair, a pile of fresh black ink waiting patiently to dehydrate on the page, my hand lifted from the table, carrying along with it the guard sheet I use to protect my artwork from oils. Disastrous.
With just enough tack to lift the paper into the air, the bond between my skin and that sheet broke. Like an iceberg calving off into the North Sea, the paper fell gently onto the wet ink I had meticulously placed just moments before—obscuring from view the wound to my artwork that I knew was there.
In situations like this, it’s almost always best to wait for a few moments before taking action. There are very few technical errors in meticulous engrossing that I’ve found can be corrected immediately. Most of the time, attempting to remedy wet ink only makes things worse.
I’ll admit, I let out a few choice words and Michael sat very patiently on the phone and listened to my full cycle of emotions. Once things had calmed down, I came up with two directions:
- I could work the smear in as a feature, by designing around it and ultimately covering it up with some kind of fill.
- I could bust out my trusty ink eraser knife paired with my fold-out magnifier and begin shaving back the ink to reveal fresh paper underneath.
After a few minutes of cooling down, I began my work on option #2, and in about 35 minutes I had the paper cut back, burnished, and retextured as best as I could. The results in broad daylight nearly indistinguishable.
I’m always blown away by this little knife. I’ve sharpened it on a diamond card a few times but the day I picked it up off the shelf at a shop in Southeast Portland and asked the proprietor what it was it was already sharp as sin. I’ll chalk that up to good steel and delicate handling. Either way, definitely keep an eye out for one of these. Mine is from the Civil War!
Cost: $9.50 | Source: Vintage shop in Portland, Oregon
Being a professional calligrapher isn’t just about the tools, is it?
I didn’t want to write this article to encourage people to go out and shop for things to make them into better calligraphers. In fact, I’ve always been really resistant to working on these types of essays because I know the power of compiling a list like this. If you took the time to listen to the most recent episode of Ink Tank, you’ll know that this has (historically) been a problem in the calligraphy community.
No tool is going to be able to replace sitting down at your desk and cranking out projects. The periods of my practice where I have grown the most have been intimately connected to prolific activity on paper. You really don’t need any of the items above (except maybe the magnifying glass. Protect your eyes!), but I’ve been enjoying having them on my journey with me, and I think you might as well.