My Favorite Japanese Pen Nibs and Some Starter Tips

August 30, 2010

The post provides info on dip pen nibs I like to use.

040115GerberPen Left: one of my first tests using the Japanese Nibs in 2004. I immediately fell in love with them and ditched all the other nibs I’d been using. (8 x 8 inch approx., handmade journal; with OLD Folio which was the best paper for using dip pen on, and it makes me sad to even talk about it, let’s just not even go there, “there are not perfect papers Roz, there are no perfect papers….”)

Today, Wet Paint is doing my job for me. People are always asking me what type of pen nibs I use and since the packaging the nibs come in is mostly printed with Japanese (and no English translation) I realized I’d have to get them all out and take photos and then go to Wet Paint (where I buy them) and find out what they are called and then write a mega post. Whew, I’m exhausted just thinking about it.

Well I happened to be poking around the Wet Paint site (I know it’s not the easiest or most intuitive to get around and the search engine doesn’t always yield obvious or even desired results, but they are working on it so just call them if you can’t find something!) and I found the downloadable PDF: Know Your Japanese Nibs.

If you click on that link you should get a note from Adobe Acrobat that it’s going to download and open a PDF—at least that’s the way it worked when I tested it.

If the link doesn’t work that way for you then go to Wet Paint’s home page and enter JAPANESE NIBS in the search engine feature that is at the top of the left-hand column. (Don’t search for something else because I did several searches and this is the only one that worked for me.) At the top of the search list that you’re given you should find “Japanese Nibs Fact Sheet.” If you click on that it will also get you to the downloadable PDF “Know Your Japanese Nibs.”

Why bother?

Well because you’ll have photos of the nibs I talk about using right in front of you with notes on the types of lines they make, how they “feel” and of course the names. Now you’ll know exactly what to ask for when you go in!

I use all of the Manga nibs. I like the G-School, Saji-Chrome, and Nihon-Moji for most sketching. I’m also rather fond of the Maru. There are slight differences between brands, but unless you’re a real pen nut the differences between brands on the same nib style probably aren’t going to mean a whole lot to you—some days I have to confess, the differences I notice relate more to my chocolate intake than the pen nib’s metal strength and spring. Also some brands aren’t being carried at Wet Paint right now, and I don’t remember which ones, so you probably can’t just try a pack of each brand of a type. If you’re a pen nib nut you’ll find a way to do this on your own so I’m not worried about you.

I haven’t tried any of their Calligraphy nibs. I rarely do calligraphy and have enough English and American (and maybe German?) nibs to last me quite awhile.

Be sure to pick up a Tachikawa Dual Pen holder—these are the best pen nib holders I’ve ever used. I have a relatively small hand and those Speedball holders and such always seemed awkward in my hands. I’ve been in heaven since I got the Tachikawa holders.

Some thoughts on using dip pens…

I used to do all sorts of odd things to my nibs, before using a nib for the first time, based on what artists I knew told me to do (this was all when I was young and I wanted to learn all the “secrets”). Since taking up residence with an engineer I’ve learned that most of the things I did with my nibs (anything involving heat for instance) probably ruined them. I’ve swung way to the other side now and sometimes in a rush I can be caught (if there is a surveillance camera handy) using a new nib right out of the package. Also not a good thing, because there is a bit of oil on them to keep them from rusting before they are purchased. And that will also keep the ink from flowing nicely. So don’t do that either.

Some folks advocate putting a new nib in your mouth for a few minutes. I’ll never do that, believe me. I mean I work alone, imagine what would happen if a hawk swept down into the yard and snatched up my favorite squirrel (Arthur, this season) just when I put a new nib in my mouth. I’d probably start to gasp, the nib would travel into my throat, and then I’d start to thrash around, fail at a self-administered Heimlich maneuver, and by the time Dick got home to discover me too late, it would look like a scene from “Final Destination.” No thanks.

I simply run the nib under warm water and pinch it in a towel, pulling towards the point, with enough pressure to rub the nib but not enough to bend it. This always works for me. You could use a rubbing alcohol wipe instead, because the alcohol will cut the oil, and the wipe will mean less mess than using a bottle of rubbing alcohol.

I decant a small amount of ink into the thimble-sized plastic tops that are “safety lids” covering the nipple spout of bottled water. I use acrylic inks (FW and Ziller) and I don’t want them to be exposed to air (because the ink coagulates and doesn’t flow evenly then) so by using only a little bit at a time I don’t have to leave the bottle open, can’t spill more than I decant (and believe me I have spilt some ink in my day), and I can’t over dip the pen nib because the “bottle cap” is not very deep and I only have it about half full. Also I can pick up this thimble of ink and hold it while I’m working so I don’t have to reach for ink. I used a glue gun to attach one such “cap” to the end of a 12-inch long and 2-inch wide piece of mat board. When I want to use a dip pen in the field I can fill the “cap” on the end of this mat board and insert the board strip into my journal before or after the spread I’m working on. This allows me to keep working while standing, with no need to have any resting spot for my ink bottle.

I dip my pen nib in enough ink in the “cap” described above, to just start to cover the hole in the nib, what I would describe as half way. I always test on a scrap when I first fill a nib because things might not be moving smoothly yet.

If you are using acrylic inks as I do, be sure to wipe your nib clean as soon as you are finished using it because the ink will dry on the nib, waterproof, and you’ll have to scratch it off. A second of cleaning now will save you effort later.

As you work with dip pens you’ll find the nibs that seem right for you and the pressure you like to use and the line quality you want. It’s very individual. Don’t try just one nib and settle on it or give up—try several, on different papers.

I prefer to use heavily sized papers and smoother papers for dip pen work. But some of the soft printmaking papers allow you to dig into the paper and there’s something to be said for the fun of that. In general, textured papers or papers with almost flyaway fibers are going to be more difficult to work on because the fibers will clog the nib and the texture will catch it. If you love a paper you’ll find a way to work around its “limitations,” perhaps simply by slowing down.

When I discovered the Japanese pens early in 2004 I loved them so much that I began using dip pens with more regularity than even in teen-hood (when dip pens were all I wanted to use). I started a Dip Pen Gallery on my website where I keep selections from some of my journals, but after a while I stopped updating that gallery because I was simply putting the dip pen pieces where they fell chronologically. If you just want to see a few examples the Dip Pen Gallery is the easiest way to find some.

Personally I believe the best way to learn to use a dip pen is to watch someone work with one. I imagine a search of Vimeo and YouTube will show some likely candidates if you don’t live near a teacher. I could write on and on about angle of attack and direction and how to intentionally splay your nib to splatter the heck out of everything, but I’m supposed to have today off from the blog right? And you would just think I’m crazy—actually dip pens make me crazy in the best of ways. But you’d be better off reading a book on calligraphy than listening to my craziness.

Give dip pen nibs a try. They will make you a little crazy in the best of ways too.

Note: I’m not a calligrapher and I don’t make a habit of picking up books on calligraphy, but I did write a review on Lisa Engelbrecht’s book in 2008. You might enjoy starting there at my link.

Note 2: I’ll see if later in the year I can’t convince artist Ken Avidor, who loves working with a dip pen, to let me video tape him using one. And I’ll get someone to tape me. It’s on my to-do list.

    • Desmene
    • August 30, 2010

    OK… your tip about the plastic water bottle caps for ink holders is genius.

    • Carolyn
    • August 31, 2010

    I’m back. Love your dip pen gallery. As to the mysterious disappearing of the Midnight bar…happens ALL the time in this neighborhood but I haven’t thought to sketch it as proof it existed. As to your tip about bottle cap dipping, and your sketchbook invention…this excites me to no end. I’m ready for the day, thrilled with new nuggets of insight. Love your blog.

  1. Reply

    Carolyn, yep, it’s “Nature red in tooth and claw” here that’s for sure! So glad the tips are helpful and that you’re going to get out those dip pens!!!

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