Using Steel Pens: Part 5 – Pen Prep and Bits and Pieces

For the final installment of Using Steel Pens, I’ll address a few things not covered under the other entries. The first one is one is a key activity you need to do before you use your new steel pen.

Steel Pen Prep

Traditionally, steel pens were given a coating to help prevent rust. This coating was often shellac based, and the coating also prevented ink from flowing well down the pen. Before you use a “new” pen you must prepare it. Discussions on how to prepare a nib properly sometimes lead to religious wars. You’ll find advocates and opponents of some of these, but they’re all time-tested.

  1. Toothpaste and Toothbrush: this is a newer technique where you use standard paste toothpaste and a soft brush. Basically, you just scrub the nib with the toothpaste, rinse well and dry thoroughly.
  2. Alcohol: If the coating is really shellac based then alcohol is the solvent for shellac. I’ve seen suggestions of vodka, but that’s just a waste of good vodka. (or even bad vodka) Regular isopropyl or any medicinal alcohol will work. Wipe vigorously and dry off well (because even strong alcohol often has some water in it). This is a mild process which doesn’t work with every nib, and often needs a bit of rubbing.
  3. Saliva: This is an old technique that was especially popular with students. You stick the nib in your mouth and suck on it for a while. I’m not sure how this deals with the shellac, but the proteins in your saliva do leave a coating that works quite well to allow the ink to flow. I did this for a little bit until I learned about some of the metals they used in vintage pens as a first coating on the bare steel, including mercury, silver, aluminum, etc… I abandoned this technique after that.
  4. Potato: Yes, a potato. This is one that had been passed around as rather odd and often questioned, but then I found a reference from 1882 (below) that talks about this as a standard practice in Germany. I’ve since found out that several professional calligraphers swear by their potatoes, especially if you have an already prepped nib that needs a retouching. It seems that raw or cooked both work. potato
  5. The last line mentions the last technique I will talk about, Fire: This is probably the most controversial technique. What it entails is using a flame to burn off the coating while not damaging the pen in the process. There is a lot of justifiable fear of this technique as fire and delicate, thin pieces of steel do not necessarily go together. The risk comes how steel is prepared to be a pen. The steel in the pen needs to be strong enough to spring back when bent, but soft enough to actually bend and flex without being brittle. What you don’t want to do is change the nature of the steel while burning off the coating. There is a way to do this safely. The advantages are that this is fast and very effective. You can also easily do this while on the go, like in a coffee shop. The risk is damaging a valuable nib. Should you decide to try, here’s how you can safely prep a nib with fire.

The main thing is that you want to heat up the nib enough to soften the coating, but not enough to damage the steel’s temper. The way to do this is to keep the flame focused on the center of the body of the nib, where the steel is thickest, and away from the tip, where it’s thinnest.

First, put the nib in a holder (you don’t want to be holding in your fingers while getting it hot). Next, using a common lighter, move the pen over the flame, keeping to the center and away from the tip. Hold the nib over the flame for the count of “one-one-thousand”, move it off for the same amount of time. Move the pen over the flame again for the same way, then taking a tissue, napkin, paper towel, cloth, wipe the underside of the pen. The quick heating should have softened the coating, and the wiping should remove it. If the ink still doesn’t flow right, try it again.

Particularly thick pens can tolerate more heat, very fine and delicate nibs need more care. If you follow these steps, and be careful, you can use fire to prep your pens.

As you use your pens, should you get oils from your fingers on the underside of the nib you may find your ink not flowing like it should. If this is the case then you may have to do a minor version of your prep, like sticking it in a potato, pass over a quick flame and wipe. Or, sometimes, just dipping the pen in an iron gall ink and wiping it off will solve the problem.

Ink Wells / Ink Bottles / Ink Pots

So, you’ve got some cool inks. You’ve mixed up your walnut ink, found some fountain pen inks that work, you may have even mixed up some Gouache. Where do you put it?

The key criteria for an effective ink container include: the right depth, the right width, good sealing to prevent or at least slow evaporation.

With steel pens you need the ink to be deep enough to be able to dip the nib at least half-way into the ink, which can be quite a way for longer nibs. It’s even better if you can dip it all the way, but choose not to. You also don’t want to have to constantly refill the ink well in order be able to use it.

If you have something deep enough, you now need to make sure the opening is wide enough. If you use a straight pen you need to make sure the opening is wide enough that you don’t get ink on the holder as you dip the pen into the ink. But width plays the greatest role when you are using an oblique holder or oblique nib.

The pen in an oblique holder sticks out even further than from a straight holder. You need a wider mouth when using an oblique holder. It’s as simple as that.

So, you’ve found something wide enough for your oblique pen, deep enough to fit your long Falcon, now let’s talk about evaporation.

In the old days, when everyone wrote with dip pens, in schools and offices where people wrote all day long, it was someone’s job to refill ink wells pretty much every day. They would top off ink wells to account for use and evaporation. Part of this was because older ink wells were not terribly air-tight. This is the problem with old, especially flip-top inkwells. They may look really cool, but unless you’re using up an inkwell worth of ink on a regular basis, you may want to just use this for decoration and get yourself something that seals well.

Old ink bottles in which they sold ink can work, but not all were wide enough. Even something like an old Sheaffer Skrip ink bottle with the little filler cavity at the top, can work but doesn’t work for longer nibs.

After trying a bunch of different options, I’ve ended up using only Jumbo Dinky Dips. These are small, clear plastic, screw-on jars. John Neal Books, among others, sells them along with wooden bases into which they fit very snugly. I use a four-jar one at my desk. The wooden base keeps the jars level and stable, with never a problem of tipping over.


For my portable ink needs, I have an airtight lunch container into which I can put eight dinky dips. I then carry a separate single-hole wooden base. This works beautifully for me. I never have to worry about tipping an ink bottle over on one of those wobbly cafe tables. And I can fill up the extra space with a couple of small napkins for wiping down my nibs after use.


Pen Cleanliness

This is actually a very simple topic. Keep your nibs clean. Period. There you go.

Sumi ink and some calligraphy ink may require a more intensive cleaning regimen, perhaps with alcohol (often sumi inks use shellac in their formulation). Iron Gall, walnut and fountain pen inks just require a good wiping off. You can dip them in water before wiping, especially if you tend to leave ink on your nib until it dries off, but I’ve never found that to be essential.

Of course, I’m rather on the obsessive side and I wipe off my pen if I stop writing for any length of time. One reason is that I don’t have a pen rest, so just setting my pen down will inevitably result in it rolling somewhere and getting ink where I don’t want it. The other reason is that wiping off my nib right away gets me in the habit so I never leave ink on my nib to dry. It doesn’t happen. As a result, my nibs last quite long. I don’t have scientific measurements to prove that this lengthens the life of my pens, but they do seem to last longer than anecdotal accounts from others.

All I know is that I keep my nibs wiped, I don’t have ink all over my desk (or lap), and my pens seem to last pretty well even though I use iron gall ink regularly. So, there you go. Keep your pens clean and your pens will take care of you.


Topics in the “Using Steel Pens” series of posts:

Using Steel Pens: Part 4 – Ink and Paper

There are three elements of any writing experience.

  1. Pen
  2. Paper
  3. Ink

We’ve covered your pen and holder, but I would be remiss without addressing the issues of ink and paper. I’m covering both together because it’s the combination of ink and paper that can spell the difference between success and failure. Finding the right combination requires some experimentation, and can differ depending on the type of writing you do. But there are some basics we can cover, and I’ll let you know what I use.

Steel pens, unlike fountain pens, can use a wide variety of inks. It merely has to be liquid, and have the ability to flow. Everyone has favorites and opinions about different inks. There are some solid facts and some traps to avoid that may help you as you explore the wonderful world of ink and paper.


Let’s start by looking at a few of the most common types of ink.

Inks for Dip Pens

There are a number of manufacturers who make inks designed and marketed for dip pens, mainly for calligraphy. Some, like Higgins and Hunt, have been around for a very long time. Others, like McCaffery’s are a recent addition to the world of ink.

These inks are generally either a pigment based ink, like india ink, with some binders and pigment, or what are known as iron gall or IG inks. These may have some pigment in them, but mainly the ink gets its tint from a reaction with the paper. This can make these inks quite permanent and water and light resistant.

These kinds of inks should, if they’re behaving well, give you thin hairlines and deep, rich color.

One of my favorites, especially for daily practice because it is so cheap, is walnut ink. You can purchase walnut ink in either dried crystal form, or in pre-mixed liquid form. I prefer the dried form because it is significantly cheaper, lasts for a very long time in crystal form, and is very easy to mix up. All you need to do is add the right amount of crystals to water, shake it up, let it sit for about 20 minutes and you have ink. Some people add gum arabic (see below) to it to thicken it a bit, but I’ve never felt the need. Perhaps with some papers you might need it but not with the ones I use.

Some say you can also buy Van Dyke crystals used in woodworking, and they work the same. I’ve not tried them, but if you can find them, a “small” bag is very inexpensive and should last you the rest of your life.

Sumi or brush painting ink

In traditional Chinese/Japanese/Korean brush painting you would make your ink by grinding an ink stick on a stone with some water. The ink sticks were traditionally made by combining carbon, usually in the form of soot from burnt pine or other wood, along with various binders like shellac. These were pressed into a stick, and as this was ground and added to water would make an ink that is very water and light resistant.

Modern brush painting ink often comes pre-ground, in liquid form, in bottles. This ink is extremely dark black and quite permanent. Some of these inks, though, can be troublesome. There are reports of some sumi inks corroding nibs quickly. This ink can also clog a nib very easily if not carefully cleaned after each session. These also do not come in many colors, usually black and maybe red. Moon Palace is one brand I hear mentioned frequently as a favorite.

Gouache or Water Colors

Gouache is a water color paint, usually sold in a tube, with some inert, opaque element added to it, like chalk. It is more opaque than traditional water colors and can come in a lot of colors.

Gouache can work quite well with dip pens. You’ll need to experiment with how much water to add to it in order to get it to the consistency you need. You’ll also want to mix it up in small batches. There are some reports of batches that sit around for a while developing mold.

Gouache is great for when you need colors which aren’t available in regular inks. It’s not cheap, so it doesn’t make much financial sense to use it for everyday practice, but when you need that splash of color, it’s a fantastic alternative to regular inks.

One trick for working with Gouache is that it sometimes works best to apply it to your pen with a small brush, rather than dipping it. This takes more time, but you get better control on how much ink is loaded on your pen, and since gouache is usually thicker than regular inks, it makes it easier to work with.

Water colors which come in tubes, also can be used, but they are more translucent colors, not opaque. This may be the look you want, and if so, watercolors will work quite well and are cheaper than gouache.

Here is where I need to make an honorable mention of the Finetec metallic colors. I’ve personally never tried them, but they have become a major staple among some professional calligraphers, especially if you need a shiny, metallic silver, gold, copper or other similar ink. These are essentially water color paints, but they come in all kinds of gorgeous, shimmery, sparkly colors.

Fountain Pen Ink

Many people become interested in dip pens through their interest in fountain pens. This means that a lot of new steel pen fans have a fair amount of fountain pen ink already. Fountain pen inks also come in a dizzying array of colors.

Fountain pen inks are also, often, relatively cheap and easy to find. The problem we encounter with many fountain pen inks is that they are too wet for use straight out of the bottle. A drip pen puts down a much wetter line of ink than any but the broadest fountain pens. With more ink on the paper, there’s more risk of overloading the paper and causing bleed through (where the ink comes through to the other side of the paper), and/or feathering (where the ink soaks into the paper outside of the line you’ve written, making for a feathery rather than a clean and crisp line). The paper has a lot to do with these issues, but the ink can either help or worsen the problem.

Fountain pens need their inks to be very free flowing. They need to flow through small openings in the feeds to keep the ink flowing to the nib. To help with this many manufacturers add surfactants to their inks. Surfactants are compounds that lower the surface tension of liquids and thus make them easier to flow, less likely to bunch up in a compact water droplet.

The problem with dip pens is that you need more surface tension to keep the ink on the pen, and allow it to flow at a reasonable pace down to the paper. Too much surfactant, i.e. an ink that is too “wet” leads to ink that pours off of the nib and deposits a large blob of ink on the paper rather than a line.

Somewhat ironically, one of the best ways to reduce the “wetness” of an ink is to add water. Water will dilute the amount of surfactant and may make the ink better behaved. Monteverde Burgundy is one such ink I use regularly. I dilute it 1:1, ink to water, and it goes from a mess to a beautifully behaved ink for steel pens.

You can also add gum arabic, in either liquid or powdered form. Gum arabic is a resin from the hardened sap from trees. It is a very old ingredient in inks and is fairly easily found. For each ink you’d have to experiment with how much gum arabic to add. If you add enough it should, eventually, thicken up pretty much any ink.

My favorite fountain pen inks are the Iron Gall inks. I was lucky enough to purchase a large amount of Diamine Registrar’s ink for very inexpensively and that’s lasted me for quite a while. Any of the iron gall inks, like ESSRI or K&H Salix work quite well right out of the bottle. I’ve not tried all fountain pen iron gall inks, but the ones I’ve tried have worked.

I’ve also heard that Pelikan 4001 ink works quite well. I recently purchased a bottle of the 4001 Royal Blue (Konigsblau) and it seems to be well behaved on my normal paper. It bleeds through a little (you can see it clearly on the other side of the paper, but it doesn’t come through enough to actually read it, or to stain something underneath the sheet as I write). I might try diluting it a little bit and see if that helps.


Here are a few examples to show how some random inks I pulled out all written with the same pen on my go-to paper, Southworth 25% cotton premium laser paper.

First is the very nice, and somewhat expensive, fountain pen ink by Pilot, Iroshizuku Asa-Gao. Notice the feathering along the sides of the letters.


the next is Sheaffer Brown, also a fountain pen ink that’s very well-behaved in fountain pens, but even this paper can’t handle it in these quantities.


As you can see in the next one, the Pelikan 4001 is better behaved. In a few places in other letters you can see some feathering, and it definitely bleeds through the page pretty badly.


Now here is some iron gall, Diamine Registrar’s ink. This is much better behaved and you can see the edges are sharper. The color on this ink gets darker the longer it sits. It goes down a kind of blue-black but then darkens to a full black on most paper. This is about 3 hours after writing.


And the last example is my beloved walnut ink. This is made from crystals I purchased from John Neal Books. Notice the clean lines along the side (despite my hurried and rather sloppy writing).




There are two prime characteristics you need in paper for steel pens, especially pointed pens.

  1. Smoothness
  2. Finish

Smoothness refers to how easily a pointed pen will pick up fibers from the paper. When writing with a pointed pen, you already have to have a very light hand, especially when moving upwards. It helps to have a paper that isn’t going to be hanging out fibers and other texture to catch that sharp tip as it moves across the surface.

Finish refers to how the paper was finished, what kind of sizing, etc… is found on it. This affects the smoothness, to some degree, but it also, mainly, affects the absorption of the ink.

You want a paper that will absorb the ink, but will keep it within the boundaries of the line you are intending. The wrong kind of paper results in bleeding and feathering. Too much ink is sucked in by the paper and it feathers our from the drawn line, or it bleeds through to the other side. This results in a fuzzy line, and, in extreme cases, stains  as the ink goes through the other side. (see examples above)

Paper weight has some impact, but it’s not the full picture. Some thicker paper that works very well for fountain pens, will get easily overloaded by a dip pen.

And then there’s Tomoe River paper. This is a miracle paper from Japan that is incredibly thin and light, but you can throw practically any ink and pen combination and it will not feather or bleed. It’s main issue is that because the ink sits so on top of the paper, some inks have difficulty drying fully, and even when you think it is dry, you can still smear the dried ink with a stray finger. I also find it difficult to keep down on the surface as I write, especially with flexible pointed pens. I have to tape it down in order for it not to lift up with every stroke.

The paper I use on a regular basis includes:

Southworth 25% cotton premium laser paper. (white for practice, ivory for letters)

Black n’ Red notebooks for practice and especially convenient for practicing in coffee shops

Southworth 100% cotton 32lb business paper works fantastic for broad edge calligraphy and for stub nib letter writing. It’s a little difficult with sharp pointed pens, too much cotton, but it’s really absorbent and tolerant of more inks with the right pen. It’s a heavy-weight, luxurious paper with a great feel.

Rhodia and Clairfontain are great, and Strathmore makes my favorite letter writing tablet.

There are a lot of other great papers, but these are the ones I use most.


It’s good to listen to the advice and suggestions of others, but in the end, you’ll have to find the right pen, ink and paper combination that fits your writing, your style and your budget. But this experimentation is half the fun. Enjoy!


Topics in the “Using Steel Pens” series of posts:


Using Steel Pens: Part 3 – Holding your pen

The earliest steel pens were what are called Barrel Pens. Basically, a sheet of steel was bent into a tube, the seam where the two sides came together served as the slit, and the rest was filed away to form the shape of a pen.

Some of these early metallic pens were mounted permanently on a handle, in other words, when the pen was worn out, you threw the whole thing away. In the very earliest time some stationers offered pen repair services, like you used to do for quills. (quills would need to be re-cut into the proper shape pretty frequently, and it was a somewhat specialized skill, but that’s for another post)

One of the main improvements in the very early years what the invention of the slip pen, what we think of today as the dip pen nib. This is smaller, cheaper to make (less steel), and easy to change. You can use it in different kinds of holders to fit your hand and writing style. (as well as your fashion sense should you wish)

The holder is a fairly simple piece of equipment. It’s basically a stick with some way of holding your nib on one end. (or both ends, in some cases)  They can be made of all kinds of material, but wood was the most common. they can be plain or they can be fancy. But they basically come down to two shapes: straight and oblique.


The picture above shows a selection of different holders made in different materials. The one on the top is an oblique holder. It’s so-called because it holds the pen at an oblique angle, while the straight holders hold the pens straight out. See, I told you they weren’t complicated.

The oblique holder is mainly used for decorative writing. What that funny angle does is it keeps the pen pointed at the proper angle to the line of writing and, when held properly, with the proper orientation of the paper, keeps both tines of the pen down on the paper spreading evenly. This gives you not only a nicer line (both sides are smooth, no jagged edges from one tine dragging more than the other), but also helps keep those delicate decorative writing nibs from springing the tines. (Springing is when the tines of a pen don’t come back together like they should, either from being spread so far they strain the metal, or they get crossed enough from poor pen positioning they don’t come back properly)

Over the years when steel pens were the main form of writing, the vast majority of holders sold were straight. The advantages of holding a pen at an oblique angle were recognized pretty early. I’m not sure when the first oblique holder was invented, but according to the Saturday Magazine in 1838, the first oblique pen, a type of steel pen where the whole nib is in a zig-zag shape and the top points off at an oblique angle to the heel, was invented by Morden and Brockeden in 1831.


The oblique holder keeps that position better, and in skilled hands, can be tweaked and adjusted to fit small nibs, big nibs, and even the angle can be changed with just changing the brass flange that holds the nib.

The downside of an oblique holder is that you’re generally limited to shorter nibs. Ideally, the tip should not extend past the center axes of the holder itself. A straight holder can use pretty much any nib that fits in the end.

That said, there are always exceptions. There are even master penmen who use straight holders with tremendous skill for decorative writing.

For straight holders, the main thing to consider is comfort and/or style. Some people like thinner holders. A lot of early holders where thin, like the one second-from-bottom in the image above. These were much closer to the size of quills which people were used to.

All holders, regardless of the material, need some way to hold the nib. There are cheap plastic holders which just have a circular slit molded into the tip and hopefully your nib’s heel is the same basic arc as the slit. Most holders, though, fall into two main categories, the inner spring tip, and the slip fit tip.

holders tip

On the left is the inner-spring tip. These are most common today, and you can even buy the tips by themselves and make your own stick. (both the top and bottom holders are modern, turned examples) With the inner spring you see the four (sometimes three in older versions) steel flanges. The pen slips in between the flanges and the inner wall of the steel insert. There’s no single way to position your pen, but I tend to prefer to have the heel of the nib straddle one of the gaps between the flanges as you see in the picture.

The second type, seen on the right, is what I call a slip fit. In this case there are just two flanges and a projecting outer case. The nib slips between these flanges, which act as springs to hold the nib tightly against the outer casing.

There are other types of holding mechanisms out there, but most are pretty obvious, and usually only found on older holders.

For really large nibs you may need to look for a special holder. The Esterbrook Mammoth Falcon is one great example of a pen which doesn’t fit normal holders. Esterbrook made a special holder just for it, and others also made larger holders that can hold one, but they are few and hard to find.

When buying a vintage holder, the key thing is this holding mechanism. The main thing you want to look for is rust. If there’s rust, pass it by. Otherwise, it’s just a stick, and there are only so many things that can be wrong with a stick.

And that brings us to the one and only piece of advice for these holders.

Don’t get the end wet!

When you dip your pens, dip them no more than half-way up the body of the nib. Try very, very hard not to dip them up to the rustable part of the holder. If you have a modern holder you like and that rusts, you can most likely buy a replacement end insert. If it’s a vintage holder with some other kind of insert, or a special size one, then you have a bit of trouble on your hands.

Fortunately, there are cheap holders out there that work as well as super-expensive ones. Look for ones that are fun, like the small celluloid pen with the enameled copper insert in the middle of the picture above. Or you can try for the funky ergonomic pens people are carving these days. This is where you can express your taste and style (or lack thereof) and show off to the world, or even just yourself.


Topics in the “Using Steel Pens” series of posts:

Using Steel Pens: Part 2 – Choosing the Right Pen

Let’s start with the core of the dip pen system: the pen or nib.

The Right Pen

Choosing the right steel pen out of the thousands of different variations made over the last 180 years can be simple, or can be an opportunity for exploration.

You must first start with your intended use. There are three main uses I’ll cover. If you can think of others, let me know in comments.

General writing.

For about 80 years you had two main choices for writing things down: pencils and dip pens. Pencils are their own sub-world, one which has grown in interest lately, but one which I will set aside for the moment.

For most people, when they needed to write a letter for pleasure or business, when they needed to record an entry in a store’s ledger, write out an order on a bill head, record a marriage, birth or death, or any number of a thousand things people write on a daily basis, they would have reached for one of a thousand different styles of standard, daily-writing steel pen.

These daily writing pens come in many styles, sizes and degrees of firmness. But generally, they are easy to write with, which means not too sharp nor too flexible, will hold a decent amount of ink and will be fairly durable.

The vast majority of vintage pens you encounter will fall into this category. The 048 Falcon, already mentioned in an earlier post, was one of the quintessential examples of an every-day pen. Esterbrook’s 788 spoon pen was another popular style. Some of my other favorites include the Eagle E840 Modern Writing, or one of the smaller stub pens, like the Esterbrook 239 Chancellor or the Hunt 62 Vassar (or x-62, the silverine version of the 62).

Any of these pens work wonderfully for writing letters, paying bills, writing in a diary, or whenever you need to just write something down without fanfare or flourish.

I am not aware of any modern steel pens being made with this purpose in mind. All of the modern nibs currently being made that I’m familiar with are geared towards one of the other two uses: decorative writing, or drawing. Of course, I’m willing to be corrected.

Many are aware of what decorative calligraphy looks like, but few have seen examples of every-day kind of writing. Here are two examples: the one on the left was written with a small stub (a Hunt X-62), and the one on the right is with a pointed pen (Eagle E840 Modern Writing).

flex vs stub

Decorative Writing

Also known as Calligraphy, this form of writing is more specialized with its own criteria for a good pen, depending on the style.

Traditionally, pointed pen calligraphy fell into a couple of camps with Copperplate or Engrosser’s script and Spencerian as the two most widely-known types, each with multiple variations.

To see some wonderful examples, there are a lot of older sample books out there for perusal. One example is the Portfolio of Ornamental Penmanship on the Internet Archive.

Portfolio of Ornate Penmanship-24

Pens used for decorative writing generally have a much greater range of flex and tend to be softer (easier to flex) than general writing pens. They are also often very sharp to make very fine hairlines (the thinnest part of a line). This can make them very difficult to manage for beginners. It is often better to start out with a slightly stiffer, less sharp pen, like one of any number of modern nibs like the Zebra G.

Some vintage general writing pens can be used for decorative writing if you are writing small, and the pen is particularly flexible, like the Esterbrook 453 Business and College pen.

TIP: Generally, any vintage pen marked “College” will be relatively flexible and able to make a decent flexed line. Most US and many European nibs marked “EF” will also make thin lines with some decent flex.

Because there are many people who still use steel pens for decorative writing, there are a lot of resources out there that talk about good pens for this use, like the IAMPETH’s article on “A Look at Fine and Flexible Nibs.”

Pointed pen calligraphy has also seen a surge in interest with the rise in so-called Modern Calligraphy and the spread of Pinterest. (A good source for information on the modern style is Postman’s Knock.) Modern decorative writing will often use the same kinds of pens as the more traditional forms, with perhaps a bit more tolerance of thicker hairlines, depending on the style.


Pen and ink drawing and sketching go back further than steel pens, but since their advent, many artists have discovered the ability of these tools to deliver clear lines, line modulation (thick and thin) in the same stroke as well as durability.

Cartoonists, especially, have been drawn to the steel pen. There’s the famous story of Charles Schultz, the creator of the comic strip Peanuts. He would only use the Esterbrook 914 to draw all of his strips. The 914 is just the Radio Pen version of the #14 Bank pen. (Esterbrook’s Radio pens have nothing to do with the invention of Marconi, but “Radio” refers the silvery coating added to the nibs that supposedly helps prevent corrosion).

The story goes that when Esterbrook announced it was going to stop making these nibs in the early 1950’s, Schultz went out and bought every box he could find. As a result of these stories, these pens can bring a premium price, while the even better quality early #14’s go for regular prices. (look for one with “R. Esterbrook & Co’s” as the imprint, and at least avoid the ones with Made in USA on them, they’re later ones and generally not quite as flexible)

Many modern nibs are made for comics/manga artists. These nibs, like the Zebra G, the Tachikawa G and others, are made in Japan and marketed directly at manga artists, but they can be quite good nibs for writing as well.

Some of the smaller vintage nibs are also explicitly labeled as Artist (like the Hunt 100), Drafting, or Mapping pens. Mapping pens tend to be extremely sharp, very fine and delicate pens. The 354 and 355 Art & Drafting pens by Esterbrook are two examples of these kinds of pens. Some people do use these pens for very small calligraphy, but the tines are so small that while they are soft, and flex easily, they cannot flex far, so the shading is minimal. My late father-in-law, a geological engineer used 355’s for drawing his maps.


The experts at decorative writing all say to start with a beginner type of nib and get comfortable with it and familiar with the motion of flexed writing. You can then move “up” to more difficult pens (usually sharper and softer with more flex) as your control gets better.

If you’re just interested in general writing, or you want to see if you like drawing with steel pens, then my recommendation is to get a selection of pens and try out a bunch until you find what seems to work for you. Fortunately, these types of vintage pens tend to be the least expensive, at least compared to the high-end calligraphy pens. (you can get a box of Esterbrook Falcons for the cost of one Gillott Principality, or 5 Spencerian #1’s)

But of course, a pen without a holder won’t do you much good, so the next installment of this series will look at the next essential tool for using steel pens.


Topics in the “Using Steel Pens” series of posts:

Using Steel Pens: Part 1 – Basic Supplies

Never let it be said that The Steel Pen Blog is a source of theoretical or historical information only. I have been asked many times for basic information useful for those interested in using new or vintage steel pens for writing, calligraphy or drawing. I decided that it might be useful to put all of the advice I give, good, bad or ugly, into one place.

Regardless of your use of the pens, there are some basic things you will need to have and to do in order for you to be successful and avoid either the over-buying or frustration that leads so many to abandon these pens before they’ve really begun.

In this post I will introduce the basic supplies. I will then cover each of them in more detail in subsequent posts. I’ll gather these altogether under the category “Using Steel Pens” which will be found in the main navigation of the blog for easy reference.

Basic Supplies

  1. A steel pen. This seems obvious, but it’s not always as straightforward as it seems. There are many types, there are new ones and vintage pens, pointed or broad, that go into deciding what to get and where to begin. This is definitely a full post by itself.
  2. A holder. Steel pens need to be held in a holder. The two primary categories of holders are straight and oblique. Holders can be extremely basic, or extremely fancy, cheap or shockingly expensive and everything in between. I’ll cover holders in a separate post.
  3. Ink and ink pot. The experience of writing with steel pens is a combination of the pen, the ink, and the paper. Getting each right will make the difference between fun and failure. We’ll discuss inks in their own post.
  4. Paper. The right paper is critical. Cheap, or at least the wrong paper, can spell disaster for writing with these pens. Dip pens lay down a much fuller line of ink than even fountain pens so the paper needs to be able to handle a lot of ink. Steel pens are also often sharp and so will pick up fibers from paper, especially if the paper has trouble with a lot of liquid ink. That gorgeous hand-made paper from a monastery in Tibet made from mulberry fibers crushed by the monks during meditation and embedded with mountain flower blossoms, may look cool, but it is most likely not a good choice for writing with pointed steel pens.


Topics in the “Using Steel Pens” series of posts:

A Note on Grinding

I mentioned in the initial Anatomy of a Pen post that you could have several types of grinds on a pen.

I was just re-reading a source I’ll be talking about in a future post, Steel Pen Trade, by A.A.S. Charles, when I came across a section I hadn’t noticed the first time.

Charles was writing in the 1980’s about his experience from the 30’s onward working in the industry. He knew folks who had made pens in the 19th-century so could speak to the means they used to make pens. But his is a very British viewpoint, so that should be taken into consideration.

Much of the booklet is comprised of his descriptions of how they made pens, step-by-step. When he’s talking about grinding (page 19) he mentions that there are three types of grinds.

  1. Cross ground. This is the grind up near the tip across the axis of the pen.
  2. Straight ground. This is a grinding down the length of the pen, along the axis
  3. Letter ground. This third grinding is a decorative grind. He calls it a letter grind because often when you had an embossed letter pen, like the famous “J” pen with a raised “J” in the embossed area, they would grind off the top finish to better expose the letter and make it stand out from the darker ground.

I’ve seen examples where this third ground is not done on an embossed design, but is instead used to create a highlighted patch of bright steel to contrast with the rest of the pen. One recent example I acquired was a Perry Colonial Pen. Perry was one of the very first, biggest and best of the British pen makers.

In this pen, the grinding is especially well-done. You can see clearly from the first photo below the double grind. There’s the clear cross grind that extends across the axis of the pen, along the slit from the end of the hole forward toward toward the tip. (this grind should not touch the tip because that might make the tip either too fragile, and/or scratchy)  You can also see the lighter color of the straight grind around the hole.


What’s not as clear from that picture, but can be seen in the one below, is the third grind, behind the hole toward the heel. The bright patch of grey steel contrasts nicely with the bronze finish of the rest of the pen.

Perry triple grind_Colonial Pen

And so that you can see a true “letter grind”, here’s an old William Mitchell (British maker) X-Fine “J” pen. The black finish shows off the letter grind particularly well, even if it makes it more difficult to see the other grinds. It also makes it pretty obvious why it was called a “J” pen. They made other letter pens, but the J pens were the most popular.


Basic steel pen anatomy.

There’re not a lot of authoritative documents on terminology, so I figure we should get some basic vocabulary defined up front. That includes the parts to a pen, and how we identify a pen.

Not everyone will agree with all of my terms or definitions. I welcome productive discussion, and suggestions for alternatives.

General terms

Pen: Long before fountain pens, a “pen” was any writing implement. By the 18th-century it was a general term for any writing implement that used ink, and, starting in the 19th-century, it meant what we now call a “nib.” You would write by dipping a pen, held in a holder, into ink. Until very late in the 19th-century, anytime you used the term “pen” you meant just the metal part at the end of the holder. You would buy a box of steel pens or a gold pen to write with, and you would need a holder or “pen case” to hold it.

Nib: Originally (at least by the 17th-century) the nib was the tip of the quill or, later, the pen. What we call the tines were often called the “nib” of the pen. When modern fountain pens began to be made in the mid-late 19th-century, you begin to find “nib”  used to indicate the metal tip of a fountain pen, the “pen” of the fountain pen, as opposed to the body which held the ink. As this usage becomes more common, you can also find an occasional reference to a dip pen as a “nib.” The earlier usage of “nib” to indicate the tip or tines disappears.   By the time dip pens pretty much disappear from regular usage, i.e. the 1950’s, “nib” means the metal part of a fountain pen, and “dip nib” is used to differentiate the ones used in holders from the fountain pen nibs, and “dip pen” commonly refers to the whole dip nib and holder combination. This usage continues today.

Pointed pen: A type of pen that has a pointed tip. Contrast this to a broad-edge pen.

Broad-edge pen: A type of pen where the tip is cut across rather than comes to a point. Broad-edge pens can come in many styles from very fine stubs to broad, sharper points used for decorative writing and engrossing. The edge of a broad-edge pen can be perpendicular to the axis of the pen, or it can be but at an angle, these are called oblique cuts. There is left oblique and right oblique. The easiest way I’ve read to differentiate the two is to think of a left foot and right foot. The toes on your left foot generally slope from lower left to upper right, and vice versa on your right foot. If the oblique nib looks like a left foot then it is a left oblique. If it looks like your right foot, it is a right oblique.

Style: Each pen has a particular style. Most manufacturers made a number of different styles. These styles are differentiated by several factors.

Name: Many styles of pens were given names to help with marketing. Often, names were related to a profession to which the pen was mainly marketed, such as Judges Quill, Bank, or Commercial. Others tried to market a pen to a particular school of penmanship, especially the short-lived fad for Vertical Penmanship. Most every major company, for example, produced a “Vertical” pen in the last decade or so of the 19th-century.

Number: The main way of distinguishing styles, is often by the numbers. It’s not uncommon for a single number to change names over time. Esterbrook is notorious for this.

Shape: Pens come in many shapes. Some shapes have known names, like the Falcon, others do not. Shape is one aspect of a pen’s style. I have a suggested set of standard shape names here.

Finish: Most pens were made of steel, though there are some exceptions which are still counted among steel pens. Over the steel, as a protective measure to reduce corrosion, these pens are given a coating. Sometimes this coating is just a clear shellac, sometimes the pen is given a metallic coating, such as a silver alloy, or gilding. For most pens, when you see another metal associated with them, like aluminum, silver, etc… it refers to the coating, not the main material of the pen. (or has absolutely nothing to do with the actual construction of the pen but is associated with the pen for marketing purposes, see Leon Isaac’s Glucinum Pens) Some of the finishes can give the pen a different color.

Color: One of the last steps in manufacturing steel pens is to heat the pens to give them a specific color. Heating will get you pens which can range from grey to  “white” or different shades of “bronze.” These bronze colors can range from a dark, purple-brown color to a lighter tan. Some colors are a result of a finish. (see above) The most common colors you see from a finish include: silver, gilt and black. Silver comes from a metal alloy, often containing silver, nickle or even mercury. Gilt is a gold coating, which is usually quite thin. Black is also often called a “tar” coating and is most likely a tar-related substance.

Flexibility: Today, especially in these flexible-fountain-pen-mad times, flexibility tends to only be measured in spread. Flexibility is actually comprised of several aspects of a pen. One is how far apart the tines of a pen will be able to spread during normal use (flex), another is the force needed to spread the tines (softness) and the third is how rapidly the tines come back together after spreading (spring). In the old days, it was more complex, and instead of just talking about flexibility, the pen makers often used the term “action.” This involved all aspect of flexibility as well as smoothness of the writing experience.

Tip Modifications: From the very beginning of steel pen manufacturing, it was clear that a pointed pen could be scratchy. Makers tried all kinds of ways to alleviate this problem. There were two main ways of fixing this issue: adjusting the tip so that it doesn’t come to a sharp point, and to create stub nibs.

Turned up tip: One of the two main ways of adjusting the tip is the turned-up tip. In this technique, as the name suggests, the tip is actually turned up slightly so that you are writing with the flatter underside of the tip rather than the sharp end.

Round Point/oval point/bowl point: The other technique was to emboss in the very tip a small, round, indentation. This causes the pen to contact the surface of the paper on this round indent rather than the sharp tip. Another term for this was a Ball Point Pen. I hear this name lives on in some kinds of modern writing instruments.

Parts to a pen:


  1. Tip, or sometimes the point
  2. Axis of the pen. The imaginary line along the pen from tip to heel.
  3. Slit. The cut made at the front of the pen to create the tines. There can also be side slits, which are slits made along the side of the pen to increase flexibility. Side slits can be a simple slit, a t-shaped slit or even a cut-out which removes material.
  4. Tines. The main part of the pen separated by the slit that causes ink to flow and can give shading to writing. Most pointed pens have two tines, but there are some rare pointed pens with three. Laundry pens usually have no slit and therefore only one tine
  5. Central Piercing (formerly known as the “Hole”). This small opening cut into the body of the pen is subject to more confusion and misapplied confidence in naming than any other part of the pen. I’ve seen it called a breather hole, a gravity well, and others. I used to simplify it to just “hole” but I’ve recently decided to call it a “Central Piercing.   First off, it is a piercing of the surface of the pen, as much so as any side piercings. it is also centrally located as it stops the slit, which is (almost) always on-center. (Only the multi-line pens violate this truism). And, by calling it a piercing, we also acknowledge the fact that these gaps often have a decorative role in addition to any functional ones. It seems to serves two main purposes: to prevent further splitting of the slit, not as much of an issue with steel pens as it is with gold pens, and to add to the flexibility of the tines. It doesn’t store extra ink of any significant amount, nor does the nib need to breathe like a fountain pen. It can also serve a secondary role as additional decoration. These holes can come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes, and can even change over time in the same nib as the dies used to stamp out the piercings change. (I wish to thank David Nishamura for innocently pointing out that it is a piercing, an observation so obvious it required a genius to point it out. Thanks, David.)
  6. The grind. Some nibs were ground on an emery wheel. This grinding away of a small amount of the steel is mainly used to increase the flexibility of the tines. Grinds can be single grinds, where the grinding is down by the tip and the lines are perpendicular to the axis of the nib. They can be a double grind, where the nib is ground again around the hole with the lines now parallel to the axis of the nib. And a few fancy nibs may even have a third grind behind the hole, toward the heel, usually for decorative purposes. In the UK, pens were hand ground much later than in the US where labor was more expensive. Here, companies first went to a quick and inexpert grind, then tried stamping lines into the tines to get the same effect, and eventually just eliminated it altogether, especially as taste in pens moved more towards stiffer pens in the days of business penmanship and carbon paper.
  7. Shoulders. The shoulders of the pen are where the tines transition into the body of the pen. You can sometimes find side slits at the shoulders.
  8. Body of the pen. The body is the part between the tines and the heel of the pen. In some pens there is a distinct heel, in others it’s a continuous line all the way to the end. In those cases, the heel is found toward the end and would be defined as just the part that goes inside the holder.
  9. Embossed design. Some pens will have an embossed design between the body and the heel. This is not common, but it is seen on some older or European Pens.
  10. Heel. The part of the pen which is inserted into the holder.
  11. Imprint. The imprint is any writing on the pen usually comprised of a maker’s name, a number, name for the style, and often a location.

I’m sure there will be other terms that come up and I will continue to add to this page as I go along. Feel free to suggest other terms for me to add.