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: