Google is the best, isn’t it? (Well except for when you’re sick, and it’s the worst, because every symptom you type leads you to conclude you have the plague or something equally horrible) When I started my journey in calligraphy, I googled EVERYTHING calligraphy. I searched high and low. I typed in things like: “What kind of pen do you use for calligraphy?” “Pen with funny arm” (I’ll explain that one in a minute, but I really did google that) “pen for modern calligraphy” and “how to use a calligraphy pen.”
If you have ever searched on Pinterest or Instagram (or Google) for anything related to calligraphy, you have likely come across pictures or videos of calligraphers using their calligraphy pens, or pen holders. And maybe you’re like me, in that when I was starting to get interested in calligraphy, I would just doodle on my own in sharpies or pens. But I got really tired of doing the whole “faux-lligraphy” thing, because it took forever to go back in and get a thick line.
I was completely mesmerized by the effortless flow of ink to paper that I saw from calligraphy pens. They didn’t have to go back in and fill in the lines to get a thick line, and I knew that was my next step. The only problem? I had no idea where to find the things, or where to look, or really what they were even called. Especially this funny looking contraption I saw people using that looked nothing like a regular straight pen. On my quest to find out what it actually was, and where to get it, I literally googled “pen with funny arm.”
While it may sound silly, I really had no idea how to find it because I had no frame of reference for what it was called. Eventually, I did find what I was looking for. I found out that “funny looking pen” was called an oblique holder, and thus began my journey into the pointed pen calligraphy world!
Maybe you’re like I was, completely green and had no idea where to start or what things were even called. Maybe you do know about calligraphy pen holders, but don’t quite know what will be right for you, or even where to find them. I want to give you the short cut I never had! Today I’m going to dive into calligraphy pen holders- two in particular. The straight pen holder, and the oblique pen holder.
The straight pen holder
This is the classic. A straight pen holder has been around forever, and will be around forever. It’s a classic, and can be used by anyone, right or left handed. You can find them for varying price points, from around one dollar up to hundreds (if you’re getting a fancy hand turned one made by an artist).
The straight pen holder is simple, but mighty. You can get a universal straight pen holder that has four little metal prongs on the inside that you can bend to fit most any nib (the nib is what gets dipped into ink). A little note though that I learned the hard way- don’t stick the nib inside the four metal prongs. You want the nib to fit on the outside curve of the prongs, which are adjustable to your nib. You can find this kind of pen holder at your local art store, or by searching online (my favorite site is paperinkarts.com)
Another great straight pen holder is the classic Speedball pen holder. Speedball has always been the heavy hitter in pens, and that includes calligraphy pens! It’s a simple, straightforward plastic holder. It has an opening all the way around to place your nib into. A note though, not all nibs will fit into this holder because it is not adjustable. But, it will hold most beginner nibs well, like Nikko G, Blue Pumpkin, Gillot 404 and so on. This pen holder is one that frequently comes in Speedball starter kits for calligraphy.
There are also some fancier straight holders, one of my favorites is the Tachikawa T-40, which has a rubber grip for comfort. It’s a little bit thicker as well, which lends to comfort too. The opening is not adjustable, so some nibs will not fit inside, but a good majority will.
Cork straight pen holders are another wonderful ergonomic option that can be a little bit more comfortable for some than the harder plastic counterparts. You can search for General Pencil Cork- Tipped holder to find one of my favorites of this kind!
All in all, the straight pen holder is a great tool for any calligrapher to have in their “tool box.” Whether you are right or left handed, these pen holders allow versatility in the work you create. I often use my straight pen holders for doing illustrative work with ink, as well as some envelope styles that I create that don’t need too much of a slant in writing.
If you are a leftie, the straight pen holder is where you want to start. You have the natural slant in how you hold it already that us righties have to use an oblique holder to achieve. While you do still have to be cautious of not dragging through the ink as you work, a straight holder is a comfortable pen holder to start off with!
The oblique pen holder
Okay, now for that “pen with funny arm,” the beloved oblique holder. So what even IS an oblique holder, anyway? And why does it have a funny looking appendage sticking out? As I noted in the last section, the oblique holder gives a calligrapher an easier slant in their work. Instead of having to hold your hand and wrist at an odd angle for extended periods of time while you work, the oblique holder allows you to freely and more comfortably hold the pen and at the same time, get a great slant.
That being said, I start out all my right handed calligraphy students out with an oblique pen holder. You can always start out with a straight holder and move to the oblique holder, I have just personally found that my hand cramps up a lot less in my own work when I use an oblique holder, so it is my go to. They do create left handed oblique holders as well, so for those of you left handed calligraphers that don’t want to be left out of the funny looking pen action, just do a search for left handed oblique pens holders.
For my beginning calligraphy class, I have all of my students who are right handed start by using a Speedball Oblique Penholder. Similar to it’s straight pen holder counterpart, this one is a simple, but mighty tool, especially for the beginner. It’s by no means the fanciest pen holder, but it has a low price point (less than $5), and holds up well to lots of use. The one tricky thing about this particular holder when you start out, is making sure you insert the nib correctly. Like the straight holder, there is a circular slot that goes all the way around where you can insert a nib. That leaves quite a bit of room for you to possibly place your nib in the wrong place, and that can end in frustration of not being able to write well.
Here is how your nib should look in your Speedball Oblique holder. You want it to be flush straight across if you are holding it up, and you should be looking down at the top of your nib, with both tines touching the paper when the pen is pointed down. This is just a minor note, and as you practice and become comfortable, you will have no problem at all using this pen holder and taking your nib in and out of it!
A great step up from the Speedball model is the a Peerless Oblique Penholder, or a Ziller Oblique Penholder. These use a plastic body, much like the shape of the Speeball straight pen holder, but they have a notch cut into the side, with a metal flange (the arm) that sticks into it. The metal flange can be somewhat shaped to fit whichever nib you would like to use in it. Some people will have multiple pen holders so they can use each for a particular nib or nib shape. With these pen holders, or any pen holder with a metal flange, you don’t have to worry about the nib insertion like you do the Speedball oblique pen holders. There is only one way to insert the nib, and it should give you the correct positioning of the nib automatically.
Other than these two basic oblique pen holders, there are virtually hundreds of different kinds of pen holders out there! There are many wood turned and carved pen holders, with varying lengths and thicknesse, and some even formed to more ergonomic shapes that lend themselves to comfort while using them for extended periods of time. You can look on Etsy for artist made pen holders- there are lots of beautiful ones out there!
As you continue in your calligraphy journey, you can choose different pen holders and find which ones you love the look and feel of, and which ones work best for your particular style and rhythm. Again, if you are just starting out, I recommend the Speedball straight and oblique pen holders (depending on if you are right or left handed). They have a low price point, and are a great spot to start at to find out what you like. From there, you can test out different ones and see if another style fits you better!
I hope this has shed some light on straight and oblique pen holders and pulled back the veil a little bit for you! I know when I was starting out, there were so many options and I didn’t want to waste my time or money on ones that didn’t work, or what I wasn’t looking for. Please let me know if you have any questions about using either pen holder, or finding what works for you!
Comment below, I would love to hear what your favorite pen holder is...straight or oblique?