How do calligraphy nibs work? A visual map to explain the magic… Part 1

Calligraphers are generally serious, quietly academic types. Or were, in the days of formal lettering required to be a ‘proper businessman’. However, I’m blessed with a childish sense of humour I should have grown out of twenty years ago.


Photo credit: Jenny Jones

I’m going to take you on a journey from shaft to flange, via tips and teeth, to explain how a calligraphy pen and nib set both looks and works. Apologies for any puerile content – blame the manufacturers!

Let’s start with a basic, straight dip pen. These are mainly used for old-school italic, roman and gothic calligraphy, but can work for modern calligraphy too. I should clarify: when I talk about modern calligraphy I mean all those loose variations of very informal copperplate, made with a ‘pointed’ pen (i.e. nib).

So the dip pen is simply a straight shaft of wood or plastic, with a slot at the wide end in which the nib is inserted. Some dip pens have a circular or semi-circular groove cut into the end – your nib will just slot into this until if feels firmly held.

Others have teeth – but ignore those! Your nib should slot into the circular gap around the outside of the teeth (as shown in the photo below).

With a straight pen, it can be tricky for right-handers to achieve the correct pen angle for modern calligraphy lettering. This is why the oblique penholder exists. The extra piece (flange) on the side of an oblique penholder always sits to the left, and means your nib will point more to the right than it would with a straight pen. Oblique holders look trickier than they are. Try one and see!

Join me for a calligraphy workshop in Manchester: online booking & info – modern calligraphy workshops

Photo credit: Jenny Jones Photography

Buy a modern calligraphy starter kit and begin your calligraphy adventures today! These include the oblique penholder I use every day!

NEW! Updated and revised modern calligraphy set

I’m super happy to tell you my NEW & IMPROVED modern calligraphy set is now available to buy in my Etsy shop.

modern calligraphy set

I’m so proud of this kit – we’ve sold them worldwide to calligraphy beginners and crafty folks, on Etsy and Not On The High Street – I think they’re the best modern calligraphy sets around.

Designed for absolute beginners, my calligraphy set includes pen, nib and ink; a 32 page instruction book full of letters, exercises and tips; a personalised journal with your name on, a set of gift tags, practice papers and a brush lettering pen. It’s all beautifully presented in a gold foiled gift box – perfect for birthdays! 😉

modern calligraphy set

The price is £65 and you can buy the modern calligraphy kit either from my Etsy shop or on Not On The High Street.

modern calligraphy set

Massive thank yous to lovely Jenny Jones Photography for the new photos too!

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If you’d rather learn calligraphy in person there are spaces available at my Manchester calligraphy workshop on Saturday the 26th of May. Come & join me! Details here:

Making your calligraphy practice fun!

I hate letter drills. Writing pages of a single letter isn’t for me – I think focusing to that extent is counter productive, to be honest. So I challenge myself to practise modern calligraphy in a fun way.

Image credit: Zehra Photographer

I use colour – it brightens my desk and changes the look of my letters. Writing in black ink on white paper is meh. Writing in a metallic pink on black card changes everything.

Image credit: Zehra Photographer

And I don’t practise letters. I practise words. Quotes are great, song lyrics are better – especially if you play Spotify in the background as you write. A single phrase, song title or line from a chorus becomes a gorgeous piece of calligraphy art – and the motivation to practise more! Here’s how –

  1. Choose your song lyric
  2. Find your best dark A4 paper and a bright calligraphy ink
  3. Draw a rectangle in pencil on the page – about the same size as your phone
  4. Write. Keep the entire phrase inside that rectangle if you can, leaving a wide border around the edge
  5. Find a cheap frame, and frame your lyrics!
  6. Give them to a friend, parent, sibling, lover… see how special a gift your lettering can be!
Image credit: Zehra Photographer

Find coloured card in any high street art shop, and buy inks from my online store at