Back to Basics: How To Prepare Calligraphy Nibs for Use

Updated: Dec 2, 2019

Since we're ringing in the New Year, I thought we'd start at the very beginning with this month's helpful tips & tricks post: preparing your nibs for use.

When we start learning calligraphy, most of us don't think about our nibs, except for learning how they function to allow us to draw with them. We're so focused on the script we're learning and the proper way to hold the nib holder, or the instructions we're trying to follow, that we have little thought to spare for the actual nib itself.

But sooner or later, the nibs get their revenge. We need to replace them, or we want to try a new kind. Then we put them in our holders and try to write....and nothing happens. What's going on here??

What's going on is that we missed a few steps. Every new nib needs to be prepared a bit before we can start writing with it.

The 'Why'

Calligraphy nibs are coated with an oil in the factory where they're created, to prevent them from rusting before they're purchased and used. Since our calligraphy inks are water-based, you can start to imagine how having oil on our nibs will really cause some problems. Oil and water repel one another, so the ink will just slide off a nib straight out of the factory. We need to remove this oil in order to let the nib grab hold of our ink, and create good flow.

The 'How'

There are several ways to go about doing this, some I prefer over others.

1. The Potato Method

I've seen some calligraphers use a potato to pull the oil off their nibs. Simply stick it in a potato for 5-10 minutes, and the starch will help remove the oils from the nib. I don't use this method myself, because I'm afraid of bending the tines of my nib from stabbing a potato with it....personal choice. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

2. The Naked Flame

Ok, ok, that's not the official name for this method, but I think it sounds cool. This method requires you to hold your nib over a match, passing the nib through the very top of the flame for a few seconds. Don't get your nib too hot, or you might ruin it! I use this method on my Spencarian nibs, mostly because it provides the most satisfying 'scratch' sounds when you write (I have no idea why). It's tough to get the correct balance between enough heat and not too much though, so it's not my preferred method.

You can see in the photo on the right how the bottom of the nib is slightly darkened from the want to make sure to wipe your nib with a damp cloth after using this method to get any oil char off your nib, so it's nice and clean.

3. Good Old Soap & Water

While I don't exactly use soap and water, this is my method of choice. I use Mrs. Meyers All-Purpose Cleaner and paper towel (Viva to be exact...I'm picky about lint) to clean ink off my nibs as I use them.....and wouldn't ya know, it works wonders to clean off the factory oil as well! I add a small bit of cleaner to a travel-size spray bottle (barely enough to cover the bottom), and fill the rest with water. Then, I spray my new nib generously, and let sit for 10-15 seconds. Then, wipe and dry with paper towel or a soft cloth. You can also use a bit of dish soap and some warm water, if you prefer not to use the cleaner.

This method is basically fool-proof, because I haven't found a way to damage the nib yet with these materials. Plus, as a bonus, I have all the materials needed on hand and ready to go, so it takes less time as well!

I hope this was helpful! I'd love to know your method of choice in the comments below.

Until next time!


If you'd like to find more helpful tips and tricks, check out my past posts here.

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