Tips and Tools: Calligraphy Nib

Sometimes the best tools already exist and are sitting right in front of you. With some sandpaper and little pressure, a calligraphy nib can be the perfect tool for making crisp line drawings in clay.

As the daughter of a sign painter my appreciation for tools and love of the line were honed at a young age. My choice to major in ceramics resulted in an immersion into tool options and alterations. To this day, I still cringe at the limited lines and marks that the basic pottery tool kit’s contents made. The options for mark making were and still are predictable, standardized and, yawn, boring to see on everyone’s pots. And that pin tool? The lines it made at the hands of us amateurs incited the visual equivalent of nails on a chalkboard…The horror! The horror!

The big, clunky, wooden trimming tools with their dopey line-making abilities were swiftly dealt with by sharpening their edges on a sanding belt to, in effect, make new, customized snappy tools. This resulted in a variety of beveled edges and a world of exciting line qualities to experiment with. Even the fettling knife could be ground down to create a new, exciting, and exacting edge (thanks to ceramic artist Katrina Chaytor for that tip).

1 Use silicon-carbide sandpaper to reshape a calligraphy nib.

2 Tracing a drawing onto a pot’s surface.

After a few years of ceramic practice, I wanted to pursue a harder, graphic line to be used in conjunction with my mishima technique (see 2–4). A plethora of tools can serve this purpose: X-Acto knives, quills, and yes, I have seen deft use of my nemesis, the pin tool. That said, none felt right for me and I struggled to find a tool to serve my purpose of achieving line clarity and sharpness. As with most of the Homer Simpson “doh” moments in my life, the answer was right under my nose, like a delicious donut. I can’t actually remember the reason I had a calligraphy pen in my studio, but it was there and the idea to use it for line making poked me in the eye!

After much experimentation, my winning calligraphy nib of choice has come to be the Speedball, globe-shaped #512 Bowl Pointed Nib (see 1). Still, it wasn’t perfect when used fresh out of the pack as the long, pointy, split end would wobble and create a faint double line on the leather-hard clay surface I love to incise in. Flashback to my years of tool altering, I experimented with gently grinding down the nib’s edges to create more of a gentle slope-to-point ratio. I tried a variety of abrasive surfaces, but settled on silicon-carbide sandpaper (150-grit), which can be easily ordered online. Subsequently, you can re-sharpen/reshape the tool edge by giving it a quick few strokes against the silicon-carbide surface from time to time (1).

3 Using the calligraphy nib to create a crisp mishima line drawing on the pot’s surface.

4 Mariko Paterson’s squid mugs. The line drawings on the cups were created using an altered calligraphy nib.

By reducing the nib length and angle by just a little, I cut down on the tip’s wavering tendencies and gained the control I was missing. After that it was off to the starting line of successful line-age (2, 3)! Everything after that has been a matter of time spent on technique development, but I have never lost my “edge” since. Happy tool altering experimentation all and remember to always look at things from another angle!

the author Mariko Paterson, studied ceramics first at Langara College, then the Alberta College of Art & Design and received her MFA from Kent State University in Ohio. She owns Forage Studios, a private ceramics studio and color decal making business, in the seaside city of Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada. For more information on Paterson’s entire process, visit the Star Techy page at

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  • Reader L.

    What do you use for glazing? Do you use an underglaze? The glazes I use do not leave crisp lines such as on your cups. I am fascinated by your tip on the calligraphy pen. I actually have a couple of calligraphy pens and am anxious to try this out! Thank you!

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