Dip Pen v Cartridge Pen

I prefer to use a dip pen, but that wasn’t always the case. I started learning calligraphy using a cartridge pen. Why did I switch? What is the difference?

I switched from a cartridge pen to a dip pen to create scrolls in a more medieval manner. Quill pens would be even more medieval but not as practical for scroll creation. I’m not able to cut quills to a consistent size nib, so my letter strokes vary in width. I use dip pens as a reasonable compromise when lettering scrolls.

Dip Pen Nib and Handle,
Rotring and Schaeffer Cartridge Pens

How do dip pens and cartridge pens differ? A cartridge pen is a nib connected to a feed that gets ink from a cartridge held together with a barrel. A dip pen is a nib on a handle that takes ink from an outside container. 

Cartridge pens are easier to learn with than dip pens. You don’t have to deal with having the proper ink amount on the nib for consistent stroke density. Although changing nibs with a full cartridge may be messy, cartridge pens tend to be less messy than dip pens. There is a limited choice of ink and you must use the ink cartridge that goes with the pen. If I use a cartridge pen I prefer a Rotring 1.1mm, but I have beginners start with a basic Manuscript set.  

Dip pens have a large range of nib sizes and ink options. I’ve even used very liquid gouache as ink. 

But there’s a knack to using a dip pen. Determining how to get the proper ink amount to the nib takes experimenting. Over time, I tried multiple home-made systems to hold the ink for dipping. Some scribes use a brush with ink and stroke it across the nib’s back. I prefer dipping in a short depth container similar to a 1-liter pop bottle lid.  

After I have the ink on the nib, I test a stroke on scrap Bristol board to make sure I don’t have too much ink. Too much ink makes a blobby letter with no thin lines. I do this each time I dip for ink.

There’s a difference in the lines each pen type creates. Pen nibs have tiny tines that spread when making strokes. Nib flexibility affects how the tines spread. Cartridge pen nibs are less flexible than dip pen nibs. (There’s also variation within each pen type’s nib choices, but that’s a separate topic.) 

Cartridge Pen With Cartridge, Feed, and Nib
Note The Nib Slit Forming Two Tines

Nib flex is what makes calligraphy’s thick and thin lines. The change between think and thin happens by changing the about of pressure you apply to the tines. On downstrokes, more pressure is applied spreading the tines allowing more ink flow to the paper.

Cartridge pen nibs are generally stiffer than dip pen nibs. I have to exert more pressure with a cartridge pen to create thick lines. I find it tiring after hours of lettering text. However, if you have a heavy hand this may be a plus. 

Broad dip pen nibs are also thinner front to back along the edge than cartridge pen nibs. (You can see this in the top picture.) This affects stroke thinness. I’m able to make thinner up-strokes with most dip pen nibs than cartridge nibs. I say most because nibs vary so much between manufacturers.  

The writing experience is different for cartridge pens and dip nib pens. Cartridge pens are forgiving if you push the nib into the paper. I get an ink splat when I do that with a dip pen. Dip nibs have a “scratchy” feeling and sound because their broad edge is sharper than a cartridge pen nib.

I’m a scroll production SCA Laurel, so I don’t have the vast knowledge a modern professional calligrapher has with pens. I learned by research and trial to find what works best for me and the support I’m using.

Cartridge pens and dip pens serve different users for different purposes. They complement each other. They are both prime tools in my scribal toolkit.

Related Prior Post:
My Battle With Calligraphy

Categories: Materials And Tools

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