My Favorite Lettering Supplies
While there is no shortage of lettering supplies to experiment with, I've tried a lot of stuff out over the years and have compiled a concise list of my all time favorite lettering tools, materials and thoughts on all of it.
WHERE I SHOP
High quality, unique lettering tools and supplies can be challenging to find in your local arts and crafts store, but you can find all that you'll need from John Neal Bookseller and Paper & Ink Arts henceforth referred to as JNB and PIA, respectively.
I mention these two places and provide links to their sites throughout this article, but it should be noted that I'm not receiving any sort of compensation for doing so. My love for these companies is sincere—they're just awesome :)
I've tried out so many different brushes over the years and have amassed quite the collection! I've found that the best all-purpose brush is a round watercolor brush in a size 2-3. I love felt brush pens as well, however, with the exception of the Tombow brand, I've found they have a short life. My lettering for my font, Al Fresco, was created with felt brush pens!
Felt brush pens are quite popular as they're the easiest of all brush styles to learn to use, however, the styles they produce are limited. Round brushes yield the greatest possibilities but are more difficult to master as the bristles are loose, rather than fixed as in the felt brush pens. I like both—it just depends on what I'm looking to create.
Flat edge brushes are wonderful for producing large Blackletter and Roman style letters, but they can be very difficult to master. If you like these styles of lettering, I'd recommend starting with a flat edge dip pen first to train your fingers to remain fixed in order to keep the angles consistent and to learn the various styles.
~ ROUND BRUSHES ~
Pentel Color Brush I use this brush used in all of my workshops and in my YouTube videos. It has synthetic bristles and lasts for a long time. And it's convenient—it has a cartridge attached to the brush—you may purchase Pentel Brush refills for the ink when it runs out, or simply dip the brush in a bottle of ink or gouache.
Raphael Kolinsky sable brush Excellent, long lasting, natural bristle pointed brush for lettering. My favorite brush sizes range between 1 and 4.
Escoda brush A less expensive sable brush and good alternative to the Raphael Kolinsky brush.
~ FELT BRUSH PENS ~
Pentel Artist Sign Pen Micro Brush A cross between a brush and a felt pen, this tiny brush-pen produces fine lines, perfect for small flourishes and decorative elements
Tombow Felt brushes Long lasting felt brushes in a massive selection of colors, including a transparent blender.
~ OTHER BRUSHES ~
Simply Simmons flat brushes Great quality and inexpensive chisel edged flat brushes for creating roman letters or a blackletter style.
Silver Triangle brush This brush has an unusual shape and can produce very interesting lines and marks that you can't get with any other tool
POINTED DIP NIBS
There are a lot of awesome flexible pointed nibs out there, it's hard to say which is my favorite as it depends on what I'm looking to create, but here are my top three. If you're new to these nibs, I strongly recommend you purchase a Pointed Nib sampler kit from JNB or a Copperplate sampler kit from PIA to determine what best suits you.
Keep in mind that nibs work in coordination with the paper you're using. You may dislike a nib with one kind of paper, but grow to love it on a different type of paper. As such, I also recommend experimenting with paper to find the combination of nib and paper you like. PIA and JNB also sells paper sample kits—a pad sample kit and a calligraphy paper sample kit.
Something else worth mentioning—JNB sells several pointed nibs with an ink cage reservoir enabling the nib to hold much more ink. I've upgraded all of my pointed nibs to have this option!
Brause Rose Soft and very flexible, albeit a bit delicate, this is my go-to nib.
Blue Pumpkin Brause and Leonhardt make their own versions of the extremely flexible, soft Blue Pumpkin nib—great for larger pointed nib lettering. Brause's nib is a bit stiffer than Leonhardt's.
Zebra G This is the nib I give to calligraphy workshop attendees. It's sturdy, smooth, produces fine to thick lines. It's an excellent all-around nib.
Crowquill Nibs Hunt, Hiro and Gillott make these flexible, tiny and very sharp nibs. I love these to create small letters and fine line details.
BROAD/CHISEL/FLAT EDGE NIBS & PENS
Same thing, different names. When my older sister went away to college, she called me up one day to tell me a nearby craft store was going out of business and selling their stock of Speedball nibs for 10 cents a piece. She asked me how many I wanted her to purchase on my behalf and I told her to buy the whole lot. It ended up being about 250 nibs. 25+ years later and I still have most of them—they last a long time if you take care of them.
~ DIP NIBS ~
While I dearly love my Speedball C nibs, I'm also extremely fond of another brand of broad edge nibs—Brause. These nib feature slightly angled tips, which make it a bit easier to obtain a consistent stroke with all of your typical calligraphic hands that rely on these nibs: Foundational, Carolingian, Uncial, Italic, Blackletter, Roman, et al.
For the sizing of the Speedball nibs, the higher the number, the smaller the width. C-0 is the largest, C-6 is the smallest. Brause makes it a little easier to figure out size by using the good ole metric system. It's important to note that if you're left handed, you should seek out left handed broad edge nibs. It will make lettering with a broad edge a heckuva lot easier.
~ FELT PENS ~
An alternative to these old fashioned dip nibs is to use felt pens. Broad edge felt pens are easier to use than dip nibs—they have a softer feel and make contact with the paper easier—they're just more forgiving in general. However... they don't last very long and they lose their mojo quickly (hence why the word, "disposable" can be found in a corresponding description). Still, I love these things and always keep a stash of them nearby.
My favorite brands are Zig, and Speedball's Elegant Writer (which you can find in any art/craft supply store.) Sakura makes a broad edge pen that is a step above a felt pen and the dip nibs, the Sakura Pigma Calligrapher—these are pretty amazing; they last a lot longer and produce a sharp, crisp stroke.
~ PARALLEL PENS ~
The third category of broad edge pens I'd like to mention are the Pilot Parallel Pens. These pens are fabulous because 1.) they're fountain pens – yay! 2.) they have a great feel to them, they're not as scratchy and sharp as dip nibs 3.) they last a long time and 4.) they come in eight sizes thanks to PIA who offer a modified set of sizes. A lot of people prefer these over dip and felt pens. The only drawback? They're kinda high maintenance to keep clean, at least for me anyway. I'm kinda lazy :)
OTHER NIBS & PENS
What I love about dip nibs is the variety of nib styles you can find beyond the broad edge styles. There's a round tipped nib that produces a monoline stroke—this round nib style is unique, I've never found another tool capable of producing a stroke quite like it. I used the Speedball "B" round nib to create the lettering for my font Shelby.
A relatively newer category of lettering tool is the folded ruling pen. Not to be mistaken with the traditional ruling pen that makes a mono-width stroke, the folded ruling pen has proven itself to be a completely unique and exceptional category of tool. It does things that no other lettering tool can do. It can produce a uniformly ragged, rough edge; if you scrape it quickly across the page, tiny drops of ink will splatter across the page. In addition to the texture it can add to lettering, some folded ruling pens also allow for a variable stroke width by tilting it from its side for a broad stroke to its tip for a fine stroke.
This has been my all around favorite folded ruling pen—I purchased about 20 of them to take to my lettering workshops to let attendees try them out.
I love this ruling pen by Julian Waters has an adjustment feature—a small screw—to control ink flow.
The Luthis folded pens are more of a hybrid of a broad edge and folded ruling pens.
If you find that you really love folded ruling pens and are ready to make a serious investment, check out what Dreaming Dogs dreamt up! These excel in both form and function.
The type of paper you use makes all the difference. When I first started working with a brush for lettering, I quickly realized that I would be going through A LOT of paper. At first I thought (and hoped) that I could get away with cheap paper, like photocopy paper, but quickly discovered that it absorbs ink like crazy and the results are poor. Being a bit of tree hugger, (I live in the woods, after all!) I yearned for a good solution to practice brush lettering without going through a small forest's worth of paper.
One day, I visited an arts & craft supply store and found this magical invention called a "Buddha Board," or "Magic Water Paper." With a clean brush that has never been dipped in anything but water (VERY important note) on this paper, I could dip the brush in water, glide it across the surface, and in a couple of minutes my lettering evaporated altogether and I could reuse the surface over and over again. My problem was solved, trees and money were saved, The End.
The end?! Not yet... There's a lot of good paper out there, and most of it works well for brush, nibs and other lettering tools. What I've found in general is that you want to avoid paper that is too rough, toothy and absorptive. Conversely, it's also wise to avoid paper that is too slick or coated paper. Unless it's Yupo paper, which is amazing (and amazingly expensive!) Essentially, you're looking for Goldilocks paper; not too rough, not too smooth.
If you read through the list below and feel like you're starting to lose your ever-lovin' mind, go to the John Neal Bookseller's site and buy a pad paper sample pack or a calligraphy paper sample kit. Or better yet, just buy JNB's own brand, or Rhodia, mentioned below—both work great for everything. If you're ready for a seriously major lettering project, there are lots of fine papers you can experiment with from both JNB and PIA.
JNB's paper Good all-around practice paper sold in bulk; what I use in my brush lettering workshops and for most of my brush lettering practice. I keep reams of this stuff in my studio (it's expensive to ship paper, so if you're gonna buy it, buy a lot of it and store it) and I absolutely love it.
Rhodia is an equal favorite to JNB's paper. I use the dot grid paper for most of my pointed pen lettering. It's affordable and exceptional paper.
Borden & Riley Cotton Comp Good replacement for tracing paper; higher quality yet still moderately transparent.
Borden & Riley vellum paper Light weight, smooth, translucent, good for final work
Arches 90# Hot Press Watercolor paper If you're ready for a serious lettering project, this paper is awesome. It can hold up under countless revisions and layers of ink, watercolor or gouache. I've tried a lot of fine arts paper and this is my go-to fine art paper.
Excellent brands of paper: Canson, Bienfang, Daler Rowney, Rhodia, Borden & Riley
Other types of paper to experiment with; listed from least to most expensive: Cotton Comp | Ledger | Vellum | Bristol
INK, GOUACHE & WATERCOLOR
You can use ink, gouache and watercolor with all of the tools I've mentioned throughout this article! With dip nibs, you may need to experiment with the viscosity by adding water or Ox Gall for better flow, use an ink thickener or another additive such as Gum Arabic for durability. While you're mixing these fluids, be sure to get some pipets (kinda like eyedroppers but better!)
Moon Palace Sumi Ink Inexpensive ink that’s great for brush and pointed pen work. This is my all-purpose ink for everything.
Artist’s Ink Transparent, lots of colors!
McCafferey's Penman Ink This is a classic, popular ink for pointed pen work.
Noodler's Fountain Pen Ink I use this with my fountain and dip pens and the colors are rich, deep and superb.
Winsor & Newton Gouache Starts out as an opaque medium, but can be mixed with water to make it translucent/
Dr. Ph Martin's Iridescent Ink I LOVE THIS INK! It's opaque, waterproof when dry, and absolutely beautiful. Use rubbing alcohol to thin the ink if needed, and invest in a magnetic stirrer and bars to keep it mixed as you paint, otherwise, as is with all metallic/iridescent inks, you'll get uneven results.