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Making sense of old handwriting


Gather your Tools

Equipped with the proper writing tools, you are now ready to learn how to write like the scribes of the past. First, you must familiarize yourself with your new writing instrument.

On the Tools & Materials page, we recommended that you acquire nibs and a nib holder. We also recommended that you acquire a bottle of Indian ink. These items, along with writing paper, are basically all you need to do the exercises on the following pages. Below are some guidelines for using these items:


Check Your Nib

Before you begin writing, make sure that your nib is securely fastened to your nib holder. Make sure that you are using a round nib, as specified in Tools & Materials. Also, make sure that your nib is clean, sharp, and intact.

When you dip your nib into your ink bottle, submerge it until it is just above the breather hole. As mentioned on the previous page, this hole is an ink supply indicator and will tell you when the pen needs to be re-dipped.

Maintain Your Ink Supply

Always hold your pen close to the nib as you write. The farther away from the nib that you hold the pen, the less control you will have and the more likely you will be to drip or splatter ink. Also, hold your pen as parallel to the paper as possible or at about a 45-degree angle relative to the page. Though it may seem that tipping the pen up will help the ink flow down more steadily, it is surface tension—not gravity—that is doing the work. The more the surface of the ink touches the paper, the more it will stick to the paper.

When the ink supply on your nib runs low, the surface tension holding the remaining ink in the breather hole will break, and the hole will open up, appearing empty. At this point, you may still have enough ink left on the tines to write a stroke or two. If you watch the ink level in the breather hole carefully enough, you may be able to re-dip your nib at the right times so as to avoid running out of ink in the middle of a stroke.

Take care not to puncture your paper (or your skin, for that matter) with the tip of your nib. Unlike ballpoint pens or pencils, dip pens don't require a lot of pressure to write. Remember to be light and gentle, especially with thin strokes. After you get accustomed to it, you can try applying more pressure to produce thicker strokes. It will be messy at first, but it won't take long to get the feel. Don't forget to wipe your nib with a cloth or paper towel every 10 minutes or so, and then rinse it with warm water when you're done.

Line Diagram

Very few old documents had lines upon which scribes could write words. You will likely find many discrepancies in the line spacing of letters, which is one of the challenges of deciphering old documents. Despite this, there are some accepted line standards of an old script, and we will show them to you in this tutorial.

The diagram below shows one of the standard four-line schemes of European calligraphy. This is the standard to which we will adhere in this tutorial. All letters, uppercase and lowercase are written within four imaginary lines: the ascender line, the midline, the baseline, and the descender line. The ascender and descender lines are basically the boundaries of each line scheme. No stroke will ever extend below the descender line, although the umlauts of uppercase letters (such as Ä) may extend slightly above the ascender line. The midline is not always halfway between the baseline and the ascender line; in this tutorial, it is not.


The letters that we will introduce to you in the following pages will appear within this four-line scheme. We encourage you to adhere to this scheme as you practice writing, paying careful attention to the lines within which the strokes and loops fit. At this point, you are almost ready to begin writing actual letters, but first, you must learn how to write strokes within these four lines. The exercise on the next page will show you how to draw basic pen strokes called minims.