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Making sense of old handwriting

Tools & Materials

Writing Old Script


The key to reading an old script is learning how to write it yourself. The first step in learning
how to write is to acquire the proper writing supplies. It is important to remember that old documents were not written with ballpoint or roller-ball pens. Sometimes they were written with a pencil, but generally, the writer used a wooden or metal pen or a nib holder about 8 inches in length, with a metal nib inserted at the large end of the tapered pen holder.

Acquiring Basic Tools

You may use a fountain or ballpoint pen to do the exercises on the following pages, although we strongly recommend that you use a calligraphy-style dip pen and an ink bottle instead. If you practice writing an old script with the same materials as many of the old scribes, you will likely learn how to spread and maximize your ink just as they did, and thus you might better understand how old documents were written. Writing with these ancient tools helps you gain a "feel" for how people once wrote. It also helps you appreciate old scripts as an art form.

We recommend that you obtain the following items to get the most out of the exercises in this tutorial. You will most likely find them in the calligraphy section of a stationary or art supply store. Each of these items is described in detail below:


A nib is the removable metal tip of a dip pen. There are many types of nibs, but all work basically the same way. The groove of a nib holds a few drops of ink, and, when pressure is applied to the tips of a nib, called tines, ink is allowed to run down the slit onto the paper.

Different types of nibs serve different purposes. For this reason, there is a certain type that will be easiest to use throughout this tutorial: round nibs. Round nibs look pointed, but they are rounded off at the very tip; this allows the tip to move more freely and smoothly across the page. Round nibs come in different widths and some are more flexible than others. A thin nib with medium flexibility will be the easiest to use for the exercises on the following pages.

Most nibs will also have a breather hole, which aids in ink flow. You may find the breather hole helpful to use as an indicator of a low ink level. After being dipped, the breather hole usually has ink suspended within it. When there is not enough ink left to sustain the breather hole, it will open up and the pen will soon run out of ink. By re-dipping the pen soon after the breather hole opens, you can avoid running out of ink in the middle of a word.

Click the following link for a more in depth description of pen nibs and their respective types.

Nib Holders

A nib will attach to a nib holder in one of several different ways. Make sure that your nibs and nib holders fit together properly. Do not use a nib holder longer than 6 to 8 inches (15 to 20 cm), the length of a regular pen.

India Ink

India ink (also known as "Chinese ink") is thick, black, and commonly used for calligraphy and drawing. It is prone to get on your hands and clothes while it is still wet. There are waterproof and non-waterproof types of India ink; non-waterproof types are more likely to wash out of fabric.

Some of the most common name brands of India ink include Blick Black Cat, Higgins, and Speedball.

Lined Paper

The paper that you use should be sufficiently thick to prevent your ink from bleeding. You may, in fact, want to write over several sheets of paper to protect your writing surface. Calligraphic paper and most types of lined or ruled paper are fine for these writing exercises. You may purchase your own lined or calligraphic paper at an art supply store or you may print out one or more of our practice sheets.

Click here to download a PDF practice sheet.

Tracing Paper

Tracing paper is a type of translucent paper that, when placed over a surface, picture, or other piece of paper, will allow you to see the underlying words or images and thus trace them. You will find tracing paper with other arts and craft supplies.

Miscellaneous Items

The list presented here is not exhaustive, as there are several other items that you may wish to use. As you practice writing, you may consider using a hand towel or washcloth and a bowl of soapy water to clean your nibs from the ink. You may also consider using an abrasive hand cleaner in case any ink gets onto your skin. Finally, you may use blotting paper (or simply a paper towel) to remove excess ink blots from your pages.