Dip Pens


A while back I wrote about my crow quill dip pen but that is not the only type of dip pen I have. (Dip pen is a bit of a misnomer. While you can dip this sort of pen into ink, I found I have less trouble with blobbing if I use a cheap paintbrush to brush the ink onto the nib.) I have some other pen holders to use with a variety of interchangeable nibs. Different sized and shaped nibs give different lines.

Of the holders, I think my favourite is the Koh-I-Noor No. 127 N Cork Tip Penholder. It’s made in Germany of black plastic with a cork finger grip. This finger grip and its larger size, in comparison to the crow quill pen, make it more comfortable to hold. At the wide end of the penholder is a metal collar with metal grippers for inserting a nib.

I also have an inexpensive oblique pen holder, made in China. Oblique pen holders have a flange that allows you to keep the nib parallel to the writing slant so you are able to exert even pressure on both tines of the nib when doing pointed pen calligraphy. Plastic ones like mine can’t be adjusted but you can get ones with attached brass flanges to allow you to customize it to your grip and the style of calligraphy you are attempting. I’m still trying to master this and am wondering if a better quality oblique pen holder might be worth it.


I have a variety of nibs, some I got at a garage sale in a box of miscellaneous calligraphy supplies and others I acquired through the Edmonton Calligraphic Society. Not all nibs have reservoirs but those that do allow for more ink to be held from each dip so you don’t have to keep dipping quite so often. I tested all of the nibs with a Japanese type of calligraphy ink called “gakusyo” on Greys paper. For some of the nibs, in particular the very pointed ones, I think I would have got better results on smoother paper.

My M. Myers and Son vintage nibs have an interchangeable, removable reservoir that slips on and off the end of the nib. In addition to their number, each nib is inscribed with:


The M. Myers and Son company was founded in 1837 in England but as Grace’s Guide to British Industrial History reports in “1985 the company was sold to an American label company, Avery International, who wanted to expand their European office stationery business. The old Myers directors quickly retired and the business transformed virtually overnight from a typically English family firm to part of an international conglomerate, which sold the factory and its land in Langley Green, and like many other long established British companies, it is now a housing estate.” While it could be argued that housing has more social utility than manufacturing archaic pen nibs, it always seems a bit sad when multi-nationals take over small businesses only to close them.


My Speedball nibs all have reservoirs. If you read my blog about my Speedball crow quill pen, you will remember the Speedball brand began with the Howard Hunt Pen Company. There are still Speedball nibs being made today with the Hunt name on them and these are some of them. The A-5 and B-5 both are inscribed with:


The C-2 seems a bit newer and is inscribed with:


Ross F. George started off as a sign painter and began designing pens for the Hunt Pen Company in 1913. He shared his knowledge about lettering and sign painting through a periodical called the Speedball Text Book. I’m glad his name is still on these nibs.


My Hunt nibs without reservoirs are also made in the U.S.A. by Speedball. This is how the company describes them:

Hunt Pen Nib, School No. 56:  Fine, bronze finish drawing pen for art and writing – stiff action.

Hunt Pen Nib, Extra Fine No. 22:  Bronze finish pen for ornamental writing and fine ruling – medium stiff.

Hunt Pen Nib, Ex-Fine Bowl Pointed No. 512:  fine pen for ruling and lettering.


I have two Joseph Gillott nibs. This is another old British firm, even older than M. Myers and Son, having been established in 1827. However, these nibs are still made in Britain although as of 1967 they joined with another early Birmingham pen company, William Mitchell Ltd. As James Ward in The Perfection of the Paperclip relates, although an American patented a “metallic writing pen”, it was Birmingham, England that became the worldwide capital of steel pen manufacturing. My Gillott nibs are not in great shape so it is difficult to read the inscriptions on them.


I have one Japanese-made nib, the Tachikawa G nib. This is sometimes referred to as a “Comic Pen Nib” because its flexibility makes it good for drawing with, not just writing. Although it doesn’t have a reservoir, the pointed end is somewhat ridged which I assume is designed to hold ink better.


The last nib I have to share is stamped “Chicago Public School“. I wished I knew the history about this nib but it appears to be a topic on which the internet is silent. I can only assume there was a time when Chicago Public Schools ordered specific nibs for use in the classroom.


I am still figuring out how to get the most out of these pens but it has been fun learning more about them.

If dip pens were people, they would be stiff and a bit uptight but with a certain old-fashioned charm and grace about them.


Koh-i-Noor Paris Blue Progresso Woodless Pencil


Santa left an intriguing pencil crayon in my stocking called the Progresso woodless pencil by Koh-i-Noor. You may notice I called it a pencil crayon, not a coloured pencil because no matter what it says on the box, in the part of Canada I where I grew up this type of art supply is always called a pencil crayon and I am sticking with it.

The Progresso is all colour, no wood, and is a nice weight in the hand. Like all coloured leads, they are made of a mixture of pigment and binder but Progressos are also mixed with oils, not the wax or paraffin other pencil crayons are blended with. This makes for nice smooth marks with no waxy feel and you can use all of the 7.6 mm lead diameter to make fine or wide lines. The lead has a lacquer coating so the colour doesn’t rub off on your hands.


I haven’t really got on the adult colouring book bandwagon but I have tried out a few kinds of pencil crayons I thought I would compare to the Progresso. I know many people who believe Prismacolors are best, so I borrowed a Prismacolor Premier pencil crayon from my sister in law. It is a darker shade than the Progresso and left a smooth, rich colour.

Some of my personal favourite pencil crayons are the now defunct Laurentians that were the classroom standard of my childhood. Like so many pen and pencil companies, they underwent a few corporate takeovers over the years and were discontinued around 2012. Like the Prismacolor, it has a nice thick core and it seemed the Laurentian Navy Blue was a closer match in colour to the Progresso Paris Blue.

I was quite disappointed with both the Faber-Castell and the Staples pencil crayon by Staedtler. I know the Staples one came from an inexpensive student pack but I was surprised Staedtler would put their name on such a low-quality product. Like most student-grade pencil crayons, the lead is quite hard, leading to less breakage but less colour too. Likewise, the Faber-Castell pencil crayon I assume is student grade and not very impressive. It only goes to show you cannot always judge by brand name. Both of these pencil crayons had cores (2 mm diameter) half the size of the Laurentian or Prismacolor (4 mm).

If the Koh-I-Noor Progresso woodless pencil were a person they might seem a bit oily and smooth but there is no pretense about them. This progressive, colourful person is great to spend some time with and although they have a Portuguese name, they are from the Czech Republic.

Why are pencils yellow?

not a yellow pencil

Last week I mentioned that I had been asked two questions. The second question was why are pencils yellow? My first response is that clearly not all pencils are yellow (please refer to previous pencil blogs blogs part 1 and part 2). My own favourite is the Berol turquoise. However, if you have spent a lot of time in North American classrooms, in a trivial example of confirmation bias, you may be under the impression that pencils are for the most part yellow and there is a reason for that.

Where it all began...

Cast your minds back to Paris in 1889, where they celebrated the 100th anniversary of the storming of the Bastille with a world’s fair. The Eiffel tower was built as the entrance arch to the fair and the major attraction was a “Negro village” with 400 people. For pencil lovers however, this fair marked a huge change in the look of pencils. Before this time, pencils had a natural wood finish so you could easily see if there were any imperfections in the wood. The Czech Hardtmuth pencil company wanted consumers to focus on the quality of their graphite which they sourced from Siberia. The marketing geniuses of the time figured that since Siberia bordered China, and yellow was the Emperor’s colour of imperial China, they would paint their pencils yellow. In case people didn’t get the regal reference, they went the extra step to name their pencil “Koh-I-Noor”, the same name as the large diamond Queen Victoria was “gifted”  during the British Raj. Both graphite and diamonds are carbon so maybe it wasn’t such a stretch to name the pencil after a diamond. At any rate, the marketing worked, the pencil was a success, and American pencil companies like Dixon Ticonderoga picked up on it. Even today, generic pencils are often painted yellow.

If yellow pencils were people they would just consider themselves ordinary and never have the curiosity to delve into their family tree to discover their ancestors’ past pretensions of royalty.

Thanks again to Deirdre and Jasmine for the question and to Elisabet for the pictures.

Pencils – Part 2


While HB pencils can be considered middle of the road, there are many other pencils out there especially if you are using them more for art purposes than just writing.


3H – Starting on the hard end of the pencil scale, this green Kimberly pencil was made by the General Pencil Company in the US. This family owned business has been in the Weissenborn family since 1889. These pencils are made in Jersey City, New Jersey, one of the few American pencil factories. I like the green and gold colour combination. Because of the hardness of the graphite, the line it makes is more grey than black but you can get a nice sharp line with it.


2B – I have three 2B pencils. One is a Daler Rowney which, although is a British art supply company, is made in Austria.

The next is a Grumbacher Sketching pencil, made in Germany, with a unique oval shape. Because of this shape it has to be sharpened with a knife, not a pencil sharpener. It is similar to a carpenter’s pencil in that it can’t roll away but I think the shape is designed to allow for thick and thin lines, rather than preventing it from rolling. This is an old pencil that I got from my mom’s limited art supplies. She took a course in oil painting at one time but I don’t remember her keeping up with it. It seems these pencils are not still being made.  

Finally, I have a Koh-I-Noor Hardtmuth Toison D’Or 1900 2B pencil. I wrote a bit about Koh-I-Noor pencils last week as I have an HB one too.

These are all good pencils but the Daler Rowney gives the darkest line. The uniqueness of the Grumbacher makes it my favourite.


4B – I have two Koh-I-Noor Hardtmuth 4B pencils. One is a 1500 and the other is another in the Toison D’Or 1900 line. It seems that the Toison D’Or 1900 line is more common in North America. They are both made in the Czech Republic and are very similar, if not identical, quality. Koh-I-Noor HB and 2B pencils have 2mm leads while the 4Bs have 2.5mm leads. Both of these pencils give a very smooth and dark line.


8B – The darkest and softest pencil I have is a blue Staedtler Mars Lumograph 100 pencil. It is considered premium quality in the Staedtler line. It has a thick lead and is very dark and smudgy. Definitely for sketching and not for writing.

If these odd ball pencils were people, they would all be artistes, that look down on the more familiar HBs despite their common origins and family ties.

HB Pencils

I have a fairly extensive collection of pencils and as it turns out, quite a few fall into the vintage category. In fact, I have so many I can’t cover them all in one blog so this week I will focus on my HB pencils. In the United States they call this a #2 pencil but for everywhere else in the world pencils are graded on a scale from Hard (H) to Black (B). The softer the pencil, the blacker the mark. HB pencils fall right in the middle. This all sounds very standardized but actually there is a difference between the various HB pencils I own.


Berol Turquoise – This Canadian made pencil is a vintage one as I don’t believe there are any more Canadian pencil factories. The Berol company goes way back to 1856 when a Bavarian immigrant to the US, Daniel Berolzheimer, founded the “Eagle Pencil Company”. Much later on (1969) the company changed its name to a shortened form of Berolzheimer but the family connection ended in 1987 when there was no 6th generation successor. I love the turquoise colour with the silver ferrule. I found that this was one of the darker HBs.                                 20170709_Dixon.jpg

Dixon Ticonderoga – This is another old American company. It was founded by Joseph Dixon who in 1873 bought the American Graphite Company based in Ticonderoga, New York. This classic yellow painted pencil was launched in 1913. It seems to me that all the pencils we used in school were yellow and this one is probably meant for a student because of the pink eraser on the end. I have a soft spot for this company because at one time they had a factory in Canada and when I had a job acquiring furnishings for the Ukrainian Cultural Heritage Village around 1990 they kindly donated some unpainted pencils that we were able to use in our school house.


Koh-I-Noor Toison D’Or – Koh-I-Noor pencils are made by the Czech Hardtmuth company, founded in 1790 by Joseph Hardtmuth of Austria. I consider this an art pencil but of course it could be used for writing too. Pencils are versatile that way. 


O’BON – This is a unique pencil with a body made from recycled newspaper rather than wood. It was purchased at a local store called Carbon. Not only does recycled newspaper save trees, the company claims it also protects the lead from breaking. I think it is cool how you can see the colour variation when it is sharpened in the part between the lead and the paint.      


Staedtler – Staedtler is another old pencil company, founded in 1835. It may not be made from recycled newspapers, but the wood is from certified, sustainably managed forests. I have two Staedtler HBs, the Norica 13246 (blue) and the Tradition (black and red). The Tradition is their higher quality line but I don’t notice a significant difference. In fact, I find the Norica a bit darker and it has a handy white eraser on the end.                             


Venus – The Venus was originally made by the American Lead Pencil Company but that company was eventually taken over by Faber-Castell. This vintage pencil was made in the US and despite its unassuming appearance, I find it one of the nicer pencils to actually use and it has a handy pink eraser.

The word “pencil” comes from the Latin penicillus meaning a “little tail”, so I think if a pencil was a person he would be a man. Tall and skinny, he is a bit old-fashioned and don’t let the bright coloured suit fool you, he is no dandy. He changes his mind easily so whether you think that makes him open-minded or wishy-washy is up to you.