Saturday, October 02, 2010

The ruling pen



I’ve been trying to work out how to use a ruling pen. In case it’s new to you too, this is actually a drafting tool, and I learned about it in the calligraphy book I mentioned a few posts back.

It took me a while to work out how to use it at all. Eventually I did find a blog post explaining that it should be viewed as two nibs and that ink or gouache can be loaded into the curved nib from a small brush. The screw is used to adjust the width between the nibs. Close together will give a thin line, while further apart gives a wider line. (Unlike the way I used it right back at the beginning of the month, wide apart to achieve double lines. Altho’ I guess this is ok too – maybe I’ve invented a new use!)

In the book, Denise Lach talks about varying the speed of writing, the tilt of the pen and the smoothness/roughness of the surface in order to create varied effects. I bought a small pad of canvas paper, thinking this surface might help me to get the gorgeous splattering effect shown in the book. As you can see from my page of attempts below, it’s not straightforward!


Above:No splatters!


Next I tried writing on some rough watercolour paper and towards the end of my efforts, by holding the pen quite loosely, I managed one little splatter, but not much!

So if anyone can offer any more specific advice on how the splatter effect is achieved, I’d really love to hear from you!


  1. Hi Amanda

    I love writing with ruling pens - they allow for free and expressive writing. My advice is - dip the ruling pen in ink so a lot of the reservoir is filled (that means you get more than one go at a stroke). Also hold it pretty much on an angle (that way you get the nice thicks - for thins, hold it more vertical/upright) and I think move fast is probably the best advice. You rarely get more than one good thick stroke out of a ruling pen so I am often dipping stroke, dipping stroke...

  2. I agree with all fiona is saying..... and I'll add a few other bits and bobs (for the past 15 years the ruling pen has been one of my fav calligraphic tools.... the middle spread in the 'learning absences' booklet was done with a ruling pen... gosh I'll have to write a post sometime soon about ruling pens - maybe after I finish the permy course....and write that chapter....and get up to date with my arty making.... and... and.. and ....)

    oops back to ruling pen hints and ideas....

    I tend to hold my ruling pen with an overhand grip - not like a pen resting in your hand... with my overhand grip I almost rest the pen parallel to the paper for very thick lines then swing it up to almost perpendicular to the paper for thins (just as fiona was describing)

    I load my pen from the side with a brush - and find sumi ink is best - but watercolour or thinned down gouache can also be v successful

    and as fiona says - move fast fast fast! (mind you - you can get some very evocative and emotive marks with a tentative staggered approach...)

    I have a collection of different ruling pens (your little one there looks like one I've found v. difficult to use - but I may be wrong) some of the old ones occasionally found in op shops and the like are simple to die for! (I once saw the collection of ruling pens of thomas ingmire - a calligrapher known for his work with a ruling pen - I also watched him demo his technique .... what an eye opener!)

    hope you continue enjoying the little beastie!

  3. I was going to say "ask Ronnie" and also check her Learning Absences.
    I have not used one for probably more than 40 years! But I do remember that I got a looser, more art-y(as opposed to neat engineering!)look when I held the pen well up the shaft. And splatters? Argh! Bain of fine work. Merely bumping the wretched thing has ruined many a piece!
    D'you know...I might just have to get myself a ruling pen and play around!

  4. Thanks for all your suggestions! Actually, you are all rural people, so you probably buy your supplies online - where is your favourite place for calligraphy supplies?

    "Free and expressive" sounds exactly what I am trying to achieve Fiona - so at least I'm on the right track.

    Ronnie - thanks for the tip on the overhand grip, that is something I haven't tried. I wondered if my pen was part of the problem. I bought it at Eckersley's so not a specialist calligraphy supplier, but it was the only one I could track down.
    (BTW I appreciate you taking time out to offer the benefit of your experience).

    You too Di, thanks. Yep, the last example I posted was written holding further up the shaft, so I guess I was getting somewhere! As for splatters, well, I guess there's splatters, and there's splatters, hey?

    I'm off to examine Ronnie's book closely - I'm such a novice I hadn't realized you used a ruling pen! Thanks again!

  5. Amanda, if you google calligraphy pens australia you should find something. I know there was/is a place in Brisbane.

  6. I have a ruling pen in my father's school set of pens, compass etc. and I guess they about 85 years old. I've never used the ruling pen, not having the slightest idea what it was until reading about them recently in a calligraphy article. I can see I have something else to play with.

  7. Oh that is so lovely Carol! how wonderful for you! I love owning those sort of items, and if you can make use of it too, it would be so special!

  8. Hi again - one of the best calligraphy supply shops is Wills Quills in Sydney;; another excellent one is John Neal in the US (and with the $ almost = it offers opportunities...

  9. Oh thanks for that Fiona. I did stumble across them and I wondered what they were like. Good to hear a recommendation.
    Has anyone bought from The Pen Shoppe in Brisbane city? Any thoughts?

  10. Hi Amanda and friends

    This video of Italian Calligrapher Massimo Polello at work shows him creating the splatter effect at about 5 minutes to 5min 20secs in.
    He's using an Automatic pen (that's the brand - unfortunately you have to steer them) in an unconventional way - but just like a ruling pen. You can make your own ruling pen from a Coke can. I imagine Massimo is writing on rough watercolour paper, too.

    But I hope you'll look at the whole of the video. I find it totally inspiring and I can't wait to try some of his paint dribbling techniques. His website is

    He's contributed two pieces to my new calligraphy book, 'Practical Calligraphy' pub. by Hinkler and in Target, QBD and other stores.

    I'm Brisbane based - Stafford Heights - and have a collection of Automatic pens you're welcome to try in my studio (You'll find me as Peter Taylor's Calligraphics in the phonebook, or - Peter (at)

    I also do a small amount of bookbinding and artists book making, papermaking and other crafts - and used to do etching (and in a past life was a curator of natural history in a UK museum). Thank you so much for all that you're sharing on this blog - I'll have to try the copper sulphate sometime.

    Here are instructions for making a pen from a Cola can.

    You'll find more shapes at

    All best wishes


  11. Hi Peter,
    Nice to "meet" you, especially as you're another Brisban-ite! Thanks for those links. The video is just beautiful! Quite a meditation, and interesting to see how he uses the automatic pen. I hope you don't mind, but I'm going to share it in a post, in case people don't see it in the comments. I will definitely give the cola pen a try too. I'm still very, very new to all things calligraphy, so I guess it is a matter of trying things out and seeing what suits me. Many thanks!

  12. Hi Amanda,
    I am so happy I stumbled upon your site after Googling "how to write with a ruling pen"! I've been having a devil of a time figuring this darn thing out, same as you, so thank you for taking the time to post about your experiences. Your other commenters have added terrific advice and suggestions, and I thank them, too. I'm hoping for success for us both! Best wishes from the US, and btw, John Neal is fabulous, also check out Paper & Ink arts at

  13. Hi Amanda,

    I am a iconographer from Finland. I fonud your blog while I was looking for information on ruling pens. I recently used one combined with a pair of compasses for making the line for the halo.

    Now I am preparing a blogpost about the icon, but I would need a picture of a ruling pen. (I don´t have a pen of my own yet.) Can I copy your picture, please?

  14. Hi Katakos,
    I'm very happy for you to use my photo, and thanks so much for asking first. (Sorry I couldn't find an email address for you, so I'm just answering here - hope you find it!)
    All the best,