In-store calligraphy: managing an event

As a working calligrapher in 2016 I get to do all sorts of things. Most of my work I do from home, in the peace and comfort of my studio; most jobs mean long hours alone. I like it that way, of course – most calligraphers do, I think! None of us would do this job if we didn’t.

Which makes it all the more fun and interesting to be asked to attend an event as a calligrapher. It’s a real joy to work with and in front of people, and to get a chance to talk with people about what my job is and how my pen works and how I learned to do it.

I’ve heard these events described as “event calligraphy,” “on-the-spot calligraphy,” “in-store calligraphy” – I don’t know if there’s a name for it. I generally go with “event calligraphy” for ease of reference.

And I have a few tips for managing these events, most learned from experience. If you’re planning to hire a calligrapher for your guests, here’s what you need to know.


I often get  questions about how large or how high the table has to be, and my usual answer is: if you would find it comfortable to sit and write at it for two (or four, or five, or eight) hours, then I probably will, too.  I once arrived to find a stool the same height as the table, so there was a small delay while we found another chair that was low enough for me to work.  I’m lucky enough not to have any physical movement problems personally, but some calligraphers do, of course. And we all need to be able to reach the table!

Calligraphers need room for arm movement – or at least, I do, and I imagine anyone writing in the same style as me does. So the table doesn’t need to be so very large, but it does need to have enough space for a few bottles of ink, some pens, and the paper that I’m writing on, and there needs to be room to move my right arm and shoulder without hitting anything behind it. That’s about it.


If you can get your calligrapher a sample ahead of time, she’ll love you! Not all ink reacts the same way to all paper, and having a sample to test inks on can save a little messing about on the day. If you can’t – don’t worry. I always bring along several types of ink and a few calligraphy ‘trade secrets’ (I’m talking about gum sandarac, of course) so that I maximise the chance of finding the right combination.

In general, very absorbent papers and very glossy papers are difficult; most high-quality cards and tags are fine.

Queue management:

People love watching calligraphy. (Which is fair enough, since calligraphers love doing it.) The most successful events I have been to were the ones in which a member of staff kept a watchful eye on the queue, standing by the calligraphy table and managing expectations. Calligraphy is a slow process!  I can speed it up for demonstration purposes, but if there are a lot of people in line, it can be a long and frustrating wait. It’s great to have a staff member on hand to keep track of who’s waiting, to enforce a certain number of tags (or cards, or chocolates, or items) per person, and to make sure everyone leaves happy.

I highly recommend limiting calligraphed items to one per person, at least when there’s a queue. I have had some interesting experiences with clients requesting six or eight items while there was a queue ten deep behind them. As the calligrapher in that situation, it’s very difficult to say no, even if boundaries have been agreed before hand – things are a little simpler with a staff member who has the authority to say “No, just one each, please.”


Even for those of us who do it every single day, nonstop handwriting is tiring! If your event goes for more than two or three hours, try to arrange a time for your calligrapher to take five or ten minutes off halfway through. It’s good if your queue manager can be aware of this so they can let clients know.

And one more thing:

If you think it’ll be too busy and you’ll have too many customers for a calligrapher to manage … hire two!  It’s a small calligraphic world, particularly in Australia, and we pretty much all know each other – chances are good that any one of us can connect you with several more. And the more calligraphy the better, as far as any of us are concerned.

What are your thoughts on event calligraphy? What would you like to know? Comments are always welcome.




A calligraphy emergency could strike ANYWHERE. Be prepared!

I’m not saying I pack my calligraphy travel kit before I pack my clothes when I’m going away … but I’m not not saying it. I think my priorities are perfectly in order, don’t you?

Anyway, there was some recent discussion of what we take with us when we travel and how, so, here it is – the kit I take with me whenever I’m likely to have some downtime in a pleasant place. 

It miiiight be a little excessive, but I stand by my decisions.

(I mean, it is also the kit I take with me to classes locally, which is why it’s so thorough. Usually when I go to a local class or to somewhere that doesn’t involve flying I’ll take liquid ink as well. And if I’m going somewhere I know I’ll be very busy, I’ll pare it right down. But this is the standard.)

Here we go.  The blue bag is a rubbish little thing I bought years ago from a kid’s stationery store (Smiggle, if you have those over there!) but it’s actually the perfect size and shape and I love it. I haven’t found anything better to upgrade to in all that time.

Back section:

Travel kit - back sectionPictures should click through, if you really need to see close ups … maybe I should have washed the bag first … maybe.  (Inkstains are part of the chaaaaaarm!) 

So, closer view: 


My three most-frequently-used Parallel Pens: 4.5mm (specially cut down), 3.8mm and 2.4mm.  I have the 6mm and the 1.5mm also but I don’t use them anywhere near as often (and I don’t really like the 1.5mm; there’s not much difference between thicks and thins. If I’m working that small I just use a William Mitchell nib). For travelling I wash the barrels out (thoroughly!) and load them with cartridges. At home I’ll sometimes eyedropper-fill them with whatever ink I prefer at the moment, but I don’t trust the barrel seal in an aeroplane.

Broad pens – I don’t like forever taking nibs in and out, especially if I’m working with a few different sizes at once, so it just makes sense to have a bunch, right? I think I have here most of the Speedball C-series and one lonely William Mitchell.

Two empty holders, one oblique and one straight. Just in case.

An oblique holder with a very fine nib – Esterbrook 356 or 355, I think? – and one with my beloved Leonardt EF Principal. I might need either! SHHH. I just don’t like to be very far away from them …

Hot foil pen!

Finally, my hot foil pen and a packet of foils! This is my favourite new toy and I’ll have to do a review post on it soon, since there’s not much information out there.  It’s not really gilding and it’s not really writing with gold, but it’s definitely the closest thing to gilding you can manage in a travel kit – and it’s an awful lot of fun. That’s a rainbow foil on the top, but there’s blue, red, green, silver and gold in the package, too – so many options!  

Now the front section:

Front section

I cram a lot into a small space. 

Brushes and tools


Let’s see.  So, an assortment of stirring sticks and spoons (I like those little airplane spoons and always try to save them!); an assortment of brushes.  Mostly 1, 0, and 00 watercolour brushes of varying grades, for painting and mixing, although I can see I’ve got one long one in there for brush lettering.  No flat brushes this time, oddly.  A pipette – always useful.

More specialised tools next.  My ruling pen – just a very cheap eBay one, but it’s more useful than i would have thought.  I like lettering with it;  I LOVE ruling with it.  For some reason I never realised how useful it could be to have an adjustable-width monoline pen you can fill with any kind of paint or ink and rule a perfectly straight line with!

Speaking of which:  my fluid writer.  It’s a monoline pen you can fill with any kind of paint or ink … but you can draw with it rather than rule straight lines.  It’s also incredibly useful for adding tiny dots – handy when illuminating capitals or decorating acanthus leaves.

An automatic pen (number 3.5, I think?)  I don’t know why I love it so much, but I just do. It’s a lot more forgiving and flexible than a parallel pen, and you can really load it with anything – including masking fluid or gold size – and still get a perfect line.

An automatic pencil – always need a pencil!  One 0.01 micron pen and two Copic fineliners (0.05 and 0.01, I think). 

Other side

And tucked in the other side, all my little bits and pieces.  Top to bottom, more or less:

Finetec gold.  You ALWAYS need gold. This is just a refill pan, which you can get separately – much more portable!  

It’s sitting on top of a couple of sheets of blotting paper. Next to that, in the plastic tub, a kneaded eraser. Next to that, another little tub full of walnut crystals – these are my favourite ink to travel with, because you just add a sprinkle of these to a tiny bit of water at the other end! 

Next, a package of mixed-colour Parallel Pen refills.  I don’t think much of the ink and it has a tendency to feather on nearly everything, but it’s great for layout work and the colour-changing is just plain fun.

A brush rest (well, a pen rest for me more often than brushes). This one I’ve had for a thousand years or so; I’m not even sure where it came from. It’s much fancier than most of my pen rests, which I usually make on the spot just by folding up a bit of paper and snipping a V into them … 

Two little empty tubs, for ink.  I’ve found about a quarter of an aeroplane-spoon of walnut crystals is the right amount for a tub this tiny, and I’m not likely to use much more than that unless I’m doing something serious. 

In the middle there, a stick of ink and a little tiny grindstone, in case I need black. I bought the stick in an art store in Kansas once upon a time and I’m very fond of it, even though it’s quite low-quality ink as far as stick ink goes.  Stick ink is great for travelling as well as being the best ink to practice with even at home for my money – it just takes a little patience, which I often don’t have … 

A travel toothbrush (with a few blunter pointed nibs shoved in the case for off-hand flourishing practice) for cleaning nibs after use;  a tiny travel toothpaste for cleaning nibs before use. I’m not really sure why there’s two toothpastes in there at the moment. Maybe, like bobby pins, they breed in the dark? Maybe there’ll be three next time I open it!

Blu-tac – blu-tac that I mostly use to plant my tiny plastic tubs of ink into, to make sure I don’t knock them over with a casual flying hand because they’re so little and light.

A little glassine envelope of spare pointed nibs, and a little Leonardt tin of spare broad nibs.  I usually have at least one spare of all my favourites, and usually more … I like to be prepared, what can I say? (I was, indeed, a Boy Scout!  — well, I was a Scout, anyway. Well, a Cub; I don’t think I made it to Scouts.) 

And that last pink thing is a tiny magnifying glass the size of a credit card.

It all packs up very neatly into the little blue case, which goes in my handbag. I’ve only ever once had airport security ask questions – they just looked through it curiously before putting it back in. Of course a scalpel and a craft knife are not part of the kit when I’m flying!  When I’m taking it to and from local workshops, I slip those in, but so far I’ve always remembered to take them out before flying.

The other thing that’s usually in there and isn’t today (not sure why) is a carpenter’s pencil – the flat type.  Those are great for practicing, because you can sharpen them to any width you like, and you can practice anywhere with a pencil.  I’ll have to remember to put them back in.


And that has been my travel kit.  I have to take it with me – can you imagine if someone needed calligraphy and – gasp! – I didn’t have my kit? A calligraphy emergency can strike at any time, kids! You need to be careful!

(Of course there are plenty of calligraphers out there who can work magic with anything – I’ve seen people make beautiful art with a ballpoint pen – but I’m just not that good.)



You know, I like to tell people that you don’t need anything special to learn calligraphy except for a nib, a holder and some ink.  And then I look at the amount of Calligraphy Stuff I seem to have amassed, and I suspect that I might be a little mistaken about that first part. Just a touch.

Calligraphy On Bikes

Photo also by Danni of girl parts :)
Photo by Danni
I’ve done some lettering on drinking glasses before, and I painted Christmas baubles last year, but this was a first for me: a bike frame!
Masking tape and pencil: so useful!
Masking tape and pencil: so useful!

Danni is a bike mechanic, and she has a project – Mackenzie. Mackenzie is a Crannaford bike, which is an Australian make that is no longer, er, made. Danni asked me to do the lettering, guiding me to keep the spirit of the original logo, but not to sweat the small details – which I was glad of, since I don’t have any kind of lettering or design training, only calligraphy!

I was actually quite nervous about this one. Lettering on a curved surface is always difficult, to start with. I’ve also never worked with enamel before, so I wasn’t sure how it was going to flow and to what extent I’d be able to keep my letters looking like letters… and of course, it’s not so easy to throw out a vintage bike and start over as it is a sheet of watercolour paper. So I spent a lot of time measuring and planning before I dared touch it with the paint. I needed to write it twice – once on each side of the frame – and I needed it to be the same size and in the same place on each side, obviously, and I certainly wasn’t about to employ my usual approach of “let’s just wing it and see” on someone else’s project.

This is what the original logo looked like - picture by Danni
This is what the original logo looked like – thanks to Danni for the picture!
As you can sort of tell from the result, I ended up using quite goopy enamel. I did consider putting thinner in it, but we weren’t sure if the thinner Danni had would work with that paint – and I also wasn’t sure that it would produce a decent result, since the enamel was already quite transparent. We were already wondering if gold on aqua would stand out enough.

(The colour is called “lagoon blue,” I am told … but it looks pretty aqua to me.)

I used a small flat brush (necessitating a little bit of messing about to transfer the enamel from the container it came in, which already had a brush, similar to a bottle of nail polish) and then an 00 watercolour brush to try to tidy up the edges, wherever the gold went ragged. It took quite a long time, although I think it would go faster next time, now that I have more than zero experience with it.

The aesthetic Danni was after included brush strokes, so I didn’t have to worry about a perfectly smooth result – which is lucky, as I don’t know how I’d have achieved that.

We will see how it dries, but I’m quite pleased with the result. I won’t point out the sections that give me trouble – readers who are calligraphers will see them straight away, and readers who aren’t don’t need to know :)

In exchange for my painting, Danni gave my own bike a service, which I’m very grateful for – she rides like a dream now, smoother than ever before! My trip home should have taken ten minutes, but I had to do a few extra loops of the museum out of sheer pleasure. I think perhaps I’ll test out my newly-acquired bike painting skills on my own top tube …