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.




Ted Baker and onsite calligraphy!

So, usually I’m quite cagey online about my client work; I won’t post anything to social media until after the event or relevant date has passed, and even then only with the permission of the client.  It’s just better that way; why risk accidentally spoiling the surprise for a first-anniversary-present, or accidentally announcing to the internet that such-and-such will be at x place at y time and their home will be empty? The odds of anything terrible happening are astronomically low, but I’d rather be safe than sorry.

However, this particular client said “Yes, please!” to social media, and I’m having a heap of fun doing the work, so I’m pretty excited to share this!

ChocolatesTed Baker London has teamed up with Koko Black to create a signature caramel chocolate bar for the brand, and while the promotion is running they have calligraphers in-store to personalise each chocolate for eligible customers.

What that means is: some seriously fancy chocolates.

There are a few challenges inherent in writing on wrapped chocolate bars.  For one, pointed pen calligraphy relies on pressure and release, and you can imagine it’s a bit tricky to wield a sharp pointed nib against a chocolate bar!  Another: it’s not remotely a flat, smooth surface to work on; it’s hard enough using an ordinary pen on something lumpy, let alone a flex nib.

I asked Ted to send me a sample beforehand so that I could work out my options, and they very kindly did so.  I had been thinking that brush pen was the only way to go, and laid in a few extra Zig Stella pens with that in mind. But when the sample arrived, it turned out that the paper is juuuuust smooth enough to make it work if I use a very flexible nib, go very slowly, and keep a very steady hand.

I ended up bringing the brush pens just in case, but as you can see in the picture, I’m managing a loose modern copperplate over the chocolate without much trouble.  I’m using a Japanese gold sumi ink (this one, with added gum arabic as a binder) which gives a slightly raised effect and doesn’t take very long to dry.  And it’s all working very well.  The staff at Ted Baker are absolutely delightful and everyone’s fascinated by my oblique penholder – I’ve been asked a lot of questions about it.  I’m having a fantastic time, and I’m looking forward to the next two sittings next weekend.  I really hope the trend for onsite calligraphy catches on in Melbourne – I’d love to do more of this!