Drawing DIY: Making Pens from Scratch
Artists have made their own pens for as long as they’ve made pen-and-ink drawings. But have you tried making pens from … sticks?
This drawing hack is not only a fun, do-it-yourself project, but it is also a great way to save some money on art supplies. Below, artist Margaret Davidson shows us how it’s done in just six simple steps. Enjoy!
Choosing A Stick
There are two main considerations when looking for a stick to turn into a pen: It needs a hollow shaft, and it must be soft enough to cut with a knife.
Reed has these qualities, as do forsythia and bamboo, which grow in more northerly climates. When harvesting I look for bamboo or forsythia sticks that are about as big around as my ring finger, with a hollow core about 1⁄8-inch in diameter. I cut the sticks off near the ground with pruners, and then trim them to the desired length when I get back to the studio.
I cut the sticks off near the ground with pruners, and then trim them to the desired length when I get back to the studio.
Making The Pen
To get started, you’ll need the following materials:
- The desired stick(s)
- A knife (you can use a jackknife, although I find it easier and safer to work with a blade that isn’t inclined to fold up in my hand)
- A mat knife
- A piece of thin aluminum — for example, a section of a pop can.
Make sure the hollow core in your cut branch is about 1⁄8-incb in diameter. Trim the stick to your desired length.
Using the pruners, cut one end off at an angle.
Using either knife, shave the angle to the drawing tip that you want — either a blunt end or a pointed one. This also thins the wood slightly. If you’re using forsythia, you may want to shave the bark away from the end, as well.
Pens need a split tip, which causes the tip to spread when pressed down, allowing the ink to flow smoothly. The best tool for splitting a stick’s tip is a straight blade. A mat knife works perfectly.
Lay your stick on a table with the longer, pointed side at the bottom and the tip flush with the edge of the table. Push straight down with the mat knife to cut a straight slit in the middle of the tip.
Try to split the tip right in the middle. This can be tricky, and if you don’t get it quite right, you can further trim the tip with your knife until the split falls in the middle.
Next, you need to make an ink regulator — a tiny but tremendously important component that will regulate the ink flow, enabling your pen to lay down even lines without gushing blobs at the beginning of every stroke.
With your scissors, cut a strip from the pop can that is narrow enough to fit into the hollow core of your stick. This should be at least 1″ long and can be longer. Bend this strip into a “J” shape by running the strip between your thumb and index finger as you do with curling ribbon.
Insert the regulator into the hollow core of the stick in such a way that the curved part is inside the pen and the top of the J rests against the pen tip but does not stick up beyond it. Once the regulator is in place, you’re ready to draw.
Dip your pen in a jar of ink, grab a pad of drawing or watercolor paper, and get to work. When the point of your pen starts to wear out, soften or split, simply cut the soft part away and shape a new tip on the same stick.
You’ll quickly find that different types of pens have their own personalities and produce different kinds of lines.
A stick pen lets you be freer than any steel-nib or quill pen can, as the stick will move in any direction without snagging and will curve and zigzag and stop on a dime.
Stick pens make broader and heavier marks than do pens with steel nibs, even when the tip is carved to a fine point. This kind of mark has its own joy — strong, rough and eager to be seen. The contrast is high and vivid, and when the pen runs low of ink you get wonderful broken, scruffy strokes.
Stick pens are excellent for landscape drawing, as you can see in van Gogh’s Street in Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer.
For still life drawing I find they work best on things that aren’t delicate — I probably wouldn’t draw a lace doily with a stick pen, but heavier cloth and wooden objects work out just fine.
You can use almost any ink with a stick pen. Some of my favorites are Pelikan black drawing ink and Pro Art India ink. I mix my own brown ink from dried peat-based crystals that I buy from the Paper & Ink Arts website. But any ink you buy in the art store will work just fine.
Enough talk from me. Start carving!
“Making Pens from Sticks” is an excerpt featured in a past issue of Drawing magazine.