Venetian Glass Pens

January 23, 2013


I love words. I love lines. I love the stories you can weave into books and drawings with a thousand swishes of a pen. I love typography and calligraphy and making sure that words and pictures get mixed together into a beautiful mess of this thing called Art.

I'm the sort of person who collects pens and art supplies and actually uses them all.

I'm also the sort of person who is inordinately fascinated by ultra cool trinkets, gadgets, and gizmos-- especially historical ones.

Last summer, I was being my usual procratinator self and browsing Etsy even though I had no money to spend. I found something that made me stare at the screen in astonished delight at the pure existence of the thing:

image via
Guys. GUYS. It's a glass pen-- literally, a pen made out of glass. Including the nib. This beautiful piece of craftsmanship is made by hand by the Thailand artisan J. Nagadhana, and this is her shop.

image via J. Nagadhana's blog
These pens originated in Venice in the 17th century. They were favored not only for their beauty but for their superiority over other dip pens (this was, of course, in the age of quills-- there was no such thing as a ballpoint pen or even a reloadable fountain pen). The nibs are made from twisted ribbed glass rods, and these grooves mean that the pen is capillary fed.

This means that the ink can be loaded up to the handle and the writer only has to dip the pen into the inkwell once every few lines or even pages!
image via

I'm including a gratuitous picture of Venice. Ahhh, the strange city built on stilts, where the people travel to the grocery store in boats, and see historical beauty in every direction. A city of extravagance and craftsmanship.

I really want to go to Venice someday.
I loved these pens so much and googled (to no avail) for tutorials. I quickly realized that this is not a DIY because I have no access to or knowledge of glassmaking tools. It didn't take me long to decide that this was what I would spend my birthday money on!


My first glass pen purchase was a Pulcinella Teal Glass Calligraphy Set (originally sold by Barnes and Noble) that I bought on eBay. It was a really great price, but arrived with a chipped tip. It barely wrote at all and I had to refill the pen every one or two words; a far cry from the two or three lines that the pen is supposed to last without being dipped into the inkwell.

However, it was such a great price that it totally wasn't worth the postage to return it and get a refund. The penstand, box, inkwell, and powdered ink were so pretty that I almost didn't want to return it anyways.

I'm usually a good hand a fixing things, so I thought "Oh yeah, it's no biggie! I'll just use my magic DIY skillz and make this pen wonderful!"


I rubbed the tip with the smallest sandpaper Dad has, 300 grit (I've since heard that 400 grit is the best for this sort of work). The tip was so chipped that I had to sand quite a lot in order to even everything out. Unfortunately, this also evened out the ribbing.


The pen could now write, but the ink welled up in strange ways (no matter if I filled the pen to the top of the ribbing or only dipped a little bit). The lines, when I could get the ink to flow, varied between ultra thick and wet to barely visible.


This page was the sad result of many attempts to write with the pen. The Jane Austen quote from earlier was also a ridiculously tedious process.

I'm much to stubborn to let a little thing like this let me down, however. After an hour of fiddling with the pen and being very let down that this cool trinket wasn't as cool as it promised to be, I had another brilliant idea.


POWER TOOLS FOR THE WIN.

Glass pens are made from glass rods which are heated and twisted, right? What if I just re-melted the tippy tip and make it pointy again?  I may never have worked with glass before in my life, but I figured that I was totally up to heating a stick with a propane torch, right?

Right?

I didn't realize that glass needs to be heated very, very slowly in order to melt and re-form without cracking.


That's an experiment gone wrong. So heads up for anyone who wants to try repairing a glass pen on their own: Don't, unless someone can teach you proper glassmithing techniques.


is it really bad that I used my Chinese tea cup for washing off ink??? I scrubbed it really, really well afterwards...
I ruined the cheap pen back in August, but the glass pens still haunted my thoughts. I searched until I found the site JetPens.com and purchased the small J. Herbin glass nib pen here. Unfortunately these pens appear to be no longer manufactured (or at least in stock), because when I wrote to the company asking if they had the colorful blue pen in the listing, they said that the only ones they have are the 9 plain ones left. I went for the classy maroon one.

The pen arrived incredibly quickly and I immediately fell in love! I also splurged on a bottle of Terre De Feu ink-- my excuse was that it would get me free shipping but really I wanted to have my first ever bottle of new ink. Everything I've used for calligraphy before is secondhand and a bit stiff. The ink is PWETTY.


The pen is small and writes with a medium-width line. I was afraid at first because the pen made grating noises on the paper, even though I was only brushing the glass across it gently, but after one or two lines it started to flow perfectly.


Glass pens aren't really calligraphy pens, because they only write in one width. However, I absolutely love the feeling of writing a letter with a glass pen, dipping it into a glass inkwell, and trying desperately to write in legible cursive.

(This is the curse of a 21st century artistic teen. I can do fancy calligraphy and can type really fast, but my everyday writing is sloppy manuscript. I even struggle to sign my own name in cursive. Seriously, have you ever tried quickly writing two cursive "n's" in a row? I thought not. I sign my name as Shaylym or Shaylynnn and half the time those "y's" just turn into up-and-down zig-zags instead of letters.)


If you overload the pen and write at an extreme angle, you can get half-controlled smudges. This worked really well in this Hobbiton drawing I recently completed. I've been trying to free up my linework for ink sketching, and not rely on pencil underdrawings. Kinda proud of this sketch. :)


I also drew another Hobbit hole in nearly the same style... only as fast as I could because speed-sketching is another thing I want to work on. And I drew a bird. So I may as well overload this post with yet ANOTHER picture. :)


Next on my list of cool old-fashioned things... pretty stationary paper and a sealing wax set.

And who knows, maybe I'll be able to justify buying another glass pen someday. I keep going back to the Etsy shop I first ran across, thinking how pretty one of those decorative flower pens would be.


(Just so you know, I was not compensated in any way or asked to do a review for these products. I just wanted to share these really cool novelty items that I purchased and my experiences with them!)

Update: I made a video of me playing with the glass pens if you'd like to check it out!

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28 COMMENTS

  1. WHY DID YOU DO THIS TO ME?!?!? Now I need a glass pen. We have dip pens and fountain pens galore, plenty of ink, sealing wax and seals (beat you there, ha!) because of my calligraphy and our whole Colonial reenactment thing, but a BEAUTIFUL VENETIAN GLASS DIP PEN THAT DOESN'T RUN OUT AFTER EVERY WORD AND CONTROLS THE FLOW OF INK. Why, Shaylynn? Why?

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  2. My sister has one, and between you and her....

    I want one.

    That is all.

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  3. I utterly adore your pictures! They are so way, way, way lovely!

    I'm going to gloat a bit here and say I actually OWN a glass pen. And the ink. And I love it for creating new languages with it. The ink just comes out in that proper, flowing-ink way, that just BEGS you to please, please, please create new letters for a language that doesn't exist!

    How is the speed-drawing going? I should practice that too, because I get hung up on the little details. I should just DRAW, and ignore the little things.

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  4. I definitely want to try one somdeday! I'm into calligraphy and wax seals and such at the moment. I highly recommend trying out wax seals, they're awesome and SO much fun :)The only problem I have is finding enough colors of wax to satisfy myself...:/ Completely jealous of your amazing hobbit hole drawing! How long did it take you to draw it?

    ~Mary

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  5. Ahhhh, you guys are all having the exact same reaction *I* did when I first heard about glass pens!

    Katrina-- thanks, this was so fun to take pictures of! What kinds of letters do you like to invent? I agree, there is something about fancy or old-fashioned writing tools that just inspires creativity...

    Speed sketching is coming along really well, because lately it's all I have time for! I'm getting better at not relying on erasers and underdrawings.

    Mary-- I need to just give in and get some sealing wax. :) I'd probably make my own stamp! Wonder how I could do it. The drawing took a little under an hour if I recall. It's been awhile! Tomorrow I am posting a video about the glass pens, the peacock drawing I do in that video took me 13 minutes.

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  6. SO neat!! Thanks for the great post! I think the hobbit house is amazing! :)

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  7. I love those glass pens. Beautiful drawings - the Hobbit house is great!

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  8. I love your pen and ink drawings. I have an Italian glass pen too, but I'm not very good with it. Blessings!

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  9. Love your drawings, the fact that they are made with a glass pen makes them even more special! Never heard of those before, but of course - those Venetians... :) Seems like a challenge to use! :)
    Happy Sunday Sketches!

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  10. This looks gorgeous! I definitely want to try one of these now :) Christmas wishlist I think :)

    Sarah @ A Cat-Like Curiosity

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  11. Wonderful pen illustrations with your glass pen and new ink ~

    Carol of: A Creative Harbor ^_^

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  12. awesome post! loved all of it! including your brave attempt at melting the tip!
    cheers, dana

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  13. Shaylynn, you put the ingest smile on my face this cold Sunday morning! Your writing is wonderful, with or without your magical glass pen! LOVE the blow torch photo! I wish I had been half as adventurous when I was your age...but I also was and am always in love with all things ancient and beautiful. an,t wait to see what you do with your sealing wax!

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  14. WOW! What a beautiful, artistic tool! Wonderful drawings! Happy SS

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  15. What an amazing post! Such knowledge you gained; what a sharing, thank you! I will keep my eye out for glass pens. I am sure I have seen them in garage sales before. I had no idea how one used them. Now I know.Thank YOU! and your art? Well it is simply delightful. Happy to find you here! Happy drawing, Happy Sunday Sketching!

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  16. OMG!! I totally had one of these and I LOVED it!!! It was absolutely my favourite thing to use - it never got stopped up like the other calligraphy pens, it always delivered a nice straight line and, as you've discovered, it allowed for angling for filling in. It was my fave for years and years when, one miserable day, just as you describe, I dropped it on the floor and the tip chipped!! I bought another quickly but there must be sthg to the quality bc it just didnt do anyting for me -- I honestly have stopped with calligraphy after that event! I love your piece, so involved and the ink is marvelous. THanks for sharing your fun process!

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  17. I've got one in a cupboard somewhere that someone bought me. Just off to dig it out. Thanks for the reminder

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  18. hello

    i loved reading every word
    seeing each photograph
    taking your journey to heart
    my sister lives in Italy and the first time i went there i looked in every shop for the pen like this to take home and a couple for gifts

    i have never been able to get them to write well. one now has a chipped nib, boo hoo.... but you have inspired me to try and use mine again, thank you.

    your sketches are wonderful!

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  19. Fascinating stuff! They're beautiful and make beautiful things. A good thing to see and read on a Sunday evening!

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  20. Stunning pens! Too bad I make such a mess with unconstrained liquid. Your sketches are beautiful.

    ♥ aquariann
    Art Update: Fantasy Mushroom Drawing

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  21. I sooooo want a glass pen now... just beautiful and they look like such fun to use... I am now off to hunt the internet for them... thanks for adding the video as well... great to watch...xx

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  22. Wow! I enjoyed your video so much. I have never seen a glass pen and love how lovely your sketches are. I had to smile when I saw the Jane Austen quote as she is my favorite.

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  23. OMG! The entire process of using the pen is so beautiful - right from dipping in the ink to cleaning it. You got me browsing through online stores for this pen!

    I also enjoyed you vlog! Very interesting. Also, the peacock you made was simply awesome! It came up like magic.

    Thanks for sharing!

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  24. oh my gosh.. What a stunning post... *sigh*... The glass pen is ... is... gosh.. amazing.. and i love how the writing and the sketching looks..

    Inspiring!!

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  25. I just bought several glass tipped pens from my visit to Murano. Unfortunately the points feel quite sharp, so I was also going to attempt to sandpaper it or something but your DIY didn't give me much hope :(

    I got to try a very rounded tip one in another shop that was amazingly delicate and beautiful to write with unfortunately I didn't buy it because I thought the ones I bought were similar. Off to ebay...

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  26. Fantastic design! Thanks for excellent sharing. I'm super picky about pens; I order the expensive Uni-ball roller pens when I get my classroom supplies and use them exclusively when I need a pen. Custom Pens You've found the best promotional pens made in the USA. These custom pens are the best ideas for promotional product pens because you are not just getting cheap promotional pens, you are getting printed promotional pens with your logo. You can get these promotional pens printed with business logo or promote your brand with any design of your choice for unique custom pens. These low cost promotional pens make great personalized business gift ideas. Custom pens is a great way to stand out.

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  27. So your Hobbit drawing was AMAZING! But about the glass pens, the one I own is from Germany, where you can buy them in most good stationers/arts and craft stores, and you can buy them on german ebay (ebay.de) if you fancy google translating an entire page! But it really is worth it, and the best thing is you can get these amazing ink pots/stands to put them in! Here's the link to the one I bought:
    http://stores.ebay.de/Muller-Schulwilm-Glasblaser-live/Glasschreiber-Glasfedern-/_i.html?rt=nc&_fsub=4147424018&_sid=1070922968&_trksid=p4634.c0.m14.l1581&_pgn=1
    Otherwise, you can just type in "Glasfeder"

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  28. My name is John and I do lampworking. I have just recently started making dip pens but need more practice. In about a month or so, I should have the process down and should be able to turn them out in custom colors pretty quick. I'm also working on vessels that I would make as a set. There is a sandstone quarry not to far away that I'm going to try to use as a base/stand. Since you are very fond of your glass pens and I'm just starting out, does this sound like a decent idea? Please let me know. I can be contacted at hoganpuppy@msn.com.
    Thanks,
    John
    Prometheus Glass Works

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