Dealing with Ink and Paper Problems

Every calligrapher will have experienced a fabulous moment – however fleeting –  when all the materials (paper, nib, ink) are in harmony, and the letters are forming miraculously on the page!

When it doesn’t feel like that – when it’s a bit of a fight – it’s up to the calligrapher to work out what is wrong.

It’s worth having a few materials that you find are reliable for you (so for example it might be your favourite No2 nib, Higgins Eternal and Fabriano Artistico paper) – let’s call them your base set.

Suppose you’ve been tempted into trying some handmade paper, and a fabulous new ink you were given.  You’re using a tried and tested nib, but the result is hairy caterpillars where you were hoping for letters…. So is it the ink or is it the paper?

Wooly text

You need to go back to your base set and satisfy yourself that they are working well together – then change just ONE element.

Base set

Put the ink from your base set aside, clean your pen, and try using the new ink on your tried and tested paper from your base set – how did it go?

Now clean the pen again, bring back the ink from your base set, but swap to the new handmade paper and have another try.

You should now be better informed about the new ink and the paper –  and might have some thoughts on what to try in order to avoid the caterpillars!


If it was the ink you could try…

– giving the ink a good stir.

– having the reservoir further away from the nib edge, or a more sloped board.

– applying Gum Sandarac onto your paper.


If it was the paper you could try…

– using the other side of the paper.

– applying Gum Sandarac onto your paper.


Adding a waterproof coating to the paper (this would take lots of experimentation, but for example a dilute layer of acrylic paint can create a good writing surface)

But hang on…. Using Gum Sandarac is suggested in both lists, so let’s just have a quick look at that.

Gum Sandarac  is a tree resin, and comes either as crystals or as a powder – as calligraphers we need it to be a very fine powder which can be achieved using a mortar and pestle (not one you’d use for food please).

A small amount  (say 1 teaspoon) of the fine yellow powder is then tied in a sheet of cotton or linen.

Gum Sandarac
Crystals, ground powder and a bag for dabbing


The cotton bag is dabbed onto the paper, leaving a very fine coating on the paper.  If there are any large granules they can be dusted off (with a large clean brush or the feathery part of a feather) – but don’t dust off everything, and don’t be tempted to blow on the paper because that will certainly remove too much powder and you risk getting saliva on the paper too.

Dabbing with Gum Sandarac

Because gum sandarac is water resistant it will be slightly resistant to the ink, meaning that the ink is less likely to bleed, so it’s time to experiment with the new ink and the new paper (maybe separately at first).

Sharper text

It’s not magic!  (You can see in the example that the fibres of the paper are coming loose – but the sandarac has certainly resolved the bleeding problem.)

If the ink or the paper in the example were particularly prone to bleeding then gum sandarac will not save the day, but it is a very useful addition to your calligraphers’ kit bag, offering you sharper lettering on some surfaces.


9 thoughts on “Dealing with Ink and Paper Problems”

  1. There are other solutions to unavoidable mistakes and one is to use a very sharp blade and gently scratch off the drip or drop or fat line you’ve just made. In most cases the imperfection will not be deeper than the top layer of your paper and so it’s relatively easy to scratch off the mistake. Remember, once you’ve scratched the surface you cannot put another line in the scratched area otherwise you will make a new and hairy spot to deal with.

    1. Tricia Thompson-Browne

      Yes that’s worked for me but depends on the quality of the paper. Worked fine on Arches hot press and I ‘burnished’ the place with a hot spoon!

  2. Veronica Morgan

    I bought a ‘pounce’ which looks like your solution for smooth writing some years ago. Would this have the same gum sandarac inside the fine fabric as the one you suggest making?I use it on paper that bleeds and it does help.

  3. Also write with liquefied Gouache – sits on the paper rather than soaking in, and is fine on papers that don’t have much sizing. And using a brush instead of a pen causes less scratching of surface.

  4. I have had some success with sandarac – used too much one time and clogged the nib ! Still fairly easy fix and did solve the problem. Quite magical! Also use Gouache to write with rather than ink which sits on the paper rather than soaking in and can be used with papers that don’t have much sizing. The scraping method worked for me a couple of times, but mostly with good quality paper, usually Arches hot press or similar – and burnish the area with a hot spoon !

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Message Calligraphers:×1 Send Message