Tools and materials used by calligraphers


The reed used both as a musical instrument (the ney) and as a pen is possibly the only tool evocative of the mystic atmosphere of the Islamic and oriental world. Reeds gathered from the marshy banks of lakes and rivers are far from being usable as pens in their raw state. These yellowish white reeds are placed in manure which maintains a constant organic temperature to dry. As they harden they change colour according to the type of reed, becoming reddish brown, light or dark brown, or even black. The end is cut into a nib, which requires recutting every so often. In the case of long texts such as korans, this causes a problem, because even the slightest difference in the width of the nib after recutting noticeably alters the appearance of the writing, which constitutes a serious aesthetic flaw, particularly in the case of nesih and similar fine hands. Therefore, when writing long texts in fine script, pens made from the hard, straight and slender stipule, black in colour, which grows from the base of the leaves of a tropical tree in Java is used. The tips of these pens, which are known as Cava kalemi, are extremely hardwearing. To write with thicker lines, correspondingly thicker reeds the diameter of a ney are used to make pens known as kargi kalem, or hard bamboo stems may be employed. However, even these are not large enough to write some of the celî scripts, for which pens of the desired size carved of wood and known as agaç kalem or tahta kalem are used.

Extremely large celî inscriptions cannot be written directly by hand at all, since a pen large enough to produce the letters would be too heavy to hold and supplying an ink flow would be impossible. Such inscriptions are first written on a smaller scale and then enlarged by means of squaring. To nib a reed pen, it is laid in the palm of the left hand, and cut away on the slant until the central cavity and wall take on an almond shape. Since this flat part projects like a tongue, it is known as the kalem dili. The tip of this flat section is then cut across to obtain the desired width. The splitting of the nib to a depth of several centimetres is known as kalem şakki. When performing this operation it is essential that the split be exactly parallel to the pen shaft. The crack thus formed serves to contain a store of ink, which flows down to the nib as the pen writes. When splitting the nib with a penknife or kalemtiraş, the pen is laid over the groove of a makta. Both these items are described in detail on the following page.

Cutting and shaping the nib, also carried out on the makta, is a process known as kalemi makta'a vurmak or katt-i kalem. A newly sharpened pen produces an extremely clear-cut hand, but as the nib wears down the letters become flawed, and it must be sharpened on the makta again. Cutting the nib on the slant was the invention of Yâkűtü'l-Musta'simî (?-698/1298) and results in the writing slanting towards the writer, who continues to hold the pen in a natural position. The ta'lîk pen is less sharply slanted than the sülüs, but more so than the nesih, while the rik'a nib is only very slightly slanted. Holding the pen so that the slanted edge of the nib rests fully on the paper and moving it downwards produces a fine line, and moving it from right to left results in a thick line. Sometimes the calligrapher turns the pen in his hand to produce different aesthetic effects. Since the size of the characters is measured in points, and the size of a point depends on the width of the nib, the pen is the most vital element of aesthetic quality in calligraphy.

Pens are sometimes kept in cases containing an inkwell at one end known as divit, and sometimes in cylindrical or rectangular boxes known as kalemdan, which may be plain or decorative. The cylindrical type of kalemdan is known as a kubur. Small protective covers were used to prevent the pen nibs from becoming damaged or worn when not in use. The pen is mentioned in the first verses of the Koran to be revealed, and sűrah LXVIII is entitled The Pen. Both this fact and the benefit to humanity of this instrument meant that it was treated with reverence, and even when a pen had been sharpened so often that it was too small to use, it was not thrown away at random, but either tossed onto a rooftop or buried in a spot where people were not likely to tread. The chips produced while sharpening the nib were treated with similar respect, and when a certain amount had accumulated were buried in an out-of-the-way place.