Is the reed pen the oldest pen in the world? It’s pretty close! From ancient Babylonian styluses to medieval Arabic qalams, the reed or bamboo stylus has a long and ancient history as a writing instrument. But why would would anyone want to use these scratchy old dip pens today? We test out some wedge tipped bamboo reed pens to find out if there’s still something special about this rudimentary tool for writing, drawing and calligraphy.
Reviewing the Bamboo Reed Pen
Vishal: Hello and welcome to Stationery Test Drive with Inky Memo where we look at tools and implements and fun things in the world of stationery.
Minjal: Today we’re looking at the Reed Pen, which if you think about it, the history of the Reed Pen is actually very much the history of writing. So this is quite an impressive instrument!
Samir: I’m Samir.
Vishal: I’m Vishal.
Minjal: This is Minjal.
Vishal: And just like the Reed Pen is impressive, it’s also old, just like us.
Minjal: We do establish that in every episode!
Vishal: Yes, we are elder millennials and borderline Gen X’ers and other things like that and just like us this one is a really surprising and strange and old implement. A Reed Pen kind of just is that. It’s a reed, it’s a piece of grass that has been dried out and carved into being writing tool. In some ways it might be the oldest writing tool.
What is a Reed Pen?
Samir: It’s definitely one of the oldest writing tools. It’s called a Reed Pen in general. I think across the world depending on where you are it’s made using either a reed which is a grass or a piece of bamboo which is most likely what these are made of. So that pretty much covers most of the geography of the world, you would find either one of those two which is why it was such a widespread instrument before even writing in the modern form was possible or invented with ink. Reed Pens were used even to put writing into clay tablets.
Samir: Right, and in which case it was just used as an instrument to make indentations in the clear rather than actually writing on it with an ink.
Vishal: And this particular one is a completely simple one. There is only one cut, there is no, what you would think of as a quill would have like a gouge down the center maybe to split it and act almost as a reservoir. This one is literally just a wedge and we kind of used it as such.
We’re artists and designers and calligraphers. So the test drive part of Stationery Test Drive is that we take these tools that many times we’re unfamiliar with. I’d certainly never encountered in my professional or personal career a Reed Pen, until suddenly it just kind of showed up as this curio. But I’ve learned to use it for my kind of work which is illustration and this is what I ended up with. I loved it.
Portrait Sketch with Reed Pen
Vishal: Let’s get the one sort of the big elephant in the room out. It’s hard to control and that is a feature not a bug. We’ve looked at so many implements on this channel that are good and surprisingly easy. We looked at some children’s sketch pens a couple of episodes ago, that was so much better than the ones we used as kids. But this tool is not easy to use.
It’s not even easy to figure out what to use it with. This is on cartridge paper and I used Sumi Ink which is a India Ink. So it’s like a carbon black based ink which is very thick and tacky and takes a while to dry. I kind of want to say it’s good how hard to predict this is because when you’re doing work like this it frees you up and also it gives you interesting accidents, happy accidents. Sometimes there’ll be a splodge or sometimes you’ll get a thinner line than you thought, a thicker line than you thought. But yeah, I really loved it. This is a great tool not just for for sketching and things like that, maybe there’s a way to do it in a more controlled manner or more, dare I say, calligraphic manner which maybe we’ll see soon.
Reed Pen Calligraphy – Gujarati Script
Vishal: Minjal, you’re the resident professional calligrapher, I just doodle. So show me what a controlled hand can do. And that is much more control. Same same pen, same reed, same instrument, different ink though.
Different Inks for Reed Pens
Minjal: I do like using the Ecoline Water Color Inks. I usually end up making most of my pieces for the test drive with this ink and also may I add that these pens were actually gifted by your dad. I know that he is as big a stationary enthusiast as we are.
Vishal: So, the story of this is that my dad came across a listing on Facebook, I think or a post on Facebook by someone who was just selling these by via mail order and we just took a chance and they came in a set of five different gauges.
I don’t know how accurate they are to any let’s say standard measure of mm, maybe they’re 5mm and 4mm, but it kind of doesn’t matter to my kind of work. It does clearly to yours for when you want to get these sorts of things. Tell us about how the inks reacted to this pen?
Minjal: So before I actually came down to the Ecoline, I used the Parker Ink.
Vishal: That’s a fountain pen ink.
Minjal: I also used the Sheaffer Ink, which is again a fountain pen ink. They didn’t really work very well for me because I think that they were not easy to blend with and also I had the problem of too much ink on the paper with that.
Now, Ecoline because it is watery in consistency, it was easier to blend. Like you were saying, you have to kind of follow the pace of this particular implement. You can’t really force lines or can’t really expect it to work in a particular way.
Vishal: I agree with you but I also think that maybe you didn’t encounter this when you were going for these more controlled lines. But one of the very freeing things I found about this is I could just like randomly doodle and get a certain level of just chaos to it.
Pros and Cons of Reed Pens
Minjal: I was thinking if I had to do more structured work, like if I had to actually say write an invitation with this or something like that I would probably not use this because you cannot really control the ink flow at all and you have to constantly keep dipping it in the ink source and sometimes for a calligrapher that can be very disconcerting because you lose your flow while you’re doing that.
Vishal: I think it works then as an illustration tool because your flow gets interrupted and sometimes you need to interrupt that flow.
How are Reed Pens made?
Samir: The other thing that we need to cover is that most Reed Pens I believe these days at least come in this form without a central channel, as Vishal was mentioning and you will actually find quite a few videos on YouTube about how to take one of these and add in the channel.
Traditionally, I think reed pens were probably made this way by kind of the first level artisan and then the scribe would sit down and make the little channel themselves. So that was part of the skill of being a scribe.
Because the thing about this is if you cut even a little too far the entire pen splits. So it’s a very specific skill to be able to make that cut and maybe drill a little bit of a hole here like you would in a modern metal nib and then hold on to that. But as we have seen you can always use it without doing that at all.
Vishal: And what are the advantages of putting that? Is it just the reservoir?
Minjal: It would hold ink for a longer time so you don’t have to keep dipping it.
Samir: Yeah, and especially for work like Minjal’s, then you would get more of that smooth line without having to dip it too many times.
Vishal: So, on paper, metaphorically this pen has everything going against it. But on paper, literally we love this, did you love it, Samir?
Reed Pen Drawing
Samir: I absolutely loved it and I think I ended up doing somewhere of a mix between what Vishal did and Minjal did, in that I tried to do both a controlled line and complete wild. I’m an illustrator and designer as well. So my natural instinct when I begin with anything is to draw out very illustrated controlled lines.
But as I started using this more I just realized that I was using it more like a brush than like a pen because I found that because we were dealing with sort of an entire surface that was just kind of absorbing in the ink without a specific channel. So there’s just a whole range of things you can do with it wet, with it dry, with it kind of being a little tacky and of course there’s just the variety of inks here. Like Minjal, I tried to use regular fountain pen inks with this and failed. I tried to use some colored Sheaffer Ink as well and it just was not holding on to the reed as well as it could.
What I ended up using for most of this is, I mean they’re technically inks for writing as well, they’re a brand called Krishna Inks, that are India based and do small batches of very localized, special colors and their ink does have a bit more of a tackiness to it than your standard fountain ink. And this essentially uses three of their colors and the black was the same Sumi ink that Vishal used. So it was interesting to also see the different thicknesses of ink and the way they react to this instrument.
Minjal: Essentially, this is how we started writing, but these are not really beginner friendly implements, right?
Samir: Not at all.
Vishal: Not if you’re the kind of person who wants to achieve something controllable and yes in that ways most beginners should and I think would benefit from being able to get something that they can control. For the rest of us once you’re past a certain point you embrace the chaos of it like I said and you can get something out of this that is livelier than most pens.
Samir: Yeah and the strange thing is that people have recognized the fact that this gives you that lively line for a long time. The usefulness of Reed Pens as a proper writing instrument was done with probably a thousand years ago, we invented other things.
Minjal: So it was the reed pen followed by the quills followed by the fountain pens?
Samir: Exactly. And the quill itself is well over a thousand years old. So, these were outdated a very, very long time ago. But, you will find drawings by van Gogh, for example, that use the reed pen, and it’s exactly for the kind of line that Vishal has achieved here which is kind of eccentric.
Samir: van Gogh did an interesting thing where he mixed sepia ink with graphite and he drew with that, with a reed pen. So, I guess, he essentially took a sepia ink, which would probably have the same issues we had with fountain pen ink, added in a thicker pigment which is the graphite to get something like a Sumi Ink.
Vishal: I think the reed pen is one of the better ideation and sketching mediums that I’ve used in a long time. And by sketching I do mean rough things. I think these are finished things in many ways but they are chaotic and things go in places.
Vishal: You know like if I did this and then I used let’s say a Uni Pin fine liner, it would look fine but because I knew, I did a pencil under drawing very light and sketchy. I found that because I knew this was going to behave a certain way I’d done a few tests before, maybe I’ll show you my test paper on screen because that has a lot, there’s even a little portrait on that I quite still quite like.
Samir: I think the thing that is unique about this and maybe there are a few older mediums that share that same quality is that because you know you’re not going to get exactly what you can imagine, you learn to work with what you end up getting, and that leaves it a little bit more open to a bit of randomness, a bit of the messy line, a bit of the energy that would come from just chance, because this is a messy medium.
I used a tissue paper to clean off all the edges of these reed pens and the spills and the lids of the bottles. This is a lot of mess to use and my fingers were completely colored by the end of using it.
Vishal: Yeah, I have stains from the Sumi ink on my hands. The tactility of them is something that I’d like to talk about because they’re kind of these hard sharp things, I put my sumi ink in a little pallet and it’s kind of nice to just build up this rhythm with the interesting wood sound!
Samir: In the beginning it’s extremely disconcerting that you’re kind of scratching into the paper, rather than gliding over.
Minjal: So, that kind of covers the Reed Pen?
Vishal: Yeah, I would say that these are inexpensive. I mean we’ll try to find the person we got it from here in India but really, you can get these anywhere in the world. You can probably find tutorials online to make reed pens, in using whatever you have in your local area. You can probably source, I’m sure someone has a website where they’re selling reed pen kits.
You know what maybe you could just go and get those cheap chopsticks you get from your local takeout and fashion them into some kind of implement. You won’t get exactly the kind of wedge and line that we have gotten out of this but maybe you will get something fun. It’s such a basic, primal thing. I have no qualms in recommending it to anyone and everyone.
Samir: Yes, I think this has been a lot of fun to try out. It’s almost like going back in time and looking at something that’s a prototype for almost all the other things we have tried.
Minjal: And also being eternally grateful that now we have a fountain pen with a cartridge.
Vishal: Yeah, there is as much as this is a great thing, it is an investment of time, of space, of patience and tissue paper and cleaning up things. But it is well worth it. Another thing that is well worth doing is subscribing to our channel, maybe even liking this video.
And also subscribe to the Inky Memo newsletter, and you can find most of that at inkymemo.com as well as at the links on screen and in the description. Next week we will be back with more primal, modern and everything in between, more test drives, every week in fact, as long as we can make them and we hope that you enjoy seeing them as much as we do making them. Until then, I’m Vishal.
Samir: I’m Samir.
Minjal: This is Minjal.
Vishal: And point, and stick them with the pointy end!
Get the Reed Pens
1. Bamboo Reed Pen (Set of 10) – https://amzn.to/3MleuXa
2. ASAD Bamboo Calligraphy Pen Set (Pack of 6 Pens) – https://tinyurl.com/jhns3htz