By Ruth Rowland
Journal: Calligraphy Created with a Handmade Cola or Folded Pen
Cola pens are simple handmade pens created from the soft tin of a drink can (hence the name). It is essentially a folded tin nib, with the space within the fold acting as a reservoir for the ink, taped onto an old pencil, stick or dowel.
Although tin can metal has its disadvantages, its main advantage is convenience. It's easy to find, costs very little - one can should be enough to make several nibs and is easy to cut with sharp scissors.
The disadvantages are that care needs to be taken when cutting and folding as sharp snags of tin can be painful (I speak from experience). Also, since the metal is so soft, it can bend, catch on the paper and spatter ink when used.
That said, I have long since accepted the disadvantages and embraced the simple pleasures of making a pen to create energetic and interesting marks, lines and textures. I mostly use my pens for loose, gestural calligraphy but if you're a person that likes to experiment with line quality to bring a spontaneous quality to your drawing, then these simple pens may be for you.
I started off the year with some loose and gestural calligraphy practice using the cola pen you can see below. All the lettering on this page has been created with one basic shape of curved nib and the different line weights can be achieved with practice by angling the pen.
I find the pens work best with a thin ink. In most of these examples I'm using Ecoline ink, which flows well through the nib but it should be noted is not lightfast. Despite this, I like the consistency and flow of Ecoline ink, so I just restrict its use to practice sheets and sketchbooks.
Many of the inks and water-based media I have in my studio are pigmented, archival and often quite expensive, so I enjoy having something I can play with without worrying. Dye-based inks are often vibrant and easy to use, sometimes the simple act of picking up a pen and going with the flow can create some interesting results or at the very least, is a good warm up exercise.
Each cola pen is unique and much like fountain pens, constant use will wear the metal into the specific shape that suits how you work. Don't be deceived by the simplicity of the design, they can be tricky to use initially, so persevere and as with all spontaneous work, take a breath and try to relax into your practice.
The curved shape of the nib works nicely for gestural calligraphy but it is possible to experiment with different shapes for more structured marks. There are, of course, many nibs and pens on the market that will give a more controllable experience than these cheap and cheerful handmade folded pens. However, there is something satisfying analogue about the whole process of making, then using your own personal pen.
Are you interested in gestural lettering? If so, you may enjoy my project combining loose, gestural brush lettering, collage and Finetec metallic watercolours. Alternatively, if like me, you like to experiment with calligraphy, watercolour, paper, pens and inks, click through to my Journal folder to browse some of the personal projects I work on between commercial commissions.