One of the most frequently asked questions from beginner letterers tends to be “why do the tips of my brush pens keep fraying?! Is it something I’m doing wrong?” Well, yes and no. One of the biggest factors impacting whether or not your brush pens will fray is the types of paper you use them with. If you’re buying crappy paper and treating your brush pens like crap, they will get their revenge in the form of frayed tips.
Why Paper Matters
The type of paper you use determines how long your brush pens will last.
Smooth paper makes brush lettering easier.
When the surface of your paper is smooth, your brush pen can easily glide across the page. Your finished piece will not only look cleaner but places where you had trouble or got stuck won’t be as obvious.
The right paper will prevent your ink from feathering out from your brush stroke, also known as bleed.
When using smooth paper you will be able to see the ink pooling, usually at the end of each stroke, but that’s where it will stay until dry.
Most importantly, smooth paper will increase the longevity of your brush pens by preventing the tips from fraying.
Simply put, regular ol’ copy paper is hell on the felt nibs of your brush pens. The long and coarse fibers of the paper will catch on the delicate fibers of your pen’s nib and slowly pull apart the felt tip of your pen, leading to fray. Smooth paper has less tooth, which means your brush pens stay in one piece, free to create sharp lines and perfect transitions in your lettering.
Amanda Arneill has a great blog post that goes more in-depth into the science behind paper fibers and how they affect paper smoothness.
While you may feel like investing in good quality paper is a waste of money, in the long run, you’ll actually be saving money.
Think about it, no longer will you have to keep buying new brush pens to replace the old ones that frayed. As we all know, brush pens can get hella expensive (especially if you’re like me and need to own every kind of brush pen in every color available). Investing in good paper that will increase the longevity of your current pens is a much better buy than constantly having to throw away pens before you have to.
What to Look For
Smooth paper is going to help your pens last for as long as possible. I’m talking you want your paper to feel like a newborn baby’s bottom or that spot right behind a dog’s ear where their fur is ridiculously soft and untouched.
You don’t have to buy the most expensive paper available, but I will say that you get what you pay for. So don’t expect the ream of copy paper you bought at your local gas station to have the same effect as a Rhodia pad.
It’s important to use non-absorbent paper when you’re working with ink of any kind. Absorbency is one of the biggest causes of ink bleeding as paper fibers will often try to absorb more ink than they can hold. The overflow will spill over into neighboring paper fibers again and again until all the ink has been absorbed. This causes the unwanted feathering you will see around your lettering when the ink bleeds.
Inkjet printers use a ton of when printing. As a result, inkjet paper is coated and treated in a way that helps it dry fast after printing. The coating makes the paper more absorbent in an attempt to cut down on ink smudging and prevent the paper from buckling after becoming too wet.
If you’re buying large reams of copy paper to practice on, your best best is to stick to less-absorbent laser paper as it is usually smoother and thicker than paper made for inkjet printers.
What Not to Buy
I know what you’re thinking, “But I go through a ton of paper while practicing. This sounds like it could get expensive.” I thought the same thing too when I first started lettering.
Chances are, the first time you invest in good quality paper you’re going to see the total price and question whether it really matters what kind of paper you use.
It absolutely matters.
Even when practicing, do not give in and buy cheap copy paper, no matter how smooth it looks or feels when touched. I guarantee you, your brush pens will fray and then you will have to spend the money to buy new pens that you should have just spent on good paper to begin with.
A Note on Card Stock
There seems to be a lot of misinformation about using card stock with your brush pens. It would make sense for you to assume that higher quality card stock will be kind to your pens, but you should actually stay away from lettering on card stock. It may be thick, but a lot of times companies will compensate for the thickness by making the actual paper surface rougher because it will allow them to keep prices lower. Card stock also tends to beed, especially if you use it with a pointed calligraphy pen and actual ink.
My Favorite Papers
After a ton of trial and error, I’ve found a few brands of paper I continuously come back to. They keep my brush pens in tip top condition and help me fight off fraying.
This is the only “copy” paper you should ever be using with your brush pens. It comes in a ream of 500 pages, so feel free to practice as much as you want without worrying that you’re wasting it. There’s also a 23lb version of this paper that will not be kind to your brush pens, so be sure you’re buying the 32lb version before you order!
This paper pad comes in two different versions – one version with a purple cover and one with a black cover. The purple cover version is my personal favorite, though both are great. I simply prefer the purple version because it comes with 100 pages, while the black cover version only has 50 pages.
Rhodia paper is hugely popular in the lettering community, and for good reason. The smooth paper is great for brush pens. Rhodia also offers their signature pads with blank paper, lined paper, gridded paper, or dotted paper. I prefer the dot version for practicing and the blank pad for pieces I intend to share. You can also choose from a range of paper size based on your personal preference.
Using the right paper will make or break how long your brush pens last. If you don’t want to spend the money to constantly replace your pens, be sure you’re investing in smooth paper from the very start! We expect your brush pens to create clean, perfect lines day after day, but keeping them in the condition to do means we can’t subject their precious nibs to rough paper. Treat your brush pens like the special friend they are, and make sure they have the paper they need to last as long as possible!