Calligraphy Essential tools: A Closer Look at the Four Treasures

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The most essential tools and materials for calligraphy are inkstones, brushes, ink, and paper. These 4 tools and materials are called “文房四宝(Bumbo-shiho)”, which means 4 treasures of Shodo. These tools and materials are the most important stationery in calligraphy. This article introduces these 4 tools and materials.


(*In this section, 硯(Suzuri) are called as inkstones even if it is not made of stone.)

Because inkstones are rarely worn out, they have the highest antique value, and have been cherished by many literatis. The thin depression part to collect ink is called “墨池 (Boku-chi)” which means a pond of ink or “海 (Umi)” which means the sea. The slightly higher part to polish a solid ink is called “墨堂 (Boku-dou)” or “丘 (Oka)” which means a hill. The ink is polished by the uneven surface of Boku-dou.

In ancient times, solid ink was ground into powder using a mortar-like instrument. There were various types of inkstones made of different materials. The most common type was the inkstone made by ceramics. There were two types of ceramic inkstones: those made specifically for inkstones and those reused pieces of earthenware. Inkstones reused pieces of earthenware were more popular.

The “端渓硯 (Tankei-ken/Duanxi inkstone)” made in an area, “老坑水巌 (Roukou-suigen/Lao Hang Shui Gan)”, is the most famous and highest quality inkstone. There is a town called Zhaoqing in the west of Guangzhou, Guangdong Province, China. This town faces the Xijiang River, and to the east rises Lanke Mountain. The valley that winds between these rocky mountains and empties into the Xijiang River is called the Duanxi River. It is here that the raw stones for Duanxi inkstones are dug out.

The original stone of the Duanxi inkstone is a beautiful grayish-blue color with a slight purple-blue hue. Some stones have light green spots which are rounded and have circles inside. They are called “眼 (Gan)” which means eye. This pattern, which also looks like a bird’s eye, is a kind of iron-bearing tubercule. Once the gemstones were dug out, they were carved to take advantage of their natural shape and stone pattern. The inkstone looks more beautiful when wetted, so it has long been enjoyed to soak inkstones in water and admire the stone patterns.

In addition, Duanxi inkstones are not only beautiful to look at, but they are also very practical. Duanxi inkstones have the following characteristics: “ink stretches well,” “ink has good color and gloss,” “ink is produced quickly when ink is polished,” “the ability to polish ink does not diminish,” “accumulated ink in Boku-dou does not dry easily,” and “the tip of the brush is not damaged easily”. Duanxi inkstones have an extremely low Mohs hardness (a measure of the hardness of a mineral), are extremely fine-grained, and have been scientifically proven to have extremely low water absorption and permeability. These characteristics make Duanxi inkstones the best quality inkstones.


The brush is the most important tool in calligraphy. Brushes have many different types according to the material and the size of brush bristles. Each tyepes has its own characteristics. Typical brushes include horsehair brushes, wool brushes, Weasel brush, rat/squirrel brush, each of which has its own elasticity and softness.

Material of Brushes

Horsehair Brush

Horsehair brushes are elastic and hard writing brushes that are easy to use even for beginners. They are strong and durable and are mostly used for large brushes. Most of all horsehair such as mane, girth, belly, tail, and other hairs are used. The hair of the tail is called “天尾 (Amao),” and it is a high-end product with a particularly strong back among horsehair. It is often used as the core hair of large brushes to increase elasticity. Because of its strong elastic, it is suitable for writing clear lines, but it does not produce lines with quaint or elegant. It is mainly suited for 楷書(Kaisho), block style writing. Brushes made with a mixture of horsehair can produce a writing style that makes moderate use of its strong elastic.

Goat Hair Brushes

Goat hair brushes soft and tenacious, and they are characterized by their ability to absorb ink well. The finer the goat hair is the higher the quality. It creates more interesting the lines, but the more skill is required to use it. The more you use the brushes, the more the core of the goat hair comes out and changes color, making the brush more suitable for you. Drawing lines with a delicate goat hair brush allows air to enter between the brush bristles to produce a thirsty brush stroke. It expands the range of expressions. The raw materials for goat brushes are edible goats raised in the lower reaches of the Yangtze River in Jiangsu Province, China. Goats from other regions cannot be the material because their goat hair is not elastic enough. The goat hairs of a single goat are classified into dozens of categories depending on the part of the goat. The fine hair from the neck of a male goat is called “細光鋒 (Saikoho)”, and has long been known as the finest raw material of goat hair brushes. The hair from part of the body is called fine long brush bristles, and is the most commonly used as the material.

Weaseles Brush, Rat/Squirrel Brush

Weaseles tail hair brushes usually have a short tip of 30 mm or less, and the brush bristles are elastic and well gathered. The brush move smoothly on paper and is often used as a brush for “かな (kana)” calligraphy.

The rat/squirrel brush is a rare brush used to be made from a rat’s whiskers. These days, hair from a squirrel’s tail has been used instead of rat’s whiskers. It is said that the Rat brush was used by “王義之(Oh Gishi/Wang Xizhi)”, the great master of Chinese calligraphy, to write the masterpiece, “蘭亭序 (Ranteijo/Lantingji Xu)”.

Brush Size

Brushes are classified according to the length of the tip: long brush bristles, medium brush bristles, and short brush bristles.

Long brush bristles: The length of the brush bristle is more than 6 times the thickness of the brush bristle. It is softer and requires more skill to use. However, once you get used to it, you can control the brush head of the bristle at will.

Short brush bristles: The length of the brush bristle is shorter than 4 times the thickness of the brush bristle. The short brush bristle is more elastic than the long brush bristle and is suitable for drawing strong lines and writing “楷書 (Kaisho)”, Square Style characters.

Medium brush bristles: The length of a medium brush bristles is longer than 4 times the thickness of the brush bristle and less than 6 times 4 times the thickness of the brush bristle. Medium brush bristles are beginner-friendly and easy to write with for.


“墨(Sumi) is the ink used in calligraphy. It is made of soot and glue. Soot and glue are mixed with a small amount of fragrance and other ingredients, kneaded, and dried in a wooden mold to form a solid ink. The solid ink is polished with water on an inkstone to make ink. Today, liquid ink which is producted as liquid is widely used for its ease of use.

In B.C., charcoal powder or stone ink powder dissolved in water and lacquer was used. In the Han Dynasty, “墨丸 (Boku-gan)” which is a rounded piece of solid ink, and “松煙墨 (Shoen-boku)” which is made of soot by burning pine wood came into use. By the Three Kingdoms period (A.D.220-265), flat solid ink hardened with glue was produced. By the Song dynasty (A.D.960-1279), “油煙墨 (Yuen-boku)” made from soot by burning oil was produced.

Solid ink is said “Solid ink grows”. High-quality solid ink has more deep darkness and beauty of the black color after 10 years or more from its produced. This kind of old high-quality solid ink is called “古墨 (Ko-boku)”. There are no clear standard years to become “Ko-boku”. Some old ink can be used after some hundred years from its production. On the other hand, the quality of solid ink deteriorates when it gets too old. However, “Ko-boku” is not only for practical use, but also for its beautiful appearance. “Ko-boku” is sometimes displayed as a work of art in museums. 

Oil black ink: Soot by burning oil has fine and uniform particles, and its black color has luster and depth. It is made by filling an earthenware vessel with oil and lighting a lamp wick, then collecting the soot on the lid of the vessel. The best type vegetable oil is rapeseed oil. Other types of vegetable oil, such as sesame oil, soybean oil, camellia oil, and kiri oil, are also the material. Heavy oil, light oil, and kerosene are used as the mineral oil materials.

Pine smoke ink (blue ink): Soot by burning pine wood has not uniformed size particles because of the uneven combustion temperature. That characteristic results in a wide range of ink colors from heavy black to blue-gray. The bluish color is called “青墨 (Sei-boku)”, blue ink. Some blueish color of Sei-boku comes from the natural soot color, but the other bluish color is colored by indigo.

Liquid ink: Seiji Taguchi, a Japanese elementary school teacher, invented and commercialized it in 1898. He named it “開明墨汁 (Kaimyo-Bokuju)”. Liquid ink made of not only glue, soot, and fragrance, but also a water and a preservative are added.


Paper has a great tool and material on a piece of calligraphy work, like the other tools and materials. Depending on the type of paper, there are differences in ink squeezeout, ink bleed, ink coloration, and writing quality. 

There are 2 ways to make paper for calligraphy: handmade and machine-made. Basically, handmade paper tends to express squeezeout and bleed lines more easily. It can be used to create more expressive works of calligraphy. Machine-made paper is less prone to blotting and blurring, and is relatively easy for beginners to handle. In recent years, however, many types of paper, whether handmade or machine-made, have been processed during the manufacturing process to control blotting. There are also characteristics depending on the thickness of the paper. In general, thick paper is relatively easy to bleed and suitable for various expressions. On the other hand, thin paper is often used for kana calligraphy, as it is lighter and allows for more flexible strokes. 

Standard paper sizes are “全紙 (Zenshi) 69.5 x 136 cm“, ”二八 (Nihachi) 61 x 242 cm“, ”半切 (Hansetsu) 34.5 x 136, “半紙 (Hanshi) 24.3 x 33.3”, and ”短冊(Tanzaku) 6 x 36.3“. Hanshi is most commonly used for beginners and for practices


Along with calligraphy itself, calligraphy tools and materials have a long history and play a role in supporting the skill and expressiveness of the user. Calligraphers love tools and materials, and brush up their own calligraphy skills to produce beautiful and elegant characters.

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