MYOG Australian Writer and Poet Henry Lawson’s Bush-Made Dip Pen

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Henry Lawson’s bush-made dip pen from his couple of years living and working in Leeton, NSW. This pen is held by the National Library of Australia as a national treasure.

Knowing a bit about the man, this little artefact is quite poignant. It’s the little dip pen used by Australian writer and poet Henry Lawson during his time living in Leeton NSW in 1916 and 1917.

Despite all the acclaim, Lawson never forgot his roots. He was a bush bard and even when he was mixing it up with the gentry and wearing a topcoat and hat, his spirit was still in his old moleskins and a Crimean shirt. He never forgot the hardships of the 1890 – 1893 Depression.

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A 1900 photograph and a pen charicature of Henry Lawson from the same era.

This pen is an example of the man’s mindset. Rather than buy a new nib holder as you’d expect from a writer who relies on a pen for his livelihood, he’s simply made one up from bits and pieces found around the house or in his writing desk drawer. At the time he put this pen together he had started suffering the effects of alcoholism and undiagnosed clinical depression, but was still writing. This pen probably wrote the first drafts of some of his WWI-era patriotic poetry such as Scots of the Riverina and that found in Song of the Dardanelles and Other Verses and it probably wrote some of his later prose such as Triangles of Life, and other stories. The pen is on display at the National Library in Canberra along with another of Lawson’s pens which is similarly bodgied up but is a bit longer.

Like the man, the pen is a wreck, but it still worked.

You can read more about Henry Lawson at the Australian Dictionary of Biography.

As a bit of a scribbler myself who is exploring the old ways that things were done in Australia back in Henry Lawson’s times, I thought that making my own version of Henry Lawson’s Leeton dip pen might be a fun project. I hope that using it might lead to some sort of a connection and might evoke some of the nostalgia of those days, despite the fact they were long gone even before my grandparents were born.

Deconstructing Henry Lawson’s Pen

To me it looks like Henry Lawson has simply taken a normal fine nib and attached it to a pencil stub with a bit of gut fishing line and some cotton string. It worked well enough that it’s lasted for a hundred years.

If you don’t know what a dip pen is, it’s a pen which has to be dipped into an inkwell when you’re writing. Fountain pens were expensive, ball point pens hadn’t been invented yet, and normal lead pencils fade over time, so a dip pen was the path of least resistance.

Looking at the Leeton pen in the picture above, it’s possible that there is some sort of nib holder tied to the end of the pencil and that the nib is simply slipped into that so the nib can be changed over like on a normal dip pen, but in the photos I’ve seen, there’s nothing to suggest that this is the case. I might make up a second one with a nib holder tied on, but this one has the nib tied on directly to the pencil. This means that if you ever need to change the nib, you can. Pen nibs wear out or can be bent out of shape, so the nibs were sort of a disposable item. Having said that, you can restore even the most bent up nib to writing serviceability with a bit of bending and fine filing or the use of a whetstone.

Constructing a copy of Henry Lawson’s Leeton Dip Pen

First I needed to gather together some bits and pieces:

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The bits and pieces I used to contruct the pen.
  • An old pencil – I was lucky that I had a yellow one with the eraser missing and the ferrule half chewed off. I wouldn’t feel bad about destroying it. Any wooden pencil will do, as long as it has the regulation 6 sides.
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Decrepit old pencil. Just happened to be yellow by a happy coincidence.
  • A dip pen nib – I had a vintage English-made Mitchell’s Pedigree Round Hand No. 6 nib which would do the job. It’s a bit smaller than the nib old Henry used, but it should work fine. I have some of the correct nibs coming so I’ll replace it after they arrive. You can find calligraphy nibs in art supplies stores which will do the job and since the modern ones usually have ink reservoirs fitted, it’ll work better than this one I used.
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Fine dip pen nib. Dates from the 1910s.
  • Some fine gut or braided fishing line – I had a bit of braided green Irish linen fishing line in my spares box. It’s not gut like Henry Lawson used, but it’s about as old and almost as fine. The inner strands of 550 paracord would work particularly well for this project, as would artificial or actual sinew.
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Linen fishing line used
  • Some cotton string – Nope, didn’t have any. I did however, have a roll of jute twine which would work just as well.
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Jute twine makes the world go round
  • A cutting tool to trim the pencil – Decisions, decisions… I used a brass handled Mercator knife I had here in the desk drawer. You can use a stanley knife to the same effect.
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Ottermesser brass handled Mercator pocket knife is great for cutting and trimming pencils to make a dip pen. In this case it’s literally being used as a pen knife.

Step 1

Cut the pencil to the right length.

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From pictures of Henry Lawson’s Leeton pen, I ended up extrapolating that it was about 96mm long, so that’s how long I cut the pencil. The left over bit will end up going into the spares box for future use with a bullet pencil when I wear out my current ones. Waste not, want not.

Step 2

Tie the nib onto the pencil with a fine cordage. Trim the cordage as close to the pencil as possible.

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I went away from the original here, not only because I used braid instead of gut fishing line, but because rather than just haphazardly wrap the line around and tie it off with a bunch of clumsy knots, I used a common rope whipping technique. The old Boy Scout in me wouldn’t let me do it any other way.

Step 3

Overwrap the fishing line with some heavier stuff. Trim the cordage ends close to the pencil body.

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For this one I used the same whipping technique. I overwrapped the fishing line and then went about halfway down the pencil shaft. It just adds a bit of grip which is why Henry Lawson’s original dip pen used thick cotton twine.

Step 4 – 

Carve away a bit of the pencil so you can write your name on it.

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You just need to remove enough of the paint so you can write on the raw wood.

Step 5 – 

Write your name or initials on the wood.

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Here, I clumsily wrote the League of Bushmen’s initials on the side of the pencil in ink with another dip pen.

Step 6 

Try out the pen and see if it works.

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Even though you can barely discern the words hiding in my handwritten scrawl, it writes pretty good!!!

It works pretty well.

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