Questions about ink

What is the history of ink?

Advertising propaganda notwithstanding, the fountain pen inks sold today are substantially the same as those sold 75 or more years ago; in fact, the trade names of Quink (Parker) and Skrip (Sheaffer) of the two most popular inks on the market, if not the actual ink formulations themselves, date back to the 1920s.

Today, the manufacture of fountain pen inks represents hardly more than a barely-palpable pimple on the backside of the enormous ink industry, which accounted for some $2.8 billion in production among 450 U.S. frims in 1992. It should not be overlooked, however, that the origin of the industry lies in writing inks, as people learned to write before they learned to do offset printing.

Sheaffer Skrip bottle, c. 1960s, showing the classic design dating from the 1930s and still used today. The "Skrip Well" traps ink at the top of the bottle for easier filling.

Image that was here has been temporarily changed due to unauthorized external link (R. Conner, 02 June 2003)


The use of liquid inks with reeds and brushes appears to have started in Egypt and China about 45 or 50 centuries ago. These early inks were probably mainly carbon in the form of soot or lamp black, suspended in vegetable oils or animal glue. About 1700 years ago, the Chinese made a further improvement by developing solid ink, in the form of sticks or cakes, from which bits could be shaved and mixed with water whenever the occasion for writring presented itself. These inks are still used for traditional calligraphy with brushes or bamboo pens throughout East Asia. Later, in the 11th century CE, the Chinese developed block printing with heavier, more gelatinous inks, predating Gutenberg's movable type by some 400 years.
Medieval European scribes preferred parchment (processed sheepskin) for archival writings, but carbon inks worked very poorly on parchment's greasy surface, so iron gall inks came into use around the 9th century CE. These were made from a mixture of tannic acid with an iron salt (commonly ferrous sulfate). These inks were transparent, but once applied to the parchment, the slow chemical reaction between acid and salt left a suitable dark residue that penetrates the paper, leaving permanent markings. Gum Arabic (a water-soluble thickener) was added to help the ink flow better and remain in place on the paper. Unfortunately, if the mix was wrong, the ink would contain too much free acid which could eat up quills, but far worse could leave holes in the manuscript.

9th century CE Romanesque miniscule calligraphy,
from the Alcuin Bible.


Portion of a draft of the bill of rights to the U.S. Constitution, probably hand penned with quill and iron-gall ink

In the mid 19th century, right on time for the emerging fountain pen industry, inks based on new ammonia based aniline dye technology began to appear; these are the ancestors of modern ink. These inks could be made in an unprecedented array of colors, and were much less corrosive to pens and paper. They were (and still are) prone to fade and light and will smear if moistened, and the colors are less strong or saturated than printers' or artists' inks.

Most modern fountain pen inks use aniline dye colors, with various other substances added, notably ethylene glycol (to give the correct viscosity for flow through the pen) and phenols (to prevent mold and bacterial growth). Other additives may be used to help the wetting and stability of the ink, or to prevent the accumulation of solid dyes on the inside of the pen.

The customary colors for fountain pen inks are: black and blue-black (which are often called 'permanent' because the addition of lamp-black keeps them from fading as rapidly in light); blue, red, turquoise, and brown. Some manufacturers offer grays, purples, oranges, and other color variations. Fountain pens will naturally have a peculiar (but not especially pungent) ammoniac or camphoric smell in the bottle; some manufacturers add perfumes to "tart up" their inks.

It did not take long after the development of the offset printing press for printers' inks to become the most significant segment of the industry. These inks are more greasy and gelatinous than writing inks, and are carefully calibrated to provide the best mechanical performance in specific kinds of printing equipment. In general, these inks bear no relation to writing inks; in fact some of them contain toxic resins and solvents, and the most recent developments in the ink industry have focused on water-based and vegetable-based inks that pose far fewer environmental problems.

c. 1890 advertisement for Pelikan paints by Julius Diaz. As a mid-1800s German firm, Pelikan would probably have been one of the first firms to make inks based on aniline dyes.

The gluey, non-Newtonian nature of printers' ink was the inspriation for the ink used in Biro's original ballpoint pen. Ballpoint ink is formulated not to leak around the ball (the textured surface of the ball picks up ink by friction and transfers it to the paper), and it dries very slowly so that the pen will not become irretrieveably clogged while not in use.

What kind of ink to use?

Fountain pens should, as a rule, only be filled with general purpose fountain pen ink. This ink is a free flowing liquid with a water base (although it may have a peculiar smell sometimes), and is designed to flow well through the feed of a fountain pen. Most inks include a small amount of some sort of solvent to keep the feed clear and writing properly.

Watch out that you don't buy inks intended for other kinds of pens (such as india ink, technical drawing ink, artist's inks, etc.) since these may be too thick or too runny to work with the pen, and they may leave residue that can stop up the pen or ruin the filling system.

Parker Quink ink bottle (early '60s)

In most cases, you can be confident in buying inks made by one of the major pen makers, though there are exceptions: Pelikan, for example, makes a wide range of inks for all applications, many of which won't work in a fountain pen. They do make a deep black ink called "Fount India" which is labeled for use with fountain pens, but you'd be well advised to use this only in pens that get regular use and cleaning; I'm a bit scared of it myself.

Which brings us to the issue of color: the old standby colors are black, blue-black, and light blue (the latter being easily washable). You can also find reds, turquises, browns, and greens, as well as more exotic colors.

Most waterbase inks are not as heavily saturated as some might like; this is just the nature of the beast. Parker's Penman inks are very deep and vivid for water base inks, but some users have run into some trouble getting it to flow properly in their pens.

If you really want the lowdown on the color and chemistry of fountain pen inks, the best place to get it is in Greg Clark's excellent and unique fountain pen ink sampler.

What are inks made of? How do they work?

Here I step back and turn over the bandwidth to a guest commentator, Allan Tischler, who brings considerable scientific knowledge to the hobby.

"This is information that I post from time to time in an attempt to help newer fountain pen enthusiasts and clarify some commonly held misconceptions. All fountain pen inks are water based and all components are completely water soluble [though there have been bad lots of certain inks]. With few exceptions-most notably Herbin inks, many of which contain vegetable dyes--the color in modern inks are synthetic aniline dyes and their salts. Other components added are for adjusting the surface tension properties (i.e. surfactants), viscosity (e.g. ethylene glycol or glycerin), antibacterial properties (e.g. phenols) or pH. It is perfectly safe to experiment with using virtually any ink in any fountain pen, though demonstrators or clear barrel pens can be stained by some inks on long exposure. The staining is due primarily to the chemical nature of the particular ink (including it's pH) and its dye concentration. I've seen several reports that some Penman inks can stain acrylics. The dyes used in purple inks in general also tend to stain in my experience. As the color of most dyes are dependent on the pH, some inks can look different on different papers, as these can differ in acidity and buffering capacity.

"Penman inks seem to frequently get bad press. Most of it in my opinion is not deserved. The main property of these inks that create both raves and rages is that the dye in the inks are considerably more concentrated than most others. This results in the beautifully saturated colors that many love, myself included. But high concentration of dye comes at a price--precipitation of the dye will occur after relatively little evaporation. In some pens this will result in fouling of the nib if the pen is not flushed frequently, one way or another. A good indicator that an ink like Penman sapphire has become too concentrated is that the line it makes will have a reddish hue to it. This is due to the ink being so concentrated when the line was lay down that it is actually crystallizing on the paper instead of drying as an amorphous solid of uniform color as it should. The red is due to light diffraction of the microcrystals.

"I've found in general that any pen that has both a good flow (which flushes the nib well as you write) and has an inner cap that makes an air-tight seal (which will keep the ink from evaporating when not in use) will do very well with Penman inks. The flow is easy to observe. The sealing of the inner cap can be much more deceptive. A classic example (and another controversial subject) that I have written of before is the Parker Sonnet. It has a very large, totally concealed vent at the very top of the pen--directly exposed to the nib. Though you may not be able to see it you can hold the cap lip to your mouth and actually breathe comfortably through it. This is an example of a case where a pen and its own ink are not good matches. [Of course Penman ink will work well in a Sonnet if the pen is flushed and ink changed frequently--i.e. high maintenance.]

"This vent exists in compliance with a recent European Economic Council regulation that requires all pen caps to have a vent that could sustain breathing if swallowed by a child. Such vents now exist in most pens marketed in Europe. I personally believe it is noble legislation, aimed at the huge disposable, Bic-type, ball pen market. The caps on these ubiquitous pens are often left around as the pens are inexpensive and don't require them to function. [I don't think the tiny fountain pen market should have been included. They make up far less than 1% of the market and as the pens are relatively expensive and the caps are required for the pen's use, they are rarely left lying around.] I don't know all the details of the regulation. It seems that not all pens are covered. Those with cap diameters over a certain value appear to be exempt. If anyone has knowledge of such details, please post them.

"Pens like the Sonnet can be turned into much better, less demanding writers by simply sealing the vent with simple candle wax. This can be done easily, safely and reversibly."

Thanks to Allan for permission to post this material.

Do I have to throw out my ink after a year?

This is pretty standard advice from many pen shops; of course, you have to bear in mind the effects of this practice on the sales of ink <wink>. Seriously, old bottles of ink are frequently available for sale among pen collectors and dealers, and many people prefer to use this older ink exclulsively. There is (or should be) nothing mysterious and chemical happening to the ink as long as it is kept tightly capped and stored in normal room conditions and stays relatively uncontaminated.

Of course, the water can evaporate from ink if it is not kept tightly capped, leaving behind a thicker concentration of the coloring agents. This might make the ink flow a bit less readily through the pen than it would have at full strength (full weakness?), but I've not heard any problems in this regard.

As shown at left in an advertising cut from about 1920, ink was often sold in large (up to quart-size) decanters from which it could be poured into inkwells or smaller bottles. If you find such a bottle, you may be fortunate in finding that some liquid ink still remains. More often, however, the ink has evaporated or even become moldy (and unusable).


Do I have to use the same brand of ink as the pen?

Again, this is the standard advice from the pen makers; in fact, some of them grump about voiding the warranty if you do otherwise. I suspect that this is to get them off the hook in case someone used gold flake, india ink, white-out, root beer, blood (!), or nail polish remover rather than normal ink.

Common sense tells us that back in the days when FPs were in more widespread use, people used many different brands of ink; in fact, many schools and offices had their own ink supplies with which people could fill their pens. Even today, most people use the inks whose colors appeal to them, or which seem to work well in their pens, without particular regard to the brand name (just make sure you have fountain pen ink).

If you ever have to send a pen back for repair and you're asked about it, you might try claiming that you faithfully used only the manufacturer's recommended inks; unless you used some kind of weirdo color, it would probably require chromatographic analysis or something to prove that you didn't!

Do vintage pens require special ink?

In general, no. In fact, very early pens were made when the inks were far cruder than they are now, so you might say they are more tolerant of bad ink than today's designs.

I dripped some ink on my (or someone else's) clothes (tablecloth, carpet, etc.)!

As with most stains, the key is keeping the ink from setting. I've had success with using clear carbonated soft drinks (club soda, lemon-lime, etc) to do this; also, hair spray is excellent for this purpose. Apply these immediately, and try to blot up most of the ink with tissue or paper towels. Launder the clothes as soon as you can.

Household ammonia will dissolve most fountain pen inks, so you may be able to use it to spot stains before laundering. Also, there is a commercial stain remover called Amodex, available from most pen shops, that (I'm told) will do the trick.

I got ink on my fingers!

Welcome to the club! You now bear the stigmata of the habitual fountain-pen writer. This sort of thing will happen every once in awhile; fortunately, fountain pen ink is quite harmless (tee-hee, it hasn't affected my brain, ha ha), and the stains will disappear in a day or two without any particular effort on your part. If you wash your hands in soap and water soon after the leak, you will be able to get rid of most of the stains right away.

This file last posted on:
2005-Jan-20 17:50:26 CST
MCMVIII, the red network