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Fountain pen inks

Selecting inks
» What kind of ink do I use?
» Where can I find inks?
» What brand of ink?
» Can I use "vintage" inks?
» Can I mix inks?
» Flow characteristics?
» Where can I see samples?
Problems with ink:
» How do I get the last ink out?
» How do I get the bottle open?
» Something's growing in my ink!
» How do I remove ink stains?

If you think that fountain pen geeks are anal about their pens, just wait until you hear them babble on about their inks!

To hear most enthusiasts talk, you'd think that ink was some magic substance rained from heaven to be captured in little crystal bottles; like some idol that must be appeased, it loves some pens and disdains others, and in extreme cases can eat through an unsatisfactory pen like that icky green blood stuff in the movie Alien.

Some folks feel they must treat their ink like prescription drugs, throwing them out after a year lest they perform some sort of Jekyll-to-Hyde transformation in the bottle (or in the pen). Still others interpret the brand name as a sort of "blood type," and fear to use Brand A ink in a Brand B pen.

And yet, as a friend of mine (and frequent ink seller) sometimes confesses in unguarded moments, fountain pen ink is basically colored water, perhaps with some detergent or thickener thrown in. If you understand a bit of what inks are made of and how they work, you'll find them less mystifying and more trouble-free and enjoyable to use.

And so, here's some information about inks that you may find useful. As always, please note that I'm not endorsing the brand names and merchants found here, although I have had positive experiences with them and thus feel comfortable passing these on to you.

A brief history of writing ink

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

Although once seen in quantity in every home, school, and place of business, liquid fountain pen ink is now relatively hard to find. 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 lay in writing inks, as people learned to write before they learned to do offset printing.

Japanese calligraphy, from Prince Shotoku's commentary on Lotus

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 to keep them from blowing off the paper when dried.

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, and are often found in finely-made writing sets (ink sticks, brushes, tools, and ceramic dishes in a decorative brocade box). 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.

9th century Romanesque miniscule
(from the Alcuin Bible)

Medieval European scribes preferred parchment (which, authentically, is 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 generally made from a mixture of tannic acid with an iron salt (commonly ferrous sulfate). These inks were translucent in liquid form, but once applied to the parchment, the slow chemical reaction between acid and salt left a suitable dark residue that penetrated 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 were wrong, the ink would contain too much free acid which could eat up quills, but far worse could leave holes in the manuscript. This is a problem that continues to plague antique document specialists in their efforts to restore and preserve ancient manuscripts.

Portion of a draft of the bill of rights to the U.S. Constitution, c. 1800, probably hand penned with quill and iron-gall ink

In Europe, the quill-pen and iron-gall ink remained the standard for ink handwriting right on through much of the 19th century, and were used for many works of historical and literary importance (such as the U.S. Constitution, as shown at left).

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 most modern fountain pen ink. These inks could be made in an unprecedented array of colors, and were much less corrosive to pens and paper. On the debit side, they were (and still are) prone to fade under intense light and will smear if moistened, and the colors are less strong or saturated than printers' or artists' inks.

During the 20th century, inkmakers learned to create new colors, as well as to add substances like fungicides, detergents, and more modern thickeners (like glycol) to improve the behavior and shelf life of their products. The typical "personal size" ink bottle of those days (as well as today) held something around 2 fluid ounces of ink (60 milliliters); bigger bottles (as big as a quart, or 950ml) were widely available for filling inkwells. Big bottles went out of fashion when the ballpoint moved in, but you can often find "vintage" quarts and pints in plastic, glass, or even stoneware, and a few manufacturers (notably Pelikan) persist in selling bulk quantities of fountain pen ink.

The first disposable cartridge pen was developed by JiF-Waterman of France back in the late 1930s; cartridges have since become very popular and are now used in the vast majority of new pens. Cartridges contain the same kind of ink as bottles, only in a more convenient and travel-friendly package. The choice of colors available in cartridges is usually fairly limited, and cartridges are a very expensive way to buy ink. Plus, there are other reasons to prefer filling from a bottle, as you can read elsewhere on this site.

What are fountain pen inks made of?

Fountain pen inks are mostly water, but contain any of several types of additives that give them their color, flow, and other characteristics:

Ink formulas are pretty closely guarded secrets of the manufacturers, so it's difficult to tell exactly what may be used in any given brand of ink unless you have access to a chromatography lab.

Some inks 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, but these would (or should) be of a type and quantity that does not cause problems with flow, chemical stability, or corrosiveness.

What colors are available and which should I use (or avoid)?

The customary colors for fountain pen inks are: black and blue-black, "royal" blue, red, turquoise, green, and brown. Some manufacturers offer grays, purples, oranges, and other color variations. Nowadays, in fact, you can get just about any color you heart desires, including the strange J. Herbin Bleu Azur, an ink so pale that it barely shows up on most papers. J. Herbin actually makes one of the widest ranges of colors available, and nearly all of their inks are very well-behaved in most pens (be careful not to use the J. Herbin metallic inks, which are intended only for dip pen writing).

J. Herbin color chart

Some inks can actually permanently stain plastics with which they come in contact. If you have a valuable pen with a transparent or translucent section or barrel (like a Parker Vacumatic, an old Pelikan, or a "demonstrator"), and it is still pretty clean and transparent, you will want to watch out for inks that could permanently stain the insides. Standard blues and blacks are generallly the best behaved; some other colors (particularly purples, reds, oranges, etc.) can stain pretty aggressively even after very short exposure, although this behavior varies by brand of ink.

As a general rule, the more heavily-saturated a color is, the greater the likelihood that it could stain or cause flow problems (this was the primary complaint with Parker Penman ink). If you are looking for a really vivid, opaque. and deeply saturated color, you may not find it in the normal range of fountain pen inks (you may have to go to an artist ink and dip pen, or else an artist marker pen that uses highly-saturated solvent-based ink).

Those who crave blacker blacks may be able to use one of the rather sporadically-distributed deep black fountain pen inks like Platinum Carbon Black or Pelikan Fount India; as far as I am aware, these do not damage pens (although they do sometimes flow very fast and necessitate thorough cleaning between uses), and they usually have an India-like sheen when dry.

Some colors in a single maker's range tend to dry more slowly than others (e.g., some green shades from Private Reserve remain tacky and smearable even after several minutes), so you might get in the habit of carrying blotter cards with you when you use these colors.

I'm not going to make your color choices for you (that's a fun chore I'll leave to you), but I would pass along a tip: I find that brightly-colored inks work best for me in medium or fine pointed pens; if you use them in a broad or italic point pen, you may find that the writing looks a little blurry or blotchy (probably because of the uneven despositing of the light-colored ink during writing). On the other hand, this may work perfectly well with your handwriting (it doesn't with mine). Also, I find that lighter colored inks tend not to realize their full color on the paper until they dry completely.

What do "washable" and "permanent" mean?

You'll often see these terms on older ink bottles; they are really "code words" more than actual descriptions. "Washable" inks were those deemed to be easily washable from clothing (indeed, most non-black colors can be easily removed from washable fabrics in a good hot-water wash). "Permanent" inks, usually blacks and blue-blacks, are so-called because they were formulated not to fade with sustained exposure to light.

It's important to note that "permanent" here usually does not mean "waterfast." Both washhable and permanent inks will run if you wet or immerse them (although some colors in the relatively new range of Noodler's Inks are truly waterfast, and do not appear to damage pens in any way). If you need to write something that may get wetted or splashed (like the envelope to a letter), you can coat the writing with candle wax, artists' fixative spray, or transparent tape.

What's all this brouhaha about Parker Penman inks?

Briefly during the 1990s, Parker offered a "deluxe" line of inks known as "Penman," which were made in Germany, and came in spiffy (but rather impractical) flat "hockey-puck" bottles. No sooner did Penman make its nod than the battle lines were quickly drawn among pen fanciers, and debates raged at pen shows, in pen shops, and on online fora. Either you thought that Penman had excellent color (it did), or that it was the most dangerous killer of pens since the invention of three-year-old child (Penman did have a high pigment concentration, and could quickly stain susceptible pens).

The argument is now rather moot, since Parker took these inks out of production altogether some years back. In fact, for some years around the turn of the 2000s, Parker even limited its choice of Quink colors, although these are starting to come back.

What kind of ink should I use in my fountain pen?

Fountain pens should, as a rule, only be filled with general purpose fountain pen ink (which should be clearly labeled as such). This ink will be a free flowing liquid with a water base, and will have been designed to flow well through the feed of a fountain pen.

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. Some of these inks (particularly those made according to antique recipes, such as iron gall inks mentioned above) could actually eat up the parts of your pen. The same applies to the "invisible inks" we used to make as kids, which usually contain pretty acidic (and sugary) lemon juice or similar.

In most cases, you can be confident in buying inks made by one of the major pen makers, though there are caveats: Pelikan, for example, makes a variety of inks for special applications (such as artist ink) that won't work well in fountain pens; their fountain pen ink bears the trade name "4001" (or "Fount India" for their carbon-black color).

Where can I find inks?

Although it is true that fountain pens have lately mushroomed in popularity, you still seldom find bottled ink even at fairly well-stocked stationery or office-supply stores. Even if you do, the selection of brands and colors will be quite limited.

You may have better luck in an art supply store, but be extra specially careful that you do not buy an unsuitable ink (like artist ink or India ink).

If you are fortunate enough to live near a full-line fine-pen shop, you should be able to find a good assortment of inks there.

If none of these avails you aught, don't worry: you can find plenty of ink where you sit right now (virtually speaking, anyway): on the web. A good Yahoo or Google search should yield lots of leads, but I'll mention three good sources, folks I know and with whom I've done lots of business:

Ink is usually packaged in glass bottles, but ordering ink through the mail is no problem as long as it is adequately packed by the seller. Ink is best shipped in temparate months (it's possible, if rare, for inks to freeze if left on frigid loading docks or doorsteps or in mailboxes for long periods).

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

Nearly all penmakers counsel you to use only their own inks in their products. Usually, however, there is no underlying technical reason to do so. Some makers may "calibrate" the feeds of their pens to work with a certain viscosity of ink (that happens to match the ink they sell), but this is a rather rough calibration that could probably be met as well or even better by other brands of ink.

Some manufacturers claim that they'll void your warranty (if any) if you use another brand of ink, but I suspect this is just a way to get them off the hook if you use some grossly unsuitable substance like pig's blood or root beer (don't laugh, you haven't seen what people send back to the factory for repair!). On the other hand, if the manufacturer can point to staining or pitting that might have been caused by some of the more outlandish inks available today, he will have good grounds to reject a warranty claim.

You should cause no damage to your pen as long as you use fountain pen inks made by one of the major fountain pen makers, or by companies such as Private Reserve or J. Herbin that specialize in fountain pen inks. Make sure that the product is clearly labeled as "fountain pen ink." Observe the normal precautions for cleaning the pen (particularly before setting the pen aside for a long period). Note my comments elsewhere about brightly-colored or deeply-saturated inks, or fairly new (and untested) formulations, as well as mixing of inks.

Can I use "vintage" inks?

I say yes, with some cautions. Although some ink makers claim that you should throw out bottles more than two years old, many people (such as myself) own and use inks made as far back as the 1930s (or even earlier). Plus, doesn't it sound somehow like a conspiracy for an ink maker to tell you to buy new bottles every two years?

Fountain pen ink is pretty stable, chemically speaking: there should be no natural process that destroys the ink over time so long as it is kept clean and tightly capped. What can happen to vintage inks is:

If your vintage ink has partially evaporated, you could try thinning the ink out a bit, but be sure to use distilled water (or else water that you've boiled and cooled back to room temperature) so that you don't introduce any contaminants into the ink. Frankly, however, this seems risky to me, and not much less trouble than simply buying a new bottle of fresh ink.

After you use up your vintage ink, save the bottle: some people collect these. If you don't, you might be able to trade your empties to someone for something that you do want.

Can I mix inks?

There seems to be a sharp division of opinion on this topic. The two companies that today offer the widest ranges of ink colors take rather opposite views: J. Herbin advises you on every box (albeit in French) never to mix inks. As I noted above, J. Herbin inks are somewhat different in composition than other inks, so they may have good reason to advise this. On the other hand, Private Reserve acutally encourages you to experiment with mixing to create new colors (as they themselves do), and even offers a special kit of syringes, cups, bottles, etc. to assist you in the process (although one ink retailer I know refused for a while to sell these, in the belief that mixing inks is asking for trouble).

And so, the score stands at a 1-1 tie.

As far as I am concerned, mixing inks is just fine as long as the mixture doesn't involve chemical reactions that could change the nature of the ink (this might happen, say, if the two inks are far apart in their pH rating). For instance, several years ago, I filled a pen with a strange new color from a major maker and found that the interaction of the new ink with the residue in the pen completely stopped up the works. I eperimented by mixing the new ink with old ink in a little vial, and found that the two inks had actualy formed a scummy precipitate (the offending ink formulation has since been withdrawn by the manufacturer in favor of a more benign version in similar color).

If you want to be cautious with your own new mixtures, try them out with dip pens, or use fountain pens that are not terribly valuable or that are easy to clean out if an accident happens. The same advice might apply in trying a new brand or vareity of ink. To stay on the safe side, it woud be best to use only tried-and-true safe inks in your most valuable pens (particularly in vintage pens that have good color or translucency that you don't want to ruin).

Do fountain pen inks vary in their flow characteristics?

Yes. As I noted, most manufacturers use thickening agents like glycol to adjust the viscosity ("runniness") of their inks. The amount of such thickening varies from brand to brand, and even among the colors offered by a single maker (and possibly even among batches of the same color).

This means that an ink that works well in one pen might not work so well in another. Or, viewed another way, most pens will perform best with a particular brand and color of ink that has optimal flow characteristics for that pen. The differences, however, are very small in most cases and may not be noticeable to you.

If you are looking for a fast-flowing (low-viscosity) ink, you might try J. Herbin, Sheaffer Skrip, or Parker Quink. If you want something a bit slower, try inks from Pelikan (the 4001 series), or perhaps Private Reserve.

Note that the popular terminology here is a bit imprecise: a low-viscosity (fast flowing) ink is not necessarily "thick." For example, Platinum Carbon Black is a very gloppy-looking (and very deep black) ink, but actually runs like a scared rabbit in most pens with which I use it.

Where can I see what inks look like?

Most inks have labels that show the color of the ink inside. However, you ought not to take these specimens literally, since the nature of the label printing process means that the label colors might not always be identical to what gets written on the page.

Both J. Herbin and Private Reserve (as well as the new entrant Noodler's) offer online ink color charts at their websites. The problem here, of course, is that the color you see on your screen depends upon many factors, and in general will not be accurate unless you have invested in (and used) expensive color calibration equipment. Still, these charts are reasonable to use for comparing colors within a single brand.

These and other makers also offer printed color chart handouts, but again, we have the same problems (in spades) with color calibration in the printing process.

Probably the only way to know what a color looks like, short of buying and trying a bottle, is to see an actual written sample. Pen enthusiast Greg Clark sells a unique Fountain Pen Ink Sampler book that contains actual specimens of over 300 commercially-available inks daubed onto high-quality paper. The book also includes information on the pH rating (acid/alkaline content), water resistance, and sun fading characteristics of the inks. Considering the amount of work that goes into each copy of these books, they're a relative bargain (currently at $40), and a must-have for the ink fancier.

Ink testing at the Pendemonium table at a recent pen show.

Another opportunity to sample inks is available to you if you attend a pen show where dealers may set up an ink sampling table. I've seen people spend what seem like hours deliberating over the various colors available. It's healthier and cheaper than sitting at the hotel bar, and just as therapeutic for many folks.

How do I get the last ink out of the bottle?

Sheaffer Skrip bottle, 1960s, showing patented "tip-well"

Usually, you can't, at least not by any practical means. Ink makers have tried different bottle designs, some better than others, to help with the problem:

At the end of the day, however, you're still going to be left with a cc or two of unreachable ink even in the best-designed bottles. You have a choice: transfer these "dregs" to a fresh bottle of the same brand and color (using an eyedropper if you want to be careful), or simply throw them out. The latter may not be a bad idea, if you figure that the last bit of ink in the bottle may be a bit contaminated and mixed in color.

How do I get the #$&@*# bottle open again?

Ink is sneaky stuff, and can seep out of loosely-capped bottles. Therefore, it's a reflex action for most people to crank down on the cap when closing an ink bottle. Also, liquid ink usually appears inside the cap and can get onto the bottle lip and threads, where it eventually dries and forms a very effective cement. This is why many ink bottles are so damn hard to open after a couple of uses. It doesn't help that many caps are supremely ungrippable (like the aforementioned Parker Penman, or the pressed-steel caps found on old Sheaffer Quink bottles) or are made from quaint but brittle materials like Bakelite (Parker Quink and OMAS), so trying to bust them open with pliers can be dangerous (I have OMAS lids that cracked just from hand tightening!).

Here's a useful trick for loosening stubborn ink bottle caps: simply hold the cap under cool or lukewarm running water for a couple of seconds, allowing water to get in under the cap. Then, wipe the cap dry and give it a try with your hand -- it should open right up.

If it doesn't, you may have to go to the tool chest for a big pair of adjustable pliers (channel-locks or vise-grips). Use a chamois or cloth to pad the jaws, and apply no more pressure than you need (remember those cracking caps!).

Soft (polyethylene-like) plastic caps, particularly those with good knurling or ridges like those found on Lamy and Private Reserve inks, are the easiest to open; they don't always look particularly exotic but they work the best at their assigned jobs. The Montblanc "shoe" bottle is particuarly clever, since it is huge and deeply knurled, and you can grip the bottle with one hand while you crack open the cap with the other.

The cap linings in some newer ink bottles (the Pelikans and the new "conical" Sheaffer bottles) are made of a plastic that can effectively resist getting stuck by ink; many inks, however, use a waxed cardboard disc that may not be as effective; in fact, you may sometimes find that the cap comes off, but the cardboard disc stays behind! Don't toss it out, however: replace it inside the cap, since it helps seal the bottle against leakage.

There's something weird growing in my ink!

Inks can "go off" and develop mold growth (floating green-white patches that look like bread or cheese mold), and one popular brand is subject to develop an unattractive layer of phlegm-like goo. I can't imagine what the mold finds to feast on in these inks, but they make out somehow.

Sometimes you'll see an odd color change (I have a vintage bottle of blue ink that somehow became blue-gray over the years). I suspect these problems come from contamination of the ink, and aren't due to anything in the ink itself. Some inks, but not all, contain small amounts of phenol or other fungicidal agents which should inhibit such growths.

The best thing to do if you find such a bottle is to throw it out. If you want to save or re-use the bottle, clean it thoroughly with soap and water (and perhaps a mild bleach solution if you want to be really careful), rinse it well, and allow it to dry; you may then refill it with the ink of your choice.

Help! How do I get ink off my hands?!?

Having ink-stained hands is the mark of the dedicated fountain-pen enthusiast. Although perhaps unsightly, these stains are not harmful in any way, and once you rinse your hands under a tap, the colors won't spread to whatever you touch. The stains will go away by themselves over the course of a day or two's worth of normal handwashing.

Some people report good results using shampoo to wash their hands; or, you can check with Pendemonium or Ink Palette to see whether they have any hand-washing compounds specially designed to remove ink (one such product, called Ink-Nix, has proved very successful and is often the subject of dramatic pen-show hand-washing demonstrations).

. . . or off my clothes?!?

Ink stains on clothing pose a greater problem. Here, you may want to try a product called Amodex (available from Pendemonium, Ink Palette, and elsewhere), which is designed to remove ink stains. I have not used this product myself, but hear nothing but praise for it. Amodex is available in various packages, including "field kits" that you can take along in a purse or briefcase.

If you spill ink away from home, the best thing you can do until you can get to your Amodex stash is to dab up as much of the free ink as you can (without spreading the stain), and to keep the stained area damp (which will keep the ink in liquid suspension and may stop it from impregnating the fibers of your clothes). I've also heard that you can saturate the area with hair spray or club soda, which has the same effect.

My local laundry, like most, won't take in shirts with fresh ink stains (which can be spread to other customers' clothing during the washing process); I usually hand-wash or machine-wash the stains as best I can before turning the shirt over to them for laundering and pressing.