Fountain Pen Ink

Ink TestThe ink you use in your pen plays an important part in the writing experience.

Frist, there is the visual impact of writing with ink itself. Receiving a card or letter written with a fountain pen is very different from that produced with a ball point pen. And way better than an email! There is also the option for colour of ink - another way to add a very personal aspect to your writing.

But ink impacts more than just the visual appearance of the written message. It can impact the actual performance of the fountain pen itself. Inks have different flows properties and performance characteristics. I have helped to solve many a problem pens, for example, my giving the person a bottle of say, Waterman Florida Blue ink.

But even within a brand of ink, the performance of individual colours can vary. It all relates to the overall relationship between the dyes, solutions and water - the composition of writing ink.

I have listed to the left the major brands of ink. For each brand I have provided some information in terms of colours available and size of bottle. For many of them I have included a review of how particular colours perform.

Fountain pen ink is a rather complex medium. It is a b blend of solvents, pigments, dyes and water. Ink is not ink, and as you use various different brands you will find that some ink just does not work in some pens very well, some inks are are too "thin" or "thick" dry to fast or not fast enough. A wide range of criteria that each user holds to define the acceptance of a particular brand and colour of ink.

The brands of ink are listed to the left and I have provided information on the ink, colours available, and reviews where the ink has been used and tested.

Inks of Note

Fountain Pen InkSome inks become what I refer to my Inks of Note as they are the colours and brands that I tend to use the most.

Your have a Pen, Use It

I am often asked how I use so much ink. I have a job that requires considerable writing. Notes of meetings, or notes at third-party hearings are all great opportunities to use your pen. Some are making notes on their laptops or tablets, but I find my handwritten notes, along with all the little marks to denote if something was important or not to be very helpful.

In addition, I regularly send cards, rather than emails. Also, when not at work, my wife and I travel on a regular basis.

I also maintain a travel journal. A relaxing part of each travel day is to sit down with a glass of wine, pull out a fountain pen (I travel with quite a few) and write about my take on the days events.

Ink Bottles

Not only does the ink have important characteristics, but the ink bottle itself is an important consideration.

Size and shape of the bottle is important.

I have updated a comparison of ink prices by quantitiy on a page that shows the various sizes and prices of the key brands. This comparison was done in 2012.

The design of the bottle is important. The best designed bottles help to support holding the bottle at an angle so as to get the nib completely submerged in the ink for a good fill.

Ink Manufacturer and Pens

I provide the information on inks by manufacturer. A common question is whether inks from different manufacturers can be used in different pens. Try the various brands, do not be limited to only using, say, Aurora ink in an Aurora pen.

Manufacturers do establish their own specifications for their inks, and they establish the characteristics of their ink often with the characteristics of the pen's ink feed mechanisms. So when I asked a manufacturer that question, I am told that the ink they brand is made to maximize the writing experience of their brand of pens.

Again, do not let that stop you from trying different brands. Only a few of the pen companies actually manufacturer their ink. Buy a bottle. Give it a try. I have found some brands of ink don't perform very well in certain brands of pens. I am sure you will have the same experience.

The writing experience with an individual pen is a combination of:

  • the flow characteristics of the ink,
    the colour density of the ink,
  • the flow characteristics of the pen and nib, and
  • the characteristics of the paper.

The Controlled Drip

Ink and your fountain pen and performance. It is really about a controlled drip. Gravity and the capillary action of water is basically how it works. Slots, or channels, in the ink feed allow ink to flow out of the chamber that holds the ink, and other channels allow the air to flow back into the ink chamber. That is how the pen works and Edson Waterman is credited with inventing the the fountain pen with this simple ink feed mechanism.

The balance between capillary action pulls the ink down to the nib, and the vacuum in the ink chamber holds the liquid in the pen. As ink leaves the chamber, the vacuum gets to the point where it draws air up into the pen along one of the feeds. The vacuum drops and allows ink to flow.

Ink: Water and Dyes

Fountain pen ink is basically water with dyes and other chemicals required for proper functioning. With a fountain pen stay away from Indian or drafting inks. Those inks are made to be used with pens where the nib is dipped into the ink.

There are some inks with pigments, but they are typically not fountain pen inks.

Some modern inks have chemicals such as ferro-gallic added as a means of increasing the permancy of water-based writing inks. The ferro-gallic chemicals of today are not the same as the very corrisive gallic ink used in the middle ages and up to the 18th century. The chemicals do increase the overall level of corresiveness. Montblanc's Midnight Blue and Noodlers' Registrar Black are two examples of modern inks with ferro-gallic composition.

The chemicals create the properties of of the ink. The appropriate surface tension -- viscosity, the dyes the colour saturation. As well there are anti-bacterial chemicals added so the ink does not grow new life in the bottle and muck up in inside of your pen!

A good part of the "ink experience" is often summarized as how it flows. It is a "wet ink" based on its degree of viscosity.

Technical articles indicate that water has a surface tension of about 73 dynes/cm and fountain pen inks have a surface tension that is lower. Typically between 38 and 45 dynes/cm. From what I have read, if the surface tension value is above 45, then the ink tends not to run through the capillary system of the feed and the pen skips. If the rating gets below 38 then the ink just runs and the flow of ink has less control.

A number of years ago, I had the opportunity to visit the Waterman pen factory in Nantes, France. Waterman makes their own inks. A basic ink is used for the base and then dyes are added to create specific colours. Waterman decides on the "blend" of chemicals so that the ink has an appropriate amount of surface tension, flow and drying time assessed as best for their pens.

Each manufacturer has their formula. So they say. But some companies use common inks. They just change the bottle or in some cases, use the same bottles and just use a different label.

Are there permanent inks?

Yes there are. But not really because of the ink itself, but because of a reaction of chemicals in the ink to cellulose - one of the properties of paper or as in the case of ferro-gallic, the reactive to oxygen. These permanent inks use cellulose reactive dyes. As the ink companies say, the dyes are water soluble so there is no effect or damage to the pen. When the ink is in the bottle all is normal. But when the dyes react with cellulose in paper and after the ink dries the ink becomes waterproof and permanent.

I have purchased a number of the permanent inks by Noodler's Ink and tested how they lasted when held under water. Pretty good. Each had a slightly different amount of "run".

Oh yes, there is cellulose in those cotton shirts so when you drop these permanent inks on your clothes, well its permanent!

Ink Staining Pens

Will inks stain your pen? Some will.

Inks in the red, violet and pink colours are more likely to stain the ink container and they may stain the outside of the nib section, as the nib section is submerged ink the ink on fill up and there is often ink build up in the cap of the pen itself.

I have a pen in which I have used Pelikan Purple for many years. The plastic converter does have a purple tone to it. If you have a black pen nib section, then no problem. Would I use purple ink in my Montegrappa Parchment 1930 Extra? No way.

The blue tone inks are generally the least likely to stain, but then again, if you get some of the highly intense colours that general guide starts to fade.

Staining is an important issue, as it is not just when the nib is placed in the bottle of ink for a fill up that is of concern. Ink transfers from the nib into the inside of the cap. The cap is screwed on the pen. The cap is also often posted on the top of the pen body. Lots of opportunity for ink from the pen cap it sit and stain the body of the pen itself.

Mixing Your Own Colours

For some, this can be a big-time activity. Check our the ink section of Pentrace, a very good source of information on inks, and you will find the formulas for various shades of colour.

A word of caution. Mixing of inks sometime causes problems with a reaction between the various chemicals etc. Even mixing colour within the same brand of ink can cause problems.

When mixing ink, wash the pen, including the converter, with room temperature water. Mix some ink in a bottle and give it a try. If it develops problems, then junk it.

If you want to mix, and feel a bit safer about the process, Platinum has issued an Ink Mixing kit that has nine colours, all the equipment you need to mix and a colour chart.

Fresh Ink - Old Ink

Can you use old ink? Most will agree you can, provided the ink has not been subject to sunlight, and has been properly capped.

Give the bottle a shake and try it. If in any doubt, always have a cheaper pen available for your more daring moments. I store my inks in a closed cupboard and when sitting for long periods of time they are not exposed to light. I have been using inks that are many years old with no problem.

I notice that the new line of Montblanc inks that were issued started in 2011 have a date makred on the outside of the box.

Inky Fingers?

Ink on your fingers? My worst fear. It seems that everyone in my office is just waiting for the big ink disaster to occur. Here is my secret. Just place some automatic dishwasher soap on a cloth and rub it over the ink stain on your finger. It will be gone with a little rubbing. As I proudly say... try that with ball point ink!

Cleaning Pens

If you have problems with your pen, and the ink is just not coming out the way you think it should, give the pen a good cleaning.

  • The best way is to use room temperature water.

To help clean out any ink deposits clean the pen with room temperature water, or water mixed with very little non-sudsy household ammonia in the water. Now I mean a little diluted ammonia. Ammonia is corrosive and can eat away at metal so we are talking about dilution here! Now we are talking about just a little. A cap in a three cups of water. I have found the regular water method the best. See Cleaning Nibs.

  • Avoid using hot water as this could damage certain parts of the pen.

If you are not regularly using a pen, then clean the ink out with plain water. Otherwise, after a dozen or so fills, take the time to give it a flush with water. Be careful with rubber-based pens. Try straight water.

I find that leaving the nib section in a cup of straight water and coming back in a couple of hours does the trick just about every time. For some vintage pens, leaving the pen in water will cause problems. So approach the whole process with some caution. Vintage pens are made of various materials and extra care is required. Although many of my pens are now in the 25 to 30 year age, I am not a collector of true vintage pens so can't offer recommendations on the care and maintenance of the real old ones.

Acid & Alkaline Levels

What about the acidity of ink? This seems to be a point of ongoing talk on various discussion sites. Is it really important? On one hand I am told it is not that much of an issue. The compatibility of inks and dyes used in the particular inks may be more of an issue, however, these is a fair amount written in terms of pH levels of writing inks. I have summarized some of the key points in the section on Ink and pH levels section.

When Things go Bad

Ink, and the chemistry of what is in the bottle, can sometimes go bad. If you find slime or grunge in the bottle, throw it out. If you see mold, that means the chemical that has been added to the ink to stop the growth of mold has broken down.

Ink and Paper

This is the current challenge facing pen users. Most office paper terrible to write on with a fountain pen - especially when the office goes "green" has uses low-grade re-cycled paper.

In terms of writing paper I really enjoy using Clairefontaine Paper. The paper is available in many locations both in North American and Europe. I always stock up on a visit to France. In Vancouver, BC the paper is available at Vancouver Pen and Charals - both located on West Hastings in downtown Vancouver.

I will place some comments in a section on Paper that I am developing.