No less important than the choice of the right fountain pen is the choice of the right ink. It’s not only the paper quality that matters; the beauty and readability of your handwriting as well as the color of your ink will tell the reader much about your personality, and as such I would like to provide you with a bit more information about the history and functionality of different inks, including my personal Top 10 List of Ink Manufacturers.
Short History of Inks
Our knowledge of ink goes back to around 2500 BC. It probably were the Chinese that first invented ink by mixing carbon particles or lamp black with gum arabic. Of course, fountain pens didn’t exist at that time, so it seems probable that this kind of ink would not work very well with modern writing instruments. Chinese used this ink with brushes.
It was about the same time that Egyptians invented their own kind of ink similar to that of the Chinese. This was a revolution in the sense that script was from then on no longer limited to clay tablets scratched with styluses. Now Egyptians could color walls (later known as frescoes) and papyrus sheets with ink that was of surprisingly high quality (hence that most of these 4,500 year old scriptures are still readable today).
It was an invention of the Chinese when so-called India Ink first appeared in the 4th century BC. India Ink, although invented by Chinese, got its name from the fact that items needed for production were imported from India. India Ink was the first ink featuring tar, pitch and burnt bones as ingredients. According to experts, India Ink was invented in the 4th century, however the oldest artifacts featuring India Ink are many decades younger: the Dead Sea Scrolls, finished in A. D. 68.
In Medieval Europe, ink was used to write on parchment. Beginning in the 5th century A. D., iron gall inks gained popularity. (I will explain the meaning of iron gall ink later.) Another way to apply ink to a writing surface is the use of a quill pen. This method was popular until the 19th century but has its roots back in the 6th century.
Again, it were the Egyptians that made a large step forwards in developing writing culture. In 953 A. D., the reservoir pen was invented as the ruler of Egypt demanded a pen that would not cause stains. This pen can be considered the first real ancestor of today’s fountain pens.
Probably you have heard of German celebrity Johannes Gutenberg, the inventor of the letterpress with moveable letters. However, it’s a less known fact that for the use with his printing press, he invented a special ink that was oil-based.
In all that time, people were happy to own ink that would make lasting writing. It took until 1856 that first methods for producing inks with a wide range of colors were invented by William Henry Perkin of England, whose actual intention was to find a cure for malaria. From now on, firms like the earlier-mentioned Hanover, Germany-based Pelikan could sell synthetically dyed inks with commercial success.
German chemists Schlutigg and Neumann in 1890 invented a recipe for iron gall ink. This recipe made its way to the gold standard in all official U. S. documents when it was adopted by the state of Massachusetts in 1912.
How to Choose Ink
Prior to choosing the right ink for you, you should find a paper store so you get the right paper. Unfortunately, most firms don’t provide much information about their inks, but there are differences.
Water Based Inks
Many inks are water-based. These inks have the downside that they soon fade out when exposed to sunlight. Furthermore, you should be advised to keep them away from liquids since they are not water-resistant. The good news: some water-based inks such as the German standard, Pelikan 4001 Royal Blue are erasable with so-called ink killers.
Iron Gall Inks
Iron gall inks have a long history: English author William Shakespeare admitted the use of iron gall ink for his play „Twelfth Night” around 1602. Iron gall inks consist mostly of iron(II) sulfate and tannic acids such as those from oak galls. When exposed to air, the iron elements of the ink are oxidizing. This means that after drying, the color shade moves to the darker side and the document becomes resistant to light and dampness. However, chemical reactions can damage the paper of documents written with iron gall ink. For that reason, you should use iron gall inks very selectively and only when you really need archive-safe documents such as contracts. Also keep in mind that iron gall inks decay rather soon after opening them.
A paper-saving way to write archive-safe are pigmented inks. In case neither the shop owner of your choice nor the ink’s package refers to the kind of ink, here’s a way to find out:
Hold the bottle against the light. Pigmented inks can easily be recognized by the fact that they are transparent. While water-based inks seem to be black, pigmented inks in the glass have the same color as on the paper.
Last but not least, it is worth mentioning that many people use scented inks for writing love letters or very personal correspondences. That way you can really express your appreciation for somebody as well as your individuality.
The Right Ink for the Right Purpose
Inks are available in myriads of colors. I believe that there are no ugly inks, just inks that don’t match the situation. Each ink has its occasion. While yellow ochre ink is a hassle to read on lemon yellow paper, it can look fantastic on paper of complementary color. And while green ink can look great on ivory colored letter paper, it’s a good idea to use blue or black colors for signing your next car’s contract of purchase. The bottom line is that everyone has to try different inks carefully to find one that matches his or her personality.
Ink defines itself not only by color. There are many more characteristics to all the inks out there. Here are some of them.
- Saturation: is the color shade fat or lean?
- Water fastness
- Feathering or bleeding. When I was a school boy in an eastern country a few years after the fall of the Iron Curtain, teaching materials were still the same as in the communist era. This means that writing papers consisted of very rough and knotty sheets similar to blotting-paper. Feathering is very common among these papers: As soon as ink is applied to the paper, it „feathers out” or bleeds, which looks quite ugly. Apart from the aesthetics, it also makes letters like „a” or „e” almost unrecognizable, especially if written small and with broader nibs.
- Lightfastness. To examine this, tape a writing sample against a window with lots of sun exposure. Three days later, see how much the color saturation has reduced.
- Shading. Not all parts of a script are written with the same amount of ink. If you write certain passages slower or with a greater pressure, more ink will be applied to the paper. Inks with good shading will take this into account by letting appear such passages darker or with more saturation. Shading is a welcome characteristic since it makes the caption more vivid and three-dimensional.
- Time to dry. In case you don’t own a rocker blotter, don’t choose an ink that dries slowly.
Please be aware of the fact that all of these characteristics also depend on the paper of your choice. For example, while some papers might reduce feathering, it might likewise cause the ink to take longer to dry.
Taking Proper Care of Inks
Inks should be stored in a dark, cool place. Once opened, use it up as soon as possible. Especially iron gall inks are difficult to store over a longer period of time.
Once every 6 months, a fountain pen should be thoroughly rinsed. This means you should soak up clear water into the tank and let the pen rest in a glass of water for at least a day, rinsing every few hours.
If you try to buy bulletproof inks for cartridge pens, you will soon notice that such ink doesn’t exist. This is due to the fact that especially pigmented inks need very intensive care and pens filled with them should be cleaned often. Since it’s very difficult to clean pens working with ink cartridges, the industry doesn’t offer pigmented inks for these.
The Top 10 Ink Manufacturers
In this paragraph I’d like to provide you a short list of the most famous ink producers:
Caran d’Ache’s name is a word play. It derives from Russian „karandash” meaning „pencil.” With a pricing of 13.80 euros or about $22 for 30 ml, Caran d’Ache’s inks are rather expensive. Don’t let the package size fool you: it has a thick bottle. I own Sunset ink by Caran d’Ache; it has a great ink flow, doesn’t blur, but takes more than 30 seconds to dry.
German firm De Atramentis, nicknamed „The Ink Factory”, has its name from the term „Atramentum.” In ancient Rome, atramentum meant a black dying liquid, for example that of an octopus. Nowadays, De Atramentis offers a huge variety of different inks of all colors imaginable, as well as scented inks. They also sell „theme inks” (e. g. politicians such as Napoleon Bonaparte, Mahatma Gandhi or Frederick Barbarossa), composers, religious persons (e. g. Hildegard of Bingen or Pope Benedict XVI.) or artists. There surely is a De Atramentis ink for any purpose and for any interest, which makes them a great gift. In the U.S. they retail at about $16 for 35ml.
French Firm J. Herbin, primarily a calligraphy supplier, offers many shades of ink, water-based inks as well as pigmented ones. A huge pro for this firm is the fact that they offer real photographed writing samples instead of computer-made samples so you can get a very realistic image of the „spirit” of the ink. Price varies between $10 – 28 per bottle.
I have already tried Midnight Blue, Toffee Brown, Lavender Purple, Jonathan Swift and Oyster Grey and they all write very well. Especially Oyster Grey has a great shading. Most of Montblanc’s inks can easily be recognized by the unique flacon style. The bottles are called „boot bottles”, because they consist of two separated chambers so you can better use small rests of ink remaining in the bottle. Priced at around $18-20 per flacon, special inks are more expensive.
Yes, Noodler’s specialty is not only flex pens. They also sell marvelous inks. Of special interest are the highlighter inks; at least six different types of them are available today. Together with a broad nib, they make a great document marker. Noodler’s Highlighter Inks are available in orange, pink, reddish pink, green, blue, and yellow. Prices start at $12 per 90ml.
Parker, „the firm with the arrow,” offers only a small variety of ink colors. However, they are worth mentioning because Parker is a very famous fountain pen manufacturer, especially inside the U. S. and many pen users wish to use their writing instruments with ink by the same firm. Unfortunately, the five-ink Penman series has been discontinued.
Pelikan, in the 19th century a pioneer of inks, is Germany’s doyenne of writing culture. 4001 series inks are a big bang for the buck, and for those who can afford the 13 euros for 50 ml there is the beautiful „Pelikan Edelstein” („Pelikan Gem Stone”) series with coruscant bright colors. Additionally to the basic Edelstein colors Aventurine, Jade, Mandarin, Onyx, Ruby, Sapphire, Tanzanite and Topaz, there are also „Ink of the Year” special editions named Turmaline (2012), Amber (2013), and Garnet (2014). Pelikan inks are best used in Pelikan pens because, according to the paper shop of my choice, they have a special „smoothness formula” that prevents the ink flow from ceasing. Pelikan also offers green and yellow highlighter inks, for the use in Pelikan’s M205 highlighter pens that have translucent corpusses in light green and yellow, respectively. Starting at around $8 per flacon.
Zionsville, Indiana-based firm Private Reserve offers merely inks. Priced at $8.80 and up for 50 ml, they are cheaper than most competing products. All refills are made in either the U. S., Germany or Switzerland. A comprehensive list of dealers can be found on Private Reserve’s home page, www.privatereserveink.com.
Rohrer & Klingner
Ink producer Rohrer & Klingner, based in Leipzig, Germany, offers not only writing ink, but also drawing ink, India ink, and other dying products. There are 18 writing inks at Rohrer & Klinger’s, with two of them, Scabiosa (magenta) and Salix (blue), being iron gall inks. Priced around $12 per bottle.
Besides Montblanc, Pelikan, and Parker, Waterman is one of the best-known fountain pen manufacturers, especially famous inside the U. S. Priced at around $10 per 50 ml, Waterman offers an excellent cost-performance-ratio. I, for myself, tried Waterman’s Havanna Brown. It’s got a great shading, is somewhat waterproof, and I just love the color.
Where To Buy
Most major cities have at least one shop offering quality inks and office supplies. In case you don’t live in such a city, you can buy inks easily online. Apart from amazon, here are a few shopping possibilities.
www.jetpens.com offers ink from most suppliers mentioned above. They also sell fountain pens, however, they specialize in Japanese pens. Free shipping on orders over $25.
www.gouletpens.com offers the same as JetPens, however they also sell more expensive pens (except Montblanc) up to the Pelikan M1000.
www.penboutique.com advertises with lowest prices on best writing instruments and inks, including th e most expensive pens from Montblanc and Pelikan.
www.goldspot.com, a site devoted to luxury gifts, also offers pens and inks below list pricing.