Fountain Pen Design

Function, Development, Construction and Fabrication

3.2 Perfect Ink

Thank you for reading ever so patiently. While writing the last few paragraphs, I felt the steady rising of your burning, inevitable question. After you have learned all about ink flowing in a fountain pen and on paper, now, do you want me to tell you what the perfect ink is?  One could excogitate on this topic extensively, considering the ink’s behaviour in the fountain pen, on paper and what qualities the writer might perceive as desirable.

But as much as sitting on a mountaintop (or in a laboratory) can be a revealing exercise, ultimately, all clarity may culminate in the insight that only magical beings with higher powers are perfect and even trying to approach perfection could arise their anger.

Nevertheless, eventually, all the logical reasoning and deductions will arrive at a futile end when they don’t correlate with the writer’s opinion and expectation.

All my research on ink was necessitated by the wide variation of characteristics which rendered them unsuitable for my purpose. Hence, I had to brew my own ink, which was manufactured to narrow standards and due to its chemical composition possessed specific physical characteristics that supported the reliable writing of a fountain pen.

Was my ink perfect? Is it still perfect? I don’t know; all I can say: It fulfilled all the requirements that I posted on it thereby facilitating the development of a fountain pen’s inner components.  And for sure, new demands will arise from the market or technology, then further action will be asked for.

What do Writers want?

This question is asked so quickly but to arrive at a few narrow, perhaps simple answers is quite a struggle, if not impossible. Writers’ needs and expectations are not only individual but also differ widely. Writing is writing? By no means.

The dilemma is that for transforming needs into technical data and solutions, they must be specified.  Components can be designed without the knowledge of every single detail but eventually, all the Ts must be crossed, and all Is dotted.  Otherwise, they can’t be manufactured.

Let me summarise the collection of my recent findings on ink as they were expressed by enthusiasts in papers, websites and forums in the form of typical demands, critiques or facts on ink.

Ink is smooth flowing
Good ink is sometimes characterised as smooth flowing. I would guess that this above all, describes the quality of the fountain pen nib rather than the ink. What would be the opposite? Intermittent or inconsistent flow? This is undoubtedly caused by the fountain pen and not the ink.

Ink is dry (flowing?) … 
… or ink is too dry. I have heard this expression often enough to find it intriguing, if not confusing when attempting to make technical sense out of this expression.  Once physical data would have been attached to the expression “dry ink”, one could respond and offer a more flowing concoction.

Being an artistic (passionate) ingeneer, I find myself sucked into this web of opinions.  The trouble is that “dry ink” means different things to different people.  It has been described as slow-flowing (from the pen), as fast drying on the nib and on paper. Furthermore, it may exhibit a rough or scratchy feel when writing, when the nib moves across the paper.

Since clear test parameters are missing I cannot suggest indisputable answers.  Most likely the various types of dryness are induced through different causes.  Slow flow from the pen may have something to do with the feed or nib construction.  Fast-drying on the nib and paper suggests the presence of (too much of) a surfactant in the ink.  A scratchy feel of the nib likely is caused by an improper adjustment of the tines, bad writing habits or the kind of paper.

Rounding it all up, I would like to say, dryness has not much to do with the ink but rather the perception of the writing experience, towards which, many parameters contribute, in particular, the writer’s individual opinion. Why? Because I have read endless debates in forums where different experiences had been titled with the same word. An initial clarification about what is meant would have been fruitful.

Ink looks washed out
Characteristics named as washed-out or its opposite, deep or intense, one could call the degree of colour saturation, which has to do with the dye and dye concentration as well as the dispersion of ink on/in the paper.  This may not be a quality criterion as the washed-out appearance can be a desired choice of the ink manufacturer.  I have read comments of writers who enjoy the washed-out look.

Some inks agree better with paper
… or, may I rephrase this comment? “Inks agree better with certain papers than with others.” Meaning, the agreement is one-sided and depends mainly on the kind of paper. I don’t know what the measuring criteria for such a characterisation could be since I have always used either chemical filter paper or the standard paper of the pen industry.

I would suggest that the various types of paper containing different components and mixing ratios would certainly cause ink to display a different behaviour when exposed to them. The predominant components of paper are the fibre material and its length, the bonding material, the addition of surface-active chemicals and the paper’s coating.

As mentioned before, in the writing industry, we employed standardised paper for testing, as it has been used in a circle or infinity figure writing machine (Simply Ink photo 1). I would like to bet that almost every writing implement developed on this planet was optimised on that paper.

Of course, in the alchemy of ink production, everyone adds a few extra secret herbs and spices. This could be the cause of some inks performing differently from paper to paper. However, the concentration of chemicals in ink is so minute (dirty water), instead, I tend to blame the paper for the variations than the ink.

Even inks of the same brand behave differently
Having heard this question, I ask: “In what situation? In the fountain pen or on paper?” Using an old dip nib and holder provides a quick answer. If the lines of different samples of ink show only variations on various paper types but not on the same paper, then it’s the paper.  Alternatively, when a selection of samples of ink from the same brand behave differently on the same paper, it’s the ink, obviously.

If the inks are from the same brand but of different colour or type (permanent/ regular) I would agree, “these inks would/could behave differently”

Nevertheless, any conscientious and reliable manufacturer would try to minimise such variations. If they happen within the same colour and type of ink, then I would suggest, the ink manufacturer has done a shoddy job. This was demonstrated during my early tests when I found absolute variations of over 60%! How do they expect that the conscious user would not notice qualitative variations in ink behaviour?

Finally, I would like you to consider that it is also a matter of degree when assessing something to be the same or at what stage is it different.  I ask: “Is it measurable?”

If the above dip-nib-and-holder test does not show any variation, then that different behaviour is caused by the fountain pen which had been used by the person who made the above observation. Here, I would like to say: “Inks and pens are tuned to each other. It’s a fickle business, believe you me … been there, done that.”

For sure, some fountain pens can compensate for variations of the ink’s characteristics better than others.  Primarily, it comes down to the feed, the size of the reservoir and the nib/feed/ink interface.  And toying with any parameter can cause all sorts of misbehaviour.  I have seen it.

At the time, the company I worked for offered blue, black, red and green ink. Later, the company decided to make their own ink (consideration of cost and delivery reliability), so I was able to assure that my feed could compensate for the different characteristics without noticeable differences in appearance and writing behaviour. That’s my promise to you.

What colours should I use (or avoid)?
During my time as a pen-ingeneer, I used blue ink as a standard and optimisation ink for the construction of components.  Other colours I tested later to ensure that the pen works with them. Blue ink was chosen because it was the most widely preferred in the late seventies. This information was based on the quantities of ink the company sold.

Amongst “ordinary” inks, blue has the lowest solid content, green and red contain some more, culminating with black, which has the highest. Using blue should result in (almost) maintenance-free proper performance of the pen while inks with a high solid content (not only the dye but all the other additives) such as red, dark green and worst of all black would need cleaning now and then.

Most important is: use your fountain pen. The more you write, the more you keep solid matter moving which prevents them to settle on the ink transmitting surfaces.

If your pen has plastic components of which portions of them can be in contact with the ink, such as the front of the section or the inside of the cap, intense colours such as red (it has the highest acidity) can stain the plastic permanently but this, the high acidity, should not affect the function of the fountain pen.

Black blacks
… Indian or Chines ink, drafting or drawing ink can contain anything between 6-40wt% solids (wt% = solids by weight). Somewhere in this range, the ink turns creamy, while it is a paste at the upper end but it is still called ink. Obviously, for usage in a fountain pen even at the low percentage of black writing ink, 5%, the capillaries of the feed clog up, unless you write a lot, more than twelve pages a day. Unfortunately, some irresponsible ink makers add surface reactant chemicals to the ink to prevent clogging. That throws over the whole ink-flow regulating mechanism of the feed. You will not be very happy.

If you want to use ink up to 10wt%, use a drafting pen with a tubular tip, they are designed for such applications.  The old nibs on holders had a small reservoir clipped to the top of the nib. They worked well and are easy to clean.  During my drafting time, as an ingeneering student in the sixties (how long ago was that?), after work, we rinsed the nibs in water and stuck matching stainless steel needles in the tube to absolutely assure that there was no ink left inside.

Those “modern” ones with cartridges and feed still clog up overnight, even with the cap put on tightly, hence, had to take them apart and rinse them with water every day after work.  We could leave them in water, we could because they were made of plastic and stainless steel. The old nibs were made of hardened steel and would rust in no time. Keeping the modern tips submersed helped to initiate the tip the next morning.

Good tubular nibs have a rounded, polished tungsten carbide tip, and they even write reasonably well.  The expression of character, however, would only lie in the contour of the line and not in the dynamics that a variable line width of a nib can offer.

Above 10%? Use a brush or frayed bamboo stick as they are used in Eastern calligraphy. There, writing is considered a form of art while in the West writing with ink and a nib not many consider it this way. Contemplating, I remember the olden days when it took us months before writing with a nib became easy.

Bright colours
… when written with broad nibbed pens, can appear blurry or blotchy because broad nibs need more ink per length of writing line. Bright colours have less dye and more water in them which would make them runny, hence, they need other, more solids in them for stabilisation (not being runny); therefore, the flow can be reduced due to being unmatched with the capillaries of the feed.

By the way, I just learned (2016) that by some writers, irregularity (blotchiness) is considered an added feature to express their character of writing. Sure, things change.

Lighter colours
… develop their full richness on the paper and after drying because then the activity of the acetic acid is more noticeable. On top of that, the water in ink acts as a thinner and the wet ink appears pale.  Once the ink is absorbed by the paper and the water has dispersed and evaporated the colour appears more saturated.

Special inks
If you want to use iron gall inks, I learned that insiders use one called ESSRI … Ecclesiastic Stationery Supplies Registrar Ink.  It has been tested and certified that it would not destroy your fountain pen, as long as the fountain pen is flushed, let’s say twice a year.  Other iron gall inks have been known to eat your pen’s interior away.  Still, if you want to use such ink only occasionally as well as for invisible inks, I would recommend using a dip nib on a holder.

Do I have to use the same brand of ink as the pen?
By now, this question is almost redundant (you know by now). However, allow me to state the obvious to free you of all doubt. The ink, feed, and nib tribunal are finely tuned to provide the writer with a reliable, satisfying pen performance. Once you have experienced this, you would not want to utilise another brand.

Those, who see writing with ink as art, would respond like a painter to a change of paint or an old-time photographer to a change in film brand or photographic paper. Why would you want to? To widen their range of expression after some time of experimenting and learning, until the new material is deeply integrated in their unconscious repertoire, where things flow without thinking. This takes time, determination and patience.

As a clear answer: Yes you can use inks from other brands, there may be some consequences reducing, or at least changing the quality of writing performance of your fountain pen. When you consider this and free the artist in you to explore, be my guest. I have done it innumerous times.

When do pens need to be cleaned?
The only legitimate reason for cleaning or emptying a pen is when you decide not to use the pen for an extended period of time, which may be the case for fountain pen collectors. And obviously, when you change the colour. Otherwise, your pen should run maintenance-free, unless the cap is not tight or something else is broken causing excessive drying of the ink.

If there is a need for cleaning, only use clean water, lukewarm works better.

When do I need to throw ink away?
If you detected a broken seal inside the cap of your ink-bottle, observe whether there are stain marks on the sidewalls, inside the glass bottle. If yes, only water has evaporated since all the other components have higher evaporation points.

Most likely, the characteristics of the ink have changed, causing reduced function of your fountain pen, and the pen could clog up more easily. Safely, you can add (boiled, filtered) water up to the level of the stain marks inside the ink bottle.

After ink has remained unmoved for several years, you may find mould floating on top of the ink or stuck inside the lid. This is very uncommon. Even if the ink would be contaminated with some organic matter, the anti-fungal component should prevent mould from occurring. Even though, if it has moulded, I would not use it.

Adding this information here, after some time, you may notice grease puddles on the ink surface. They are caused by the larger molecule components having separated out of the mixture.  Just shake the bottle, and they will disappear, no reason to discard the ink.

Do fountain pen inks vary in their flow characteristics?
Yes, they do.  Inks and fountain pen components which come in contact with the ink vary their interaction (both contribute to the relationship) if one of them changes, the ink, in this case. If you swap inks in a given fountain pen, then the physical characteristics of the ink influence its flow through the feed, the way it flows out of the nib. In addition, the ink’s distribution and absorption on paper are also affected.

Nothing is isolated, nothing happens in isolation; everything happens by responding to changes in a relationship. A general law of the world.

If the flow varies between batches of the same colour and manufacturer, I would have a serious talk with your vendor, or change brand. If the ink is recognisably thick such as drafting ink, I recommend: don’t use it in your fountain pen.

What is the Perfect Ink?

Still, after all, which has been said, I can’t tell you, except … only what it means to me: It is ink with narrow performance characteristics, the ink, which helped me to design and fine-tune the fountain pen components I developed. Thus, it is the ink, which fits perfectly with my pen and all the subsequent fountain pens using the same components.  Having established this requirement, I began brewing my own ink for usage in my laboratory. Admittedly, I only tested my product with ink variations as they would occur in our company’s production, but not the wide range of parameter variation as some ink manufacturers offer.

For a dedicated or aspiring fountain pen user it is worth trying out what works best for you; find your preferred combination of fountain pen, your choice of paper and ink.

What counts, ultimately: “Does the appearance of your written product fulfil your expectations?” If yes, then you have found your perfect ink, your perfect match.


If you really want to know, in-depth, about ink, here is a link to André Béguin and his Technical Dictionary of Printmaking which includes an extensive article on all possible kinds of inks.

This concludes the chapter on Simply Inks.


Amadeus W.

29 July 2014

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