Fountain pen inks aren’t all the same
September 11, 2010 § 2 Comments
Fountain pen ink is literally the lifeblood of the pen. For schoolboys it’s the colour of their fingers from dismantling their pens to find how they work. For the more mature users, it’s what they spend their time doing, trying to find the colour and quality which most clearly reflects their personality or whim and suits their favoured pen of the week.
With 2 key components, water and dye, fountain pen inks have changed little since the late 19th Century. The dye, being water soluble, offers a guaranteed equal dispersion of colour throughout the ink without the risk of the colour component settling back out of the water during periods of inactivity. Historically, in the absence of any other form of written communication, the issue of ink flow versus drying times was of major concern. However, the modern market is somewhat different with a host of alternative methods of recording the written word, drying times of are of less consequence and focus is more towards colour density and pen reliability, particularly with more limited use for most fountain pens.
The issue of balancing reliable ink-flow with optimal drying time was addressed in 1928 by George Parker. He introduced a solvent into the formulation of his Quink Ink (quick drying ink) with a view to offering reliable ink flow with quicker drying times without the risk of clogging in the pen. In older formulations, Quink also offered some degree of water resistance. Although the principles of the formulation remain in today’s Parker Quink, in our opinion, the quality of the ink in terms of its flow and opacity, is not ‘best in class’ and is not compatible with many pen types. Quink remains one of the largest volume selling inks worldwide.
For ink formulating chemists, an alternative to dyes would be a pigment-based ink. Pigmented inks generally offer stronger, denser colours than the dye based equivalent, particularly with paler colours. However, by its nature, a pigment is a solid in suspension in a liquid. Fountain pens, working principally by capillary action, are dependent on the free flow of liquids through fine conduits and pigments would offer the probability of obstructing the feed routes by liquid evaporation and deposition of solids. The inks may also be prone to the settlement of the pigment out of the liquid during periods of inactivity. Pigment inks are generally available for dipping pens used primarily for calligraphy, while Indian Inks use shellac in their formulation for similar applications away from fountain pens
Modern dye-based inks are increasingly influenced by developments from the chemical industry producing reliable, hybrid dye based inks, with some microscopic solids to improve overall colour and drying performance.
More recently, the fountain pen ink market has seen the proliferation of colour with the likes of Diamine and Pelikan offering over 70 different colours and offering a constantly changing palette. However, it is not recommended that different colours are mixed to create a ‘personal colour’ because each colour may have a different pH value which may result in fading over time. For this reason, it is also recommended that pens are flushed between colour changes. There is also a number of manufacturers’ such as French producer , J.Herbin, offering scented inks. This technology, whilst fun, does not generally offer a sustainable scent beyond the room in which the romantic correspondence has been composed, probably because of the high cost of the chemical components required to increase the scents’ durability.
Dye based fountain inks are inherently water-soluble and therefore, can easily be erased, either by accident or in malice. For certain types of legal documents such as marriage certificates, the demand is for a permanent record. For this application the lead is taken from the earliest times where iron gall ink was used. Such is iron gall’s tenacity that, through modern analysis, it has been identified that the Dead Sea Scrolls were written in a form of iron gall! Iron gall ink works by a combination of evaporation of the water carrier and oxidisation of the iron component on contact with air. Initially it forms a steely blue-grey line which becomes waterproof on drying and darkens as the oxidisation occurs. However, iron gall is not bleach resistant or fully UV resistant. Iron gall inks such as, Diamine Registrars’ Ink are available for use in fountain pens but it is strongly recommended that the pen is flushed after each use to prevent clogging and acid damage.
Since the mid-1960s many manufacturers have offered the convenience of cartridges. Generally offering a similar formulation of ink to bottles, many manufacturers including, Pelikan, Caran d’Ache, Waterman, and J.Herbin use a ‘Euro Standard’ cartridge fitting. However, it should not be taken for granted that all cartridges will fit every pen. In our experience at PenFountain, there is some variation in design that can be significant enough to result in leakage. Equally, some manufacturers including Parker, Cross, Lamy and Sheaffer, require their own proprietary cartridges and convertors.