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.

Lamy Accent with Diamine Inks

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’AcheWaterman, 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.

Pelikan Souveran M800 Italic sampled

August 19, 2010 § 1 Comment

Pelikan has launched the Souveran M800 Italic Handwriting Pen and having taken our first stock at,   it has prompted the question as to what characteristics make a good italic or calligraphy nib.

The Souveran M800 is a tried and tested design of pen with beautiful balance and size but without excessive weight. The nib is classic 18ct gold with rhodium highlights and chased decoration. As would be expected of a nominal 1.5mm nib width, it draws a lot of ink and produces an adequate, without excessively wet line.

While I love my fountain pens, I am certainly no calligrapher, so please excuse the quality of the lettering used in this demonstration. Looking at the pens in our stable we have drawn comparison with my regular Lamy Studio gash pen currently fitted with a 1.5mm calligraphy nib and my Conway Stewart Silver Duro with medium italic nib.

Lamy 1.5mm calligraphy- Pelikan M800 Italic – Conway Stewart Medium Italic

Firstly, neither the Lamy nor the Pelikan gave a 1.5mm drawn line width, instead offering 1.2mm and 1.4mm respectively, with Conway Stewart’s medium italic offering a 1.1mm. A lateral line, by comparison, offered 0.4mm, 0.5mm and 0.5mm, in order. This is a purely mechanical assessment intended for information only. Other users may find that, by deft of hand, greater variation of line width may be achieved.

The Pelikan is a relatively rounded italic nib with slightly less variation in line width than I personally like. It feels ‘soft’ to write with which may prove more comfortable for writing longer passages in an italic style. At the other end of the price scale, the stainless steel Lamy nib does everything expected, with smooth performance and a slightly keener edge than the Pelikan or the Conway Stewart. The nib is suitable for use on the majority of the Lamy range offering an italic nib on pens starting from around £12.  The Conway Stewart has a stunning nib – when it performs, producing a generous wet and consistent line.  However, despite replacing the nib, the Duro refuses to offer consistent inking with periodic skips and initial line failures and, as a result, it only comes out for special occasions when my patience requires a testing! 

Of the Lamy and Pelikan offerings, it really does come down to personal taste with the sharper vertical/lateral strokes of the Lamy and the softer feel of the Pelikan.  However, if your requirement is to create a flourish on opening your fountain pen, the Pelikan is in a league of its own.  Other fountain pens worth considering for italic or oblique type nibs are the Waterman range from Carene upwards, the Parker Duofold with straight italic, oblique, and reverse oblique nib options (available to order from, and the Graf von Faber Castell Guilloche range.

As always, we would recommend trying both pens in a real pen shop before buying.

When a cheap pen comes good

August 11, 2010 § 1 Comment

The Platignum fountain pen is steeped in pen history in UK with the original brand being traced back to the early 1900s.  Like many pen brands,  Platignum has a chequered track record with its final incarnation being a budget school pen.  The rights to the brand were bought by Snopake in 2007 and resurrected into a budget range of pens sourced through both Germany and the Far East.  

Platignum Studio 5 Fountain pen

Platignum Studio 5 Fountain Pen - Excellent value

The launch was a bit haphazard with ballpoint and rollerball refills being available but no dedicated cartridges, inks or alternative or replacement nibs.  Although the company’s view was that the fountain pens would accept Euro standard cartridges, the reality was that only a limited number of ‘standard’ cartridges would fit without leakage and no convertors were available.  An on-line company has continued to offer various options in terms of cartridge and convertor but, based on the number of complaints that we have received, these were a theoretical fit rather than fully tried and tested. One of the issues is that with the Platignum pens, being sourced from 2 different manufacturers, do not have a single answer, particularly to the convertor problem. 

At, we have reduced the range offer down to the attractive Studio 5 range with its 8 plain barrel colours.  Combine this with our recommended Pelikan cartridges in 8 colours and you have got a positive rainbow of quality fountain pens at a budget price.  The cherry on the top of the Pelikan Studio 5 is that we have now identified a reliable, leak-free convertor, effectively opening your pen collection up to our range of 70+ ink colours, including Diamine and J Herbin and even a low-risk pen for using Registrars’ ink.  The new convertors have been tested over a month without even the suggestion of weeping although, the convertor is quite tight and requires a gentle twist on first insertion.  

The Platignum Studio 5 weighs in at 30 grams with 12.7mm diameter and 155mm posted length for just £7.99, including a tin presentation case.

What is your pen made from?

July 27, 2010 § Leave a comment

Fountain pens are manufactured using a wide range of materials the sum of which contribute to the design, performance and perception of the finished pen. While many of the materials are relatively common, the reason for their use in pen construction may not be as obvious. We will expand the information in this section over time to include some of the fascinating and more historical products used in pen construction.  These descriptions are covered on the website

Barrels and Caps

Resin:  A generic term used in fountain pens to cover a wide range of plastics.  Many ‘resins’ are pigmented acrylic resins used either as a single colour or mixed in multiple colours without becoming homogeneous to create swirls and coloured effects.  

 ABS (acrylonitrile butadiene styrene) is a sophisticated plastic compound used principally in Lamy pens but used extensively in industrial applications in automotive, furniture, electronics and toys including Lego bricks.  ABS is used for its dimensional stability, durability, and resistance to UV degradation making it suitable for highly coloured products.  Hence the brightly coloured pens found in the Lamy Safari range!

 Brass:  An early form of an alloy of elemental metals, brass is a combination of copper and zinc.  Alloyed in different proportions, brass can offer strength, malleability, corrosion resistance, and, in finished component form, has almost no requirement for lubricant for faces in close contact such as screw threads.  Brass is used extensively as a core metal for the production of quality fountain pen barrels and caps with its compatibility with metallic plating processes and coloured lacquers.

Fittings and Nibs

Gold: A dense, soft, malleable, elemental metal which, with its mechanical properties and resistance to oxidisation, is an ideal material for the production of fountain pen components.   

Silver:  A soft white lustrous elemental metal.  Sterling standard silver is 92.5% pure, the balance usually being of copper. 

Steel: Many fountain pen nibs and components are manufactured from either chrome plated steel or stainless steel.  Whilst traditional opinion is that the best nibs are only produced from gold because of its softness and spring, a good quality steel nib, in many cases, will serve its user equally well.  With many nibs, gold or steel, the pen is often not even used often enough to make any significant difference to its tip profile. The issue is more about the design and finishing of the nib because, unlike gold, a steel nib is unlikely to wear into the style of the users hand. In which case, the design and finishing is more critical than the material it is made from.  Examples of particularly good steel nibs are those used in the Caran d’Ache Ecridor range and the stainless steel nibs from Lamy with their wide range and simple inter-changeability.  Electro-plated steel is also used in the construction of most pens’ clips because of its spring.

Platinum group: Rhodium, palladium and iridium are chemically inert mineral elements which are part of the platinum group and are similarly rare.  They are used industrially either alloyed with other platinum group metals or used as catalysts in chemical processes.

 Rhodium plating is used extensively in fountain pen nibs as decoration, often over a gold nib where the mechanical characteristics of the gold are desirable but a silver trim finish is required.  The limited depth of the rhodium will have no effect on the characteristics of the nib.  Rhodium is also used as a fine plated coating over silver plating, such as on the Waterman Carene Essential Wave silver pens, to protect the finish from discolouration, wear and corrosion.

 Palladium is used occasionally in pens in a similar manner to rhodium, more usually in the manufacture of trim components.

 Iridium, a relatively dense element, can also be used in the manufacture of nibs to offer a more durable writing tip.

Left-Handed pens – Educational pariahs?

June 28, 2010 § 3 Comments

The number of early-learners coming into the shop in a distressed state to buy their first ‘proper’ pen are a disappointment to us – not to mention their parents!  What should be an exciting milestone in their development has been tainted by their teachers’ response to their ‘disability’.  In common with about 7% of the UK population, they are left-handed.   “Teacher says … hold this pen or that pen and get used to it.”  This should be a time to encourage, to excite, to develop a love for writing, for words, for spelling, for grammar, not a time to put obstacles in the way.  At we keep a range of inked pens in a pencil case for youngsters to try, both left-, and right-handed.

There is no shortage of choice for the first-time writer either, with specialist starter pen ranges from the Pelikan Griffix, Stabilo S’Move, Staedtler’s Starter and Lamy’s ABC fountain pen ranges. 

Pelikan Griffix is a range of pens which start with the Stage 1, an ‘un-handed’ wax pencil in a pen casing, designed to get

Left-Handed pens for young hands

Staedtler, Pelikan and Lamy pens available for left-handed writers

young hands used to the feel and control of a more formal writing instrument than a basic wax stick.  Stage 2 is a ‘handed’ pencil, Stage 3 a fibre-stick type nib and Stage 4 a fully functioning, cartridge fountain pen.  The 3 later stages are all designed with right- and left-handed grip options offering recesses to ensure the correct finger positioning on the pen and a smiley face logo to reassure the user that they holding it in the correct position. In our opinion, the only downside of the Griffix products is their rather juvenile decoration, particularly for the fountain pen aimed more at an age group in the UK where sophistication becomes an important issue.

Stabilo’s S’Move has received greater awareness through its TV advertising but is only available in pencil and rollerball formats. The water is further muddied through the visual suggestion that the ink is erasable (which it is not).  The same principle of left- and right-handed options and enforced posture operate although, the S’Move is a little more subtle than the Griffix in its grip management.

Staedtler Starter fountain pen is similar in principle to the Griffix but has less pronounced grip features and a slightly less conspicuous decoration than the its competitors.  The Lamy ABC is available to special order from but, in our view, is slightly anomalous in that it is a basic wooden pen with a less sophisticated grip design but in fountain pen format.  Lamy don’t often get their designs wrong but this could be the exception that proves the rule in terms of design positioning. Why a kindergarten style on a pen targetted at late primary school age?

When asked for advice about first ‘real fountain pens’, it’s no contest in our opinion.  The Lamy Safari hits the mark.  It is durable, not too expensive, has a universal ergonomically designed grip, offers options on cartridge or converter filling, and, most important, a nib system which must be the envy of other manufacturers.  The stainless steel nibs are available in extra fine to 1.9mm and a left-handed option, with a simple slip-on format which allows changing of nibs by choice (or when dropped!) for just £4.00 each.

Our experience has been that parents are amazed to see their offspring try different pens and actually enjoy writing, sometimes for the first time. We have even had to ask whether the child is left- or right-handed tying to analyse the cause of the distress where the parents have failed to recognise the problem.  Interestingly, not all left-handed writers get on with a left-handed nib but, instead, prefer a broad right-handed nib because, as the nib tends to be pushed across the paper, it is less inclined to catch the fibres and dig-in than with a medium nib.  

Not all left-handed writers get on with fountain pens at all because of the tendency to smear freshly written prose with the following hand.  In these cases we have another alternative for producing good quality, crisp text with comfort; the Uniball Jet Stream rollerball.  The Jet Stream is so-called because the ink dries almost immediately preventing the smearing on most ordinary writing papers. These are available in both capped and retractable formats.

What has been even more satisfying for us is the number of parents, seeing the response of their children to a satisfying pen and having tried our recommendations for themselves, have bought themselves their first fountain pen since leaving school!

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