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Different ink types: how, when, why

You didn't know there were so many types of ink did you? And now you do, you don't know what type you need.

For the impatient types, a summary:

  • Fountain Pen ink - water soluble, no particles, can be used in any type of pen.
  • Calligraphy ink - probably water soluble, may contain particles to increase opacity, may be ok in a fountain pen.
  • Drawing ink - not water soluble, NEVER use in a fountain pen.

To explain the difference in inks, it is useful to know how a fountain pen works.

A series of very thin channels, ending in the one in the nib allow the ink to flow from the ink reservoir to the paper, but hopefully, keeps the ink in place when not near paper. These channels can be clogged up by small particles and dried ink. For this reason, if you leave a fountain pen for an extended period of time, you are likely to find it doesn't work when you come back - the ink has dried, and blocked the channels, even when you put fresh ink in.

Fountain pen ink is water soluble, to fix this problem. When faced with dried ink in a pen, soak it in warm water, and hopefully this will be enough to clear the problems. Sometimes a trip to an ultrasonic cleaner may be in order, but not always. If you use non-water soluble inks in your fountain pen you risk developing a build up of dried ink you cannot clean out, and therefore a ruined pen. As an aside, you shouldn't write cheques with most fountain pen inks - they can easily be washed off. Luckily there are two solutions to this problem. The first is inks which while water soluble, undergo a chemical reaction with cellulose to bind permanently (such as the Private Reserve 'Invincible' inks). The second is to use electronic transfers, do you think this is 1950?!

Fountain pen ink also contain no particles. Particles clog up the small channels in your pen. Unfortunately this restricts the ability to add colours & the opacity of the ink. Many paints are a bunch of small coloured particles in suspension. This allows a more opaque colour to be produced - the particles can cover the surface. Many inks use a similar technique.

Acidity is also worth considering. You wouldn't want to fill your grandfathers fountain pen with lemon juice for obvious reasons. Unfortunately colours are a trade off, the compounds needed to make may colours are either acidic or alkaline. A good quality fountain pen ink will be relatively neutral (neither acidic, nor alkaline). Some calligraphy or drawing inks will accept a strongly acidic or alkaline result in order to achieve the colour they want.

Having said all of this, inks are an art rather than a science. Some pens work better with different inks. Some inks are 'wetter' and flow differently. If you are not happy with an ink, try a different ink, or the same ink in a different pen. Inks vary within a brand, so just because you loved how one colour flowed in your pen doesn't mean that a different colour from the same company will write the same. Nonetheless , ink is not all created equal. Some inks are better than others - richer colours and better handling. These inks generally cost more, if you really enjoy your pen, it is not worth skimping on ink.

OK, so why are dip calligraphy pens different?

Three reasons:

Their lifespan, construction and usage. Many of you will have fountain pens from the 1960s or earlier. They still work well, and deserve to be treated in a manner which means they will be around in another 50 years, it is not worth using harsh inks in a pen like this. A calligraphy pen is all about the nib - essentially a disposable item. If you corrode a nib but get the effect you want, then that is not a bad thing, the nib can be easily replaced. Secondly the construction of a dip pen is different. A dip pen does not have a reservoir of ink, it is 'loaded' by 'dipping' the pen in a bottle of ink (or by using a brush which has been dipped in ink for more consistent results). This means that there are less fine channels to be clogged. Also, as the nib is essentially the reservoir it only holds ink when the pen is actually being used. After each use it will be removed and cleaned, rather than leaving the ink in the pen for a period of years or more (when was the last time you cleaned your fountain pen?)

A point to note. Many 'calligraphy' pens are fountain pens. The ability to 'do calligraphy' depends on the nib. In general, a wide nib allows the effects associated with calligraphy. If a pen has an ink reservoir (such as a cartridge), then it is a fountain pen, and the rules for fountain pens apply. A pure 'calligraphy' pen will simply be a nib in a holder (at the most extreme a cut feather).

Drawing inks are a different beast entirely.

They are applied in any number of different ways (brush, quill, nib), but they are generally not water soluble. Many contain shellac, which makes for a nice gloss and water fastness, but will ruin a fountain pen in one use.

So, the rules:

      1/ Never use non-water soluble ink in a fountain pen
      2/ Fountain pens should only use fountain pen ink.
      3/ Dip pens can use most ink types
      4/ Ignore the rules, except for rule 1.

Decide what you want to do. If you want to preserve a pen for your grandchildren and get predictable results from your pen, you must follow the rules. If you have a modern pen, and are more interested in what you can create with the pen, use whatever ink you want in the pen. It might not work, it might even break the pen (clog it up permanently), but if you can live with the risks, then do whatever you want, you might come up with something really cool, and if not, I am more than happy to sell you a new pen!

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