Penman No. 84: Pens & Inks

Penman for Monday, February 3, 2014

A YEAR ago, I wrote a piece for this column titled “The (ink and) paper chase,” where I talked about how obsessed some people get with finding just the right paper to write on, fussing over paper color, texture, thickness, and (important to us fountain pen users) feathering and bleed-through.

The last two factors have to do with how tightly the paper’s fibers are packed; the looser they are, the easier it is for ink to spread and scatter through the paper—not a good thing if you’re trying to write a legible letter. This is why ballpoints and cheap paper make better partners—and a good thing, too, that they do, because most people have neither the time, the inclination, nor the loose change to play around with fancy pens and papers, let alone exotic inks.

But what if you did?

In that column last year, I promised I would write a bit more about inks—the essential, indispensable companions of pens—but I never got around to doing it, at least until now.

Inks are the last thing people think about these days in connection with writing, except perhaps in respect of color, which invariably comes down to a choice among black (business formal), blue (a little more personal), and red (for marking something as “wrong!”). In my late father’s time—he worked as a clerk for a government office, so he used fountain pens regularly—you had the option of using blue-black, very likely as Parker Quink or Sheaffer Skrip, and it’s a color I came to associate with my dad, which is why I keep blue-black as a staple for one of my pens.

The fact is—before fountain pens underwent a kind of renaissance in the 1990s more as a fashion statement than as a clunky writing instrument, followed by a plethora of designer inks—there was a wealth of inks available to the discerning public. You could get them in green, purple, brown, pink, orange, and so on, in brands long vanished such as Carter’s, Sanford, and Stephens’, aside from the in-house inks of the major pen makers such as Parker, Sheaffer, Waterman, Montblanc, and Pelikan. There was also a lively competition among these makers in terms of packaging, specifically in labels and bottles (Carter made exceptionally pretty labels), and the bottles have now become highly collectible on their own, some with their vintage contents intact and still usable after 40 to 50 years.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. How did ink get its start, anyway? At the advent of writing, ink was made from soot or lamp black mixed with gum (says my trusty guide, The Fountain Pen: A Collector’s Companion by Alexander Crum Ewing); red ink was made from vermillion. In medieval times, the quill pen called for a more fluid ink, and this came from tannins culled from vegetables, converted to gallic acid, then mixed with ferrous sulfate (get that?), resulting in a blue-black iron-gall ink, which you can still procure these days. With the steel-nibbed pen (which acid corroded) came inks made with chemical dyes, which also led to an explosion of color.

“The range of ink available by the 1920s would bewilder many people today,” noted Ewing. “It is estimated that the German firm Pelikan alone produced 172 different types, colors, or bottles of ink. There were inks for writing, for drawing, for accountants (which could not be erased), for hoteliers (which could be erased) and so on.”

Which leads me to my first admonition about inks, lest I forget: never put India ink (like Higgins) into a fountain pen; it’s meant for calligraphic and technical pens, and will surely clog your fountain pen’s feed (the part of the pen beneath the nib that conveys the ink), possibly requiring repair. Use only ink clearly meant and often marked “For fountain pens.”

I used to say that I was a pen, not an ink person, in that for the longest time, I limited myself to four basic colors: black, blue, blue-black, and brown. I’m nowhere near becoming an ink fiend—some people collect basically just the inks and couldn’t care less about the pens—but over the past year, I’ve found my desk getting more crowded and cluttered by an invasion of ink bottles, in such sacrilegious colors as Diamine Oxblood and Rohrer & Klingner Alt-Goldgrun (more on these esoteric varieties later). In the ink department, I’m a novice compared to many of my confreres at the Fountain Pen Network-Philippines (at least one of whom, Los Baños-based Clem Dionglay, runs a globally recognized blog on inks, papers, and pens). Ask a newbie question like “What’s a nice bright blue ink?” and you’ll get a dozen responses within minutes (on fpn-p.org), answers such as “Pelikan Edelstein Topaz!” or “J. Herbin Bleu Pervenche!” or “Noodler’s Baystate Blue!”

Ah, Baystate Blue…. Many pen folk swear by it, but I’ve never used it myself, for a couple of reasons: I hate bright blue, and BSB (as it’s called, like LSD or MSG) has been notoriously known for staining if not eating into some pens, like vile acid. Some people love flirting with danger, anyway, in the quest of the perfect color.

That quest, of course, is what keeps the ink companies alive—companies that might as well be manufacturing precious wines and perfumes: Noodler’s, J. Herbin, Iroshizuku, Diamine, Private Reserve, Rohrer & Klingner, De Atramentis, and so on. These are no longer your basic Quink and Sheaffer inks that you can buy (and why not?) at National Bookstore. They’re specialty inks, selling on the average for something like P15 per milliliter, or P450 for a 30ml bottle. (To see a mindboggling assortment of these inks, check out a site like www.gouletpens.com, from where we order our supplies if we can’t get them from NBS or the pioneering Scribe Writing Essentials at Eastwood and Shangri-La malls.)

You won’t believe how exotic and even strange some of these inks are. Mahatma Gandhi would squirm if he learned that a 60ml bottle of his namesake ink—produced by Montblanc, in vivid saffron, of course—sells for $100 on eBay. There are inks with extravagant names such as Noodler’s Black Swan in Australian Roses (a lovely deep pink); Noodler’s even has an ink called Whiteness of the Whale, touted to be “invisible during the day, glows under black light.” Some inks are embedded with gold or silver flakes. De Atramentis makes inks that carry scents like apple blossom, or are actually made from wines like chianti and merlot.

And like fine wines and rare vintages, vintage and rare inks now command an audience and a premium. A few weeks ago, educated by online reading, I felt ecstatic to have located and landed two bottles of the now-rare, 1950s Sheaffer Skrip in Persian Rose on eBay for about $10; it’s a flaming pink ink, which makes it highly doubtful that I’ll ever write with it, but just ask the owner of that $300,000 bottle of Chateau Cheval Blanc 1947 when he’s going to take a sip.

Fountain pens come with all different nibs, nib qualities, and filling systems, making ink choice both a pleasure and a pain for the penman (and penwoman). Snooty collectors prefer piston fillers like most Montblancs and Pelikans, but these pistons require patient flushing to get all the old ink and its color out before switching to something new. This is why I generally prefer everyday converters, which make flushing and ink replacement a breeze. To make things even easier, I’ve matched my favorite pens with my favorite inks, going mainly by color—a black pen gets black ink—so I don’t have to guess, when I pick up a pen or two to bring along for the day, what’s in it. And just for the heck of it, I took a shot of these happy combinations, which I’m illustrating this column-piece with.

And I can’t blame you if, after reading this frothy talk about pretty pricey pigments, all you want to say is “Hand me that cheap blue Bic!” 

(The inks and pens in the topmost pic are, downwards: Pelikan Blue-Black in the Montblanc Agatha Christie; Diamine Oxblood in the Parker Vacumatic Oversize; Rohrer & Klingner Sepia in the MB Oscar Wilde; Montblanc Carlo Collodi in the Conway Stewart Marlborough; R & K Alt-Goldgrun in the Onoto Magna; Pelikan Brilliant Brown in the Faber-Castell Pernambuco; and Aurora Black in the MB 100th Anniversary.)

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