Tim's Thoughts

Ink for Vintage Pens

Is your favorite pen not writing as well as it used to? If a good pen is just not working well, before setting it aside or or having it restored unnecessarily, flush it out and try a fill with different ink — the right combination of pen and ink may well be within your grasp!

The subject is actually complicated: a satisfactory writing experience is the product of the pen, the pen’s nib, the ink, the paper, the weather, and, far from least, the writer’s hand and his or her expectations. Misalignments of any of these can be a quick route to dissatisfaction. After expectations, the pen, and the nib, ink is the most important. Yes, it’s time to talk about ink.

When most vintage pens were made, their owners had a bottle of ink to use with a couple of pens, not the twenty inks for fifty pens we now have nor the rich range of ink colors, saturation levels, flow, acidity, water/light resistance, and lubrication. Professional restorers usually recommend filling vintage pens with traditional, dye-based inks that were manufactured and branded by long-time pen and ink manufacturers, including Sheaffer, Parker, Pelikan, Waterman, Lamy, MontBlanc, Pilot/Namiki, Sailor, Aurora, Diamine and J. Herbin. Restorers are also advocates of this rule’s opposite:  that one should not use super-vivid, highly saturated modern inks, particularly reds and greens, in vintage pens. Their wonderful vividness comes from particles of pigments that are suspended in the ink solutions, rather than the dyes found in traditional inks, and can cause flow problems in vintage pens. Modern pens have more sophisticated feeds and generally work with converters or piston mechanisms instead of latex ink sacs, so write beautifully with pigmented inks. Some of the major sellers now list whether an ink is dye-based or pigment-based in their descriptions; it’s worth noting for vintage pens. 

Wet versus Dry Ink

What makes one ink wet and another dry? I’m not a chemist, but I do know that “wet” ink helps “dry” pens write better, and “dry” ink helps “wet” pens. They’re made to complement each other, which is why Pelikan ink works so well in Pelikan pens and Pilot in Pilot pens. Without knowing the chemistry, it helps to know which play well with which. The major sellers also list whether their inks are more “dry” or “wet”. For years, I have maintained a list of which inks I’ve used in each pen; it helps to remind me which inks work and which are problematic when I fill a pen that doesn’t get frequent use.

Is there a best ink?

All inks have strengths and weaknesses, and no ink works equally well in every pen. The germane question for each person is:  Is there a best ink for my use of my pens? After years of testing and using, I have narrowed my own choices to a few brands, in generally (since I’m red-green colorblind) darker blues, blue-blacks, purples, and deep blacks: 

— Waterman: are all super-safe for older vintage pens, well-behaved and pleasant to use in modern pens. They work well in almost any pen. Serenity and Mysterious, their blues, are my shop inks.

— Pelikan 4001 Black (the blackest dye ink I know), Blue-Black, Royal Blue and Violet; a bit more dry for wetter pens. 

— Pilot Blue, and Namiki/Iroshizuku’s Asa Gao, Shin Kai, both delicate, rich blues. They’re well-behaved, a touch dry, work well in any pen but even better in Pilot and Namiki pens. The Iroshizuku colors are delicate, elegant, and flow wonderfully.  

— Montblanc Midnight Blue,  my Montblanc 149’s favorite drink, as classy as the pen. Black is also very rich, very dark.

— Aurora Blue and Black:  very wet and rich, deep, dressy, stable, vivid. Many people use only Aurora, particularly with Italian pens.

With this information, take a moment to consider if your pens could work better with different ink, and during the holiday break fill a few pens you’ve not been happy with to see if they write better! Remember to flush ink carefully from a pen before changing ink brands and when putting a pen away. Use distilled water with a touch of household ammonia for the flush. As always, feel free to ask me your questions, and I look forward to hearing the results of your tests!