By Glenn McAleer
Another season, another edition of everyone’s favourite column, Glenn’s Pens. In this edition, we’ll be talking ink and paper choices. None of those pre-filled cartridges that come standard in every ballpoint pen, but bottled ink that can be eye-dropped, filled through a cartridge-converter, or vacuumed into the pen with a built-in filling mechanism. There is something to be said about buying ink by the bottle and matching a pen to an ink that fits the aesthetic of the pen (or filling a black pen with red ink for an unexpected surprise).
Each time I purchase a new pen, I am equally excited to splurge on a new bottle of ink. But what are some things to consider when going out to purchase a new bottle of ink? How do different inks interact with your beloved pens and the paper on which you choose to write? Today, I’ll be taking a look at a few of the inks I have collected to describe the thought process behind the purchase, see what makes each ink unique, and provide some tips to those looking to take a step beyond pre-filled cartridges and into the often-messy world of bottled inks.
In the world of ink, wetness (or dryness) typically refers to the feeling of the ink flowing out of the pen’s nib. The amount of ink actually laid on a page will be a function of the nib’s size and type of feed mechanism, with broader nibs (medium and broad nibs) laying more ink on the page than their finer counterparts. The effect of a too much ink on the page is typically described by referencing how much it bleeds through the paper. Bleed through (or show-through) is self explanatory: if you turn the page over, how clearly can the ink be seen? Of course, bleed-through is also dependent on the paper one has chosen. A thicker paper designed for use with fountain pens will be resistant to bleed-through but may take longer to dry. It may also cause smearing if the page is turned before allowing enough time for the ink to dry. Cheap paper, or paper not designed for fountain pen use, will be far more absorbent, drying quickly but potentially showing-through more easily.
Feathering refers to something different. If you’ve ever used a piece of paper towel to wipe up a mess, you may notice how the liquid moves through the absorbent material. A capillary-like process takes place as the liquid is absorbed through the paper towel. Regular paper works like this too, just to a lesser extent. Feathering is a result of absorbent paper pulling the ink away from the nibs contact point with the paper, which can create a line that wavers or “feathers” from its intended place.
Much like bleed-through, a higher-quality paper designed to be used with fountain pens will absorb the ink more slowly and help prevent feathering, but once again, this can cause smearing if the ink is not fully dry.
I always recommend those interested in writing with fountain pens to have fountain pen paper available for writing, especially when broader nibs are used. Clairefontaine is a French brand that has been making paper since 1858. Clairefontaine is broadly considered the gold standard of fountain-pen-friendly paper. I have had the opportunity to use Clairefontaine paper, and it is incredibly smooth and relatively inexpensive for high quality paper. It’s easy to recommend Clairefontaine as a “best case scenario” fountain pen paper. That said, drying times can be quite high with Clairefontaine paper, so writing on the go or in a hurry is not recommended. While blotting paper is available for situations like this, it’s not always convenient (and often quite messy) to blot away excess ink.
Rhodia, another company out of France, has been making fountain pen paper since 1932. In 1997, Clairefontaine acquired Rhodia. While Clairefontaine makes the paper in both company’s notepads, the paper is not the same. Rhodia paper has a different texture, which is typically more absorbent and thus offers a quicker drying time. Rhodia is my pick for a convenient fountain pen paper that can be used for longer, faster writing sessions.
One pad of paper I would warn writers to stay away from with fountain pens are Moleskine pads. While Moleskine paper is very convenient for pencil and ballpoint lovers, it does not bode well for fountain pen users. The paper is sponge-like, immediately soaking up pen ink and bleeding through so dramatically that the reverse of each page is practically unusable.
My ink recommendations are going to be based on my use of fountain pens, which has largely been for writing and revising notes for school. This can mean writing quickly, turning pages over, writing in the margins of printer paper or handouts, etc. The inks I have purchased tend to have a dryer feel and are quickly absorbed by the paper. They’re also fairly inexpensive. The first brand I recommend to all beginner fountain pen users is Noodler’s ink. Noodler’s Ink is made 100% in the USA and is well known for being a fantastic ink for bad paper. Noodler’s ink is feathering resistant, bleed-through resistant, and very inexpensive for the quality of ink delivered. These inks are known for being smooth and offering good flow for most nib units. Noodler’s inks are infamously filled to the very top of the bottle, so be careful upon opening! Noodler’s blue-black was my very first ink purchase, and it is still my favourite. I write with the blue-black ink every day and have typically used it in a medium nib. Even with this (relatively) broader nib and on standard printer paper (which is not an ideal vessel for fountain pen ink), I am able to quickly make notes and move onto the next page without worrying about smudging.
Noodler’s also manufactures an “x-feather” ink, which takes their hallmarks of anti-smear and anti-feathering to the next level. The ink dries incredibly fast and can allegedly be used to write legibly even on super-absorbent paper towel (assuming you don’t shred through the material with your nib). I have not had the opportunity to write with x-feather, but if you’re noticing feathering on low-quality paper, x-feather could be a good answer to the problem.
The second ink brand that I recommend is J. Herbin. J. Herbin claims to be the longest-standing pen ink brand in the world. The company was founded in France in 1670. J. Herbin inks are known to be extremely dry, and often less saturated in colour than some prefer. I own the J. Herbin Ambre De Birmanie (Amber Gold of Burma). The ink feels incredibly dry, even on high quality paper. That said, I am quite happy with the saturation of the ink, and it pairs extremely well with Clairefontaine paper, as one can be less worried about smearing. My ink bottle comes equipped with a built-in pen rest just below the cap (though it is too small for most of my fountain pens) and pairs beautifully with my Twsbi Eco Smoke Rose Gold.
Ink, pen, nib, feed, and paper can all play an important role in how a pen feels and performs. Trying new ink and paper combinations (and staining your fingers in the process) is all part of the fun.
“I prefer the pen. There is something elemental about the glide and flow of nib and ink on paper.” - James Robertson, The Testament of Gideon Mack