Monday, April 11, 2011

Fountain Pen Love: a Cautionary Rant

What with my feeling cranky at typewriters right now, I've had the fountain pens and pencils out more than usual this week.  I've also been reading back through some journals lately.  I just passed the five year anniversary of my move to Washington, and the five year anniversary of starting my current job.  Time really has flown!  When I first moved out here, my oldest niece was a few weeks old.  Now she's a little chatterbox of a five-year-old and has been joined by several siblings.  When did all *that* happen?

Anyhow, in reading back through my journals, I'm again made cranky (cranky seems to be my theme of the week) by certain inks, which include some of those *most* recommended to fountain pen newbies!  Yes, they flow nicely, are relatively easy to clean up if you spill, and are more readily available than most.  However, they fade like the dickens.  Now...considering a lot of people seem attracted to fountain pens as tools for keeping long-term logs and journals, because they seem sort of romantic and old-fashioned and intimate, this worries me.  I realize I likely can blame some of my earliest troubles on bad paper and low quality ink--for example, here's a page I wrote in the late 90s using a basic no-name fountain pen and the washable blue ink cartridges that came with it, in one of those inexpensive, gaudy journals you can pick up in drug stores and Hallmark stores everywhere:

Can you read it without some sort of digital cheating?  I can't.  Not except for a word here and there.  And unfortunately, I didn't catch the disappearing act until it was too late.  I'm guessing the paper is acidic as anything, and the acid acted as a slow-mo ink eradicator.  It makes me sad.

When I discovered it, I (for the most part) resolved to stick with high quality paper and decent brand-name inks.  But, I discovered, that's no guarantee either.  Take this entry--nothing too earth-shattering if I lose it, but it's the principal of the thing.  It's not even five years old, yet it has already faded.  Waterman Blue-Black.  Exactly what the fountain pen folk would probably recommend to a newbie, no?  It's on Moleskine paper, which isn't great for fountain pen ink just because it bleeds and feathers, but should be pretty acid free.  And yet...

I have similar examples written in Parker Quink Black, Waterman Black, and to a lesser extent, Waterman Havana.  Granted, this example is still perfectly legible, but what will it look like in five *more* years, or five years after that?  My guess is that while these inks are wonderfully behaved and very pretty at first, making them great for short-term notes, you shouldn't depend on them to stick with you for the long haul.

As a side tangent, while Waterman South Seas Blue fades maybe a teensy bit, but strangely (considering how much lighter it is) is far less affected--I used a basic Waterman fountain pen (a school pen not available in the states) for quite a few of my journal entries when I was overseas, and while the Florida Blue entries are faded badly, South Seas Blue is still pretty bright.  (Even if it did fade quickly, you'd have to pry it from my cold, dead hands.  The stuff is world-rockingly lovely, though if you even *show* it a drip of water, it will flee the page without leaving so much as a shadow behind.)

Waterman South Seas Blue brush scribble--it's even prettier in person!

Now...I dunno that there are really any archive-proven fountain pen inks--particularly as most companies have changed their formulas over the years, and many of the big names today haven't been around much more than a decade.  You'll see lots of folks talking about family papers from relatively far back that are still perfectly legible though written in fountain pen ink, but my personal experience gives me pause.  Lately I've mostly been using pencil, though I admit, I've slipped a time or two into my fountain pen ways.  But I try to stick with inks that remain vibrant in my own older journals--it's not a *guarantee* of real longevity, but perhaps an indicator they'll be around at least awhile.  Most of the Noodler's colors are good, particularly their "bulletproof" or near-bulletproof colors.  I bought a few Private Reserve inks early on, and most of those look OK as well, though I found many of them more problematic than I cared to deal with on a regular basis (some colors are really hard to rinse out of pens, the inks take ages to dry on the page, and some ink colors faded or shifted in the bottle--Burgandy Mist, for example, turned to Industrial Sludge).  I keep wanting to try some other brands, J. Herbin and Diamine in particular, but it's hard to know (without risk) if their current inks will last a good while.  I'd be interested in the experience of others.  I don't expect my babbling to last centuries, nor do I want it to...but it would be nice if it at least lasted decades.

For the most part, I'm something of a Noodler's fan girl.  I've had good luck with most colors, and they seem to maintain their brilliance in my notebooks even after years on the shelf.  Right now, I'm really, really fighting the urge to order more colors: some Black Swan in Australian Roses (that color and the shading makes my heart go pitter-pat) and maybe some Zhivago (I'm a sucker for subtle near-black inks, and that one has been calling my name for years now--and speaking of names, I like the name of it, too!)

Bottom line: if you really, really want something to last, pencil is a great choice--even some of my journals written in ballpoint are faded quite badly in places, but my old grade school journals written in pencil have held up very well.  After all, they're pretty much written in stone, albeit stone in powder form.  Stone doesn't tend to change much over time, at least when closed up out of water and wind...  The paper will fail first.  Dip pens, with the ability to use old fashioned iron gall and pigmented inks, are also likely a great choice, and one I want to try out one of these days.

And if you (like me) are in love with the fountain pens and the wonderful rainbow of ink colors available, either assume your writing is likely to sneak away as the years roll by and just enjoy the present moments, or choose wisely, and (unlike me) think ahead a bit.


Marko said...

I found the same effect with the standard Lamy blue paled noticeably in just a few months on composition book paper. I think the erasable "school" ink is very prone to fading for some reason.

That's why my go-to ink is Noodler's Bulletproof Black. Once it's on the page, nothing will get it off. I've accidentally washed grocery lists written with Noodler's, and the ink didn't even budge through a full washer & dryer cycle.

notagain said...

I hate that feeling of, well, betrayal when something fails on you like that. Ever since I saw a display of oak gall ink I've looked for a source to buy some but I guess I'll have to make my own. That's what (I was told) the founding fathers used, and it seems permanent enough on their documents...

Little Flower Petals said...

There are occasional iron gall recipes (for dip pens) in the Fountain Pen Network forums. Sounds like a lot of work...but interesting.

I've accidentally washed grocery lists written with Noodler's, and the ink didn't even budge through a full washer & dryer cycle.

I believe it! As far as I'm concerned, if you can only have a single fountain pen ink, make it Noodler's Black. Good stuff, good standby. I usually have at least one pen inked with it, currently my Pelikan M250.

I'm also a fan of the Noodler's colors that have a bit of color with a bulletproof black core. Walnut, for example, is a beautiful deep dark brown. If you run water over it, there's a reddish component that washes away, but the black stays put. Forever, in theory. Air Corp Blue-Black and Blue-Black are similar, and I believe Zhivago is the same sort of deal.

Anonymous said...

I'm right off of Parker and Waterman inks, as least in the current incarnations, for exactly this sort of behaviour. The black Quink that was my standard in the '90s seems to be holding up, but I can't trust the current stuff (especially the washable blue). Pelikan looks like it will have good staying power in black and blue-black, as do the Herbin browns.

The downside to the oak-gall inks is acidity-- in a couple of hundred years, it might really do a number on the paper!

speculator said...

Your best bet for archival-keeping aspects is India Ink.
The best I've found is made by PeBeo.

As boring as writing in black India ink might be, you can do quite well with the more saturated (bolder) Waterman, Pelikan, Aurora, etc. inks. The only ink I regretted using was Parker blue-black, which does fade- even on good paper.
If you like Moleskine notebooks, try their "sketchbook" journals, which use a wonderfully think index-card-like stock. Perfect for fountain pens and drawing!

If you'd like a suggestion here, try using a dip-pen. Then you can get into those Winsor&Newton inks that fountain pens cannot handle. These are fade-proof!

Little Flower Petals said...

My biggest beef against dip pens is that I can't see using them except at home, at my desk, with preparation ahead of time and clean-up time after. Doesn't really fit my life as a whole, especially since I like to go sit at the coffee house now and again to scribble in neutral space. Hence, I tend toward the most permanent fountain pen inks, and fountain pens with gargantuan ink capacities so I don't have to keep refilling.

That said, I did go digging through drawers tonight and located a dip pen set I'd bought years ago--one of those Speedball beginner kits. I stoopidly destroyed some of the nibs years ago (washed them and then I guess didn't dry them well enough--things don't dry easily here much of the year!), but there was still a Hunt "Globe" nib left, along with most of a bottle of Speedball India Ink--nothing fancy, but it works. I played with it for awhile tonight, and was surprised by how long you could write on a dip. And India ink is so much blacker than most "black" inks, which is nice. And I get to be like Shelby Foote.

Questions, though--what do you do to stop and think so the ink doesn't just dry on the nib? Leave the pen in the ink? Do most folks dip right into the bottle, or use some sort of well? How long do nibs last, and how do you tell if they are getting past their best? I see they come in quantities, so I assume they do wear out. And how *do* you wash the nibs and get them really dry without wrecking them?

speculator said...

Many good questions here.
The first thing, added to a plain interest in writing with pen-and-ink (dip pen), is to build up a "technique" of your own: holding the pen, inking the penpoint, even slightly amending your handwriting to agree with a discipline of downstrokes and sharper angles.

You'd be surprised how portable the media can be! I've journaled with pen&ink on the Appalachian Trail, on Greyhound buses, coffeehouses, etc.
Just add your pen holder / penpoints to your usual pencil case arsenal- and- keep your ink bottle in something to catch any spills (like a sandwich bag or a small nalgene jar). And carry some tissues with you. That's it. The whole syntax becomes quite rapid (and dare I say- fluid).

When you wash out your penpoints, do that with the points out of the pen holder, and then dry with a tissue. If you find that your ink dries on the point, while taking a breather during writing, just re-dip and wipe off the point.
(In case you like to carry a water bottle around, you might just dab a tissue with a bit of water for the penpoint.)

The world of penpoints is vast; try to find points made by Joseph Gillott Co., of England. They're fantastic. I write with Gillott points I've had and used since the 1980s !!
Other recommended brands: Spencerian, Blanzy, Esterbrook, Eagle.

Anonymous said...

Please keep in mind this is based on VERY limited experience.

Haven’t tried using dip pens away from my desk but the only difference is bringing the bottle of ink and a pack of tissues. Fold over a tissue and put it under the bottle to contain any drips. Most bottles have a stable base so spilling isn’t likely. Have another folded up tissue to use as a blotter when the nib comes out of the ink and to clean the nib when finished. Not as convenient as a fountain pen but not difficult either.

Ink shouldn’t dry THAT fast on the nib when paused in thought. If in doubt, dip it again before continuing. I dip into the bottle which is on a folded tissue as I said above. Haven’t had a spill or drip yet.

Cleaning: When done with the nib, I draw it gently across the tissue to discharge the remaining ink then wipe it down to get ink out of any reservoir. Takes only a few seconds. With fountain pen ink I rinse the nibs in cool water every few days and pat them dry. If you are worried about not getting all the moisture, pat and shake the nib then use a hair dryer to get any wet spots.

Longevity: I assume they will wear out faster than fountain pen nibs but they are cheap and easy to replace. These nibs call for a VERY light touch, less than a fountain pen, so wear should be minimal with ordinary use. I suspect more people damage them than wear them out.

Pace: I find that using these dip pens calls for a different, slower pace that I find enjoyable. I’m forced to be more deliberate with my writing which helps make it more of an art. Of course I’m just playing with them, not making a living with dip pens.

Have to get some of that Noodler’s Bullet Proof ink. Sounds interesting.

BTW, I have a few of the Shelby Foote nibs, the Esterbrook 313 Probate nib. It takes more control than I have at the moment. There are other nibs I find easier to use. But when I write about the Civil War anniversaries (one of which is this summer about two mikes from our house) I may use the Foote nib just for fun.

Hope this helps and didn’t get too long.


Little Flower Petals said...

Wow! Great information from both of you! I like the suggestion to try using a hair dryer if nibs aren't drying easily on their own. For the more open nibs, I think just wiping them down is good enough, but it apparently wasn't enough for the Speedball "C" models with their enclosed reservoir. I also never did learn the knack of getting those to write without first dripping ink everywhere and then almost instantly going scratchy...I'm sure part of it is just a matter of finding the right ink, and just how far to dip.

I also need to adjust my hand position, I think. I tend to write with my thumb and first finger sort of alongside (thumb) and just touching the top of the pen body (first finger), and the weight of the pen resting on my middle finger and in the crook of my hand, with the heel of my hand on the page (hard to describe these things in words!) With the dip pen, this means I'm smearing the ink with the heel of my hand as I move across the page, since the ink takes awhile to dry. Maybe I can find some videos or some such thing to give me a clue.

Adwoa said...

Oh, dear - I wish I had known this before amassing 30-odd bottles of assorted, splendidly-hued, most definitely-washable and probably not at all fade proof, FP inks. On the other hand, I do find that I tend not to read the journals I keep, so I would almost be relieved to open a ten-year old notebook and find it faded... weird, I know! I do have one permanent ink, Diamine Registrar's, that I keep in at least one pen so I can address envelopes and such. The color is definitely rather dull, though.

I like all the notes about dip pen use! I am still working on my technique so I can apply the ink evenly - otherwise the bleedthrough is way too much to write in a proper notebook with.

Little Flower Petals said...

Not all fountain pen inks are created equal--some (even among the conventional inks) are far more fade resistant than others. I would imagine most of the Diamine inks, for example, fall into the same realm as the Private Reserve inks. None of those have faded yet, and I doubt they will degrade beyond readability within my lifetime. I just wish someone had told me most of Waterman's blues (and their black, to a lesser extent) faded so very quickly. They are perhaps the most recommended colors on the fountain pen boards, and the fading aspect doesn't seem to come up all that often, which surprises me.

I've been playing with my dip pen and the few (modern) nibs I had over the past few days and having great fun with it! I hope the more knowledgeable will correct me if I'm wrong, but I think the bleeding may well be at least as much a function of the ink than your technique. I mean...I don't have a clue what I'm doing, but the little bottle of India ink I've been using doesn't bleed through much of anything. I've been using it in my thin-paged journal without an issue, even if I accidentally gob the ink, while many fountain pen inks don't work well. And I don't think most fountain pen inks work all that well with dip pens--they aren't thick enough to stick properly to the nib, so they drip and make a mess.

Speculator also explained to me that those Speedball calligraphy nibs with a little reservoir atop the nib work much better if you apply ink with an eye-dropper or brush. I'd been just dunking them in the ink, and the results, to say the least.

Adwoa said...

"And I don't think most fountain pen inks work all that well with dip pens--they aren't thick enough to stick properly to the nib, so they drip and make a mess."

- That is definitely what I was missing, thank you! Makes perfect sense. I think something like J. Herbin 1670 might still be fine, as it seems to be thicker than other inks, but I have one bottle of honest-to-goodness calligraphy ink, so I shall start with that and keep an eye out for others.

As for Waterman inks, I suppose they are recommended often because they are fairly inexpensive and easily found, so a good place to start. In Europe the "beginner" inks would be Pelikan, as those dominate in the stores - I've only seen a few Waterman bottles, and not the colors that would interest me (South Seas Blue, which looked great in your picture, and Havana Brown). I was a bit sad at first that I couldn't easily find the inks, but now I see I'm not missing anything!