what kind of ink to use in a fountain pen waterman purple fountain pen ink

What Kind Of Ink To Use In A Fountain Pen

John Bosley Fountain Pen Education 4 Comments

You might wonder what kind of ink to use in a fountain pen. This is a very important question to ask, as using the wrong kind of ink in your fountain pen can damage it or potentially ruin it. Fortunately, it’s not very hard to figure out what kind you should use in your pen. If you’re just getting started using a fountain pen, it can take a bit of work, but once you become familiar with the popular brands, identifying which inks are safe to use won’t be a problem. In this article, I want to discuss the different types of ink that are available to purchase and which you can safely use in your pen.

Fountain Pen Inks

As a rule of thumb, if you are new to fountain pens and are unfamiliar with all of the different brands of ink that are available, the only ink you should ever put into your fountain pen are those that say they are specifically made for fountain pens. To know if this is the case, the packaging or the bottle should say. If it doesn’t, there is a chance that it is not made for fountain pens and is not safe to use.

Fountain Pen Ink Parker Quink cartridge

You can see that this packaging is actually labeled for use with fountain pens.

Of course, most fountain pen inks that are available do not specifically say anything about fountain pens on the packaging or bottle. With these, you will need to do a bit of research before using them. Many of the more popular inks that are available today are geared towards serious users or collectors. This means that they might not be specifically labeled as fountain pen ink. If you are buying your ink at a pen shop, you should feel safe using it your fountain pen (but should still ask the person you buy it from if you’re not 100% certain). If you are buying your ink from an online pen shop, again, it should be safe for use in fountain pens unless noted otherwise. If you are buying your ink online from a large retailer like Amazon, it should be labeled in the description as “fountain pen ink”. One word of caution… even if you search Amazon for “fountain pen ink”, don’t trust the search results to give you only fountain pen ink. I often see other types of ink come up in this search that are not safe to use in fountain pens. If you are buying your ink at an art or office supply store, their supply will likely be limited, but chances are the ink they do have will say “fountain pen ink” if it’s safe to use.

So what brands of ink are safe to use? There are a surprisingly huge number of ink manufacturers out there today, so I can’t list them all, but if you stick with inks made by pen manufacturers (plus a few more), you should be safe. Here’s a list of some of the more popular inks for reference:

Pen Manufacturers
– Parker
– Sheaffer
– Waterman
– Montblanc
– Pilot
– Lamy
– Pelikan
– Cross
– Sailor

Ink-only Manufacturers
– J. Herbin
– Diamine
– Robert Oster

Ink Mold

I hope that you never encounter it, but occasionally a bottle of ink will have some sort of issue and grow mold. Sometimes it will be as obvious as a layer of mold floating on the surface of the ink, but other times it will be harder to detect. You might notice that the ink has a musty smell. Even if you don’t have a lot of experience with fountain pen ink, it will still probably smell “wrong”. Ink should typically smell slightly fresh, chemically and clean. If you detect a strong earthy or musty smell, use caution! If you don’t see anything floating on the surface, look at the sides and bottom of the ink bottle. If it looks like anything is floating in the ink, that is likely mold. If you still can’t tell but suspect your ink is infected, you’ll need to look for SITB (or Slime/Stuff In The Bottle). You can dip something clean into the bottle (maybe a toothpick or a q-tip) and see if it comes out with anything attached. If you find any kind of slime in the bottle, do not use it in your fountain pen! You don’t necessarily have to throw it away, as you can still use it for a dip pen if you want, but it should never touch a fountain pen.

What kind of ink to use in a fountain pen Vintage Skrip with mold

This vintage 16-ounce bottle of Sheaffer Skrip ink has mold. Notice the white pieces inside the bottle.

So why does mold form in ink? It can happen in many different ways, but in brand new ink it can be as simple as a bad batch. In an older bottle of ink that suddenly gets moldy, the cause might be something that contaminated the ink while the bottle was open. Mold can also get transferred from one bottle to another bottle. Once you get the mold spores inside of your pen, they can live in there and eventually infect any ink bottle you dip that pen into! Unfortunately, mold will not only ruin your ink, it can also ruin your pen. If you ever suspect your ink is infected, immediately stop using that ink and also any pens that you’ve recently filled from that bottle.

Vintage Inks

You might come across older bottles of fountain pen ink and wonder if they are safe to use. The short answer is typically yes, but you will have to exercise some caution. The first thing you’ll want to check for is mold in your ink. Once you’ve done that and feel comfortable that it’s mold-free, the next thing you’ll want to do is check for sediment in the bottle. Many vintage bottles of ink were made before 1960. As they’ve sat on a shelf or in a drawer for the past half-century, solids may have slowly settled out of the ink and collected on the bottom of the bottle. If these solids get sucked into a pen, they can clog it up. To check for solids, slowly tip the bottle to one side and look at the bottom. If you see a layer of color on the glass, those are ink solids. Some people just shake the bottle to get the solids suspended in the liquid again, others find ways to filter the ink (using coffee filters or very fine mesh), while others prefer to not use the ink.

What kind of ink to use in a fountain pen Vintage Parker Quink permanent blue fountain pen ink bottle and box

This bottle of Quink from the 1950s is practically brand new.

Vintage Waterman's blue-black fountain pen ink bottle and box

This vintage bottle of ink from the 1940s turned out to be perfectly safe to use!

Another thing you might encounter with older inks is evaporation. If the seal wasn’t perfectly tight on the bottle, some of the liquid might have evaporated over time. Unfortunately, with an older bottle of ink it can be tough to tell if the ink level is low due to evaporation or simply because someone used it. If the ink seems thicker than normal and you think it has evaporated, you’ll want to use caution when using it. There is a possibility that it can clog your pen, although it will not likely cause permanent damage. If you want to use the ink, you can add a bit of distilled water to the bottle in order to thin it out a bit and hopefully prevent it from clogging your pen.

Vintage Parker Quink bottle

If you find an old bottle of ink that looks like this, there’s no easy way to tell if it has evaporated or simply been partially used.

If it sounds like using vintage inks is risky, it is… or at least it’s more risky than using a modern ink. Once you get comfortable using fountain pen ink, vintage ink will seem much less intimidating. To me, there is something very satisfying about using an ink that was made decades ago yet still looks as bright and bold as one that was just made this year. I also like using vintage inks in my vintage fountain pens. It’s like I’m reuniting long-lost friends! Ultimately, you’ll have to decide how comfortable you are using older inks. Some people will never use a vintage ink in their pens, while other people (like me) love them!

Non-Fountain Pen Inks

You’ll also find many different inks that are not made for fountain pens. These include India ink, calligraphy ink, Sumi ink, dip pen ink, acrylic-based ink and more. These inks are intended to be used with pens such as dip pens, illustration pens, brushes and other non-fountain pens. Using any of these inks in a fountain pen can damage or destroy it.

Speedball India Ink

This is clearly labeled as India ink and should never be used in a fountain pen!

There are many reasons that these inks are so dangerous for use in fountain pens. Some have more pigment in them, which means that they can clog the delicate feed system of a fountain pen. Others have additional compounds in the ink such as shellac, which can solidify inside of a fountain pen. Regardless of which type of ink you’re looking at, if it is not made specifically for fountain pens, it does not belong in a fountain pen.

Final Thoughts

Here’s a quick recap on what kind of ink to use in a fountain pen. First, be sure to only use inks that are made specifically for fountain pens. Second, if your ink smells unusual or the bottle has anything besides ink in it, you should not use it in your fountain pen. Third, using older fountain pen ink can be fun and rewarding, but you’ll need to make sure it is still safe to use. If you follow these guidelines, you should have many trouble-free pen fills in your future. If you are ever unsure if a bottle of ink is safe to use in your fountain pen, always err on the side of caution and don’t use it.

For more articles like this, be sure to check out the Fountain Pen Basics section of the site. To get updates on the latest blog posts, please consider subscribing to the Fountain Pen Love newsletter.

Hi, my name is John. I’m a Colorado-born professional photographer who recently moved back to Denver after spending 3 years in San Francisco. I’ve been using and collecting fountain pens for over 20 years. I got my first one in college when I got bored taking notes with ballpoints and pencils. Since then I’ve bought and sold hundreds of pens, but have consistency in my love of Esterbrooks.

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  1. Caran d’Ache does not make its fountain pen ink. For a change, Cd’A does make quite good fountain pens (incl. theirs own nibs).

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