The question always comes up, “Is it safe to use old ink in my fountain pens?” The answer: It depends. As you’ll find out below, there are certain things to be aware of when using vintage inks, including mold, sediment and evaporation. But those warnings apply to both vintage and modern inks. With that being said, the majority of old inks should be perfectly safe to use.
Why Use Old Ink?
With so many wonderful fountain pen inks available today, you might be asking, “why use old inks at all”? That’s a really good question. For some people, there might be a bit of nostalgia associated with using an ink that is no longer made. For others, they might want to try something that is uncommon or that they have never tried before. Some people might choose to use vintage inks simply because they are safe or even to clean their pens!
I have met many people for whom the smell of an old bottle of ink instantly takes them back 50 years in time. For others, a particular color might bring back memories of penmanship lessons in school or their mother’s handwriting. I know that my aunt always used Skrip Peacock Blue in high school, so that is her all-time favorite color.
Sometimes it is nice to stand out from the crowd a little bit. In the fountain pen world, that can be in the form of the pen or the ink that you use. While older fountain pen inks might not have the most eye-popping or bold colors around, they are still unique and interesting. Most of them are not super-saturated and tend to have very nice shading. Some of them even have a bit of sheen! If you are using a vintage ink, you can be pretty sure that you won’t find anyone else who has a pen filled with the same ink.If you use vintage fountain pens that are subject to barrel staining, you should be able to use vintage inks without worry of staining. Many people who repair fountain pens even swear by vintage ink and its cleaning properties. These old inks contained cleaning agents that were meant to keep pens in good working order. You’ll find recommendations by many people to fill your pen with vintage Quink or Skrip every once in a while to help flush out any residue left by modern inks. While your pen can probably survive a lifetime without doing this, it can’t hurt, right?
Using Old Inks
Using old fountain pen ink is no different than using modern inks. I keep mentioning “old” ink, but how old is old? I’d consider ink that is anywhere from 10-100 years old to be “old” ink. For the majority of this post, I’ll be talking about inks that were made between the 1930s-1960s (or “vintage” inks), since that is what I enjoy using, but it could also mean a bottle of ink that’s been sitting in your desk drawer for the last 10 years. If you plan to use old ink (which is why you’re reading this article, right?) there are a few precautions you should take, which are outlined in the “caution” section below. Before we cover that, though, let’s take a look at a few of your ink options.
There are a few things that you should think about before using vintage ink. One thing is how hard the bottle will be to open. If you have a bottle that is sealed with a cork, it might be very difficult to get the cork out of the bottle. You could end up getting pieces of cork in your ink if you destroy the cork, and then you will also not be able to properly close the bottle again. Steel lids aren’t perfect either. I have tried opening bottles of vintage ink with steel lids where the lid didn’t really feel like moving after 70 years of sitting around. In the process of opening the bottle I could have easily torn the label off or sloshed ink all over the place if the lid suddenly came loose.If you happen to have a hard time opening bottles for whatever reason, I have found that some brands of ink are easier to open than others. I think that Quink made between 1939-1948 is very easy to open, even the small 2oz. bottles. Waterman’s Ink has a very small lid, but is still pretty easy to open. I have had quite a bit of trouble with some bottles of Skrip. I have some Carter’s Ovals that I just can’t open, even after trying one of those rubber lid-opener things. Although the ease of opening a jar of ink should not prevent you from using any ink you would like, it is something to consider when purchasing a bottle. Speaking of opening ink, before you ever open a bottle of ink, you usually have to open the box it came in. These old boxes can be very fragile and tear easily. I have found the easiest way of opening a box is to slide a long, flat object between the lid and the flaps, like a butter knife or a popsicle stick. Then, slowly prying up, the lid should lift off of the tabs without any risk of tearing the flaps or gouging the box with your fingernail.
While old ink is fun, there are a few risks to watch out for and precautions to take if you decide to use it in your fountain pens. Paying attention to a few simple things can save many headaches down the road.
Mold can damage or destroy your entire pen and ink collection. Once you use a pen in moldy ink, that mold is now in your pen. If you dip that pen into another bottle of ink, the mold is in that ink. Now any pens you dip in that ink will become infected and pretty soon mold has spread through your entire collection. So, it’s very important to check for mold in your ink before you use it. It should be pretty obvious if your ink has mold in it. It will be a visible substance in the ink and possibly on the bottle and lid. Your ink might also smell unusual (more organic and earthy than the normal chemical smell ink has). If you happen to come across a bottle of moldy ink, it’s fine to purchase it and display it in your collection, but never use it in any of your pens!
Evaporation tends to happen to vintage ink quite often. While evaporation itself is not dangerous and is quite natural, the process can condense your ink and make it thicker than it originally was. If you use this thicker ink in your pen you run the risk of clogging it. If you see a half-full bottle of ink for sale, there’s really no way to know if it was used or has evaporated. It’s probably best to not use the ink in a fountain pen, but it will still be safe to use with a dip pen.
Sometimes pressure can build up inside of a bottle. This happens often when ink is shipped via airplane, but can also happen with age. When you open a pressurized ink bottle, its contents can spray out, getting you and your work area quite messy. If you’ve never opened a particular bottle of ink before, I would suggest opening it very slowly, maybe even draping a towel over the lid and bottle to catch any ink that might spray out. Sometimes it’s just better safe than sorry!
Sediment can form in vintage ink by evaporation or just age. You should always check vintage ink for sediment in the bottom of the bottle. If you see any, it would be best not to use that ink, but if you like to live dangerously you might be able to strain out the sediment and safely use the ink in your pen. Keep in mind, that sediment used to be in the ink, which means the properties of the ink have changed and you might get very different results from a different bottle of the same color of ink. You can sometimes shake the bottle and return the sediment into solution, but I have found that I never get the same color as sediment-free ink.
Inks You Should Not Use
There are some inks you should not even think about using in a fountain pen. They are great to collect, but should not be used in any fountain pens. They include, but are not limited to: Parker “51” Ink and Parker Superchrome Ink. Of course, you should only use inks intended for fountain pens, which means that you should never use India Ink, stamp pad ink, or any other ink or writing fluid that does not specifically say it’s made for fountain pens.
Collecting Old Inks
If you enjoy using old inks, you might also consider collecting them! Collecting vintage inks can be just as much fun as collecting fountain pens. As a matter of fact, the two go together very well, as the use of one will almost always enhance your enjoyment of the other.
Vintage inks can be found in many of the same places as vintage fountain pens: antique stores, flea markets, ebay, pen shows, etc… If you keep your eyes open, you’ll start to notice vintage ink everywhere you look.Some of the main questions that you might ask yourself as you develop your vintage ink collection are:
“Do I want to focus on a particular brand of ink?”
“Do I want to focus on a particular color of ink?”
“Do I want to collect empty ink bottles?”
“Do I want to collect bottles of ink that don’t have labels or boxes?”
and the list could go on and on. I can’t tell you what to collect and what not to collect, but I can tell you that you should enjoy what you collect. If you think that black inks are boring, there were plenty of other colors made that are much more colorful than black. I would suggest at least looking for some identification of your ink. If you buy a bottle with no label or box and you like it, it might be tough to figure out what the color is if you want to buy more.
Hopefully this has helped you feel more comfortable using old inks in your fountain pens. Personally, I get great joy out of using an ink and pen that are from the same era. While I really enjoy modern inks, vintage inks have a special place in my heart. In all of my years of using vintage fountain pen inks, I have taken the precautions listed above and have never had any trouble.
Ultimately, you should not use an ink, vintage or modern, if you are not comfortable with it. There are many safe inks and a wide variety of colors on the market today. But, if you want to expand your options and experience a part of fountain pen history, you might try filling up your pen with some vintage ink.
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.