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.
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. Why? These particular vintage inks contained highly corrosive ingredients that can destroy the insides of your pen. Additionally, 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.
John, regarding lids that don’t want to come off – metal lids rust and are a real pain, but I have a method for plastic and bakerlite lids. Turn the bottle upside down in an inch of water, well, as much water as necessary to get between the lid and the bottle without wetting the label. The logic is that the dried ink is the glue. soak it for a few minutes then try it. If no success then soak for a few hours.
I have some Dollar ink, and today had delivered some Hero ink. They smell the same – disgusting. I imagine that creosote is one of the ingredients. Have you experienced this, and could it be harmful?
Yeah, rust on lids can be a real issue and cause them to stick. The water trick sounds like it should work pretty well. To be honest, I don’t think I ever tried that with the lids that were really stuck, so I’ll give it a shot next time I come across one.
I can’t say that I’ve ever smelled ink that smells like creosote. I do know lots of older inks have a very distinct smell that some people may not like, but I would never describe it as smelling like creosote… more like medicinal or chemical. I would think twice about using something that smelled like creosote in my pens.
I promise never to use Parker 51 or SuperChrome ink. But now I’m curious: why are they so damaging?
Parker 51 and Superchrome inks are apparently very corrosive and can eat through some of the delicate metal parts inside fountain pens. After seeing how they etched the glass on some of the bottles I have, I believe it!
I love the suggestion of turning the bottle upside down and soaking in water, or holding the lid area under a stream of very hot water in the sink–that has worked for me with most lids. With a metal lid, you could try tapping it around the top edge, using the handle of a butter knife or similar tool. That might loosen the corrosion that’s built up on the threads of the bottle. (Take care not to dent the lid, if that’s a concern.) A combination of soaking and tapping might do the trick. I’ve also tried this with plastic lids with some success.
Thanks for the ideas, Julie! The Carter’s bottles that gave me so much trouble have plastic lids, so I would have to be extra careful when tapping them, but the soaking trick I’ll definitely try the next time I come across one. Thank you!
Your remark about your aunt and the Peacock Blue made me smile. I too grew up in the age of fountain pens at school. We couldn’t wait to get to fifth grade and acquire our new writing tools. Peacock Blue was also my favorite color. My mom worked for Betsy Ross Martin Associates in the 60’s and one of her jobs was promoting Shaeffer pens. I still have the set I got for high school graduation along with others I’ve acquired over the years. The Parker 25 is one of my favorites. As a freelance calligrapher for over forty years, I’ve more inks than I will ever use; some has been in the drawers since I started in the 70’s. I do have to say the Pelikan 4001 red is unstable and turns a rather pukey brown both on the paper and in the bottle. But most are just as usable today as the when I bought them.
Thanks for chiming in, Sandra. How cool that your mom promoted Sheaffer pens! Isn’t it wonderful that you were able to receive a set of pens for graduation and still be able to use them years later? I don’t think I’ve ever used a Parker 25. It sure looks interesting! Also, you are definitely correct about reds being unstable over the years. Some, like Skrip Red, seem to hold up very well, while others, like you mention, turn muddy and brown.
Parker warned against using Parker 51 and its successor, Superchrome, in any pen but a Parker 51. As John Bosley says, Parker was sure it would eat up an ordinary pen. Parker later found that, after long use, Parker 51 / Superchome would eat holes in a Parker 51’s the silver breather tube. Parker withdrew Superchrome in the ’50’s.
Superchrome and Parker 51 ink were advertised as having ten times (or three times? this is from memory) the dye content as ordinary inks, making it a saturated ink to us. It was also permanent. Tempting, I thought. However, Richard Binder, after explaining that Superchrome is deadly to pens, commented that, if we used Superchrome, our pens would lead a colorful but very short life.
I think another reason they didn’t want it used in any pen besides a “51” was that it had a faster rate of evaporation to enable the quick drying feature. The hooded nibs helped keep it in check, but a traditional open nib would have too much ink evaporation and cause a bad writing experience.
wow, this post & even all the comments were super informative!! like mamamiau, I felt a little cheated to have been advised to never use the Parker 51 & Superchrome inks without being told *why* not to do so, it felt like the biggest cliff hanger ever!! I’m glad I was patient & kept reading!
my comment? not so informative! but I couldn’t have stopped by & not told you how much I appreciated reading your content! and- great! now I have to make time in my super busy life of covid seclusion (so: not busy at all. ever!) to go into my favorite local, labyrinthian antique store on a mission for vintage inks AND pens??? oh, darn. life is so difficult sometimes!!!
Sounds like I need to update the post a bit so there’s no cliffhanger! Glad you enjoyed the content. Good luck on your new mission!
Hahaha! I wouldn’t say I felt cheated, but I was certainly curious and I also greatly appreciated reading the followup comments and John’s replies!
yes i have always found the hot tap and paper towel method very successful for easing old pens too as well as ink bottle lids.
As long as the water isn’t too hot, this should work fine. Hot water can discolor hard rubber, so be careful which pens you use it on.
Thanks for a great article! Any thoughts on reconstituting old ink using distilled water?
Hi Brian, thanks for taking the time to read! You can definitely reconstitute old ink with distilled water. I’ve done this before with ink dust in old bottles. The results aren’t always great, as sometimes the color is just blah. Not sure if this is due to me using too much water or just something not reconstituting correctly. If you do this, be aware that it may not be as resistant to mold, as I’m not sure if any of the antimicrobials would still be in the ink powder. Also, make sure to check to any remaining solids, as they don’t always completely dissolve. Have fun!
Hi John – thanks for the reply! Yeah – sometimes the colors come out quite faded and grey but they can be attractive on their own merits. That’s a great point about the antimicrobials. For fountain pens, I’ve only used reconstituted ink from bottles that were still liquid but much of the liquid had obviously evaporated due to the darkness of the ink color. The ones that just had ink dust I’ve only used in uber-cheap pens that I syringe-fill only (so there’s no possibility of cross-contamination with other ink bottles) and don’t care much if they get ruined or dip pens.
Just recently I’ve had great results with partially evaporated, circa mid-1940s Quink Permanent Violet (what a great color – I’d love to find an bottle with minimal ink deterioration!) and Skrip Permanent Blue Black 22 (a great teal leaning blue black very similar to vintage Parker and Waterman blue blacks).