A while back, I published a post describing my experiences with iron gall ink and how one specific ink ate a pen and a spare nib. If you haven’t read it, I’d recommend doing so before reading this post. This is going to be a long, photo-heavy article, so I’m not going to rehash the initial story, which has proven to be really popular. It’s sparked quite a debate across reddit, including one in which a lovely redditor repeatedly called me stupid and idiotic.
According to this fool and at least one other, I shouldn’t have been surprised that the ink ate a Chinese pen and two Chinese nibs because Chinese nibs are made from cheap steel. Only problem with that hypothesis is that we have no idea who makes the Chinese nibs, where they come from, or what steel is used. Quite simply: No one knows for sure if their steel is of low quality. And even if it IS low quality, we don’t know if iron gall ink would produce different effects on them compared to “high-quality steel” nibs.
My opinion is and always has been that even if the steel in the Chinese nibs was low quality, a fountain pen ink should still not be able to eat a hole through it in a matter of 10 days. That’s. Really. Fast. It’s also an indicator that the ink is way more acidic than it should be. Anyway, along comes…
Shawn Newton to the Rescue
Everybody’s favorite teacher-turned-penmaker Shawn Newton reached out to me recently to see if I had any of the “culprit” ink left. I told him I did, and he offered to send me two German steel nibs to test with the ink. Thanks, Shawn! When his nibs arrived, I found one to be gold-plated and the other one was two-tone. I wasn’t sure if the gold plating would hinder corrosion, so I figured that if Shawn was sacrificing two nice nibs, so could I. I scrounged around and found a couple more steel nibs to experiment on. Let’s make this second experiment a real party!
Setup & Expectations
For this experiment, I submerged four steel fountain pen nibs in Organics Studio Iron Gall ink (from the same sample that killed my Hero 9315 and an extra Jinhao nib), checking on them periodically to assess any damage and take photos. The four nibs used in this follow-on experiment were:
- Bock #5, gold-plated, Medium I think, made in Germany (provided by Shawn)
- Jowo/Newton Pens #5, two-tone, Broad, made in Germany (provided by Shawn)
- Pilot from a Metropolitan, Medium, made in Japan
- Knox #6, 1.1mm stub, made in Germany
The four nibs are a mix of new and used, so all were gently washed with Dawn dishwashing soap to remove any traces of ink and machining oils. The vials were also washed in Dawn, to remove any potential contaminants.
- The original Hero nib was in a pen at the time, and the ink was trapped against the nib surface by both the feed and the interior of the section.
- The Jinhao nib was soaked on its own, face down, in the ink.
- These four nibs were also soaked in the ink face down, with each nib in its own plastic vial (same way the Jinhao nib was).
Shawn Newton’s Expectations: Shawn expected that these nibs would be just fine and that we would learn that it was just cheap junky metal in the Chinese nibs.
My Expectations: I expected that the gold plating on the Jowo and Bock nibs would hinder corrosion and that after the first few days I’d see a minimum of corrosion on those nibs. I expected the Knox and Pilot nibs to suffer the most after the first few days. I expected the Knox nib to fare the worst overall. As you’ll see in the next section, I was all sorts of wrong.
Day 1: Kicking It All Off
Here are the steps I took with the clean nibs & vials:
- 25 drops (~ 0.5 ml) of Aristotle added to each clean vial
- Clean nibs added to vials, one nib per vial
- Vials positioned on their sides, with the tops (capped ends) slightly elevated to pool ink around the point of each nib
- Nibs were positioned with their “logo side” facing down, and their tines toward the bottom (closed end) of the vials
Day 7: Shock and Awe After Six Days
I’ll say this now: I knew there would be corrosion, but I was completely wrong on almost all my expectations around the specific nibs. After the nibs sat in the Aristotle Iron Gall ink for a mere six days, I removed the nibs from the ink, gently cleaned them with Dawn, and patted them dry with a clean paper towel.
Here’s how the nibs fared:
- Bock Nib: Lots of pits around slit, logo, edges. Tip of one tine missing. HOLE all the way through the nib.
- Newton/Jowo: Ate the metal away inside the slit, lots of micro pits in the gold surface; pits around edges.
- Knox: One spot on the end (What?!?!)
- Pilot: Small pits around engraved logo, tines, and edges.
In six days, the Aristotle ink completely obliterated both the Bock and Jowo nibs. So much for the gold hindering corrosion, eh? The Pilot nib had a bunch of tiny specks eaten into it, but the structural integrity of the nib was fine. In other words, the Pilot nib was still completely usable. The Knox nib showed no damage at all. I did notice one small spot on the back edge, but that was it.
I took photos, gently cleaned the nibs with Dawn to remove my finger oils, patted them dry with a clean paper towel, and returned them to their original containers for more soaking.
My Expectations: I expected the corrosion to continue at the same pace, that the Knox nib would start to corrode, and that the Bock nib would look like Swiss Cheese.
Day 12: Not Nearly as Dramatic
After five more days, I removed the nibs from the ink, gently cleaned them with Dawn, and patted them dry with a clean paper towel. Here’s how the nibs fared:
- Bock Nib: Few more spots, but hole in middle seems unchanged. Big chunk out of shoulder (Ink kind of sticky on nib).
- Newton/Jowo: Ink sticky again, took wiping to get it off. More pits on shoulders. Overall, not much change.
- Knox: Still just the one spot. No other marks whatsoever.
- Pilot: Pits slightly more pronounced. Maybe a couple more. Discolored spot on back of nib.
At this point, I was kind of floored. How could this ink destroy the Jowo and Bock nibs but not touch the Knox? I started to come to a conclusion on that Knox nib, but I’ll save that for later. Overall, the corrosion slowed down to a crawl, with only the Bock nib getting noticeably worse. My assumption is that that acid started to neutralize, maybe from the iron it corroded (Dammit, Jim, I’m not a metallurgist!).
I took photos, gently cleaned them with Dawn to remove my finger oils, patted them dry with a clean paper towel, and returned them to their original containers for one last go ’round.
Expectations: I expected the Knox nib to continue being unaffected and that any additional corrosion would be minimal as it seems to have slowed down.
Day 20: End of the Blue Line (Mind the Gap)
I left the nibs in the ink for another nine days, figuring that should allow time for any remaining corrosion to play out. Here are the results:
- Bock Nib: One more large spot formed on the front face of the nib.
- Newton/Jowo: New giant pit on the face of the nib that wasn’t there before.
- Knox: Still just the one spot.
- Pilot: Pits are slightly more pronounced, maybe one or two additional ones.
Findings & Conclusions
Overall, I wasn’t surprised. For this ink to have eaten two Chinese nibs (even if the steel was cheap), I knew it had to be pretty darn acidic. I expected all four of these “higher quality” nibs to show corrosion, but I had no idea to what extent each would corrode. Here are my conclusions:
- The sample of Organics Studio Aristotle Iron Gall ink that I received was acidic enough to destroy four steel nibs (Hero, Jinhao, Bock, Jowo) and cause minor damage to a fifth (Pilot).
- The bulk of damage occurred within the first five days, with subsequent corrosion dramatically trailing off in severity.
- After the last round, I rinsed out the sample vials, thinking I could reuse them. But the three vials that housed the Bock, Jowo, and Pilot nibs had residue in them that wouldn’t rinse out. I’m guessing it’s the corroded iron particles sticking to the sides. The vial that housed the Knox nib didn’t have any.
- As a huge surprise, the Knox nib was completely untouched. I have to wonder if that one spot I found was there at the start and I just didn’t notice it. Considering the ink came from the same sample vial as the others, my only guess as to why the Knox nib did not corrode is that it might be made out of some other alloy…something without iron in it. If only there were some way to test that…Oh wait! Magnets!
I fished out a super powerful neodymium magnet to test the iron content in all four nibs. I placed the nibs on the counter with the “logo side” facing up. I then hovered the neodymium magnet over each nib to see how much magnetic force was generated. No, I don’t have the equipment to measure anything, so it’s more or less an eyeball comparison.
- The Bock nib snapped onto the magnet easily, indicating a good amount of iron. This was expected due to the level of corrosion that occurred.
- Likewise, the Jowo nib snapped onto the magnet easily, indicating a good amount of iron. This also was expected due to the level of corrosion that occurred.
- The Pilot nib was somewhat attracted to the magnet. It didn’t “snap” onto it, though. The hold was far more tenuous and the nib sort of dangled from the magnet. Given that this nib suffered far less corrosion, a lower iron content makes sense, so this was expected.
- Here’s where things fall apart. The Knox nib snapped onto the magnet easily, indicating that it has roughly similar iron content as the Bock and Jowo nibs. What? WTF!?? How is this possible? HOW, dammit? Now I’m starting to think the Knox nib is plated with Kryptonite or something.
Although this experiment answered a couple questions, I’m walking away with even more. We now know that the “cheap Chinese steel” hypothesis is BS. My sample of Aristotle was able to corrode steel nibs from China, Germany, and Japan within 4 to 5 days, having completely annihilated nibs from both China and Germany.
But now I have more questions that I want answered:
- Is it fair to say that Organics Studio Aristotle Iron Gall ink is too acidic for pens with steel parts, or was this sample from a bad batch?
- Would other Iron Gall inks have caused similar damage to any of these nibs?
- Why did the corrosion slow down after the first few days? What would have happened if I put the nibs in fresh ink instead of the same ink after each review?
- Why did the Knox nib not corrode? Is it plated with something? If so, then what? And how thick it is the plating? The gold plating on the Bock and Jowo nibs was unable stop the corrosion, so why did the Knox nib fare so well? It’s baffling, man! Baffling!
The only ink I tested in this follow-on experiment was Organics Studio Aristotle. In the past, I have used Iron Gall inks from both KWZ and Rohrer & Klingner, and I did not experience any corrosion with either one.
This is going to eat at me. Pun intended. I’m almost compelled to run another experiment testing nib corrosion in several different inks. To do that properly and fairly, though, I’m going to need between 15 and 18 nibs and several new, unopened bottles of ink. I’m happy to buy the ink, but the nibs will cost a small fortune. I don’t know…we’ll see about that.
I’d love your thoughts on all of this. Hit me up in the comments!