Is iron gall ink Public Enemy #1, or just a poor, misunderstood schmuck caught up in an unfair war of opinions?
Some people avoid it like the plague, flat-out stating that it will eat your pens, paper, pets, and children. Others use it exclusively, saying it’s perfectly safe and they bathe in it and pour it over their cereal with no ill effects. (Note: In case you didn’t realize, the eating of pets & kids, bathing in ink, and cereal bits were all exaggerations. Please do NOT eat, drink, lick, suck on, or snort iron gall—or any other—ink!)
A Bit O’ History
Iron gall (IG) ink has been around in some form or fashion for about 2,000 years, and it has been widely used since about the Fifth Century. IG is a permanent ink made from combining iron salts with tannic acid (often extracted from Oak Galls). Once applied to paper, the iron in the ink begins to oxidize, making the ink darker and impossible to erase. Although IG ink is very effective for its permanence, the downside is that it’s highly acidic and capable of corroding various types of metals and the paper it’s written on.
IG isn’t as rare as you’d think. The now-infamous Montblanc Blue-Black was a staple IG ink until it was discontinued in 2012 (Blue-Black was replaced by Midnight Blue, which was also IG…until they changed to a non-IG formula in 2014). Currently available IG inks include the Diamine Registrars series, Rohrer & Klingner Scabiosa & Salix, Platinum Blue-Black, the new Platinum Classic Black series, and inks from Ecclesiastical Stationery Supplies and Akkerman. I’m sure there are others.
My Experience: A Report
Let me be clear: This article is not the reflection of exhaustive, scientific experiments. My sample size was puny (three inks, three pens, one spare nib). I am not a scientist, a chemist, a metallurgist, or any other sort of -ist in a white lab coat. I am also not made of money and not even remotely interested in purchasing 100 bottles of ink and 100 spare nibs to conduct a full-blown scientific experiment. I’m a simple fountain pen user with curiosity and a sense of adventure. This article is a result of MY OWN EXPERIENCES and nothing else.
My goal is not to bash, insult, or otherwise harm the reputation of any manufacturer. Likewise, my goal is not to advertise for or promote any manufacturer. I am simply recording the details of my experiences with IG inks to help educate my readers on the potential uses and drawbacks of IG ink, and to make recommendations for safe use of this particular medium.
1st Dip: Rohrer & Klingner Scabiosa vs. Tactile Turn Gist
My first foray into IG ink was about a year ago with the much-heralded Rohrer & Klingner Scabiosa. The company has been around for 125 years, and their ink is almost universally held in high regard. They know what they’re doing and they’re a very trusted brand. I loaded this ink up in my Tactile Turn Gist, which has a titanium nib. I actually wasn’t crazy about the color of the ink, so I only used it sporadically over the course of about a month. After a couple days of non-use, the nib would dry out a bit, so I’d have to prime the feed to get consistent ink flow. This is pretty common with IG inks, so I wasn’t concerned. Once the nib was wet again, it wrote perfectly.
After a month, I wanted to use a different ink, so I cleaned out the Gist. It took a while. The Scabiosa was pretty hard to clean out and left a purple stain on the titanium nib.
But other than being difficult to clean, there were no other ill effects. Much like gold, titanium doesn’t corrode, so I wouldn’t expect the nib itself to deteriorate. But the pen, nib, and converter came out of this experiment exactly how they went in.
2nd Dip: Organics Studio Aristotle vs. Hero 9315
This is where all hell broke loose. Organics Studio went on hiatus while the owner, Tyler, finished grad school. In 2016, he fired the engines back up and started releasing inks again. I didn’t have any experience with OS, so I picked up a few samples to try them out. I fell in love with the color of the Aristotle IG ink, and decided to give it a try in a Hero 9315, which has a two-tone steel nib. The barrel, cap, and section have some sort of metallic plating over them: some parts a rose-gold color, and the rest a mirror-finished gunmetal color.
- Day 0: I filled the pen, wrote for a little while, and set the pen down (flat) on a bookshelf.
- Day 4: I picked up the pen and started writing with it, only to find blue ink all over my fingers. And all over the section. And all inside the cap. Obviously, the pen was a leaky piece of crap (probably a bad converter). I went to the sink and rinsed off the nib and section, then wiped it down with a paper towel. The towel came away with some water, some ink, and a whole bunch of little metallic flakes stuck to it. The rose gold finish on the section had all but flaked off or been covered with a greenish corrosion (maybe has some copper content?). And the gunmetal finish was full of pits, discolored spots, and areas of peeling/flaking. This was after only four days! I didn’t have time to clean it then, so I stood it up in a cup with the nib pointing up to keep what was left of the ink in the converter.
- Day 14: I came back to disassemble and clean the pen ten days later (I knew the pen was wrecked, so I wasn’t in a hurry). I took it all apart and scrubbed the nib. Once all the dried ink was removed, I found several pits eaten into the tines and along the outside edges of the nib. I also found large patches of deteriorated steel at the base of the nib and several areas where the gold plating had worn away. In a matter of 14 days, this ink had effectively destroyed the pen.
3rd Dip: Organics Studio Aristotle vs. Spare Jinhao Nib
I contacted Tyler at Organics Studio about what happened to my Hero pen. He asked when/where I bought it so he could track down the lot to see if there were other complaints (I never heard back from him, so I don’t know if he ever found anything).
I still wasn’t sure whether the ink was a voracious pen-eater or if the pen itself was just junk, so I figured I’d run a follow-up experiment. I have a handful of spare (brand new/never used) Jinhao nibs laying around, so I put one of them in a clean, plastic sample vial, partially submerged in some of the Aristotle ink.
- Day 3: I removed the nib from the ink and rinsed it off. I found a few pits on the tines and on the outside edges of the nib, and I found a long groove forming in the underside of the nib (right in the middle of the gold plating). I put the nib back into the ink and let it sit for several more days.
- Day 10: Removed & rinsed the nib. Several more pits had formed, the groove in the underside of the nib was more pronounced, and a second groove had formed.
- On Further Inspection (Whoa!): In preparation for attending both the 2017 Arkansas and Atlanta pen shows, I purchased a nice magnifying loupe for checking things out. I tested it by inspecting the Hero and Jinhao nibs up close, and found that I could actually see THROUGH the larger groove in the Jinhao nib. I held the nib up to a light and sure enough, could see the light coming through the nib in multiple places. Did the same thing with the Hero nib, and found a couple of holes clear through that one, too. Let me boil this down: This ink ate holes straight through two stainless steel nibs, one within 14 days, one within 10 days.
I don’t care how cheap the materials of the nibs are, no ink should be able to do this in such a short period of time. I had seen enough to determine that this specific batch of this specific ink was unsuitable for use in any of my fountain pens.
4th Dip: KWZ Gummibear vs. Jinhao 250
At this point, I had pretty much sworn off IG inks. I like my pens (even the cheap ones) too much to risk damaging or destroying them. However, during my conversation with Agnieszka from KWZ inks, we spoke at length about IG ink, including how KWZ approaches making theirs. When Konrad was first developing inks, one of his main goals was to create an ink that had the permanence characteristics of IG, but was also safe and gentle enough to use in any fountain pen. In short, she convinced me to give them a try.
Three days later, I had a handful of KWZ IG samples in my hands, swabbed them, and instantly loved how they looked on paper. So I grabbed another inexpensive Chinese pen (I went with another Jinhao for a fair comparison) and loaded it up with KWZ IG Gummibear. It behaved really well, although like with Scabiosa, the ink dried up a bit in the nib after a few days of non-use, requiring me to prime the feed.
After about three weeks, I removed the nib from the pen, rinsed it off, and inspected it. It looked exactly the same as it did when I first inked the pen. No damage at all. So I put the nib back in the pen for a few more weeks. After another three weeks, I felt it was time to disassemble and clean the pen and see what I had on my hands. I will say that the ink was a devil to clean. The nib cleaned up quickly, but the feed, converter, and section took a lot of time and elbow grease (not to mention a brass sheet, three paper towels, and a pile of cotton swabs).
But as far as any damage, there wasn’t any. None. Nothing at all. There was one short, thin line of darkness across the base of the top-side of the nib that I initially thought was corrosion. This line formed right where the nib would contact the inside of the section, trapping ink against the surface of the nib. But the line rubbed off with a microfiber cloth, so it turned out to just be a stubborn bit of ink residue sitting on top.
The Bottom Line & Recommendations
Once again, I’m not here to vilify or praise individual manufacturers. I’ve read all the same accounts you have about how some people have had horrible luck with IG inks and others have had no negative experiences. I set out to see what all the stories were about, and encountered both ends of the spectrum. One ink cost me an entire pen and a second nib. Two other inks worked without issue.
I did reach out to both Agnieszka (KWZ) and Tyler (Organics Studio) for recommendations on how long their inks should remain in fountain pens with steel nibs. Here’s what they said:
- Agnieszka (KWZ): It all depends on the pen. If you have a pen of good quality in terms of seals, that doesn’t have a tendency to dry, you don’t need to think of it at all. For example Konrad owns TWSBI Diamond 580 inked with IG Blue #3 for a year and he has never cleaned it, but keeps on refilling ink only. Another his everyday pen is Lamy 2000 and it hasn’t been cleaned for nearly 2 years – just refilled (also with IG Blue #3). But for example Jinhao 159 which has a big tendency to dry out – we need to clean it every 2-3 weeks. But we don’t clean it to prevent nib corrosion – but just not to let the ink dry. The corrosion is not a risk here if you use the pen frequently. Last year we wanted to corrode steel nibs with our IG inks and sacrificed some Pilot Plumix pens for tests. We filled them with IG and left unused in the drawer. We checked every month the condition of the nibs and after half a year very very small dots finally appeared in some of them…when the ink dries in a pen, some of the solvent (water) evaporates so the concentration of iron component increases. If all water evaporates, you have chemical residues which might react. Of course we can’t test all pens that are in the market, that’s why we generally advice to clean them often (just in case) like every month, as the average.
- Tyler (Organics Studio): As far as timing, I personally fill a pen with it and don’t leave it more than a day. Its sort of a pain in the neck, but I tend to be very cautious with my pens.
Will I use any IG ink in the future? Yes. My luck with KWZ Gummibear was such that I’ll try their other IG inks without fear. Honestly, though, I’m probably done with Organics Studio, at least for use in fountain pens. Aristotle is still a beautiful ink, and I’ll keep what I have left for use with dip nibs. It’s possible this was just a bad batch of ink, but I’m not going to risk sacrificing any other fountain pens to find out.
If you do decide to use IG inks in your pens, even the safe ones are hard to clean, so make sure you practice good pen hygiene and clean your pens out regularly.
What About You???
Have you had any wonderful or terrible experiences with IG inks? Slip me a comment below. I’d love to hear your stories!
- Inks: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (by Richard Binder) – A nice description of all types of fountain pen inks by one of the premier Nibmeisters today. Scroll down to the “Your Grandfather’s Ink” section at the bottom for his take on iron gall ink.
- The Iron Gall Ink Website – A vastly comprehensive site that takes a really deep dive into the history and science behind IG inks.
- Wikipedia – Has, of course, a nice, easy-to-understand explanation of how it works
- Fountain Pens and Iron Gall Inks – A more comprehensive explanation from Konrad at KWZ about how he developed his IG recipes, along with some additional recommendations for using them