Never put Indian ink in a fountain pen, unless…
- the pen is a Pilot Parallel
- the pen is a safety pen
- the ink and the pen are both modified to form a system
- the pen has been specifically designed to use Indian ink
Pilot Parallel pens
Pilot designed the Parallel as a calligraphy pen. It’s got that squared off tip for broad strokes (available in four sizes, from 1.5mm to a huge 6mm). It’s called a fountain pen, but it hasn’t got the traditional dip-pen style shape, and it hasn’t got a separate feed. Instead, it works by drawing the ink between two closely fitted parallel metal plates. And it works remarkably well.
The design has the added benefit of being easy to clean. In a conventional fountain pen, the feed presents a problem, because, no matter how far you disassemble the pen, you just can’t get at the narrow capillary channels. In a parallel plate design, the capillary action takes place between the plates. It is often enough to wipe between the plates with the supplied tool (a thin rectangle of flexible plastic), but if that fails, the whole pen can be taken apart and you can clean each part, including the bare plates, separately.
This means that you can put Indian ink in a Pilot Parallel without worrying about the pen. It also helps that the pens are not expensive to buy.
Pilot Parallels are cartridge pens, and they use Pilot’s own bespoke cartridge (not the standard international fitting). In order to use bottled ink, you need to do one of the following:
- Buy a Pilot converter that allows you to fill through the nib
- Refill an empty cartridge (using a syringe fitted with a blunt needle).
- Convert the pen into an “eyedropper” pen, allowing you to use the whole barrel as a large reservoir.
You’ll find a comprehensive, unofficial guide to the Pilot Parallel here, including details of how to convert it into an eyedropper pen.
Safety pens were originally designed in the early twentieth century to allow them to be carried on an aeroplane without leaking. This isn’t usually a problem with modern fountain pens, as materials technology has improved a lot since then, but you should still be wary of using a fountain pen in flight. The problem is a difference in air pressure between the air in the ink reservoir and the air outside of the reservoir, in this case in the cabin of an aircraft. The air in the reservoir will be at a higher pressure than that in the cabin, and so, if you remove the cap of a conventional fountain pen while flying, you run the risk of experiencing a sudden equalisation of air pressure through the tiny capillaries of the feed, resulting in an explosion of ink. You can avoid this by:
- not opening the cap of the pen whilst in flight (vintage pens may still leak, however)
- filling the pen completely so that there is no air in it
- emptying the pen of ink before flying
Or you could take a safety pen with you instead. Safety pens might not seem very safe when you remove the cap, because you’re straight into the reservoir (always point a safety pen upwards before taking the cap off) – but that is actually a safety feature. Any difference in pressure will equalise quickly and safely, with no explosive ink leaks, simply because the area of interface is greater. It’s like taking the lid off a bottle.
The nib and feed of a safety pen (which are of a conventional type) sit inside the ink reservoir, soaking happily in the ink. After you’ve opened the cap, you raise the nib using the provided mechanism (my pen, the Noodler’s Boston – which I believe to be the only modern safely pen in production – has a simple push mechanism. Some vintage safeties use a twist mechanism).
It’s this feature – the nib and feed soaking in the ink – that incidentally makes a safety pen safe to use with Indian ink, because the feed will never dry out when the pen is not in use (this does assume that you keep the pen reasonably full of ink, and that you habitually cap the pen when you put it down), and so the pigment particles are kept wet and flowing and the shellac won’t solidify in the feed.
As noted above, the only modern safety pen that I am aware of is the Noodler’s Ink Boston (available in the UK from Pure Pens). At approximately £50, it isn’t cheap, but it is less expensive than a vintage safety pen would be, and considerably more robust. It’s been designed specifically for artists to put Indian ink (among others) in. And it comes with a semi-flex steel nib, which is a big selling point for me, because I like flexible nibs. None of the other pens listed here have flexible nibs.
Modified Indian Ink and Associated Pen systems
I know of two “systems” that allow a modified Indian ink to be used in a dedicated fountain pen.
The Rotring ArtPen has been around for decades. I bought one in 1992 or ’93, and it’s still going strong. It’s an elegantly shaped, inexpensive plastic pen that is available with a range of calligraphy and round-tipped drawing nibs. It has its own cartridges (standard international size, but the pen has a slightly fussy fit) filled with ArtPen ink, which Rotring describe as a “modified Indian Ink”. It’s not entirely clear what modifications have been made to the ink, but it differs from standard Indian Ink in that it is not waterproof once dry. It doesn’t show any signs of fading in sunlight. The pen has a plastic feed with enlarged channels that improve the flow of pigmented ink.
The Platinum Carbon Pen is a more recent development. Partnered with Platinum’s Carbon Ink (currently available in cartridges and bottles), it has a round-tipped nib (extra-fine, fine or medium). The plastic feed is modified in a similar way to that of the Rotring ArtPen, with enlarged channels for pigment flow. The ink, however, is both waterproof and lightfast. It is made with what Platinum call “nanoparticles”, which seems to mean that they grind their lampblack very finely. Platinum use their own bespoke cartridge style, but they do sell a converter to fit.
ArtPens and Carbon Pens can use each other’s inks with no apparent problems, and I have seen a report that the ArtPen is capable of running unmodified Indian ink. I haven’t tried this, but I would be reluctant to leave such ink in the pen for any significant time.
Other special designs
The Indigraph is an otherwise conventional fountain pen with a humidifier in the cap, preventing the feed from drying out. It’s a relatively recent innovation and the pen looks very well made, but I haven’t – so far – been tempted to buy it. It’s the most expensive pen listed here and, while it doesn’t come with a flexible nib, it seems that it can be fitted with one.