A Beginner’s Guide to Fountain Pen Inks: What Inks to Buy? What Inks to Avoid? To Clean or Not to Clean? The Ten Rules.

Waterman Serenity Blue ink

My Ten Rules of Fountain Pen Ink for Beginners.

1.   Every Beginner Needs These Two Bottles of “Boring” Ink.

One is a bottle of standard blue ink, and one is black. Buy these with your first or second pen. Or buy them now.

Your standard blue ink is the basic blue from one of the major, longstanding pen brands. I mean Waterman, Aurora, Montblanc, Namiki from Pilot, Sailor Jentle, Lamy, Parker Quink, Kaweco, Sheaffer Skrip; or maybe, but with reservations, Pelikan 4001.

This will be a regular, “boring,” ballpoint-blue-color blue ink. The one they put in cartridges. Not a fancier blue. It will be inexpensive, unless it’s Montblanc Royal Blue, in which case it will be relatively inexpensive.

If you really cannot stand blue ink, you can substitute “blue black.” But keep everything else the same.

Your standard black ink is similar: just a regular black ink, from one of the major pen brands. Waterman, Aurora, Montblanc, Namiki from Pilot, Sailor Jentle, Lamy, Kaweco, Parker Quink, Sheaffer Skrip, and the like. If you want to break free of the “pen brand” limitation, you can buy J. Herbin Perle Noire.

These are your Basic Two.

For your Basic Two, avoid anything labeled “permanent” or “waterproof.”

Hold on a minute: aren’t people online going to call that “boring”?

I guess that depends. The Basic Two are lower-maintenance: easier to clean, gentler on pens. They are relatively inexpensive. They are legible. They flow well and start up well. They resist feathering on cheap paper. That’s why these inks have been around forever.

Using these inks is boring in the same way that driving your car without swerving off the road is boring.

Waterman Serenity Blue ink

My standard blue ink is Waterman Serenity Blue (formerly called Florida Blue), and that’s my top recommendation. It is widely available, and about $10 a bottle. Aurora Blue and Montblanc Royal Blue are good alternatives — slightly more interesting shades of blue, more expensive, just as good.

If you’re a blue hater, and must go blue-black, Waterman Mysterious Blue (formerly Waterman Blue Black) behaves as well as Waterman Serenity Blue. Sheaffer Skrip Blue Black is an underrated ink, and I love Platinum Blue Black. But in general blue blacks may not be as good a choice for your Basic Two, because they often run drier (explained below) or have water resistance.

My standard black ink cycles between Aurora Black, J. Herbin Perle Noire and Pelikan Brilliant Black. I don’t recommend Pelikan Brilliant Black for beginners, but the others are good, as are the basic black inks from any pen maker: Lamy, Waterman, Namiki for Pilot, Montblanc, etc. Even Pelikan Brilliant Black is good; it’s just a little dry for absolute beginners.

Are the Basic Two inks water-resistant?

The blues are not water-resistant. This is not bad. Do you like your clothes? Your floor? Do you ever need to shake hands with people? Right. Take it from me: ink that’s easy to wash out is not a bad thing.

The black inks are water-resistant — enough for writing checks, addressing envelopes, and withstanding the occasional coffee spill.

J. Herbin Perle Noire ink

2. Make It a Habit.

Use your standard blue a lot, especially at the beginning.

When you start, everything is new, even how to fill a fountain pen and how to orient the nib. You may be trying different pens, maybe even a vintage pen someone gave you. So keep your primary ink trouble-free, reliable, low-maintenance and safe for vintage pens. One less thing to think about. Any mistakes you make will be easier to clean up — literally.

Think about it: years ago, when everyone used fountain pens, the inks they started with were exactly these regular blue, blue-black and black inks.

Now, I’m not saying to use these inks exclusively, even as a beginner. A little boredom is fine, but I don’t want you to drop dead of it.

You can still have your pinks, purples, oranges and more exciting blue inks. Your shimmering and sheening inks. Your waterproof inks. I recommend trying them all.

But also spend time with your two standard inks.

Make your standard blue ink the very first ink you use in every new pen. You’ll know it so well that the new pen’s characteristics will immediately jump out: whether the pen writes wetter or drier, whether the nib writes wider or narrower, and even whether the nib feels scratchy or the pen has other problems.

And if you’re still using fountain pens regularly in five years, I bet you’ll still be using a standard blue or black ink.

3. Avoid Waterproof or Permanent Inks at First.

A waterproof or permanent ink is always a bad choice as the first or standard ink for beginners who are primarily writing with their fountain pens.

I know that people on fountain pen forums or message boards, and on Amazon “reviews,” have an overwhelming tendency to tell beginners that their first bottle should be an ink that’s waterproof or permanent. Usually it’s a Noodler’s. The primary reason seems to be that the bottles are big.

This is dumb advice.

Waterproof and permanent inks are bad for beginners. Those inks are more likely to be harder on fountain pens and require more frequent cleaning; they are more likely to dry out or have trouble starting up in pens; and some of them are known to damage the interior of some kinds of pens. In other words, they tend to be high-maintenance inks.

Now, everything I’ve written in the paragraph above could be said of some individual inks that aren’t waterproof; while some waterproof inks aren’t like that at all. I know this. In fact, I preach this. However, we are talking about beginners, and we are talking about odds.

The likelihood that an ink that’s marketed as waterproof or permanent (or archival) will be high-maintenance is higher than average. Whereas Waterman Serenity Blue, Sheaffer Skrip Blue and the others are low-maintenance.

All beginners should start with gentler, easier-to-clean regular inks. With more experience, add to the degree of difficulty.

4. Artists Have Different Rules.

Except if you are an artist who needs waterproof black ink for your art.

If you do, then I recommend buying Platinum Carbon Black and putting it in a pen like a Platinum Plaisir, Lamy Safari, TWSBI and such. Platinum Carbon Black is a low-maintenance waterproof ink that behaves well. But even if you have issues, as a beginner, you’ve put it in a pen that’s durable, easy to clean and inexpensive to replace if necessary.

If you need waterproof inks in other colors, you’ll have a great time exploring multiple pigment inks, Rohrer & Klingner Sketchink, and the Noodler’s waterproof ink lineup.

Platinum Blue Black ink

5. Be Brave.

I am not, myself, over-cautious with fountain pens and inks. I try to live a life where my fountain pens require not much more work than rollerballs or ballpoint pens. And I have some very expensive fountain pens. So I use a lot of low-maintenance inks.

It’s always better to avoid harm, especially to expensive or hard-to-replace pens. That’s why I prefer low-maintenance inks. But any harm to a pen caused by ink can be fixed with time or money — bearing in mind that the fix might be “buying a new pen.” So don’t worry too much. Be brave as well as cautious.

To help you be cautious, here is a rough guide to some inks to approach, at first, more cautiously: waterproof, permanent or document inks; purple inks; red or dark pink inks; highly saturated inks; inks from more on-the-edge brands like Private Reserve, Noodler’s and Organics Studios; inks with a lot of sheen; inks from brands that are new to the market.

To help you be brave, remember that those inks are not to be banned. Just approach them carefully at first.

With an “approach-cautiously ink,” don’t ink it up for the first time in an expensive or hard-to-replace pen. Test the ink first, for three days to a week, in a replaceable, easy-to-clean pen like a cartridge-converter pen under $40. See how easily the ink flows, how easily it cleans out, whether it’s a stainer. Keep notes.

What if the ink stains? If it’s just stained a converter, no worries. You’ve gained valuable knowledge about that ink’s behavior; and you can still use the stained converter, or buy a new one. Even if you’ve stained something else, just remember: you chose “a replaceable, easy-to-clean pen like a cartridge-converter pen under $40” for this test. You did that for a reason.

Montblanc Mystery Black ink

6. Know the General Difference Between Wet and Dry Inks.

Without writing a treatise, but instead using simple words reductively, some inks are wetter (flow more) and some are drier (flow less). In general, a moderately wet ink is the best choice for beginners, and for any pen you are unfamiliar with.

That’s one reason I recommend Waterman Serenity Blue over other standard blue inks — it’s moderately wet, and does very well in a wide range of pens. Same with the black inks I recommend: Aurora Black and J. Herbin Perle Noire are moderately wet, and good users. Montblanc’s two standard inks (Mystery Black and Royal Blue) also are moderately wet, so also good choices.

There is nothing wrong with a drier ink. But drier inks aren’t the best choice for your Basic Two inks when you are just starting out. A drier ink can make a pen feel like it writes “a little scratchy” or “not very smoothly,” and it can make a pen seem like a hard starter. A lot of fountain pen users don’t like those sensations.

7. Your Pen and Paper Problems Are Often Really Ink Problems.

The reason I recommend the Basic Two is that a lot of problems with pens and paper are really ink problems.

A new-to-you pen is scratchy and hard to start? What ink are you using? Usually it’s a drier ink. Sometimes it’s a higher-maintenance ink (maybe a super-saturated ink on the “approach cautiously” list). What happens when you change to a wetter, more “standard” ink?

What if your fountain pen bleeds through school paper even with a fine nib? What ink are you using? Usually it’s a super-wet, or super-saturated ink. But maybe it’s just a slightly wetter ink. What happens if you change to a drier ink, or a standard ink? Remember, standard inks resist feathering.

Waterman Florida Blue and Blue Black ink

8. Match Ink with Pen, and Sometimes Paper.

The key is to match ink and pen. (And sometimes paper.)

A dry ink in a dry pen makes for a frustrated writer. A wet ink in a wet pen makes for a messy writer. And if you’re using cheaper paper, or a wider nib, a wet ink in a wet pen also makes for a messy-looking page, and long dry times.

It’s a lot easier, cheaper and better to figure out your pen’s tendencies, and the paper’s, and to pick an ink (and perhaps a nib size) that works with that combination, than it is to pay a nibmeister to adjust every pen, or pay for expensive paper, or to give up a pen or notebook you like.

So a drier ink comes into its own when you know what you are doing. For example, when you are using wetter pens, or you are writing on poor paper, or you want thinner lines.

If you’re having trouble with a pen for whatever reason, switch the ink; you may just have a bad match between pen and ink.

When in doubt, try the same brand of pen and ink. Sailor pens write beautifully with Sailor ink; Pilot pens sometimes write beautifully only with Pilot ink. The pen makers usually make sure their pens work with their own standard inks, though Pelikan may, occasionally, be an exception. That’s because the standard Pelikan 4001 blue, blue-black and black inks date back to the days when Pelikan pens were very wet writers, so those inks are drier than average, while modern Pelikan pens are not particularly wet writers.

Aurora Blue ink

9. Clean Your Pens.

Pen-cleaning is necessary if you want your pens to last.

Clean your pen each time you’re changing to a different ink.

Even if you always refill with the same ink, clean your pen every once in a while. If it’s a low-maintenance ink you are refilling, you can put off pen-cleaning for a few months. If you’re using a high-maintenance ink, you’ll want to start the cleaning cycle after no more than a week or two, until you figure out how long that ink can safely stay in a pen.

The alternative is what I call “ride or die.” Keep the ink in there without cleaning until the pen stops working well, knowing that you may end up with a pen (or a converter, nib, feed and section) you have to replace. If you go this way, use a cheap pen or one that has cheap replacement parts.

Part of cleaning your pen, by the way, happens at the very beginning: whenever you fill the pen from a bottle, wipe any drops of ink off the pen’s section and any metal trim ring on the section.

How do you clean out your pens easily, and economically? I’m going to put up a post containing very detailed pen-cleaning instructions for beginners, soon. Because I am a martyr, apparently.

10. Make a Good Start.

There aren’t that many true experts in fountain pens. One of the few true experts is Richard Binder, and I think everyone should read what he wrote here about ink.

That doesn’t mean you should slavishly follow every single thing he says. I don’t: some of his writings about iron gall inks are dated, because they were written before the excellent, lower-maintenance, modern (and non-archival) iron gall inks from Platinum and KWZ. Treat Richard’s excellent essay as a foundation or starting point — just like your Basic Two.

20 thoughts on “A Beginner’s Guide to Fountain Pen Inks: What Inks to Buy? What Inks to Avoid? To Clean or Not to Clean? The Ten Rules.

  1. Fantastic. Nodding vigorously in agreement especially at the introduction and reasons for it. The problem of patchy online advice is very real and I think as they’ve become more popular over the past few years the dodgy advice seems to have multiplied faster than the good stuff. And like Debi, I learned things from this, even though in my case it’s over 25 years of using FPs! Of which, a good 4-5 in contact with the pen corner of the internet.

    I’ll add another benefit of standard blue, it’s niche but if you need it, it’s super handy: it’s erasable using a cheap little specialty tool called an ink eradicator pen. Possible applications:
    – tidying up meeting or class notes so they are easier to review,
    – correcting your planner when plans change (btw your planner is a great place to use your fountain pens if you’re just starting out)
    – nicer looking social correspondence (still often handwritten) without having to rewrite the whole thing and waste a piece of expensive stationery.

    It’s niche enough that I definitely wouldn’t think it necessary to spend time looking for it specifically. But IME it’s often sold in the same places you’d pick up your Standard Blue – even if you might have to ask for it (or search, in an online store). If so, I say go for it 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Fantastic! I wish I had come across an article like this back when I first started playing around with fountain pens. I may or may not have had some frustrating (and sometimes baffling) experiences with inks like Organics Studio’s Nitrogen and some of the Diamine Shimmertastics, which are wonderfully fun inks, but there is something to be said about the Basic Two.
    I’ve taken to trying most of my pens now with Aurora Black, but will be buying some Shaffer Skrip or Waterman blue. The Basic Two are now part of my new pen routine, and they’ve come to be the first piece of advice I give to beginners once I draw them in to the dark side 😁😁
    Expertly written, excellent advice. Thank you ever so much!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you. 🙂 I tend to be a person who likes to “skip to the fun part,” myself, but I was lucky enough to start fountain pens as a kid, when they were more common. So everyone started with basic blue or black, just like picking up a Bic stick. Now, it’s so nice to have such amazing variety and choice, but it’s also easy to skip the basics and never learn about the old dependable tools. Only to find yourself frustrated that nothing works dependably. Because you don’t have the old dependables. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Indeed. Which is kinda what I put in a thread on reddit discussion this particular blog post. Think of how many new users would have a more positive first experience if they hadn’t, right off the bat, clogged their pen with Organic Studios “Nitrogen”. You can lead a horse to Waterman inks, but…

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Laura- very good advice for beginners, as well as for folks like me who have been using fountain pens since 5th Grade in school in India years back. Say about 30 years back. Personally I use only Waterman’s Serenity Blue ink for my writing, though, I have a couple of shades of Diamine Blues and a couple of Akermann’s Blue shades of ink. And like you said, cleaning a flushing out your pens on a regular basis ( I clean and flush out my pens every couple of fills, even though I am using the same inks), is essential advice. Thank you for mentioning that. This has ensured that not a single one of my pens have needed the help of a pen repair person ever since I have been in the USA since the early 1990s.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. “Using these inks is boring in the same way that driving your car without swerving off the road is boring.” Great writing. Much better than we readers of fountain pen related blogs deserve. Great article, through and through, Laura. Though, as an artist, I’ll lie and die by Platinum Carbon Black.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Love your article. Wish I’d had it to read when I first started out. I can remember ruining a few (luckily inexpensive) pens with too aggressive tuning, when I probably just needed to change inks, or align the tines. Live and learn. But I learned a few things today reading your article even after four years experience with fountain pens. I’ll be buying some Waterman blue ink and cleaning out my pens a little more frequently. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Good post, wish I had ran across something like this when I started out. Now, I got my own hard knocks and experiences instead. Not bad, but if I had just wanted to pick up a pen and write (which was the main goal back in the day) this had saved me some time. Now I just browsed through a few sections, but I almost ventured into the India ink with a Mont Blanc pen. That could have ended badly 😉. Cheers.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. So, yes, great question, thank you. I think the 4001 inks are excellent inks. I use the turquoise, blue black and black heavily, and have found them perfectly safe (along with Royal Blue). Pelikan 4001 Brilliant Black is one of my go-to inks. I also agree it’s on the lower-maintenance side.

      I don’t recommend the 4001 inks to beginners as part of the Basic Two because they are drier than the inks I do recommend. That means they can, in some pens, lead to hard starts or make the writing experience feel “scratchy,” which isn’t as enjoyable a writing experience for many, and can even lead people to (wrongly) think their pen has a problem. When those folks switch to Waterman Serenity Blue, or Aurora Blue, etc., the difference can feel like magic.

      I think beginners are best served by an ink that is reliable, easy to clean, has good flow and has proved practically flawless in a variety of pens. That’s a very high hurdle. I also urge folks try other inks, too, including the excellent 4001 ones that we both like. If you love the 4001 inks, don’t change a thing — it works for you. (And me!) 🙂

      Like

  7. Great post. The only thing I’d quibble with is that your starter ink should be boring. Yes, you need a couple of super-reliable inks to be good benchmarks, but they can be vibrant without sacrificing practicality. Part of the fun of fountain pens is the range of colours compared with ballpoints and it would be a shame to not allow newbies that – they mightn’t get hooked otherwise!

    (Kon Peki would be my vote, fwiw)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you. I appreciate hearing from you, and respect your point of view, and I like Kon-peki, too. But I hope you won’t mind if we agree to disagree. 🙂

      First, I use the word “boring” because other people online use the word boring. 🙂 I don’t really buy into that. But let’s stipulate that, strictly speaking, standard inks are boring. Then it’s boring in the same sense that not driving your car into a ditch is boring, or wearing clothes to the office is boring. One can still reject the premise that excitement is the sole standard by which every single thing should be judged. 🙂 The standard inks are low-maintenance, reliable, safe and easy to clean. That’s why they are good for beginners, and others. I use them, and I don’t know a single experienced pen person who doesn’t use at least one of them.

      I must also point out that my non-pen friends would think all ink is boring. And I can’t really disagree with that, either. 😉

      And, yes, well said: part of the fun of fountain pens is the range of ink colors. I mentioned that, specifically, I thought, but absolutely agree, and it can’t be said enough: beginners should use other inks, too. Kon-peki is a good choice. But I’m just saying, alongside the Basic Two, not instead of them. 🙂

      The thing about “hooking people,” well, I’m not a retailer or an evangelist, so I get a kick out of that idea, but I’m not quite as sure about the morality. 🙂 No seriously, the people I’ve met who have given up fountain pens after initial enthusiasm have usually done so because they’ve spent a lot of money and tried a flurry of new pens and fancy inks, but didn’t really have satisfactory results. So they got frustrated and went back to rollerballs and such. Reliability and simplicity won’t necessarily drive people away.

      Liked by 1 person

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