On Ink. Permanence.

Noodler's & Diamine Ink

TD:LR - If you don't want to forget how to write in longhand and you're not keen on adding to landfill, consider a Pilot Vanishing Point retractable, refillable fountain pen (c.$150) or a Jinhao refillable fountain pen (<$10). With Noodler's Heart of Darkness permanent black ink for high quality paper, or Noodler's "X-Feather" anti-feather black or blue ink on poor quality paper where bleed-through is often a problem. Both inks are forge resistant, waterproof, and permanent in so far as they bond to the cellulose in the paper.

I don't like to write about things. Possessions. Products. They all seem to be part of the problem. A social problem aka "I have something you don't." A planet sized problem exemplified by the humble disposable pen. The idea of a disposable pen should be is offensive. There are other solutions.

Could we get rid of the disposable pen? How about the pencil? Ban them? Why not? The political to one side, what of the practical. How would one write? What are the alternatives? Electronic devices proliferate. We could use them more. Or is that a leap too far? At present we have disposable "smartphones" with a limited lifespan and limited user serviceability. The same problem.

Then there's the question of whether the habit of writing is too entrenched? That's a success for structured education. Two hundred years ago how many people could write? And now?

If writing is necessary, if it is a necessity, it would be true that one couldn't build or make or plan or record or jot or think without writing? Of course, that's not true. This simple inversion tells us a lot about the place of the pen in the early twenty-first century. A once almost universal tool, it is becoming defunct.

I notice my fellow travelers. They struggle now. The bank teller asks for a signature. They hold the pro-offered ballpoint pen awkwardly. Not a Biro, a cheap Chinese copy. Not even banks can afford the real thing these days. The customers wiggle their fingers. It feels unnatural. How many think, "I have forgotten how to write my own name." I suspect they don't think as far as, "I have forgotten how to write." In the bank introspection only goes so far.

Pilot Vanishing Point Retractable Nib. Photo copyright nibs.com

So what of the pen? While I would like to suspect its invention and perpetuation is lead by the hand of necessity, from the second half of the twentieth century perhaps supply has been more push than pull. Habit perpetuated by commerce. The virtue of writing worked into the souls of millions of school children misappropriated to sell more stuff.

Is the disposable pen's popularity due to the need for sales? A product of impermanence such as the throwaway Biro is surely an exemplar of disposable culture. A bright yellow emphasis on "convenience" the design is lightweight and cunningly hexagonal. As any bee keeper will tell you, the honeycomb's shape maximises the number of pods that can fit into a rectangular space and minimises the amount of material - bees wax - needed for construction. The hexagon has a lot to be recommended of it and those honey yellow pens follow the same construction pattern as accurately as bees fly to a flower.

That gullible purchasers have been persuaded into thinking that to own a disposable pen is a norm when other far less expensive, long lasting options exist is the status quo of our capitalist economy. Do nothing is a choice. Doing nothing is 

Who would be dumb enough to support free market ideals given the evidence? Shareholders, anyone who's livelihood depends on it, and the uncritical.

A solar driven e-ink writing pad with wireless communication to send a note. While we have e-readers, they are built for reading not everyday noting. Where's the digital equivalent of a notepad?

Perhaps we can skip the pen completely. Why not a voice message? An audible, note could suffice. We already have that capability, built into our ubiquitous, mesmeric smartphones. 

The throwaway rolling nib pens - ballpoint, rollerball, gel, et al., - are one small holler for change.

Noodler's Blue X-Feather Ink, ideal for poor quality writing paper.

Many years ago while living on a remote yet populous island in the southern hemisphere the daily rain of the wet season prompted me to search for a permanent ink. Taking post to the Post Office, all too often it was flecked with rain. An address would smear across an envelope. A name would smudge across a parcel.

In the same period, I was writing a bit. Usually in the mornings on a balcony that overlooked a pristine valley of rice paddies, trees, and bird song. It was an idyllic view, the natural quietude the conventional background for concentration. I tried to ignore occasional wafts of acrid smoke from plastic being burned in small piles alongside the footpaths that crisscrossed the hillside.

Wet season was different. A crowd of clouds hefting heavy rain laboured over the mountain to the north. The view receded. Deep under the eves of the house wild spray blew across my teak desk. The wood was fine. It will last forever. The careful fountain pen longhand less so.

I can't remember the sequence. Either the pen came first, or the ink. Hong Kong featured, in a pen shop the first time I laid eyes on a Japanese Pilot Vanishing Point pen. Ingenuity in the practical it was the world's first fountain pen with a retractable nib. I bought one.

Then the ink. At about the same time a new company was getting started in the USA, Noodler's Inks. In this case the ingenuity lay in the chemistry. Unlike the ancient formula for iron gall ink whose ferric tannate pigment has a certain permanence - an ink of tannin (these days extracted from Japanese galls) and vitriol (a lovely name for iron sulphate) thickened with a little Gum Arabic from the Acacia tree - first reports of Noodler's Ink suggested it was neither corrosive or clogging. Furthermore it was permanent. Permanent in the sense that it bonded chemically with the cellulose in the paper. I tried it. Washed a page of text in water. The text remained.

For well past a decade the combination of Vanishing Point and Noodler's ink has proved to be an ideal pairing. The pen is instantly available and has never leaked. Note, I do ensure it is full before taking it on a flight. The ink performs flawlessly. It is necessary once every two month or so to wash the nib thoroughly or leave it overnight in a glass of water. Whether in the wet, or writing in a cheap notebook, the Vanishing Point-Noodler's combination is ideal. 

On travelling, deep in the forest on the Thai-Myanmar border, I confess the irony of Noodler's "Heart of Darkness" black ink was not lost on me. Suppress the inner Kurtz.

Last line, above, the author's preferred cocktail of Noodler's X-Feather + 10% Diamine Sapphire ink

What's the exciting about ink? It's just colour, isn't it?

Not quite.

Other than longevity, the advantage of a fountain pen is the ability to select the right ink for the job. There are many properties of Noodler's ink that have proven to be extremely useful amongst which are:

  • Permanence. Once written nothing is going to erase your words other than destruction of the paper itself. The will not fade to illegibility nor acidically attack the paper.
  • Water Resistance. Sailing across the Atlantic, my log book and diary was written in Nooder's ink. For obvious reasons. It would survive a dunk in the sea and the text would survive.
  • Anti-Feather. Travelling the world most often it is impossible to select the quality of paper one writes on. Low cost paper predominates which is suited to ballpoint pens but less so to conventional pen ink. Anti-feather inks remove the hurdle of cheap paper.
  • Choice of Colour. Beyond black, blue-black, and blue, most often offered to the users of ballpoint pens,the fountain pen user can pick almost any colour that he or she desires. Perhaps to match the ink to a particular paper, or to celebrate a special occasion, or to stand out in editing a laser printed text. Best of all, one can mix inks to achieve the tone and hue that you prefer.

Since inception with just a handful of inks Noodler's range has grown to cover around one hundred colours.

So with fountain pen and ink I stick. The pen and pencil endures. Like cash both are simple. Ink is available in one form or another worldwide, and one can always make it. Both pen and pencil suffer one design flaw. They will run out. As if that's okay. "Running out" is an accepted norm. Which is a mark against the box for "Could Be Improved." A pen or pencil that never runs out. But a refillable pen preserves resources and keeps a endless pile of used disposable pens out of landfill sites.

While we're about it, why not improve cash in the same way?1.

Ship's log with Noodler's Heart of Darkness permanent, waterproof ink.


1. Perhaps cash can be improved. A physical token with sensors that can take a unique biometric fingerprint like an in-built PUF (physical unclonable function) could be designed to change value on deliberate touch thereby taking part in an exchange. While physically enormous, the protocols are there in Near Field Touch payment systems.

The Iron Gall Ink Website https://irongallink.org/iron-gall-ink-ingredients.html