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So What’s The Deal With Iron Gall Ink

10/19/2010

Iron gall ink is old. Really old. Traces of it have even been found on the Dead Sea Scrolls. It has been around that long but does it belong in your fountain pen?

Iron gall became the ink of choice during the Middle Ages and was common well into the 20th century. Made from iron salts and tannic acids from vegetable sources, the blue-black is the quintessential vintage color.

Originally used with tools like reeds, quills, and later dip pens, these inks fell out of favor with good reason as fountain pens and modern formulations emerged. Not only do iron gall inks have a reputation for damaging pens but writing surfaces as well. In other words, those old formulas did not play well with paper.

Recent inks are less risky because they contain only small amounts of the offending components. Diamine, Montblanc, Lamy, and Rohrer & Klingner offer blue-black colors with R&K adding a purple version as well.

That iffy reputation made me reluctant to risk pen damage. However, when Pear Tree Pens offered an appealing discount on ink, I couldn’t refuse.

For the past week I’ve tested the two made by R&K. The colors are excellent for conservative uses and the properties are in line with some of my favorite brands. Flow, drying-time, coverage, show-through and bleed-through all measured well for me. There is some question about how light-fast these inks might be but I haven’t used them long enough to have an opinion. If you like shading, both Salix and Scabiosa are lovely.

Some people use iron galls with good success though others report these inks can do serious damage to pens if maintenance isn’t regular. Then there are those pen users who report no issues despite infrequent cleaning but I suspect they use their pens often enough to prevent ink drying out in the feed or nib. Or perhaps they are exceedingly lucky.

Despite those good reports, I find it hard to make a full-fledged recommendation for what is likely a high maintenance ink. It is worth noting that the companies that offer them are top-notch so that is an endorsement of sorts. Thus if you practice careful pen hygiene, you might enjoy Salix or Scabiosa in your regular rotation.

Using these Rohrer & Klingner iron gall inks has been a bit like tapping into history. In fact one of them could be just the mate for that vintage-looking leather covered journal I’ve been considering. Hmmm…

 

Rohrer & Klingner Salix and Scabiosa Inks

Rohrer & Klingner Salix and Scabiosa Inks

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21 comments

  1. Very informative!

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  2. So what’s supposed to be the advantage? Unless it’s an above average ink in some respect I don’t see the up side.

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    • I don’t see an upside either, Jonathan, though I do like the colors and shading. Scabiosa will get some use here most likely with a Lamy 1.1 calligraphy nib, one that is easily replaced should there be any damage. Otherwise, iron gall ink is just an uncommon ink that deserved a post before I get on with the seven samples and bottle of Caran d’Ache on my desk. Back to work now.

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  3. What kind of pen are you using?

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  4. Lamy Blue-Black and R&K Scabiosa are two of my favorite inks. I really see no down side in using them except that they’re a little “dry.” I flush my pens using iron-gall inks about the same as using non-iron-gall, about every three or four fills. The up side is that, unless you like really saturated inks, they behave so well on all qualities of paper and are very water-resistant. Shade-lovers would appreciate them, too! Lamy Blue-Black is very affordable and comes in a user-friendly bottle.

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    • Good to know, Bart, especially good performance on even poor quality paper. Few inks can boast that achievement.

      Do your pens have steel or gold nibs? It would be helpful to know if the iron gall inks you use have been kind to either or both. Thanks.

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  5. Iron gall inks have a couple of advantages. Can’t speak for Salix and Scabiosa, but I do use Lamy Blue Black forgiving of paper quality. I can write on some really tatty stock and see little feathering or show-through. Second, obviously: they’re waterproof. In a spill you tend to lose the tint and keep a perfectly legible black/grey residue. Unlike Noodler’s bulletproof inks they won’t resist bleach. But then they don’t smudge when dry either, and drying time is usually short. There’s also a subtle pleasure to using an ink with such longevity. Nothing I write is really important, but it’s fun to imagine future archaeologists scratching their heads over my notes.

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    • Thanks for the good report, David. It certainly fills in the picture to get feedback from a longtime user.

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  6. Gah. Touchpad ate a few words there. Sorry.

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  7. Glad you did something on this. I have spent fours researching this stuff this week. This is the best information I’ve found yet.

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  8. Wilson: another great place to look is The Fountain Pen Network forum (www.thefountainpennetwork.com). A search under ‘iron gall’ will point you towards a lot of information.

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  9. I’ve tried these inks, but keep going back to Noodlers inks. I like Noodlers because they have eternal/bulletproof inks that are pH neutral. So you get the longevity of an iron gall ink, but it won’t eat your paper over time.

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    • Hi Donnie!

      Noodler’s certainly have more colors that will last well beyond my needs. Plus the flow trumps that of the iron gall inks handily though the iron galls do dry a bit faster. One of these days I’ve got to experiment with adding water to Noodler’s and see what effect that has on drying time.

      Have you tried any of the other Rohrer & Klingner inks? Several have moved into my regular rotation and others no doubt will when I get my hands on sufficient quantities of them.

      Margana

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  10. @Donnie: I’ve read (but can’t remember in which article!) that the older Iron Gall inks were far likelier to eat your paper than the modern, synthetic variety. Something to do with uneven mixing or daft quantities of the iron salts? That said the Noodler’s bulletproof inks are pretty nice too.

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  11. Sounds like the risk/benefit is not great. I see no reason to risk trashing a pen for a colour I am not enthusiastic about.

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  12. That is good handwriting.

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  13. [...] So What’s The Deal With Iron Gall Ink [...]

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  14. […] those who are not familiar with iron gall, read So What’s The Deal With Iron Gall Ink? Montblanc has a good record of producing trouble-free ink and the new releases are not likely to […]

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  15. Noodler’s Bulletproof inks are amazing and the choice of colours remarkable. Pity they feather / bleed / show through like crazy on anything other than super top papers (Rhodia / Clairefontaine) – which oddly enough most of the corporate / medical / rest of the world do NOT use to produce day to day documents. That said enter MB Midnight Blue: sufficiently water proof and permanent for official documents AND plays nice in cheap or not so inexpensive pens (with a little regular cleaning) on cheap or not to inexpensive paper. To my mind THAT’S a true win :)

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    • John, that has not been my experience at all. I use Noodler’s Black on all sorts of cheap paper including backs of envelopes and it performs beautifully even from a wide nib. I haven’t used MBMB so can’t comment on it, but have had good results with the discontinued MB Racing Green. Too bad that one is no longer available.

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