I have been learning about fountain pens for a little while now, ever since being turned on to them by my parents and friends. My first fountain pen was a bit of a disappointing disaster, and I nearly wrote-off fountain pens entirely as a result (pun intended). I really like super-fine-tip pens for note-taking, which is most of what I do when I’m writing things out by hand. I like pens like the Pilot Precise V5 and similar needle-nose rollerball pens, because they’re fine-tipped and smooth, reliable writers. However, those pens can have problems with line quality - sometimes they leak a little too much ink on the paper, or sometimes when you’re writing quickly the line gets unusually thin or even skips, and so forth. What really impressed me about good fountain pens, when I finally found a fountain pen I love (a Pilot Namiki Vanishing Point with an extra-fine nib) is the line quality: very thin, and extremely consistent line width. And now that I’ve used it, I’m spoiled, and the tiniest inconsistencies that I get from other pens now annoy me. It’s like if you’ve gotten used to a 60Hz refresh-rate on your monitor; when you go back to a 30Hz refresh rate, the flicker is noticeable and annoying! Anyway, now that I have a pen I really love, I set about the next process of learning: ink!
Before we talk about ink, though, lets take a short detour into paper. Paper varies in quality a lot. Paper is generally made of some combination of plant pulp (e.g. wood pulp), cotton (or similar plant fiber), clay and other binding agents. Since the heart of paper is the fiber, which generally comes from plants, the main chemical component of paper is cellulose. The length of the fibers affects many of the important properties of the paper: short fibers are easier to come by (use more wood pulp, which helps make the paper inexpensive), but are more likely to get pulled out of the paper by a super-fine-tip pen or by a very wet ink (which makes the fiber swell a little and detach from their neighbors). Long fibers (e.g. with more cotton or similar) stay in the paper and generally make the paper tougher, but are more expensive to make (cotton is pricier than wood pulp). The clay and other binding agents help with the smoothness and brightness of the paper, and have an effect on ink penetration and propagation through the paper (they can limit it). Long-fiber paper is common when you need something more durable (e.g. many checks use long-fibers) or when you expect to use very fine-tip pens (e.g. it’s standard note-paper in places like Japan), whereas short-fiber paper is common when you don’t need the durability and want something a bit less expensive (it’s common in standard copy-paper, especially in the United States). This is why many fountain-pen fans often have strong opinions on the kind of paper they want to use, or will choose ink knowing what kind of paper they will use.
The first thing many people look for in ink is the color, and preferences are all personal. I really prefer black ink. There’s a formality and universality about it that I really like. However, not all black inks are created equal. There are all manner of considerations that I would not have initially thought of before I started educating myself. For example:
- Blackness: Some vary from black to dark-grey, and this can be affected by the flow of the pen, the width of the nib, as well as the properties of the paper. You can even get blacks that have a little of some other color, like a blue-black or a green-black, to give your writing a subtle (or not-so-subtle) hint of being “special”.
- Flow: This was one of the problems with my first fountain pen. The ink flow wasn’t consistent - sometimes it was quite wet and wrote well, sometimes it was dry and I had to tap and shake the darn thing to coax the ink to the tip of the nib. Pens that don’t consistently write when you want them to are really frustrating! I also once got a cheap fountain pen as a freebie that had the opposite problem: the ink would occasionally come out in a big droplet for no particular reason (I think this was mostly the pen’s fault, not the ink’s fault, though). Inks have an impact here, based on their viscosity, how much they stick to the inside of the pen, their surface tension (which affects wicking), and so forth. So-called “dry” inks often have a lower surface tension, which means they don’t wick as well. In practice, that means you can use-up the ink in the tip of the pen and it doesn’t draw more ink down to the tip. “Wet” inks have a higher surface tension, and so wick more readily. Which type of ink is better depends on your pen and your writing velocity.
- Feathering: when ink enters the paper, it soaks into the paper. Depending on its viscosity and chemical reactions with the paper, it can wick along the fibers of the paper. The result somewhat depends on the paper - sometimes this means just a thicker line than you expected (common in short-fiber paper), sometimes it means that there are teeny tiny black lines stretching away from what you wrote (the length of these lines depends on the length of the fibers). It’s the latter that gives the effect the name “feathering”, but essentially it’s referring to the ink going someplace other than where you put it. Feathering goes in three dimensions as well - when it goes down into the paper, it’s sometimes called penetration or “bleeding”. The properties that cause feathering are often the properties that improve ink flow - the better the ink wicks to the tip of the pen, usually the better it soaks into the paper.
- Drying time: This is of extra importance to left-handed writers, because they’re often dragging their hand across the page, but inks that take a while to dry result in smears for all kinds of reasons, or even mean they’ll soak into paper that’s laid on top of what you wrote (i.e. when you turn the page). Faster drying inks also tend to be thinner in viscosity, which means they often tend to feather more.
- Permanence: how long will this color stay this color? Does it fade over time (e.g. does the pigment oxidize)? Lots of older inks turn grey or brown when left alone for a few decades. Does it fade in sunlight? Lots of inks are intended for writing in notebooks, and as such will be obliterated or altered by intense sunlight, such as on a sign or if you leave your notebook open on the windowsill.
- Immutability: Can this ink be removed from the paper? For instance, if I spilled water on it, will the ink run off? Or, if someone was trying to wipe your ink off of a check, e.g. with bleach, isopropyl alcohol, acetone, or some other method, how successful would they be? Bleach is a common tool for so-called “check-washers”, and it’s remarkably good at removing a lot of inks, as if they had never been there.
- Viscosity: Thicker inks may not flow as quickly, especially in a thin-tipped pen. This may be desirable, though, in a wide-tipped pen. Viscous inks may also take longer to dry, and viscosity can also reduce feathering or penetration of the paper. Also, viscosity can be used to keep the color very vibrant, by allowing you to lay down a thick layer of ink. Viscous inks have their place - the key is finding just the right balance for what you want to use it for.
- Acidity: Acidic inks can often be more immutable, because they eat into the paper a little to thoroughly bond with it. However, acidic inks can also cause staining or even cause the paper to fall apart over the long term, which makes acidic ink unsuitable for archival purposes. Additionally, acidic ink can corrode the internals of the pen, including the nib. Most older inks, and even some modern inks, are at least a little acidic - that’s one reason quality fountain pen nibs are often made with (or are plated with) gold or stainless steel. Corrosion of the nib and the other metal pieces of a pen is a big consideration if you’re looking at buying older (used) fountain pens. Also, it can slowly degrade the rubber and soft plastic, like the cap seal or the ink bladder (in ink-bladder pens).
- Lubrication: This affects several things, from how the pen “glides” over the paper to how smoothly the piston slides in the ink well of the pen (if you have a piston-based refill mechanism). The glide can be more of a personal preference thing - some people like their pen to glide over the paper like oil, some prefer a little bit (or a lot) of tactile feedback when writing. Personally, I used to be a fan of very smooth gliding over paper, but my fountain pen has just a little bit of tactile feedback and I’ve really grown to like that. I find it gives me just that little extra bit of control over the pen, and I miss it when using rollerball pens now.
The first ink I used in a fountain pen was Levenger Black, which came with the fountain pen I bought from them (an L-Tech 3.0). I really didn’t like the ink and pen combination - it had flow problems, as I mentioned (this was not the only thing I didn’t like about the pen, but was the least forgivable), and I got rid of the pen so quickly, I didn’t really test the other properties of the ink. I replaced it, by the way, with an L-Tech 3.0 rollerball, which has a nice needlenose tip refill that I really liked… until I fell for fountain pens. When I got my current (and favorite) pen, I used the Pilot ink that came with it: Pilot Namiki Blue. I refilled it with Pilot Namiki Black ink. Both of those inks work really nicely in that pen - excellent flow, very reliable, decent color. I don’t think I would have grown to like fountain pens nearly so much if that ink hadn’t been such nice ink.
But then, out of curiosity and because some of my friends had other inks, I began to investigate the options. Many pen companies (Waterman, Levenger, Pilot, Pelikan, Sailor, etc. etc.) all make inks as well, and folks have their favorites (Pelikan Blue, for instance, is a classic, well-regarded ink). There are also companies that only make ink: Diamine, J. Herbin, Private Reserve, and such. If you focus on black ink, though, you will inevitably come across one name: Noodler.
Noodler is purely an ink company, 100% made in the USA, all archival-quality (i.e. pH-neutral) and focused on value: they fill their ink bottles up to the tippy top, use whatever the cheapest glass bottle they can find is (so the bottle shapes tend to change from time to time), and even use their own ink for all of their labels. They’re quite popular among fountain-pen fans, and have a solid reputation for quality (can you tell I’m a fan?). When I started looking into them, I was bewildered by the breadth of colors they have, in particular, they have a bunch of different “black” inks, with almost no obvious explanation of why or what the differences are between them:
- Bulletproof Black (or simply “Black”)
- Heart of Darkness
- Borealis Black
- Old Manhattan
- Bad Black Moccasin
- Black Eel
- Dark Matter
- El Lawrence
- Bernanke Black
- Polar Black
That’s twelve different black inks! So, to help out the next guy looking at buying Noodler’s ink, here’s what I’ve gleaned - please correct me if I’ve gotten anything wrong.
Noodler’s Bulletproof Black
To my knowledge, this is the original Noodler ink. As you can read here they use the term “Bulletproof” to describe the ink’s immutability: it is water-proof, bleach-proof, UV-light-proof, etc. They use the term “Eternal” to describe the ink’s permanence: it doesn’t oxidize, and it doesn’t fade in UV light. This ink is designed to react with the cellulose in the paper, much like the way people die clothing, and as such is extremely immutable. All of their ink is pH-neutral, which means (among other things) it’s an archival-quality ink. This ink is also quite black, flows nicely, and raised eyebrows with how little it feathers, even on low-quality paper. It can seem to sit on top of the paper, rather than soak into it, which helps reduce the feathering. This ink is what, to my knowledge, Noodler built their reputation on. They even had an open challenge (for $1000) for a while, to see if anyone could find a way of erasing this ink from the page! (More on this in a moment.) As a result, the permanence and immutability of this ink is quite well-studied. It is sometimes regarded as THE benchmark for black inks, it is that consistent and that popular.
As Noodler was making their name with their Black ink, some folks, inevitably, wanted it a bit darker. So, the brain behind Noodler set out to make an ink that was as dark black as he could possibly make it, while still being both Bulletproof (immutable) and Eternal (permanent). This is that ink: as black as could be engineered (at the time, anyway), and just as Bulletproof (immutable) and Eternal (permanent) as the original Black. Let’s not kid around: this is VERY black ink. It is a relatively quick-drying ink, and penetrates the paper more than the standard Bulletproof Black - which means it works better on shinier paper than Bulletproof Black, but also means it can feather or bleed more if you lay down a lot of ink. The feathering depends heavily on the paper and the wetness - in my experience (with an extra-fine nib), it feathers much less than the Pilot Namiki Black, and some find it feathers similarly to Bulletproof Black, but your experience will depend heavily on the nib/paper combination. It also flows quite well, which is important in extra-fine nibs. It’s my current favorite black ink. Its permanence and immutability isn’t as well-studied as Bulletproof Black, but is believed to be the same.
This ink is the absolute blackest Noodler could make. It’s fashioned after traditional 1950’s inks that are EXTREMELY black. According to Goulet Pens, this was made to emulate an ink by the Aurora ink company, “Aurora Black”. In any event, it’s so black that multiple layers of the ink are just as black as a single layer. However, sacrifices had to be made to achieve this level of light-absorption (i.e. blackness). This ink is somewhat water-resistant, but is neither Bulletproof nor Eternal. It’s a “wet” writing ink, and takes a little longer to dry (so could be a bit “smeary” in practice). It also feathers more than the basic Bulletproof Black. However, if you want as absolutely black as possible, this is the ink you want.
This ink is specifically designed to feather as little as possible, even on very absorptive paper. Really, it’s Noodler showing off their mastery of the chemical properties of ink, because even their Bulletproof Black doesn’t feather much, and this feathers even less! It is more viscous than their other black inks, which makes it flow less well in particularly fine nibs (depends on the pen), and so is more popular for use with dip pens. It also dries quite slowly, comparatively speaking. It is fairly dark black - about the same as Bulletproof Black - and is also both Bulletproof and Eternal. However, because of the anti-feathering properties, this ink can be laid down quick thickly (or in multiple layers) to become VERY VERY black without becoming messy. As a result, this ink is particularly popular with calligraphers, who typically use pens that are quite wet (i.e. a very broad nib). If you don’t lay it down thickly, it is merely a very solid black.
Noodler’s Old Manhattan
This is an ink that Noodler doesn’t sell themselves - it’s exclusively made for a website called The Fountain Pen Hospital. This ink is reputed to be even blacker than Heart of Darkness, but not quite as black as Borealis Black (apparently being super super black is somewhat at odds with being bulletproof). It is supposed to be both Bulletproof and Eternal, however it likely makes a tradeoff in terms of its other properties (flow, feathering, etc.) to reach that additional level of blackness. Some have noted that this ink has sediment in it, and you need to shake it up before filling your pens. This sediment is bonded with the paper when it dries, but also bonds with your pen and may need a proper cleaning (with a cleaning solution, not just rinsing with water) to get it out again.
I mentioned that there was a competition to try to erase the Bulletproof Black ink. A Yale scholar, Nicholas Masluk, actually found a way to do it, using carefully controlled lasers to blast it off of the cellulose in the paper (I believe this technique depends on knowing the precise makeup of the ink, so you use the exactly right wavelength of laser). This potential problem, naturally, needed a response, and this ink is that response. It is even MORE permanent than the standard Bulletproof Black, being impervious to lasers as well, and is essentially the same color. It dries more slowly than the standard Bulletproof Black, but flows faster. As a result, it feathers a bit more than Bulletproof Black. Actually, Noodler has created an entire line of laser-proof inks, all with a name beginning with “Bad” (e.g. Bad Belted Kingfisher, which is a green ink). Noodler calls this line of inks the “Warden” series. These inks are intended to be state-of-the-art in anti-forgery technology, so, among other things, they’re purposefully mixed with a slightly different recipe in every single bottle, to make it that much harder to forge and that much harder to remove (because the forger can’t know exactly what’s in it ahead of time).
Noodler’s Black Eel
This ink is in Noodler’s “eel” line, also sometimes referred to as Black American Eel, and is identical to Noodler’s Black with lubrication added in. This lubrication is intended to lubricate the piston in piston-refill pens, which would otherwise need to be dismantled and lubed on occasion. Many cartridge converters also use a piston design, and it’s good for that too. It is considered Bulletproof and Eternal, takes longer to dry as a result of the lube, but is otherwise identical to Bulletproof Black. The lube also affects the writing performance: it feels smoother going on the page. As I understand it, longer dry time doesn’t seem to increase the feathering of this ink relative to the Bulletproof Black, which is somewhat interesting.
This is an ink that was formulated to replicate a special ink that was used by scientists at Los Alamos, New Mexico on all of their government documents during the Manhattan Project. The man behind Noodler was provided a bottle of the original ink and asked to replicate it, which he did, although he made the ink pH-neutral, and out of modern ingredients. It’s not really a black ink; more of a very dark grey (dark enough to be mistaken for black in thin lines). It’s also not considered Bulletproof or Eternal (it’s replicating a very old ink!), but is is water-resistant. In case you’re curious, part of the reason there was a special ink for Los Alamos during the Manhattan Project was so that the ink could be identified, authenticated, and traced if it showed up in random documents somewhere it shouldn’t have been (e.g. in the possession of Russian spies).
Noodler’s El Lawrence
This is another ink that Noodler doesn’t sell themselves - it’s exclusively made for a company called Goulet Pens. This ink has the color more of used motor oil: not quite black, a little bit green, a little bit brown. It is also a unique color because it fluoresces under UV light. It is considered Bulletproof and Eternal, but tends to stick to the pen a bit more, and so requires a bit more cleaning of the pen, especially when you change inks. I don’t know much about the flow or feathering of this ink.
This is a fast-drying ink (the label makes a point about needing to print money especially quickly without smearing). It achieves this by absorbing into the paper quickly, which means it’s quite “wet”, has really excellent flow, and consequently, that means it feathers quite readily, especially when laid on thickly. The color is about the same as Bulletproof Black.
Noodler’s Polar Black
The Noodler “Polar” line of inks is intended to work in extremely cold temperatures (i.e. less water content, and the ink won’t freeze unless it gets extremely cold). All of the “Polar” inks are based on “Eel” inks (lubricated inks), but with anti-freeze added as well as lube. Accordingly, this ink is based on Black Eel, which was based on Bulletproof Black. The anti-freeze thins the ink a bit, which means that, partially because of the lube-induced longer drying time, this ink feathers a bit, similar to Bernanke Black. It is considered Bulletproof and Eternal, and is the same color as the Bulletproof Black.
This is part of Noodler’s “erase” line of inks, which is intended to work on wet-erase whiteboards. It was originally done as an experiment, but has been popular enough to stick around. Essentially, it goes on, dries, and can be completely removed with a wet rag. It is a relatively “wet” ink, in that it penetrates well (it’s intended for being used in a felt-tip marker), and as a result feathers a fair bit. It is neither Bulletproof nor Eternal (obviously), but it is very black. It’s not recommended for use on paper, though of course you can.
If you poke around the internet, you will likely find people who have different impressions of the properties (flow, feathering, blackness, etc.) of these inks. I am sure that their experiences are accurate; the thing to keep in mind is this: everyone’s experience will be somewhat different because of variations in pen and paper. Additionally, Noodler’s ink is all handcrafted, so there can be slight variations in the effective properties of each ink from batch to batch (of course, they try to minimize these differences, except in the Warden series, but it happens). What I’m trying to explain here is why these inks were made, so you can understand what the purpose of each is, and what their key properties are.
That said, if you’re looking for a solid, well-behaved, very black, very permanent ink, Bulletproof Black is an excellent starting point.
As I see it (this is just my opinion), the mainstays of Noodler’s black ink offerings are their Bulletproof Black, the Heart of Darkness, and X-Feather. They’re all Bulletproof, they’re all Eternal, they’re all popular and generally well-behaved inks. Heart of Darkness flows faster and dries quickly and so is good for finer pens, drier pens or lefties, while X-Feather is good for very wet, wide pens, and Bulletproof Black is halfway in between - a good “all around” black ink. All three are very black; Heart of Darkness was intended to be the blackest, but the darkness you achieve depends on your paper and how much ink you lay down. They have some “special” inks that are intended to re-create special inks and very specific hues, like El Lawrence and Dark Matter. Then there are the inks that are designed to have specific unique properties - Bernanke Black dries extra fast, Bad Black Moccasin is even more Bulletproof than the rest (more than most people would realistically need), Black American Eel is specially lubricated (for those that want a smoother ink or that have problems with older, finicky piston pens), Polar Black won’t freeze (for those that need to operate in those conditions), Borealis Black is for pitch-black extremophiles, and Blackerase is for wet-erase markers. To achieve those special properties they have made sacrifices in the other properties of the ink (e.g. usability, permanence, and/or immutability), but that’s just the price you pay for those special properties. In practice, however, ALL of these inks are excellent, and with the exception of Dark Matter, are all very black inks. If they work well for you, in your pen and on the paper you use, there’s no reason not to use them. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend, for example, that someone using Bad Black Moccasin start using some other ink unless it was behaving in a way they didn’t like.
Personally, I use an extra-fine nib and I tend to write very quickly, so things like flow are very important considerations, while feathering is less likely (simply because my lines use so little ink). Because of that, and because I was attracted to the ultra-black intent, I started with the Heart of Darkness and I’ve been very happy - it works very well for me. It flows very well, dries quickly, and doesn’t bleed much at all, even on absorptive paper. For example, I use Levenger note cards for things like Todo lists. In my experience, Pilot Namiki Black feathered pretty badly on those cards: my nice thin lines doubled in width on those cards. Heart of Darkness, on the other hand, hardly feathers at all there. And on most paper Heart of Darkness looks a touch blacker than the Pilot ink, which I like (not that I was upset with the blackness of the Pilot ink!). However, some people find that Heart of Darkness bleeds too much for them - these people are likely using wider-nibs or wetter pens than I am, but maybe it’s different paper, or maybe they write more slowly than I do, or maybe they just have a super-low tolerance for feathering. In any event, if that is you, I would suggest that you go try Bulletproof Black or even X-Feather, because they have a reputation for not feathering. You could try others, like Bad Black Moccasin or Black American Eel, but they would likely feather just as much (maybe more) and those inks make trade-offs in other ways that might end up being just as annoying to work with. On the other hand, if you are interested in particular ink qualities, for instance if you’re particularly concerned about anti-forgery and want the extra protection that Bad Black Moccasin provides, then you really don’t have much of a choice: there’s only one black ink in Noodler’s arsenal that provides that property.
If what you’re after is simply the blackest ink Noodler makes, get Borealis Black. If you want the absolute blackest Bulletproof ink they make, get Old Manhattan. To get that black, though, you have to sacrifice something, such as permanence, immutability, feathering, drying time, or what-have-you.
It’s worth noting, in closing, that there are other inks out there that provide some of the properties that Noodler’s has made famous. For instance, Private Reserve Invincible Black is supposed to be “Bulletproof” as well, using a similar cellulose-reaction technology that Noodler’s Bulletproof inks do, and some people like various things about it better (e.g. its a little bit more lubricated, and so a little bit smoother - along the lines of Black American Eel - but the exact shade of black is likely different). Noodler’s is far from the only game in town. I’m not advocating Noodler’s exclusively, just trying to explain what I’ve learned about their multitude of black inks.