Using Steel Pens: Part 4 – Ink and Paper

There are three elements of any writing experience.

  1. Pen
  2. Paper
  3. Ink

We’ve covered your pen and holder, but I would be remiss without addressing the issues of ink and paper. I’m covering both together because it’s the combination of ink and paper that can spell the difference between success and failure. Finding the right combination requires some experimentation, and can differ depending on the type of writing you do. But there are some basics we can cover, and I’ll let you know what I use.

Steel pens, unlike fountain pens, can use a wide variety of inks. It merely has to be liquid, and have the ability to flow. Everyone has favorites and opinions about different inks. There are some solid facts and some traps to avoid that may help you as you explore the wonderful world of ink and paper.


Let’s start by looking at a few of the most common types of ink.

Inks for Dip Pens

There are a number of manufacturers who make inks designed and marketed for dip pens, mainly for calligraphy. Some, like Higgins and Hunt, have been around for a very long time. Others, like McCaffery’s are a recent addition to the world of ink.

These inks are generally either a pigment based ink, like india ink, with some binders and pigment, or what are known as iron gall or IG inks. These may have some pigment in them, but mainly the ink gets its tint from a reaction with the paper. This can make these inks quite permanent and water and light resistant.

These kinds of inks should, if they’re behaving well, give you thin hairlines and deep, rich color.

One of my favorites, especially for daily practice because it is so cheap, is walnut ink. You can purchase walnut ink in either dried crystal form, or in pre-mixed liquid form. I prefer the dried form because it is significantly cheaper, lasts for a very long time in crystal form, and is very easy to mix up. All you need to do is add the right amount of crystals to water, shake it up, let it sit for about 20 minutes and you have ink. Some people add gum arabic (see below) to it to thicken it a bit, but I’ve never felt the need. Perhaps with some papers you might need it but not with the ones I use.

Some say you can also buy Van Dyke crystals used in woodworking, and they work the same. I’ve not tried them, but if you can find them, a “small” bag is very inexpensive and should last you the rest of your life.

Sumi or brush painting ink

In traditional Chinese/Japanese/Korean brush painting you would make your ink by grinding an ink stick on a stone with some water. The ink sticks were traditionally made by combining carbon, usually in the form of soot from burnt pine or other wood, along with various binders like shellac. These were pressed into a stick, and as this was ground and added to water would make an ink that is very water and light resistant.

Modern brush painting ink often comes pre-ground, in liquid form, in bottles. This ink is extremely dark black and quite permanent. Some of these inks, though, can be troublesome. There are reports of some sumi inks corroding nibs quickly. This ink can also clog a nib very easily if not carefully cleaned after each session. These also do not come in many colors, usually black and maybe red. Moon Palace is one brand I hear mentioned frequently as a favorite.

Gouache or Water Colors

Gouache is a water color paint, usually sold in a tube, with some inert, opaque element added to it, like chalk. It is more opaque than traditional water colors and can come in a lot of colors.

Gouache can work quite well with dip pens. You’ll need to experiment with how much water to add to it in order to get it to the consistency you need. You’ll also want to mix it up in small batches. There are some reports of batches that sit around for a while developing mold.

Gouache is great for when you need colors which aren’t available in regular inks. It’s not cheap, so it doesn’t make much financial sense to use it for everyday practice, but when you need that splash of color, it’s a fantastic alternative to regular inks.

One trick for working with Gouache is that it sometimes works best to apply it to your pen with a small brush, rather than dipping it. This takes more time, but you get better control on how much ink is loaded on your pen, and since gouache is usually thicker than regular inks, it makes it easier to work with.

Water colors which come in tubes, also can be used, but they are more translucent colors, not opaque. This may be the look you want, and if so, watercolors will work quite well and are cheaper than gouache.

Here is where I need to make an honorable mention of the Finetec metallic colors. I’ve personally never tried them, but they have become a major staple among some professional calligraphers, especially if you need a shiny, metallic silver, gold, copper or other similar ink. These are essentially water color paints, but they come in all kinds of gorgeous, shimmery, sparkly colors.

Fountain Pen Ink

Many people become interested in dip pens through their interest in fountain pens. This means that a lot of new steel pen fans have a fair amount of fountain pen ink already. Fountain pen inks also come in a dizzying array of colors.

Fountain pen inks are also, often, relatively cheap and easy to find. The problem we encounter with many fountain pen inks is that they are too wet for use straight out of the bottle. A drip pen puts down a much wetter line of ink than any but the broadest fountain pens. With more ink on the paper, there’s more risk of overloading the paper and causing bleed through (where the ink comes through to the other side of the paper), and/or feathering (where the ink soaks into the paper outside of the line you’ve written, making for a feathery rather than a clean and crisp line). The paper has a lot to do with these issues, but the ink can either help or worsen the problem.

Fountain pens need their inks to be very free flowing. They need to flow through small openings in the feeds to keep the ink flowing to the nib. To help with this many manufacturers add surfactants to their inks. Surfactants are compounds that lower the surface tension of liquids and thus make them easier to flow, less likely to bunch up in a compact water droplet.

The problem with dip pens is that you need more surface tension to keep the ink on the pen, and allow it to flow at a reasonable pace down to the paper. Too much surfactant, i.e. an ink that is too “wet” leads to ink that pours off of the nib and deposits a large blob of ink on the paper rather than a line.

Somewhat ironically, one of the best ways to reduce the “wetness” of an ink is to add water. Water will dilute the amount of surfactant and may make the ink better behaved. Monteverde Burgundy is one such ink I use regularly. I dilute it 1:1, ink to water, and it goes from a mess to a beautifully behaved ink for steel pens.

You can also add gum arabic, in either liquid or powdered form. Gum arabic is a resin from the hardened sap from trees. It is a very old ingredient in inks and is fairly easily found. For each ink you’d have to experiment with how much gum arabic to add. If you add enough it should, eventually, thicken up pretty much any ink.

My favorite fountain pen inks are the Iron Gall inks. I was lucky enough to purchase a large amount of Diamine Registrar’s ink for very inexpensively and that’s lasted me for quite a while. Any of the iron gall inks, like ESSRI or K&H Salix work quite well right out of the bottle. I’ve not tried all fountain pen iron gall inks, but the ones I’ve tried have worked.

I’ve also heard that Pelikan 4001 ink works quite well. I recently purchased a bottle of the 4001 Royal Blue (Konigsblau) and it seems to be well behaved on my normal paper. It bleeds through a little (you can see it clearly on the other side of the paper, but it doesn’t come through enough to actually read it, or to stain something underneath the sheet as I write). I might try diluting it a little bit and see if that helps.


Here are a few examples to show how some random inks I pulled out all written with the same pen on my go-to paper, Southworth 25% cotton premium laser paper.

First is the very nice, and somewhat expensive, fountain pen ink by Pilot, Iroshizuku Asa-Gao. Notice the feathering along the sides of the letters.


the next is Sheaffer Brown, also a fountain pen ink that’s very well-behaved in fountain pens, but even this paper can’t handle it in these quantities.


As you can see in the next one, the Pelikan 4001 is better behaved. In a few places in other letters you can see some feathering, and it definitely bleeds through the page pretty badly.


Now here is some iron gall, Diamine Registrar’s ink. This is much better behaved and you can see the edges are sharper. The color on this ink gets darker the longer it sits. It goes down a kind of blue-black but then darkens to a full black on most paper. This is about 3 hours after writing.


And the last example is my beloved walnut ink. This is made from crystals I purchased from John Neal Books. Notice the clean lines along the side (despite my hurried and rather sloppy writing).




There are two prime characteristics you need in paper for steel pens, especially pointed pens.

  1. Smoothness
  2. Finish

Smoothness refers to how easily a pointed pen will pick up fibers from the paper. When writing with a pointed pen, you already have to have a very light hand, especially when moving upwards. It helps to have a paper that isn’t going to be hanging out fibers and other texture to catch that sharp tip as it moves across the surface.

Finish refers to how the paper was finished, what kind of sizing, etc… is found on it. This affects the smoothness, to some degree, but it also, mainly, affects the absorption of the ink.

You want a paper that will absorb the ink, but will keep it within the boundaries of the line you are intending. The wrong kind of paper results in bleeding and feathering. Too much ink is sucked in by the paper and it feathers our from the drawn line, or it bleeds through to the other side. This results in a fuzzy line, and, in extreme cases, stainsĀ  as the ink goes through the other side. (see examples above)

Paper weight has some impact, but it’s not the full picture. Some thicker paper that works very well for fountain pens, will get easily overloaded by a dip pen.

And then there’s Tomoe River paper. This is a miracle paper from Japan that is incredibly thin and light, but you can throw practically any ink and pen combination and it will not feather or bleed. It’s main issue is that because the ink sits so on top of the paper, some inks have difficulty drying fully, and even when you think it is dry, you can still smear the dried ink with a stray finger. I also find it difficult to keep down on the surface as I write, especially with flexible pointed pens. I have to tape it down in order for it not to lift up with every stroke.

The paper I use on a regular basis includes:

Southworth 25% cotton premium laser paper. (white for practice, ivory for letters)

Black n’ Red notebooks for practice and especially convenient for practicing in coffee shops

Southworth 100% cotton 32lb business paper works fantastic for broad edge calligraphy and for stub nib letter writing. It’s a little difficult with sharp pointed pens, too much cotton, but it’s really absorbent and tolerant of more inks with the right pen. It’s a heavy-weight, luxurious paper with a great feel.

Rhodia and Clairfontain are great, and Strathmore makes my favorite letter writing tablet.

There are a lot of other great papers, but these are the ones I use most.


It’s good to listen to the advice and suggestions of others, but in the end, you’ll have to find the right pen, ink and paper combination that fits your writing, your style and your budget. But this experimentation is half the fun. Enjoy!


Topics in the “Using Steel Pens” series of posts: