Scribal Materials and Tools – Ink getting the flow just right

Ink, its something I have on the brain I’m told.  First though I want to let everyone know that I have been and continue to be sick, so posts will be spaced out a bit more than usual until that problem goes away.

Okay ink.  There is a lot that can be said about ink and looking at my blog you might think I’ve said about all there is to say about it but that just wouldn’t be right.  One of the concerns I see over and over on various discussion groups I am a part of has to do with how to solve ink flow problems.  Sometimes the ink isn’t flowing enough, other times the ink flows too much. Sometimes the ink is clogging the nibs and so on and so forth.  Today I hope to address some of the more common problems with ink flow.

First things first, your pen.  What kind of pen are you using?  Is it a quill pen?  A metal dip pen?  A reed pen? A cartridge pen? Something else entirely?  Your pen has a lot to do with how your ink will flow.  You should clean your pen after every use and check your pen before every use.  A clean pen will do wonders to keep your ink flow consistent.  Quills, metal and reed dip pens all interact differently with ink and thus how ink flows.  I find that ink flows most freely with quill pens and then reed pens and least freely on average with metal dip pens but that depends on several factors.  Cartridge pens and I don’t get along at all.  I think they’re a fine tool for those that do get along with them.

Secondly, what angle is your writing surface?  Are you writing on a level surface or an angled surface?  The angle of the surface you are writing on has a direct impact on the flow of the ink.  The more level the surface the faster the ink should be running off of your pen.  Writing on a 45 degree angle surface should have the ink flow more freely than writing on a 60 or 75 degree angle surface.

Thirdly the ink itself.  Commercially produced and handmade inks all come with their own set of qualities including how viscous they are and how well they flow.  This can be altered but it depends on base of the ink how you wish to go about altering it.

Fourthly, how do you write?  Do you press down hard on the pen?  Are you writing slowly?

The ink seems to be pushing around the nib and won’t make the crisp letter forms I’m used to seeing.

Chances are pretty good you need to clean your nib.  There is a crack in your nib and it was put there on purpose.  It works using capillary action to draw the ink from the pen to under the tip of your pen.  Once under your tip the ink spreads out along the tip of the pen and conforms to the shape of the pen tip.  This causes the nice clean, clear, sharp forms we are used to seeing along with those hairline strokes.  If this crack clogs up, the ink still gets to the tip of the pen but instead of pulling the ink along and shaping it using the tip, the pen pushes the ink along.  Think about a push brook trying to sweep up 40 gallons of party cups and you get the idea of what is happening with the ink.  Sure the ink gets to the page but not exactly how or where you want it to go.

The single best solution is to clean you pen as appropriate.  Metal dip pens can be cleaned using a toothbrush and mild soap.  Quill pens I soak in water and gently dab clean, that or I just re-cut the quill above the clog.  Reed pens I soak and use a wet tooth brush but no soap.  Cartridge pens I very carefully use a damp toothbrush on and try very hard not to curse.

The ink flows to quickly and I’m getting puddles of ink:

Some factors to consider: Are you writing too slowly?  Do you put your pen down and then leave it there?  Check the nib tip where the crack in the nib meets the tip of the nib.  Is it separated?  If so there’s your problem.  Trim your quill pen and reed pen to solve that problem.  Bend the metal nib back into place if you can, though likely you need to throw out that nib and get a new one when that problem shows up.  If the problem isn’t mechanical, like the split is apart, then you may wish to use the following solution.  Add gum arabic.  Gum arabic is a binder and it also can thicken most inks.  Store bought gum arabic works in most cases.  I have my own that I made from crystal gum arabic and it is much thicker (more viscous) than store bought.

Get out a test sheet and a small container to pour the ink into so you can experiment without ruining the entire bottle of ink.  Mix and match starting with small amounts of gum arabic. Try writing with the ink after each amount is added.  Clean your nib after each testing or you might get a false result and that would be bad.  You can use glaire (unltrawhipped egg whites) but that can cause your dried ink to be brittle and flake off. Too much gum arabic though dilutes the ink making it paler and if you put in too much will take a very long time to dry.  So keep an eye on the test strip and see what is really going on.

The ink won’t flow off the pen.  I’m getting uneven ink distribution.

This problem has a few potential sources.  1 – your ink is too thick, 2 – Your ink is drying and clogging the pen. 3 – You need to lighten your touch.

1 – If you are using a water based ink, get a small container for the ink and add water in very small amounts until it writes the appropriate way for you.  You will need to clean the pen every time so you don’t get a false result.  Yes, you can use alcohol though I don’t recommend it.  Ox gall also works to improve ink flow.  One tiny drop is often all that is needed for an entire 2 oz bottle of ink.  Ox gall doesn’t thin the ink (decrease viscosity) so much as it destroys the surface tension of the ink.

2 – Is your ink a shellac based ink?  I shy away from shellac based inks. They dry quickly and clog pens quickly.  You need to clean you pen often throughout the project and you should be using an alcohol based cleaner to do it.  Rubbing alcohol works but I have found that vodka works even better.

If your ink is not shellac based is it old?  Is it just too thick?  Is it too dry and hot where you’re writing?  Use the thinning suggestions above.  Your environment really can have an affect on the ink and how it flows.

3 – Lighten your touch. Pushing down is what you need to do for a ball point pen.  The calligraphy pen has the best results with a light touch.  If you imagine that you are pulling the ink out of the page this may help you to lighten up your touch and get you some very pretty results in the process.

These are the three most common problems with ink flow that I see pop up from time to time.  The solutions can be broken down into five responses.

1 – Clean, fix or replace the pen you are writing with.;

2 – Thicken  the ink;

3 – Thin the ink;

4 – and not previously mentioned, change inks;

5 – Change the pressure on the pen tip.

I hope this will be useful to you in your future projects.

3 responses to “Scribal Materials and Tools – Ink getting the flow just right

  1. I left the nib in the holder for to long, and now the little metal things at the end have been pushed in. Is this just because my pen was cheap, or is there a way to fix it?

    • They are a spring that pushes from the center out. In theory you should be able to pull it out and then reshape it to its format shape. That should fix it for you. This won’t last forever but it should last a good while longer.
      Be careful and work gently. The metal is thin and not particularly pliable so it can crack in the process. I have revived the spring this way.

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