Iron Gall Information and Fountain Pen Safety

Iron Gall inks had been the standard for writing ink from the 5th Century to the 19th Century. The chemistry of the fluid allows for deep penetration of the ink into the paper surface, making it difficult to erase. The traditional methods of producing iron gall ink resulted in an acidic mixture, not ideal for long-term archival writing or storing the ink in fountain pens.

However, "modern" iron gall inks are formulated to be more stable and more fountain pen friendly. Konrad Zurawski of KWZ inks wrote a detailed primer on the subject of iron gall inks and fountain pens that should be read by anyone who uses iron gall inks in their fountain pens. Essentially, the idea is to keep a routine cleaning schedule that will ensure no pen is left inked for an extremely long duration (months). Also, if you have a fountain pen that is known for drying out often needing to be primed to get started again, they should not be used with iron gall inks. For more information on Iron Gall Inks and Fountain Pens, please read below:

Iron Gall inks create a specific group of inks – brief description of the processes that take place in the ink goes beyond this short tutorial – there will be time for that later. The User should be aware that well stored Iron Gall inks are a true solution, there is no solid residue suspended in ink . Only after application of Iron Gall ink on a substrate (ideally paper) and evaporation of most of the water reactions occur which give a products water-insoluble complexes of iron with an intense dark colour.

  • The same reactions which are responsible for darkening and formation of insoluble in water complexes of iron are also, unfortunately, possible in the interior of the fountain pen. This can happen in case if fountain pen is left unused for a long time or if fountain pen has large tendency to fast drying out. Cleaning dried Iron Gall ink is not especially difficult, but it requires a lot of time and patience (especially if you can not or do not want to disassemble the pen). Iron Gall inks should be used in fountain pens that we use regularly.
  • Do not use Iron Gall inks in pens that tend dry out when you leave them for relatively short period of time. It is normal that if fountain pen is left for a week or two than at beginning of writing it requires a bit of pressure or writes a little darker. However, if the pen dries after a day or two without use it dries out – in those pens Iron Gall inks should not be used, either other highly water resistant inks.
  • If Iron Gall ink stored in the tightly twisted bottle begins to form deposits of solid on the walls and bottom of bottle then it should not be used in fountain pen. Spontaneous formation of sludge in Iron Gall inks is caused by improper handling, contamination or by the not appropriate proportions of ingredients used in ink. Also, inks that are not Iron Gall, but have a tendency to spontaneous formation of deposits in the inkwell should be used with caution.
  • Fountain pen before inking with Iron Gall ink have to be thoroughly washed – especially if other types of waterproof inks were used in particular pen. Similarly, if we change ink in fountain pen from Iron Gall ink to a different type of waterproof ink we should wash them thoroughly. Iron Gall inks can interact with certain inks, which will result in the formation of difficult to remove sediment in fountain pen ink. Here are a few methods of cleaning from best to worst:
  1. Disassemble fountain pen and wash it under running water or better in an ultrasonic cleaner with a bit of detergent, and assemble the pen after it was dried.
  2. Rinse fountain pen with water with detergent, after that fill the pen with water with detergent. Then, leave the pen with the nib to the bottom touching tissue or other absorbing material so the water slowly flows through the pen. After that rinse pen with clean water few times.
  3. Any other methods which rely on a simple rinsing the fountain pen, even if after rinsing, it seems that the pen is clean because water flashed out of pen – it only seems so. In the feed and canals in the pen there is certainly a left some residues of ink. You can check it by filling the pen with water and leaving it for a day – I’m quite certain that water flushed out of the pen will have some colour.
  4. Changing ink in fountain pen without washing is not recommended and everyone who does it do so at his own risk. Different inks have different properties, and mixtures of inks may not wish to work together by creating difficult to remove the precipitate.
  • If Iron Gall ink is left in unused fountain pen for long time, and it partially dried out, it should not be returned to the inkwell with ink – in this case, pen should be rinsed with water like before changing the ink. Returning old Iron Gall ink back into the bottle will reduce the stability of the ink that still remained in the inkwell. Iron Gall inks require stabilization to prevent them from premature formation of sludge and secure pen with metal parts in contact with the ink (eg. Nib) against corrosion. We use a set of several compounds with different action – thanks to the synergy between them we are able to achieve very good results while maintaining relatively not large concentrations of any of them. But stabilizing system can not run forever and ink left in the pen, which has free access to air and oxygen slowly undergoes degradation processes and compounds that stabilized ink lose efficiency. Returning old ink to the bottle will have a negative impact on the stability of such ink and may cause that formation of sediment in the inkwell.
  • Produced by us Iron Gall inks will not cause corrosion in normal use in fountain pens with nib made of stainless steel or gold. But there are sometimes some nib pens made of ordinary steel, sometimes the nib is protected against corrosion, for example by passivation layer (usually chromium). With this type of nib, it is possible for corrosion, especially if the passivation layer is mechanically damaged. Most species of stainless steels will interact very little or with magnetic field – if the nib is attracted by a magnet, than with a high degree of certainty it can be concluded that it was not made of stainless steel or the steel was not properly processed.
  • Iron Gall inks should be stored in a cool and dark place to protect them from the negative effects of light on their stability.
  • Iron Gall inks should not be diluted with water from the tap – the water is rich in various salts and contains trace amounts of the compounds used for the decontamination of water (such as ozone, chlorine, etc.), those compounds will have negative effect on stability of ink. If we want to dilute Iron Gall ink distilled, demineralised water or boiled over water should be used.
  • Past experience has shown that most of Iron Gall inks produced by me can be mixed with standard inks of my production, as well as some other manufacturers. In preparing mixtures of any inks adequate caution should always be taken. Most of red, brown and purple inks should not be mixes with Iron Gall inks.

It sometimes happen that after Iron Gall ink dries in fountain pen a residue of insoluble sediment might be left in pen. There are several methods that allow us to remove this residue of  Iron Gall inks from inside the pen:

  • Rinse with water pen dish-washing liquid – a good solution to rinse the pen should be prepared by adding at least 2-3 ml of dish-washing liquid to 10-15 ml of water. This solution has a very low surface tension and easily penetrates all small nooks and crannies inside fountain pen. Rinse the pen with this mixture several times, then leave the pen for a few minutes and than rinse again. After that rinse the pen till there is no detergent in pen. Using ultrasonic cleaner ease up cleaning process. This method of rinsing can also be useful also for the cleaning pen residues from other inks.
  • Vitamin C (ascorbic acid), – if the rinsing with solution of dish-washing liquid did not give satisfactory results, adding to the water with dish-washing liquid ascorbic acid (which may, for example come from crushed tablets) and rinsing the pen with this solution several times, should remove any residues of Iron Gall inks from fountain pen.
  • Many people use for cleaning fountain pens vinegar, ammonia solutions or ammonium acetate. I didn’t used those methods so I can not tell if they are effective or not, but rinsing fountain pen with ammonia water may have negative effect on materials in fountain pens.
  • If there is a possibility, very good results will give washing disassembled fountain pen in an ultrasonic cleaner – it is worth adding a few drops of dish-washing  liquid to water.