This is a popular question among budding fountain pen users, one that I’ve asked myself. As mesmerizing as expensive fountain pens are, they aren’t magic wands. A major hindrance to their effectiveness is how their delicate inks react to cheaper paper.
Despite no shortage of “bad paper” in North America, there are select inks that behave well on even the cheapest reams – IF combined with a finer, drier nib.
Noodler’s Standard Black, Platinum Carbon Black, and Sheaffer Skrip Blue are three of the best fountain pen inks for cheap, often highly absorbent and untreated, paper. Use a dry Japanese nib with a point no broader than F (fine) for the best results.
Best Black Inks
Noodler’s Standard Black
Not to be confused with Noodler’s X-Feather, the standard Black is an amazing ink that behaves well on even the crappiest (literally!) sheets of paper. Noodler’s Black is hands-down my top recommendation for FP lovers who write consistently on the lowest-grade pulp.
As a water-soluble ink, you’d think it would be prone to feathering and bleed-through. But since it contains specialized “Bulletproof Ink”, which is a formulation engineered by Noodler’s founder Nathan Tardif himself, the medium resists those issues extremely well.
Useful tip #1. Use a dry-writing EF (extra-fine) or F (fine) pen for this ink. I’d even suggest Japanese brands, whose pens have smaller nibs than their Western counterparts. The key to success with this ink is to limit pooling (see useful tip #2).
Useful tip #2. Beware of notoriously long drying times (sometimes 10 minutes!). The ink will smudge if disturbed. The reason for this? Any residual ink that doesn’t chemically bind with the paper’s cellulose fibers will simply sit on the dried layer. To mitigate this drawback, limit the ink flow and allow any wetness to fully dry.
Platinum Carbon Black
Carbon Black is THE pigment of choice for regular office paper. As the conscientious result of Japanese ingenuity, each jet-black stroke dries into a featherless, waterproof, fade-resistant beauty.
Once the suspended particles transfer to the paper, they react with its cellulose fibers, becoming one material. This nano-particle technology happens through a quick dry time, so you won’t have to worry about smudges as much as you would with Noodler’s Black.
Another desirable quality is its gorgeous consistency across low- and high-quality paper (such as Tomoe River).
Important tip. Clean your pen regularly of this stuff! The same molecular force that drives the ink to bind can also clog your feed. To cleanse effectively, flush with cool water until it’s mostly clear. Then soak the nib and feed in homemade ammonia solution (2-3 drops of Sunlight dish soap per 300ml of cool water + 10% household ammonia) several times. Flush with water again and let dry.
Best Blue Ink
Sheaffer Skrip Blue
This affordable solution leaves an intense royal blue on the page. And compared to the popular Waterman Serenity Blue, it tends to experience less bleed-through on your average notebook leaf.
Although Skrip Blue isn’t entirely waterproof, it provides for some of the smoothest writing free of smudges and smears, unlike other blue inks.
Useful tip. Being more of a free-flowing fluid, be sure to use the finest nib you have to control the flow. Don’t worry about having to clean out clogs with this ink, since it’s gentle on even vintage pens.
I’ve compiled some background research to the compelling reasons for the above selections.
How Cheap Paper Affects the Type of Ink
The first undesirable property of cheaper types of paper is their high absorbency.
Try this experiment: gently touch a droplet of water using just the corner tip of a paper towel. What happens? The liquid is pulled in by the fibers like a magnet and feathers rapidly via capillary action.
Ink feathering works the same way and is a ghastly sight to behold. Aside from the telltale “furriness” of the strokes, there are other visual repercussions. Any color, sheen, shading, and shimmer inherent to the ink will be muted.
Of course, each type of ink reacts somewhat differently. In general, how do the main types of fountain pen fluid hold up to high absorbency?
The most common, more affordable, beginner-friendly FP solution. Its water-soluble traits mean easy cleanups, maintenance, and no damage to the pen. The tradeoff, however, is that it’s “wetter”.
Yup, you guessed it. Unfortunately, traditional dye-based ink is prone to quick absorption and thus feathering and bleed-through.
Contains insoluble particles suspended in water. These particles chemically bind to the paper fibers upon drying so that nothing short of destroying the surface itself would remove them.
Naturally, this process works very well even on bad paper. Two of the recommendations above rely on this molecular reaction.
The big con, however? Pigment-based ink, especially with suspended carbon particles, requires frequent cleaning because it can stubbornly bind to your pen’s innards, too!
From antiquity, iron gall ink is a product of mixing iron salts with tannic or gallic acid from boiled oak galls. It too relies on a chemical reaction to create a highly water-resistant stain on the page.
This ink is slightly drier and exceptionally well-behaved, which makes it work fine on less-than-fine surfaces. Well, at least initially. Its high acidity will surely corrode your writings in no time. That’s not all. Iron gall ink could also prey upon neglectful fountain pen owners, damaging whatever pens it’s left in.
What’s the Verdict? “Bulletproof Ink”
Ironically, an enhanced dye-based ink beats all of the above. Nathan Tardif, the founder of Noodler’s, formulated this water-resistant fluid. It’s permanent and safe for pens, paper, and fabric. The proprietary blend is called Bulletproof Ink and is exclusive to Noodler’s lineup.
Bulletproof Ink lives up to its name, having been known to withstand even the corrosive properties of bleach. It’s the fountain pen enthusiast’s choice for writing on terrible paper.
There are a couple of downsides, though. For one, only the particles that end up chemically bound to the paper end up being waterproof. Leftover ink sitting on top of this dried layer is sensitive to smudging.
The other is that while the concentration works superbly well on cheap reams, it underperforms on the finest paper from Clairefontaine, Tomoe River, and Rhodia.
Still, remember that this post is dedicated to the best inks for not-so-ideal circumstances. And Noodler’s got that down pat!
How Cheap Paper Affects the Fountain Pen Nib
A more absorbent surface will cause the strokes from fountain pen nibs to appear thicker than intended due to drawing in extra ink. In other words, medium and broader nibs will certainly cause feathering and bleed-through, regardless of ink type.
So, I’d exclusively use extra-fine (EF) and fine (F) steel nibs on subpar sheets of paper. The thinness of such nibs restricts ink flow. Steel is more rigid than other metals, which keeps the flow consistent.
Definitely avoid flex nibs and so-called “gushers” that can uncontrollably displace inordinate amounts of ink. Actually, the super-popular LAMY Safari is an excellent yet affordable fountain pen that fits the bill. You’re aiming for a similarly drier nib.
Bottom line? Get as fine as you can and lean towards dry.
The second undesirable property of low-quality paper is that it’s often untreated. Manufacturers save money by leaving their cheapest paper uncoated and unrefined. The resulting toothiness “grabs” at the delicate movement of the nib across the page.
That being said, this friction is less an issue compared to feathering and bleed-through caused by high absorption. So always scrutinize your bottle of ink before blaming your pen (unless it’s obviously part of the problem).
What are “wet” and “dry” nibs? Simply put, nibs on pens transfer different amounts of ink, based on their design. Wetter nibs are designed to transfer more and drier nibs less. Stick to a dry nib for cheap paper.