Sunday, February 2, 2014

Quills II — Experimentation with Inks

[4/30/14 - Updated to include Higgin's Eternal and Ian's replacement Iron Gall Ink.]

Just over a month ago, I experimented with making & using my own quill pens for the first time. I said at the end of the process that I was happy with my results and there was a good chance I'd be using quills on my next assignment.

Since then, my continued practice has not been going well. My lines were either crisp but very pale, or dark but blotchy.

I described my problems to an online community of scribes in the SCA and was given some advice:
  1. Try different inks — the Walnut Crystal and Winsor & Newton inks I normally use with my metal dip nips are a little on the thin side, so it was suggested I try a thicker ink. It probably didn't help that I had just mixed a new batch of the walnut ink, and it's still a bit thin, even when used in metal nibs.
  2. Try modifying my inks — Ian the Green has a wonderful article on this very subject. In short, add some gum arabic or let some water evaporate out of the inks to thicken them, or add water to thin them.
  3. Try different papers — my initial practice was using some cheap "calligraphy" paper, and not the Pergamenata or Bristol Board I typically use for my projects. The quality of paper can have a huge difference, I should have known to at least try this first...
  4. Try different angles for my writing surface — I changed from about 70° to 45° on my writing surface when I first experimented with quills, but further experimentation might be needed.
With this advice in mind, I ordered some new inks and supplies and put the quills aside to work on a few assignments and get ready for an event.

New Scribal Supplies

I completed my assignments, the event is over, and my supplies have arrived!

Here are the new inks to test with:
  1. Blots Iron Gall Ink - Ink made from a period recipe. Until I have the time and materials to make my own, this should be similar to what medieval scribes used in their quills.
  2. Ian the Green's Oak Gall Ink - Ian is a fellow scribe and blogger in the SCA, who makes medieval-recipe ink, and sells some of it. If you are interested in Medieval calligraphy & ink, you should hop over and read his blog. [4/30/14 Note - The first bottle of Ian's ink I tried was weak, he sent me a replacement bottle, so you'll see two test lines in the images below, look at the bottom line to see what it should look like.]
  3. Winsor & Newton's Matt Black Calligraphy Ink - This is a thicker formulation meant only for dip pens or brushes. Their regular black calligraphy ink is thin enough it can be used in cartridge pens.
  4. Bokuju Sumi Ink - This ink was recommended to me by a couple scribes.
  5. Higgins Eternal - [Added 4/30/14] After I originally published this post, I was asked to test and include this ink that many scribes in the SCA are quite happy with.
In addition, Pergamena was having a sale on overstock goatskin parchment, so I ordered some! I've been wanting to get some to try out and have for any future projects anyway. I'll be talking more about it soon, but for now, let's just say I like it a lot!

Finally, I ordered some more goose and turkey feathers from John Neal Bookseller to see if the source of the feathers has any impact on how the quills function once cured and cut.

The Testing Process

My first tests focused on how ink and paper choice impacted the quality of my lines. I selected one goose quill and one metal nib to make all my test marks. The nib I used is a Hiro Rond #5 without a reservoir in place.

For paper, I used Strathmore vellum Bristol board, natural color heavyweight Pergamenata, and a small piece of prepared goatskin parchment. All three were pounced with gum sandarac before being lined with a 2mm 2H drafting pencil. After the inking was complete and dried, I erased the pencil lines with a white Mars eraser to see if there was any smudging or change to the ink.

My writing surface for all these tests was at a 45° angle. I plan on playing with the angle of the writing surface as I continue testing.

Quill vs. Metal Nib

In all cases, I was able to get cleaner lines with the metal nib compared to the quill. Some inks definitely minimized the effect though.


Bristol Board


The Effect of Paper

I was surprised to discover that the quality of lines on the Pergamenata were not as good as those on the Bristol Board or Parchment. I suspect now that this may be due to the fact that the ink doesn't really absorb into the Pergamenata at all, instead it just kind of floats on the surface. No matter the ink or nib, the lines were not as crisp on the Pergamenata as they were on the other surfaces.

Goose quill on Pergamenata, Bristol and Parchment.

Hiro Rond on Pergamenata, Bristol and Parchment.

I discovered on additional quirk during my testing as well: iron gall inks take a long time to darken on Pergamenata. On paper or parchment, they start a pale grey and darken in a matter of seconds - it's fun to watch it happen before your eyes. On the Pergamenata the darkening process takes days. Here is what happened with the Blots ink on Pergamenata on day 1, 3 and 5:

Iron gall ink darkening on Pergamenata over 5 days.

The Inks

With my major experimentation done for now, here are my thoughts on each ink, in the order tested:

Walnut Crystal Ink
Line Quality — No real surprises here. Nice clean lines out of the metal nib, no matter what surface it's on. But there's too much ink flow out of the quill. At some point I'll try adding some gum arabic to it to see if that helps.
Color — I love the color of this ink, but it's not what was typically used by medieval scribes. Surving period documents often appear to have been written in brown ink on a cream colored surface. This is a result of the iron based ink they used rusting in the many hundreds of years since the document's creation. To the modern eye, brown ink on an off-white page is what we think of as a medieval document, when in reality they were probably as close to black on white as they could achieve.
Winsor & Newton Black (Blue Cap)
Line Quality — Interestingly, this was probably the worst ink of the bunch... It's particularly noticeable on the Pergamenata or with the quill.
Color — Glossy finish, with a very subtle hint of blue to it.
 Winsor & Newton Matt Black (Red Cap)
Line Quality — The line quality looks great in most of the examples, but this ink was frustrating to use. It's too thick out of the bottle, and requires a little watering down to flow out of the metal nib at all. If you look closely at some of the test strokes, you can see places where it didn't flow out to the full width of the nib.
Color — Dark, matt black when first penned. When erased over, the surface polishes to a semi-gloss.
Bokuju Sumi (Green bottle)
Line Quality — Pretty good across the board. It might become my ink of choice on Pergamenata. 
Color — Glossy black with very subtle hint of brown to it.
Blots Iron Gall
I was really excited to try the period recipe inks. So when my first strokes onto the Pergamenata were an extremely pale grey, I was worried. I've since learned that this is normal, and this type of ink isn't recommended on Pergamenata.
Line Quality — Good. Still thinner out of the metal nib when compared to the quill, but nicer thins than most of the modern inks.
Color — Matt black or dark gray, depending on the surface it is applied to and how long it has been exposed to air.
Ian's Oak Gall
[Updated 4/30/14] My first bottle of Ian's ink was noticeably paler than the Blots. I asked Ian about it, and he believes the bottle I got is one of a few that inadvertently ended up with some weaker ink in them. He sent me a new bottle that is much darker. You can see both versions in the images above.
Line Quality — Good.
Color — Matt black to dark gray. Very similar to the Blots ink.
Higgins Eternal [Added 4/30/14]
I was asked to add Higgins to this ink review as it's quite popular with many SCA scribes. I'm pretty impressed. It's not as dark as some of the other commercial inks, but the line quality is quite good.
Line Quality — Good.
Color — Black, but slightly on the thin side. I actually kind of like this, as it gives the letters some interesting coloration when writing on a slope. The ink pools toward the bottom of strokes so the color deepens at the bottom.
What Next? 

Thanks to these results, I'm feeling a lot more confident about using quill pens to complete assignments. In fact, I have a couple I need to get working on, and my goal is to do at least one using a quill. I'll be curing and cutting quills again soon, and hope to get to a point where I can put together a lesson post on the process. I'll also be working on Parchment, and will definitely give a review of what's it's like.

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