What Is Pen Ink Made From?


As pen lovers, we use ink every day, and lots of it; be it in our rollerballs, ballpoints or fountain pens. But have you ever stopped to think about what ink actually is and how it is manufactured? If not, why not take a minute or so now to explore the world of inks.

Since the very first writing tools, ink has always been the fluid used to create writing; in fact, ink was used by ‘cavemen’ for their cave drawings too! So, when you think about it, ink has helped us learn a lot over the years.

The first ink for writing was developed in China and Egypt at around the same time, which was approximately 2500BC.  These early inks will have been comprised of carbon particles/lamp black for the black colour pigment, and either vegetable oil or animal glues as the vehicle for the colour.

Since then, not much has changed! Ink is still made from a pigment/dye and a vehicle, often with several other additives, and there are many variations available depending on your preferences or needs; what writing tool you’re using, what paper you’ll be using, what colour you require, etc.

 Ballpoint Ink

In 1938, the Hungarian, Laszlo Biro, produced the first proper ballpoint pen, and he was able to do so because he had – having witnessed thick newspaper ink drying quickly at his presses – realised that a thick ink was required in order for the ballpoint pen to ever be a success. Making the occurrence of frequent smudges with a ballpoint pen a thing of the past, this ink development was essentially what made ballpoint pens a household and workplace staple.

Ballpoint ink is closely controlled, as the slightest change would result in a pen that doesn’t work; the ink must be thin enough to dry quickly on release from the pen, yet thick enough to flow smoothly through the pen. Dye is used rather than pigment and the vehicle is generally oil-based to create the desired thickness.

 Fountain Pen Ink

As opposed to ballpoint ink, fountain pen ink is water-based. Precise ‘ingredients’ for any writing ink are hard to come by, as they are closely guarded by manufacturers, but fountain pen ink may contain various amounts of the following components:


*A thickening agent, to control viscosity

*Surfactant or detergent, to help smooth flow

*Fungicide, for longevity

*Additives, to control the PH of the ink & avoid pen damage

*Perfume, to cover other strong scents


It is important you buy ink intended for use with a fountain pen, as other types of ink could discolour or damage your pen. If in doubt, check, or don’t use it; it’s really not worth the risk.

Lucy is our lead editor and has been passionate about stationery since childhood. She has a particular fondness for rollerball and calligraphy pens and is a keen advocate of snail mail.

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