The Great Inkwell Experiment

There have been several thoughts expressed to us recently, showing concern about how useful old inkwells actually are, due to evaporation rates. It occurred to us that it might be useful to have some empirical evidence either for or against (or, more likely still, both) this feeling. We have a number of inkwells in our stock, spanning a couple of centuries and any number of designs, so we are in a good position to try out a variety of types. It is our hope that this will provide everyone with a better idea of what to look for—or not—in an inkwell for regular use. (Conversely, we may even prove that inkwells are useless in modern life. Who knows?)

  1. Six inkwells of different design will be filled and closed with nothing more than their original lids. Included will be:

    1. glass well with a simple gravity-closing hinged lid;
    2. glass well with a silver snap-close hinged lid;
    3. metal well with glass insert and a hinged outer cover (thus with space between the insert and the cover);
    4. wooden well with glass insert and an unhinged cloth-lined wooden lid;
    5. glass writing-box bottle, with threaded brass lid;
    6. pottery ink bottle, with a new, replacement, cork;
    7. (control) plastic graduated cylinder, open;
    8. (control) modern glass ink bottle with plastic lid and synthetic lid liner (J. Herbin).
  2. Each container will be filled with distilled water. As we are comparing loss from an inkwell, rather than how different inks evaporate, the actual material won’t make a difference so long as it is consistent through all of the containers. Notably, water has several advantages:

    1. it has universally known qualities: everyone knows how water behaves in their own environment, and it will thus be easier to translate how water behaves relative to your own preferred ink, rather than, say, comparing how the J. Herbin ink in the experiment compares to your Noodler’s;
    2. it is easily available, should anyone want to duplicate this experiment;
    3. it is clean and cheap.
  3. All containers will be kept in the same enclosed space (a section of our lawyer’s bookcase.) Relative humidity will be recorded daily.
  4. Each container will be opened briefly on every seventh day. This will help to approximate the air exchange which happens during normal use. While some people may open their ink containers more often, and some less often, we felt that once-per-week is a good compromise which will reflect average use. When it comes to evaporation, this is actually a fairly important factor. A gas (in this case, the ink solvent represented by water vapour) will expand to fill all available air in a given pressure system. In plain language, fresh air is empty space for the water vapour to fill, and every time you open your ink container, you let in more fresh air. How much of a difference will this make to ink evaporation? I’m not sure, but we are trying to duplicate normal use, and normal use includes letting in fresh air every time you fill or dip your pen. And, we are only opening the containers briefly because the majority of users are filling fountain pens; the variation between dip pen and fountain pen use might be a subject for future study.
  5. Each container will be monitored by weight daily, for four weeks. (Mass is more accurate than volume, as we won’t lose any volume to the testing equipment. And it’s cleaner and easier.) We will use the metric system throughout, as it can accurately place data to multiple decimal places. This is important, as we can trace even the minimal loss of volume from tighter-fitting lids.
  6. Data will be recorded and converted to per cent loss, and the final results graphed. We will post the results on a weekly basis, as it’s more fun that way. Results will be posted to both the Fountain Pen Network and here, in our blog. Additionally, we will publish the results electronically (in PDF format) and encourage wide distribution.

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