I started using a fountain pen at around the age of 20. It was a pen that took small international sized cartridges and came with about ten in different colors. I lost that pen in a car fire, but it wasn’t a great loss – I bought it because it included a grey cartridge and I had never seen a pen that could write in grey.

My next foray into fountain pens came nearly a decade later. I bought a Parker Vector and used with glee the washable blue ink that came in the package. I soon tired of that pen and ink and set out to find some more grey. I stumbled upon Pentrace and got sold on the idea of Private Reserve Grey Flannel ink. While I was there, I purchased a Parker 51 with a fine nib from the “green board” classified section. Sadly, that grey ink and that pen were not made for one another. The combination was just too dry and not nearly lubricated enough. I put both of them away and didn’t think of them again for several years.

The event that led me back to fountain pens, this time for good, came after I became an attorney. I’m a public defender, and for anyone unfamiliar with that corner of the legal system, I represent people accused of crimes who cannot afford to hire an attorney. We are issued the Skilcraft pens assembled by the blind. I always found the assembly of those pens to be top notch, but the materials sometimes betrayed the intrepid sightless workers. In particular, we got several boxes of black rollerballs that leaked.

One May afternoon in 2007, I finished seeing a client and stood up from my desk. He commented on the gigantic black spot on my nice tan pants. It was a horrid mess. I was livid. I had just purchased those pants with some of the small amount of money I had saved in my few months of work after law school, and they were really nice pants!

That evening, I dug out the Parker 51, the Parker Vector, and the bottle of Private Reserve Grey Flannel ink. I remembered how terrible the 51 and Grey Flannel were together, so I went out to purchase whatever I could locally the next day. I obtained a converter for the Vector and some cartridges to boot. I couldn’t find any bottled ink, so I waited patiently until I could visit a small jeweler nearby who sold Private Reserve. I wanted American Blue, but I came away from his store and its half dozen in-stock bottles of ink with Midnight Blues. It turned out to be the best ink I ever put in that Parker 51.

Within a week of those events, I was sold on the fountain pen and have not looked back. I still have a love for grey inks and really any ink that doesn’t look like it came out of a ballpoint or rollerball. Although my profession does not allow for use of the wildest inks around, I will unapologetically use grey, brown, green, or burgundy in addition to the usual blues, blacks, and blue-blacks. I own over 200 pens and 100 inks, and I confess without the ink variety I would likely grow bored with the pens. To me, our obsession is one driven by ink with really terrific pen and paper accessory options. If I had my choice of two hundred brands of pen but only black ink, I’d be writing with a ballpoint.

Reviews that have moved me:

  • gama on Fountain Pen Network has provided an independent look at the Noodler’s/Goulet Pen Company exclusive Liberty’s Elysium. This ink has been so controversial that its proprietors are working on a reformulation. In a way, this is a pity because it is a beautiful ink with a nice set of properties as it is.
  • carpedavid on our own FPGeeks Forum has reviewed J. Herbin Vert Olive, an ink I have never had the occasion to try but have always been intrigued by. The review makes it clear that it is simply too light in color to be used for business, but it appears to be a terrific ink to use for art or personal correspondence. I wonder how well it would pair with an off-white paper.
  • Finally, Michael Matteson has taken a short look at a favorite ink of mine, Noodler’s Black Swan in English Roses. Although I have never gotten the ink to shine in the flex nib pen it is designed to get most effective use in, I find the color and the ink properties to be so pleasing that I use it in a variety of pens.

Lee SmallwoodLee Smallwood works as a public defender, calls Virginia his home, has iron gall running through his veins, and loves fountain pens. You can read his blog (if you dare) at:
The Inked Nib


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  • Emilio Villegas

    That is a very nice story and I’m reading your blog constantly. Please keep up the good work! Thank you too, Eric & Dan, for putting this together!

    • Lee Smallwood

      Thank you very much, Emilio. I’ll do my best. Eric & Dan have already succeeded at doing a great job, and I also thank them for putting this together.

  • Omer Yehezkely

    My father used a Parker 51 for more than 50 years. The same pen for more than 50 years!!! And being a CPA he heavily used that pen every day. The condition of the pen is quite horrible yet it still writes and its smoothness is still my benchmark for smoothness.

    • Lee Smallwood

      My guess is that use like that actually wears a nib in a way that makes it smooth. It is laudable, and it’s distinctly likely he did this using nothing but the black ink that is just lost on me. I know people are out there who don’t put ink in the position I put it, but for me that’s where things started and where my focus still mostly lies.

  • Mike

    Good story, Lee. (And thanks for the plug!)
    You know, one of my first ink purchases was Midnight Blues, too. The only problem is that when I got home I noticed that it was a bottle of Lake Placid blue in a Midnight Blues box.

    • Lee Smallwood

      Oh no! I say that because I love Midnight Blues, but Lake Placid might be a completely decent blue. I don’t know because while I have plenty of ink there is still tons of it I have never used.

      • Mike

        You know what’s even worse? I didn’t notice until I later bought a bottle of Lake Placid and I thought, “Man, this looks exactly like Midnight Blues.”

        I’ll write it up one of these days. It’s currently residing in my TWSBI.

  • Maja

    Excellent article, Lee! I’d heard of the U.S government using Skilcraft pens, but didn’t know that they were assembled by visually-impaired workers. :)
    Oh, by the way: what is your favourite grey ink?
    I have a few dozen inks in my “stable”, but no grey ink yet!

    • Lee Smallwood

      The sad thing is that I have no favorite grey ink. I own several — Noodler’s Lexington Grey, Levenger Smokey, and Private Reserve Grey Flannel come to mind — but no grey ink quite does what I want in terms of lubrication and color. I should actually spend more time on finding a killer grey. These days, I most often go with a blue like Diamine Denim as my go-to ink.

      I actually work for the government at the state level, but we still use the Skilcraft pens. Skilcraft was actually a corporation set up to employ blind persons to produce consumable goods for the federal government. It continues in that mission to this day. I have never seen an improperly assembled Skilcraft product, but I think the black pens we had came right after a redesign. Knowing what I know about ink now, I think the ink was too free flowing for the collector in the pen and therefore when there was even a bit of heat from the hand, ink spilled out. Soon after that, my office stopped getting Skilcraft rollerballs in favor of Skilcraft gel pens.

      • Mike

        Check out Kiri-same from that fancy Pilot line of inks. It’s the best grey I’ve seen.

      • Maja

        Thanks for the reply, Lee. I’ll have to check out Noodler’s Lexington Grey and Private Reserve Grey Flannel at my local pen shop :)

        • Lee Smallwood

          Good luck with them, Maja. Mike, it’s interesting you mention that ink. If I bought a bottle of every Iroshizuku ink that interested me, I’d have pretty much every bottle. I have so many samples thanks to Ink Drop membership I canceled months ago due to being behind that I hate to order samples. One day I know I’ll try that ink. I’m sure it will be glorious.

          • Mike

            I love samples. I can’t get enough.

            • Lee Smallwood

              If I were smarter, I would have bought many more samples and many fewer bottles. Now I have too many of each. I may one day rejoin Ink Drop, if I make a dent in the samples I have.

  • John the Monkey

    On greys, I think Diamine Graphite is an interesting one, dark, and with a hint of green to it with some paper and pen combinations.

    I echo the praise for this piece too, Lee, an enjoyable read!

    • Lee Smallwood

      I have wanted to try Graphite, but I think I have heard that it has the precipitate problems some Diamine inks like Kelly Green or Pumpkin have. It’s harmless but annoying. Additionally, I almost feel like it doesn’t belong to a color group. It, along with inks like Montblanc Racing Green and I hear Noodler’s El Lawrence almost don’t have a color as much as a manly hue of motor oil after varying things are done to it. I like the effet and sort of hope Diamine will eventually reformulate it to remove the precipitation problem.

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  • breck

    “To me, our obsession is one driven by ink with really terrific pen and paper accessory options”.
    Well put! I had never really understood this until I read this quote, although subliminally I knew it.