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Sepia Toned Ink Comparison - 32 Inks


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This Sepia-toned ink comparison was born out of my own confusion from trying to understand the various inks I have which are labeled "sepia" or are generally thought to be sepia-toned. I discovered there is wide divergence among ink manufacturers, fountain pen users, and the non-fountain pen world about the meaning of sepia and the tone one expects from the name.


Here are a few definitions of sepia:


Wikipedia: a dark brown-grey color, named after the rich brown pigment derived from the ink sac of the common cuttlefish Sepia

Collins English Dictionary: a dark reddish-brown pigment obtained from the inky secretion of the cuttlefish

American Heritage Dictionary: a dark brown ink or pigment originally prepared from the secretion of the cuttlefish, OR a dark grayish yellow brown to dark or moderate olive brown

Barron's Marketing Dictionary: film whose color tends toward brown tones rather than shades of gray, giving the image an old-fashioned and sometimes dreamlike quality

Princeton University Thesaurus: a shade of brown with a tinge of red burnt sienna

Tonmo.com: a red-brown ink made from the ink sacs of cuttlefish

• My 15 year old son: "sepia - isn't that like old timey pictures?"


Obviously, there are lots of different thoughts on what sepia is or should be. Originally, sepia ink was derived from the ink sac of the cuttlefish. One of the inks in this comparison, Hakase Sepia, is actually made directly from cuttlefish, the only such ink of which I am aware, though the FPN community will no doubt be able to find another source or else make some of their own - we are an amazingly resourceful and industrious bunch. All the other inks are interpretations of "sepia" by the various ink manufacturers.


So, what's the deal with cuttlefish, you ask? Here is some interesting and helpful information from Tonmo.com: The ink of a cuttlefish is composed of highly concentrated melanin. This is the same dark pigment that we humans have, and which is responsible for skin color and the color of dark hair. It is a natural dye that cephalopods manufacture in an ink sac. When the need arises, the cuttlefish squirts this ink together with a jet of water. The result is a cloud of ink, which is used defensively as a visual screen or a distraction to predators. The ink also contains a compound, tyrosinase, which irritates predators' eyes and paralyzes their sense of smell temporarily. The color of the ink (melanin) is red, but when it is more concentrated, it becomes darker, changing to brown and even to black. Since red appears black in low-light, many night active or deep-sea cephalopods produce only red or brown ink.


What does this have to do with fountain pen ink? In it's simplest form, fountain pen ink is a pigment or dye and a binder. Per Tonmo.com, the first ink for writing and drawing was invented simultaneously in China and Egypt, around 2500 BC. This first ink was made of lampblack (soot) mixed with aqueous binders. In the middle ages and up through the nineteenth century, ink was made from such ingredients as gum arabic, copperas (vitriol), gall apples (source of tannin), and water. Occasionally soot was used for making the ink black, or minerals and other pigments could be used for color. In the 20th century, ink became more sophisticated and is now usually made of synthetic dyes and compounds. Ink today may combine tannic, Gallic and dilute hydrochloric acid with an iron salt, phenol, and a blue or black dye. The composition may optionally include a drying agent, an adhesion promoter, a color developer and/or a preservative. Of all the ancient forms of ink, sepia is the one ink related to cephalopods. The ink sacs of cuttlefish were dried and ground to a fine powder, then mixed with shellac. This ink came into use in the eighteenth century and was quite popular in the nineteenth century.


Back in August I began this thread to help me gather ideas for sepia-toned inks. I got a lot of response, far more than I anticipated, and as a result came up with a list of 45 inks - whittled down to 32 - that folks seemed to want included in this comparison. So, I assembled an arsenal of sepia-toned inks, though not as many as I would have were I to raid Sam Capote's ink storage facility, which in my imagination resembles the massive warehouse in the final scene from "Raiders of the Lost Ark". I have about half of these in bottles, the other half being samples from Goulet Pens, Ryan Roossinck of Pear Tree Pens (now, sadly, no longer in business), and from helpful donations sent to me by some great FPNers.*


Some of the inks are clearly not within the sepia family: Diamine Burnt Sienna, Diamine Rustic Brown, J. Herbin Cacao du Brésil, Montblanc Carlo Collodi and Noodler's Golden Brown all seem to be far enough outside the spectrum to be excluded. Still, I included them in the comparison because ... well, because people asked, I have them, and the difference between 27 and 32 inks really isn't that much. Doesn't the swab sheet look colorful?!


Here are the inks in alphabetical order by maker, which is the way I've laid out my tests:


• Caran d'Ache Grand Canyon

• Carter's Harvest Brown (vintage - c. 1941)

• Diamine Burnt Sienna

• Diamine Golden Brown

• Diamine Raw Sienna

• Diamine Rustic Brown

• Diamine Sepia

• Hakase Sepia (available only in Japan)

• J. Herbin Cacao du Brésil

• J. Herbin Café Des Îles

• J. Herbin Lie de Thé

• J. Herbin Terre de Feu

• J. Herbin mix by Avetikus**

• Montblanc Carlo Collodi

• Montblanc Sepia (out of production)

• Noodler's (Art Brown) Brooklyn Brawn

• Noodler's Golden Brown

• Noodler's (Swisher) Grizzly

• Noodler's Kiowa Pecan

• Noodler's Manjiro Nakahama Whaleman's Sepia

• Noodler's (Swisher) Seminole Sepia

• OMAS Sepia

• Pelikan 4001 Brilliant Brown

• Pilot Iroshizuku tsukushi

• Pilot Iroshizuku yama-guri

• Platinum Pigment Ink Brun Sepia

• Private Reserve Chocolat

• Private Reserve Copper Burst

• Private Reserve Sepia

• Rohrer & Klingner Sepia

• Stipula Calamo Sepia

• Visconti Brown (aka Sepia)


For my testing, I used the following pens, picked to represent a range of nib sizes, flex, age and availability (and also ease of cleaning - 32 inks x 3 pens = 96 cleanings, and I had to be thorough each time to avoid contamination):


• Bexley Poseidon Magnum, 18k 1.3mm Bexley stub nib

• Kaweco Sport, steel M nib

• Mabie Todd & Co. Swan 3260, flexible 14k Swan No. 2 nib


Finally, I used the following papers to test each ink:


• cheapo/no name 20lb. copy paper

• Office Depot "Double A" copy paper, 22lb., 80g/m

• Rhodia No. 18 A4 pad, lined, 80g/m

• Original Crown Mill Classic Laid paper, A5 size, in cream

• 25% rag content paper for swab tests and line tests


I'm not a huge fan of swab tests because first, we don't write with Q-Tips and second, the color can look significantly different when flowing from a pen. Still, the swab tests are a good indication of tone and they are bigger and bolder than anything I could produce with a fountain pen, so I have included them for your reference.



Figure 1: Cotton swab squiggles (25% rag paper)


For some reason, the Hakase Sepia appears lighter in this swab test than it actually is. See the next two images below for a more accurate depiction of its tone.


Figure 2: Cotton swab blocks (25% rag paper)




Figure 3: Cotton swab 1-2-3 pass. The horizontal line swabs for each ink are done with one, two and three passes, top to bottom. I used a premium 25% rag content paper for this part of the test, mostly to avoid bleed through (only Noodler's Whaleman's Sepia and Seminole Sepia bled through, and very minimally). Please don't abuse me for not staying inside the lines - its harder than you think. :embarrassed_smile:




Figure 4: Line test. Line test for each ink was done using - from top to bottom - the Bexley, Kaweco and Swan pens (once with a light touch using the EF tip of the Swan nib and then with the Swan at moderate flex), again using a premium 25% rag content paper.


Note the feathering above displayed by Noodler's Brooklyn Brawn (slight), Noodler's Grizzly (moderate) and Noodler's Whaleman's Sepia and Seminole Sepia (heavy). No other inks feathered on the 25% rag content paper. These inks also bled through on this paper.



Figure 5: Swan flex patterns (25% rag paper)




Figures 6, 7 and 8: Boxes drawn with Bexley stub / Swan flex patterns (Rhodia paper)



Note the feathering above displayed by Noodler's Brooklyn Brawn (slight), Noodler's Grizzly (moderate) and Noodler's Whaleman's Sepia and Seminole Sepia (heavy) No other inks feathered on the Rhodia paper.




Figures 9 and 10: Smear/Dry times. The smear/dry time test was done on Office Depot "Double A" paper, using in each instance the Kaweco Sport with a steel M nib, at four second intervals. I believe that if this test were done on Rhodia or comparable smooth, "high end" paper the results would have been much different, so if you have further questions about that I refer you to the excellent ink review forum.






The writing samples and wet tests are in a separate thread - Part 2 - due to the number of images and bandwidth issues.


In conclusion, I am quite surprised by the dramatic array of tones in inks that are labeled "sepia" and in others generally considered to be within the sepia tones - everything from yellows, greens, reds, browns, greys.




* Special thanks to Sandy1 for her invaluable advice as I struggled to put this comparison review together, and to Avetikus, BiggieD, encephalartos, meghan, Mrs. Goulet Pens, rroossinck and Sam Capote for help with samples of the sepia inks I didn't have - you were incredibly helpful and selfless, and really made this a team effort! If only you could have helped me clean pens.


** J. Herbin mix by Avetikus is as follows: 5ml +/- JH Perle Noire; 3ml JH Gris Nuage; and a 30ml bottle of JH Lie de The, all mixed together.

Edited by dcpritch

How small of all that human hearts endure,
That part which laws or kings can cause or cure.

— Samuel Johnson


Instagram: dcpritch

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Posted Images



and again




dcpritch I'm in loss of words. I'm in the market for a sepia toned ink, so I waited for you comparison. This need a "FPN's Contribution of Year" prize!



“The journey is more important than the destination—that’s part of

life, if you only live for getting to the end, you’re almost always



Donald E. Knuth

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Awesome.... No, stunning.... And I thought I was a collector by taste....



Mike :clap1:

Life is too short to drink bad wine (Goethe)

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Immensely informative.


Brava! Brava!


:clap1: :clap1:




The only time you have too much fuel is when you're on fire.


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Awesome review :thumbup: Thank you for sharing it.

The color Cacao du Brasil j.Herbin is a strange color but in the sample looks grey instead of brown. Is it possible?


Thanks for the kind words!


JH Cacao du Bresil is indeed an unusual color. I would call it a steel grey, no brown in it at all. Though I think it is outside the spectrum of what most folks consider to be "sepia", it was easy to include it here just to show how far outside the spectrum it really is.


Of the inks tested and compared, I think these five are outside the sepia family: Diamine Burnt Sienna, Diamine Rustic Brown, J. Herbin Cacao du Brésil, Montblanc Carlo Collodi and Noodler's Golden Brown

How small of all that human hearts endure,
That part which laws or kings can cause or cure.

— Samuel Johnson


Instagram: dcpritch

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It's odd how the sepia effect looks dead-on (to me) with PR Sepia, especially with the swab samples. But in the writing samples, aside from the smear tests, it's not so evident. Nonetheless, it's an ink I had never even thought of using. Until now.


Thanks for an amazing comparison! :thumbup:

It is easier to stay out than get out. - Mark Twain

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I've re-scanned and re-uploaded/re-linked all the images, for a more accurate color depiction than was first seen. I think the images now shown are pretty darn close to real life (subject to monitor variances, of course). Sorry for the earlier scans with intense contrast; I'm just learning to use the scanner.

How small of all that human hearts endure,
That part which laws or kings can cause or cure.

— Samuel Johnson


Instagram: dcpritch

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Wondering, which among these inks will become your go-to inks?


I don't think there is a bad ink in the bunch. That being said, I didn't spend any real time with several of the inks, merely loaded ink into pens and wrote lines for the review, then emptied and cleaned the pens. So, I don't have a full opinion on some of the inks and would be unable to say much of anything about flow, dried ink in nibs, and the like. For that, a more detailed review of individual inks would be worth looking at.


I actually had almost 2/3 of these in bottles before I began, the rest came in samples. Since September when my work on this project began I've purchased bottles of CdA Grand Canyon and Noodler's Kiowa Pecan. The two I would really love to get are Hakase Sepia and Montblanc Carlo Collodi, though they are such unique colors I doubt they would become daily users. My personal favorites of the ones I have are R&K Sepia, Pelikan Brilliant Brown, Diamine Sepia, and OMAS Sepia, more or less in that order. I don't think I've been without a bottle of Pelikan Brilliant Brown for 15 years or more; the other three are also long time favorites.

How small of all that human hearts endure,
That part which laws or kings can cause or cure.

— Samuel Johnson


Instagram: dcpritch

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In its latest iteration, you project leaves me speechless (if that's possible).


I am Bookmarking this thread.

*Sailor 1911S, Black/gold, 14k. 0.8 mm. stub(JM) *1911S blue "Colours", 14k. H-B "M" BLS (PB)

*2 Sailor 1911S Burgundy/gold: 14k. 0.6 mm. "round-nosed" CI (MM) & 14k. 1.1 mm. CI (JM)

*Sailor Pro-Gear Slim Spec. Ed. "Fire",14k. (factory) "H-B"

*Kaweco SPECIAL FP: 14k. "B",-0.6 mm BLS & 14k."M" 0.4 mm. BLS (PB)

*Kaweco Stainless Steel Lilliput, 14k. "M" -0.7 mm.BLS, (PB)




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A most helpful review of the sepia colors available--very thorough and beautifully illustrated! Thank you--you've given us a great standard to go by!

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Wow! :notworthy1:


What an amazing set of tests you have done. Thank you!


I see a couple of inks there that I must have - the PR Sepia (going from the written sample) and the Iroshizuku Tsukushi. Lovely.

"Blessed are the cracked, for they shall let in the light." - Groucho Marx

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Wow! What an undertaking that was. Thank you for all the time you've put into this amazing comparison.


I really appreciate how thorough you were. This is way useful.


Thank you again for a GREAT project!

"Spend all you want! We'll print more!" - B. S. (What's a Weimar?) Bernanke

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:gaah: How long did this take? It is amazing! Thank you for the time and effort.

Fountain pens ~ a stream of consciousness flowing effortless onto paper.

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Thank you for putting so much time and effort into exploring the mystery of sepia. As an art director and photographer I always defined sepia as a desaturated (grayish) brown, or a "warm gray." But obviously a lot of people equate sepia with brown. Very interesting!


-- MJ

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