I’ve been spending a lot of time swabbing inks recently. Maybe it’s because it’s a good creative break from writing my dissertation or because I’ve been inspired by InkyRocks videos about the “ink swamp” or “ink fever” phenomenon in Japan. Maybe it’s because there are some new nib stamps on the block that I can’t stop buying or talking about.
Whatever the reason, I have one desk in my office currently designated for all things work, and one desk designated for all things ink. I typically use paintbrushes and glass pens for ink swabs. I consider the paintbrush the “gold standard” of swabbing an ink, but brushes require time and dedication to clean properly between each ink. The same is true of speedball nibs. I love the thick, consistent lines of ink they put down on the page, but they are specifically created to keep ink in the nib as long as possible. So they too, take time and effort to clean.
Playing with ink is meant to be fun and relaxing, so I’m not saying speed and efficiency should be prioritized. But when you have minimal time to take breaks, you find creative ways to maximize that time. That “creativity” had me wondering if there were other options I had not previously considered.
Spoiler alert: Massive rabbit hole ahead.
It started rather simply. I found a foam swab on Amazon typically used for cleaning cameras and other electronics. I have no idea how I landed on the page, but the swabs looked like something I could take on the go to test inks when I couldn’t have a paintbrush with me. Am I going anywhere? Nope. Did that stop me from purchasing 300 of these swabs? Nope.
That was a bit of a mistake on my part because these very unelegant swabs somehow create REALLY nice, beautiful ink swabs. The bad news is they are not reusable, which makes them pretty wasteful- especially when you have to purchase a set of 300! Ideally, they would be something I would use sparingly.
I set out on a search for a replacement tool that was made of re-useable materials (I could have just gone back to the paintbrush, but what kind of fun would that be?). My search took me to some unexpected corners of the internet. I ended up with a set of cake decorating tools, a set of clay sculpting tools, and metal and silicone makeup spatulas. Because many of these tools came in sets, I got way more than I originally bargained for, but I’m getting ahead of myself here.
The first goal was to find a suitable replacement for my newly beloved foam swabs. I tested the plastic square tool from the cake decorating set and the tiny metal makeup spatulas.
I also tested the silicone brushes from the clay sculpting set and the tiny purple silicone spatulas.
Overall, all of the above tools get the ink onto the paper, but the end result varies a bit from tool to tool. Some show a little more shading than others or shading in a different part of the swab. The major difference between the paintbrush/foam swab and the rest of the tools comes when you are trying to make a straight line. Nothing really comes close to the clean lines of the swab or the brush.
However, if you’re going for a more abstract approach, the re-useable tools produce results that are much closer to the brush or swab.
The cake decorating and clay sculpting kits also came with tools with ball tips of various sizes.
It takes a little bit of practice, but these tools produce lines similar-ish to what you might get from speedball nibs of various sizes. The main difference is that you need to re-dip the tool into the ink every 1-2 letters. The upside is that means they are a breeze to clean.
The cake decorating set also came with some other wacky tools, and let’s just say I had some fun with these.
Unfortunately, many of the pointy tools that look similar to the tip of a glass pen are not very useable with ink. The ink just doesn’t get transferred to the tip of the tool with enough consistency to produce any kind of normal writing.
However, several of the tools here were particularly fun when you applied ink to the page first and then used the tool to spread the ink across the page. This was especially fun when multiple inks were applied to the page at one time.
Out of all the tools I used, there are a few that stand out as the tools most likely to get regular use in my ink rotation.
The silicone and metal spatulas are probably the most practical. They both suffer from the need to repeatedly re-dip into the ink, but they certainly get the job done. None of the tools replicate a paintbrush or the foam swab perfectly, but the silicone makeup spatulas in particular work in most situations and are tiny, re-useable, and ridiculously easy to clean. Meanwhile, the plastic ball-tipped cake decorating tools will likely become a new favorite way to quickly try new ink on different papers. They need to be dipped for each letter, but that forces me to slow down my handwriting and gives me the opportunity to switch inks if desired. The metal ones produce a similar result (and actually come in a larger variety of sizes), but the plastic ones are much lighter and more natural in the hand.
The two tools that surprised me the most and produced the craziest results were two additional cake decorating tools. I used a pipette to put two different inks on the page and used the tool to drag the inks across each other. The results produced some gorgeous colors. The blue curved plastic tool actually produces some really nice character and variation in the lines it creates.
I may not have found the perfect reusable solution yet to replace my foam swabs, but I definitely added several new unconventional tools to my ink desk.
I think I would call that a successful trip down a rabbit hole. Do you use any unconventional tools to test your inks?
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8 comments / Add your comment below
I always use Q–tips for swabbing . Its cheap and you can use both ends.
And Q-tips are compostable!
Yes absolutely you can use Q-tips! They aren’t my personal favorite way to search but I absolutely use them in a pinch!
If that is a foam swab, wouldn’t you be able to wash it out? I use those disposable eye shadow foam applicators and wash them out after swatching ink. They are still going strong after 3 years.
Interesting idea I will try this and report back!
What's the tool that looks a bit like a scallop shell? Have you thought about doing a video showing how to use these nifty new tools?
And on what are you writing your dissertation?
Hi Ruth! My PhD is in Health Services, Outcomes and Policy and my dissertation work is focused on the impact of medication information seeking behaviors on medication knowledge and beliefs in older adults starting new chronic medications! I’m in the final count down to my defense so I won’t have time to do a video in the next several weeks but I will keep that in mind! In the meantime the scallop tool didn’t work great for writing when dipped, but it did work with ink already on the page to create multiple thin parallel lines.
I like a folded nib for doing a big swab and showing giant lettering with shading. I also like a waterbrush for seeing how ink looks when washed across the page.