I was a loyal subscriber of the Birmingham Pen Company Pen Parcel ink subscription for several years. This habit meant I ended up with almost 100 bottles of their ink. Each color is named after a person, place or event related to their hometown of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and the designs of their bottles and packaging includes these thoughtful details. Overall, the packaging and branding for Birmingham looks great. When Birmingham decided to cease their subscription service and retool their company, I was disappointed but I understood the desire to find a way to, in a very competitive market, differentiate their business from all the other online pen shops. When I heard that they were ready to come back into the spotlight, I was thrilled to be a part of the process.
To provide some background, for several years, Birmingham Pen Company was releasing inks every month through their Pen Parcel ink subscription and then those ink colors (or some of them) were available for purchase on their web site. These inks were produced by a third party for Birmingham Pen Company and bottled by Birmingham Pen Company. The bottles were labelled with either “made in England” or “made in Germany” so the assumption was that the inks had been made by either Diamine or DeAtramentis for Birmingham.
About a year ago, Birmingham sold off all these inks and announced they would start making and selling their own inks. Of course, there were questions from ink users and collectors like myself. Why the change?
In building an overview of the new Birmingham Pen Company’s ink line, I decided I needed to hear from the creators about the changes to their ink line. Birmingham Pen Company is run by two brothers, Nick and Josh. Josh was kind enough to respond to my questions.
Q: Why did you decide to make your own inks? More control? Costs? Were you not getting the looks or colors that you wanted?
A: Nick and I had a long conversation a few years ago regarding the trajectory of our work. We concluded that ultimately we want to build a business that could last our lifetime (we’re both in our 30s), and to do that we’d need to build relationships that would last a lifetime. To build relationships that would last a lifetime, we needed to build products to do the same.
Without full control over the manufacturing process we were unable to react to all the opportunities we observed for product improvement. Manufacturing products in-house required a much larger investment compared to contract manufacturing through third parties, but having complete control of the process allows us to fine-tune every detail while implementing plans for continuous product improvement as we grow.
Q: Some of the new inks have similar names to previous colors but look different? Purposely? Accidentally?
A: Early in the ink manufacturing process we discovered that traditional water soluble dyes don’t react in a linear fashion when they’re combined to achieve particular colors. That is, there’s no obvious path to achieve a desired color based on the color characteristics of the base dyes. Dye colors change when they’re mixed with water, change unpredictably when mixed with each other, and then change further when calibrating the rest of a delivery ‘vehicle’ around the colorant. An ink ‘vehicle’ is the combination of chemicals used to deliver the colorant to substrate. In the case of our Traditional Inks, the colorant is a water soluble dye and the substrate would be paper. We calibrate our vehicle individually to every combination of various water soluble dyes. Our vehicle includes diluent (laboratory grade water), thickener, humectants, lubricants, surfactant, and preservative. Each of these ingredients is combined and refined over a 17 step process with the colorants for every bottle of Traditional Ink.
Our plan is to introduce an incredible variety of ink colors with a wide variety of properties… eventually hitting all of the original inks and more.
Q: Some ink color names have changed… is it because the ink colors are different or did Jeff Goldblum complain? (For context, one of the first inks I noticed from Birmingham was the Goldblum Independence Day Grey.)
A: Unfortunately, Jeff Goldblum has not contacted us. Growing up in the 90s, Nick and I are huge fans! The revised ink names are intentionally modified to a form with greater prospective longevity.
Q: Did you select the ink colors (currently released) because they were the best sellers of their previous incarnation? Or did you want to release the colors in a certain order?
A: We’ve arrived at our starting palette with a combination of searching for desired ink properties and discovering the capacity to tame particular dyes and dye combinations within a delivery vehicle. Ultimately, our objective is to provide the largest selection of fountain pen ink colors and properties worldwide.
Q: Are you planning to formulate all the previous colors in your inventory or do you plan to be a bit more targeted?
A: Our ambition is to achieve every color property we originally offered and much more!
Q: How will you choose what colors you create next? New shades? More colors from the back catalog?
A: We plan to introduce new ink characteristics and colors as we discover the symbiosis between the target ink properties and successful performance within a vehicle. We’re planning to have new inks just about every month for 2021! We’ll keep everyone informed with our email newsletter.
Thanks so much to Josh for taking the time to answer my questions and giving us a peek behind the secretive world of ink making. I am looking forward to seeing what the brothers create next and where their experiments will take them next.
So, let’s focus on the inks now:
Birmingham Pen Company currently offers three lines of ink: Traditional, Everlasting, and Twinkle inks. Traditional inks (starting at $9 for a 30ml) are classic water soluble fountain pen inks. Everlasting inks (prices start at $19 per bottle) are designed to be permanent and waterproof. Twinkle inks ($29 per bottle) are shimmer inks. Traditional and Everlasting inks are available in three different bottle sizes: 30ml, 60ml and 120ml. The Twinkle inks are only available in 60ml bottles.
The three boxes of ink I was sent included a massive assortment of their new Traditional and Twinkle inks. (Jesi will review the Everlasting inks soon.) Since receiving the box, several more colors were released and more will be coming in swift succession as Birmingham continues to fill out their offering.
I received 23 bottles of Birmingham Pen Company Traditional Fountain Pen Ink and four bottles of their Twinkle Ink. At first glance, I think that the previous reputation that Birmingham had developed for having dark, sooty, brooding ink colors is starting to lift. Many of the ink colors are clear, bright and downright cheerful.
From clockwise from top left: Point Park Fountain Turquoise, Kier Refinery Petroleum, Pennsylvania Railroad Boiler Steam, Winter Garden Snowflake, Highland Park Zoo Polar Bear, Shippingport Atomic Power Station Electron, Pittsburgh Bankers Ice Rink and Allegheny Observatory Celestial Blue.
The range of blues include several that do sheen: Ice Rink, Polar Bear, Snowflake, Fountain Turquiose, and Electron. Celestial Blue has a hint of sheen too but it will probably only be noticeable on Tomoe River paper.
In this photo, if I were to arrange the inks from most green to most blue, I would put Fountain Turquoise as the most green blue and Celestial Blue as the bluest blue. Ice Rink is more vivid blue. Snowflake, Polar Bear and Electon are aqua/turquoise colors that get progressively more blue (respectively).
From clockwise from top left: Forbes Field Argula, Pittsburgh Reduction Co. Aluminum Oxide, Carnegie Steel Co. Cold Steel, War of Currents Alternator Crimson, Edgar T. Steel Works Coking Coal, West Homestead Independence Gray and McClurg, Wade & Co. Locomotive.
The ink colors in this grouping are more familiar to fans of Birmingham. The bottom row are the smoky, sooty steel mill inspired shades reminiscent of Pittsburgh steel and iron works past.
From clockwise from top left: A Cat Named Sam Pop Art Purple, Southside Market Boysenberry, Waterfront Dusk, Allegheny River Twilight, Americus’s Oyster Bar Best Salmon hors d’oeuvre, Reymer & Bros Confectionery Salt Water Taffy, Gulf Tower Gerbera and Grant Street Weathered Brick.
This final grouping show a much brighter, optimistic picture of Birmingham inks and Pittsburgh. Many of these colors make me think of joyful, childhood summers filled with flowers, food and fun.
I have a massive assortment of Birmingham’s previous incarnations of ink colors but amazingly, I don’t have all of their original ink collection. I feel I do have enough to compare and comment on the differences between the new formulas and the previous incarnations. I’ve provided side-by-side photos of the inks I do have from the original ink line-up with it’s new version.
As mentioned in the interview, some ink names were changed slightly but the essence of the original name is still there. The four inks pictured above represent a good sampling of the color and characterstics between the Birmingham-made inks and the third party created inks. Southside Market Boysenberry is slightly more blue purple and does not have the sheen that the previous version had. Pop Art Purple is now more purple and less violet. Gulf Tower Gerbera is more pink than it was previously. Waterfront Dusk is now more of a reddish purple and not nearly as dark as the previous incarnation.
Some of the blue swatches I have to compare feel like the colors were flip-flopped. Polar Bear (new) looks more like the previous version of Snowflake and vice versa. The new formulations of both Celestial Blue and Ice Rink are both much more ultramarine where the previous versions have more of a phthalo blue tone. In this range of blues, Snowflake is the only one with a phthalo (slightly grey green undertone).
Once again, when I get into blue inks, I feel compelled to compare them to watercolors where I have terms to describe the colors. With high quality watercolors, there is not only some consistency in the naming of colors (not as fun as the names Birmingham gives to their inks) but the addition of the numbers (like PB29) which inidicates a specific pigment in making the color. Some watercolors have multiple numbers because they are made up from more than one pigment (i.e. Payne’s Grey which is usually made up of two to three pigments). BEyond the individual pigments, what makes each watercolor shade of Ultramarine different is the quality of the pigments, and the binders and fillers that are added to the paint (here’s a good breakdown of what goes into watercolor paint).
Using this language, helps me understand (or at least mentally process) fountain pen ink color variations. Since watercolors are also translucent, the comparison to fountain pen inks is pretty clear. And I feel like when ink makers start playing with blues, they start with the brilliance of an Ultramarine pigment. Celestial Blue and Ice Rink definitely feel Ultramarine to me. Polar Bear and Snowflake are more phthalo blue (green shade) IMHO.
The new formula of Petroleum is more green compared to the previous version’s bluish undertones.
The last page of comparisons I have is across the spectrum: Weathered Brick (new) is definitely more of a brick red compared to the more red wine color of the previous formulation. Salmon hors D’oeuvre is not as neon coral as the previous version. Independence Grey is more grey compared to the previous version which was almost black is was so saturated and dark. Finally, Argula is more of a low saturation yellow-green compared to the previous version which was a dark leafy spinach color.
I had not ever used Birmingham’s few shimmer inks in the previous incarnation so I was delighted to get a chance to try the new colors. The four bottles I received are all silver particle shimmers in Pennsylvania Canal Tributary Twinkle, Ohio River Steamboat Twinkle, 1993 Blizzard Twinkle and Mansfield Pure Milk Co Strawberry Twinkle… but for the sake of my poor typing fingers, I will refer to them as Tributary Twinkle, Steamboat Twinkle, Blizzard Twinkle and Strawberry Twinkle.
Strawberry Twinkle is a big gulp of Strawberry Milkshake delight topped with sparkles. It’s a glowing pinky-orange with a healthy dose of silver shimmer. To say this is my favorite new ink from Birmingham might be an understatement. Overall, Birmingham has had a reputation for featuring a lot of dark, brooding, soot-soaked ink colors but Strawberry Twinkle puts their murky reputation into question. Not so murky anymore!
I had only one ink that was ever kind of similar to Strawberry Twinkle and its a super-rare Asian ink that I can’t even remember how I got it. Starry Ink and Small Endowment/Ancient Charm are both much more coral orange compared to Strawberry Twinkle.
Both Steamboat Twinkle and Blizzard Twinkle are turquoise-based shimmer inks. Steamboat is much darker, more teal in color where Blizzard is more aqua. Both of these inks also have a reddish-pink sheen. They are double-hitter inks! I put several other shimmer inks beside these colors but they are not all that similar in color.
Pennsylvania Canal Tributary Twinkle (I mislabeled my swatches!) is a brilliant ultramarine blue with red sheen and silver shimmer. It is a pretty amazing combo. If you like J. Herbin 1679 Bleu Ocean or Diamine Jack Frost, Tributary Twinkle may be an ink for you to try. Even compared with the considerably more expensive Colorverse Cat, Tributary Twinkle may become a new shimmer favorite.
This was an epic overview of the new inks from Birmingham Pen Company. They have done some great work in trying to reformulate and match or improve their inks while making the inks themselves. For as an epic a project as it was to put together this overview, Nick and Josh are undertaking an equally daunting challenge. So far, I think the results are stellar. There are only a handful of small batch ink makers in the US and the market is as hungry for artisan inks as the coffee or beer market is for small batch brews (handy word for either coffee of beer!). I think Birmingham Pen Company, with their wide range of colors, formulations and quality packaging and presentation are ripe to corner the market.
If I had to choose a small selection of inks from their new offerings to start, I highly recommend Strawberry Twinkle, Independence Gray, Waterfront Dusk, Fountain Turquoise, Pennsylvania Railroad Boiler Steam and Coking Coal. Steamboat and Blizzard Twinkle are also strong contenders for a first purchase. If you don’t dig shimmer inks, I would substitute Snowflake and Ice Rink for Steamboat and Blizzard Twinkle and Salt Water Taffy for Strawberry Twinkle (I think they are the same inks just with shimmer but don’t hold me to it.)