Testing Pens Helps Determine Applicability in Museum Object Labeling
by Helen Alten
A chromatography test shows how pen ink migrates and consists of different colored dyes.
For five years students in the MS 208: Applying Numbers to Collections Objects
classes have been testing commercial pens to help
make a determination as to which might be best for use in accessioning objects.
A simplified thin layer chromatography test using rubbing alcohol as the
carrier solvent shows which pens are primarily dye-based and which are
Light fade tests show if
pens might fade with time. Writing on various barrier layers show how the pen
might work in practical applications on various surfaces.
Here are some of the results and comments from
the chromatography tests:
Every student tested Sharpie pens. Invariably, the color migrated quickly and
strongly with the application of alcohol, regardless of pen color. The one
with the least movement was the Sanford Sharpie Industrial 13601, where the
colored center stayed unmoved but a gray halo was spread by the alcohol. Other
Sharpie black pens showed various colors, the most commonly recorded being dark
purple, blue and red with yellow at the outer edges. It is strongly recommended
that Sharpie pens not be used in museums.
Nearly every student tested the Micron Pigma pen. This pen does not move at all in alcohol or
exhibits only slight bleeding, which may be the result of not giving the ink adequate time to dry. However, the
Micron Pigma pen does not write on barrier coats or plastic films. It beads up
and smears. The recommendation is to
only use this pen for paper tags or permanent writing on cards.
The IDenti pen (Sakura) also bled for every student who did
a chromatograph test on it. A strong
black color radiated out from the line. No colors were noted.It is recommended not to use the IDenti pen
Only a few students tested the ZIG Millenium pen, but all
were impressed. Like the Pigma
Micron pen, it did not move at all in the chromatography study. It seemed not to fade (although our light
tests were limited by time) and wrote well on barrier coats without
smearing or beading. This might be the
best pen to use for those looking for a commercial pen to write on barrier
The Gelly Roll and Gelly Roll Genius by Sakura showed no
change in the chromatography tests of the four students who tried them. Because
these are roller ball pens, their usefulness for writing on base coats was
questioned, but are worth further examination.
The Vis-à-vis pen bled dramatically, with many students
comparing it to the Sharpie for strong color movement. No one noted different
colors in the lines. It is not recommended for museum use.
The black Sakura Permapaque pen had mixed results. It is labeled "pigment based." Half the students found it didn't bleed in
tests. The other half found it did bleed. Those that found it bled compared it
to the Micron Pigma pen, which they also found bled. This suggests that they might not have given
the ink time to dry completely before exposing it to alcohol. One student
wrote: "This test saw no difference between pigment and dye- based pens. The
two pens, where the make-up of the pen was known as pigment (Permapaque and
Micron pigma) both showed bleeding- but at different intensities from each other.
Furthermore, the run patterns exhibited by these two pigment based pens are
nearly identical to those for the ink based pens." The recommendation would be
that more tests should be run on the Permapaque pen before it is used on
Although most pens lying around offices quickly showed that they were inappropriate for use in collections areas, a few unusual pens,
tested by only one student, did not bleed in the alcohol chromatography
test. These were:
Opaque Paint Marker (silver) - this is a paint pen that is
not recommended for museum objects despite this test.
Skillcraft Free ink roller ball 0.5 - There were no signs of
color running even after several drops of alcohol. More testing might be needed. Again, the roller might make it less useful.
The Bic Velocity Gel did not bleed either. However, it did
not write at all on the clear transparency for Test 2 and would not
write on a barrier coat either.
Golden Fluid Acrylic in a TRIA marker- this is the paint and
empty marker supplied in the Northern States Conservation Center Labeling Kit
and recommended for writing on barrier coats.
Pilot V Razor Point - the student only noted that this did
Helen Alten is the
Director and Chief Objects Conservator of Northern States Conservation Center
and the instructor for the online course MS 208: Applying Numbers to Collections Objects. She has spent 25 years
working with small and large museum on preservation and conservation issues.