Mabie Todd is one of those vintage pen manufacturers that everyone’s heard of, but I confess I’ve never used one, or even held one. A Google suggests that it started as an American company in NYC pre-1900, but became established as a quintessentially British brand that persisted until the 1950s, long after the American operations ended.
And now the Mabie Todd brand is back.
I’m always worried when a vintage name is resurrected that it’ll be simply used for brand value, slapping an old logo on an inferior product that has little resemblance to the originals (Esterbrook, for example). Thankfully, that doesn’t seem to be the case here.
The new Mabie Todd has stated plans for a UK-made fountain pen, bespoke nibs and a full range of UK-made inks under the sub-brand of “Blackbird Inks“. The first six colours are available now.
And here they are.
I received six tiny glass sample bottles for free to review. The little glass bottles are super cute, but a word of warning: the neck is tiny. You can fit a converter in, but I was unable to fill a TWSBI Eco because the section was too broad to fit in the hole. I didn’t even think about trying to fill a larger Montblanc or Pelikan piston filler.
I did my usual swatches, plus samples on Rhodia and Tomoe and Mnemosyne paper, a splash on tracing paper, and I gave the three most interesting inks a good week’s run in a pen or two each.
The six bottles are tastefully labelled with a vintage-style logo, and the names are simply fabulous: Mabie Todd’s most famous vintage pens are the Swan and the Blackbird, and so each new ink is named after a British bird. The shades themselves have a dignified, vintage hue, without gimmicks like heavy sheen or shimmer.
OK, it’s a black. One of the few colours I simply can’t get excited about. This one is fine. It has some sheen when it goes down heavy (see above). It’s not the darkest black out there, and certainly not the wettest. I make all my swatches using three dips with a q-tip on Col-o-ring paper — that normally makes for a pretty heavy colour, but you can still see the Blackbird shading to grey.
This is a traditional royal blue, and at first I found it difficult to get excited about this too. It’s a bit of a plain colour, somewhat muted — compare it to Saltire below, which has so much more zing. In that sense it reminded me of the basic Pilot Blue-Black (which has always seemed more blue to me). But the shading is nice, and it’s a very easy colour on the eyes.
I tried it out in the wet, fine nib of my Dialog 3. More on that below…
Sand Martin Brown
Again, relatively low saturation, leaving lots of room for shading. A decently close match for Waterman Havana Brown on my swatches.
Aha, now you’ve got my attention. Murky green seems to be very “in” with manufacturers at the moment — witness Pelikan’s new ink of the year, Olivine. I adored Mallard Green. The shading is fantastic, and the colour is really interesting. While on the swatch it’s a great match for Monteverde’s own Olivine, from a nib it runs drier so the colour can express itself. My favourite property is the little bit of reddish sheen, which gives you the iridescence of the mallard’s feathers.
I gave this a run in my Graf Intuition Platino with broad nib.
This is a pretty, dusky aubergine or plum-skin purple. It shades heavily. I found it a reasonably close match for Montblanc Lavender Purple once dry, which is a good thing — Lavender Purple is one of my favourite inks.
I gave it a run in my TWSBI Eco B, and the Edison Beaumont. The Eco is extremely wet (it’s making my new Montblanc UNICEF blue look gorgeous), so naturally the Starling Purple ran darker than in the finer Beaumont.
Robin Red is a no-nonsense, fire-engine or pillar-box red — at least when you pile it on. The closest ink I’ve got to it I think is Kaweco Ruby Red.
I loaded it up into a Jinhao but really didn’t like the result, so stopped there.
The bottom line
For me, these inks have a couple of problems across the range.
First, I generally found them quite dry — for instance, the Kingfisher Blue in my Dialog 3 made the nib feel noticeably scratchier than when I replaced it with a much more lubricated equivalent, Noodler’s Manhattan Blue. On the plus side, dry inks dry faster!
Second, these are fairly unsaturated inks. When you’re practically pouring ink out onto a swatch card, this isn’t a problem — but put Robin Red into a fairly dry fine nib and the red looks faint.
As a fan of wet, saturated inks, these two factors cause me some issues.
Nonetheless, both Starling Purple and Mallard Green really stood out for me as lovely colours and perfectly named, too.
Each ink is available in these dinky 5ml bottles for £2, or 30ml for £5.95. That makes Blackbird more expensive per ml than Diamine or indeed the recent inks from Pure Pens. But you’re not exactly in Iroshizuku land (and I just bought the latest Montblanc LE ink for £30 for 50ml so I can’t complain).
I’m going to put my money where my mouth is and buy my own bottles of Mallard and Starling because I love the shades, and I very much wish the resurrected Mabie Todd the best of luck expanding the range and launching its pens. I’m a little disappointed though: if these inks had the flow of KWZ they’d be superb.
If you’d like to try the Blackbird Inks for yourself, you can get them here. A six-pack of samples is available at a special price of £10.