“It’s trial and error, a lot of it,” Thompson told me on a recent visit to Organics Studio’s world headquarters: a large, comfortably cluttered shed behind his house in Brunswick, Md., a railroad town outside of Frederick.
Gallon jugs of distilled water sat on the floor. Jars of powdered dyes were stacked atop a table next to a digital scale and a hot plate. The top of the workbench was stained in blue hues — azure, cerulean, indigo — and an open composition book was inked with test swatches and recipes.
“I spend all day working in a clean room,” Thompson said. The 27-year-old works at a pharmaceutical company in Gaithersburg, donning protective coveralls and pulling hairnets over his long red locks and beard. In the shed, Thompson can literally let his hair down.
Fountain pens are in the midst of a revival, embraced by those who seek a canvas more interesting than the blank face of a smartphone. You can spend a lot on a fancy fountain pen — from hundreds to thousands of dollars. A small-batch ink costs a lot less. Retailers sell Thompson’s 55 milliliter bottles for $13 a piece.
Thompson caught the fountain pen bug in high school, when his grandmother gave him an old Sheaffer Snorkel, a writing instrument that in the 1950s revolutionized the pen world. You fill it by extending a tube that emerges from under the nib like the proboscis of a mosquito and dipping it in the ink bottle.
When Thompson was an undergrad studying chemistry at the University of Maryland, he got a job at Bertram’s Inkwell, a fountain pen shop then in White Flint Mall. He learned about the explosion of limited-production inks that come in delightful colors or have interesting properties. Owner Bert Oser encouraged Thompson to make his own.
“Bert, knowing my background was in chemistry, said, ‘Hey you could make these inks.’ He was the one who pushed me to first think about it.”
That was in 2012. Thompson pored over old scientific journal articles about ink. At the time, he was living in a dorm at the University of Maryland College Park. He would wait for students to go to bed, then walk down the hall to the communal bathroom and experiment.
“The next morning the sink would be stained blue and red, and they’d be wondering who did it,” Thompson said. “It was super small-scale, like in Mason jars more or less.”
After college, his mom’s kitchen in Knoxville, Md., near Harpers Ferry became the cook shop.
“She supported the ink thing, but it was messy, as you can imagine.”
Now Thompson and his wife, Tessa, have their own place. He can experiment in the shed. Tessa pitches in. So does Thompson’s sister Brianna. His friend Sean Gallup goes with him to fountain pen shows, where Organics Studio displays its wares.
Thompson is especially celebrated for making inks that have a unique sheen: They go on looking one color, but from different angles appear a different hue. Some look blue in the bottle then shade to red on the paper, the result of dyes that are extremely soluble, able to be added in volume to the water. Rather than sinking into the paper, the dye crystallizes on its surface, reflecting the light in captivating ways.
“Organics Studio” is a play on Thompson’s field of study: organic chemistry. He started out naming his homemade ink after elements on the periodic table before realizing a lot of elements have boring names. Now Thompson’s inks are named after famous authors, including Emily Dickinson (violet), Aldous Huxley (turquoise), James Joyce (green) and Henry David Thoreau (blue, with a red sheen).
“People who are into these things are passionate, artistic,” Thompson said of his customers. “They enjoy the novelty of discovery.”
So does he. While ink may not run in Thompson’s veins, it is on his skin. Tattooed atop his right pointer finger is a fountain pen nib.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/john-kelly.