It's a series of (really poorly labeled) tubes. . .
August 5, 2010 9:44 PM   Subscribe

Biomed folks! Please give me your tips, tricks and tools for writing legibly on Eppendorf tubes!

On paper, my handwriting's okay. It's not total crap, and it can be easily read by strangers, but it's not exactly Palmer method. If I were grading it, I'd give it a good, solid B.

On Eppy tubes, unfortunately, it's more of a C-, and it drives me nuts. I'm just finishing my first year in grad school for cell biology, and I want very badly to improve this. Every day, I'm writing on tubes that members of my lab and I will be using for months and years to come, and I'd like those tubes to be as easy to sort, find, and use as possible. In our freezer, there are tubes labeled years ago by former a former lab member in a fine, crisp, and regular hand that looks all but laser printed. I'd like to be able to do that.

I'd also like to find the best pens for the job. My current faves are black, indigo, red, and berry ultra-fine Sharpies. (The other Sharpie colors aren't really opaque enough.) These are alright, I guess, but I'd like to find something narrower, and it'd be really good to have a few more usable colors. I am all about the color coding.

I've tried those little tube-dots, and they're okay but not great. You can't really write on them with ballpoint, and if you write on them with Sharpie, the ink has a tendency to over-saturate the paper and bleed. (I do understand that I may be Doing It Wrong-- and if you can explain to me how, I'd be most grateful.)

In closing, I know this is kind of a stupid thing to worry over-- but I'm sick of looking at my tubes and thinking "God damn it" several times a day, every day.

Thanks in advance for your help.
posted by palmcorder_yajna to Science & Nature (17 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Learn an architect's style of block writing (example). It is efficient and wholly legible, IMO.

You might head over to an art supply store and look for narrower permanent and glass ink markers.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 9:54 PM on August 5, 2010

Writing legibly on the side of the tube is basically impossible, in my experience. Write on lab tape and then wrap it around the tube. We never put anything important on the top—any information there would have to be double-checked against the side.
posted by grouse at 9:56 PM on August 5, 2010

Fisher pens are harder than sharpies, so you may find them more legible (and certainly longer-lasting.)

You may be using a less-than-ideal tube label. I've had good luck with Cryobabies. They have more of a plasticy surface than a paper one, so the ink doesn't run. Mr. Pangolin swears by tough spots, which are a similar material and come in many fun colors
posted by juliapangolin at 10:15 PM on August 5, 2010

For me, I tend to write better when the tubes are sitting in a rack like this. I think the main difference is that I can rest my wrist on the tube holder when I'm writing, rather than awkwardly holding the tube up myself.
posted by extramundane at 10:23 PM on August 5, 2010

Seconding the wrapping of tape around the little 1.5-ml eppi tube to write on the side. If you're writing on the top, just use the little circular stickers made to go on the top of the tube but write what you need to while the sticker is still on the sheet and then transfer it to the lid. Whenever you're dealing with the small eppi tubes use the thin tipped sharpies. With the bigger 15- and 50-ml conical tubes it's easier to write the long way (aka holding the cap to the side).
posted by kthxbi at 11:20 PM on August 5, 2010

My general rule was if I was, say, doing a transient transfection and needed 72 tubes for DNA I would just snap them all shut, throw them in a rack, and scrawl on their tops. If it was a tube that was going to stick around in the fridge or freezer I used the circle stickers.
posted by kthxbi at 11:27 PM on August 5, 2010

Get a bunch of thick sharpie markers in the lighter colors -- red, orange, yellow, even green works. Then, you can label the top or side of the tube with a splash or area of color, and then write on top of that in a smaller black sharpie. A third of my dissertation relied on ROYGBlueBrownPink coloring of samples. It's a great way to group together lab things, and it requires no writing skills.
posted by Peter Petridish at 12:29 AM on August 6, 2010

In my brief time in biochemistry labs, it looked like a thin Sharpie tip was the standard, either in the form kthxbi linked or as a double-ended marker with a thicker "fine" point on the other. Sharpie makes an "industrial" ink formulation that is supposedly more durable, and if you're looking for very fine lines and hang the expense, then Staedtler is the way to go. I cannot attest to the Staedtler ink's stability in the cold, though.

Supposedly, though, the very best were a special, discontinued line of Fisher markers. The ink was resistant to all kinds of alcohol, water, acetone, xylenes, heat, cold, steam, etc., and the tip never got squashed and you could write on wetted surfaces and by all accounts they were just pure dead magic. A company rep came by with a few out of his personal stash, and I overheard people talking about them for the rest of the afternoon. They looked like the regular ones, though, and sometimes I wonder whether that rep didn't just make us all a giant, walking placebo-effect demonstration.
posted by d. z. wang at 12:56 AM on August 6, 2010

Oh man, I'm awesome at writing on Eppendorf tubes. For me the key is to use a flat surface to support both the tube and my wrist rather than trying to hold the tube up in the air with my hand.

To label the lid, I generally place the open tube upside down on the bench, hold the lid down flat using my thumb and index finger, and curl my other three fingers loosely around the tube. To label the side, I generally close the tube (just to get the lid out of the way), lay it on its side on the bench, and again hold it with my thumb and index finger. In each case, I anchor my wrists and hands on the bench for stability while writing; I get the best results when I move only the fingers of my writing hand, keeping everything else as still as possible.

You've probably noticed that on the side of the tube, horizontal strokes tend to skitter all over the place due to the curved surface. I have found that it helps immensely to use a slight upward diagonal rather than a true horizontal for these. In fact, my printing ends up looking like a less stylized version of the architect's block writing linked above by Blazecock.
posted by purplemonkie at 2:11 AM on August 6, 2010

Tough-Tags come on sheets for laser printing and are awesome - we use them for repetitive labeling tasks like aliquoting reagents. You can get printable Cryo-Tags also if you need the extra resistance.
posted by Flannery Culp at 3:46 AM on August 6, 2010

Here are the things I focus on. Basically, as with all other things in lab, obsessive meticulousness pays off:

-Above all (and it sounds like this is the thing you're lacking) nice regular block printing. In straight lines. I can fit 4 lines of text in on the lid, if I'm being careful. I usually do this while holding the tube, but most people write on tubes while they are in the rack. You may need to practice your handwriting - try taking notes during seminars or group meeting in block writing, for example. You can change your handwriting with time and practice.
-Some cheaper Eppendorf brands - excuse me, microcentrifuge tube brands - are worse for writing on than others - the writing surfaces look a little glossier and the ink doesn't stick well. If you're using those, switch brands.
-All the most important things for picking a tube out of a freezer box go on the tube lid, even if you will duplicate the info on the side. (If you're taking things out of the -80°, you don't want the door open or the box out for very long, and things will take longer if you have to take out each tube and read the side.) So, for example, for a DNA prep, the DNA name and concentration go on top but things like the 260:280 ratio go on the side, while a protein prep might have mutant name and concentration on top and growth conditions on the side.
-Crisp new ultra-fine markers. (I'm usually fine with Sharpies, generally in black, blue, green, purple, brown, or red - as you say, a few of the colors are too light.)
-Multiple colors. First, you can use color combinations to denote different sorts of things (e.g. all my forward primers are labeled in green, while reverse primers are red.) Second, when you are cramming a lot of text onto one top, it can make it easier to read, in my opinion. (For example, I label tubes with DNA with the DNA name etc in one color, the concentration below in another color, and then any further text (like the date) below that in the first color.)
-Symbols. As with the multiple colors, you're trying to save yourself space. When I was screening a massive number of mutants recently, I used various symbols to keep straight which came from which plates, etc.
-Use the side of the tube too - but only the square bit that has a texture like the cap, since that's the easiest bit to write on. Write perpendicular to the cap, i.e. begin a line at the end right near the cap and end on the end closer to the bottom. This way, you avoid some of the problems of writing on a curvy surface, because the curve is in a direction perpendicular to your lines of text.
-And yeah, screw those labels (or tape labels.) They're fine for short amounts of time, but after a few years, they usually end up falling off - they get soggy and tear or the adhesive just starts giving out and they fall off - leaving you with an important but unlabeled tube, which is everyone's nightmare. Marker fades, which is frustrating, but (unless you work with a lot of solvents) it is slower to leave you with a completely unidentifiable tube.

Wow, this makes me look really OCD. Though I suppose that's not inaccurate; you should see the patterns in my pipette tip boxes...
posted by ubersturm at 8:15 AM on August 6, 2010 [1 favorite]

One more in favor of the lab tape. Ball point pen on lab tape wrapped around the tube really is the only way I have found to make sure that the writing is legible... AND the writing is much less likely to be washed away by a few errant drops of ethanol (as happens to me frequently with sharpie ink).
posted by palacewalls at 9:11 AM on August 6, 2010

Ditto uberstum's comments.

We don't use eppindorf tubes, but we do use very similar vials that are archived for very long times.

There are only two labeling methods that haven't caused enormous problems: direct writing with an industrial Sharpie and acrylic-coated ink-printed labels. Don't use: grease pencils, ball-point or gel or pencil on paper labels, laser-printed labels or thermal printer labels. The laser-printed labels fade and flake off in a couple of years at freezer temperatures, inkjet labels are water and solvent soluble and thermal labels---extra evil--- fade to blank paper after a couple of years.

Dymo and Brother make good label makers. We particularly like the Brother p-touch products. I've got Brother labels that have been in archival storage for 25 years which are still as clear as the day they were printed. They look great in evidence photos too. This is the gold standard, imo. In my lab, if you're going to be keeping anything for any length of time, we insist on the acrylic labels.

For temporary containment, like work-up or prep glassware, industrial sharpies are fine. Practice a legible print. It doesn't have to be neat, just legible by someone else. I find block print to be less clear than upper and lowercase printing. It will only take a few weeks to learn and will pay off for the rest of your career.
posted by bonehead at 9:30 AM on August 6, 2010

Response by poster: Wow!

I'd thought that this question was too obscure (and frankly, too dumb and FAIL-ridden) to get more than ~0-3 responses, but look at this! You all are awesome! (Indeed, I don't think I'll be marking best answers here, because you're pretty much all the best.)

Though I didn't realize it when I posted the question, your collective advice is coming at the best possible time. On Monday, I'm going to be running mini-preps of about 100 samples, so I'll get a chance to try some of this advice out then. I'm going to practice that architect's block-printing thing over the weekend.

And follow-up question to Bonehead: How do the Dymo and Brother labels stand up to heat, cold, ethanol, and moisture? I've got tubes that need to go into 65 degree hot water baths, a -70 degree freezer, and liquid nitrogen. (Not the exact same tubes, obviously.) I doubt that I'll be able to get the lab to spring for one of these gadgets, but if the labels are rugged enough, and it's not too outrageously expensive, I'd be more than willing to splash out for one myself.
posted by palmcorder_yajna at 9:55 AM on August 6, 2010

The fancy Brother models run about $100 or so, but we've found the hand-held models on sale for $30 or so. They last for at least five years of daily use.

We use a lot of solvents. We're a trace organic chem lab basically. The chemical resistance of the acrylic labels is very good, certainly better than anything else.

I'm not as confident about their thermal stability. I've had them in +60C baths without problem and we generally store at -40C (fine). We don't use LN2 for storage.
posted by bonehead at 11:33 AM on August 6, 2010

I haven't tested their long term stability - but I recently gave up on my own handwriting and started using the Cryo-Tags. It has been a huge improvement.

Nthing the difference between tube manufacturers - or even different batches. Ink just doesn't seem to stick to some tubes.
posted by lab.beetle at 8:10 PM on August 6, 2010

I'm an undergrad who spends her summers doing Science! so I have a lot of practice being overly humble and self-deprecating. So please excuse if this is dumb. But:

It seems to me like the best way to label tubes is to put the least information possible on each tube (a sample number, an abbreviation that identifies the project, and perhaps your initials) and then label the box very well and keep detailed external records linked to the tubes by the sample numbers.
posted by i_am_a_fiesta at 8:18 PM on August 6, 2010

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