Making your own ink is not complicated and writing with a traditional quill is lots of fun. Time to polish up your calligraphy skills and write some letters.
Historical inks have been made on different bases;
Carbon. The earliest black inks were for the majority carbon based (soot), Pliny the Elder mentions in his books that black ink is made with soot from baths and furnaces. Soot is very difficult to dissolve in a liquid.
Mineral. For example the Dead Sea Scrolls (on display in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem) were written with black and red ink, the red ink being made with red cinnabar, a toxic mercury sulfide mineral. (1) These were written on parchment and papyrus.
Animal. In the fifth century CE Roman law mandated that only emperors could write with purple ink made from burned Murex shells, (2) implicating they were used as an ink.
Plant Based. Made with oak galls, pistachio galls, pomegranate rinds (in the middle east), walnut husks and other tannin rich materials.
Iron gall ink has been the go-to ink for the most important historical manuscripts. Codex Sinaiticus (c. 330–360), the oldest, most complete surviving bible, has been written in iron gall ink. Da Vinci made his drawings with the same. Because the iron gall ink was the most stable, water resistant and permanent, it was the standard writing ink in Europe for over 1400 years. Only in the 20th century its use and production declined, when other waterproof formulas appeared that made it easier to write on the thin paper that replaced papyrus, parchment and handmade cotton paper.
Fun fact; “Invisible” ink would be made from oak galls without the ferrous sulfate, afterwards made visible by washing the papyrus with rusty water. (3)
At some point recipes were regulated and standardised to insure quality. Too much use of iron was already known to cause iron rot, just like in textiles, but not enough iron would make the ink fade.
An example of standardisation from 1933;
German regulation for Urkundentinte inks.
In a litre of ink there must be at least 27 g of tannic acid and gallic acid, and at least 4 g of iron content. The maximum iron content is 6 g/l.
After 14 days' storage in a glass container the ink must not have stained the glass or show sedimentation.
Eight-day-old writings, after washing with water and alcohol, must remain very dark.
The ink must flow easily from the pen, and may not be sticky even immediately after drying.
Today, iron gall ink is still being made by a handful of producers. In Israel we still use it to write sacred texts on parchments for Torah scrolls, mezuza’s (a parchment mini scroll in a decorative box attached to every doorpost in a Jewish home), and tefilin (phylacteries). The recipes and methods for these inks are closely guarded secrets that pass from generation to generation, but I have been lucky to have received a lot of information from one of these last ink makers to pass on to you.
The difference between ink and watercolour.
If we want, we can make an ink-like wash by boiling down a natural dye to a very concentrated solution and filtering it. What remains is a watercolour like wash, you can use for painting with. However, because there was no binder used, the pigments will lay on the surface of the paper. The paint will be matte. On thin paper the fluid may feather.
When we make inks, we use Gom Arabic, which will perform as a binder and a thickener. It will make a connection between the paper and the ink, and leaves a pleasant gloss. The stroke will not spread beyond what was intended. Using too much Gom Arabic will cause letters to flake, and surfaces to crack upon bending. Using other thickeners such as guar gum would help with the flow of the ink, but would not ‘glue’ the ink to the paper. Inks made from such mixtures would easily cause letters to fall from the parchments over time.
Step 1 The Main Ingredients in your Ink.
You can make a good ink from any tannin rich material, I tried the following;
Gall nuts (not all gall nuts are the same, more about the in the PDF)
Your materials should be crushed or powdered. Use a hammer and a towel, or grind in a coffee grinder, or purchase already ground.
The tech side: By mixing tannin with ferrous sulfate, a water-soluble ferrous tannate complex is formed. Because this mixture is soluble, the ink is able to penetrate the paper surface, making it difficult to erase. When the ferrous tannate complex is exposed to air, it converts to a ferric tannate, which is a darker pigment. This product is not water-soluble, making the ink water proof.
To extract the tannates from our materials, there are three methods.
1 - ”Instant” ink recipes use powdered or crushed galls to be mixed with water or other liquid.
2 - Boil your materials for several hours to release the tannins.
3 - Mould. The third, most time-consuming preparations involve fermentation of tannic materials by mould. This is the traditional way of preparing gall nuts for Kosher ink, used for sacred texts.
This fermentation process generally produces the richest, blackest inks. The mould digests the gallo-tannic acid of the gall nuts by enzymes, and the solution is transformed to gallic acid which floats on the top beneath the layer of mould.
Gallic acid will produce a purer black color in reaction with iron sulfate, while gallo-tannic acid will produce a comparatively browner pigment.
Making Ink from ingredients without tannin.
You can make a simple ink without the ferrous-tannate complex. You should always use materials that have high light-fastness by nature. You can use for example for reds; Lac or Cochineal, concentrated madder would work as well. Please notice that adding iron to these would change the colour from red/pink to purple. Buckthorn berries are traditionally used to make blue and green (with alum) ink. They are surprisingly light-fast.
Making inks from fugitive ingredients.
There is no point making ink with berries (besides buckthorn or Persian berries), cabbage or black beans. it would be just as fugitive as using them to dye a fabric with. There are so many materials available for you to use, wasting time and resources on something that would not last seems a shame.
Water of vinegar?
Most historical recipes call for vinegar, wine or beer. We have to understand the why behind this before copying the method. Most people would drink beer or wines, instead of water (4), it was considered the better beverage. Using vinegar, beer or wine would keep your ink good for a longer period of time. Unfortunately adding so much acidity is not good for your paper, and accelerates iron rot. The ink itself will already be slightly acidic because of fermentation processes taking place. I recommend using distilled or filtered water (no chlorine!) and adding a preservative of some sort. (See below.) Using a little bit of vinegar will add to the gloss of your final product.
Step 2 Filtering is key.
You are making first a very concentrated bath from your dye stuff or tannin of choice., this must now be filtered to create a clean and clear ink. You can use a coffee filter for this or a piece of cloth. Filter twice to be on the safe side.
Step 3 Adding Gom Arabic.
Adding your gom Arabic is tricky, it needs to be the right amount, and it is very hard to dissolve in water. Traditional ink makers boil a separate batch of gom Arabic and combine it with the concentrated dye bath.
Adding a few drops of honey can help give the ink a subtle flow.
A good ink will take a second to drip from the back of a spoon, and is clear, shiny and without small particles floating in it.
Step 4 Adding Ferrous Sulfate
Ferrous sulfate is what will darken your ink. You will be ablate see the colour change immediately. You can skip this if you want to work with light coloured inks for use in paintings for example.
Storing your inks.
If you have ever left a dye bath outside for a few days, you know they are prone to mould. To prevent mould growth on your inks, use a natural preservative; add a clove or two, or use a few drops of oregano oil. These will prevent mould growing. Should you have some mould regardless of your precautions, scoop it off with a small piece of paper, the mould itself should not influence your product. Keep stores cool and dark in small bottles. Always shake the bottle before use.
Traditional ink recipe from Israel;
100 grams of gall-nuts
20 grams of ferrous sulfate
20 g resin of the acacia tree (Gom Arabic)
Or the sap of the Pistacia tree.
5 grams of alum - not a must. In this recipe it functions as a preservative.
1. Take the gall-nuts and break them up (or use powder) and cover them with water.
Leave this mixture soak in the sun for two days.
2. Strain the water from the pot into another vessel.
3. Add the ferrous sulfate and wood resin to this water (and the alum if desired)
4. Mix well and leave in the sun for 7 more days.
5. The ink is ready for writing, you should give it a good stir and check the texture on the parchment.
The ink will start out brown when writing, turns to grey and will turn black once exposed to oxygen.
Sometimes logwood is added to the ink to deepen the colour, but then it is no longer waterproof.
I have made a file with perfected step-by-step recipes for making ink, available here. If you have tried any of my recipes or methods, feel free to share your inspirational photos on the “shared gallery” page on this website.
Easy starter kit for making ink here.
Give-away. I am giving away a set of these handmade inks for you to make something beautiful with. All you have to do is sign up for the newsletter on the bottom of this page and write 'ink' in the remark field. I will pull out a winner by the end of the week.