Making Ink

As part of my research into Renaissance collections of antiquities, I often find myself reading manuscripts and archival documents that have been written by hand. The distinctive sepia brown ink used in these texts can be recognised as iron gall ink, which was originally black but has faded over the intervening centuries. Ink enthusiasts refer to Pliny’s Natural History (34.26) as the earliest reference to it, although Pliny is speaking of the chemical reaction rather than making ink.

I am always up for a little bit of experimental archaeology, or just trying something new to apply to my own artwork, so I thought I would give making it a shot. First up was the difficulty in finding oak galls in Australia. Obviously, we are not a country resplendent with oak trees so I put out my feelers to my network. Fortunately for me, a few people I know are involved with the SCA (Society for Creative Anachronism) and one of them pointed me to Kraft Kolour. I already knew about this seller, due to my love of tie-dye, but it had never occurred to me that they might sell galls. Apparently, people use them for natural dyeing too.

mortar and pestle next to paper bag filled with oak galls

I ordered whole galls rather than the crushed variety because I was aiming for authenticity. I also purchased ferrous sulphate and gum arabic. Any of these ingredients would be accessible during the Renaissance – the galls come from wasps laying their eggs in the leaves of oak trees and the trees forming tannin-rich lumps in response. A rusty nail can be used in place of ferrous sulphate, but the powdered version was also available. Gum arabic is tree resin, usually acacia, but not species-specific.

large pieces of nuts in bowl

Crushing the gall nuts with a mortar and pestle is hard work.

partly crushed nuts in bowl

Really hard work.

mortar and pestle with fine powder inside

But eventually I had it ground down finely enough.

demineralised water bottle, brown paper bag, glass filled with frothy brown liquid

Most recipes call for rainwater. Some suggest vinegar or wine, which were considered purer than water. Considering that rainwater is unlikely to be of high quality in my suburban backyard, I added demineralised water so that there aren’t any other minerals to interact with the iron when I add it later.

jar with brown liquid covered with with guaze

Some gauze and a hair-tie to hold it in place so the bugs stay out while I leave it to sit in the sun for a few days.

glass with brown liquid, two white jars

After three days I strained the liquid through the gauze to get this milky coffee looking fluid. Other examples I have seen online look a lot darker so I was a bit worried about it. If everything goes wrong I also bought some powdered tannic acid, and apparently tea bags can also be used to make this kind of ink.

glass with brown fluid, two jars, measuring cup with water

I am a bad scientist, so I’ve averaged out the quantities used in different recipes so that I have mixed a teaspoon of ferrous sulphate in 25 ml of water. Then I added it to the gall liquid.

Look at the iron sulphate reacting with the tannic acid!

glass with ink in it

Oooh, nice and inky.

two small bottles of black ink

I made enough ink for two little bottles.

dip pen resting on white paper

My weapon of choice. A Speedball crow quill. There are lots of different dip pens out there but this is my favourite to use for writing and drawing.

"Lauren" written in ink on white paper

The ink looks dark purple when wet and darkens over a minute or so to charcoal black. Ideally, the black will be waterproof when dry but…

scrawly text reads "Lauren" and is smeared by water

I poured water over my dried ink and there was some bleeding. It could have been worse. I retested with some writing that I allowed to dry for three hours, I think a few days would be even better but I am very impatient.

text says "Trying out the ink" with water splattered over the top

That looks better. As an ink to write with, it needed only a little of the gum arabic mixed in for thickening. In any case, four hundred years from now this writing would be a lovely sepia brown like the humanist manuscripts that have preserved so many of our ancient texts. It’s really tactile too- which I wouldn’t have known because I would never, ever touch the ink on an old manuscript – but I can touch this and feel the words.

Here’s a splash test a week later when the ink has cured more. I think this is a success. There was a little smudging when I rubbed it with a cloth, but not much, and I am sure that it would hold up well over time.

Text says "testing the permanence of the ink" with water splattered over the top. The ink has not run.

– Lauren Murphy