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Ink Making!

A few weeks ago we had a pilot ink making tutorial here at the Museum.  Here are some images and explanations of the process, which resulted in use-able ink!  It all started with a few Oak Galls (the primary ingredient in Iron Gall Ink).

Oak galls form when the Gall Wasp lays eggs by infesting the leaf or twig of an Oak tree.  This infestation causes a round, lightweight growth or swelling on the tree where the larvae of the wasp develop until they hatch.

Oak_Galls_BeforeThe material found inside these galls (which we accessed by smashing them inside a t-shirt) is the primary ingredient that, when mixed with Ferrous Sulfate and gum arabic, produces a purple-black or brown-blank ink.


crushed_gallsWe used a mortar pestle to crush the galls into a fine dust,

Mortar_pestlesifted out the large pieces,


Siftedmixed the dust with water, and let it sit for 4 days so that the tannins would infuse.

BottleWe met at the Museum on a beautiful Sunday morning to finish the process.


There’s something magical about the ink-making process, and I’m not only referring to the fact that our binding agent came from a purveyor that specializes in products for use during ritual, “derived from plants that aid in spiritual attainment” and made “following astrologically auspicious times and dates.” Given that our ink-making tutorial in the back of the museum this past weekend was largely experimental, we probably needed all the auspices we could get.


By definition the magic(k) of any alchemical undertaking lies in the transformation, ideally from base metal into gold, and in our case from raw, organic materials into a medium for mark-making and communication. From the mundane to the transcendent—not bad for a Sunday morning and a hot plate.


Two inks were on the docket for the day, one for writing and one for printing, instructions for both of which date back centuries (and now can be found online.) The writing ink was already underway—it had begun with the collection and subsequent pulverization of 2 ounces worth of oak galls, bulbous, hollow growths that form on oak trees when a certain type of wasp lays eggs in the bark. Once sufficiently smashed and ground, the now-powdered galls had been mixed with one pint of water and let to further macerate and soak overnight, leaving us with a pint of brown, silty liquid. The idea was to get enough brown, not-as-silty liquid to eventually yield of about a cup of ink and so the gall-mixture was drained of the bottle and strained, smelling a lot like pumpkin innards along the way.


Now for the science, or at least the more scientific sounding ingredient: ferrous sulfate. Known more anciently as copperas and as green vitriol, ferrous sulfate is light green, like oxidized copper (!) but turned our gall-mixture a more appropriate inky black. The last step was to add gum arabic, a binder used often in inks, paints, and other art supplies. Our ink was thin but copious, and without a quill or nib in hand, worked perfectly when applied via brush.

Making iron-gall ink is attractive in its relative simplicity and mutability—you can use acorns and steel wool in a pinch. In contrast, our printing ink recipe had the improved distinctions of looking and sounding impressively antiquated and requiring some heat.

PigmentsWe followed our three-step recipe to a tee—linseed oil, juniper gum (our magical binder), smoke-black pigment—and yet always felt like we might be doing something wrong—not enough heat, too much heat, more stirring.Mixing_blackThe directness of our Venetian instructions seemed lost in translation and across the years as our modern minds unwittingly tried to complicate matters. Regardless, my favorite new fact of our entire endeavor, in a morning filled with discovery, came here: Lamp black pigment was traditionally produced by collecting soot, also known as lampblack, from oil lamps. It makes so much sense and yet the tangibility and obviousness of such an etymology and invention I found both endearing and illuminating. But thoughts of lamp-lined streets in Dickensian London aside, when all was added together, it certainly gave us a blacker-than-black concoction that slowly, slowly condensed over our electric flame.

FinishedOther recipes suggested lighting the vapors on fire three times or dipping an oyster shell in the ink to test for proper viscosity but we opted to rely on an equally imprecise, though perhaps more reliable, method, eyeballing it. Unfortunately, less than an hour on a hot plate, outdoors, was not enough to properly reduce and thicken our ink to the “required degree of consistency,” but at least we were flushing out some of the centuries-old particulars for next time.

When it was all said and done, we were able to doodle with some fresh Iron gall ink and have the start of our very own printing ink.  The next step is to get our Iron Hand Press up an running so we can print our first broadside!

By Emma Drew (Volunteer)

Photos by Alexandra Jane Williams