Ink Making – The Process of Figuring Things Out


I thought an update on the ink making was in order as it has been almost two weeks since my last post. Progress has been made and as usual when doing experiments, answers have been found and more questions have been found to unravel.

In making medieval-style inks one finds many different and varied recipes using a surprising variety of ingredients. And the first question that comes to mind when you see such a varied list of ingredients is “Why?”

Well, if they aren’t going to tell us, we’ll just have to make the inks the best we can by following their recipes and then altering them to see what quality of ink we get. And that is what I have been working on for the past two weeks.

Back to the problem of the Ferrous Sulfate (Copperas) separating out in the water. Originally I thought the problem was with the chemical having degraded. So I purchased a new bottle, and put that new chemical into the water overnight. It too separated out, … or so I thought: after consulting with someone having a Ph.D. in analytical chemistry it turns out the problem was most likely the water I was using.

The water was tap water. I had used tap water for this purpose before. It worked wonderfully. Of course that was tap water from Lake Michigan and was very soft. The tap water I have now is among the hardest tap water in the world, apparently. And so I was told how to test the precipitate of the Copperas in water.

1. Drain out most of the water and keep the precipitate.

2. Add to it a few drops of household vinegar.

If it bubbles what I have is Iron Carbonate if it doesn’t, I have Iron Oxide.

The analytical chemist was betting on Iron Carbonate.

It did not bubble so I had Iron Oxide, not sulfur falling out of solution. I kept the precipitate in the vinegar for a while just in case. It eventually took on the typical Iron Oxide color we all know as rust.

The solution in either case was to obtain distilled water to get away from the hard tap water, which I did. So what would the solution be in the middle ages where they did not have distilled water? Fresh clean rain water collected in a never before used earthen vessel.

I put some of the old copperas into the distilled water and again, the solution produced a yellow precipitate that did not bubble when vinegar was added to it. Now, I was stuck.

Or was I?

I took two empty plastic drinking water bottles and added a small amount of distilled water into each of them. I then added 1/8 teaspoon of old copperas to one and added 1/8 teaspoon of new copperas to the other. This test will find out if the problem is contamination of the class container the solutions were being put in, or if the problem is the chemical. Currently that experiment is in process and I should have some answers tomorrow morning.

In the meantime, as this only concerned my attempts to use and make invisible inks, I proceeded with my normal black ferrous oak gall inks.

I filled another clean empty drinking bottle with the solution I made from boiling oak galls in water and un-distilled vinegar. Into that bottle I added logwood dust. You will find logwood in many recipes for medieval ink including in kosher recipes for ink to be used to write the Torah. Ferrous oak gall ink does write black, but sometimes it isn’t a very dark black. The addition of logwood turns the ink very black indeed. Or at least it is supposed to. I am in the process of testing this.

The point of boiling (or soaking) the oak galls in water is to pull out the tannic acid in them. Removing the boiled oak galls leaves you with a tannic acid solution. This mixes with the other ingredients and is supposed to turn black.

I currently have five bottles for making black ink with different ingredients in them:

Bottle 1 – Tannic acid solution, vinegar, logwood and the old copperas

Bottle 2 – Tannic acid solution, vinegar, logwood and the new copperas

Bottle 3 – Tannic acid solution, vinegar, logwood, Copper Sulfate (Blue Vitriol) and the new copperas

Bottle 4 – Tannic acid solution, vinegar, Blue Vitriol and the new copperas

Bottle 5 – Tannic acid solution, new copperas, gum arabic

As you can see I have been busy and I am moving forward. I hope to get my next update to you sooner, along with some pictures of the inks on paper so that you may compare them.

2 responses to “Ink Making – The Process of Figuring Things Out

  1. Your blog is really fascinating, even for someone who does not pursue calligraphy. I especially appreciate how well-written and readable it is; it is not daunting to read and has a very welcoming tone. You present the information clearly and explain it well.

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