Scribal Materials and Tools – Sand Myth or Real?

EDIT November 21, 2017: I receive various contacts regarding this blog post.  I appreciate them.  It seems that there is evidence of various sand materials having been used.  This comment from a reader was very helpful:

“I’d like to follow up on the blog about sand being used to dry ink. You were looking for citations. In the 1565 edition of Daniele Barbaro’s translation and commentary on Vitruvius,he remarks that the stone ammochrysus, made into a powder (i.e., sand) can be used to dry ink. Ammochrysus is a variety of mica (it is gold coloured and flaky).”

I keep this blog post up as I am loath to delete information I’ve provided.  People come back to it and reread it and cite it.  Therefor I am leaving up the post with this added edit at the top.  Hopefully people who return will see that I have updated the information.  This is what good researchers do.  They give their best information.  When they are given clear evidence of something new to them, a good researcher will go back and alter or fix the previously given information.  This way we can all grow and improve our knowledge base.

Thank you everyone who provided commentary and good information.


As a scribe we have a lot of tools and materials that are available to us to help make our art.  Some tools materials are well known such as the pen and ink, some are not so well known such as pergamenata or chalk and some are known but wrongly such as gum sandarac.  Scribal Tools and Materials will be an ongoing series that I will be doing to help my fellow scribes to learn more about what is out there.

Did medieval scribes really use sand to dry the ink?

Myth, But Rooted in Truth.

Who hasn’t read in a fictional book where a character pens something and then sprinkles sand on the ink to help make it dry faster?  I know I certainly have read it many times in various fiction books.  Try it sometime.When we stop and think about it we shouldn’t be surprised by that this just doesn’t work.  Think about sand.  It is tiny shards of stone and shells.  You can use water to help shape sand into some wonderful sculptures but the sand doesn’t help anything dry.  And even if it did work, the sand would be trapped in place by the ink forever creating letter shaped sandpaper.  If the sand did come out, then the remaining ink would show missing or discolored spots.  In short, when we think this through, putting sand on your wet ink to help it dry faster, is just a really bad idea!

So, where does it come from?  A very useful material to scribes called Gum Sandarac.  Gum Sandarac is the sap from an evergreen tree commonly known as Arar, Araar or Sictus Tree.  It can be made into a varnish, incense and for use in scribal arts.  Used correctly in scribal arts you take the powdered gum sandarac in a small linen bag and tap the bag on the writing surface in a tap and swipe motion.  Then you turn the writing surface on its edge.  You then tap the back of the writing surface knocking loose extra gum Sandarac and any larger particles.  Your writing surface has now been prepared to take calligraphy ink.  The Sandarac helps stop the ink from spidering and it helps create those hair thin lines.

Sandarac is a pouncing agent so when you hear, “You should pounce your page,” powdered Gum Sandarac is what is being talked about much of the time.  Sandarac is sometimes mixed with alum or chalk which are whitening agents.

Okay so how did we get from all of that to thinking that we used sand to dry the ink?

Even in the pre-1600 world gum sandarac was called gomme sandarach or some variation.  Like many things you use or reference often a short hand usage came about.  Sandarac was just shortened to “sand.”  Sometimes instead of using a linen bag a metal canister with holes perforating the top was used called a sander.  By the time the Victorians came to be, they had lost the art of broad tipped pen usage for the most part.  It was told to me that they would use a fine tipped pen and “color in,” the shape created in a single stroke by a broad tipped pen. They also apparently had lost the art of using gum sandarac.  And like many things the Victorians did, when they didn’t know, they made it up and wrote very authoritatively how right they were to be doing it the wrong way.  In this case interpreting “sand” and “sander” as actual real sand and not gum sandarac.  While this may be understandable as a mis-understanding, it is still wrong.

And so we have a myth rooted in the truth.

Is it possible that other things were used that weren’t actually sand?  Yes.  But sand itself is still a myth as far as my research has shown.

I hope this foray into scribal materials has increased your understanding of a very useful material used by scribes in the Middle Ages and is just as useful today.

ADDENDUM February 1, 2016:

Since having written this I have had several conversations regarding “sand” to dry the  ink.  It seems there were materials that included ground ash among other things that may have been used.  I haven’t found resources on this. Still, it wasn’t sand.  I of course welcome reference citations showing materials that may have been used to help dry the ink.  Thus far none have been forthcoming but  I would love to see them.



12 responses to “Scribal Materials and Tools – Sand Myth or Real?

  1. Maybe it is an old entry, but nonetheless it can help some to understand.
    As much as I know they did use sand. At least in continental Europe way after the blotter and blotter paper was introduced. And usually they got fine sand from the beaches, but sometimes they didn’t or couldn’t. Like for example Thomas Adolphus Trollop (a British writer who lived in the 19th century) wrote that: “In Italy at the present day the use of blotting paper, save by English and Americans, is almost unknown. The public offices are liberally supplied with sand, with the result of rendering all of the desks and tables grimy to a very disagreeable degree.”
    Later in the same letter he wrote this:
    “The sand used is not fine sand such as one might find at the seashore, but a much coarser variety, sometimes red, but more generally blue, and is…singularly disagreeable when well-saturated with half-dried ink.”
    Now not only sand was used. I suppose it depended on what the countries, or certain regions of those countries, could get easily. Obviously the alpine provinces couldn’t get fine sand. Therefore they used chalk powder. As in Austria or in Hungary too. Or pounce was also used too. But medieval scriptors used sponge or just a rag.
    So as binsa had told: “you need a little more research”. And I recommend reading people from those era. Surely sometimes their writing are boring as hell, but sometimes quite entertaining.

    • It is an older entry.

      I am loathe to delete entries, and prefer to use ones that are incorrect as examples and excellent spaces for edification.

      What authors/works might you suggest for this subject.

      • I suspect that beach sand would have to be washed and then baked to remove all traces of salt and adsorbed water before being suitable for drying ink. I have tons of beach sand a mile or two away, but, unfortunately, no time to do the experiment.

  2. I had the same reaction to sand for scribal arts when a friend in my local shire actually brought me some sand from a place in Ireland near the “Lake of Learning” or some such. I didn’t buy it, but now I have a little sandwich bag of sand from Ireland (maybe I should put it in a jar 😛 )

  3. So… how exactly did early modern writers dry their ink? Blotting paper came somewhat later, and I’ve read descriptions of medieval (Northern European?) scriptoria where scribes had a nearby fire that they used to dry their ink. But what happened inbetween the two?

    • I’m not entirely certain. My experience with period recipe Iron Gall ink show that it dries much quicker than today’s inks do. Often dry enough to erase lines in just a few minutes.

      As I have mentioned above I welcome evidence to the contrary of my conclusion.

  4. Sorry, but this is all just wrong. You need to do a little more research if you’re going to publish articles like this. They have to be correct, not guesswork. Professionally sand WAS used for centuries not sandarac.

  5. Pingback: Top of My Desk – Scribal Tools and Materials | scribescribbling·

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