FAQs – Ink Making

FAQs about ink making. I hope that it is informative, useful and helpful to you.

I have received a lot of questions about my ink making through private means.  I wanted to give you the answers to the most common questions I get asked in an easy to find resource so you don’t have to wait for replies.

Where do you get your ink making supplies?


Oak Galls – these can be picked off any oak tree that has them growing on it.  You can also order Aleppo Oak Galls from John Neal Bookseller.  Amazon often has them but you have to be careful.  There are sellers who will sell subquality gall nuts and drill holes in them to mimic the insect boring out.

Copperas – Also known as ferrous sulfate. FE(II) (S04)  You can get this online from Amazon.com.  Chemical suppliers will also sell it to you.

Gum Arabic – Sometimes called “Gum Acaccia,” by some suppliers.  You can get this in liquid or dry form.  In liquid form a visit to just about any hobby supply store that sells artist’s supplies should sell jars of Gum Arabic.  Dry or “crystal,” gum arabic is a bit more difficult to get a hold of.  I have been told that mexican groceries may sell it.  I know that I order mine from online from John Neal Bookseller Kremer PigmentsNatural Pigments and (sometimes) Sinopia.

Water – I don’t use tap water.  Tap water can be hard or soft and have other issues.  So instead I use store bought distilled water which is the best analogue for period rainwater that I know about.  I get it from the local grocery store.  Usually a gallon is about $1.

Tools and containers:

Pots – Don’t use your good kitchen pots.  Go to the local “Good Will,” and “Salvation Army,” type places and Garage Sales.  I have used a camping pot for many of my batches.

Wooden spoons –

Strainers?  Linen.  Yes, this is mentioned in several period recipes. Strain through linen.  Sometimes you can get large scraps from other people’s sewing projects.  Or your own.  Try to use undyed linen as it is less likely to mess with your ink.  You can buy linen from your local fabric store or even order it online at fabric-store.com use the code Ilovelinen for a additional discount.

Bottles – I use 1.5 oz bottles and I get them from american science and surplus.  If you are lucky enough to live nearby one, stop in and visit.  If not you can order online.  You have to really search but the price is unbeatable.  In theory The Container Store would have bottles as well.  There are also specialty bottle websites you can try out.

Funnels – I have bought all my funnels from the kitchen and the camping aisle in various stores.

Mortar and Pestle – I have always purchased mine from various merchants at SCA events.  Anywhere they are sold such as kitchen supply places, works wonderfully.

Safety Goggles:  Required?  No.  Smart?  Absolutely.  This is something you can easily find online and these days they are making their way to more mainstream brick and mortor stores as well.

Acceptable Substitutions

Oak Galls – Boiling the bark of a hawthorn bush including the thorns seems to work according to recipes I’ve read. What you are after is the tannic acid.  Yes, you can order powdered tannic acid. I have never done it and don’t recommend it as you won’t be getting all the other wonderful ingredients in the oak gall.  Acorns also work but I have seen no evidence that this was done in period.  I do have two bottles of ink made this way that write beautifully.

Copperas – What you are after here is the Iron, so literally anything with iron could work.  A chunk of Iron, a heated chunk of iron, Iron filings (I’ve used that) and scrap nails are all acceptable substitutes.

Gum Arabic – When you can’t use Gum Arabic the sap from apple, pear, cherry and other gum sap fruit trees were used in period and can be used today.  Glaire is an acceptable substitute.  It is hyperwhipped egg whites that have settled.  You can make your own glair as well.

Water – You can also use brandy, wine and beer and vinegar to make ink. I’ve seen all four in recipes.  That said, modern versions of these item are completely modern.  Best to find someone who make “raw” and non-modern versions of these things.

Allergy Issues:

Be aware of what causes YOU allergies.  NEVER use anything that you are allergic too.  None of the ingredients listed are normally allergy causing, meaning that it is unlikely for you to be allergic to them.  Unlikely does mean that it is still possible so pay attention and make wise choices.  In the 9 years, I’ve been teaching ink making, I have never seen or heard of anyone being allergic to any of the ingredients, but there is always a first time.

How Wide Spread Was Iron Gall Ink in the pre-17th Century?

Iron Gall ink has been called the most important ink in Western History.  Around 500 AD it came into common use.  We have some suggestive evidence that as early as the 200s it may have come into use.

Yes, lamp black ink was used as well.  We know lamp black inks and other carbon style inks were in use by the ancient Egyptians before that.  Iron gall ink has been found in use in every country of Europe  in manuscripts dating to at least 500 AD. The oldest complete Bible, “The Codex Sinaticus” from the 4th century was written using oak gall ink.

How Lightfast is Oak Gall Ink?

Oak gall ink is amazingly lightfast.  It is the norm to have entirely legible documents written in oak gall ink that are more than 500 years old, more than 1,000 years old.  As previously mentioned there are manuscripts written in the 4th century using oak gall ink that are still readable.  This ink is very permanent and very lightfast.

What are the potential complications of Iron Gall Ink?

Not as many as you would think. Yes, much as been made of the ink burn through issue.  And frankly there should be a row made about it.  Ink burn through is a real issue where on some manuscripts the ink is eating through the writing surface.   That is destroying thousands of manuscripts as they sit there on the shelves.  The problem seems to be with an unknown interaction between the left over or degrading parts of the ink and impurities on the writing surface.  It obviously is not just one factor.

That said, there are literally hundreds of thousands of manuscripts more that show no problem whatsoever with ink burn through that were written using oak gall ink.  This of course lends to the understanding that ink burn through is a complex matter that is not just the ink’s fault.

What is the Proper way to Store it?  Keep it from going Moldy?  Losing Opacity?  AND How long before you need a new batch?

I keep my oak gall ink in an air tight container in a cooler part of the room, until I am going to use it.  Keeping it in an inkwell that is not air tight is begging for it to dry up. And it will dry up rather quickly if you store it that way.  Of course just add water back to the previous level and wait a bit, stir well and you have your ink back good as it was.

Mold in your ink is actually a good thing.  There are several recipes that say that the recipe is for the highest quality ink that insist on growing some mold on the ink.  It turns out that mold finds nutrition from the ink and in return gives back some very nice qualities to the ink.  I’ve done this and found that my ink was indeed blacker and of higher quality.

Iron gall ink in my experience does not lose opacity.  It is a chemical, not a natural, ink and photons (light) and air (oxygen) both make it turn black.  I have bottles of ink that are 7 years old and still write wonderfully.

I have never had any of my iron gall ink go bad.  I have heard of iron gall ink going bad but I’ve never seen it happen.  My oldest batch is almost 8 years old and it still writes wonderfully.  So make a new batch when you run out, but keep a bottle of each batch off to the side so you can test them periodically over time.

When Making Ink, What can Easily Go Wrong?

The simplest thing to go wrong is to not put enough of one ingredient or another into the ink.  Not enough oak galls (tannic acis) and the ink will be weak colored, same for the copperas.

When you have  enough oak galls you will get a dark coffee colored liquid.  If what you have is tan, in my experience you need to do one of three things.  1 – Boil or soak the oak galls for longer, 2 – Boil down the liquid you have until it becomes dark coffee colored, 3 – add more oak galls.

Assuming that your liquid was a nice rich dark coffee color if your ink seems more grey than black when you write with it, then you need to add more iron to the mix.  This can be done in a couple of ways.  1 – Add more coppers. Its cheap and easy to come by.  2 – boil or soak the ink with some iron, preferably iron scraps such as metal filings and fillagree.

When do you toss it? When none of these are working or they simple become more time consuming than they are worth to you. Making ink is cheap, if time consuming. So trashing a batch of ink that just simply isn’t working, while disheartening, is not the end of the world.

The other easy thing to do is to add in too much gum arabic.  Putting in too much can make your ink sticky, difficult to dry and worse, come out gray instead of black.    If your ink is tacky and gray you have too much gum arabic in it.  Just add more ink that doesn’t have gum arabic to solve this problem.

What is the relationship of the ink to paper and media of today?  AND How does it react to different “papers”?

Pretty good in most cases.  Oak Gall ink writes best on parchment and vellum in my experience.  That said, when I did the “Oak Gall Ink – Comparison of Four” article I found that what the ink is made with matters greatly with how it reacts with various writing surfaces.  All of them went on easily and stayed on nicely to both the paper and the parchment.  However how dark they rendered themselves was not the same.  See the article to see the differences.

I have found that some Iron Gall inks do not like to cooperate with pergamenata.  Any of my Iron Gall Inks I have tested on pergamenata have had zero problems.  However, I have seen the results of other iron gall inks on pergamenata and frankly it was disheartening.  This is an area I have not researched enough to say what the problem is and why it isn’t a problem for some inks and is for others.  But I do know that it is something to be aware of.

I have found that the relationship of the ink to the writing surface has more to do with what angle the writing surface is at when it is being written upon and how much gum arabic is in the ink.  I have an entire complex experiment to test my hypothesis on almost ready to go.  I hope to post the results of it within a year.

I hope this answers many of the questions you may have.  If you have other questions, please feel free to ask them and I will give you the best answers I have.

9 responses to “FAQs – Ink Making

  1. How about ingredient-quantities [liquid volumes and weights] of water, crushed galls, gum arabic] for a desired measure of ink [the end result after straining]?

    And how to use iron filings [& how many ounces of filings] to arrive at the desired measure of ink?

    Should adding bicarbonate of soda [baking soda] cut the ink’s acidity but not dilute its blackness?

    Please reply to my email address given below.

  2. Hi, I am learning how make inks for my nature art obsession. I read elsewhere that if you use iron a cast skillet you do not have to worry about adding iron as much. Does it matter if I use an older iron skillet or a new one? Which would be better?

    Thanks. Erika.

    • Greetings Erika,

      Keep in mind that iron gall ink is an entirely synthetic ink. Truly natural ink would be most kinds of carbon inks.

      I have never made ink in an iron container. Iron does not like to go into aqueous solutions without some kind of enticement. Cupric Sulfate (blue vitriol) is a good enticer for this purpose.

      Recipes I have seen using just plain iron and not iron sulfate (copperas, green vitriol) all say to heat the iron to red hot and then throw it into the solution.

      My thoughts on your question is therefor this. Using an iron container to make your ink will throw in some finite amount of iron into the mix. How much? I don’t know. High school chemistry tells me that the more surface area the more reaction you will get. If we look at modern day cast iron we see that it actually produces a cast iron that typically has MORE pits and less smooth surfaces. They use a sand mold today for the process. It is fast and cheap but not as high quality as say 50 years ago. Which is why many cast iron enthusiasts hunt yard sales for old style cast iron implements.

      Based on that I would say that since modern day cast iron has more surface area it would donate more iron ions to the mix. Would it be enough to make a difference? I don’t know.

      I do know though that you really can’t have too much iron when making this ink. You can have too little though.

      If you have the ability I would suggest breaking up your batch into parts and test each part separately. Break up the iron sulfate into the proper ratio amounts as well. And test out what happens.

      I’d love to see pictures of your results.

  3. Hi,
    I just made Hawthorne ink recently. Even though, it turned out really nice it is really hard labor to get the bark off. I’m talking two day of work for just a few twigs.
    I really enjoyed reading your posts.
    Kudos from Drachenwald
    Lady Swanhilde Von Baerenau

  4. Hello,
    I’m considering making oak gall ink with children, but I am concerned about its safety. Do you believe that this is something that children can do with adult supervision? I saw somewhere that the pH of the ink is very low, and that is concerning to me.

    • Yes, it can be done safely with children. The pH of lemon juice is very low, around 2 I believe yet is safe for children. The lowest pH I have tested on my inks was higher than that. Neither lemon juice nor iron gall ink are strong acids.

      My highest pH was 5.4.

      I recommend apron (thin plastic will do) to keep clothes clean, eye protection especially if you boil the oak galls, and rubber or similar gloves to not stain hands.

      After 7 plus years if hand making inks I can honestly state I have never been gotten an acid burn despite having put my bare hand into a made pot of ink to retrieve a dropped implement.

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