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I am not sure why, but somehow I always thought that ink-making was a thing of the past. I grew up with pens that just worked automatically and never really knew where or how ink was made. I am not even sure that I cared about ink and it's history until I took it upon myself to learn how to make ink for myself. It may sound silly, but I find the idea of being able to make EVERYTHING that we need to sustain our livelihoods, without having to rely on some other source, to be really awesome. Ink is one of those things that is needed for so many purposes and is very easy to create. Saving knowledge, writing letters, and learning to read and write, all require ink (when no computers are involved!). Because of ink, we are able to grasp our history and learn from mistakes.
What is ink really?
Oh to be an octopus, who can freely make their own ink. In its simplest form, ink is just watered down paint. That is truly the difference between ink and paint. The basic ingredients in ink are pigment (color), a binder, sometimes a preservative, and a mordant (helps to hold the color and make it last longer, this is needed especially for berry inks). At its core, pigment and water are all that is needed to make ink. All the rest of the ingredients just improve your ink for use! With ink and a pen, we are capable of so much more than before! While ink is simple to make, these days the world relies on ink made of petroleum products instead. While these inks are very convenient and come in convenient disposable vessels, there is still a certain charm to making your own ink and writing with it.
History tends to repeat itself and so do people
Inks have been around as long as writing has been a part of history. Some historians believe that ink was first invented by the Ancient Egyptians since the oldest known book (about 4,600 years old) written in ink was found in ancient Egypt. There are, however, pottery shards in Egypt , decorated with ink, that are even older than the books! The Chinese have also been making a similar ink using carbon black pigment and gum Arabic (a resin from acacia tree), for nearly as long as the Egyptians, as far back as 2,500 BCE. Many of our ancient ancestor's experiments with ink are lost on us today, but with a little experimentation and creativity, we can bring back the lost art of ink making, drawing, and printing.
Making your own pen is easy
Though having a fancy dip pen on hand would be nice, you don't actually need to buy a pen to use your ink! What do you think they did in the old days? Quill pens have been used for centuries, dating back as early as the 16th century! Large feathers, sticks, or even bamboo reeds can be turned into pens. Pens can be made by whittling the end of a stick until it's sharp and pointed. Soak the pointed end of the stick in water for 30 minutes before using with homemade ink, to help the pen absorb more of the ink. When making a feather quill pen, process the feather in hot-to-the-touch sand for 5 minutes before trimming and carving to your liking. This helps the feather to harden for better carving. Carving bamboo reeds into pens takes a little bit more skill and know-how. You can learn more about carving a bamboo reed into a pen in Nick Neddo's book, The Organic Artist. He gives fantastic pictures and descriptions to help you learn to carve your own pens using bamboo and more!
Ingredients that can be made into ink
There are seriously a ton of herbs, flowers, barks, berries, and more that can be turned into natural homemade ink. Each one has their own colors and intensities and can make a plethora of natural hues to write with. If you have ever made my Fungus Amungus Anti-Fungal salve, then you likely already have one of my favorite ink making herbs on hand, black walnut hulls! These are just some of the natural options you can use to make your own ink:
- Acorn hulls
- Beet root powder
- Black walnut hulls
- Berries (frozen then thawed, tend to give the most pigment)
- Hibiscus flowers
- Soot/Activated charcoal
- Tea (black, rooibos, green)
Homemade Herbal Ink
You can essentially create your ink using any of the ingredients above in this recipe, though black walnut hull powder, ground coffee beans, and beet root powder work fabulously well with this method. My favorite to use for my ink is black walnut hull powder, but you can experiment and find the color that you like the best! This ink works best with dip pens and paint brushes. The binder is not necessary for this recipe, though depending on the paper you are using and how thick you would like the ink, you can add a binder to this to thicken the ink to your desired consistency. Adding iron to your boiling ink can help to darken the ink and turn reds more brown-colored, you can do this by adding steel wool to the boiling solution. Be sure to remove the steel wool when straining!
- 1/2 cup black walnut hull powder (or other ink herb of choice)
- 4 cups filtered water
- 1 cup extra strong brewed herbal infusion
- 1 tsp. distilled white vinegar (a natural mordant to help the color last longer and stay)
- 1 tsp. salt (a natural preservative to help keep the ink fresh longer)
- binder to thicken and keep the ink on the paper (optional – see below)
- In a saucepan, combine 1/2 cup walnut hulls (or other ink herb of choice) with 4 cups water. Bring to a boil and turn down to low to simmer for 1-2 hours. This can alternately be done in your crockpot overnight.
- For best results (if you are in a hurry you can skip this step) allow this mixture to sit overnight, steeping. The longer you allow your mixture to steep, the better your ink will be. The ink used in these pictures are the result of NOT steeping it overnight, so you can see that you still get a usable ink if you choose to skip this step!
- Strain the mixture and return to the pot to simmer until desired color and consistency is reached. Remove from heat.
- Combine 1 cup of the ink infusion with vinegar and salt. Stir until completely combined and dissolved.
- If adding a binder, stir in now, until desired thickness and consistency is reached.
- Store in a mason jar sealed tightly with a lid, when not in use. Be sure to store your jar of ink in a cool dark location. Many natural inks are not lightfast, and will lose color and brilliance if stored in a sunny location. You can also add 1/8 cup (2 Tbsp.) alcohol to your ink, to help preserve it even longer!
Natural binders to thicken your ink
Binders are not needed to use your ink, but for some herbal preparations, can really make a difference in holding the ink on the paper as well as thickening the ink to the desired consistency. These are the most often used natural binders that are used in ink solutions:
- Grass-fed gelatin – In a small pan over medium heat, heat 1 cup water, and 2 tsp. gelatin. Stir over heat until completely dissolved. Add 1 tsp. of the gelatin solution to your ink at a time, until your ink reaches desired consistency and thickness.
- Raw unfiltered honey- This can be added straight to the ink until it reaches the consistency that you are looking for. Too much and it can get too sticky!
- Gum arabic powder – This option is completely vegan and made from resin from acacia trees! You can either slowly whisk directly into the ink or mix 1 Tbsp. gum arabic with 1 cup water. Add 1 tsp. of the Arabic solution to your ink at a time, until desired consistency is reached.