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September 1, 2010

When I was a child I was fascinated by an ancient Victorian  book called “Enquire Within”. It covered everything from the correct way to hire servants through to mundane things about using up leftovers and had a number of recipes for making ink. For interest, I will include Dr. Ure’s recipe now:

For 12 gallons of ink, take 12 pounds of bruised galls, 5 pounds of gum, 5 pounds of green sulphate of iron and 12 gallons of rain water. Boil the galls with 9 gallons of the water for three hours, adding fresh water to supply that lost in vapour. Let the decoction settle, and draw off the clear liquor. Add to it the gum, previously dissolved in one and a half gallons of water, dissolve the green vitriol completelyin one and a half gallons of water and thoroughly mix the whole.

Why, I wondered, would anyone ever want to make such a vast quantity of ink, how would anyone gather so many oak galls, and just imagine the size of the equipment needed. Now, many years later, here is a much simpler version that children (under sensible adult supervision) might like to try. However, a word of warning: this is a traditional form of ink, such as was used on parchment in the past. One of the reasons why we have such a rich written heritage is because the ink is permanent. In other words it doesn’t wash out. It is also acidic; it actually etches mildly into the surface of the parchment – not sufficiently to be noticeable to the naked eye but sufficently for a microscope to detect.

Before making anything, you will need to go for a brisk walk and look carefully at all the oak trees. These are the ones whose leaves are used as an emblem by the National Trust. Occasionally one will have been attcked by a gall wasp. These lay their eggs in the bark of the tree, usually on weaker or smaller branches. The tree responds by creating layers of bark that build around the invaders to create an oak gall or oak apple. This is not the same as an acorn. An oak gall is usually round, even and brown, unless it has formed over a young acorn in which case it will be ridged and deformed. To make ink you will need perhaps 4-6 of these which must be removed carefully from the tree without damaging it.

All you need is water. Oak galls and rusty nails: two of the main ingredients for ink

All you need is water. Oak galls and rusty nails: two of the main ingredients for ink

Crush them lightly into pieces (put them in a plastic bag then crush with the end of a hammer) and put into a stable open container without a lid, ( preferably plastic and never one that is used for food) add 2 tablespoons of cold water, and 2 or 3 iron nails, the rustier the better. Stir. Leave the mixture somewhere very safe where it will not get knocked over. Over the next few days the tannins in the oak galls will get to work and react with the iron. At first the liquid should turn muddy looking and brownish, but during the next week or two a chemical reaction takes place and the iron turns the water thick and black. This is the ink that can then be used with either a dip or quill pen. If the mixture is too thick it can be thined with a little vinegar, which also helps to prevent the ink going mouldy if it isn’t used reasonably quickly. Only put the ink in a lidded container when you are sure that it is not going to develop any more. Although it is rare, it has been known for the developing ink to shoot off a lid.

The intensity of the ink will depend on the strength of the tannins in the galls and the amount of water added. It will not work with any other sort of nail, such as galvanised ones. Instructions on how to make a first quill pen can now be found in the article ‘Cutting a Quill: first catch your bird’

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