Home Equipment Ropemaking


One question I'm often asked is if I make my own ink.

Reed Pen and a Bottle of Ink.

Figure 1: Reed Pen and a Bottle of Ink.


This always strikes me as an odd question to ask a ropemaker. Rope and writing not having many overlaps. But the answer is mostly "yes".

Sketch of Labels on Rope Samples.

Figure 2: Labels on Rope Samples.


I have labels on sample ropes, reminding me which fibers are which. Sometimes I cheat and use a modern pen, but I keep a jar of "real" ink around for when I want to be totally correct.


I make an iron - gall ink, something that has been around for centuries. This ink is fairly faint when it is wet, but dries anywhere from a nice brown to almost bluish black.

The ingredients are simple:


Traditional acids are vinegar or wine. I use vinegar because it's cheaper and save the wine for other uses. It doesn't matter what kind of vinegar. You don't have to worry about cider vinegar leaving a stain, because that's the whole idea. Whatever is in the pantry or cheapest at the market. You don't want a real strong acid, or your ink will eat holes through your document.


Some sources say you just drop a nail or small scrap of iron in the jar with the vinegar. I use a wad of steel wool, dipped in the vinegar, then left to dry. When the steel wool is nicely rusted, you just dunk it back into the vinegar.


Historically the tannins were from oak galls. The galls, or oak apples, are caused by a wasp larva. Not something most people are going to have ready access to. You can use really, really strong tea. Black Walnut (Juglans nigra) husks are also a good source of tannins. But there are many other tannin sources. Explore.


You can find many different methods of preparing ink. This is what works for me, and has for several years. But I am just using this ink for an occasional label. If you are doing fine calligraphy, you might want a more formal, repeatable, process.

I use a quart Mason jar for mixing and storage. You really shouldn't need more than this. Even a cup, (8 fluid ounces) of ink will cover many pages of writing. Commercial inks are generally sold in one or two fluid ounce bottles.

You can top up your ink supply by adding more rusty iron, another teabag or walnut, and some water or vinegar if your ink has evaporated. Swish the ink before you dip your pen, and don't dip too deeply. I've been using the same jar full of ink for over a year. The color changes over time as the ratio of materials change, but that is fine. Uniformity was rare, back in the day.

Other Uses

This makes an interesting, and historically correct, wood stain. I've also used it as blue-black dye on tanned leather.

Please test in an inconspicuous place, or on a scrap, before committing to an important project. This is a penetrating and permanent stain.


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