One question I'm often asked is if I make my own ink.
Figure 1: Reed Pen and a Bottle of Ink.
strikes me as an odd question to ask a ropemaker. Rope and writing
not having many overlaps. But the answer is mostly "yes".
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
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.
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.
- Fill the jar about half full of vinegar.
- Dip the steel wool (if you are using it) in the vinegar
then take it out and let it dry and rust for a few days.
Be careful, this will leave permanent stains on most
- If you are using a solid piece of iron, just
drop it in the vinegar.
- Make a real strong mug of tea. Something like three
teabags in a mug of water. Let it steep a good long
while. Squeeze all the liquid out of the teabags
into the mug, and dump the tea into the vinegar.
- If you are using Black Walnut husks, toss them into
the vinegar. If you are using another source of tannins,
you are on your own. Experimenting is learning.
- Let the jar sit, uncovered, for several days. Swish
the contents around every now and then. The longer
it sits, the stronger the color.
- Cut yourself a reed or quill pen and see how it writes.
NOTE: The acid in iron - gall ink will eventually corrode a
metal pen nib. But for the Colonial era, you shouldn't
be using a metal nib anyway.
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.