In Brother Hugo and the Bear, medievalist Katy Beebe walks young readers through the painstaking process of book making in the Middle Ages. Last month, we showed you how to create your own hand-sewn codex. This month, we’re giving you something to put in your books — iron gall ink — with a modern twist on an ancient recipe.
Cautionary notes before we start: iron gall ink is intended for dip pens and is not suitable for fountain pens. Because of its corrosive nature, iron gall ink can clog and corrode the narrow passageways inside fountain pens. Iron gall ink should not be used for scrap-booking or in crafts that involve preserving photos, as the the acid in the ink can cause irreparable damage to photos over time. It should also be noted that one of the main reasons iron gall ink was popular for so many years is because of its water resistant qualities: once the ink has dried on a porous surface it binds to the fibers and becomes (for the most part) permanent. You have been warned!
- Iron donor (I recommend steel wool, a stainless steel dish scrubber, or 10 or so nails)
- Dish soap
- Paper towels
- 2 glass containers (one preferably with a lid) for making the iron vinegar solution
- Plastic wrap (if your containers do not have lids)
- White vinegar
- 1 microwave safe container
- 2 black tea bags (to replace the tannin-rich oak galls used in Brother Hugo’s day)
- Measuring cup
- 1 tablespoon
- 1 teaspoon
- Coffee filters
- Wooden spoon
- 1 small container with a lid to store finished ink
- Binder (white school glue or gum arabic)
- Dip pen, quill pen, or paint brush for writing
Step 1: Place your iron donor (I used a steel dish scrubber) into a bowl or sink of soapy water for 10 minutes.
Step 2: Remove the iron donor, rinse thoroughly, and dry with paper towels.
Step 3: Once the iron donor is completely dry, place it into a large glass jar and pour white vinegar over it — just enough to cover it. Then top the container with a lid or plastic wrap and let it sit for 1 to 2 days. Do not shake the container, and do not remove the iron donor. The goal is not to produce rust but, instead, an iron rich acid. (If you do end up with a lot of rust and the solution turns orange, you can still use it, but the ink will end up being a sepia tone instead of rich brown/black. It might be fun to let kids make both colors.)
Step 4: Place 2 black tea bags in new, microwave-safe container, and pour 1 cup of hot water over them, making sure that the tea bags are fully submerged. Then microwave the container for at least one minute or until bubbles indicate that the tea is boiling. Carefully remove the strong tea mixture from the microwave, give the mixture a quick and gentle stir, and let it sit for 5 minutes. This will produce the vegetable tannins that will serve as the “gall” in the iron gall ink.
Step 5: After the vinegar/iron solution has set for 2 days, remove the iron donor. Then line a funnel with paper towel or a couple of coffee filters and pour the mixture through the funnel into a clean glass container to remove any debris and filter out as much rust from the liquid as possible. This will be the “iron” for the iron gall ink.
Step 6: Mix the “iron” solution and the “gall” solution together using a 1:1 ratio. (I used a tablespoon and measured 1 tbsp. of the vinegar and 1 tbsp. of tea.) When you mix the two together you will notice that a chemical reaction turns the resulting solution black. This will be the pigment for your ink.
Step 7: Use a funnel to fill a small jar (with a lid) about 2/3 full with the pigment. Then add about 1 tsp. of white school glue or gum arabic (I used white school glue) to the pigment as a binder. This will make the ink thicker and easier to write with, and will also help the pigment stick to the page. Mix well, then place the lid on the container and let the finished ink sit for 10 minutes before using.
Step 8 (optional): Play with the recipe by adjusting the ratios of the ingredients to make the ink the color and consistency you prefer. See how changing the ratios of the ingredients changes the ink.
Step 9: Using a dip pen, paint brush, or quill pen and some paper (perhaps in your hand-sewn book!), have fun making words and pictures with your very own homemade iron gall ink.
About the “gall” in traditional iron gall ink:
Oak galls are large, round growths commonly found on many species of oak trees. These galls are produced when the gall wasp lays an egg on a branch, budding leaf, or budding acorn. The chemicals produced by laying the egg cause the tree to form a growth around the egg. The larva then hatches and feeds on the tissue on the inside of the gall. While they grow, the larva produce an acid that causes the gall to grow in size, thereby providing the larva with its food supply. Once the larva is fully grown it pupates into a gall wasp, drills a hole out of the gall, and leaves. What is left behind is a tannin-rich growth on the tree. Historically, to produce tannic acid for iron gall ink, people would collect oak galls, crush them, and soak them in water for a week.
Thanks for the ink recipe. How long will the ink last? Should one add salt or any other preservatives to the ink?
Interesting article. Thanks.
I tried this, albeit with some cheap and nasty twists using what I had in the cupboard. I had no white vinegar, so I used very cheap malt vinegar. It worked well. I also did not steep my wire wool for two days, because I was short of time.I heated up the vinegar to more or less boiling pint and left the wire wool in it for a couple of hours. I did get iron gall ink, though it is a rather faint grey on first writing with it. This however darkens over an hour to a sort of grey colour, but darker, and overnight, the writing turns brown just like the writing in nineteenth century church archives (births, deaths and marriages). My ink looks pretty much just like that. I am going to make some more with a greater iron content by letting the wire wool steep for two days as suggested. I did not use any Gum Arabic because I want this ink for use in a fountain pen.
I also experimented to test how water proof this ink is, testing it against Parker Blue permanent and Parker Black. Neither of the Parker inks measured up to the waterproof nature of the Iron Gall (even my quick and dirty Iron Gall). My iron gall ink is completely untouched after an hour soaking in cold water – whereas the Parker, dye based inks have faded away to a very poor and barely legible set of marks on the wet paper. I would absolutely recommend using iron gall if you want permanence for a diary for example. Also, in my experiments, leaving this version of the ink in fountain pens (DON’T use Gum Arabic in your fountain pen – EVER) for a week, there was no corrosion of the nib as long as it was not part gold plated. My Shaeffer Fine Italic nib was completely untouched after a week of bathing in this stuff. If you have very expensive pens or part gold plated nibs which will set up galvanic corrosion, probably best to not use this IG ink or carefully clean out right afterwards. My Shaeffer no nonsense fountain pen which I have had for thirty years is fine though.
I also should add that I added a tiny drop of dish soap to the IG home brew ink to add a bit of lubricity and ensure it flows down the galleries of my fountain pen. Barely a drop really. I dowsed a tiny screw driver in dish soap and then stirred it into the ink. Less rather than more, I would suggest, or your ink may lack surface tension and flow too fast and perhaps feather in the paper.
This ink writes fast and is plenty wet enough in fine or medium nibbed pens.
Since my earlier post, I made more IG ink using Iron Sulphate and strong tea . I think this ink is better and it does not smell of vinegar, which is an advantage. I also added a small amount, about 1% of blue black ink to get past the very faint initial colour you get until the air gets at the IG ink and oxidizes the iron salts. Since I mostly use the ink in a fountain pen, the line made by the nib is much fainter than the line made by a dip pen, and you have a hard time seeing what you have written for a few seconds after writing until it starts to darken. The faint blue colour disappears over about 24 hours as the oxidization sets in and the ink goes dark grey if from the fountain pen and black from a dip pen. Obviously, for a fountain pen, NEVER add glue or gum arabic, or your ink will set in the fine feed tubes and wreck the pen.