An inkmaker’s kit

Some time ago I signed up to help out at an Eplaheimr demo in Loughrea, at the Medieval festival ( ‘Echoes of our Past’ – in partnership with Irish Walled Towns Network, Galway County Council and The Heritage Council.) there. The brief was to bring something as a sample of what I do that I could happily talk about, so I decided to create a demo kit for ink making, which is a thing I very greatly love. Only problem was that since I’ve not been playing very much this past year or so my ink stock was pretty low, so that was the first thing to take care of.

Ink making kit for demos

I’ve written about making oak gall ink and brazilwood ink before, (, and so I won’t bore you with those details again. Oak gall ink making continues to feel like alchemy when it does the colour change stage and I continue to love it.

First up I wanted to make walnut ink. Walnuts are not really a thing I’ve had much exposure to in the wild, they had started out as “those weird brain looking things you get at hallowe’en”, became “those challenges – top marks if you get the nut out without it breaking” and were lingering around “those slightly bitter nuts that ruin carrot cake, especially of they’re a little rancid” when I discovered people made ink and dye out of them, and that they actually were green things that grew on a tree at Raglan castle. Last year I tried to bring some home but I ended up leaving them behind. This year I didn’t make it to Raglan and unfortunately bad weather at the end meant that a very kindly acquired collection went astray, though 4 did make it home. I was *really* keen to try to work with them, so I followed up on a tip from last year, that there is an old walnut tree in Tallaght.

Turns out this is true, and it is a *magnificent* tree. I would go to see it just for the tree itself but I admit I’m a little weird about such things. It is called St. Maelruain’s Tree and can be found at St. Mary’s Priory in Tallaght, It was split by lightning in the 1700s, pieces rooted and survived and so the consistent parts of this truly enormous tree cover a whole square. (It’s thought to be one of Ireland’s oldest trees and if anyone wants to know more about it I geek out about it on another blog)

Fresh walnuts smell great. I sort of assumed the scent would stay with them, but it was lost very soon after I left the grounds with my windfalls. At this stage I have no idea if the walnuts I have gleefully stashed to experiment with are a) the right type, b) ripe enough and c) actually a thing I can work with but hey! Science! I had read that it didn’t matter if they were gone dark or had bad spots, they could all go into the ink pot so I dutifully brought them all home. Then I tried to find a period recipe for ink (not dye) hmmm. I think I may need to keep looking, but so far not such a productive search. But I decided to make the ink anyway because medieval people were certainly aware of walnut as a dye and for its incredible ability to stain everything.. I’m pretty sure my windfalls were a bit too early, they didn’t stain that much before I cooked them. A lot of recipes I have seen refer to Black Walnuts, these are not they, they seem to be American. These are common walnuts also known as Persian walnut, which came to be known as English walnuts because of their popularity. I did get a successful (and very pretty) brown ink but rather a lot less than I thought I might. I will *definitely* be on for trying this again later in the season.

Next up was carbon ink. I’ve messed about with making soot with a flame on a metal platter (slow!!!). I’ve experimented with soot from my chimney after a wood fire too, but this feels slightly wrong and produces a ink I would be extremely reluctant to share with anyone. So this time I made some willow charcoal by putting some thin strands of dead willow in a metal box and cooked the box in an open fire til I got charcoal. Then I pulverised it, admired the sheen off the carbon at the bottom of my mortar, and mixed it with gum arabic and water.

This sort of carbon ink is interesting, nice and black and all, but it smudges and I’m not especially fond of trying to work with it. I can see why oak gall ink was preferred.

I have often wondered – and indeed it came up a few times from members of the public at the demo – how did someone figure out to use oak galls of all things to make ink and dye? A very nice gentleman who has worked with wood and joinery explained that anyone who has worked extensively with oak and the tannins therein would straight away think of it as something that would stain anything. That got me wondering about what sorts of experiments must have been conducted on various parts of the oak before they settled on galls, presumably they tried bark, the acorns, twigs, shredded heartwood and so on?

I was given a very, very lovely book Make Ink: A Forager’s Guide to Natural Inkmaking which has all sorts of lovely recipes for things like tumeric alcohol ink and indeed the famous oak gall ink I’m used to. It also contained a recipe for acorn cap ink. While I have not – yet at least – come across a period recipe for it I am absolutely convinced that people who made oak gall ink would certainly have cooked up batches, at least experimentally. so I feel absolutely justified in including a similar experiment. I used the caps of the acorns, boiled in rainwater in a rusty saucepan til it reduced in liquid value by more than half. The ink doesn’t turn the crisp black oak gall ink does as it oxidises, but it’s a nice dark grey with a hint of purple and I really like it. I’ll write something with it and do some light fastness tests and that kind of thing, just for curiosity’s sake. I also – in the same spirit of curiosity and with some knowledge of period pigment recipes – made an elderberry ink which I know is not lightfast but which is a gorgeous colour.

I also attempted to find buckthorn berries to make sap green. Turns out buckthorn to make sap green is not Sea Buckthorn, which I was able to find and collect berries from on Bull Island. Instead I need to find berries from any of the Rhamnaceae family. I spent a very long time trying to find some. My eldest says it is my white whale. A biodiversity app I contribute to tells me there was an Alder Buckthorn plant recorded last year not 500 meters from my house, but it is in someone’s field with a locked gate and apparently despite the fact not finding some is driving me mad I can’t go into that field. (Did I become a vampire sometime recently?) I hear it also has a magic colour turning point that I greatly want to see, so I predict when I produce sap green I will be inordinately happy, and if that moment doesn’t win me permanent geek points forever I really don’t know what will.

Anyway, inks assembled I wanted to put some of the raw materials in too, (gum arabic, copperas, alum and so on) so I could usefully talk through the processes. I kept them in states I find the most attractive in cute jars and I bottled the inks and messed about with corks and wax and little tokens a bit because hey, why not. they came out looking a bit like dark potion bottles, which wasn’t terrible either. I wasn’t really expecting much interest in particular but was very pleasantly surprised by just how much there was. The demo went really well. I suppose it helps that the people who went along were already predisposed to be interested in things medieval, but we got interested and interesting questions about a huge variety of things. People gleefully took to swords and chess of many varieties, made observations about the evolution of playing cards, tools, weapons, woodwork, pigments and heraldry, it was clear these were people who could get into these things. Certainly judging by the interest the chances of a new group starting out West seem very, very good indeed.

3 Comments Add yours

  1. if you manage to create a sap green colour, please let me know !!! I was trying with nettles but only got a brownish dirty green

    1. theoreadexpress says:

      Hoping to in the next couple of month when the buckthorn tree I finally found has big enough berries, happy to share my results then!

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