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Ink: short history and how to prepare it at home

Updated on July 10, 2010

Short history...

The origin of ink belongs to an era following the invention of writing and there is no definitive history of ink, ironic really, when it was the medium used to preserve the archives, and historic records that tell us much of our past: ink is history, in the common acceptation of the word, for what is generally denominated history- is ink diffused on paper.
The original use for ink was to draw and paint on the walls of caves a lasting legacy of prehistoric man. However, its greatest impact was to spread knowledge, in the form of the printed word, long before Johann Gutenberg invented the printing press in Germany in the mid fifteenth Century.
It was not difficult to obtain black or colored mixtures for this purpose: with their advent, forty centuries or more ago, begins the genesis of ink; many cultures developed inks using the natural dyes and colors derived from berries, plants and minerals. In early writings, different colored inks had ritual meaning attached to each color.
The colored inks of antiquity included the use of a variety of dyes and pigmentary colors, typical of those employed in the ancient art of dyeing, in which the Egyptians excelled and still thought by many, including myself, to be one of the lost arts; moreover the common black ink of the ancients was essentialy different in composition and less liable to fade than those used at the present time (the ink of the ancients was characterized by great permanency, being composed of finely pulverized carbon mixed wit a mucilaginous or adhesive liquid) and it was not a stain like ours. Moreover, modern printer inks contain toxic resins and chemicals that improve solubility at the expense of the environment.
The ancients used a number of tinctures as ink, among them a brown color, sepia. As a natural ink its origin antedates every other ink in the world: it is a black- brown liquor, secreted by a small gland, and through a connetting duct is ejected at will by the cuttle fish which inhabits the seas of Europe, especially the Mediterranean. These fish constantly employ the contents of their "ink bag" to discolor the water, when in the presence of enemies, in order to facilitate their escape from them. The Egyptians sometimes used it for coloring inscriptions on stone, because it is the most lasting of all natural substances. The monumental hieroglyphics of the Egyptians were almost invariably painted with the liveliest tints, and, when similar hieroglyphics were executed on a reduces scale and in a more cursive form upon papyri or scrolls made from the leaves of the papyrus, the pages were written with both black and colored inks. The ink which the ancients generally used was composed of lampblack mixed with gum, as we are informed by Dioscorides and others, who give the recipe for making it. Pliny informs us that it was usual, in his time, to mix vinegar with the ink to make it strike into the paper or parchment. Younger Pliny and Dioscorides present many curious recipes for the creation of inks: one of these, suggested by Pliny, is that the addition of an infusion of wormwood to ink will prevent the destruction of manuscripts by mices.
Beginning with 200 AD, the employement of inks became more and more constant and popular: rediscoveries of ancient formulas belonging to a more remote antiquity multiplied in number. Silver ink was again quite common in most countries, red ink made of vermillion and cinnabar were employed in the writing of titles as was blue ink made of indigo. Tyrian purple was used for coloring the parchment or vellum and the "Indian inks" made by the Chinese were imported and used in preference to those of similar character manifactured at home.
The 'history of Ink' finds its way back in India from the fourth century BC when this was termed 'masi', the admixture of various components, because it was prepared from tar, pitch and burnt bones; but, in India, the writing or practice with ink & a sharp needle was very common from remote ages.
About 1200 years before the christian era, the Chinese invented "Indian Ink", ostensibly for blackening the surface of raised hieroglyphics, which was obtained from the soot produced by the smoke of pines and the oil in lamps, mixed with the gelatin of asses' skin, and musk to correct the odour of the oil. Du Halde cites the following, as of the time of the celebrated Emperor Wu-Wong, who flourished in 1120 BC: "As the stone Me (a words signifying blackening in the Chinese language), which is used to blacken the engraved characters, can never become white; so a heart blackened by vices will always reatin its blackness." The ink invented by the Chinese philosopher, Tien-Lcheu (2697 B.C.), became common by the year 1200 B.C. and it is very popular and widely used even today.

...and how to prepare it

Although ink recipes may be closely-guarded secrets, the basic principles of preparing ink are simple- here are some easy ink recipes to get you started making ink yourself:

- One drop at a time, add hot distilled water to the bowl of lampblack (you can make your own by completely burning paper or wood)- stop adding water before you think you should and if you, accidentally, get too much water, add more lampblack. Mix until the water is an inky black (lampblack floats and is difficult to dissolve). Once the water is inky black, add a small amount of gum arabic and mix until the gum has been dissolved in the warm liquid (this homemade ink should be the same consistency as commercially prepared ink). Store the ink in a small glass bottle for future use. A variant of this recipe is: mix together one egg yolk, one tablespoon gum arabic and 1/2 cup honey; then stir in 1/2 tablespoon lampblack: this will produce a thick paste which you can store in a sealed container. To use the ink, mix this paste with a small amount of water to achieve the desired consistency.

-For this other recipe you will need 1 tablespoon of gum arabic, about 4 teabags, and 1/2 cup of boiling water. Pour the boiling water over the tea and the gum arabic, steep, and then squeeze all of the extra moisture out of the tea. Strain and let cool, and then you have a very simple ink.

Plant parts are used to make inks, and the color of the plant affects the color of the final ink product: the juice of a beet, instead of lampblack, will make a red ink and that of blackberry will make a dark black ink (to prepare these inks, crush and strain the ingredients and add a small amount of gum arabic to thicken, if necessary).
-Here another very simple recipe to make your natural inks using plant materials: you may use any berry (raspberries, cherries, blueberries, strawberries etc. and even a mixture of all these). Place a cup of these berries into a strainer, over a bowl and then press the berries against the strainer so that the berries can release their juice (remove as much juice as possible). Add 1/2 tablespoon of vinegar to the juice of the berries and add also 1/2 tablespoon of salt into this mixture (the vinegar allow the ink to retain the color and the salt preserve the berry juice). Pour this ink into a small glass jar and close tightly and, when you not use the ink, store it in the refrigerator to preserve the ink for as long as possible.

-You may also create a natural ink by using the walnuts (there are many ways to make walnut ink. If you’re going to make walnut ink, the plastic gloves and apron are really necessary or your hands and clothes will become a lovely shade of sepia). Crush the shells of 20 walnuts, then put the crushed shells into a saucepan (if the pot is made of iron and will rust, that’s okay too – the ink should be darker if you do this, but you can also make this in a porcelain or aluminum pan), cover them with distilled water, add a little amount of gum arabic and let them simmer for one hour. After, remove them from the heat and let them soak for at least a week (the longer the time, the stronger the ink). After that time, strain the shells out of the ink and add 1/2 tablespoon of vinegar and salt and store it in a glass jar, as suggested before. (In these recipes you can use wine, beer or simple vinegar instead of distilled water: this will help the ink to ‘stick’ to the paper. This is a problem usually not found with walnut ink, as it ‘bites’ the paper pretty well.  However, for using walnut ink on parchment of any kind, you must use ink that has been prepared with wine, small beer, or has a bit of honey added to it.).

-For gall inks, here the recipe from my knowledge: begin with several galls, number depends on size of gall and how much ink you want to make.  Break these into pieces and place them into a pan (either cast iron, for added iron input, or porcelain) and cover with water or wine.  Add rusty nails or plain rust to the pan and boil for about an hour.  Stir it up, try a bit on paper, if you don’t like it or it’s too thin; boil it further and you will obtain a pretty dark ink.

Natural dyestuffs, including logwood, indigo and Brazilwood were always used as colorants and were used widely in ink formulations since the most ancient times (as for example, logwood boiled in tap water creates a blood red solution, although it will shift to blue in alkaline solutions and to yellow-orange in highly acidic solutions).
You can also make scented inks and they are wondrous because they add fragrance to the writing experience. It is also very simple to make these types of ink, because you just need to follow the previous recipes and select the essential oil of your choice, then add some drops of essential oil into the natural ink and you will write scented letters and postcards!


Submit a Comment

  • Varenya profile imageAUTHOR


    8 years ago

    Thanks for your comments!!! I'm very glad to have provided to you some new information! :)

  • PassinItAlong profile image


    8 years ago

    Excellent history section on this hub, Ive always been curious about that

  • Varenya profile imageAUTHOR


    8 years ago

    Many thanks, Stacie L, I'm glad that you liked it! :)

  • Stacie L profile image

    Stacie L 

    8 years ago

    a very informative and well written hub.;)

  • Varenya profile imageAUTHOR


    8 years ago

    Wow, many thanks, Info Bucket!!! I'm really glad that you consider this hub both informative and useful: it was my goal!

  • Info Bucket profile image

    Info Bucket 

    8 years ago from Kerala, India

    Nothing will stop me, to say +GREAT HUB+. An informative hub on inks, its history. And how to make it, really helpful. Fantastic work. Keep in touch.


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