The Schoenberg Institute for Manuscript Studies at Penn brings manuscript culture, modern technology and people together.

Making Iron Gall Ink

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Many thanks to Sara Charles, an editor at the Institute of Historical Research and researcher of medieval manuscripts, for this guest post, which is based on a Twitter thread originally published here

 

 

I’m not artistic, crafty or very in tune with nature, but as someone who researches medieval manuscripts, I wanted to experience the process. And surprisingly (or unsurprisingly, give their nature), so did my cat. There is some open ground behind my house, so I went for a forage for some oak galls. I didn’t really know if I would be able to recognise what I was looking for, and it took me a while to find any. But, once I had spotted one, I got my eye in:

 

 

 

Based on my vast experience of one foraging trip, I found them much easier to spot on smaller, younger oak trees. This little one in particular had loads – I got about twelve from it. In less than an hour, I had collected this lot – 123 grams:

 

 

 

At first I was terrified that a wasp would emerge as I was separating a gall from a branch, or I would get swarmed by angry wasp parents, but after a while it all felt lovely and I felt tuned-in to nature and the past. Although I did scream when a dragonfly flew near my face.

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I loosely followed the recipe from Patricia Lovett’s book ‘Tools and Materials for Calligraphy’ (but there are plenty of other recipes – the Iron Gall Ink website is very useful ).

First, the fun part – smashing up the galls. I weighed out 80 grams:

 

 

 

I put them in a clear plastic bag rather than a newspaper, mainly because I wanted to see what was happening. I was still a bit worried about baby wasps, but apparently this did not bother medievalists, they actually preferred the grub still inside:

 

 

 

 

So, after some cathartic smashing and freeing of small insects that crawled out (no grubs, just earwigs) in 5/10 minutes I had this bag of small chunks. I liked Patricia’s recipe because you didn’t have to grind them down into a powder. Then I poured them into a jam-jar:

 

 

 

Most recipes recommend rain water, but it’s been a long dry summer and I think our rainwater is probably more polluted than medieval rain, so I used distilled water (about 300ml). Gave it a quick stir with a lolly stick and then left it on a sunny windowsill for three days:

 

 

 

It went such a lovely deep brown. Next step was adding the ferrous sulphate (50 grams). Also known as copperas or green vitriol. I found this easily on Ebay. Apparently you can make your own with rusty nails, but I really wouldn’t recommend that

 

 

 

The video shows how instantaneous the colour change is. At this stage my cat decided to get involved. NB – now the mixture stains, so mind your fingers. And your cats:

 

 

 

We don’t want a repeat of this: Photo: Emir O. Filipović

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The mixture went a really intense black. Almost blue-black. The cat was forbidden to go near the windowsill. The lolly stick was stained beyond redemption:

 

 

 

Let’s take a moment to stare into the abyss…

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After a few more days, the next step was to grind up 25 grams of gum arabic into powder. Chloe was now fully onboard with the ink-making process:

 

 

 

The gum arabic was beautiful and sparkled like jewels. Chloe approved. Gum arabic thickens ink and enables to it adhere to the writing surface:

 

 

 

After I had ground it down to a powder, I added it to the mixture of oak galls and ferrous sulphate. Once again Chloe photobombed the video. Not sure that I could see that much difference in the mixture, but left again for a day on the windowsill:

 

 

 

Luna was sad she’d missed all the fun:

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Last stage! (Thanks for sticking with me.) I strained the mixture through a muslin cloth using a funnel. More sensible people would probably use gloves for this part. I left it for a while to let gravity do its thing. Chloe stealthily checked my progress:

 

 

 

After about an hour I gave the muslin a final squeeze. I ended up with about 125ml of ink:

 

 

 

Time to test – and … success! The ink was a lovely black, and it seemed to flow nicely. I unashamedly used a quill pen I bought from Harry Potter world to write the labels. Calligraphers will probably be horrified:

 

 

 

So now I have lots of ink and some lovely gifts for my friends. The process took about a week, but most of that was standing time. It wasn’t too messy and no inky pawprints. (Although it was no coincidence I did this in the week my children were away…)

 

 

 

I wanted to do this to get a better understanding of the medieval process, and I really did. Its amazing that I’ve ended up with something I can use. And it was really easy. And – I have a surprising new respect for wasps.

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Quality control from Chloe. She is happy to answer any ink-based queries.

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Follow me on Twitter @sarajcharles for more experiments with manuscripts

Author: Sara Charles

I am an editor at the Institute of Historical Research and research medieval manuscripts. I am particularly interested in female literacy, medieval nuns and martyrologies

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