Iron Gall Ink

By: Katie Hartman

Besides the quill and parchment, ink was one of the most basic components of manuscript production.  Black inks were typically produced either from collecting soot (most common in Asia) or from oak galls (most common in Europe).

Oak galls are growths that are formed around the larva of the gall wasp.  The growth would act almost as a chrysalis and the fully grown wasp would burrow out of the gall, leaving a small hole. The ink from soot was carbon based and was usually split into different grades regarding the type of material was burned to create it.  The ink from oak galls relied on the tannins in the gall, which was extracted by letting the galls soak in water, wine, or vinegar.  The galls could also be steeped in a combination of water and wine or water and vinegar, or they could be macerated, cooked, or fermented in the required liquid.

The slurry that resulted from this process would then have  a ferrous material added, typically copperas (hydrated ferrous sulfate), as well as some type of gum or resin, usually gum Arabic.  The whole concoction would then be strained to remove the chunks of materials and stored as a liquid.  The result was what is called iron gall ink.  This ink was corrosive and not suitable for the later metal nibs of pens, but at the time of its use, the ink filled the requirement  of being the right viscosity to adhere to parchment as well as still being able to flow through the nib of the quill.

To make this ink, the primary component, the galls, can be gathered in deciduous forests and are easiest to see in winter.  However, if you don’t live in a region where this is possible or simply don’t want to go hiking in the winter, the galls can also be bought through online stores.  Gum Arabic and copperas both need to be bought in a store or online.  Do not try to make copperas at home if you are not a professional, as it involves working with sulfuric acid and other combustible or corrosive materials. The recipe below was taken and adapted from Brown and Lovett’s The Historical Source Book for Scribes (University of Toronto Press, 1999), and includes a link to a video by Lovett and the British Library below.

Equipment:

Jar with lid
Plastic Bag, preferably a thicker one
Hammer
Sieve or strainer

Ingredients:

80 g (3 oz) oak galls
Rain Water
50 g (2 oz) copperas
25g (1.5 oz) gum Arabic

Method:

  1. Procure the Oak Galls: Collect the oak galls, either from foraging or via a merchant, and place them in the plastic bag. Wrap the bag in newspaper or rags, the key here is just so if the bag bursts, you’re not going to have a mess on your hands, but also to distribute the force of what’s about to happen next.
  2. And Smash it With a Hammer!: Crush the galls until fairly crumbly, similar to the consistency you would be going for with a cheesecake graham cracker crust.  Hypothetically speaking, you could also do this with a rolling pin, but I would recommend reserving the rolling pin for food based adventures, not this, just on principle.
  3. Sun Tea: Place the crushed gall chunks in a jar and cover them with rain water. Let the contents steep in the sun for 2 days.
  4. Copperas: Once the gall has steeped in water, add the copperas. This will turn the mixture from brown to black.
  5. Thicken: At this point you should have a fairly watery black mixture that is too runny to any use as ink. Add the gun Arabic to thicken the slurry into an ink like consistency and let the mixture rest in the sun for another day.
  6. Strain: Strain the ink to get rid of the bigger pieces of gall and then allow to rest for a few hours. Strain again and repeat if necessary to remove the last of the sediment.
  7. Write!: Your ink is ready for writing. If you would like to learn how to make your own quill, have a look at the previous blog posts on quill making, which is broken down in to three parts: Curing, Dutching, and Cutting.

https://youtu.be/y7k4-wj8mZ8

Bibliography

Brown and Lovett.  The Historical Source Book for Scribes. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1999.

Clemens, Raymond and Timothy Graham.  Introduction to Manuscript Studies. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2007.

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