Thursday, 3 December 2009

How to Make Ink: Renaissance Secret Recipe for Iron Gall Ink

Before you cut your quill make sure you have ink to dip it in. Jo Wheeler's beautifully illustrated book Renaissance Secrets, Recipes and Formulas, reveals some of the "secrets", that is, trade recipes and formulas, which apprentices of the 16th century were sworn never to reveal. These teach anything from how to make dyes and hair oil to how to bake "morsels to excite Venus", a male aphrodisiac. And here is how to make ink, iron gall ink.


Drawing in pen and iron gall ink by Giovanni Battista Gaulli, or Baciccio, ca. 1690
Iron Gall Ink

Iron gall ink was made from, well, oak galls - galls being, according to Uni of Kentucky entomologists, "irregular plant growths which are stimulated by the reaction between plant hormones and powerful growth regulating chemicals produced by some insects". The oak galls contain galllotannic and gallic acids which were extracted by soaking the galls in water or wine or by boiling. Iron sulphate was added to these acids to produce a black pigment. Arabic gum was used to fix the pigment and add brilliance.
Oak galls. Photo by Roger Griffith

The Renaissance "secret recipe" was not so secret as the formula for making iron gall ink was more or less common knowledge from the 12th century. The iron sulphate used was either "Roman vitriol" which had a grass-green colour or "German vitriol" which was imported from Venice and was yellowish green, writes Wheeler. This recipe comes from Ugo da Capri, Thesauro de scrittori, Rome 1535 - the only writing-book by a 16thC artist.
16th-century inkstand from Italy

How to Make Ink

You will need 1 oz of oak galls (crushed), 12 oz of rainwater,1/4 oz of German vitriol (ground) and 1/2 oz of Arabic gum. The oak galls need to soak for at least 6 days in the rainwater and then boiled until reduced to 8 oz. Strain, add vitriol and gum, "and you will make a wondrously good ink". Experts knew how to make ink for different seasons of the year and for different surfaces as well as cheaper and portable inks.

Jo Wheeler's book is a delightful anthology of many Renaissance secret recipes; recipes are sourced from books held in the National Art Library and linked to objects that belong to the magnificent collections of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

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