Did you know you can make traditional-style black ink with stuff you’ve probably got in your kitchen?
It’s so satisfying spending time to make something this useful and basic. Bear in mind: this activity requires four days of waiting time between the prep phase and the finishing steps.
- 2x empty glass jars (or similar containers)
- Vinegar, enough to fill one of the jars (I’ve used white vinegar, but normal malt vinegar will work too)
- Some water, to fill the other jar
- A steel scouring sponge (the sort you might use for washing up)
- 6x teabags (anything with black tea, not herbal ones)
- A saucepan
- A stove (or similar heat source)
- A paintbrush or dip-pen (or other tool for writing/drawing with ink)
- A small jar for the finished ink
- Put the teabags in a glass jar, and add cold water. Close the lid and shake.
- Put the kitchen-scourer in a glass jar. Add the vinegar to roughly the same level as the water in the jar with the teabags. Close the lid gently (don’t make it fully airtight).
- Leave your two jars, and wait for at least four days for the infusions and reactions to happen.
(Note – the byproduct of the steel/vinegar reaction is hydrogen. Probably not enough to do anything with, but here are three hydrogen facts to read while you wait…
- Hydrogen burns with a fun squeaky-pop. If you hold a match while opening the jar you might be able to relive high-school science lessons!
- Some carbon-monoxide alarms report a false positive in the presence of hydrogen. Put the jar somewhere where any gas released is not likely to set them off (I learnt this the difficult way)
- One of my favourite short stories is ‘Hydrogen’ by Primo Levi. It finishes…
“It was indeed hydrogen: the same element that burns in the sun and stars,
and from whose condensation the universes are formed in eternal silence.”
- After four days, the tea-mixture should be the colour of very strong tea. The vinegar/steel mix should not have discoloured much but may be slightly dirty-looking.
- Mix the two liquids together (straining out the solids). As they mix, the mixture should turn black.
- If you try drawing with the liquid now you’ll get a grey-ish/brown-ish line – like watercolour paint. However, to get something darker, heat the ink to reduce it in volume by about a half. Put it in an old saucepan – one that you don’t intend to use for cooking food anymore – and bring it to a boil. (Please don’t try this in a pan you use for cooking! If you don’t have an old pan, you can put the ink in an old jar with the lid off and then submerge it in water in a regular pan to heat it).
- The best way to control the colour of the ink is to regularly check it with a paintbrush as it reduces, making marks on paper every few minutes until it reaches a darkness you’re happy with. Remove from heat when you’re happy with it.
- It should be a dark black at this point. On paper it will fade to a slight brown after a few days – giving a nice ‘old manuscript’ look.
Generally it is best practice to store inks in the smallest possible container. Ullage (the air-space over the top) is where any spoiling bacteria might get in, so the ink will last longest if you fill a small jar than have a half-empty big one.
You can use anything as a pen or paintbrush! Particularly useful are old dried-up biros (keep dipping the nib into the ink after every few strokes), and kebab-skewers (roughen up the pointy end slightly, for example by scraping it on a brick, to make a soft ‘nib’ – you could glue it into the barrel of an old pen to make it easier to hold).
Alternative ingredients and techniques
- Try vodka in place of water. It should help the ink to keep better, as the vodka will inhibit the growth of any microbial nasties. If you use vodka, be very careful when heating the mixture. Use a slow, low heat rather than boiling, because the vodka will burn off explosively. Vodka also seems to make the ink ‘sink’ into the paper more.
- Rather than heating the mixture, leaving it uncovered in a hot place for a few days will allow the excess liquid to evaporate off – a useful alternative if you don’t have a stove.
- Ground-up oak-galls can be used in place of the teabags. They provide the tannic (or pseudo-tannic) acid. I think red wine will work in the same way, and some tree-barks. Do experiment and let us know what works.
- Any steel can be used in place of the kitchen scourer. The scourer is good because it’s got a big surface area. Even better is steel wool (found in hardware shops for sanding). With steel wool, be far more aware of the potential hydrogen production because the surface area is so much bigger.
Let us know how it goes, and make sure to send us pictures of your ink making results and anything you draw with it!
Many thanks indeed to our anonymous contributor for this brilliant activity <3