Fennel's blog - The magic within

The Magic Within

Fountain pens may be beautiful, joyous things, but it’s the ink within them that’s most special. I’m not talking about cartridge ink, which is the writing equivalent of drinking champagne through a plastic straw, or biro ink, which smells like a disposable carrier bag. I’m talking about proper writing ink that comes in a bottle, can be swirled like a glass of brandy and which smells like apple blossom after rain.

If a pen can communicate our thoughts, dreams, and emotions and be the voice of our soul, then writing ink is the medium that carries the message. Ekhart Tolle suggests that "All true artists, whether they know it or not, create from a place of no-mind, from inner stillness.”

Writing ink, therefore, is the magic that allows nothing to become something. It catches the fleeting idea and seeks out the glances of those who wish to see. A random ink splat, discarded on the page, will mean something to someone.

Over the past twenty-five years I’ve (literally) messed with all sorts of writing inks. I started at school by cutting open ink cartridges of different colours and pouring them into a beaker. At first I was looking for a colour that I called ‘Slate Blue’. I mixed blue ink with the smallest amount of black until I had something ‘subdued and refined’ but not the blue-black used by headmasters and people of superior standing. I wanted something more down-to-earth and organic.

At the age of 14, I discovered my love of antique books. Many of them had semi-faded copperplate inscriptions – lovely bronzed writing in various tints of sepia. This began a twenty-year fixation with blending the perfect sepia-coloured ink. Early attempts resulted in a ‘flat brown’ that lacked the desired richness of tone and reminded me of the ink in a felt-tip pen. Then I added different shades of red (cherry red is especially good) and the odd drop of blue, until I had bronze ink with a wash of port-like burgundy running through it. This looked blood red in the bottle, but which darkened to the desired colour on the page. Perfect. Well, nearly.

Ink on its own, when blended to a unique colour, has personality. But it lacks soul. It needs a few drops of sentiment to make it come alive and have extra meaning. Sentiments, as I have found, can be harvested from those places where our memories are fondest.

As an angler, I have found these places to be the rivers and lakes I have fished over the years. That’s why I often collect a pint of water when fishing. It only takes a drop or two of distilled lake or river water for a bottle of ink to suddenly have extra meaning. My Priory ink (the burgundy-brown one) has been topped up and added to over the years and contains water from famous fishing lakes such as Redmire Pool, The Old Copper Mine and Jade Lake. It also contains spring water collected from the sources of the rivers Severn, Wye and Teme, and a few drops from the chalkstreams Test, Itchen and Wylie. So when you receive a letter from me that’s written in the Priory ink, run your fingers over the words and know that you have made contact with these special places, that they live on in the paper before you.

My interest in making ink from ‘raw’ ingredients began when I discovered a book in a bric-a-brac shop. It was entitled ‘A Booke of Secrets, 1596’ (or, more accurately, ‘A Booke of Secrets: Shewing diuers waies to make and prepare all sorts of Inke, and Colours...necessarie to be knowne of all Scriueners, Painters, and others that delight in such Arts’). It described ways of making inks from wine, beer, brandy, oak galls, hazelnuts, vitriol (ferrous sulphate, traditionally made from rusty nails) and lampblack (candle soot). It was the closest thing to a book on alchemy that I’d ever seen. I purchased it and hurried home. That was many years ago. Since then I’ve recreated the historic inks mentioned in the book, experimented with different ingredients and furthered my reading. What I’ve learned is that there are four main types of ink that can be created without the need for a chemistry set or reinforced underpants. Each follows a basic formula: colorant; liquid (usually distilled water or rainwater, or beer or wine if you want the ink to stick to the paper better); stabiliser to prevent the ingredients from separating (gum arabic is best; it can be purchased as a liquid from art shops or as a powder from specialist food shops); a colour preserver (white vinegar) and a preservative (salt). All these inks are best used with a dip pen or quill, as they can either clog or corrode a fountain pen.

Firstly there is Iron Gall Ink. This dark purple-brown ink is made from oak galls, also known as oak apples. (These are swellings that appear on the buds or leaves of oak trees. They grow to a rounded shape, up to two inches in diameter, due to a little wasp grub that lives inside them). Wait until you see a little hole drilled through the shell of the gall, which indicates that the wasp has flown free, and then harvest and dry the galls for future use. Recipe: take several dried galls (number depends on their size and the amount of ink you want to make; four galls would be the minimum) crush or chop them into quarters and add them to a rusty saucepan or one with rusty nails added (this is needed for the chemical reaction between the vitriol and the tannic acid in the galls). Cover with distilled water and leave for three days. Then remove any scum from the surface of the water and bring to the boil; boil for an hour, stirring occasionally. Try the ink on some paper for colour and consistency. If it’s too light or too runny, then continue boiling. Strain the contents through a muslin placed over a colander, stir in half a tablespoon of vinegar and half a tablespoon of salt, then store in a sealed glass jar at room temperature. (You can omit the vinegar and salt, and the ink will continue to mature over several weeks, becoming darker, but with risk of mould forming.)

Secondly there is Walnut Ink. Make a large batch, as it’s by far the nicest to write with. Use rubber gloves and wear old clothes or an apron, as walnut is a strong dye. Recipe: take 20 walnut husks (the green, fleshy part on the outside of the hard shell. You’ll need to pick them from the tree to get the husks). Cut the husks into quarters. Add the husks to a saucepan (ideally the old rusty one, or one with rusty nails added, as this will make the ink darker). Cover them with water, wine or beer; add a teaspoon of gum arabic (optional) and boil for an hour. Remove from the heat and leave to soak in the saucepan for up to a week (the longer the soaking, the stronger the ink). Strain the husks from the ink, add half a tablespoon of vinegar, half a tablespoon of salt and stir until the salt dissolves. The ink can be stored in a sealed glass jar at room temperature.

Thirdly there is Berry Ink. This can be made from those fruits and roots that might stain the cuffs of an eager forager. Berries such as elderberry and blackberry make purplish-blue ink; strawberries and raspberries make pinkish-red ink, beetroot makes a strong red ink. Other berries, such as haws, sloes, cherries and damsons can be used but lack the intensity of colour of those first listed. They can, however, be added to other berries to change the colour and give seasonal variation. Recipe: put a cup of berries or finely chopped roots into a metal sieve placed over a bowl. Push and ‘scrub’ them against the mesh of the sieve with the back of a spoon so that the juice drips into the bowl below. When there’s no more juice to squeeze out, add half a tablespoon of vinegar and half a tablespoon of salt to the juice in the bowl. Stir until the salt dissolves. You may wish to strain this mixture through a muslin cloth, but it’s not essential. Add half a teaspoon of gum arabic if the ink is too runny, or add more water if it’s too thick. Don’t be tempted to boil the mixture, as you’ll end up with a sticky jam. Store the ink in a sealed glass jar in the fridge and it will keep for several weeks.

Fourthly there is Roman Ink (also known as Lampblack Ink) – the most popular ink used by calligraphers as it never fades and doesn’t eat into paper or parchment like ferrous inks. Lampblack is the waxy soot traditionally found near the wick of an oil lamp, but burning candles or wood also produces it. I’ve found that the best way to create lampblack is to hold a metal spoon in the smoke of a burning candle and watch the soot build. Let the spoon cool and then scrape off the soot, which will have a lovely waxy texture that makes for thick dark ink. As I like my inks to have sentimental provenance, I also use the sooty build-up from inside my Kelly Kettle. The easy recipe recipe for making lampblack is to place five teaspoons of lampblack into a metal or glass bowl; add hot distilled water one drop at a time to the lampblack, which usually floats at first, and stir until you have an inky black liquid; add 1-2 teaspoons of gum arabic (amount depends upon the thickness of ink that you require) and stir. The ink can be used straightaway or stored in a sealed glass jar at room temperature.

There, you have it: a Priory guide to writing inks. However, there’s magic to be added to each recipe – a message to be carried in your ink: when making your ink, ensure that you use meaningful ingredients – those with provenance that trigger fond memories. And when it’s made, at the point where you’re about to pour it into the glass jar, pause for a moment and say the following words:

"All are different, no two the same. 
What was, still is
And will be so again.”

That’s the true magic within. 


This is a sample chapter from A Writer’s Year, Fennel’s Journal No. 3

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