Fennel's blog - The magic within

The Magic Within

My observations this year have, I believe, focused too much on the activities of other people. I’m not normally so obsessed by the postwoman’s bundle (okay, perhaps I am) or how we ‘stamp’ our identity at work. It’s time to slow things down by spending a day doing something quiet, simple and relaxing. I’m going to enjoy some time in the kitchen. Not cooking, but following recipes of a different kind. I’m going to make some writing ink.

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 ink that comes in a bottle, can be swirled like brandy in a glass 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 ink is the medium that carries the message. As Ekhart Tolle suggests, “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. Even a random ink splat will mean something to someone.

Shop-bought ink provides us with choice. Choice of colour, permanence, scent and fluidity. But we writers can go one further. Inks can be blended. They can also be made using natural dyes that have extra meaning. Which is what I’m going to do today. But first, I’m going to tell you why writing ink is so special to me.

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 to create a colour that I called ‘Slate Blue’. I mixed blue ink with the smallest amount of black until I had something ‘subdued and refined’. Not the blue-black ink used by headmasters and people of superior standing, but something more down-to-earth and organic.

I discovered my love of antique books at the age of 14. Many of them had semi-faded copperplate inscriptions – lovely bronzed writing in various tints of sepia. This began a quest to blend 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 was 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, 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 wherever our memories are fondest. As a countryman who loves waterside places, I’ve found these places to be the rivers and lakes I’ve fished over the years. It only takes a drop or two of filtered lake or river water for a bottle of ink to suddenly have extra meaning. So if you receive a letter from me, run your fingers over the words and know that you’ve made contact with some of the best and most famous lakes and rivers in the UK. They’ve ‘literally’ flowed onto the paper before you.

Blending inks of different colours is not, of course, making them from scratch. But it’s a good way to start, creating something that will quickly enhance your enjoyment of writing. Making inks is a different craft, with seemingly endless possibilities.

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 divers waies to make and prepare all sorts of Inke, and Colours...necessarie to be knowne of all Scriveners, 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, I’ve experimented with different ingredients and have furthered my reading.

I’ve learned that there are four main types of ink that can be created without the assistance of 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 better to the paper); stabiliser to prevent the ingredients from separating (gum arabic is best; it can be purchased in crystal, powder, or liquid form from art shops); a colour preserver (white vinegar) and a preservative (salt). All these inks are best suited to a dip pen or quill, as they tend to 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 (the number depends upon 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 saucepan with either rusty nails or rusty wire wool 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 the remainder to the boil. Boil gently 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 cloth 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. Collect them as they fall from the tree). Cut or smash the husks into quarters. Add the husks to a saucepan (as before, with rusty nails or wire wool 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 or Root 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 listed earlier. They can, however, be added to other berries to change the colour and give seasonal variation. I’ve found the best roots to be dandelion (makes brown ink), meadow sweet (makes dark brown/black ink), carrots (orange ink) and nettle (yellowish-brown ink). (As an aside, alder bark – though neither a berry or root – makes strong red-orange ink, and all parts of the eucalyptus tree make excellent scented ink in shades of deep rusty red to orangey-brown and green. You’ll need to pulp them, and be sure to use gloves to avoid staining your hands.)

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 the chimney of my Kelly Kettle and from the underside of my campfire frying pan. There are two recipes for Roman Ink. The first is quick and easy; the second is for purists. 

Easy recipe: 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. 

Purist’s recipe: Add gum Arabic crystals to a mortar and pestle and pound until they become a fine powder; add distilled water until a syrup is formed that’s thick enough to coat your fingertip; add lampblack to the mixture, a bit at a time, stirring with the pestle until you have a tar-like paste. This can take an hour. Then really grind the mixture in the mortar until the mixture is smooth. You will then have a treacly paste that can be stored in a jar. To make it into ink, remove a tablespoon of paste and place into a separate jar. Add distilled water and stir until you have the desired consistency.

There you have it: an indispensable guide to making writing inks. I never thought I’d write something that resembles a cookbook, but it’s been the easiest way to describe the inks I’ll be making today. However, there’s magic to be added to each recipe – a message to be carried in your ink. When your ink’s been made, at the point when you’re about to pour it into the glass storage 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 spell that locks in the magic. Let your writing release it.


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

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