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Making ink from alder cones and black walnuts

 
steward
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My kids are learning about the medieval times, and since we have tons of goose feathers from our geese, it inspired me to make quills. Of course, then I had to take it one step further and make ink!

I found quite a few different videos on making ink. The basics seem to be:

(1) Put tannin-rich plant material into a pot
(2) Bring it to a simmer
(3) Let it simmer a while (I found I didn't get much more color out of them after an hour of simmering, even if I left it in the pot on the woodstove for a day)
(4) Pour it through a strainer
(5) Pour it through a finer strainer (paint strainer or cheese cloth. I used an old flat diaper)
(6) Add gum arabic until it's thick enough that it doesn't bleed on your paper.
(7) Have fun!

Step 1: Find Tannin-Rich Material!

I have a lot of red alders on my property, so we went hunting! Some we pulled green off the tree, and others we found on the ground. The easiest to spot were hanging from branches, where they'd got caught as they fell (my daughter spotted these!)

Collecting alder cones in the blackberry/maple basket I made


For the walnuts, I really lucked out!  We were at my parent's place to press cider, and my nieces found a squirrel stash of black walnuts! As all the little ones were having blast smashing them (and my daughter's white dress was being stained brown and their hands were turning brown), my brain went, "TANNINS!" So, after the kids had fun smashing them, I took them (and some more from the stash) and froze them until I was ready to boil them. I didn't need a bunch of moldy green walnut husks!

Steps 2 & 3: Simmer the Tannin-Rich Material in water

First, I boiled the alder cones in my dye pot on the stove.

The kids and I found a lot of alder cones outside!


Aldercones in water to make brown ink
Boiling away


Water turned brown from simmering alder cone tannins
The water is brown now. I mashed it for good measure, but I didn't really need to


A lot of videos said that I should boil it for hours. I did that, but the color didn't get much darker. So, I'd say you really only need to boil it for an hour.

I did the same thing with the frozen walnuts. All parts of the walnut were thrown in the pot and covered with water. Some instructions said to take them out and break them, but the water was already rather dark.

frozen walnuts in the pot


turning walnuts into walnut ink
It's turning brown!


Very dark now. I let the alder ink evaporate in a jar on top of the stove


Steps 4 & 5: Strain it and then strain it again!

I didn't get pictures of this. But, I strained them first through a big tea strainer, and then I put an old cloth diaper over the strainer and poured it through again. This worked well!

Step 6: Add Gum Arabic to thicken

Apparently, you can also use wild cherry sap in the same way. I wish I'd known that earlier, because the kids had noticed that we have a wild cherry that's constantly dripping sap. Anyway, I just bought raw gum arabic. I could have bought it as a powder or a liquid, which would be easier to add. But, I really wanted to show the kids how it's acacia sap and let them hold it in their hands. They really enjoyed that!

picture from Amazon of the gum arabic I bought


To make the gum arabic useable, I simmered it in a small amount of the  ink, because I didn't want to dilute it more.  Thinking back, it would have worked MUCH better to just hydrate the gum arabic in water and then add it to the ink. You can always simmer the ink down to make it a darker color.

hydrating the gum arabic in water. I just used a small metal measuring cup for ease of pouring and so I wouldn't lose a lot stuck to the edge of a larger pot


As I rehydrated the gum arabic and added it to the ink, I kept testing it to see if the line was clean. If the ink was feathering out, it needed more gum arabic. You can see the lighter, more golden brown is from the alder ink. The darker, desaturated brown is from the walnut ink.

Finished alder and walnut inks! Between them is my test paper where I tested out the color and thickness of the ink.


Step 7: Enjoy!

Not only did I enjoy playing with quill and ink, so too did my kids! I also took everything to their school, and taught their fellow classmates about making ink and let them write with pen and quill.

The kids enjoying writing and drawing with my geese's quills and the alder and walnut inks!
 
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What an incredible learning experience, for both you (and indirectly us) and your children and their classmates.

It's easy to see why the value proposition of some things have changed considering the amount of labour or specialized knowledge to create things.

Without having ever looked into this as a project, I wonder if something like a pine / spruce / fir sap would work as an alternative thickener.

Thanks for sharing!
 
Nicole Alderman
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I think maybe the pine/spruce/fire sap might be too resinous? I know we differentiate e between pine/spruce/etc saps from deciduous saps. We call the pine ones "pitch." Resins seem to be even more sticky, and maybe they don't mix the same as acacia sap or cherry sap. From this reddit

I did find this article: Pine gum to replace other gums. But, the process to isolate the Galactoglucomannan gum out of pine sap is intensive

Galactoglucomannan is a hemicellulose of pine. Previously no effective method existed to extract hemicellulose from trees, and the processes were very difficult to carry out. Company BLN Woods has developed a method which enables separating all different ingredients for converting.

The method uses underpressure in order to keep the structure of hemicellulose in order to avoid chopping or polymerizing it. Costs of the process are low and there are plenty of usages for the end product.



I've gone down a longer rabbit hole and found this: The Difference between Resins and Gums for Aromatherapy Use


What is a Resin?

A resin is the sticky ooze exuding from the tree, predominantly those of the Pinaceae family.  Resins are formed as an oxidation by-product of essential oils, and expelled out of a tree’s bark, hardening with exposure to air.1 Trees are typically tapped to acquire enough amounts of resins for commercial use.

Resin is insoluble in water, but dissolves in alcohol and other solvents.1 It is used in industry to make glues, waterproof varnishes, and in aromatic/medicinal products.

Types of Resins

There are three groups of resins: Hard resins, oleoresins, and gum resins.

Hard resins contain very little essential oil and are used to make varnishes and adhesives.1 Amber is an unusual hard aromatic fossil resin, typically originating from a pine tree. Sometimes ancient remains of plants and animals can be found in amber resin.2

Oleoresins are typically liquid and contain significant amounts of essential oil. Oleoresins include turpentine, balsam, benzoin, elemi, and copaiba.1

Turpentine comes mainly from coniferous trees, which exude a substance called pitch, tapped for commercial harvest. Trees of the Pinaceae family include cedar, pine, fir, spruce, and hemlock.3 Note that multiple essential oils come from trees of the Pinaceae family, but may come from other plant material, such as the needles or cones, and not necessarily from the resin.
Examples include:

Pine (Pinus sylvestris)
Fir (Abies balsamea)
Black spruce (Picea nigra).
Balsams are aromatic oleoresins containing benzole or cinnamic acid. Essential oils can be extracted via distillation. Contradictory to what the general name might apply, balsams do not actually include Canada balsam (Abies balsamea) or copaiba balsam (Copaifera officinalis).1 Balsams do include the following trees, belonging to the Fabaceae family:
Balsam of Peru (Myroxylon pereirae)
Balsam of Tolu (Myroxylon balsamum).
Benzoin is a thick gooey substance with a fixative quality and vanilla aroma. It comes from plants of the Styrax family, including:
Sumatra benzoin (Styrax benzoin).
Siam benzoin (Styrax tonkinensis)
Elemi (Canarium luzonicum) differs from other oleoresins in that the substance is not liquid. It hardens with air exposure.1
Copaiba includes aromatic oleoresin mostly from the Copaifera species of the Fabaceae family of South America. Copaiba is obtained by boring holes into the heartwood.1
What is a Gum?

Gums are made by plants when internal tissue decomposes. This process, called gummosis, creates a product high in sugar. Gum typically oozes from stems or branches in response to a wound. It is created by the plant to prevent fungal infection. Plant examples include:

Gum acacia (Acacia senegal)
Gum tragacanth milkvetch (Astragalus gummifer)
Indian tragacanth (Sterculia urens)
Prunus ssp.1  

What is Sap?

Note that resins and gums are different from sap. Sap runs through the xylem and phloem of trees to provide water and nutrients in a process called transpiration.4 Resin, found in the resin ducts of a tree’s bark, protects the tree from injury, water loss, microbial pathogens, and insects.5

A Mix: Gum Resins

Gum resins are a mix of gum and resin and can also include essential oils. This substance is typically collected by tapping into a tree. Gum resins typically come from trees of a dry climate, such as those of the Burseraceae family. Examples include:

Frankincense (Boswellia ssp.)
Myrrh (Commiphora myrrha, Commiphora erythraea).
Table Summarizing Resin, Gum, and Gum Resin


 ResinGumGum Resin
DefinitionUsually oozes out of barkUsually oozes out of stems.Combination of gum and resin.
Water SolubleNo.Yes.Partially.
Alcohol SolubleYes.No.Mostly.
ExamplesPine, fir, spruce, true balsams, benzoin, copaiba, elemi.Gum acacia, Gum tragacanth milkvetch, Indian tragacanth, Prunus ssp.Frankincense, myrrh.




So, a sap is different from a gum (like from acacia or prune/cherry/plum/peach trees) or a resin (like pine/spruce/fir/etc). They have different uses and properties and are not equally water-soluble. But, knowing that prunus species (like peach, cherry, apricot, plum) are gums, means there's probably some gum producing tree that can grow in most areas (and might even be growing there naturally). Very cool!
 
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Thanks, Nicole. Great tutorial. I learned a lot from it!
 
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Some years ago I made walnut ink. I did not add any kind of gum, so it's fairly watery. It's best to use it on watercolour paper.

I keep it in the fridge (in a glass bottle). As far as I know it's still usable.
 
Nicole Alderman
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If anyone is wondering, these are big, fat, very healthy non-native grey squirrels. There was a bunch of horse chestnuts in their stash that we left there, and a horse chestnut tree just 20 feet from their stash. The walnut tree they were getting the walnuts from was just across the street, and still had hundreds of walnuts. My mom also has been feeding birds on her property for 30+ years, and so these squirrels have all year buffet of spilled bird seeds to rely on through the winter. I took all of these things into consideration before taking the handfuls of walnuts my nieces had found and already smashed to bits. I find it important to sustainably harvest for my projects, and try to be as low impact as possible.

While ink can be made with any tannin rich material, I really wanted to show the students the different things medieval people used to make ink. I sadly don't have access to any oak trees, as oak galls are one of the most tannin-rich and common sources of ink. I'm also not sure how to harvest them without killing a bunch of larval wasps. Additionally, I don't have access to any oak trees, and would have had to drive long distances in search of a tree, which would likely be less sustainable than harvesting what was local and in abundance.

I'd love to see inks made with other tannin-rich material and if they differ in color. If anyone has access to ink galls, that would be super fun to see!
 
Derek Thille
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Thanks for the response Nicole.  I didn't realize how much variation there is in tree chemistry.  I was effectively wondering aloud based on what might work that was locally available.  

That also brings to mind the question of how ink was composed centuries ago...it would seem tannin-rich materials are fairly widespread, but gum may be more challenging to come by.  If they used gum a millennia ago, it's amazing to think how these things were figured out without the more modern chemical analysis and body of knowledge.  It helps understanding why the written word would have been relatively exclusive, more available to the wealthy and how revolutionary the Gutenberg press was in terms of making the written word more universal and potentially decreasing the impact / relevance of oral traditions.
 
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This was fabulous! I have never made ink in all my years of dyeing with plants. You broke it down into steps that are clear and easy to understand and follow. Thank you!

And I appreciate the tutorial on resins, gums, etc. I am about to go into that with a student and was looking for information, this makes it so much easier.

Thanks!!!
 
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