Black Walnut Ink

Over the past few weeks in my class at school, we have been making black walnut ink. It is one of the craft and science projects we’re doing as part of our study of Colonial New England. We plan to use the ink to write with quill pens in pamphlet-stitch-bound “copy books” to scribe historical aphorisms such as “Mind your book,” “Strive to learn,” “Call no ill names,” and “Cheat not in your play”. Yes, OK, these are pretty moralistic, but speaking as a primary school teacher, I actually think they are still pertinent to a 21st century classroom in a progressive independent school.

To make the ink we are using the highly composted/aged/fermented contents of a 5 gallon bucket of black walnut hulls in water, which dates back not just one but TWO Autumns ago (i.e., Autumn 2012). Fresh walnut hulls are fragrant, even perfume-like. Mine, as it turned out, had become manure-like.

As you probably know, if you know me or you read my blog, I do not mind strong smells. I love plants and I really love almost any plant-related smells. I believe that smell is an under-appreciated sense and source of knowledge, actually, despite its literary fame as a trigger to memory. But I do appreciate that I have a high tolerance for stinky smells, and I try to be respectful of the impact of my projects on the olfactory sensibilities of other people.

When we began to simmer the walnut hulls and their venerable liquid on a portable electric burner in the classroom, I personally found the smell pleasant and earthy. However, after the first day of boiling down the walnut hulls, I got some complaints (I mean polite inquires) into the stench emanating from our classroom. Admittedly it did take on a much stronger and more aggressive odor as time went on. I moved the walnut project to outdoors and after school.

Over several days, I reduced approximately two gallons of mushy walnut hulls, and the liquid in which they’d been soaking, to 400 ml. of very intense liquid. But then what? In the past when we have made walnut ink at school, I’ve boiled up some black walnut hulls and that was that. I didn’t really delve deeply into the techniques and details. This year I wanted to know more about it.

I did a little research into black walnut ink recipes, and I came across a few interesting links that I thought I’d share.

Here’s one recipe from artist Mark Tabler on his website. And here’s another from Teri “Fiber Drunk” on the Fountain Pen Network. You can view the the follow-up post here. (12/27/2023 Edited: Mark Tabler’s website no longer lists a black walnut ink recipe. The images on the Fountain Pen Network page no longer display, but I found I could copy and paste the URL into my browser to view them. I added a Wayback Machine link for Mark Tabler’s hilarious and oh-so-relatable black walnut ink recipe.)

I can certainly sympathize with her concern about killing maggots, and I must admit I’ve been concerned about the maggots in the hulls myself. I take my hat off to Teri Fiber Drunk’s labor to remove all the maggots from the hulls. Personally, I stopped worrying about this a few years ago, and just soaked the hulls plus whoever happened to be living in them. Sorry! But I really appreciated learning that the maggots have a symbiotic relationship with the walnut tree. That is very amazing.

I also really appreciated learning that the making of home-made ink is still an art and craft practiced by many, and I really enjoyed the postings on this Flickr page about how different inks look different depending on which pen and paper you use for writing.

I know I am a big geek about the fiber and dye subjects by which I am enthralled, and it was fun to discover a whole new world of ink and pen geeks out there! Salutations! I’m sorry that my own efforts will not add to your knowledge.

So, I simmered down that two gallons to about 400 ml. then added 50 ml. of 100 proof vodka as a preservative. I decided not to add gum arabic, which some recipes call for, because it seems to delay drying time. When you are working with first and second graders, smudging is an issue. We’re looking for quick drying, not slow-drying ink here!