Monday, June 13, 2011

You Want Vinegar with Your Oak Galls?

   My attempts to tidy up my back office were recently interrupted by a verbose and apparently excitable correspondent who took exception to my suggestion that iron gall ink can turn brown over the centuries. Apparently I was not supposed to mention this because it doesn't start off brown. However, time and tide wait for no scribe. 
   He also objected to my mentioning the use of vinegar in the manufacture of iron gall ink because, basically, according to him, it wouldn't work for various reasons involving Ph and ion release and suchlike chemical stuff. Well, I have no practical knowledge of whether it works or not, and can only point to the transcriptions of various medieval ink recipes mentioning either vinegar or wine that have been published and say, well if it doesn't work, they wrote it down anyway. Check out Inks and Pigments and follow the external links.


   An odd thing was that only a day or so previously I had received a request from somebody at the BBC who was making a program about oak forests and wanted to know if I would pop down to a bosky grove with them and whip up a batch of iron gall ink next week. I pointed out that I live in Australia and don't actually make my own ink. Apparently they found somebody more useful, so when the program appears, watch it and see if they use vinegar. It must be the oak gall harvesting season or something.
   The only thing that came out of this was that I discovered that a couple of links I had on the subject were out of date. Fixing these was the first work I had done on Medieval Writing in a couple of months, so I figure it is about time to do something about that. Some more paleography coming up soon.


Anonymous said...

Hey - I am certainly glad to find this. cool job!

H. Doug Matsuoka said...

An interesting post (and link) -- as always. Here's a link to a thread at The Fountain Pen Network where a member writes with a vinegar/iron formula. So it does work without regard to the objections of your excitable correspondent. And the scans show it does start off brown (or at least turns brown rather quickly).

"Make your own iron gall ink:"

P.S. Ink people (and pen people and paper people, etc.) can get really excitable about these things. The current banner at the "Inky Thoughts" topic warns members against ink bashing. People have really gotten into some heated arguments.

Dave R said...

I have been making and researching Oak Gall ink for over five years now. And examination of recipes from pre-1600 show that vinegar and wines were used as well as water.

That this may have caused problems with the chemistry of the ink making is rather immaterial as at the time they had no idea of Chemistry the way we do. And to be fair we don't really have the knowledge of alchemy that they had. (Our one advantage is that we could in fact research it.)

A Booke of Secrets 1596 one sees imeediately upon the first page of the Manuscript that the recipe involves vinegar.

"It is first to be understood that if you will make a great quantity of ink together, you must increase the weight and measure according to the proportion you mean to make as for example, if you will make ten quarts of ink, then take four quarts of water and five quarts of vinegar and wine, that is, three of each sort which together with water make ten quarts, and so must you do with other quantities, either more or less. The like must you do in the weight of your other stuff that belongeth there unto, as for a pint of water, six ounces of galls, four ounces of vitriol and four ounces of gum and if you take four quarts of water, (which is eight pints) if you give to every pint his proportion, then multiplying eight by six they make forty eight, so many ounces of gall must you put to ten quarts, mixed as afore said with wine, vinegar and water and of vitriol and gum, of each 32 ounces, according to the first proportion, and so much you observe your quantities, of weight and measure in each proportion, as you are minded to increase."

As do the next two recipes:

A Book of Secrets

Crease the same as in this treatise you shall read.

To Make Ink to Write Upon Paper

Take half a pint of water, a pint wanting a quarter of wine, and as much vinegar, which being mixed together make a quart and a quarter of a pint more, then take six ounces of galls beaten into small powder and sifted through a sieve, put this powder into a pot by itself and pour half the water, wine and vinegar into it, take likewise four ounces of vitriol, and beat it into powder, and put it also into a pot by itself, wherein put a quarter of the wine water and vinegar that remains and to the other quarter put four ounces of gum Arabic beaten to powder, that done cover the three pots close and let them stand three or four days together, stirring them every day three or four times. On the first day set the pot with the galls on the fire, and when it begins to seeth, stir it about till it be thouroughly warm, then strain it through a cloth into another pot, and mix it eith the other tow pots, stirring them well together, and being covered, then let it stand three days, til you mean to use it. On the fourth day when it is settled pour it out and it will be good ink. If there remain any dregs behind pour some rain water(that has stand long in a tub or vessel into it, for the older the water is, the better it is, and keep that until you make more ink so it is better the clean water.


A Booke of Secrets

To make ink for parchment

Make it in all points like the ink aforesaid only take a pint of water, and of vinegar and wine a pint more, that is of each half a pint.


And yes, Oak Gall ink degrades. It has ferrous ions in it and they oxidize black at first. Over time, centuries to millenia they oxidize to the lest stable "rust" that we think of with iron. Brown is the common coloration for this with the ink.

A pleasure to see someone who has their knowledge straight and their head on their shoulders about this subject.

Ian the Green,

medievalpaint said...

Hi, I wrote to you years back offering you some ink, but you rightly said no, due to Aussie import restrictions. I happily direct people to your site and am glad to see it is going strong.

Vinegar, as in off wine is fine for making ink and as the guys mention, is well recorded, Jehan le Begue - 14th/15th century

"take 1 1/2 pounds of pounded galls soak them in warm rain water, or warm wine, or vinegar, of the quantity of 10 phials......."

The rest of the recipe is much the same as all the others, add ferrous sulphate etc.

Your recent correspondent mentions ink not being brown when written, is more along the lines that the recipes tend to state the making of black ink, which suggests the intended colour. Maybe that was what they were getting at?

However, when you play with the various recipes, some of them have a brownish cast or can turn brown very quickly, in other cases, it can stay black for years.

As for harvesting, I collect mine in winter once the leaves have dropped and the gall wasp has left the gall. I recall that some recipes use green galls.

Would you be allowed to import gall powder? George Weil sells a top quality gall nut powder, makes superb ink, better than galls I get.

Dianne said...

Ah, my practical inkmaking scribal correspondent. Where have you been lately? I'm not sure that mysterious powders are much better than murky black liquids as far as border security are concerned, but I appreciate the thought. Perhaps you could just send me your signature in your own ink - or a haiku - or a parody of Chaucer - whatever. You're not the person the BBC has contracted to frolic through the oak forests, are you? Anyway, I think we have established that my correspondent does not have the right to take me out and have me shot for mentioning the word vinegar, or the word brown, so thanks for that.

medievalpaint said...

Hi Diane,

I might have sent you a sample of my written work to look at some time ago, not sure when.

No, I am not the bloke to do with the BBC thing.

I do stress to people that the ink is meant to be black when made, what happens to it thereafter is the interesting part. I have seen some historical re-enactors write with brown ink, which is off the mark IMHO, as we agree that the brown is a change of state, rather than the beginning.
I have some ink samples that show different casts of colour and how a drawing of mine corroded relatively soon after being drawn. Check my gallery.

What are Aussie import laws on such things as dyestuffs? because the gall powder is sold as a dye for making black.

But I will happily send you a written piece etc.

Dianne said...

No medievalpaint, you didn't actually send me any writing before. I thought you were just offended because I rejected your ink. I'd love you to send me a little snippet. I'll put it up on the website. Email me at so I can tell you where to send it to. (Don't want to put my address up here. God knows what I might get sent or by whom.)I can't find your email address (or your name!). Either my computer is getting as senile as I am, or I lost it when I changed computers, but I do remember our communications on the subject of ink.

medievalpaint said...

Me offended, nope.

I will sort something out for you to critique and offer any tips for improvement.


medievalpaint said...

I have emailed you some bits.


Anonymous said...

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Anonymous said...

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The Doctor's Companion said...

honestly, instead of guessing if the ink would pass customs or not....why have you not asked a customs agent. that would be the most logical move. or even have your friend ship it in a dark brown bottle. just my 2 pence worth.

Dave R said...

So here I am again.

I have found out some interesting things since last I read and last I posted...

The Oak Gall Ink that I make is a purple black ALWAYS. I met with a lady from England who makes, and trains others to make, Oak Gall Ink. Her ink is a BROWN black ALWAYS.

So I'm going to guess it has less to do with the time of year the oak galls are harvested but far more to do with the environment the trees are in that the oak galls are harvested from.

Something else not previously discussed is the use of coloring additives such as log wood that turns BLACK when introduced to copperas (Iron Sulfate).


Dave R said...

I don't know if my previous comment went through or not due to the signing in process.

Since last I posted...

I met with a lady from England who makes, and trains others to make, oak gall ink. Her Oak Gall ink is ALWAYS a brown black. My Oak Gall ink is ALWAYS a purple black. This leads me to believe that the the environment the tree is in (as well as the species of tree) is more indicative of the color than when the oak galls are harvested.

Also we haven't even touched on the color additives for ink such as Log Wood that turns BLACK when it comes in contact with Copperas (Iron Sulfate). Apparently though it also makes the ink less stable over time.

This time around I have set my notifications to get any responses by e-mail.

Also, I started a blog over on wordpress.

You may have already seen my webpage:

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