Making Iron Gall Ink

After reading my series of holiday posts on galls, my friend Karima excitedly reminded me of one of the earliest forms of gall art: INK! And this month we finally made some! Karima Cammell owns and operates Castle In The Air, a cornucopian cabinet of fine-art supplies, hand-bound journals, quill pens, and unique inks from around the world. Not only is it a showcase of craft materials, the store also boasts a gallery of other artists from their many workshops, including Karima's own beautiful ink paintings. She already had a supply most of the ingredients: My job was to bring some local oak galls and rainwater. We could have easily used distilled water, but when you're making a recipe that's thousands of years old, there's a certain joy in getting as archaic as possible.

Apple Galls from California coast live oak. Photo by Karima Cammell

I collected the oak galls on a rainy weekend in Marin County, near some particularly gall-besotted coast live oaks- Oak apple galls are huge and pithy, often as wood-hard as the trees they grow on. Pocked around the surface are tiny holes, created when the newly emerged adult takes off to mate, lay more eggs in oaks, then expire. Interestingly, some of the holes might also have been created by wasps called inquilines- gall wasps that find another wasp's gall, and lay their own eggs as well, to grow into uninvited tenants. After collecting a handful of these beautiful sculptures, it was time to visit Karima, and pummel them into powder. The ingredients Karima used came from a kit made by Abraxas in Basel, Switzerland. As it turned out, the kit also contained a large bag of pre-ground oak galls. Gallotannic acid is the essential compound for making good ink. It can be found everywhere in nature, from tree bark, chestnut wood, even pomegranate peels. But gallotannins are crazy-concentrated in wasp galls.  Just for fun, we decided to add some of our local wasp galls to the mix, helpfully ground to dust by Karima's daughters, who were on hand to assist, learning about wasp galls as they went. So in case it wasn't clear by now, iron gall ink is a freaky-old recipe. Bach used it for his compositions. Da Vinci doodled with it. The constitution of the United States was drafted with it. Heck, the Dead Sea Scrolls were written with iron gall ink. The ingredients list for Iron Gall Ink is therefore fittingly mysterious-sounding:
  • Oak galls, milled or pulverized       90 gr
  • Rainwater or distilled water        400 ml
  • Gum Arabic, pulverized                     10 gr
  • Vitriol (Ferric II Sulphate)                   30 gr
  • Red wine                                                    3 table-spoons
Though the list reads like an exotic magical potion, they were all common and readily-available ingredients in many parts of the ancient world thanks to trade and industry. Here's a great breakdown on the origins of gall ink ingredients. In fact, now's as good a time as any to mention the informative awesomeness that is the Iron Gall Ink Website. It goes deeper into the chemistry and archival preservation, and is well worth a look.

Urn as you learn. Photo by Karima Cammell

The first order of business was the most immediately satisfying. 90 grams of beige powdered oak galls and 30 grams bright green iron sulphate were placed in a ceramic urn, and the the water is added. Instantly the mixture became an opaquely dark purple-black, creating a black insoluble octahedral complex known as ferric pyrogallate.  According to Abraxas' wonderfully medieval instructions, we were to "strew it with an iron staff, adding the rest of the water and red wine." Afterwards the gum arabic is added to keep the pigment suspended in the liquid. The mixture is left to ferment for a few days in a warm place, "stirred hourly". None of us had a proper "iron staff" on hand, but I brought a giant railroad spike as a helpful substitute.

Bottles fit for an imp. Photo by Karima Cammell

After a few days of waiting and patient stirring, the ink was ready to put into bottles! The deep-purple mixture was carefully poured into several small vials, and into each was added several drops of clove oil, to prevent mold from developing. Afterwards we all sat down for another fun event: making labels! A delightful assortment of quills, nibs, labels and sealing-waxes were brought forth. The daughters came up with the title "Oak Wasp Ink Supply" for our newly created ink consortium. My handwriting was the least legible- I've always been terrible with penmanship, but I didn't care- nothing is more fun than making mongoose-scrawls with your own handmade ink! The ink flowed from our nibs as a deep purple, oxidizing to a dark rust-black once it dried on the paper.

Selection of fyne products crafted by Oak Wasp Ink Supply. Photo by Karima Cammell

As we were all seated about the large project-table making labels, one of the daughters noticed some "flies" on the other oak apple galls I had left for them.. It appears some of them were still emerging! The nearly-invisible creators of our ink had made an appearance. We found at least 4 tiny gall wasps, coming from the two fresher-looking galls I had brought. Under a loupe we could see their own inky-dark exoskeletons highlighted in beautiful glittering iridescent green. A visitation by living calligraphic faeries.

Newly-emerged oak gall wasp, cleaning its antennae. Photo by Karima Cammell

Similar-looking gall wasp. Mine was prettier. Photo by Peter J. Bryant

A similar-looking gall wasp to the one we found. Ours was prettier. Photo by Peter J. Bryant

Now what to do with my new bottles of ink? Perhaps I'll take one of these classes and put them to good use! z end
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12 Responses to Making Iron Gall Ink

  1. David says:

    Nicely done. I’ve been making this ink for years now. There are many re-enactment and recreation groups that would love to purchase your ink from you.

    Some thoughts. Iron Gall inks earliest recipe on record is about 300 AD. We think there is mention of it from ancient Greece, but that is argued. Vitriol is actually not Fe(SO4) it is merely the (SO4). Green Vitriol (Copperas,) is the Fe kind and Blue Vitriol is the Cu kind.

    Also of interest because it changes the chemicals of the ink, Tannic Acid is the ingredient found in Oak Galls that interacts with the Iron Sulfate. Oak Galls in American have 40-50% tannic acid in them, the oak galls in Europe seem to have 60-70% tannic acid in them and the Allepo Oak Galls have almost 90% tannic acid in them. So a recipe that says use X amount should be adjusted for what kind of oak galls were used in the recipe vs what kind of Oak Galls you have on hand to use.

    Again, very good job and I hope you find some good uses for your ink!

    • swarm says:

      Thanks for the data! Sifting through the varying common names of Iron(II) Sulfate was a bit confusing, but illuminating. And yeah the varying contents of tannic acid is fascinating. The Abraxas kit was in fact supplied with ground-up aleppo galls. I actually have enough of the other ingredients to make a second batch, and this time see how well a 100% All-California Gall solution holds up, and that 50% ratio is a good standard. But before I do that, I have me some letters to write. In INK!

  2. barbara says:

    Thanks for posting. I’ve been promising my students we’d make this and now I’m getting the courage – I have great memories of making this as a child. Question – WHERE does one find the Gum Arabic and
    Vitriol (Ferric II Sulphate) in Marin?

  3. Jill Horne says:

    Hi Karima,
    In the movie, “Secret of Kells”, the illuminator needs a special green ink to create the Book of Kells, I loved the movie, but never expected to find someone who knows how
    to make the ink. Are you familiar with the movie? Cool,,I just googled it and they are oak galls…black but tweeked in movie to green. I wonder if there are oak galls in Oakland. This is really special. Just discovered your store today for ink cartridges in green. .

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  5. saskia pothof says:

    Thanks for the description of the process. My 4th graders will be studying the history of writing and we are planning to make bamboo pens and quills. Using the oak galls from their beloved tree to make ink will be such a great addition to the experience.
    We’re in Sonoma County. Where would we get gum Arabic and vitriol (SO4)?
    Great info – thank you.

    • Aaron W says:

      Hi,
      I’m also in sonoma county, and have been messing around with oak gall ink. I didn’t use gum arabic or iron vitriol, I just used steel wool and rusty nails soaked in vinegar for the iron salts and left out the thickener. I got a mediocre quality ink, but iit was most definitely ink. A thickener would definitely help. Eggwhites beat into the mixture would help, and I believe is authentic.

      Anyways, easy sources for those ingredients are amazon. If you search for “gum arabic” I see 1 oz (2.8 batches) for less than $5 or 1 lb (45 batches) for less than $25. If you search for “ferrous sulfate” (the modern name for green vitriol (which is what you want, vitriol is actually just sulfate without the iron)) you will get mostly supplements, which would be inconvenient to use and are expensive, but if you look to the left, under “Departments”, “Patio, Lawn & Garden”, click “Garden Fertilizers”. You will see Ferrous Sulfate Heptahydrate at 1 lb for less than $5 (15 batches). The heptahydrate makes no difference in this case. Iron (II) Sulfate as a crystal can exist in several hydration states, heptahydrate being the most common. They all convert to the same form when dissolved in water anyways so it doesn’t matter.

    • Aaron W says:

      To give more detail about local sources, gum arabic is used in foods as a stabilizer (prevents mixtures from separating, ideal for bottled ink) and to control viscosity and flow characteristics (again, it is ideal for ink). It is the gum resin of an acacia tree, and might be found at a grocery store, but could definitely be found at a healthfood store (community market on mendecino in santa rosa should have it) or an art store (it’s used as a binder and thickener for watercolor paints), or online. Online is probably the cheapest option.

      Ferrous Sulfate is used in gardening as a moss killer (a common brand name is Bonide), as well as uncountable other industrial uses, including as a mordant for various natural dyes. In fact, in this ink, it is acting as an iron mordant for a tannin dye. It should be available at garden stores or in the garden section of hardware stores. Ask for moss killer, but be sure to check the labels to make sure it’s ferrous sulfate (heptahydrate is fine, as well as any other hydrate of ferrous sulfate). Beware of “organic” or “green” equivalents that might kill moss but are not ferrous sulfate. I do not know if they exist for moss killers, but I encountered them while hunting for another mordant, alum, sold as a soil acidifier to turn Hydrangeas blue.

      If you would like to teach your 4th graders more about local uses of iron gall dyes and inks, you might be interested in knowing that the local indians used iron tannin inks to dye the black strands in their basketry, as well as for any other black things they needed. has a simple recipe, and at the bottom, some information about how the Pomo (a Sonoma county tribe) dyed split bullrush roots jet black with black mud as an iron source and has a picture of a central california coiled basket with black patterning from an iron tannin dye.

  6. donna bates says:

    I recently purchased a small bottle. Small about 3 inches tall it is a beautiful
    rose color and on the bottom is stamped in scripted letters PACT and printed above are the numbers 94 554 1 and under the name PACT are two small letters vm with a line above and below. The bottom of the jar is clear and it has a cork there is no evidence of any threads like a screw on lid. The top is definitely created for a cork.
    The only information I find shares that this little jar was filled with iron gall ink / bat blood for making a PACT with the Devil. I was hoping that with your expertise in the ink you might know something about the little bottle.
    thanks Donna

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  8. TheOncomingStorm says:

    fantastic! i’ve been using the recipe from kremer pigments and they call for a full quarter of wine, so i can’t make ink unless i’m at the shop to get it. with this i won’t have to worry about it. oh, one thing i’ve found out is you can use ferti-lome hi-yield copperas as a source for iron sulfate. most ace hardwares carry it and is a LOT cheaper than ordering from kremer. it also dissolves rapidly. btw, the iron gall website no longer exists.

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