Thursday, February 25, 2010

Think Ink

This past summer I had a brain fart that led to my purchasing several hundred antique quill pen nibs (points), several hundred 1oz. bottles, and a quantity of fountain pen ink. I'm sure it's happened to everyone at some point.

Immediately after purchasing the nibs, I began designing and producing some quill pens to sell in my shop and on my etsy and ebay pages. To augment the sale of the pens, I purchased Black India Ink and glass bottles to go with them. Not content to offer only one type of ink to go with the myriad of colorful designs I was coming up with for pens, I looked into some other kinds of ink I could produce with minimal cost. The two I came up with were Black Walnut Ink and Pokeweed Berry Ink. Both can be produced at home with minimal start-up costs and produce a very nice quality ink.

Black Walnut Ink is a deep brown almost sepia tone water based ink made from the rotted hulls (the green fleshy casing around the nut) of black walnuts. There are plenty of web sites out there that talk about how to make Black Walnut Ink. And most of them do it slightly differently. Most advocated collecting black walnuts (still in the hull) off the ground and allowing them to rot and soak for several weeks. While I do have black walnut trees in my area, I did not want to wait several weeks, endure the smell of rotting hulls, or ruin a large pot to have them soak in (it is recommended that you not cook in a pot after using it for this as it is poisonous to humans). It just so happened that I had recently purchased some dried and powdered black walnut hulls from my herb supplier. I don't even know why I had ordered them. Call it kismet.

I soaked a quantity on the powdered hulls in some water in a quart saucepan that I normally only use for melting wax for making candles. I let it steep for a little while to let the juglone, plumbagin and tannin leech into the water. I used a single burner electric hot plate (that I also use for melting wax) and let it simmer for an hour or two. I had read on several websites that the addition of red iron oxide (rust) reacts chemically with the juglone and makes the ink darker in color. I didn't have a supply of red iron oxide sitting around (though I am getting some), so I found a rusted metal coffee can and scrapped what I could into the pan. I figured it couldn't hurt.

After simmering for a while, I used a coffee filter over a quart mason jar to strain the liquid from the solids. In hindsight, I should have used a more progressive series of sieves and filters, so as not to clog up the filters almost immediately. It took forever for the liquid to drain off, and a lot was wasted. Once filtered, I checked the color with a pen. It was OK, but I would have liked it to be a little darker. I have read that black walnut ink darkens with age, but I am impatient. I could have reduced the ink on the hotplate, but again- impatient, so instead I used some commercially produced Black Walnut Ink Crystals to shore up the color. Walnut ink crystals are basically the instant coffee version of what I was making. They are very nice to have, but a little expensive. Too expensive to use by itself to produce ink in quantity for sale, but OK for deepening the color of my much cheaper home brewed ink.

Pokeweed is common in my area. It can be found growing in vacant lots all over the place. In the fall, it produces dark purple/black berries that grow on a bright purple/pink stem cluster, like a bunch of grapes. Birds love them. My daily walk takes me through a park that has lots of pokeweed growing in it and my sales clerk, Toni, has a large bush of it growing beside her house. It was very easy to take a plastic bag and load up on berries.

I gathered about two Wal-Mart bags full of fresh berries and mashed them up in a couple of quart mason jars. Pokeweed berries were used extensively back in the late 1800's because you can use them without any processing. Just mash up some berries and dip your pen in the goop. It makes for a very un-manly bright pink/purple/magenta color. I thinks it's quite pretty actually. Unfortunately, this color will fade over time. It will eventually become a pale brown color. You've probably seen pictures of the Declaration of Independance, especially if you've seen National Treasure. Well, try to imagine it as it was originally written -in hot pink! How long it takes for the color to fade varies depending on several factors, a significant one being exposure to UV.

One of the problems that I had read about when using pokeweed berries for ink, it that it has a limited shelf life. It molds and it spoils. One website reported to have solved the spoilage problem be fermenting the berries during production. This would remove a lot of the natural sugar and introduce alcohol which would act as a preservative. I also planed to add some denatured alcohol to the final ink to help with preservation. I took a packet of fast acting yeast and disolved it in a cup of water I then added the solution to each of my jars of mashed berries. I covered the tops of the jars with a cloth to prevent unwanted airborne spores from getting into the mixture, and to allow CO2 to escape as the yeast fermented the berries. I left the little buggers to do their magic for several days, stirring occasionally. If you do this, remember to only fill your jars about 1/3 of the way with berries, because the yeast is going to make it foam up and you will have overflow if you overfill.

When the mash was finished fermenting, I consolidated it into a few jars, and cleaned out the now empty ones ( I think I used like 5 jars for fermenting). Then I strained the mash through wire strainers and into the clean jars. The mash is way too thick to use coffee filters, so I started out with a coarse mesh wire strainer, and then a finer one (the success of this method is what gave me the idea that I should have done this with the walnut ink as well). I added a little at a time with a spoon, and pressed it down to squeeze out the juice. when the small batch in the strainer was done, I put into a cup for later. After going through two levels of strainers, it seemed clear enough of particles that I didn't think it needed a coffee filter. There was still a lot of liquid trapped in the pulp even after being squeezed by the spoon in the strainer, so I took the wet pulp and put it in a piece of doubled up cheesecloth. I closed up the cheesecloth into a bundle, making sure there were no holes for the pulp to escape, and squeezed the crap out of it with my hands. This gave me some of the richest darkest colored juice of all.

Now, as I was squeezing, I was wearing rubber gloves because a) I didn't want my hands turning bright purple, and b) Pokeweed berries are POISONOUS. Unfortunately, squeezing the cheesecloth sac with my hands made them slippery with juice, even though I was wearing the rubber gloves, and I dropped the mason jar filled with the good concentrated juice as I was taking it to add to the rest of the jars. It slipped from my hands, fell onto my lap, spilled, splashed everywhere, got all over the vinyl floor, soaked through my pants, and stained a large area of my inner thigh bright purple. Aside from being wet, and pissed off, I was also a little scared. I dropped everything and immediately went home to clean up. I was alarmed at how much of it got through to my skin. This prompted me to make the only call to The Poison Controle Center that I have ever made in my life. I knew pokeweed berries were poisonous to EAT, but I had no idea how poisonous they would be to absorb through your skin, especially this much of it. I needed to know if I should go to the hospital. The lady I talked to was very nice and said that they get calls like this all the time, mostly about little kids who found a bush of the stuff, started playing with the pretty colored berries and came home purple. She also assured me that the berries are a GI irritant and are not dangerous to absorb through the skin. What a relief! Luckily, most of the stain on my leg came off with soap and water, and the remainder faded within a few days. Cleaning up the workshop was not so easy. Some of my tax papers still have splotches of bright purple on them.

I added some denatured alcohol to the strained mason jars and called it finished. I wanted to avoid using salt or vinegar as a preservative, because these would case corrosion in the metal pen nibs. I bottled only a dozen or so at a tome, and left the rest in the mason jars and keep it in the refrigerator. It has been several months, and it still seems fine. Next year, since pokeweed berries are seasonal, I think I will gather up a bunch of them and put them in the freezer and only take them out when I want to make up a batch, instead of making a large batch and keeping it in the fridge.


  1. I think I'll stick to my turkey vulture feather with a ball point filler stuck in it. I like your persistence.
    At least now I know how to make ink if I ever have to (I hope never).

  2. Sorry to hear you lost the bottle of concentrated juice, I've been there.

    As another tidbit of fun you can do with the pokeweed, it is actually edible. When I lived in Indiana several friends of mine made pokeweed pie.
    The trick is to soak the berries in water overnight, then toss that water out and you can then evidently cook with the pokeberries like you would any other.

    For comparison, green tomatoes are definitely toxic, but that hasn't stifled the fried variety.