Whether you’re just looking to be crafty and resourceful, or you want to ensure some form of post-grid communication, knowing how to make ink from plants growing around you is a fun and useful skill to have.
Historically, ink has been made from many different sources: gall, berries (blueberries, blackberries, raspberries, pokeberries, huckleberries), shaggy ink cap mushrooms, powdered roots, nuts, soot, logwood, indigo, bark (oat, chestnut, cherry, mountain ash, pine), pomegranate rinds, etc. In this article, I’ll be demonstrating how to make ink from huckleberries, since I happen to still have some frozen from last year’s harvest.
Cooking Down The Berries
- 2 cups huckleberries (fresh or thawed)
- 1/2 c. white vinegar (to help preserve the ink)
Collect berries at the peak of ripeness for best results. Never gather unripe berries for ink-making. You don’t really have to pick all of the stems off, as they’ll be strained out during the cooking process.
- stainless steel pot
- potato masher
- jelly bag or cheesecloth (something to strain the liquid through)
- two bowls (glass, glazed ceramic, or stainless steel)
- small glass bottle w/ non-metal lid
- rubber gloves (if you don’t want to stain your hands)
First, measure out the berries. 2 cups of berries plus vinegar cooked down yields approx. 1/2 c. ink. If you want more than that you can double the recipe, as needed. Keep in mind that because you are making an organic ink, eventually it will begin to spoil. Don’t make more than you think you’ll use in a couple of weeks. Refrigeration does prolong the life of berry ink.
Add the berries to a stainless steel stockpot. Do not add water. Turn the heat to medium and crush the berries to extract their juices. If the berries don’t have a lot of juice, add enough vinegar to prevent the berries from scorching. For 2 cups of huckleberries, you can add up to 1/2 c. vinegar, as needed. You want just enough liquid to be able to strain it out- but not so much that it’s mostly vinegar.
Continue crushing as the berries heat up. Simmer for 15 minutes, adjusting the heat and stirring to keep them from burning. Be very careful crushing the berries. When they pop, the hot juices splatter and can not only make a mess but also burn when they land on your face and arms. Using a larger pot will help protect against splattering.
Remove the pot from the heat and allow the berries to cool enough that you can handle them without burning yourself. Room temperature is fine.
Once the berries have cooled, place them in a jelly bag or cheesecloth to strain out the juices. I like to put the bag of cooked berries into a strainer resting over a bowl, allowing it to drip for several hours. You could also tie the bag up over a bowl and strain it that way.
Use the potato masher to crush the berries more, or squeeze the bag with your hands to help extract the juices. If you use a cheesecloth to strain the liquid, you may need to strain it off several times to get every little particle out of the ink. It needs to be completely smooth.
While the berries are straining, move on to the next step: making a binding agent.
Making A Binding Agent
Ink binders have several purposes. They are used to hold the pigment of the ink at the surface of the paper, making the mark clearer and sharper. They allow the ink to flow more easily from the tip of a pen or brush. And they keep the pigment from settling at the bottom of the ink jar over time.
Gum Arabic, collected from the sap of Acacia trees in North Africa, is a popular ink binder option. It can be purchased at craft stores and online. However, for those of us who want to know how to make these things from local resources, there is another binding agent which can be used.
During medieval times, the most commonly used ink binder was “glair”– a slimy substance made from egg whites. Of course, nothing could be more convenient for a homesteader!
Here’s how to make glair:
One egg = approx. 1 Tbsp glair. Crack an egg, separating the whites from the yolk. Using a whisk or an egg beater, beat the whites until they reach a stiff peak.
The whites should be so stiff that you can tip the bowl and they stay in place. If you’re whisking by hand it will feel like forever before it finally reaches a peak. Just keep whipping as fast as you can. You can give your hand a rest for a few minutes if you need to, but don’t let it sit too long in-between breaks. I promise it’ll stiffen up eventually.
Once you’ve reached a peak, cover the bowl with a lid or plastic wrap, and allow it to sit overnight at room temperature. Don’t refrigerate it. The next morning, the whites will have separated and there will be a yellowish liquid that you can strain off from the foamy top.
The liquid you strain off is glair.
Bottling The Finished Ink
Once you have a binding agent, mix it with the ink in the proper ratio. Generally you would use 1 1/2 to 2 Tablespoons of binder for every 1 cup of ink. You don’t want to get it too thick, otherwise the ink could crack and flake off of the paper once dry. You are trying to get a consistency which makes the ink cling to the tip of a pen, quill, or brush without dripping off.
Mix the berry liquid and glair in a med. bowl, then use a funnel to bottle up your finished ink. Any clean glass bottle will work. Do not use a metal lid (such as a canning lid), as it can corrode from the acidity of the ink over time. Instead, use a plastic lid or a wooden cork to seal up the contents.
Store berry ink in the fridge to preserve it longer. When you start to see mold growing in the bottle, it’s time to make a new batch.
Have fun experimenting with your homemade huckleberry ink! Some inks will change color in the sun, so keep this in mind when creating projects. You can use this same process with a variety of berries, so get creative and see what you can come up with using plants growing in your own area.
And get the kids involved, this is a great project for any age! Now I just need to learn how to make a quill pen from poultry feathers, and I’ll be set.
What’s your favorite medium for making homemade ink? Got a recipe to share?