How to Make Black Walnut Ink

I’ve always wanted to make ink from black walnuts. I got the idea from Xplor magazine, which is a free publication issued by Missouri Conservationist. It’s a magazine about outdoor pursuits in Missouri, for kids. If you live in Missouri go here to request it. The instructions were pretty simple:

Gather a dozen walnuts. Unless you want stained skin, put on rubber gloves. Remove the nuts from their husks. Place the husks in a pot, cover them with water, and simmer on the stove for several hours. The longer you simmer, the darker the ink will be. Pour the ink through an old t-shirt into a quart jar. Add a tablespoon of rubbing alcohol to preserve the ink, and it’s ready to use. (source)

We often complete step one. We have lots of black walnut trees near our house…

Here's one

Here’s one

…and often collect them for fun/for fall decor.

Black Walnuts in Husks

Black Walnuts in Husks

Once I thought to make the ink for a little after-school rainy day activity. I googled the instructions to double check a few things. Can you boil them whole? How long do they need to boil? I found A LOT of information. Information that quickly made me second guess the ink-making.

In my research five minutes of googling I also found out that black walnut ink isn’t black. It’s brown. This was a big disappointment. I mean, brown is ok in nature. Wood’s great. But brown as a color? Just not my favorite.

You need that jet black for contrast. (Jackson Pollock, Autumn Rhythm)

You need that jet black for contrast. (Jackson Pollock, Autumn Rhythm)

Because sepia can just be so wrong.

Sepia can just be so wrong.

I had envisioned the striking contrast of deep black ink strokes (by the Spy and Baby) on some thick watercolor paper. Pollock for kids; a perfect lesson. Knowing those strokes would be (an unknown shade) of brown really took the wind out of my sails.

But I don’t want to discourage anyone from making ink: from walnuts or any other source. I love the idea of “the old way” of doing things. I use the phrase “in the old days” quite often.

However, I rarely commit to the labor intensive process of ye olde crafts. Usually imagining days of ole’ is enough for me. For the most part we stick to bottled paints and pens from a box. So I’ve decided I’m just going to write about making the ink. I’m feeling quite satisfied in this decision and I think the various fabrics around my house will benefit immensely.

It was an easy decision, made quickly after invoking one simple vision: Baby, with a jar of ink.

Jarfuls of ink aren’t the best thing to keep on hand for art-time with a three year old. Or even an eight year old. Or even myself. In my creative quests I am quite impatient. I get lost in the process and make a mess effectively without the aid of liquid ink. Photography is a good for me. Lots of room for error. Hundreds of blurry pictures aren’t hurting anyone. Handling hot, incredibly permanent pots and jars of ink may not be the best match for my creative talents.

Heavily pigmented acrylic paints do stain. But they’re thick. They can only travel so far.

But liquid ink?

So I’ve decided against the ink making. But I’m still providing the best of the best of what I found so that you can stain your fabrics and ruin your kitchen make ink from black walnuts. Please do tell me how it goes.

You can follow the simple instructions at the beginning of this post. Or tackle the craft via these much more specific (and humorous) instructions that follow. All of the indented italicized blocks below are from various sites I found (one of which was…

DSC_1877 (700x519)

Step 1:  Collecting the Nuts

I grabbed my coat and a rucksack and headed for the woods to try to find some walnuts the squirrels had overlooked. (source)

If you’re going to commit to walnut ink making, you ought to have a rucksack. I do not have a rucksack. Another tally under the reasons why I should hold off on the ink making.

I simply put them into my large canning pot and covered them with our well water. I homeschool, so I couldn’t do anything more with them that day. They soaked for about 24 hours before I could get back to them again. (source)

Walnut ink making apparently can’t be part of the homeschooling curriculum. So make sure you’re doing it on your free time (if you do homeschool..and if you’re going to make walnut ink you probably should). Tap water is out. You need well water. Preferably from a well you dug yourself.

I wore rubber gloves while I de-husked the black walnuts… Dehusking was hard on the gloves and they kept tearing on me… which is why I still ended up with stained fingers! (Yes, this stuff will stain countertops and everything else it touches, including the pots, strainers and other equipment that you need to process it with, so just be forewarned if you plan to try this. It’s best to set aside equipment just for this purpose.) (source)

“It’s best” to designate pots and supplies (and by “supplies” I mean, an entire kitchen) for the sole purpose of ink making. If you’re making that much of commitment to ink-making you’re going to want to have a lot of ink-using activities planned. So you can pretty much kiss blogging goodbye. Or write all your blog posts with the ink and then just photograph or scan the pages and post those.

I actually took the time to pick out the worms. I’m vegetarian and couldn’t stand the thought of bugs in my ink… it would’ve been a lot simpler just to boil the husks whole, but I knew a lot of worms would’ve been inside them and that would’ve bothered me to kill them. (source)

If you truly want to connect to the essence of the ink, you need to rescue the husk maggots. Black walnuts support these nonviolent creatures. If you fail to support these writhing gems, the ink’s harmony will be all thrown out of whack. Be one with the walnuts.



Step 2: Soak the Walnut Husks/Separate the Husks from the Nuts

The easiest way to obtain the husk material is to strew the nuts in your driveway and drive over them a few times. The shells are so hard, the weight of the car won’t smash them.

Let me reiterate: Drive over them A FEW times.

Several years ago we lived in a different house that had a huge black walnut tree. I wanted to get the meat out of them and eat the walnuts. I collected a big bucket full of the nuts. And forgot about it. So the nuts in the bucket became covered with rainwater. Which became a black stew that smelled like the fresh rot of a wet forest. Then someone told me about the “just run them over” tip. So I dumped the black liquid with the nuts onto our driveway. Then forgot about them. So we drove over them. Again and again. And again. For several months. Until all the nuts were mashed up and black stains covered our driveway in a gruesome (and quite unappetizing) mess. I don’t believe the stains ever came out. In remembering my success at these stains I realize, I’ve already made ink from black walnuts once before. Using rainwater. Which I believe trumps well water.

Step 3: The Cooking

After they are black, put them in a large pot for which you don’t have any great affection. (source)

This is a problem. I only have five pots. And while I don’t necessarily feel “affectionate” towards these stainless steel staples of my kitchen, I do use them quite often.

(Another warning: The walnuts, water, and ink all have a high capacity for staining anything they come into contact with. This includes kitchen counters, fingernails, dishes, wooden spoons, and your clothing.) (source)

I think we’ve established that.

I refer to the walnuts in disgusting terms, and they are pretty gross. They get slimy and moldy, and you’ll probably find all kinds of strange little bugs living in them. Don’t worry. It all cooks down to the same brown sludge. Except for those little pale brown beetle larvae. They stayed shiny and intact even after hours and hours of boiling. If the ick factor is too high, just remember that you must suffer for your art. So must those with whom you share your kitchen. (source)

I would argue that I’ve actually never suffered much in my artistic endeavors. I find painting or sculpting to be quite pleasant pursuits. My “sculpting” in the dirt has resulted in the occasional callus on my palm.

But this is not the hand of anguish.

But this is not the hand of anguish.

I’ve felt the sorrow in accidentally slicing a worm in half with my spade. Really, I do. But suffer? I just don’t know if I agree that we must suffer for art. I do think this particular ink-maker is being a silly nut. At least I think he’s joking.

Step 3: Preservatives

When it was finished, I added 8% alcohol by volume for a preservative (80-proof vodka, to be exact). In later batches, I went with 10% alcohol and 100-proof vodka, which is easier to figure out mathmatically. (For a 10% concentration of alcohol with 100-proof vodka, take the number of ounces of ink you have and divide it by 4 to obtain the amount of alcohol to add. Ex. If you have 32 ounces of ink, divide that by 4 = 8 ounces of alcohol to add). My cooked-down black walnut batches have never molded over, and some of them are 2 years old now.  (source)

Ink making tip #759: Vodka makes you better at math.

Step 4: Using the Ink

This ink is meant for dip-pen use only, and not for fountain pens. It would likely ruin a fountain pen. It is especially well-suited to glass dip pens. I recommend gold-plated metal nibs to resist corrosion by the acidic ink.

Step 5: Regret

What’s not to like? Two things:

1. The ink has no lubricity. Zilch. It feels like you are writing with plain water. The nib just drags along.

2. The ink reacts with iron. This wears out a steel dip pen nib much faster than other inks. After writing about 20 pages, a regular pointed nib has sharp edges and needs to be touched up on a stone. (source)

So your kitchen is ruined, your hands are stained and crippled from hand-writing 20 (20?!) pages of goodness knows what (probably instructions of how to make ink). You’ve got an entire colony of husk maggots to support and a rucksack to wash. You’ve gained a gallon of distastefully brown ink that’s unpleasant to write with and will ruin your gold-plated nibs and your kitchen smells like vodka.

What’s not to like?


18 thoughts on “How to Make Black Walnut Ink

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  8. Liz Beedy

    Highly entertaining post on nuts, my friend. I miss your art and your craftiness. Glad you are writing so I can experience your skill with words (and humor).

  9. narf77

    Aside from the husk maggots you can get a nasty reactive burn with black walnuts apparently… so best you didn’t bother with making it but in the past, when needs were more important (and prevalent) than the closest shop (if, indeed, there WAS a corner shop…) you had to make do with what you had and you made walnut boring brown ink ;). Best thing I got out of the recipe above (no black walnuts here…) was the mention of the word “Vodka” in the last paragraph…now THAT is a good enough reason to think about making faux ink…here’s my revised recipe for making black (LIARS IT’S BROWN!) walnut ink… “Take a bushel (whatever that is) of black walnuts. Let them sit in the bushel for a while…let them sit a bit longer…head indoors after contemplating the bushel of black walnuts and pour yourself a stiff vodka. Next, head outside again for another perusalatory (yeah not a word but it SHOULD be…) glance at that foreboding bushel of black walnuts. Go inside again and have just another shot of vodka. Think about the walnuts while you are holding the shot glass in your hand and warming your next sip…start to wonder about what exactly the meaning of a bushel of walnuts means in relation to your own ethos as you pour another shot glass and knock it back with the gusto of the righteous…stand up (unsteadily) and look out the window at the bushel of walnuts…wonder why they are moving around and steady your walk back to your vodka bottle as the walls appear to be suffering the same problem as the bushel of nuts. Sit down. Stay down. Drink some more vodka. Pass out. Wake up the next day and hurl the bushel of black walnuts into the compost heap as your thumping headache and sudden aversion to fried eggs was OBVIOUSLY brought about by those bloody walnuts! Swear NEVER AGAIN and go all Straight Edge on walnuts.” There, my own personal take on making walnut ink. Beetroot ink however…(is there rum in beetroot ink? ;) )

  10. Eliza Waters

    Hilarious! Great post. I’ve often wondered about black walnuts to eat, but never bothered to collect them. My grandmother said they were “messy”, so that has stayed with me. You proved she was right! The wood, however, is gorgeous and makes beautifully grained furniture. I remember from a college course that they have an interesting survival mechanism, producing a toxin (juglone) in roots and leaves that inhibits the growth of other trees in its area. I just learned that Missouri produces 65% of the annual wild black walnut harvest and there is a processing plant in Stockton…that in your area?


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