Sehrgut Anachronism

Homemade Ink Recipes

Over the period of about a year, during which time I was heavily researching the topic, I considered hundreds of ink formulae from silver nitrate (AgNO3) indelible inks to iron gallotannate (irongall/blue-black) writing inks to tar/turps chemical-proof inks to invisible inks to dye-based inks. From these journeys, I developed a handful of recipes (or “receipts,” as some of my source materials were apt to call them) useful to an anachronist or archaist, or simply someone interested in accurate historical reenactment.

The Recipes

Dextrine: a Versatile Ink Binder

While the medium, or binder, of choice for most water-based inks is gum arabic (also called “gum acacia”), it can be in most cases replaced by a binder very similar in properties: British gum, or dextrine. Gum arabic is becoming increasingly-difficult to locate, though of course you can get anything your heart desires from Kremer Pigments.

Dextrine is a starch derivative which is produced by the decomposition of starch chains into much-shorter chains. Its properties, such as hygroscopicity, pliability, and adhesive quality. While normally considered to be inferior to gum arabic, in the limited role of an ink binder (since it is required to do little but add body to the liquid ink) it performs quite admirably. I use it as the binder in most of my inks.

The procedure outlined below is altered as I become more experienced. For instance, I can now make a high-quality dextrine at much lower temperatures, without the carmelized bits occasionally contaminating batches made at higher temperatures.


Making Dextrine from Starch

  1. Measure out one quarter cup of corn starch into a shallow, preferably aluminum, pan.
  2. Place starch into an oven preheated to 350° Fahrenheit.
  3. Remove from oven at five-minute intervals, stirring thoroughly and crushing any lumps with the back of a metal spoon.
  4. When the starch has acquired a uniformly golden or canary-yellow colour (after which no colour change should be evident), and is capable of dissolving completely in water (and ideally, giving a negative or very slight positive test for starch), the lysis of the starch chains has been completed and the resulting product is yellow dextrine. This should take between an hour and several hours.

Overheating of the starch may cause caramelization of the dextrinous sugars, as well as a decreased adhesive strength of the resulting product. Do not continue to heat after lysis is complete.

As a point of interest, this yellow dextrine (also "canary dextrine" and "British gum" was used as the adhesive for the first postage stamps). It was not until later that the white dextrines (made by acid catalysis and heating at lower temperatures) became more popular.

To Test for Starch via Solubility and Iodine Complex Formation

The dextrine should be tested at each stage once the colouring of the starch has assumed a nearly-uniform tone. A pinch of starch/dextrine powder should be dissolved in two or three tablespoons of just-boiled (180—210° Fahrenheit) water. If the solution appears entirely transparent (no cloudiness observed), add a drop of iodine test solution. If a blue-black or violet colour (rather, a “not brown-red” colour) is observed, lysis is not yet complete, as some long starch chains are still present. [ A teaspoon of water with two drops of tincture of iodine may be used as the test solution, in order to economize on the iodine. This solution may not retain its activity longer than a few days, and should be discarded after use. ]

Making a Stock Dextrine Syrup

  1. In a shallow dish, wet one tablespoon of dextrine powder with a small amount of boiling water.
  2. Grind dextrine to a paste using the back of a spoon.
  3. Add boiling water drop by drop and continue grinding until the syrup is nearly transparent (meaning the dextrine is nearly dissolved).
  4. Place dish in microwave oven and heat for several seconds at a time, stirring between heatings, until the dextrine is completely dissolved.
  5. Allow syrup to cool to room temperature and add several drops of tincture of iodine to preclude mold growth. Store (refrigerated, if possible) in an airtight container.

While for frequent use it may be ideal to keep a stock dextrine syrup on hand, for other uses it is desirable to retain powderform dextrine. Especially in the cas of using it as a binder for other products, such as solid incense (as in homemade incense sticks, incense cones, or Indian dhoop incense).

Prussian Blue Writing and Drawing Ink

While I don’t normally approve of using pre-formulated products as ingredients, Mrs. Stewart’s Liquid Bluing is one exception I’m willing to make. It is an acidic solution of Prussian blue (ferric hexacyanoferrate, or ferric ferrocyanide), with no other ingredients than a preservative to prevent fungal growth.

Its pigment density is actually already perfect for a good, solid writing ink, especially suited to letter-writing on creme-coloured paper. All that is necessary is enough binder to make the ink flow smoothly from the pen and sit on the page without bleeding. You can use a gum-arabic or acrylic binder if you wish, I suppose. However, in keeping with the principles of "appropriate technology"


  1. Measure four tablespoons (two ounces) of bluing into an ink bottle.
  2. Add two teaspoons of denatured alcohol and several drops of tincture of iodine to preclude mold growth.
  3. Add stock dextrine syrup 1/8-tablespoon at a time, stirring with a rod to thoroughly incorporate.
  4. Test ink after each addition with the nib for which the ink is intended. When ink flows smoothly from the pen and sits on the page without bleeding, no more binder is needed.
  5. Store sealed in an airtight bottle. Refrigerating if possible until use will significantly increase shelf life. Salt may be added as an additional preservative if steel pens are not going to be used.

Black India Writing and Drawing Ink

India ink, as it has been misnamed, is a generic term for suspensions of carbon-black pigment (amorphous carbon, or lampblack, are two of the most common sources) in a solvent, usually aqueous. In this broad definition, it can stretch from the sumi-e inks of the Japanese calligraphers, to modern acrylic waterproof drawing inks, and back to the hard cake inks of the Semitics and north Africans.

Homemade India ink — good homemade India ink — is a nut I've not yet cracked, though I've come close. The best liquid India inks are near-perfect suspensions of fine carbon dust in the medium. However, if you don't mull the ink (and I don't), it's difficult to achieve the requisite colloidal suspension to preclude oversettling.

As well, medium plays a role, and it is generally accepted that only gum arabic and shellac are suitable binders for liquid India ink, while glues (gelatine, skin glue, blood glue, bone glue, isinglass, et cetera) are more suited for solid inks.

Now, if you don't mind the settling and having to shake your ink every time you use it, you can't get a much better flow — especially from a brush — than what you get from a glue-based India. So if you want calligraphic ink for either pen or brush, I've got you covered. If, however, you're looking for an everyday writing ink, I still don't have black figured out. (Might I recommend filling your fountain pens with a Prussian Blue ink? It'll never clog like a home-suspended pigment will.)


I generally use a thin solution of glue. However, since this recipe is still under development, I'll leave compounding it to you. Basically, you take a glue solution that is the consistency you want for your final ink, and add lampblack until the desired pigment density (blackness) is acheived. I tend to dislike "jet black" inks, but I know some people prefer their clean look; so I'll not tell you how much you "have" to put in. However, I believe that the last bottle I made (a pint) used a couple grams of glue and twelve-odd grams of pigment. Experiment! (and let me know your results).