How to Make Ink from Black Walnuts
In a recent article for Edible Jersey Magazine, I wrote about the health benefits of the native black walnut, and doing so, it took me back to the time I totally destroyed the floors at my parent’s house.
It was 1990-something, and for an art class project I was doing a study on natural dyes. I tried everything from coffee, bittersweet, pokeweed berries, wild carrot, cloves, paprika, and maybe a few other expired spices from the back of the kitchen cabinet. My favorite, however, was making ink from black walnuts.
The method I used came mostly from my mind, mixed with a little research and a few sweet cautionary words of guidance from mom and dad: “Don’t make a mess OR ELSE.” Of course, back then my selective hearing was really really good.
I began by letting a bunch of whole black walnuts get super rotten in a bucket of water. Pretty soon a bunch of worms set up shop in the hulls and I had to start over.
To begin again, I gathered more nuts, and let them sit in water, but only this time not as long. I then strained the liquid that turned chocolaty brown and proceeded to boil it on the stove to reduce the moisture to try to get a darker color. I was only able to boil it for about an hour before my parents became suspect of a possible mess being made, so I had to quit and work with what I had. It was a decent deep brown pigment — not really an ink, more like a wash. I did end up spilling most of it all over my parent’s floor, where it can still be seen to this day.
Since then I knew I had to try again one day and knock this DIY art juice clear out of the park.
This was my chance.
But before I tell you all about it, I have to lay down some ferocious props about this tree that does it all.
The black walnut (Juglans nigra), is a native hardwood that is coveted for its beautiful timber. Years ago, farmers would plant groves of them as a future harvestable investment. Black walnuts produce a chemical called juglone that is toxic to many plants, making it very difficult for anything to grow near them (survival of the fittest, sucka’!). Lastly, you can eat their nuts, make ink from the hulls, and apparently they can also be tapped like a maple tree to make black walnut syrup. So the next time someone asks you what you’d take with you to survive on a deserted island, surprise your friends by adding a black walnut tree to your list.
So, for my second attempt at making ink, I did a little reading up on the subject and set forth.
For one, that substance I mentioned (juglone), can stain the heck out of anything, especially your hands. I collected them with some gardening gloves that turned out to have holes in a few of the fingers, so I got some weird looking hands. If you ever try this, and you’re a hand model, you probably want to wear heavy-duty rubber gloves.
After I collected a bunch, I stomped on them one at a time wearing rubber galoshes to separate the hull from the nut. The nuts went into one bucket for drying, and the hulls I collected in another.
Dirty hitch hiker…
I then covered the hulls with water so that they’d oxidize, and then covered the bucket to let it sit. In about a day, the water with the hulls had turned a deep, dark brown. I let them sit for another two weeks before making the ink.
To make the ink, I strained the liquid (about two gallons) from the hulls and put it into a big old soup pot. Since I wanted to make really dark ink, I needed to boil it for a while so it would reduce enough, so doing this outside was perfect. Boiling anything over a fire is perfect. Especially when you just got new neighbors who now think you’re a spook.
I boiled it for a little over two hours until just about two inches of thick dark liquid remained. It was perfect — deep brown/black, and slightly viscous. I had to try really hard to not want to spill it everywhere to see who would get mad.
“Ma, would you be upset if I spilled this all over the floor and the rug?”
That’s pretty much all there is to it! Some folks suggest adding vinegar or grain alcohol to help keep mold from growing. Others say to add whole cloves during the boiling process to make the ink smell good. Not that it smells bad — maybe a little winey/yeasty, but nothing offensive. If you’re worried about how your ink smells I know of a fantastic deserted island…
The ink came out beautifully! The pigment is dense and velvety, and makes a great writing ink or pigment that can be diluted with water. It also (sorry mom and dad), makes a great wood stain that will never, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever fade.