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Creating Sepia Ink with American Black Walnuts

American Black Walnut Ink Botanical Ink Christmas gift Christmas gifting ideas Eco Friendly Living Foraging Gift Making ink at home Natural Ink Small Batch Production Sustainable Living Walnut Ink Zero-waste

Silhouette of a large American walnut tree

 © Juniper & Bliss

Why Choose American Black Walnut Ink?  

There are many botanical inks which will give you a nice brown. So why choose to work with American black walnuts, which is not a tree that you can find easily and at first glance the colour is much like other browns? The fact is that European walnut ink has been a staple in artists’ kit for centuries. The advantage of American black walnut over the European walnut is that it has a significantly greater concentration of juglone, the compound which produces the dye pigments. Walnuts have rich tannin, plumbagin (yellow quinone pigments) and naphthoquinones or colouring substances.

Amber bottle of American black walnut ink on painted walnut golden brown colours on white paper

Juniper & Bliss Ink

It is acid free, lightfast, stable, reliable and water soluble. The colour ranges from pale sepia, golden brown to dark brown. Unlike some natural inks, the colour strengthens with time.

Rembrandt, Leonardo Da Vinci and Vincent Van Gogh are known to have used walnut ink in their drawings. More recently, Pierre Soulages created a substantial body of work between 1947-49, using the medium of walnut ink. An old and cracked white ceramic bowl with walnut in on a wooden talbe

Identifying an American Black Walnut Tree

It is a good idea to make sure that you know what to look out for to correctly identify the Juglans nigra or the American black walnut tree from the 21 others of its species.

Introduced to Europe from North America in 1629, it is a pioneer tree and is often found on the edges of forests, along roadsides and in the middle of fields. It usually stands out as a solitary large tree which is due to the juglone, a compound in the root system which inhibits most other plants from growing close to it. 

 At a glance there are 4 simple identifiers:

  • It is a large tree, reaching up to 30-40m in hight, with a relatively short trunk and broad crown.
  • It has a heavily ridged and distinctive diamond patterned grey-black bark, from where it gets its name.
  • It has pinnate leaves about 20-30 cm in length with 15 -20 individual leaflets which are narrow, oval and pointed.
  • The fruit is round, green, a little rough and the size of tennis balls, which cover the ground in autumn.
American black walnut tree, leaves and bark against blue sky

Foraging for American Black Walnuts

Once you’ve found the tree, wait till October and, it is simply a matter of bringing along enough bags and baskets to put your loot into. Usually, there is a prolific quantity on the ground, more than enough for what you need to make ink. Don’t worry if the nuts are black and bruised, they will be perfectly good for making ink.

American black walnuts on green grass and in Siberian bark basket

Preparations for Ink Making:

Having brought the walnuts home, if you are not quite ready to begin, then it is quite alright to freeze them. You can do the following process with defrosted walnuts.

Once you are ready to start, wash off the mud, grass and leaves that maybe stuck to the walnuts. As you are washing you may find that the walnuts are already yielding colour, a soft honey yellow!

Washing American black walnuts under a cold tap

   ©The Middle - Sized Garden

Put the black walnuts in a pan and immerse them in hot water, cover with a lid and leave to soak in a warm place for a few days -- even up to a week--  if you are not in a hurry.  If the days are hot, then you can leave them outside in the sun. This way the nuts will gently release the tannin rich pigments and the water will darken with each day. This method reduces the cooking time, uses less energy and follows a sustainable and mindful practice.

At the end of the maceration period the water should be a dark black-brown and the nuts soft and squashy. 

Cooking the Black Walnuts

Pour the liquid and macerated walnuts into a pan, remove the lid and set it on a low heat. Let it simmer for about 4 hours by which time the liquid should reduce by a third. You don’t need to keep the walnuts on the heat continuously. It is good to cook it for an hour or 40 minutes and then leave it to rest with the lid on. You can do this a few times. This method allows the pigments to be released slowly and rewards you with a strong colour.              

Simmering American black walnuts in a stainless steel pot. Woman with a Japanese brown apron. there is a set of brush work with Walnut ink.

               ©The Middle - Sized Garden

It is really important to test the colour frequently and once you are happy with the colour, which is a matter of personal preference, turn off the heat and let it rest overnight.

Filtering the walnut water 

The next step is to squeeze the fleshy pulp and drain the liquid through a colander. After you have done this, it is very important to filter the liquid slowly through muslin cloth or a strainer for instance those used for making jelly. Repeat this process four or five times, rinsing the filter each time.

The amount of fine grain and fibre will reduce with each filtration and by the end the liquid should just run through without leaving any residue.  At this point it is nice to run the liquid through a sieve lined with kitchen paper, which will act as a blotting paper and allow you to see if there are any sediments left.

If you like to work with textured inks, then you might choose to leave some sediments in your ink.            

Draining cooked walnut ink and putting black walnut ink through sieve. ©The Middle - Sized Garden            

Filtering walnut ink through muslin cloth 

Now You are Making Ink

Up to this point you have created a beautiful black walnut stain, such as you might use to stain your wooden floor. But it is not yet ink. To turn the stain into ink:

  • make a record of how many fluid ounces of liquid you have
  • return the liquid to the clean pot and heat
  • add gum arabic to a ratio of 2 tea spoons to 1 litre of walnut liquid and whisk quickly. Gum arabic is the dried sap of acacia trees. It has the properties of glue and acts as a binder, allowing the ink to glide and flow beautifully on paper. The amount of gum arabic you add to your ink is subjective. If you feel that the above ratio is not quite enough, then add a small amount and test.
  • add 10 drops of wintergreen essential oil per 1 litre of ink and leave it to cool.

Bottling Walnut Ink

Bottling walnut ink into Juniper & Bliss amber glass bottles

©The Middle - Sized Garden

It is best to store your ink in amber bottles (such as for wine) and keep in a cool place. Use a funnel to avoid spilling your precious ink. Add 3 or 4 cloves into 1 litre of ink. And seal the cap or cork. Lastly make sure to label the bottle.

Your ink is now ready to use.


Why Black Walnut Ink Does Not Go Off

 The active ingredients of black walnut are tannins such as galloyglucose, ellagitannins, and juglone – compounds which inhibit bacterial and fungal growth. Most parts of the tree including leaves, stems, and fruit husks have a very characteristic pungent or spicy odour. We add winter green essential oil and cloves to strengthen the antibacterial qualities. Mould might appear on the surface of the ink if it has prolonged exposure to air. But don’t be put off by this, just skim it off or strain it as the ink below will be unaffected. Tannins have a strong smell which deepens with time. This is natural and is not a sign that the ink has rotted but rather that it is mature, and the pigments are even richer.

Equipment and Ingredients for Making Black Walnut Ink

 Whole American black walnuts with husks - Water - gum arabic - Wintergreen essential oil- Cloves- Paper and brush for testing colour- Container for soaking the walnuts - Pan for cooking- Colander Sieve/strainer/kitchen towel - Rags - Measure jar - Large bowls for pouring filtered liquid - Amber glass bottles and caps - Funnel -  Labels.

Thank you to Alexandra Campbell and The Middle - Sized Garden for the beautiful video and photos, taken as part of a collaboration to celebrate organic, ethical and sustainable living.

To all lovers of natural pigments, we recommended Jason Logan’s wonderful book Make Ink.

Will you have fun making ink this Christmas holiday?

Cloth bird dyed with walnut ink on a wooden table

If you would like to try Juniper & Bliss walnut ink then we would love to know what you think. 

Please leave a comment if you have found this interesting.

Thank you for reading.

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