Iron Gall Ink

Iron gall ink and other Renaissance writing tools: Portrait of a Merchant (detail), Jan Gossaert c. 1530, The National Gallery of Art
Renaissance writing tools: Portrait of a Merchant (detail), Jan Gossaert c. 1530, The National Gallery of Art

Making Iron Gall Ink

Materials & Tools

The earliest use of iron gall ink is hard to establish. The reaction between tannin and iron salt to create a colored product was already known in Antiquity, see Naturalis historia by Gaius Plinius Secundus (23 -79 A.D.). It was not until Middle Ages though when an ink made of oak galls became the most common writing and drawing material that was widely used until early XX century.

During the Renaissance period oak gall ink was the primary ink on the market and many artists used it as drawing medium. For example, technical analysis shows that many of the drawings by Leonardo da Vinci were done exclusively with iron gall ink, or in combination with other inks.

See: Technological Analysis of the Leonardo Drawings and Analisi scientifiche per il celebre Paesaggio di Leonardo da Vinci

Let’s do some Alchemy!

Iron Gall Ink Ingredients:


Irona Galls collected from oak trees near Florence, Italy

Oak Galls are bulbous growths formed on twigs of oak trees in response to parasites attacks. Galls are particularly reach with gallic accid (vegetable tannic acid) that gives a chemical reaction with iron (II) sulfate.

Oak galls can be found on oak trees all around the globe. In late winter and early spring, they are easier to identify while an oak tree is leafless.

Numerous plants, such as hawthorn tree, contain tannins in various parts of the plant.


Iron II Sulfate in crystals

Iron (II) Sulfate, traditionally known as vitriol, [green] copperas and ferrous sulfate.

Extremely versatile, pure iron sulfate may be obtained in the form of a pale green powder or granules from gardening, chemical, specialty art or fabric dye suppliers .


Distilled or clean water

Clean water, typically rain or spring water was used. We will use distilled water.

Additional ingredients:
  • Gum arabic (keeps the black pigment suspended in the liquid; otherwise, it would settle to the bottom of the container over time. It also helps to thicken the ink, allowing it to flow more easily from the pen or brush onto the paper).
  • Wine or vinegar (to improve inks brilliancy, fluidity and shelf life)
  • Cloves (acts as preservation agent, increases shelf life)
  • Logwood, indigo and other colorants (make the color richer, deeper, change color temperature)
  • Black pigment (ivory or wine black) will make the ink more covering and opaque

Recipes examples

Hundreds of iron gall ink recipes are known, they differ in proportions of ingredients and additives but the main steps of process are nearly the same.

Main steps in making Iron Gall Ink
Main steps in making the iron gall ink.
Gleb Shtyrmer, Renaissance Painting Techniques course materials

Below are a few historical examples and the basic recipe we are going to try together in class.

Recipe 1, Central Europe, early XII century

Source: Theophili, qui et Rugerus, presbyteri et monachi, libri III. De Diversis Artibus: seu, Diversarum artium schedulaWolfenbüttel, | Herzog-August Bibliothek cod. Guelph Gudianus, lat. 2°69, fol. 86r: incipit,

Original Text


To make ink, cut for yourself wood of the [haw]thorn trees in April or May, before they produce flowers or leaves, and collecting them in small bundles, allow them to lie in the shade for two, three, or four weeks, until they are somewhat dry. Then have wooden mallets, with which you beat these thorns upon another piece of hard wood, until you peel off the bark everywhere, put which immediately into, a barrel full of water ; when you have filled two, or three, or four, or five barrels with bark and water, allow them so to stand for eight days, until the Water imbibe all the sap of the bark. Afterwards put this water into a very clean pan or into a cauldron, and fire being placed under it, boil it ; from time to time also throw into the pan some of this bark, so that, whatever sap may remain in it, may be boiled out. When you have cooked it a little, throw it out and again put in more.  Which done, boil down the remaining water unto a third part, and then pouring it out of this pan put it into one smaller, and cook it until it grows black and begins to thicken, quite taking care that you add no water, except that which is mixed with the sap. And when you see it thicken, add one third part of pure wine, and putting it into two or three new pots, cook it until you see a sort of skin show itself on the surface. Then taking these pots from the fire, place them in the sun until the black ink purifies itself from the red dregs. Afterwards take small bags of parchment carefully sewn, and bladders, and pouring in the pure ink, suspend them in the sun until all is quite dry. And when dry, take from it as much as you wish and temper it with wine over the fire, and, adding a little vitriol, write.
But if it should happen through negligence that your ink be not black enough, take a fragment [of vitriol, or sulfate of iron] of the thickness of a finger, and putting it into the fire allow it to glow, and throw it directly into the ink.

Additional information

In this recipe hawthorn tree bark is taken as a source of tannic acid. The result is dry ink that can be tempered with water and “activated” with iron sulfate at any moment, making storage and transportation of the ink easier.

Recipe 2, Italy, late XV century

Source: The notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci, New York : Braziller, 1955

Original Text

Take dust of oak-apple and vitriol and reduce it to a fine powder and spread this over the paper after the manner of varnish; then write on it with a pen dipped in the saliva and it will become as black as ink.

Codex Forster in 39v.

Crush an oak-apple to a fine powder and stand it for eight days in white wine, and in the same way dissolve vitriol in water, and let the water and the wine settle well and become clear each of itself, and strain them well; and when you dilute the white wine with this water it will turn red.

Codex Forster in 39v.
Additional information

As you can see, Leonardo doesn’t specify any proportions.

Creative and unpredictable as he was, Leonardo suggests to first prepare a paper with gall and vitriol powder and then “activate” the chemical reaction between iron sulfate and tannic acid right on the paper by painting with one’s own spittle.

Recipe 3, Rome, 1535

Source: Thesauro de scrittori, by Ugo da Carpi, published in Rome, 1535. Courtesy of Gallica, the digital library of the Bibliothèque nationale de France and its partners.

Original Text

Ricetta da fare inchiostro fino :
Togli una oncia di galleto pisto in pezzeti, et poi lo metterai in una pezza di tela et ligarella, non troppo stretta et meteralla a mollo in XII oncia d’acqua, che sia piovana, et lassalo stare almen sei giorni, et fatto questo fallo bollire tanto che torni otto oncie bello et colato et puoi mettarevi dentro un quarto de vetriolo todesco molto ben spolverizato, e meza oncia di gumma che sia stata a molle in aceto e che l’aceto non sia più del bisogno et tu farai un inchiostro mirabilmente buono.


Recipe to make good ink:
Take one ounce of gall nuts crushed to pieces, then place them in a piece of cloth that you will tie not too tight; put the galls to soak in twelves ounces of rain water and let macerate at least six days; once this is done, boil until the mixture is reduced to eight beautiful and unctuous ounces; then you will put in it one quart of german vitriol well ground and a half ounce of gum that will have soaked in vinegar; only use as much vinegar as is necessary and you will make a marvelous ink.

Translation taken from: Specials Collections Conservation, Preservation Department, Yale University Library, February 2012

Additional information

In Ugo da Carpi’s recipe the proportions are as follows (one ounce = 28 grams):


  • 1 ounce of crushed galls (28 grams)
  • 0.25 ounces of vitriol (7 grams)
  • 0.5 ounces of gum arabic (14 grams)
  • 12 ounces of water (336 grams)

Proportions taken from

Recipe 4, London, 1571

Source: Book Containing Divers Sorts of Hands, by John de Beau Chesne and M. John Baildon, and published in 1571. Courtesy of Folger Shakespeare Library


Original Text

To make common incke of wine take a quart,
Two ounces of gomme, let that be a parte,
Five ounces of galles, of copres take three,
Long standing dooth make it better to be;
If wine ye do want, rayne water is best,
And as much stuffe as above at the least:
If incke be to thick, put vinegar in,
For water dooth make the colour more dimme.

In hast for a shift when ye have a great nead,
Take woll, or wollen to stand you in steede;
which burnt in the fire the powder bette small
With vinegre, or water make yncke with all.

If yncke ye desire to keep long in store
Put bay salte therein, and it will not hoare.
Of that common yncke be not to your minde
Some lampblack thereto with gomme water grinde:

Each painter can tell you how it should be done,
The cleaner out of your pen it will runne,
The fame to be put in horne or in lead,
No cotton at all: when long it hath stayd,
The bottome will thicke, put more common inke:
And it will be good, well stird, as I thinke.

Additional information

This is a very quick recipe that doesn’t require heating or fermenting galls.


  • half a pint (8 fl. oz. or 120 mls.) of cheap white wine;
  • 0.5 ounces of solid gum arabic dissolved in the wine;
  • 35 grams powdered Aleppo galls (one ounce = 28 grams);
  • 21 grams iron sulfate

Proportions taken from

Recipe 5:

Simplified, based on historical recipes

  • Ink Galls – 2 parts by weight
  • Ferrous Sulfate – 1 parts by weight
  • Gum – 1 parts by weight
  • Water – 10 parts by weight
  • White wine – 5 parts by weight
Step 1: Crushing and powdering galls

In preparing the galls, it is best to first crack them into small pieces. You can do it with a hammer (placing the galls in several plastic bags will help to contain the pieces) or with pliers for medium/small size galls. Next grind crushed galls into powder a bit at a time with a mortar and pestle, spice mill or coffee grinder.

Step 2: Fermentation

Mix with 7 parts of water and leave for a night.

Step 3: Boiling

Mix the galls you prepared with wine and boil for a few minutes with constant stirring. If you want denser, darker ink – let some liquid evaporate (you can also do it later on).

Step 4: filtering

The decoction is then allowed to cool, and filtered.

Step 5: Mixing with Vitriol and Gum

While the filtration is proceeding we dissolve the vitriol and gum in the remaining 3 parts of water, and pour the solution into the filtrate. Try playing with the properties of the ink by adding more gum, glycerin or additional pigments or dyes.

If you wait a few days before using this ink, the color will become deeper and richer.