How to Make Lampblack Ink

In this article, I demonstrate a procedure for making lampblack ink, one of the earliest black inks used in manuscript production. This carbonaceous ink is easy to make and ideal for writing on papyrus. It is less suited for writing on skin/parchment, as it can peel up off the writing surface or be rubbed off; when writing on parchment, an acidic iron gall ink is a better choice. The ingredients for lampblack are: carbon, gum arabic, and water.

Carbon is gathered by interrupting a flame from a lamp or candle with a metal surface. The carbon soot collects on the metal and is easily brushed off. For this demonstration, I will use an oil lamp to produce the carbon.

NOTE: Making carbon soot is messy and somewhat smelly work, so I recommend making your carbon in an open garage (with a barrier to block any wind) or workshop. The smoke is minimal, but it has an unpleasant scent. Wear old clothes because the carbon is light and one breeze can send it flying everywhere.

Making an Oil Lamp

What you will need:

  • A shallow receptacle for oil
  • A heavy cotton wick (2 inches will suffice)
  • A large paper clip
  • Oil (e.g., olive oil or sesame oil)

To create a wick stand, take the paper clip and bend the middle out at an acute angle (40-45 degrees). The outer loop of the paper clip will serve as a base that keeps the wick in place.

Cut 1.5-2″ of cotton cord for the wick. In this demonstration, I have used 3mm, 32-ply macramé cotton cord. This cord is heavy enough to stand upright and it soaks up heavy oil nicely.

Rest the wick up atop the raised loop of the paper clip like an inclined ramp and place it in the oil receptacle. For the demonstration, I am using a cheap (and ugly) soap dish purchased from a dollar store. Avoid deeper receptacles, as: (1) olive (or sesame) oil is heavy and will not travel far up a wick; and (2) the flame will need to be very close to the metal collection plate.

Add oil to the receptacle–enough to cover the horizontal part of the wick and perhaps half-way up the incline–and the oil lamp is complete. Allow 5-10 minutes for the oil to soak up into the wick before lighting the lamp.

NOTE: As with any open flame, exercise caution. Fortunately, olive oil is not highly flammable, so a spill (for example, from knocking over the lamp) will merely extinguish the flame. As with a candle, the flame of this lamp can be extinguished by blowing on the wick.

Creating the Carbon

What you will need:

  • An oil lamp (or candle)
  • A small metal plate (2 inches square will work)
  • A stand to hold the metal over the flame
  • A glass cup for carbon collection

A stand is required to hold the metal collection plate in the flame. I use some scrap metal used in construction projects, which should cost less than a dollar. I selected two plates, one with a hole in the middle, to facilitate soot collection; thus the plate with the hole sits directly on the metal ring of the stand and the second (solid) plate sits on top of it, covering the hole. In my experience, the recessed hole provides a better collection spot for the soot. In 15 minutes, approximately 1/8″ of carbon will collect in the recessed hole, a lesser amount on the bottom plate.

Light the wick and lower the metal into the flame. Soot is produced when a flame is interrupted, so place the metal somewhere near the top third of the flame. To produce enough ink for several pages of papyrus, let the soot collect in 15 minute increments. When collecting the carbon, lift the arm of the stand to pull the plates away from the flame. Do NOT touch the plates until they have had 5-10 minutes to cool. Do NOT blow out the flame before lifting the plates, or you will likely blow soot everywhere. An oil lamp of this type will burn for a long time, so there is no need to blow out the flame while the metal cools.

At the end of each 15-minute period, lightly scrape off the carbon into a glass bowl with a knife blade (it will drop off the metal very easily). Avoid using plastic cups, as they can carry static charge and the soot will stick to the sides of the cup and be difficult to pour.

Mixing the Ink

What you will need:

  • Carbon (collected from the previous step)
  • Gum arabic
  • Water
  • A mixing bowl (a mortar and pestle works well)

Pour the carbon into a mixing bowl that you don’t want to use for any other purpose (because soot is difficult to clean). I use a marble mortar and pestle, not because the soot needs to be ground, but because soot floats on water and mixing can be messy work. The pestle works well to press down a broad surface area of soot into the water. Add to the carbon approximately half as much gum arabic. Art supply companies provide small amounts of gum arabic at reasonable prices. Finally, add small amounts of water (I use distilled water) and begin mixing the ingredients using the pestle. The ink should be watery but dark, so avoid creating paste (too little water) or watercolor paint (too much water). The mixing takes a bit of time so be patient. The lampblack ink you produce will be usable even after it dries if you reconstitute it with added water.

The Results

This recipe produces a dark, rich, opaque black ink for writing on papyrus or clay. Illustrated here is a little sample in which I have copied the first few lines of the Gospel of John on papyrus using this ink to demonstrate the end result. My textual criticism students also use this ink when they learn about the material components of papyrus manuscript creation.

— Andrew Smith, Shepherds Theological Seminary

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