The Iron Gall Ink Website

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Iron gall ink is arguably the most important ink in Western history. It was known by the Romans and became widely used after the late Middle Ages. Iron gall ink is not easily erased, and this property made it an obvious choice for record keeping of any sort. Libraries and archives around the globe contain a vast number of manuscripts (e.g., Leonardo da Vinci's notebooks), documents (e.g., early drafts of the American Constitution), official records (e.g., the Verenigde Oost Indische Compagnie (VOC) - administration), and music compositions (e.g., the scores of J.S. Bach) which were executed in iron gall ink. From the fifteenth century onward it was also a popular drawing ink, favored by artists for its rich and velvety tone. Rembrandt, Guercino, Lorrain, and Van Gogh are but a few of the many artists who used iron gall ink frequently. Growing concern over the ink's corrosive properties coincided with the development of various useful synthetic inks, and iron gall ink passed out of widespread use by the early twentieth century.



Iron gall ink is created with four basic ingredients: galls, vitriol, gum, and water. For a more comprehensive description of these components, and the making of iron gall ink in general, access the "Iron gall ink" chapter. Various recipes and accompanying instructions are provided, along with sources for ingredients, enabling you to make your own iron gall ink. A list of historical recipes, representing the wide variety of ink-making practices, can be found on the historical recipes page. One of these recipes is from the sixteenth-century Booke of Secrets. More information on the interpretation of old ink recipes can be found under source research.


Over time, depending on the recipe used in manufacture, the objects properties and the storage conditions of the object, iron gall ink can cause the degradation of paper or other supports. This process is called "iron gall ink corrosion." Chemical processes cause the slow deterioration of the ink. Turning from blue-black to dark brown, it can actively "eat" its way through to the back of the paper, if certain conditions are met. Research into iron gall ink degradation has traditionally been complicated by many factors: the existence of disparate recipes; the often unknown age of the ink; and an understandable reluctance to use potentially destructive analysis techniques. Nevertheless, a number of research initiatives have been able to shed some light on the complex processes involved.The chapter "ink corrosion" explains the major decay factors.  


Managing a collection containing iron gall ink objects offers many difficult problems to its keepers and conservators. Approaches from different archives and museums, reflecting a variety of circumstances and perspectives, are listed. Decision making is based on a thorough understanding how fast a damage process proceeds and which values will be irreparably lost. The chapter "prognosis" allows for creating a prognosis for an individual object written or drawn with iron gall ink.   


Just as research is inhibited by various problems, so too is the conservation and preservation of iron gall ink objects complicated by numerous factors. These include the difficulty in identifying iron gall ink from among the many other brown inks in existence; the generally unknown ingredients; the adverse reaction of the inks to aqueous treatment; the unknown long-term effects of different treatments; and, finally, the dizzying number of objects threatened, which makes hard choices even more difficult.


Research efforts have resulted in a substantial body of work which can be found in a comprehensive literature list.