Think ink!

Bright green husks of black walnuts sitting in paper bag

The Preservation Lab was approached recently by Carey Champion, Director of the Wylie House Museum, to collaborate on an upcoming First Thursday event in October, 2019. She had the idea to present writing materials as they existed in the 19th century for students to try out, along with correspondence (or facsimiles) by members of the Wylie family during this time. We rose to the occasion and said we could make some ink out of Black Walnuts (Juglans nigra). In spite of what one can find online, I don’t know of any reliable historic source or scientific analysis that has definitively attributed walnut ink to historic documents or artwork. If anyone out there can send me a citation to a reliable study, I’m interested! Nevertheless, it was likely used as a quick ‘frontier’ ink and is certainly fun to make.

Here in southern Indiana, the green husks of Black Walnuts are coming into maturity and even falling from a few tree specimens around campus and county.  We gathered about 40, and gathered around the bag with smashing implements in gloved hands to strip the green husks off of the nuts themselves. The hulls sat in a bucket overnight to oxidize a bit. The next day they were beginning to turn quite black. The hulls were about 4 liters in volume and were boiled in several stages with additions at certain points. Although the recipe follows, it’s worth pointing out a couple of things:

-Steel wool (ie. iron) was added in order to darken the ink and create what is called a ferric tannate pigment which is insoluble in water. The ink we created is not too dissimilar from iron gall ink, which those of us who work around historic documents are all too familiar. IG ink was the chief manuscript ink for at least the first half of the 19th century.

-Gum arabic was added not as a binder or gloss agent, but as a suspension aid to keep the very fine precipitate particles of ink floating around in solution.

-A small amount of alcohol was added as a preservative, and cloves were added for the same purpose as well as to improve the smell.

People gathered and removing the husks from walnutslarge beaker filled with husks and water, ready to be boiled to extract color

Please stop by the Arts Plaza the evening of October 3 to say hi and try out our ink!

writing samples using the ink


Picture Perfect

Hello again!

In order to explain how I do my work, I thought some pictures would be helpful.  Then I decided to go a step further, so I created a time-lapse video of a shipment being processed.

The Fleet has arrived!  They are brought to us from the Wells Library.
The fleet of book trucks has arrived! They are brought to us from  Wells Library, just in time for the arriving bindery shipment.
The big table is empty and the outgoing shipment has been processed and is ready to be picked up.
At this point, the big table is empty and the outgoing shipment has been processed and is ready to be picked up.

As the Bindery and Preservation Review Coordinator, I oversee the preparation of materials for commercial binding.  We send shipments to the HF Group in North Manchester, Indiana every fourth Tuesday.  The outgoing shipment is picked up at the same time the previous month’s finished shipment is returned to us.

The bindery has arrived; it is being brought in by the HF Group truck driver.
Now the return shipment is being brought in by the HF Group truck driver–ordinarily about 40 boxes.
It's all here!
It’s all here!

The return shipment must be processed quickly–within a week–so when the shipment comes, my students and I are all working on it.  The work pace is quite different than the rest of the month, as materials to be bound are picked up from the various campus locations, and then brought to Wells Library, and finally here in the daily deliveries.

Everything is in place.  This bindery shipment is ready to be unpacked, checked, and sorted.
Now that all the boxes have been brought in, everything is in place. This bindery shipment is ready to be unpacked, checked, and sorted.
After opening the boxes that were on the table, processing has begun!
Here we have begun unpacking.


For our assembly-line, we put all the boxes on one side of the table.  The first person opens the boxes and places the items on the table oriented in the same direction.  The second person opens the volume and moves the bindery slip so it is readable when the book is closed.  Then, they sort the items based on where they will go next.  The third person has stacks of duplicate binding slips and matches them up to make sure every item has come back.  Finally, the volumes are sorted onto trucks to facilitate the next steps, which take place in Technical Services in the main library.


The time-lapse video was fairly easy to make.  I set the camera to take a photograph every 5 seconds.  Almost 2 hours later, we had 1,137 photos.  I took out about 100 photos and put the rest into an image sequence at 15 frames per second.  After exporting the video, I posted it to my (newly created) YouTube channel.


The table is once again clear of boxes and books, and they have been sorted onto trucks.
The table is once again clear of boxes and books.



The day we process the returned bindery shipment feels exactly how it looks in the video.  After everything is on the appropriate trucks, we deal with any extraneous problems that need to be handled before the items go back to Technical Services in Wells Library.

The items get secured with a strap around each shelf.
The items get secured with a strap around each shelf.


The trucks are now ready for transport.  After they leave, the work space seems much larger.  It also appears like we don’t have any work to do, but that’s not true.  In 3 weeks, the shipment that was picked up will be returned to us, and the whole process starts again.

Special Thanks to–

  • all my colleagues for walking around the camera set up
  • Doug Sanders for thinking the time-lapse was a good idea and explaining the digital camera to me
  • Elise Calvi for editing and encouraging the post
  • my students, Chelsea Liddell and Katherine Siebenaler for starring in the video