Video: Three oak galls and an eye of newt

Making ink by hand from weird parts of trees can have an element of magic to it

For a millennium, the Western world’s go-to ink, the one that monks with quill pens layered on vellum, was the wonderfully named iron gall, an ink with a peculiar production story. Its key gallotannic-acid ingredient came from oak galls, apple-shaped growths on trees caused by secretions from wasp larvae. “It all gets to feeling like witchcraft,” says Jason Logan, an artist who prefers to scrounge Toronto parks for the ingredients in his black-walnut ink.

He may be alone in his methods, but Logan is otherwise just one of a growing legion of pen, ink and paper devotees. And whether they’re trying to emulate 10th-century ink recipes or lovingly restore 1940s fountain pens, it’s plain they are not about to go gently into the digital night. Resistance to technological change is nothing new, of course. The operators of large-scale manuscript producers sneered at the craftsmanship in early printed books. It’s hard, to paraphrase Upton Sinclair, to convince a man of the value of something that’s about to destroy him economically.

But this time it’s different, argues just about every enthusiast involved, from Liz and Jon Chan, 27-year-olds who opened a writing-tools shop, Wonder Pen, in Toronto last year, to New Hampshire pen retailer (and pen doctor) Richard Binder. It’s not just the older generation sticking to the familiar, says Binder, a former software engineer. In fact, former and current digital-world workers are disproportionately represented among pen-and-ink militants. “In the 19th century, a pen of some kind was a necessity,” Binder says, whether or not a writer mulishly stood by his quills. “Now a pen is a luxury, but one that lets you express something in you. I think the interest comes from the increasing alienation that people don’t even realize they are experiencing with their electronic media.”

Logan agrees that “this tactile, real-world” stuff offers something his keyboard does not. He has been making his own ink for years now, mostly from Toronto’s found ingredients. “The idea is to use the city as a source of colour and inspiration,” he says. Logan likes his turmeric (yellow) and his sumac (red), but he loves his black walnut. Its main ingredient has varied sources—the community group Not Far from the Tree, which makes sure nothing goes to waste when homeowners can’t keep up with their trees’ bounty, once presented him with a garbage bag full of hulls—but Logan’s favourite is a walnut tree in Queen’s Park, outside the provincial legislature building.

Wintergreen harvested from the Canadian Shield is the preservative. He adds shellac for the sheen, and for “the artist control, so the black walnut comes out looking like something you could finish a table with, and it doesn’t fade.” (That’s another reason to avoid iron gall: It may take a couple of centuries, but eventually, it will fade to brown.) His Toronto Ink Company sells to an illustrator in Paris and to artists in New York, but his largest order was from a Montreal artist who used it to create a huge wall painting. Likewise, Binder’s two-person firm—so busy that he had to abandon his repair service after backlogs stretched to months—provides all the pens used by Steve Light, a well-known children’s book illustrator who draws with fountain pens. The Chans’ store is primarily for writers—its genesis lies in a 2012 gift from Jon to Liz of her first pen—but even so, Liz notes, “we have a lot of artists, because the pens don’t differentiate for writing and drawing.”

But the inks do, she adds, and sometimes, pen guys and ink-makers can gaze at one another over a divide as wide as the print-digital gulf itself. Wonder Pens sells a lot of Noodler’s Ink, famous for the quirky but apt names of its colours, like the red Tiananmen Square or 54th Massachusetts, a blue-black named for a famous Civil War African-American regiment. Artists love the result on paper, but Binder warns that the particulates in it may clog a writer’s beloved (and expensive) pen. Pen and ink, though, cannot remain long apart. Logan has discovered that one of his neighbours makes his own pens: “I really want to collaborate with that guy.”

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