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 Ancient and Modern Ink Recipes

By David N. Carvalho


INNUMERABLE receipts and directions for making inks of every kind, color and quality are to be found distributed in books more or less devoted to such subjects, in the encyclopaedias, chemistries, and other scientific publications. If assembled together they would occupy hundreds of pages. Those cited are exemplars indicating the trend of ideas belonging to different nations, epochs, and the diversity of materials. They can also be considered as object lessons which conclusively demonstrate the dissatisfaction always existing in respect to the constitution and modes of ink admixture.  Many of them are curious and are reproduced without any amendments.

“Indian ink is a black pigment brought hither from China, which on being rubbed with water, dissolves; and forms a substance resembling ink; but of a consistence extremely well adapted to the working with a pencil-brush, on which account it is not only much used as a black colour in miniature painting; but is the black now generally made use of for all smaller drawings in chiaro obscuro (or where the effect is to be produced from light and shade only).

“The preparation of Indian ink, as well as of the other compositions used by the Chinese as paints, is not hitherto revealed on any good authority; but it appears clearly from experiments to be the coal of fish bones, or some other vegetable substance, mixed with isinglass size, or other size; and most probably, honey or sugar candy to prevent its cracking. A substance, therefore, much of the same nature, and applicable to the same purposes, may be formed in the following manner.

“Take of isinglass six ounces, reduce it to a size, by dissolving it over the fire in double its weight of water. Take then of Spanish liquorice one ounce; and dissolve it also in double its weight of water; and grind up with it an ounce of ivory black. Add this mixture to the size while hot; and stir the whole together till all the ingredients be thoroughly incorporated. Then evaporate away the water in baleno mariae, and cast the remaining composition into leaden molds greased; or make it up in any other form.”

“The colour of this composition will be equally good with that of the Indian ink: the isinglass size, mixt with the colours, works with the pencil equally well with the Indian ink; and the Spanish liquorice will both render it easily dissolvable on the rubbing with water, to which the isinglass alone is somewhat reluctant; and also prevent its cracking and peeling off from the ground on which it is laid.”

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There is found in small currents near the Baltic Sea, in the Dutchy of Prussia a certain coagulated bitumen, which, because it seems to be a juice of the earth is called succinum; and carabe, because it will attract straws; it is likewise called electrum, glessum, anthra citrina, vulgarly yellow amber.

“This bitumen being soft and viscous, several little animals, such as flies, and ants, do stick to it, and are buried in it.

“Amber is of different colours, such as white, yellow and black.

“The white is held in greatest esteem in physick, tho’ it be opacous; when it is rubbed against anything, it is odoriferous, and it yields more volatile salt than the rest. The yellow, is transparent and pleasant to the eye, wherefore beads, necklaces, and other little conceits are made of it. It is also esteemed medicinal, and it yieldeth much oil.

“The black is of least use of all. (Sometimes used by the ancients in making ink.)

“Some do think that petroleum, or Oil of Peter, is a liquor drawn from amber, by the means of subterrenean fires, which make a distillation of it, and that jet, and coals are the remainders of this distillation.

“This opinion would have probability enough in it, if the places, from whence this sort of drogues does come, were not so far asunder the one from the other; f or petroleum is not commonly found but in Italy, in Sicily, and Provence. This oil distils through the clefts of rocks, and it is very likely to be the oil of some bitumen, which the subterranean fires have raised.”

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There are various processes for obtaining gallic acid, one of which is to moisten the bruised galls and expose them for four or five weeks to a temperature of 80 degrees Fahr.; by which a mouldy paste is formed, which is pressed dry and then digested in boiling water, which after evaporation yields the acid, and mixed with the solution of green copperas, makes the, ink. A quicker process, however, is to put the bruised galls into a cylindrical copper of a depth equal to its diameter, and boil them in nine gallons of water—taking care to replace the water lost by evaporation. The decoction to be emptied into a tub, allowed to settle, and the clear liquid being drawn off, the lees are emptied into another tub to be drained. The green copperas must be separately dissolved in water, and then mixed with the decoction of the galls. A precipitate is then formed in the state of a fine black powder, the subsidence of which is prevented by the addition of the gum, which, separately dissolved in a small quantity of hot water, combines with the clear black liquid. Besides its effect in keeping the fine insoluble particles in suspension, the gum mucilage improves the body of the ink, prevents its spreading or sinking too much into the paper in writing, and also acts beneficially by forming a sort of compact varnish in it, which tends to preserve its colour, and shield it from the action of the air. If, however, too much mucilage is used, the ink flows badly from quill pens, and still more so from steel pens, which require a very limpid ink. The addition of sugar increases the fluidity of ink, and permits the quantity of gum to be increased over what it would bear without it; but, on the other hand, it causes it to dry more slowly, and besides it frequently passes into vinegar, when it acts injuriously on the pens. The dark-coloured galls, known as the blue Aleppo ones, are said by Ribaucourt, and others who have given much attention to the ingredients for ink-making to be the best for that purpose, and they are generally used by the best makers.

“From their high price, however, and that of galls generally, sumach, logwood, and even oak bark are too frequently substituted in the manufacture of inks, but it need scarcely be said always injuriously. Ink made according to the receipt given above is much more rich and powerful than many of those commonly made. To reduce it to their standard one half more water may be safely added; or even twenty gallons of tolerable ink may be made from the same weight of materials.  Sumach and logwood admit of only about one-half or less of the green copperas that galls will take, to bring out the maximum amount of black colour.  The colour of black ink gradually darkens in consequence of the peroxidation of the iron in it on exposure to the air, but it affords a more durable writing when used pale; its particles being then finer, penetrate the paper more intimately, and on its oxidation is mordanted into it. It is advisable so soon as the ink has acquired a moderately deep tint, to draw it off clear into bottles and cork them well.

“According to the most accurate experiments on the preparation of black writing inks, it appears that the proportion of the green copperas ought to be, and not to exceed, a third of the decoction of galls used; but the proportions used vary according to the practical experience of ink-makers, who have all receipts of their own, which they deem best, and, of course, keep secret. In the precipitate an excess of colouring matter, which is necessary for its durability, is preserved in it. The blue galls alone ought to be employed in making the best quality of black ink. Logwood is a useful.  ingredient, because its colouring matter unites with the sulphate of iron and renders it not only of a very dark colour, but also less capable of change from the action of acids or of the atmosphere.  Many attempts have been made by amateurs to make a good permanent black ink. A good story is told of Professor Traill. He had succeeded, after a long series of experiments, in producing an ink which he deemed to be in all respects A 1, and which resisted the action of all acids and alkalies alike. The pleased savant sent samples of it for trial to several banks and schools, where it gave general satisfaction; but, alas, an experimenting scribbler, thoughtlessly or otherwise, applied a simple test undreamt of by the Professor, and with a wet sponge completely washed off his ‘indelible,’ and thereby finished his career as an amateur ink-maker!”

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“Nicholson, in his Dictionary of Chemistry, an old but valuable work, says that Ribaucourt found vitriol of copper, in a certain proportion, to give depth and firmness to the colour of black ink; but, from whatever cause, this has not taken a place among the commonly-used ink-making ingredients—probably because it acts injuriously on steel pens.”

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“A quart of rain Wate. 3 Ounces of Blue Knolly Gawalls. Bruise ym it must stand & be stirred 3 or 4 times in ym Day & then Strain out out all ye gawells all ten Days and 2 Ounces of Clear Gummary Beck & ½ an Ounce of Coperous ½ an Ounce of Rock Alum half an Ounce of Loafe sugar ye Bigness of a Hoarsel nut of Roman Vitterall Bray ym all small Before they be put in it must be stirred very well for ye space of two weeks.

“A receit for ink.--1727
“William Satherwaite.”

(The above receipt is a literal copy of the original, now in my possession. It purports to have been written with the mixture it specifies.)

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“M. de Champnor and M. F. Malepeyre, 1862, in their Mannel state that Ribaucourt’s ink is one of the best then in use. The formula for its preparation is as follows:

Aleppo galls, in coarse powder,    8 ounces.

Logwood chips,                     4    “

Sulphate of iron,                  4    “

Powdered gum-arabic,               3    “

Sulphate of copper,                1    “

Crystallized sugar,                1    “


Boil the galls of logwood together in twelve pounds of water for an hour, or till half the water has been evaporated; strain the decoction through a hair sieve, and add the other ingredients; stir till the whole, especially the gum, be dissolved; and then leave at rest for twenty-four hours, when the ink is to be poured off into glass bottles and carefully corked.

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“Mr. J. Horsley gives the following receipt:

Triturate in a mortar thirty-six grains of gallic acid with three and one-half ounces of strong decoction of logwood, put it into an eight ounce bottle, together with one ounce of strong ammonia.  Next dissolve one ounce of sulphate of iron in half an ounce of distilled water by the aid of heat; mix the solutions together by a few minutes’ agitation, when a good ink will be formed, perfectly clear, which will keep good any length of time without depositing, thickening, or growing mouldy, which latter quality is a great desideratum, as ink undergoing that change becomes worthless. It will not do to mix with ordinary ink, nor must greasy paper be used for writing on with it.”—

Chemical News (1862).

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“New Indelible Marking Ink.—Dr. Elsner gives the following as a stamping ink for goods before undergoing bleaching, or treating with acids or alkalis. It consists merely of one ounce of fine Chinese vermilion and one drachm of protosulphate of iron, well triturated with boiled oil varnish.”

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“Put Aleppo galls, well bruised, 4 ½ oz. and logwood chipped, 1 oz. with 3 pints soft water, into a stoneware mug: slowly boil, until one quart remains: add, well powdered, the pure green crystals of sulphate of iron, 2 ½ oz. blue vitriol or verdigris, (I think the latter better) ½ oz. gum arabic 2 oz. and brown sugar, 2 oz. Shake it occasionally a week after making: then after standing a day, decant and cork. To prevent moulding add a little brandy or alcohol.

“The common copperas will not answer so well as it has already absorbed oxygen.”

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“Pour a gallon of boiling soft water on a pound of powdered galls, previously put into a proper vessel. Stop the month of the vessel, and set it in the sun in summer, or in winter where it may be warmed by any fire, and let it stand two or three days. Then add half a pound of green vitriol powdered, and having stirred the mixture well together with a wooden spatula, let it stand again for two or three days, repeating the stirring, when add further to it 5 ounces of gum arabic dissolved in a quart of boiling water, and lastly, 2 ounces of alum, after which let the ink be strained through a coarse linen cloth for use.

“Another. A good and durable ink may be made by the following directions: To 2 pints of water add 3 ounces of the dark coloured rough-skinned Aleppo galls in gross powder, and of rasped logwood, green vitriol, and gum arabic, each, 1 oz.

“This mixture is to be put into a convenient vessel, and well shaken four or five time a day, for ten or twelve days, at the end of which time it will be fit for use, though it will improve by remaining longer on the ingredients. Vinegar instead of water makes a deeper coloured ink; but its action on pens soon spoils them.”

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“Beat up well together in an iron mortar the following ingredients in a dry state; viz. 8 oz. of best blue gall-nuts, 4 oz. of copperas, or sulphate of iron, 2 oz. of clear gum arabic, and 3 pints of clear rain water.

“When properly powdered, put to the above; let the whole be shaken in a stone bottle three or four times a day, for seven days, and at the end of that time, pour the liquid off gently into another stone bottle, which place in an airy situation to prevent it from becoming foul or mothery.  When used put the liquid into the ink-stand as required.”

Take 6 quarts (beer measure) of clear water, soft or hard, and boil in it for about an hour 4 oz.  of the best Campeachy logwood, chipped very thin across the grain, adding, from time to time, boiling water to supply in part the loss by evaporation; strain the liquor while hot, and suffer it to cool. If the liquor is then short of 5 quarts, make it equal to this quantity by the addition of cold water. After which let 1 lb. of bruised blue galls, or 20 oz. of the best common galls, be added. Let a paste be prepared by triturating 4 oz. of sulphate of iron (green vitriol) calcined to whiteness, and let half an ounce of acetite of copper (verdigris) be well incorporated together with the above decoction into a mass, throwing in also 3 oz. of coarse brown sugar and 6 oz. of gum Senegal, or Arabic.  Put the materials into a stone bottle of such a size as to half fill it; let the mouth be left open, and shake the bottle well, twice or thrice a day. In about a fortnight it may be filled, and kept in well-stopped bottles for use. It requires to be protected from the frost, which would considerably injure it.”

Infuse a pound of pomegranate peels, broken to a gross powder, for 24 hours in a gallon and a half of water, and afterwards boil the mixture till 1-3d of the fluid be wasted. Then add to it 1 lb.  of Roman vitriol, and 4 oz. of gum arabic powdered, and continue the boiling till the vitriol and gum be dissolved, after which the ink must be strained through a coarse linen cloth, when it will be fit for use.

“This ink is somewhat more expensive, and yet not so good in hue as that made by the general method, but the colour which it has is not liable to vanish or fade in any length of time.”

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“Infuse a pound of galls powdered and 3 ounces of pomegranate peels, in a gallon of soft water for a week, in a gentle heat, and then strain off the fluid through a coarse linen cloth. Then add to it 8 oz. of vitriol dissolved in a quart of water, and let them remain for a day or two, preparing in the meantime a decoction of logwood, by boiling a pound of the chips in a gallon of water, till 1-3d be wasted, and then straining the remaining fluid while it is hot. Mix the decoction and the solution of galls and vitriol together, and add 5 oz. of gum arabic, and then evaporate the mixture over a common fire to about 2 quarts, when the remainder must be put into a vessel proper for that purpose, and reduced to dryness, by hanging the vessel in boiling water. The mass left, after the fluid has wholly exhaled, must be well powdered, and when wanted for use, may be converted into ink by the addition of water.”

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“Ten parts of logwood are to be exhausted with eighty of boiling water. To the solution one thousandth of its weight of yellow chromate of potash is to be added gradually. The liquid turns brown and at last blue-black. No gum is needed, and the ink is not removed by soaking in water.

·        Chemical Gazette, London (1850).”

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“Shellac, 2 oz.; borax, 1 oz.; distilled or rain water, 18 oz. Boil the whole in a closely covered tin vessel, stirring it occasionally with a glass rod until the mixture has become homogeneous; filter when cold, and mix the fluid solution with an ounce of mucilage or gum arabic prepared by dissolving 1 oz. of gum in 2 oz. of water, and add pulverized indigo and lampblack ad libitum. Boil the whole again in a covered vessel, and stir the fluid well to effect the complete solution and admixture of the gum arabic. Stir it occasionally while it is cooling; and after it has remained undisturbed for two or three hours, that the excess of indigo and lamp-black may subside, bottle it for use. The above ink for documentary purposes is invaluable, being under all ordinary circumstances, indestructible.  It is also particularly well adapted for the use of the laboratory. Five drops of creosote added to a pint of ordinary ink will effectually prevent its becoming mouldy.”

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“In November, 1854, Mr. Grace Calvert read a paper before the London Society of Arts in which he said that he hoped before long some valuable dyeing substances other than carbo-azotic acid would be prepared from coal tar.

“In another paper read before the same society in 1858 he said: ‘This expectation has now been fulfilled. Messrs. Perkins and Church have obtained several blue coloring substances from the alkaloids of coal tar, and one from naphthalene.’ Also that himself and Mr. Charles Lowe had succeeded in obtaining coal tar products yielding colors of a beautiful pink, red, violet, purple, and chocolate. (These were not soluble in water).”

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“Among vegetable substances useful in the arts is one that has long been known in New Grenada under the name of the ink-plant, as furnishing a juice which can be used in writing without previous preparation. Characters traced with this substance have a reddish color at first, which turns to a deep black in a few hours. This juice is said to be really less liable to thicken than ordinary ink, and not to corrode steel pens. It resists the action of water, and is practically indelible. The plant is known as coryaria thymifolia.”

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“Desormeaux recommends that the sulphate of iron be calcined to whiteness; coarse brown sugar instead of sugar candy; ¼ oz. acetate of copper, instead of one ounce of the sulphate, and a drop or two of creosote or essential oil of cloves to prevent moulding.” (See Ribaucourt receipt, p. 194.)

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“Mr. John Spiller communicated to the London Chemical News (1861) a paper on the employment of carbon as a means of permanent record. The imperishable nature of carbon, in its various forms of lamp-black, ivory-black, wood-charcoal, and graphite or black lead, holds out much greater promise of being usefully employed in the manufacture of a permanent writing material; since, for this substance, in its elementary condition and at ordinary temperatures, there exists no solvent nor chemical reagent capable of affecting its alteration.

“The suggestion relative to the mode of applying carbon to these purposes, which it is intended more particularly now to enunciate, depends on the fact of the separation of carbon from organic compounds rich in that element, sugar, gum, etc., by the combined operation of heat and of chemical reagents, such as sulphuric and phosphoric acids, which exert a decomposing action in the same direction; and by such means to effect the deposition of the carbon within the pores of the paper by a process of development to be performed after the fluid writing ink has been to a certain extent absorbed into its substance—a system of formation by which a considerable amount of resistance, both to chemical and external influences, appears to be secured. An ink of the following composition has been made the subject of experiment:

“Concentrated sulphuric acid, deeply colored with indigo .......... 1 fluid ounce.  Water, .............................. 6   “    “ Loaf Sugar,.......................... 1 ounce, troy.

Strong mucilage of gum-arabic

2 to 3 fluid ounces.

“Writing traced with a quill or gold pen dipped in this ink dries to a pale blue color; but if now a heated iron be passed over its surface, or the page of manuscript be held near a fire, the writing will quickly assume a jet black appearance, resulting from the carbonization of the sugar by a warm acid, and will have become so firmly engrafted into the substance of the paper as to oppose considerable difficulty to its removal or erasure by a knife. On account of the depth to which the written characters usually penetrate, the sheets of paper selected for use should be of the thickest make, and good white cartridge paper, or that known as ‘cream laid,’ preferred to such as are colored blue with ultramarine; for, in the latter case, a bleached halo is frequently perceptible around the outlines of the letters, indicating the partial destruction of the coloring matter by the lateral action of the acid.

“The writing produced in this manner seems indelible; it resists the action of “salts of lemon,” and of oxalic, tartaric, and diluted hydrochloric acids, agents which render nearly illegible the traces of ordinary black writing ink; neither do alkaline solutions exert any appreciable action on the carbon ink. This material possesses, therefore, many advantageous qualities which would recommend its adoption in cases where the question of permanence is of paramount importance. But it must, on the other hand, be allowed that such an ink, in its present form, would but inefficiently fulfil many of the requirements necessary to bring it into common use. The peculiar method of development rendering the application of heat imperative, and that of a temperature somewhat above the boiling point of water, together with the circumstance that it will be found impossible with a thin sheet of paper to write on both sides, must certainly be counted among its more prominent disadvantages.”

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“Fire-proof ink for writing or printing on incombustible paper is made according to the following recipe: Graphite, finely ground, 22 drams; copal or other resinous gum, 12 grains; sulphate of iron, 2 drams; tincture of nutgalls, 2 drams; and sulphate of indigo, 8 drams. These substances are thoroughly mixed and boiled in water, and the ink thus obtained is said to be both fire-proof and insoluble in water. When any other color but black is desired, the graphite is replaced by an earthly mineral pigment of the desired color.”

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“Ineradicable Writing.—A French technical paper, specially devoted to the art and science of paper manufacture, states that any alterations or falsifications of writings in ordinary ink maybe rendered impossible by passing the paper upon which it is intended to write through a solution of one milligram (0.01543 English grain) of gallic acid in as much pure distilled water as will fill to a moderate depth an ordinary soup-plate. After the paper thus prepared has become thoroughly dry, it may be used as ordinary paper for writing, but any attempt made to alter, falsify, or change anything written thereon, will be left perfectly visible, and may thus be readily detected.”

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“Exchequer Ink.—To 40 pounds of galls, add 10 pounds of gum, 9 pounds of copperas, and 45 gallons of soft water. This ink will endure for centuries.”

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“Take of oil of lavender, 120 grains, of copal in powder, 17 grains, red sulphuret of mercury, 60 grains. The oil of lavender being dissipated with a gentle heat, a colour will be left on the paper surrounded with the copal; a substance insoluble in water, spirits, acids, or alkaline solutions.

“This composition possesses a permanent colour, and a MSS. written with it, may be exposed to the process commonly used for restoring the colour of printed books, without injury to the writing. In this manner interpolations with common ink may be removed.”

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Boil parchment slips or cuttings of glove leather, in water till it forms a size, which, when cool, becomes of the consistence of jelly, then, having blackened an earthern plate, by holding it over the flame of a candle, mix up with a camel hair pencil, the fine lamp-black thus obtained, with some of the above size, while the plate is still warm. This black requires no grinding, and produces an ink of the same colour, which works as fregy with the pencil, and is as perfectly transparent as the best Indian ink.”

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“Instead of water use brandy, with the same ingredients which enter into the composition of any ink, and it will never freeze.”

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“Bacteria in Ink—According to experiments which have recently been completed at Berlin and Leipzig by the leading bacteriologists of Germany the ordinary inks literally teem with bacilla of a dangerous character, the bacteria taken therefrom sufficing to kill mice and rabbits inoculated therewith in the space of from one to three days.”

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“The most easy and neat method of forming letters of gold on paper, and for ornaments of writing is, by the gold ammoniac, as it was formerly called: the method of managing which is as follows:

“Take gum ammoniacum, and powder it; and then dissolve it in water previously impregnated with a little gum arabic, and some juice of garlic.  The gum ammoniacum will not dissolve in water, so as to form a transparent fluid, but produces a milky appearance; from whence the mixture is called in medicine the lac ammoniacum. With the lac ammoniacum thus prepared, draw with a pencil, or write with a pen on paper, or vellum, the intended figure or letters of the gilding. Suffer the paper to dry; and then, or any time afterwards, breath on it till it be moistened; and immediately lay leaves of gold, or parts of leaves cut in the most advantageous manner to save the gold, over the parts drawn or written upon with the lac ammoniacum; and press them gently to the paper with a ball of cotton or soft leather. When the paper becomes dry, which a short time or gentle heat will soon effect, brush off, with a soft pencil, or rub off by a fine linen rag, the redundant gold which covered the parts between the lines of the drawing or writing; and the finest hair strokes of the pencil or pen, as well as the broader, will appear perfectly gilt.”

It is usual to see in old manuscripts, that are highly ornamented, letters of gold which rise considerably from the surface of the paper or parchment containing them in the manner of embossed work; and of these some are less shining, and others have a very high polish. The method of producing these letters is of two kinds; the one by friction on a proper body with a solid piece of gold: the other by leaf gold. The method of making these letters by means of solid gold is as follows:

“Take chrystal; and reduce it to powder. Temper it then with strong gum water, till it be of the consistence of paste; and with this form the letters; and, when they are dry, rub them with a piece of gold of good colour, as in the manner of polishing; and the letters will appear as if gilt with burnisht gold.”

(Kunckel, in his fifty curious experiments, has given this receipt, but omitted to take the least notice of the manner these letters are to be formed, though the most difficult circumstance in the production of them.)





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