Greetings from Liberty, on the edge of the Cumberland Plateau, where the ridge runner meets the flatlander. This post could get messy because we’re learning how to make black walnut ink, homemade ink from a single black walnut tree here on the top of the ridge where Sue and I live.
A painter friend, Ann Phelan, has prompted this post. I sent Ann a bottle of my walnut ink last year, and she asked about the story behind the ink.
In the mid 1990s, I was living at a farmhouse that bordered the Little Patuxent River in Montgomery County, Maryland. The black walnut trees there would drop nuts each fall. They were green when they fell, and in a matter of days they would start to turn black. Some would fall in the circle driveway, and my car would run over them. I noticed that the outer shell or husk would sometimes detach from the nut and was filled with a black ooze. That’s when I found a recipe for making black walnut stain.
My first attempt actually turned out some nice stain. I remember laying out the husks on an old plastic shower curtain where they darkened and oozed a black goo onto the curtain. The recipe I had back then didn’t cook the husks but rather let them sit in a five gallon bucket topped with water for a couple of weeks. Then, I remember doing two pressings, one through a stainless mesh and the other through a cheesecloth. I think I made a couple of gallons of stain.
Fast forward to 2018 when Sue and I moved to Liberty, Tennessee. I was so excited to find a black walnut tree that was dropping loads of nuts. That first year I wasn’t able to make any ink because of our touring. But in 2020 we weren’t touring, and there was time to make ink. Here’s how it goes.
The walnuts start to drop late summer in September. It’s best to gather the nuts just as the husks start to blacken. I put them in five gallon buckets and sit them in the shade under our porch in the back of the house. By October the husks are completely black and ready to cook.
Wearing chemical resistant gloves, because the walnut stain is not an easy one to remove, I separate the husks from the nuts and place them in a stainless steel cooking pot. The pot is filled up about three quarters of the way to the rim. The nuts are put back into the five gallon bucket where they’ll be washed and dried for the winter. Black walnuts are a healthy treat for snacking and adding to a bowl of ice cream.
Next, I put the pot on the stove and fill it up with water until it covers all of the husks and then some. This year I took the water from a rain barrel we have. The day I started the walnut ink was a rainy day, and the rain barrel was filled. Now it is time to cook the husks. I bring the pot to a boil and then simmer it for about eight hours.
After the simmering, I turn the heat off and let it sit overnight to cool. The next day it’s time to filter the cooked husks and liquid through a stainless steel strainer covered with cheese cloth. This catches most of the husk and sediment leaving only the black walnut liquid in your straining pot. As I strain, I don’t discard the husks and sediment. As the cheese cloth fills up, I carefully put the discarded husks and sediment in another vessel. This will be turned into black walnut stain after making the ink.
Now it’s time to cook the strained black walnut liquid down until it thickens slightly and becomes black walnut ink. I put the strained liquid into a stainless steel pot, bring it to a boil and then simmer for three to four hours for a reduction. Some folks will reduce the liquid by fifty percent. I only reduce mine by about twenty-five percent. When I bottle the ink, I add between five and ten percent isopropyl alcohol to prevent molding. This thins the ink out slightly. Some folks like a thicker ink and reduce it by fifty percent so that it isn’t too thin after adding a preservative. Others don’t want too thick of an ink and reduce it only by twenty-five percent. I have found that works best when writing or drawing with a dip pen. I do a second straining with the cooked ink and then let it sit overnight to cool and then bottle it the next day in two ounce bottles.
Remember the discarded husks and sediment? After straining the black walnut liquid, I get ready to cook the stain. I fill the stainless steel pot with the discarded husks and sediment and cover the solids with water. I cook this for an hour or two and let it sit overnight to cool. I strain the husks and sediment one more time to create a black walnut stain. Then I discard the husks and sediment in the woods. Be sure not to discard the husks near any flowers, vegetables, shrubs or trees that you want to continue to enjoy. The husks in the black walnuts are loaded with a toxin called juglone that could cause life threatening issues to your garden.
This year I bottled forty-eight two ounce bottles. Last year I sold them for eight dollars a piece, but this year I’m raising the price to ten dollars because of the time involved and my needs for an electric guitar amplifier. Danny Gatton was known to have traded a guitar for a hot rod. I’m willing to trade black walnut ink for a guitar amplifier. I’d like to find a Fender Deluxe or something small with tubes and good tone.
I’ve added a PayPal purchase below for your convenience if you’d like to try a bottle. The shipping and handling is usually around nine dollars. If you’d like multiple bottles please write to me at email@example.com.
Willbilly Walnut Ink
A two ounce jar of homemade Black Walnut Ink. Shipping and handling is $9
These bottles of ink are the perfect gift for someone you know who likes to write letters, draw or just doodle with a pen. I use a dip pen which includes a holder and a nib, and they don’t cost too much. In fact, one reason many artists use dip pens is because they are so affordable. You can get started with a holder and three nibs for around $10. I shop at a store in Nashville called Paper & Ink Arts. I’ve been writing letters, doing drawings, set lists, song lyrics and music with the walnut ink. It helps you slow down and not go too fast. It feels like everything you do with it is art and that feels good.
Folks have been asking me about my Willbilly logo and if I could get some buttons with the Willbilly image. I found a place called Sticker Mule that is making them, and they’ll be here in a couple of days. Here’s what they will look like.
The Willbilly buttons will sell for $3. I’ve added a PayPal purchase below for your convenience if you’d like to buy a button. The shipping will be $1.
A one inch button with the Willbilly logo.
One final gift idea is the music bundle. I have released three CDs of songs since 2017, Another Life, The Painter’s Bucket and The Craig Demos. This holiday bundle can be yours for $25. I’ve added a PayPal purchase below for your convenience if you’d like to buy a bundle.
The Billy Kemp CD Holiday Bundle 2021
Bundle includes Another Life, The Painter’s Bucket and The Craig Demos. Shipping is $7.
If you don’t use PayPal but would like to make a purchase please let me know by email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thanks for reading this blog and the support you extend to music making and performance. I am grateful. Here’s wishing you and yours a healthy and happy holiday season and New Year.
Fantastic newsletter, Billy! I loved reading about your process. I’ve shared it on all three of the Facebook pages I manage and I’ll include it in my next newsletter that I send out next week!
My super best to you and Sue!
Sent from my iPhone
Hi Jeni, Thanks for reading the post and sharing it. Hope all is well with you…Much Happiness, Billy