I first read an abridged version of T. C. Hansard's recipe for Baskerville's ink in F. E. Pardoe's, John Baskerville of Birmingham: Letter Founder and Printer [London: 1975]. The general vagueness of the recipe either assumes a prior experience of ink-making on the reader's part or attempts to conceal a lack of specific knowledge on the part of Hansard (it was probably a little of both). Baskerville's ink recipe was a closely guarded secret and the information that Hansard relied upon was gathered either from Baskerville's foreman Robert Martin or, more likely, Thomas Martin, the elder printer's nephew. What first confounded me about the recipe was the method of incorporating amber into the ink but, after further reading, my focus has shifted to the preparation of the linseed oil, the base medium of the ink. Here is the complete recipe as printed by Hansard:
He took of the finest and oldest linseed oil three gallons, this was put into a vessel capable of holding four times the quantity, and boiled with a long-continued fire till it acquired a certain thickness or tenacity, according to the quality of the work it was intended to print, and which was judged of by putting small quantities upon a stone to cool, and then taking it up between the finger and thumb; on opening which, if it drew into a thread an inch long or more, it was considered sufficiently boiled. This mode of boiling can only be acquired by long practice, and requires particular skill and care in the person who superintends the operation, as, for want of this, the most serious consequences may occur, and have very frequently occurred.* The oil thus prepared was suffered to cool, and then a small quantity of black or amber rosin was dissolved in it, after which it was allowed some months to subside; it was then mixed with the fine black, before named, to a proper thickness, and ground for use.
*Here Hansard mentions that linseed oil should not be boiled in the printing office because of the ease by which it catches fire.
When I took my first exploratory trip to Kremer Pigments last week, I showed the clerk Hansard's recipe and inquired after fine, old linseed oil that I could boil. In its stead I was shown Kremer's linseed stand oil, which is a pre-boiled linseed oil that they produce in two thicknesses. I ordered a couple of liters of the thicker oil. Today I mixed some of it with finely ground lamp black which is collected in the same manner as it was in the 18th century. Over the previous couple of days I have played around with little bits of the oil on my fingers and, though it is quite thick and tacky, I have a gut feeling that it is still not thick enough. With that said, the only way I can test it is to make some ink and put it through the press. Intrigued in the meantime to learn more about the preparation of the linseed oil, I consulted Hansard's full text on printing inks in, Typographia: an historical sketch of the origin and progress of the art of printing; with practical directions for conducting every department in an office: with a description of stereotype and lithography [London: 1825]. In it, Hansard quotes from the recipe for Black Ink in Rees's Encyclopædia:
The oil is boiled in an iron pot, capable of holding at least half as much more, because it swells very much; when it boils it is kept stirring with an iron ladle; and if it does not itself take flame, it is kindled with a piece of lighted paper, or burning wood, in order to increase its consistence and tenacity, and to diminish its greasiness. The oil is suffered to burn for half an hour or more and the flame being then extinguished by covering the vessel close, the boiling is afterwards continued, with a gentle heat, till the oil appears of a proper consistence; in which state it is called varnish....
The burning of the oil is intriguing. In Luke Hebert's The Engineer's and Mechanics Encyclopædia [London: 1846], Rees's method of linseed oil boiling is repeated, but Hebert asserts that the burning of the oil is necessary for the ink to dry properly. The fact that linseed oil dries on its own, without the aid of additives, puts his claim in doubt. Rees's assertion that the oil burning lessens the inks greasiness—a consistent goal in every ink recipe I've read—and thickens the oil to the proper consistency makes more sense. I have no doubt that Kremer's stand oil is as grease-free as I am likely to find but the consistency worries me. The ink I made today (which is more properly oil paint) is too fluid to print small type well. ¶These issues of ink consistency will simply need to be resolved through experimentation. Despite my knowledge of Baskerville's ink when printed, I know nothing about how it looked or felt in his iron pot. Further, considerations of ink viscosity change dramatically when using a power driven ink cylinder, as I do, rather than a hand-held baren. Time, or more precisely Speed, is the common disconnect I am encountering. I want to print with my inks tomorrow; yet every published description of Baskerville's ink emphasizes the long periods of time he allotted for its maturation. Not only did he allow his oil to "subside" for months after boiling but he allowed his mixed ink three years to settle before grinding it for use. Baskerville's refined and delicate typefaces only printed well because of his mechanical improvements in press, paper, and ink. One of the reasons his competitors (as if he had any) were so critical of his type's fineness was undoubtedly because they knew they could never print it as well he could: Baskerville's type required Baskerville's ink. I suspect that one of the reasons he let his ink gestate for so long was so that it would thicken to the proper viscosity for printing his type.
I will publish notes on the first ink mixture after I test it tomorrow.