After a month of anticipation, I finally boiled my first batch of linseed oil this past Saturday. On the way upstate I was particularly alert to morbid possibilities. Tales of disaster abound in the manuals I have been reading and they have steadily gained influence over my thoughts. Whole sections of London decimated by flames due to a careless ink maker. Certain pots which, when agitated, produce cascading streams of burning oil. Pre-Industrial towns mandating ink works to operate beyond the city walls because of their incumbent danger and stench. The recipes I have read that involve burning the oil put the process in an ominous context: If the oil has not already ignited on its own. Similarly, recipes that do not encourage burning the oil caution against allowing it to auto ignite, which will surely happen unless the ink maker remains vigilant. The basic recipe that I have decided to follow is a three stage process—boiling, igniting while boiling, and boiling some more—and I approached my first attempt with more than a little angst. During the weeks prior to our trip upstate I had regular visions of molten jets of burning oil erupting from my Dutch oven; decimating, at best, a couple of vegetable beds or, at worst, part of my face. To try to contain the imminent disaster I decided to cheat a little. Rather than starting with regular linseed oil I would try boiling a few cups of already thickened stand oil just to see what would happen. I bought myself a handy Mr Max butane burner figuring I could control it better than I could an open fire; and set up a workstation on a metal covered table that Annie had outfitted in the gravel drive. After a fitful night, I set to work. The process was more like running a deep fryer at a county fair than scrambling to contain Vesuvius. In barely 37 minutes the varnish appeared to be ready—a wooden stick charred immediately when inserted into the oil; and, when cooled, the varnish produced strands over an inch long when stretched between my forefinger and thumb—and I was left with a cast iron pot of thick, sticky goop full of discolored bits of burnt oil. I took the pot off the stove and placed it on the gravel driveway where, to my great frustration, it refused to catch fire. Within an hour a hardened skin similar to thick Saran wrap formed over my thickened batch of oil.
A couple of weeks ago, the printer Arthur Larson turned me onto C H Bloy's A History of Printing Ink, Balls, and Rollers 1440-1850. In it, Bloy has assembled sixty-nine ink recipes ranging from a Chinese block-printing ink from AD 251 to an account of William Morris's ink made by Jänecke of Hannover. The recipes are a fascinating distillation of the literature of a craft in that they show the near infinite distinctions possible with so few ingredients. Oil (linseed or nut), lampblack, turpentine, amber, onions, and crusts of bread. Add to these diligence, time, and fire, and you end up with sixty-nine competing arguments for how to proceed. There are few consistent instructions but there are some general trends: the British say Burn the Oil! and the French say Don't Burn the Oil! Onions or crusts of bread are helpful to either 1) absorb the oil's greasiness or 2) allow the ink to dry well, though some Encyclopædists question their effectiveness toward either end. One recipe quoted in de Champour and Malpeyre's Nouveau Manuel Complet de la Fabrication des Encres [Paris: 1856] is very specific: add 2 kilos bread to each 8 litres of oil in small slices, 3 or 4 at a time. One ingredient that most recipes agree upon, and that is pointedly absent from Baskerville's recipe, is turpentine [see below]. I am a little suspicious of Bloy, though. He has dramatically cut and re-written the Baskerville recipe that appears in Hansard's Typographia. This would be fine except that he does not admit to altering the recipe. What else has he left out of other recipes?
The three most common methods for determining that your varnish is ready are 1) it produces long threads when stretched between forefinger and thumb; 2) the crusts of bread you have inserted into the oil have charred; or 3) a wooden stick chars when inserted into the oil. The time stipulated to produce a good varnish for summer printing is consistently 5 hours. In recipes that call for burning, you boil for 2 hours, burn, and then boil for 3 more. Some recipes call for burning 5 minutes, others for 30. Some for burning while boiling, others for burning off the heat. They all emphasize that the process takes time and attention. After preparing Annie for what would be a long day boiling oil, imagine her surprise when after 45 minutes I came in and said, "I think it's done." For myself, I was deeply suspicious. I had assumed that using the thickened stand oil would reduce the time, but 37 minutes? Further, what was now in my pot didn't look like the beginnings of a fine ink. For one, the clinging, darkened skin seemed an inauspicious omen. Perhaps I could lift it off like fat from a chilled broth and beneath find a smooth, thick varnish? Repeatedly throughout the day I rubbed my fingers along the surface, trying to convince myself that this would work.
Most ink recipes of any length make special note of how important it is to not overheat the oil and to stir it consistently with an iron ladle. I threw mine on a burner turned to high and stood back, awaiting disaster. There is simply no way that I have produced a superior varnish. Next time, I will work at lower heat and stir with the same attention I would give a risotto. In the meantime, I spent an hour in my shop seeing what I could make with my first batch of mealy varnish. It is very sticky, so much so that it resists mixing or handling of any kind. After adding some amber varnish, which is 50% turpentine, it loosened up considerably and I was able to get it to accept the lampblack, though it is not fully integrated. The ink is still too tacky to make a proper draw down but I am hopeful that adding turpentine will bring it to a better working viscosity. I will try this later in the week.