Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Acorn Ink & Quill Pens

Oak trees in our area seem to be particularly ambitious and I have a few avid acorn collections living in my house so we always have plenty of acorns about. At first Benjamin wanted to collect 100 acorns for our 100th Day of School celebration (which I think we should hit around December 8), but when he collected well over 100 acorns on one little walk he decided that perhaps he should collect 100 x 100 acorns, or 10,000 acorns!

This last number proved to be a little too ambitious because that's a lot of acorns and a lot of counting. 

Still, we have a sizable bin of acorns sitting around our house, which we figured we'd just chuck outside for the squirrels every now and again over the winter. But the kids wanted to do something with them. 

At first they wanted to make acorn flour, which is possible. Acorns themselves are too high in tannins to be healthy for humans. They have to be soaked (sometimes more than once) to leech the tannins, and then they have to be baked, and then they have to be ground up. And that just sounded like a lot of work for something that I wasn't sure was going to be very tasty (otherwise I'm sure we would eat acorns regularly because they are plentiful). 

After a bit of searching around for ideas we settled on making acorn ink. 

It seemed easy enough. You just have to crush the acorns, which is easy enough if you have an eight-year-old around who enjoys crushing things (which I do). Then you soak the crushed acorns in water, boil them for a bit if you want, strain them, and add some "rust garden" vinegar (which we began a few weeks prior to preparing our acorns—for that you just put a rusty bit of metal in vinegar and let it go to town). All in all a very passive project. The hardest part was just waiting for things to be ready, waiting for things to rust, waiting while the acorns soaked.

We started our rust garden about three weeks ago and started soaking our acorns sometime around October 9. We just let them sit and sit and sit, partly because we forgot about them altogether when the basement flooded and partly because they just needed to sit for a while. I strained the ink once a few days ago, discarded the acorn chunks, and then boiled it down to make it thicker.

It was a rich brown and, I'll be honest, I was skeptical it would ever turn black. 

Today I strained our ink once more and then we added some of our "rust garden" vinegar to the ink and it magically turned a deep black! It was rather amazing!

Our next step was to make some quill pens (because if you're into a project this deep you may as well go all the way). We watched a few tutorials (like this one) before attempting things on our own. I was a little nervous to try it with a handful of kids, but they did great (ie. no one chopped off their finger or anything)!

First we used sandpaper to scrape the membrane from the feathers. I thought this would be easier (ie. safer) than handing everyone a knife. This way even the littlest among us could feel like they were contributing to the finished product even if Mommy ended up doing most of the cutting later on.

Next we used sticks and pine needles to poke the inside-thingy (the marrow of the feather?) farther up inside the shaft so it wouldn't get in the way of our pen tip.

Technically you're supposed to pull it out, but only Miriam really managed to do this. But I read in one of our tutorials that you can just stuff it up inside and that seemed simpler for many of us. 

Then we cut the shape of our pen tip and made the slice that allows the ink to flow. The kids were a little anxious about cutting the tip so I did that for everyone, but most of them made their own slit.

Here we are with our finished quill pens (though we'd make some adjustments later):

We learned that it's best to have a tilted desk so that the pen can stay horizontal (thus keeping gravity from pushing ink out of the pen), so we originally set up our studio at the top of the drive, propping our clipboards on the curb. 

But then our neighbour's big, annoying dog, Archie, got out and started running all around like crazy so we made our way through to the back deck where we could draw without a big, slobbery mass running through our creative space. I know some people catch dogs for their neighbours, but I am not a dog catching person. I'm more of a, "Well, good luck to you, dog! I'm going to go cower in my house now," kind of a person. Sorry, neighbours. 

Anyway, here we are in the back deck, which is in desperate need of being cleared off (but here's the thing—it's always in desperate need of being cleared off in the fall):

We quickly learned that watercolour paper was going to work better than regular printer paper. Fortunately we have some on hand! We don't always, but there was some watercolour paper in the box of paper our wonderful print-shop-owning neighbour gave to us.

I was a little nervous about how Alexander and Zoë would mix with the ink, so I put them in smocks. 

Miriam and Rachel had a lot of fun trying out calligraphy styles (nothing official; just playing around (we'll try official calligraphy later on, perhaps)). It seemed to come rather naturally to Miriam:

Rachel's work didn't look too shabby, either, but I think her choice of words gave it a more contemporary feel—I mean..."yeet?"

Benjamin requested that we play tic-tac-toe together. Here he is setting up the board (apparently he'd never done this before so it took him a few tries to get the grid right):

He didn't think anyone would win the game. "This game is impossible to win," he explained. "Everyone always ties."

"Only if both players know exactly what they're doing," I said, penning in my final x. "I win."

"How did you do that?!" he gasped. 

Here's Zoë working on a lovely tree:

And here's Alexander with his very busy paper:

Rachel and Miriam decided they'd try designing some alphabets:

And then we got sick of the mosquitoes and decided to call it a day. But here are a few pictures of the children's creations.

Benjamin's house:

Alexander's scribbles:

He did manage to get a few people in there:

Zoë's picture "Once upon earth":

Finally, we just had to set Miriam's calligraphy up with some acorns and oak leaves (so the ink would know its origins, I guess):

It was a fun afternoon project. Our quill pens weren't spectacular, so we'll have to refine our quill-pen-making skills. That or get some actual dip pens with metal tips. Or just use paint brushes. Or something. I mean, as fascinating as they are, there are reasons our pen technology has moved away from quill pens. But I bet we'd get better at it if we tried (that's generally how things work).

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