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What Is Ink Made Of and Where Does it Come From?

Inks date back to 4500 years ago, when modern ink first came into existence. How else would you explain cave paintings? When it comes to inks, Joy Kunjappu was and is still correct. Ink has more than what meets our eyes. But what is ink made of?

Ink is a viscous liquid used in creating impressions on materials such as paper. Ink exists in every facet of humanity. You look around; the number of things with ink on them is uncountable. From your clothes, books, consumer products, stamps, name it, some writings are on it. Surprising enough, even that birthday cake you are about to cut has edible ink on it! Certainly, ink is an essential human invention, if not the most important. Then you wonder, what is ink made of? Let’s find out.


Ink first existed in dye form, which early humans used in cave paintings. The main ingredients of this dye were minerals mixed with fruits and vegetable extracts. Later on, humans developed symbolic communications, which needed better ink to create. This improved ink contained pigments and dyes from animals and fish extracts.

Around 1200 B.C, a Chinese named Tien Lcheu created the first black ink using gelatin, musk, lamp oil, and soot from a pine tree. The popularity of this black ink fuelled more experiments with natural dyes and planted colors to create different colored inks.

By around 2500 B.C, the Egyptians created writing sticks from dried ink. The Egyptian ink was a blend of carbon and gum. The mixture was dried and shaped into ink sticks. The writer needed to dip the stick in water and do writings on papyrus paper.

In the 4th century, the Indians created a popular ink that has stood the test of time. The ‘masi’ ink is a mixture of charred bones and tar. This ink has very bright colors and lasts for a long time. Many artists in India, China, and Japan prefer the ‘masi’ to modern ink. But of course, ‘masi’ has other additives to improve its smoothness and durability.

Ink has come a long way. The main types of ink today are printing and writing ink. These ink types have different chemical components depending on the intended use.

Read also: Amazing Guide Of Printers for Stickers

Ink Chemical Composition

Ink is essentially a viscous liquid made by mixing several ingredients. These ingredients are:

  • Solvents: The primary solvents used in ink manufacturing are water, petrochemicals, and alcohol. They form the basis for dissolving other ingredients.
  • The solvents determine the durability of ink on the printed or written material.
  • Colorants: Colorants are pigments or dyes. Their work is to give the ink its color. They also determine the color intensity by varying their particle sizes.
  • Resins: Resins improve the hardness and adhesion of inks. They also act as binding agents, keeping ingredients stuck together and ink on the printed surface.
  • Varnish: Varnish is the combination of seed oils, resins, and solvents. Varnish forms the base of printer ink. Their primary function in ink is binding other ingredients to improve gloss. Varnish also elongates the ink’s life.
  • Stabilizing polymers: Naturally, colorant particles clump together when added to a solvent. Polyvinyl chloride and other stabilizers prevent the clumping from giving the ink a smooth flow.
  • Other additives: Other additives in inks serve to improve the smoothness, regulate ink’s pH, and ‘filler’ ingredients. The additives include clay, silicates, and glycerides.

Different ink makers use varied methods to mix the above ingredients to desired ink properties.

Don’t forget to read this Guide Of Sublimation Printers

Other ink types

The most ancient existing ink type is writing ink. Then came printing ink with the invention of printers. Recently, more specialized ink types invented include:

  • Edible ink: You heard me right, ink safe to eat. This ink type contains water, plant dyes, glycerin, ethanol, and approved preservatives. Edible ink’s main applications are in pastry decorations and for printing on edible paper. Shockingly, edible ink runs in ordinary printers, just like regular printing ink.
  • Thermochromic inks: They are heat-sensitive inks used to detect temperature changes.
  • Photochromic inks: They change color in the presence of light.
  • Electronic inks: Electronic inks change color when an electric current passes through them; they find many applications in displays.
  • Magnetic inks: This is specially designed ink with added magnetic materials. Its main application is in printing checkbooks.

Future of ink

Ink manufacturing is a ten billion-dollar global industry. And more research is ongoing on other ingredients for specialized ink making.

Ink is getting more applications in new niches. A recent invention being ink sensitivity to light, heat, and electric currents.

So, should you expect to see an inkless future? Not really. Even with more electronic devices coming your way every day, the ink will be around for longer.

Ink And The Environment

Small quantities of ink are non-toxic to your body, but if you down a cupful, you may end your life. While ink poisoning is uncommon, always be cautious. Refer to safety rules from the ink manufacturer in case of accidents.

Ink pigments and additives are heavy metal derivatives. Most heavy metals are non-biodegradable, and so are their products. Ink spillage may seriously contaminate the environment.

Likewise, most ink toners and cartridges consist of plastics and metals. They take a very long time to rot naturally. Therefore, to keep the soil and water free of ink pollutants, recycle and reuse the toners and cartridges. Let’s all be environmentally cautious as we run those printers.


Ink dates as early as humans were able to communicate through impressions on materials. There have been improvements in ink quality overtime to meet the demands of writing, printing, and drawing.

Today, other types of inks exist, such as edible inks, thermochromic inks, and photochromic inks. We should expect more types and better quality inks in the future, as more research on ink is ongoing.

The future of ink is almost inevitable. Even though the world is veering towards paperless communication, we are centuries away from ink becoming passé. Furthermore, wash instructions on your clothes are not going anywhere soon.

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