Some of my most popular projects posted to the blog have been alcohol ink projects. I've been playing around with them for several years now (and completed dozens of projects on all types of surfaces) and feel fairly confident that I can share some advice for folks who are considering trying them out for the first time.
So what are alcohol inks?
They are alcohol based dyes that can be used to dye any number of different surfaces but often work best on smooth/nonporous surfaces (like glass, metal, plastic, glossy paint, etc...). The ink is a lot like the ink used in permanent markers (think Sharpies). It's permanent once it dries as long as it doesn't come in contact with alcohol based liquids (though just like permanent markers, some very smooth surfaces like ceramic, will smear even once dry). Alcohol Inks are often stamped or dripped onto surfaces and can create a translucent stained glass effect when used on clear surfaces (like glass and plastic). The most popular brands are Ranger Adirondack and Jacquard Pinata.
So what do you need to get started?
Alcohol Ink. Alcohol ink is sold in little bottles with small nozzles for dripping the ink. The Pinata inks come in a large set with nine colors all in one box for $18-20 (and less popular colors can be purchased by the single bottle). The Ranger inks are mainly sold in sets of 3 (metallic inks are sold in sets of 2). They are usually priced $8-12 a set. I've purchased a few sets on Amazon when their prices dipped and also picked some up at Michael's and Jo-Ann's using 40 or 50% off coupons. As alcohol ink becomes a more and more popular art supply, more brands and products have become available, but Pinata and Ranger are still the easiest to find. Another popular source of alcohol inks are alcohol based marker refills. Copic markers are a well-known artist quality alcohol-based marker, and their refills have become a popular source of alcohol ink (because they come in so many different colors--358 last I checked). Copic refills have an msrp of $8.99 per bottle/color and are available at art supply stores. You might have a bit of sticker shock when getting started with alcohol ink since the bottles are so tiny, but they last a really long time (like several years and dozens of projects kind of long). Alcohol inks are located near the stamping supplies in most craft stores.
Of the two easiest to find brands, the Ranger inks come in a lot more colors (66+ vs. about 20) and are a little easier to work with than the Pinata inks for beginners (the Pinata inks are a bit thicker and more concentrated and harder to find at craft stores). My favorite set or Ranger inks to recommend to beginners is named "Dockside Picnic" and comes with a shade of bright watermelon red, lime green, and a bright sky blue. "Summit View" is another good set that would pair nicely with Dockside Picnic for a beginner. It includes a bright yellow, bright orange, and bright purple.
A work surface. I use a craft mat to protect my table from the ink. These mats are great for stamping on too and allow for an easy-to-clean work surface and can be reused over and over again. If you're not sure you need to spend the extra money for a mat, parchment paper would be a good inexpensive substitute, but you might want to use masking tape to make sure the edges don't roll up while you're working. Do not use wax paper as a work surface--the alcohol ink will soak through it.
Blending solution. Ranger has a blending solution that's used for thinning/mixing the ink and cleaning up after your mistakes. Pinata sells a cleanup solution and extender for thinning. But rubbing alcohol works almost as well as the expensive solutions. I've used both 70% and 90% rubbing alcohol. The 90% variety is usually only available in stores that have pharmacies (I got my last bottle at Target in their pharmacy section), and it works just slightly better than the 70% rubbing alcohol. If you can't find the 90%, the 70% variety works just fine. If you get a bottle that has a nice flip-top cap with a tiny nozzle hole, be sure to save it--not all bottles come with nice caps, and the caps fit on pretty much all of the rubbing alcohol bottles. I did a series of posts testing the different thinning solutions solutions that you can check out here: Thinners with Stamped, Dripped, and Blown Ink.
An applicator and felt. An applicator has a felt surface that you drip your ink onto to stamp onto your surface. Ranger makes an applicator too. I was too cheap to buy one of these when I first got started (they usually sell for $6-8, but I have seen them on sale on Amazon for under $4), so I made my own with some scrap wood and some hook and loop tape (velcro). I was even able to customize it with a layer of craft foam under the velcro. It works great. I've also seen homemade applicators with little wooden handles or knobs and one person just attached the felt to a large binder clip to use as a stamp. Whatever method you use, you'll need some light-colored acrylic felt. I pick up squares of white felt at Michael's or Wal-mart and cut it to size for my applicator (but you can also buy them pre-cut).
Canned air. This one seems silly, but canned electronic duster air is awesome for blowing your ink around on your surfaces. It works great when you're trying to work on curved surfaces (like Christmas ornaments) or when you just want to get your ink to spread out. Some folks swear by using straws and your own breath to get a similar effect, but I have never had much luck with that unless the ink is thinned down a ton with rubbing alcohol or blending solution. After you've gotten used to the way the inks move, you can try a hair dryer on low or a heat gun to blow around your ink to get a softer pattern.
With those above items, you can create all kinds of projects. Some other tools that might be helpful: eye droppers or pipettes for dripping rubbing alcohol or blending solution onto your projects, vinyl gloves if you hate getting ink on your hands (most of it does come off with rubbing alcohol or hand sanitizer though--I rarely wear gloves), water pens (brushes with a water reservoir that you can fill with rubbing alcohol) or small paintbrushes for painting with alcohol ink, and cotton swabs for cleaning up small splatters.
So how do I use them?
To start, prepare your surface. Clear your table and put down your craft mat or parchment paper. If you don't like the smell of rubbing alcohol, you may want to open a window. The alcohol inks smell like alcohol--it doesn't bother me, but if you're sensitive to it, make sure your area is well-ventilated.
Next, grab your applicator and put some felt on it. Make sure to have a few extra pieces of felt cut to size set aside (I've done some projects with just 1 or 2 pieces of felt, and others I've used 8-10...it depends on the look you're going for, how big your project is, and the colors you're using).
Figure out what you're going to ink. I have decorated glass (like vases, votive candle holders, glass pop bottles, glass Christmas Ornaments, glass craft gems, etc..), porcelain and ceramic (like tiles), metal (like tins, photo frames, galvanized flower pots, washers, etc...), plastic (like plastic Easter Eggs, transparency film, switch plates, shrink plastic, plastic charms, etc...), and painted surfaces (like terra cotta pots, a painted wood picture frame, etc...). But really any smooth surface will work. I've even inked pillar candles. And you can use alcohol ink to dye fabric like silk flowers. So your only limit is your imagination. In the photo below I'm testing out alcohol inks on white duct tape as an experiment.
Now it's time to select your colors. Drip your chosen alcohol ink onto the applicator. You don't need much. You can choose to combine the colors as little or as much as you like. If you want it to mix more or want to thin the colors a bit, you can drip rubbing alcohol or blending solution on your applicator felt too.
Then stamp your selected surface. The first pass will usually spread out and look a bit like watercolor paint. Each different type of surface you stamp on will spread differently. If you like the watercolor look, finish covering your surface in color and you're good to go. If you want a more stippled look, after you've covered the surface in color, you can come back and stamp over it again until the colors separate more. Depending on the size of your project, you may need to add ink to your felt or think the ink out with some rubbing alcohol as you go. If you notice that the colors are starting to blend together too much (sometimes they get muddy or brown colored if they blend together too much), put a new piece of felt on and re-ink and keep going. Sometimes it even helps to wait to let the colors dry for a few seconds (they dry quickly) and then come back over the ink with your applicator.
With the duct tape, I went over the piece several times with colors from the two sets I mentioned above (Dockside Picnic and Summit View). The color didn't spread quite as much as it would on a super smooth surface like glass or ceramic tile. In the end, the experiment failed because the colors cracked and flaked when I peeled the tape up from the craft mat, so unless I figure a way around that, I've nixed duct tape from my list of possible surfaces to ink for the time being. The only way to find out if a surface works is to try it out.
If you don't have your applicator yet and want to try your inks out--or if you're looking for a more free-form look, try dripping your ink onto your surface (like with this vase). Experiment with dripping rubbing alcohol or blending solution onto the alcohol ink directly from the ink container and try blowing it around with canned air. If the ink is really thinned out, you can even give a straw a whirl. The really great thing about alcohol ink is that if you don't like what you've created, it's usually pretty easy to start over, just wipe it off with some rubbing alcohol. The smoother your surface (like glass or ceramic) the cleaner your surface will be to start over.
On Sealing. When your alcohol ink project looks the way you want it to, set it aside to dry. Alcohol inks will dry to the touch in seconds (unless you used a lot of ink), but may take longer to fully set. If I'm planning on sealing the project, I usually try to let it dry for a day before I use any kind of sealant on it. You can seal the surface with an acrylic sealer (some folks swear by a layer of Krylon's Kamar Varnish and a layer of UV Resistant Acrylic Sealer on top to reduce ink colors fading) or a layer of mod podge (Mod podge doesn't react with the alcohol ink and is easy to work with. It even comes in a dishwasher safe version.) Sealing your alcohol ink projects is recommended for very smooth surfaces like glazed ceramic tiles and for any jewelry or other pieces that will be regularly handled or may come in contact with alcohol based liquids (like perfume, hair spray, hand sanitizer, margaritas, etc...). I've left many decorative pieces stamped on glass, paint, and metal, without sealing them if I knew they'd just be sitting on a shelf, and they've all held up very well...that being said, when in doubt, seal it.
When you're all done, rubbing alcohol can be used to clean up most small spills and any ink that you get on your hands, but be careful not to let it set and dry too long on surfaces like your kitchen table (I have a couple small drips that I haven't been able to clean up because I didn't see them right after I was done with my project).
Now you know all you need to to get started! Try out some ink projects and let me know how they work in the comments below. Happy Crafting!
For more information on getting started with alcohol inks, check out the beginner series of posts about stamping here: Stamping on Ceramic Tiles and Stamping on Multiple Surfaces with Multiple Colors
Post Updated 15 May 2019