Introduction: $1 DIY Conductive Ink and Paint From Fire! (non Toxic, Homemade, Cheap)

Picture of $1 DIY Conductive Ink and Paint From Fire! (non Toxic, Homemade, Cheap)

Turn fire into electronic conductive ink, build electronic circuits, create paper musical instruments and inputs for your Arduino board!

UPDATE (08/18/2014)

If you would like to avoid the process of making your own charcoal and blending it into a paint, I bought very inexpensive 'powdered active carbon', 1kg or 2,2 pounds for just $5. It's already in powder form, no need for added black paint, I used this powdered carbon with just a bit of clear glue and some vinegar to mix it (vinegar is more conductive than water) and I got readings of 23 K to 40 K ohms per 1 inch, so it is more conductive and gives better results than the DIY powdered charcoal, similar or even better than graphite and I believe less expensive.

Today you will learn how to make your own conductive ink to draw electronic circuits using the leftovers from your fireplace or BBQ! You can use this ink to draw circuits on paper and cardboard, learn about electronic circuits or play around with arduino boards like the Makey Makey to create paper musical instruments like pianos, digital drumsets, guitars, etc.

Conductive Ink is a great way to learn the basics of electronics. This a recipe that is non-toxic and extremely low cost. Comercial conductive inks cost around $10 to $15 for a small pen that may not last for much, specially if you want to draw large shapes or cover large surface areas.

This paint will just cost you cents to make using charcoil left from your fireplace or BBQ, a bit of black water paint and a bit of Elmer's glue! That's it!!

Step 1: Step1: Select Conductive Pieces of Charcoal

Picture of Step1: Select Conductive Pieces of Charcoal

Using a Digital Multimeter, measure the electrical resistance of charcoal pieces from firewood remains from your fireplace or BBQ. Choose the pieces that have less resistance, the less resistance they have the more conductive your ink and paint will be. Select pieces with less than 100 ohms. Some pieces haven't been burned completely and since wood is a good insulator these pieces of charcoal will not be suitable for this project.

Step 2: Step 2: Put Charcoal Pieces in a Blender and Mix!

Picture of Step 2: Put Charcoal Pieces in a Blender and Mix!

Once you select the most conductive pieces of charcoal, add some water in a bowl with them so that they moisture. Then place them in a juice blender and turn the power on! You will basically make a carbon dust juice :) Blend for like 5-10 minutes on the highest speed. Then just pour the carbon juice into a glass and let it sit for one to two hours. This will make the extra water float on the top as seen with a light from the back. Take out the extra clear water on the top with a spoon or syringe. You want your mix to have the most carbon particles and the less water possible to make it more conductive.

Step 3: Step 3: Add Black Paint and Elmer's Glue

Picture of Step 3: Add Black Paint and Elmer's Glue

Once your carbon juice has less of the clear water on top place some water-based black paint (about 1 tea spoon) and some clear Elmer's glue (about 1 tea spoon too) and stir. These two ingredients will give your paint a deeper black color and more consistency. The glue will help all the carbon dust particles stick together and to the paper once you start drawing circuits on paper and it dries.

And that's it!! you are ready to draw basic electronic circuits using LEDs or other electronic components, 6 or 9V batteries or an AC transformer with variable voltages.

Commercially available inks are much more expensive but also they are much more conductive because they include tiny silver particles or industrial purified carbon. However making your own ink will not also teach you about the electric properties of different chemical elements like carbon, but it's also a very inexpensive ink to paint large surface areas if you want to make paper electronic instruments like pianos, guitars or drumsets!

Hope you can try this Instructable and please let us know if you find new ways and materials to make your own ink, visit us at if you have any suggestions. Let's create a Creative Commons, Open Source Conductive Paint!


sp63 (author)2014-10-26

Did anybody try to make conductive glue without using charcoal or graphite? I am just thinking if I dissolve some table salt (NaCl) or any other salt or electrolyte in Elmers glue (PVA) and then dry it, would this material conduct electricity? In theory, salt should not dry completely at room temperature, so there will be some Na+ and Cl- ions in the dried glue. If someone tried this, I would be curious about the results.

VictorN61 (author)sp632017-09-01

Salt would not work as it requires a liquid medium for the ions to flow. Once the glue dries, the ions would not be able to flow. For example, you have a lump of salt and you use a multimeter to measure it's resistance as infinitely high. Dissolve in water and the resistance is low.

shomas (author)sp632017-05-21

"Did anybody try to make conductive glue" Sodium silicate is made from dissolving glass or better yet silica gel into a hot an aquas mix of sodium hydroxide and mixing in water to get water glass. Then activate it with carbon dioxide to form an adhesive

Trike Lover (author)shomas2017-05-22

How concentrated would the Sodium Hydroxide have to be to dissolve the glass or silica gel, and how hot? Would it be necessary (or advisable) to do this reaction in a fume hood, or at least somewhere with very good ventilation? Also, would any special protection be needed, over and above saftey glasses and gloves resistant to hot Sodium Hydroxide? To activate the water glass solution, would you bubble gaseous CO2 through the mixture, or could Dry Ice be used in some way? Just curious, since I'm not an expert in chemistry.

shomas (author)Trike Lover2017-09-01

"How concentrated would the Sodium Hydroxide have to be to dissolve the glass or silica gel, and how hot?" Concentration may very. Too low concentrations of sodium hydroxide will will not convert all the silicon dioxide into sodium silicate. Higher concentrations of of sodium silicate will take on more of the properties of sodium hydroxide. The reaction occurs very very slowly at room temperature. It happens much faster on a stove.

"Would it be necessary (or advisable) to do this reaction in a fume hood, or at least somewhere with very good ventilation?" I dont believe anything is gassed off but for other safety reasons I would prefer doing it outside away from things.

"Also, would any special protection be needed, over and above saftey glasses and gloves resistant to hot Sodium Hydroxide? To activate the water glass solution," I will say this DO NOT underestimate the DANGER of molten Sodium hydoxide. ABSOLUTELY do lots of research of safety protocols when dealing with molten sodium hydroxide. This was damage done by room temperature sodium hydroxide. Molten would have been much worse.

"would you bubble gaseous CO2 through the mixture, or could Dry Ice be used in some way?" If one were making a mold then maybe, but if one is considering sodium silicate as a binder in a glue in a conductive ink then I suspect atmospheric CO2 is sufficient , but you could breath on it to speed it up.

Just curious, since I'm not an expert in chemistry.

danzman (author)sp632015-10-05

There is a conductive polymer that can be used to make inks or paints:

GabrielG26 (author)sp632015-09-03

Isn't even easier to try it yourself?

The Cartographer (author)2014-07-24

Do you think different types of wood would be different in their electrical conductivity? If so which ones do you think would be the best? Would a combination of different types of wood be better than one single variety? Would paper be better than wood? If so which type of paper?

I feel that you've discovered something truly awesome and once it's figured out it'd be a very green method of wiring sustainable homes for the future. You could coat the exterior of a house with this, plug your solar panels into the ink and power electronics quite easily. You should do more research into this and what types of carbon work best.

These are very good points. I envision one day you could use a special ink to print out your own solar panels at home using some kind of ink that creates the necessary layers of materials to convert solar light into electricity for example. I don't think charcoal will do it though :)

For wiring homes this material will not do it because it does not conduct electricity as efficient as metals (copper wires), but for educational purposes it's very good to learn about the conductivity of everyday materials. Regarding different kinds of wood, yes I feel that hardwoods that make a better, slower burning charcoal are better than softwoods, but that's my intuition, it would be awesome if we could have different people measuring different charcoal in different countries as to learn more about this. I try measuring conductivity of paper ashes (I thought it was a good suggestion!) and unfortunately they are not conductive.

astral_mage (author)makerboat2016-02-02

mit did that expriment already. they found out that had a problem . the paper self ignited around 400f.

ErnestoS (author)astral_mage2016-07-22

And getting to 400 F(or 204 °C) is pretty easy with experimental prototype circuits, right?

shomas (author)ErnestoS2017-05-21

Certainly can be very easy. For instance a 1.5V battery with two thick wires and a thin copper wire is all that is needed to ignite paper it. The thick wires conduct current well enough to a thin wire that heats up from a large amount of current flowing though it. Its not a stretch to see 5 or 12 volts applied to two conductive ink terminals with a thin section in between generating heat, and we have not even gotten to the loony toons that would try to put 110v to it to see what happens. Im not saying conductive inks on paper should not be done, just that inconsistent ink conductance or design could lead to a fire.

BryanB158 (author)shomas2017-08-02

Those are unecessary safety concerns, in my opinion. You don't need conductive ink or paper to make a housefire using electricity.

But this is an old discussion. We already have conductive ink made for common inkjet printers and even 3D printers that can print circuits using conductive plastic.

shomas (author)BryanB1582017-09-01

"Those are unecessary safety concerns, in my opinion" When it comes to the potential of starting fires, the current density through a cross section of any conductor is very much a necessary safety concern made all more important by the fact your dealing with paper substrate and thin wires in one and or two dimensions made from inks.

"You don't need conductive ink or paper to make a housefire using electricity." My point was not what is the best way to start a house on fire, but to bring awareness that the potential is real with poor designs, so that one can ensure it does not happen by accident. Simply put some thought into ones design.

macrumpton (author)2017-08-09

do you think it would be possible to use soot from a match or acetylene flame to coat something with a conductive layer?

Trike Lover (author)2014-07-25

A few thoughts. One would be to cut or break your carbonized lumps into an approximately equal size before measuring resistance and selecting. Second would be to use household rubbing alcohol (dilute isopropyl alcohol) rather than water only when blending - a good portion of the alcohol will evaporate after blending if you leave the mixture spread out to dry & exposed to air. Appropriate caution about open flames and proper ventilation would be needed, but rubbing alcohol is quite safe to work with. Third would be to spread the charcoal/water mixture out on top of a cookie sheet after blending, then put it in the oven at low heat for a short time. This will give you even evaporation but more quickly - you would not leave the paste on the cookie sheet in the oven until it's a dry powder.

makerboat (author)Trike Lover2014-07-26

thanks for the tips on improving the whole procedure! I specially like the use of alcohol as it evaporates faster, will try it out!

Trike Lover (author)makerboat2014-07-26

You're welcome.I spent a number of years in an R&D lab working on the use of the higher alcohols (methanol & ethanol) as transportation fuels in cold climates. As both have a vaporization point above zero degrees C, this presents some challenges. However, I learned a bit about other alcohols also; rubbing alcohol has the virtues of being readily available, cheap, and reasonably non-reactive for jobs like this. One question that did occur to me, well after reading your writeup, was why a person could not simply start with a 2-3 kg bag of charcoal briquettes, such as those sold for barbequing? They are uniform, inrxpensive, and eliminate much of the process before assembling the final compound. Certainly not as much excitement as making one's own charcoal, but against that there is a homogenous starting point for the powder, and considerable saving in time. If one was wanting to produce a conductive mixture in quantity for a purpose such as EM shielding,this might be worth investigating. I made conductive paint for shielding the control cavities on an electric guitar using acrylic paint, a small amount of glue, and copper powder made in a rock tumbler with scrap copper plumbing pieces as my source material and steel nuts as thr grinding balls. Grinding was done wet, and getting a fine copper powder took a very long time, and the separation and drying problems were similar.
Anyhow, a very interesting and educational project. Thanks for posting.

shomas (author)Trike Lover2017-05-21

charcoal briquettes? Two words, The amount of "charcoal ash" means there is a lot more than just carbon. Some vendors even put in crushed powdered rock for fill. But if you don't mind all that then you would probably want to wash out the potassium hydroxide so that it does not eat your paper.

astral_mage (author)Trike Lover2016-02-02

you have other problems like all the easy start chems thats put into the charcol.

abuczek1 (author)2014-07-13

if commercial ones include silver, couldn't I simply add colloidal silver instead water? it would still be cheaper

makerboat (author)abuczek12014-07-14

I believe colloidal silver doesn't have enough silver concentration to make the evaporated painted area conductive, but someone should try it! I don't have silver on hand to make colloidal water and its not sold where I am at the moment (Peru)

astral_mage (author)makerboat2016-02-02

but you should be able to get brass or copper?

MCWithMC (author)2015-10-15

Would this or any method listed in comments work for a BSEL mod for Intel LGA775 PC processors?

DragonM1 (author)2015-08-28

i'm having a problem, i tried making the conductive ink but it doesn't work when it dries. please reply ASAP

DragonM1 (author)DragonM12015-08-28

ps:is it okay if i just use some ordinary clear glue like this?

Not_Tasha (author)2014-10-26

What stores are likely to carry Powdered Active Carbon? I haven't had luck finding it. Thanks!

IanPerkins (author)Not_Tasha2015-01-06

pet stores carry it, used for filtering fish tanks or something like that. You can find it cheaper than this, but here is a link for like $3 for a 5 oz jar

elhnad (author)2014-11-20

this is the third time this is asked but where do you find activated charcoal for so cheap.....amazzon is selling for basically $1/oz, a 1lb bag is $17

Iris_Priest (author)2014-11-09

Thank you so much for posting this project. Being a very broke art student and trying to find inroads to incorporate science and technology into making things, this is a perfect start! More like this one please!

Da_Mooseman (author)2014-07-11

I'm questioning your method of measuring resistance. You can't just touch the coals anywhere and record the resistance as whatever the display says, it's more complicated than that. A better method would include a constant distance between the ohmmeter probes, as resistance of a material is based on the distance between the points of measure. Even so, there are so many impurities in the coals, and the coals vary in size so much, it would be impossible to get an precise reading. You wouldn't place these probes in the ground 6 inches apart from each other, get a reading and claim that this number was the resistance of the whole earth. My suggestion for improvement is to make a spacer that holds the probes at a constant distance. Then take the new probe fixture and measure at many different points on the coals, and take the average. This may get you a better reading, but still will not be the true total conductivity of the coals.

Overall, this is a fantastic project and it works! Another quicker method may include using graphite (a conductive material) by rubbing a pencil on the paper. If the lines are dark enough you will get the same result when a current it drawn through it.

Da_Mooseman (author)Da_Mooseman2014-07-11

I just measured using the pencil method and got a reading of about 36 K ohms for a 1" by 1/8" swath of graphite. Could you please measure the resistance of an area of the same size (probes on either end,1" apart). I would like to see if your method is more conductive. If so, I will definitely be using your method more often. Thanks!

makerboat (author)Da_Mooseman2014-08-18

I got hold of 'powered active carbon' which is also very inexpensive, I bought 1 kg for $5, it's a really good material to work with if one would like to avoid the process of finding charcoal and blending it, and no added paint is necessary. I tried it with just a bit of glue and vinegar (as vinegar is more conductive than water) to make the paint and I got readings of 23-40 K ohms

Not_Tasha (author)makerboat2014-10-20

Hi! Where did you find the Powered Active Carbon? Thanks!

makerboat (author)makerboat2014-08-18

the consistency of the paint is also perfect and dries up very well

makerboat (author)Da_Mooseman2014-07-11

yes, i agree, not the most precise way to measure resistance :) I just wanted to compare some pieces that had over 2 million ohms and other with less resistance, as you say charcoal has lots of impurities, but overall the material works specially for very low currents (makey makey boards). I can light up an LED with a 6 volt battery but not 2 lights, and voltage drops rapidly after a few inches,, there is too much resistance in the circuit. I measured your proposed line and I get anywhere from 50 K to 120 K ohms so its not as conductive as graphite or not close to commercial inks with silver particles but the good thing is you can paint larger areas and due to the bit of glue the carbon dust sticks, while with pencils the graphite tends to stain. Next I would like to try with black carbon which is a very fine powder used for industrial purposes, it's very cheap and you could even get it from diesel exhaust engines, maybe even from the inside of your fireplace, I think it might be more conductive. Thanks for your comment!

Da_Mooseman (author)makerboat2014-07-12

Wow, thanks for the speedy reply! Kudos for taking my challenge, for explaining the proposed improvements, and for following my methodology to get the true result. I especially liked the photo you included, I would have done the same but my phone's camera is not too good and I didn't have a real camera on-hand. I'm glad people are still willing to try things that may disprove their own points, this shows you have a lot of integrity. I only have one more question: what do you mean by "graphite tends to stain"? I agree, your method is better for covering larger areas, but both seem just as permanent (or did I miss something?).

Personally, I believe your tutorial is well-made, and I look forward to seeing the improved version of this. The concept is there, keep it simple/cheap while creating a quality end-product. There is definitely a need for an alternative to those expensive conductive inks being sold. Once someone finds a way to make this cheaper, DIY-ers can start hacking desktop printers into effortless circuit-printing machines. I will stick to graphite for now, but let us know if you make any breakthroughs. Thanks!

makerboat (author)Da_Mooseman2014-07-13

thanks for your comment! We would everyone to suggest new ideas and materials to also have a cheaper way to draw and hopefully print circuits as you say, there is so much potential! we didn't want to pretend this is the best solution (maybe its the cheapest though!), on the contrary hopefully there are other recipes shared!

arvevans (author)Da_Mooseman2014-07-15

I think the objective of measuring resistance is to identify charcoal bits that are fully carbonized versus those which still contain some unburned wood. Thus this is a relative measurement and not something that requires laboratory accuracy.

Da_Mooseman (author)arvevans2014-07-15

No, it does not require laboratory accuracy. However, the methods observed in the video would not likely result in even a remotely meaningful reading. By placing the probes at random points, the measuring distance varied greatly. This caused the readings to loose any meaningfulness of a comparison due to this extra changing variable. Although this does not seem to matter much (the project still works), I brought it up to help improve further work, and clarify my challenge/question of ink vs graphite.

jbhensoniii (author)2014-10-03

Im trying to paint a room to protect against EMF-Microwave radiation from cellphone towers and looking for a low cost alternative to paints you buy from other companies.They work but I dont have the cash to fork out 89 dollars a liter, however I want to protect my 3 year old from the radiation.

Not_Tasha (author)2014-09-30

Hi! Sorry if this has already been asked and answered, but I was wondering where you found the powered active carbon for $5?


profpat (author)2014-08-18

love it!

fthebunny1 (author)2014-07-12

What is this glue ? Is it white one ?

makerboat (author)fthebunny12014-07-13

We used clear, water solvable glue, it's often used for school projects because I think it's safe for kids

fthebunny1 (author)makerboat2014-07-20

Thanks, so it's not this white vinyllic glue, used for kids projects too ?

makerboat (author)fthebunny12014-07-23

I searched online and I think its called Elmer's glue :)

fthebunny1 (author)makerboat2014-07-23

Yep, I know, but every kind of glue is based on a formula, my question was to know what was inside this glue,for find it in a local brand, as I'm a non US.

Thanks anyway

makerboat (author)fthebunny12014-07-26

Yes it's polyvinyl acetate based glue, non toxic, I found this on wikipedia

gravityisweak (author)2014-07-14

How about using a DIY centrifuge to separate some of the water? maybe using a hand drill or dremel.

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