Introduction: Food Coloring Markers

Picture of Food Coloring Markers

Every year around Christmas, my daughter and I make sugar cookies with a hard glaze, and paint all sorts of things on them.  It's a lot of fun, we always make a mess and have a great time!

I've never been satisfied with the food coloring/paintbrush combo, as the food coloring is pretty runny and hard to work with.  This year, I was looking at a package of markers, and noticed the "Non-toxic" mark on the back, and got to thinking . . . and eventually this instructable was born!

Step 1: Gather Materials

Picture of Gather Materials
Update 3-9-14  --  Thanks to instructabler Conrad3000 for pointing this out, you can buy unfilled markers from Crayola!  Saves some steps, that's for sure!  I'm retiring my original set this year, so I'll give them a try.  He mentions he's also trying them with Crayola's airbrush kit, I may end up trying that as well.

This is a very simple project.  For you need only two things:
  1. A package of non-toxic washable markers
  2. Food coloring
For the markers, I went with Crayola brand, only because they are a name I'm familiar with, and I suspect if people had a problem with toxicity from their products it would be big news.  It's not like a huge amount of anything from the marker itself is going to get into the food product, but it's better safe than sorry.

I got food coloring from the dollar store--you can pay 5-6 bucks at a regular store but I think this will do.  As near as I could tell comparing it to the stuff I bought from Albertson's, it's exactly identical.

As to tools, you'll need:
  1. Several small glasses (like shot glasses)
  2. Eyedropper
  3. Lots of paper towels
  4. A surface that's either protected or you don't mind staining
  5. Pliers
  6. Watertight jar
  7. Toothpicks
  8. Plain white paper
  9. A heat gun or hair dryer

Step 2: Clean the Markers

Picture of Clean the Markers

First you need to remove the old ink from the markers.  Pop the back end off of each marker--I had to use pliers, and a heat gun to soften the plastic.  Inside you'll find a piece of felt wrapped in plastic that sits on top of the felt pen tip, saturated with ink.

Next, drop each part of the disassembled marker (cap, back, main body, ink cartridge) into a watertight jar.  Fill it with water and shake, dump out, and refill.  Do this a couple of times, then let the markers sit in water for a while.  I ended up doing this five or six times over the course of a couple of days, until I was satisfied the ink was totally drained.

Finally, set the now clean parts out to dry.  If you're able, set them in the sun for a couple of days, until you can squeeze the ink pack and no liquid comes out.

Step 3: Refill With Food Coloring

Picture of Refill With Food Coloring

There are two tricky parts to this step--mixing the colors properly, and not overfilling.

It turns out that liquid red food coloring, at least the dollar store stuff I had and the McCormick stuff I got from Albertson's both have a very slight orange tinge to them.  This made mixing a number of the colors I wanted tricky or downright impossible!  Grey, pink, purple, and black were all very difficult to attain, and most of those ended up with a slight greenish cast to them that was impossible to get rid of.

I recommend using the mixing chart on the back of the food coloring package as a starting point.  Use a toothpick to test the results on a sheet of paper, and then add more colors as required.

Once your colors are ready, use an eyedropper to put a couple of drops into the main part of the pen, so it can start to soak into the felt.  Next, start dripping the food coloring into the felt ink cartridge.  You should see it start to bleed through the felt.  Stop when it's completely full, don't let it fill up so much that it starts to drip out the other end.  If it does, use a corner of the paper towel to soak up the excess color.

When that's done, drop the ink cartridge into the pen and seal it back up.  Dip the tip of the pen into the food coloring and then dab off the extra.  Finally, put the cap on and let it sit for a while.  Check it again and see if you need to soak up any more excess food coloring. 

Repeat until all you pens are done.

Step 4: Color Your Cookies!

Picture of Color Your Cookies!

This should work with any reasonably solid food, but as I said, we used it for our painted sugar cookies.  Be careful not to push too hard when coloring, and be creative!

Step 5: Final Thoughts

Picture of Final Thoughts

This was a pretty fun and simple project!  India and I had some extra fun with the cookies this year, as the pens made detail work a lot easier than  when using paintbrushes.

I'd really appreciate any thoughts and feedback you have on my instructable.  Take a minute to rate, subscribe, and comment!

If you should happen to make your own food coloring pens, or your own painted sugar cookies, post an image of the food you colored in the comments below and I'll send you a patch!


avocadostains (author)2014-06-25

An easier way to get the ink out is to turn on the sink faucet to hot and run water into the marker or ink tube. Then blow out the ink like a blow pen. Run some water in, then blow it, repeat. It comes out real fast. Like at most a few minutes to get all the ink out. Great instructable BTW!

Cool, glad you liked it! I'll pin this comment to the top for others to see.

Conrad3000 (author)2014-03-09

I did this today with a Crayola Marker Maker Refill Kit:

You don't need the machine, just the refill. It's a pack of clean, Crayola marker cases and all the parts. Just soak up your food dye!

I made it this way so I could use my Crayola Airbrusher to airbrush designs on my food:

depotdevoid (author)Conrad30002014-03-09

That's freakin' awesome! I had no idea they made that, I'm definitely putting a note about it in this instructable. I'd LOVE to see the results of your airbrushed food, I may end up trying that next time we make these cookies!

SHOE0007 (author)2016-04-22

usually word typo

SHOE0007 (author)2016-04-22

I always bring them to the waste site oops.

SHOE0007 (author)2016-04-22

This is a bit off topic but you can trap dyes in calcium alginate. I was wondering how to properly dispose synthetic dyes. I usually bring them to a waste disposal site. However bacteria especially bacillus can trap dyes. Thus a solution of dye plus bacteria and sugar could be trapped with calcium alginate beads. The beads can tolerate high salt, pH and temperature. This slowly breaks down the dye and releases trace amounts of the dye. Estimation probably 0.001% would leak or less.

So 10 g crystal violet *0.001/100 = 0.1 mg dye which 50% is absorbed by the bacteria would mean 5*10^-5 g dye.

The cloud 1808 (author)2016-03-10


The cloud 1808 (author)2016-03-10


MACHINEMAN99 (author)2015-06-13

I think it works good

TheHobbit81 (author)2014-12-28

Just get one of these and use your food colouring instead of the included ink.

Logan Cade (author)2014-11-12

Great instructable! Thank you!

depotdevoid (author)Logan Cade2014-11-12

Glad you liked it! I'd love to see the results if you make these!

queannah.johnsonrobert (author)2014-09-03

A great idea I saw on Pintrest for "not wasting" the ink would be to make liquid watercolors out of them first. You could probably even make alcohol paints out of them as long as you wash the tips really well. Maybe by putting them in the dishwasher after they have had a good rinse.

Conrad3000 made it! (author)2014-03-18

Here it is with much fewer steps, done with the Crayola Marker Maker Refill Kit. You don't even need the machine part.

depotdevoid (author)Conrad30002014-03-18

Awesome, thanks again for sharing, that's my first "I Made It!"

mirar1 (author)2012-03-02

What about putting the felt innards into the dishwasher instead of the long process here?

depotdevoid (author)mirar12012-03-02

No reason that wouldn't work, they're just very light weight, and I don't have any sort of cage for my dishwasher to make sure they don't go flying around. I suspect it would work out just fine though, if you do!

lmccurdy (author)depotdevoid2013-07-11

The mesh "unmentionables" bags from the dollar store are great for washing things in the dishwasher. Top rack, with something heavy in the bag. I love this idea!

orsd (author)2013-02-19

if you have a restaurant supply/cash and carry nearby, their food coloring is super cheap. I just got a quart for 3-4 bucks.

depotdevoid (author)orsd2013-02-19

Yeah, I work right next door to a cash and carry. Great resource to have for crazy cooking projects!

action pig (author)2012-01-20

Clever fix and the colors look great!

depotdevoid (author)action pig2012-01-20

Thanks! We all had a really great time with these this year, they'll definitely be coming back out next year.

Beadevil (author)2011-12-12

I mentioned the availabiltiy of empty (fillable) graphic artist's felt-tip pens in an earlier post. Considering, however, that food grade pens already exist, why not use these to begin with and then continue to refill them (rather than buy news ones). This certqinly makes ecological sense, and you continue to enjoy the pleasure of mixing your own colors!

IamTheMomo (author)Beadevil2011-12-13

Beadevil makes far more sense and is much easier. Your way wastes perfectly good ink and puts it into our water supply by washing it down the drain. It wasn't meant to go down drains, but on paper. Please, just give it up and use the products correctly. They should NOT be interchanged. There could be other things in that material you refer to as "felt" that are toxic. There could be BPA in the plastic surrounding the felt, or something else that would react badly with the food coloring. You need to quit playing chemist without having the knowledge to do so.

Asking to be liked on FB is annoying. Please stop doing that. It is an act of desperation, and that isn't attractive at all.

depotdevoid (author)IamTheMomo2011-12-13

Let's try and keep things civil, alright? If this isn't for you, then don't make it, simple as that, you don't have to be insulting about it--that will automatically put people on the defensive and prevent you from getting your point across. I think this is probably safe, but if you think there's a problem, you're well within your rights to bring it up here in the comments.  

I am not playing chemist, I am dripping food dyes into non toxic markers.  I suspect it's safe, and that we all come into contact with much worse in day to day life.  If you're really worried about bisphenol A then you should probably worry less about whatever tiny exposure I'd be getting here and be much more concerned about the BPA present in many receipts.  Oh, and the non-toxic dyes present in these markers are going to end up in the water supply by hook or by crook any way you slice it unless you burn the paper they were written on.  This way at least they end up at the water treatment plant rather than washed directly into the ground water in a landfill or something.

Again, if this isn't for you, that's fine.  I think it's probably safe, but then again I don't worry about this sort of thing much.  Let's just all try to follow the "be nice" comment policy.

Oh, and regarding facebook:  how you expect me to get FB followers?  That's where I share the cool DIY stuff I do that doesn't end up on instructables, and some people want to know about it.  Everyone asks for likes, and I think a tongue in cheek "My ego needs a boost" is a decent way to go about it.  What's the alternative?  "I have a facebook page . . . just sayin'."

Jayefuu (author)depotdevoid2012-01-02

I agree with you Ian. People worry about chemicals and whatever scare's popular at the moment far too much. Far better to just get on with things and not worry too much.

And as for Facebook, crack on! Why shouldn't you develop a fan base, you're the one that spent ages writing content for the site, not the nay sayers!

Great instructable, brilliant idea. The icing pens I've seen available in shops in the UK have been ridiculously expensive! If the inks in the pens you used are safe for kids to use, then once you've washed them out they'll be even safer :p They're categorised as "safe" with the expectation that toddlers are going to be sucking on them and licking their felt tip pen covered fingers.

Of course, you already knew everything I said above, but after the negativity of other commenters I thought you'd like to hear someone was on your side :)

depotdevoid (author)Jayefuu2012-01-02

Thanks for the vote of confidence James!

jlloyd4 (author)depotdevoid2011-12-13

I think this is a great and very inventive idea. Ignore this person. They must have gotten up on the wrong side of the bed. And didn't see the "be nice" warning.

I for one think it's great that you spend quality time with you kid doing creative things and come up with great ways to make crafts easier for the little ones. More parents need to be doing exactly that.

One thought, if this person is so against wasting marker ink... make them after you use the markers up. It's called recycling. Now you don't have to wash the ink down the drain. I would rather it end up at a treatment facility than in the ground water.

And if this was Facebook I'd hit the "Like" button. Great Job!!

cleversomeday (author)2011-12-29

Your 'ible has one very important application that existing edible ink pens do not, to create edible ink markers for a Cricut Cake machine which requires a short form factor to clear the machine's overhang.
I recommend the licensed character marker sets which are 12/$1 at Target's Dollar Spot, Michaels, etc. They fit Cricut machines perfectly with no adapters and the end cap pulls right out so no pliers or anything is required. Provocraft promised compatible edible ink markers when the Cake machine was released but never delivered.
So if you want to rig these up in a 12 inch plotter to mark on rice paper or frosting sheets grab a Cricut Cake as they are selling for around $50 now. The 6 inch machines are even cheaper.

kursernick (author)2011-12-17

Do u have info about?

dirtmover (author)2011-12-13

To put a slightly different spin on it you might like to try one of these with your markers:

Check out the vids for how to use it and some of the funky effects you can create. You can even do some stencilling on your food. I picked one up many years ago and it's a pretty fun toy.

depotdevoid (author)dirtmover2011-12-13

Oh, awesome! I could probably rig something like that up at home, thanks for the idea!

dirtmover (author)2011-12-11

You do realise that you can buy empty markers specifically designed to be filled with your own "ink". Heck I would surprised if there aren't already "food grade" versions available.

depotdevoid (author)dirtmover2011-12-11

So I've been told! That's what I get for not being particularly artsy--turns out I'm not as original as I thought!

Beadevil (author)depotdevoid2011-12-13

Hey! Of course it is original! Look at all the positive responses you have received. It seems almost no one was aware of the availability of empty felt tip pens (they are really a specialty item for graphic artists, and most likely carry a price tag to match. And only a few of your respondents were aware of the availability of food-grade markers. What is especially advantageous about your INSTRUCTABLE is that it frees us from the limited colors offered by the McCormic's & Co., and when refilled over-and-over, it reduces waste. How often do we paint cookies? If washed out after use, and refilled when needed, I imagine that one might use the markers indefinetely. By the way, as one commenter wrote, you can use a syringe to inject your colors into your markers. This works perfectly. I used to use very diluted colors in my highlighting markers when I was a student, too many years ago to count. (I didn't like the extremely bright dayglow colors on offer at the time.) That is how I got the ink into the body of the marker, shooting through the tip. You need a very fine needle/syringe. Be sure to wash it immediately so the colors do not dry and clog it. COURAGE!

depotdevoid (author)Beadevil2011-12-13

Thanks Beadevil, I always appreciate a vote of confidence!

love4pds (author)depotdevoid2011-12-12

LOL it's a great idea and the tips of yours are different than the pre-made ones and kids cant squish yours as easily so yes they are a good idea.

profeponcho (author)dirtmover2011-12-11

Really?! COOL!!!... Do u have info about?

HoldOnTight (author)2011-12-13

Very inventive! I didn't know the pens could have all the color removed. Having seen this, I now know I can replenish my markers, at the very least and the markers can last so much longer.

Great 'ible. Don't listen to the self-crowned paternalistic rude people. They should be banned right away.

depotdevoid (author)HoldOnTight2011-12-13

Oh hey, good point! I hadn't thought of just using this to refill pens, but I imagine this would be a good way to reduce waste in general.

HoldOnTight (author)depotdevoid2011-12-13

No doubt! I can't say how many times I've run out of ink when I need a marker...very frustrating. Oftentimes, I have some that dry out before I use them because they are tucked away somewhere out of the way -- such a shame to throw one away with a like-new chisel point tip.

depotdevoid (author)HoldOnTight2011-12-13

I wonder if you could take one of those pens that have sat for a while (not out of ink yet) and put a couple of drops of water into the ink cartridge? I'm betting that would work for a washable marker, but non washables might use some other solvent to suspend the ink, alcohol or acetone or something more exotic. Couldn't hurt to try though, if the alternative is the garbage can.

Carleyy (author)2011-12-12

This is a genius idea! I was so excited to see it in the newsletter this morning!

depotdevoid (author)Carleyy2011-12-12

Thanks Carleyy, it's always gratifying to see so many people excited about one of my ideas!

manhalt (author)2011-12-12

Having just cleaned up the kitchen from making jelly, I'd definitely recommend fresh pomegranate juice for maximum stain-ability.

depotdevoid (author)manhalt2011-12-12

That stuff's pretty messy!

jerbear1978 (author)2011-12-11

You spelled Ron Paul 2012 wrong. lol

depotdevoid (author)jerbear19782011-12-11

Actually, it's supposed to say Stewart/Colbert 2012!

jsu2 (author)2011-12-11

I've always had the detail problem with food colouring and paint brushes.
You have lifted my spirits to heaven this is so useful!!!!!!!

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