Now, I'm not sure I would consider myself an "expert" in alcohol ink (perhaps experienced, but not an expert), but I've played around with them enough now that I am definitely qualified to share some advice for those who are interested in trying them out. As of this post's date, I have published 36 alcohol ink project posts. They are regularly some of my most popular posts and often my favorite projects because they are so quick and easy to work with.
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. The kits are sold at craft stores and online. I have not tried the Pinata Inks, but they come in a large set with several colors all in one box. 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 using 40 or 50% off coupons. My favorite set 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. The Ranger Inks come in many colors but are grouped into earthtones, lights (pastels), and brights. The Dockside Picnic and Summit View sets are "brights." They will create the brightest most vivid colors.
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 it doesn't roll up while you're working.
Blending solution. Ranger has a blending solution that's used for thinning/mixing the ink and cleaning up after your mistakes. I'm too cheap to buy the little blending solution bottle and instead use rubbing alcohol. Some crafters swear by 90% rubbing alcohol, but I never remember to look for it at the drugstore, so instead I buy 70% rubbing alcohol in bulk from Costco.
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 also (although, if you watch prices, they have gotten pretty cheap), 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. Whichever method you use, you'll need some felt. I pick mine up at Michael's or Wal-mart and cut it to size.
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.
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 though--I never wear gloves), and water pens (brushes with a water reservoir that you can fill with rubbing alcohol) for painting with alcohol ink.
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.
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. If you like that 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. 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. 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). In the end, the colors cracked 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 for the time being.
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 or use a plastic straw and your own breath. 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.
When it looks the way you want it to, set it aside to dry for a few minutes and you're done. You can seal the surface with an acrylic sealer or a layer of mod podge--which is recommended for ceramic tiles and for any jewelry or other pieces that will be regularly handled or may come in contact with alcohol based liquids. I've left some glass pieces and the photo frames that I made unsealed as I knew they would just be sitting on shelf--they've all held up fairly well.
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!