How to Make Black War Paint

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A North American Indian painted for the snake dance ceremony.
A North American Indian painted for the snake dance ceremony. (Image: Credit: The North American Indian by Edward S. Curtis; Copyright: Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

American Indians used resources such as plants, herbs, berries and charcoal to make war paint, used during ceremonies, for symbolism and during war. Black war paint was made by finely grinding charcoal.

Things You'll Need

  • 5-gallon metal paint can
  • Small wood pieces
  • Logs
  • Newspaper or other kindling
  • Lighter or matches
  • Coffee grinder or mortar and pestle

Fill a 5-gallon metal paint can with small pieces of wood. You can use any type of untreated wood; treated woods contain pesticides that make them unsafe to use as skin paint. For best results, the wood pieces should be the size of a piece of store-bought charcoal, and they should pack the paint can tightly. Leave the lid off the paint can and place the full paint can upside down in the center of a empty fire pit. Turn the paint can upside down quickly to avoid spilling the wood.

Place logs around the paint can, enough to build a large fire. Place newspaper or other kindling among the logs and light it. The fire should burn up and around the paint can.

Allow the fire to consume the logs and burn itself out. Watch to be sure that the fire does not spread outside the pit, and keep a fire extinguisher handy in case the fire gets out of control.

Let the paint can sit overnight to cool off. Do not try to touch the paint can right away. It will be very hot and will severely burn your skin.

Remove the cooled paint can from the fire pit, making sure the paint can is cooled off before touching it. Grind the charcoal into a fine powder using an old coffee grinder or a mortar and pestle. For best results, grind only one or two pieces of charcoal at a time. The ground charcoal can be applied directly to the skin, or it can be mixed with a small amount of water to turn it into a thick paste. Do not get it in your eyes.

Tips & Warnings

  • Because making wood charcoal requires fire, an adult should be present.
  • Stop using charcoal war paint if a skin irritation develops.
  • A coffee grinder may be damaged if used to grind wood charcoal.

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