Printer’s Ink Balls: Before the Roller or Brayer

Jost Amman’s 1588 two of printer’s ink balls, from a deck of cards. Note the barefoot pressman!

Before brayers and rollers were standard in the mid-19th century, printers used a pair of ink balls (aka. inking balls, dabbers) to ink to the type. They appear in Jost Amman’s 1588 deck of playing cards as a suit. Another suit from the same deck, the “two of books” depicts binders, which I will blog next week. The shape, size, and material composition of historic ink balls varies considerably.

A recent commission from Bill Minter, Senior Conservator at Penn State University Conservation Lab, for a pair of printer’s ink balls turned into a lot of challenging fun to make. Although they are historically based and will be used with a ca. 1830s Washington Handpress for demonstrations, I was given some leeway to make them as I desired, and Minter provided an excellent starting point and a dimensioned drawing.

A finished ink ball. A stainless steel rod runs through the handle to attach it to the bowl.

Because it was tough to find any wood in the appropriate size to make it in one piece, I made it out of two pieces of mahogany which I had been saving for a special purpose. They are bolted together with a steel rod and epoxied.

This job ended up becoming a prolonged comedy of equipment failures. To begin, the drawers where I kept my turning tools slipped off the track in the back and became wedged shut. Lets just say a crowbar was involved to extract the tools. When I started turning the handles on a wood lathe, the motor burned out halfway through. I switched to my metal lather, which turned out too small for the bowl, so I had to convert my milling machine to a lathe by building a tool rest for it.  Then the drive belt broke on my milling machine, the factory was closed, etc, etc….  In the end, I was pleased with the results. And it reminded me — yet again — of the importance of perseverance.

Finished ink ball with chrome tanned sheep covering. Leather covering and photo by Bill Minter.

Minter decided not to finish the ink balls with the traditional untreated sheepskin or dogskin and wool or horsehair stuffing. Instead, he covered it with chrome tanned sheepskin by tying a cord into a groove near the bottom, rather than the traditional nailing, and stuffed it with polyester batting. Testing is still under way, but he thinks it has the right resistance, flexibility, and softness for applying the ink. Possibly other coatings may need to be applied to the leather to aid ink clean up. We will find out once the press is fired up.


Chip Fix: Seven Approaches to Repairing a Damaged Knife Edge

It is a sinking feeling when you take a look at the cutting edge of your knife, and see a chip in it. But it happens. Sometimes completely regrinding the bevel is the best solution, sometimes not. Below are some options to consider, depending on the nature, size and location of the chip, how the blade is used, and what your sharpening set-up is.

A small chip like this will work itself out after a few resharpenings.
1)  Live with it. This is often a good solution for small chips. It will make a weird little ridge in the leather (or other material), and you will have to go back over it with a different part of the knife, like removing the ridge between multiple passes of a double edge razor blade paring machine. As you resharpen the blade it will get smaller each time.
Hand forged Japanese gardening tool with the chip reground to function.
2)  For large chips, alter the cutting angle around the chip so the blade can still function.  The example above shows a huge chip, and fixing it by regrinding the bevel would have removed most of the knife. The previous owner cleverly fixed it by putting an edge on the large chip.  This blade still works quite well for hacking small branches. In fact, I kind of like having the notched higher bevel area. Of course, this depends on what type and size of blade you have and how you use it.
The bevel edge of a chisel in very poor shape from abuse. A good candidate to regrind.
3) Regrind to the original bevel using the coarsest diamond stone you can find, at least a 220 US grit.  Even though I have belt grinders, for a narrow chisel like this one, it is easier to control working by hand on a diamond stone. It really doesn’t take that long. And you can skip your HIIT tomorrow.
The bevel angle of this chisel was ground too shallow for how it was used, and the entire cutting edge rolled off on the left side. A good candidate to regrind.
4) Regrind to the original using a belt sander, belt grinder, Tormek, or a stone grinder.  If the blade is wide or thick, and the damage severe, a complete regrind might be the best option. Obviously, it is quicker to have a machine do the work, rather than your arms.  I highly recommend the Kalamazoo 1 x 42 belt sander if you are in the market for a new one. I’ve had one for over 20 years, and sometimes during workshops it has run almost continuously for a couple of days.
The width of this chisel was reduced (on the top) to get rid of a chip at the top corner.
5) To fix a chipped corner, if the width of the blade is not of that much importance to you, it is often easier to reduce the it rather than regrind the bevel, like on the chisel above. This can ruin a rare or important tool, though. Often the entire width does not need to be reground, as the image above shows, but it can be rounded towards the tip. This can be done by hand on a diamond stone or on a machine grinder. Sometimes only a small amount of the blade on the bevel needs to be ground, sometimes the entire length. In this case, it was an inexpensive Buck chisel that I use for crude chopping, and has little value otherwise.
A tip chip.
Solution: a new rounded tip.
6)  If the tip or corner is chipped (which is very common) it can be easier to round it. Some prefer to have rounded tips on leather paring knives and other knives anyway. Think carefully if you want to keep the original bevel angle, or raise it slightly as in the above example. The above chip could also be fixed by reducing the width of the knife on the left side of the image.
Regrinding a knife back to the original bevel angle.

A New Batch of Used and Unique Tools for Sale

A small selection of the unique and used tools for sale on

I have a feeling I am not the only one who has been cleaning and organizing more than usual, lately. A bunch of tools I don’t need anymore are now available in the used tool section of my online tool store.

There are sharpening stones, dividers, scissors, knives, a small wood plane, weights, and a lot of other cool and weird things I’ve picked up over the years.

Some of the unique new items include a two inch wide French style leather paring knives with an ebony handle, and extra large (half-inch by eight inch) Delrin folders.  Also a new product I made to deal with a wasp infestation, a heavy duty aerodynamic swatter made from bamboo and horsebutt.

Start shopping at Peachey tools!