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.