Getting the Most out of your Typewriter Ribbons

22 Sep

A staggering 98% of typewriters survive on ribbons. The other 2% use ink-rollers, or a variation of the stamp-pad.

Depending on how lucky or resourceful you are, finding ribbons for your typewriter is not very difficult. You might be as lucky as I am, to find them at your local shop in town, brand-new, in the box. Or you may have to buy them online (eBay sells dozens of them, you can take your pick!).

But supposing…supposing that you can’t buy your ribbons locally and support a neighbourhood business? Perhaps you cannot buy the ribbons online for whatever number of reasons?

How do you make your ribbon last for as long as possible?

Typewriter Features

The typewriter itself should be able to help you.

Most typewriters have what’s called a “bichrome ribbon switch”. It’s a switch that moves from left to right (or up and down, as the case may be) on the side of your machine. Can’t find it? Look for two, or three coloured dots or squares. Typically, red, blue and white (or red, black and white, again, as the case may be).

The ribbon-selector determines which half of the 1/2in.-wide ribbon, the typebars will strike when you use your machine, either the top 1/4in, or bottom 1/4in., of the ribbon.

Simply type until the ribbon is finished. Take it out, reverse it, slot it into the machine again and resume typing on the unused half of the ribbon.

You can also use the “Ribbon Reverser”. Combined with the ribbon-switch (not all machines have both functions, some do, some don’t. Mine does), it’s possible to run the ribbon back and forth through the machine in opposite directions without even taking it out of the machine to flip it over!

Doing this, you can make one ribbon last for up to four passages through the typewriter.

Re-Inking a Ribbon

It is possible to re-ink a ribbon, if you so desire (or are unable to purchase a new ribbon).

To do so, you will require the following:

1). A dried, used typewriter ribbon, all wound onto one spool.

The ribbon must be in good condition. Either a freshly-used one, or an old used one that is structurally sound. It’s no good using a ribbon that’s frayed, ripped, trashed or otherwise nonfunctional.

2). A small plate.

This is to catch any dripping ink. Don’t worry! It’s washable. Your China won’t be permanently stained…

3). Tissues.

Just in case!

4). A bottle of stamp-pad ink.

Any stationery chain worth its salt will sell little bottles of stamp-pad ink (typically, 50ml sizes). Purchase one or two bottles of the ink of your choice (red, black, blue, etc).

Got all those things? Let’s begin.

How to Re-Ink your Ribbon

Why are we using stamp-pad ink? Why not fountain pen ink?

Let me explain. The ink in a typewriter ribbon must remain wet and usable for a long period of time. If it dried out overnight, you’d be left with yards of really pretty black ribbon…and nothing else. Completely useless.

Guess what? Stamp pads must also remain wet and usable for a long period of time, otherwise you can’t press rubber stamps into it!

Beginning to see the similarities here?


Because stamp-pad ink shares the same properties as typewriter ink, it’s a perfect re-inking tool for spent ribbons. Apply the ink in the following manner:

Having ensured that the ribbon is rolled up onto one spool (but that the tail is still attached to the other!), open the bottle of stamp-ink. The mouth of the bottle should be a small slit, like this: –

If it was a regular bottle-opening, the ink would just come rushing out and you’d have a huge mess on your hands.

Holding the ribbon-spool in one hand and the bottle in the other, press the mouth of the bottle to the ribbon and GENTLY squeeze the bottle to encourage the ink onto the ribbon. In most cases, gravity alone will cause the ink to dribble out.

As the ink dribbles out, use the tip of the bottle to spread it evenly along the whole 1/2in. width of the ribbon. Do one section, then rotate the spool, and do another section, then rotate, do another section, and so-forth, until all 360 degrees of the ribbon have been inked in this manner.

DO NOT OVERDO IT! One drop of ink has to seep right through the ribbon to the bottom of the spool. Use the ink as sparingly as possible. No more than two drops for each section, spread out along the ribbon. anymore than that, and the ribbon will be too heavily saturated to be of any practical use.

It is NOT necessary to unroll the entire ribbon and do every single inch of it. Simply roll it up and drip and spread ink onto it as I described. The ink will seep through the layers of ribbon, saturating the entire length of the ribbon until the whole thing has been re-inked. Fast, easy, a bit messy, but over and done with in 5 minutes.

Once the ribbon has been re-inked, set it back into the typewriter and position it for use. You’re done!


Posted by on September 22, 2012 in Household History


31 responses to “Getting the Most out of your Typewriter Ribbons

  1. Lauchlan Steele

    August 14, 2013 at 2:45 AM

    this is an excellent way to re-ink my typewriter ribbon I will try it thank you.

  2. Lauchlan Steele

    August 14, 2013 at 2:48 AM

    Thank you for helping me to re-ink my typewriter ribbon

  3. ssplash

    November 8, 2013 at 12:21 AM

    Thank you!

    • scheong

      November 9, 2013 at 12:40 AM

      You’re welcome!

  4. Caelan Lee

    November 12, 2013 at 6:43 AM


    I’m just wondering how would you suggest I would transport an IBM Selectric ii for a whole day. At school we are having a 1960/70s day and I wanna bring my typewriter but its heavy desktop typewriter. Any Suggestions?



    • scheong

      November 12, 2013 at 9:32 AM

      There are plenty of 1960s portable mechanicals which are a LOT lighter than your IBM Selectric. If you want one that’s iconic, I suggest the Olivetti Lettera 32 or similar.

      • Caelan Lee

        November 13, 2013 at 5:47 PM

        Thanks Heaps!!

      • scheong

        November 13, 2013 at 5:57 PM

        You’re welcome.

  5. raydc

    December 27, 2013 at 9:41 PM

    I am not clear on the process. Are you unrolling a section of ribbon and dripping ink along the length that is unrolled or are you leaving the ribbon rolled up and dripping ink on the rolled up edges and letting gravity and osmosis draw it down thru the entire ribbn? Aprox how many oz or drops per ribbon? If reinking in rolled up state do you drip ink from both sides? Is there a brand of ink that is preferred-some are speced as fast drying which would seem to not work?. Thank you for your help.

    • scheong

      December 27, 2013 at 9:46 PM

      Roll the ribbon TIGHTLY onto ONE SPOOL. Using stamp-pad ink (anything else will dry up much too fast), drip and spread the ink smoothly over the most exterior portion of ribbon.

      Osmosis, saturation and gravity should do the rest.

  6. Paul

    February 14, 2014 at 5:34 AM

    Educated guess : is it possible to re-ink electronic typewriter “cartridge” (carbon or nylon) ribbons ?

    • scheong

      February 14, 2014 at 6:04 AM

      I’m not sure. I have honestly never tried.

  7. sue

    May 30, 2014 at 1:41 AM

    hi anyone know where I can buy a Barbie typewriter ribbon for a manuel typewriter.

  8. sue

    May 30, 2014 at 1:48 AM

    sorry forgot to say it a manual Barbie typewriter and it a ribbon cassette model ci93b.

  9. andrewhoffmann

    June 26, 2014 at 11:21 AM

    Hi, I’m trying to do this on my Royal Futura 800 spool, which was pretty dried out but not completely dry. How do I know when the ink has absorbed through all the way? Will it appear blacker all the way through? And how long will it take to soak all the way through? Thanks

    • scheong

      June 26, 2014 at 3:13 PM

      The tighter you wind the ribbon, the faster the ink will seep through. Be as sparing and as even as possible in your ink-application.

      • andrewhoffmann

        June 28, 2014 at 9:46 AM

        thanks! I realized it was actually pretty dry so I just had to wait a bit but it does seem to be working, thanks again

  10. Les Newcomer

    July 31, 2014 at 1:19 PM

    My grandfather was born in 1890 and lived through the heyday of the typewriter (he was the principal of the school and the editor of the newspaper in Upper Sandusky Ohio. He was also stingy. He re-inked ribbons by placing part of the ribbon on the stamp pad, then inverting the bottle on the ribbon and pulling the ribbon out from under the bottle. He would do this for about 1/3 of the ribbon, wind it up and place it in a paper bag. In two to three days the ink migrated through the ribbon and was ready to use.

  11. reelingchibi

    October 14, 2014 at 1:34 PM

    Just wondering, since it’s stamp-pad ink, could you actually use a stamp-pad and rub it along the length of the ribbon, or is that not enough ink?

    • Dmitriy

      February 15, 2015 at 11:55 PM

      I was wondering the same

      • scheong

        February 16, 2015 at 8:51 AM

        I think you probably could., although I’ve never tried it.

  12. TP

    January 1, 2015 at 1:45 PM

    Exactly what I was looking for. Thank you for sharing! I’ll try this after New Year.

  13. Nekksys

    May 14, 2015 at 5:35 AM

    Works for dot matrix printer ribbons as well.

  14. johnnyreinhart

    September 26, 2015 at 5:00 PM

    How would you suggest dealing with multicolored ribbon – like the 1960s/1970s Royal Aristocrat red/black?

  15. Linda Weller

    October 2, 2015 at 4:04 AM

    Johnny, I, too, have a red/black ribbon and don’t feel like being a whole new one, though I may eventually. For now I carefully applied the ink to the black portion only, though since I don’t care to type in red anyway, I don’t see any problem with reinking the whole thing in black. If you want to maintain the red, I’m afraid you would probably have to buy a new ribbon, otherwise I don’t see how the two inks wouldn’t bleed into each other.

  16. Bill Bimms

    November 23, 2015 at 4:02 AM

    one ribbon will last four pages? what?

  17. Bill Bimms

    November 23, 2015 at 4:04 AM

    sorry meant four passages, still… I’ve never seen a new ribbon last such a short span.

  18. May

    February 14, 2016 at 3:57 AM

    my typewriter works and the ribbon is new and fits, but when i type the ink doesn’t transfer onto the paper. Sometimes it leaves a little mark and i definitely know its touching the paper, so what causes this and how can i fix it? Thank you!

    • scheong

      February 14, 2016 at 8:08 PM

      Your typewriter has three settings.


      Make sure it’s not set to ‘STENCIL’ or you won’t get anything printed up on your paper.


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