Getting the Most out of your Typewriter Ribbons

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!


29 thoughts on “Getting the Most out of your Typewriter Ribbons

  1. Lauchlan Steele says:

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

  2. Lauchlan Steele says:

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

  3. ssplash says:

    Thank you!

  4. Caelan Lee says:


    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?



  5. Have you tried re-inking with different colors of ink? I think purple or blue might look cool.

  6. raydc says:

    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 says:

      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.

  7. Paul says:

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

  8. sue says:

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

  9. sue says:

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

  10. 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

  11. Les Newcomer says:

    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.

  12. reelingchibi says:

    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?

  13. TP says:

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

  14. Nekksys says:

    Works for dot matrix printer ribbons as well.

  15. johnnyreinhart says:

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

  16. Linda Weller says:

    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.

  17. Bill Bimms says:

    one ribbon will last four pages? what?

  18. Bill Bimms says:

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


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