Hand Inking - Is there any way to do it well?

Sort of a spinoff of my “home built” thread, but as I’m working on building/acquiring a press I’m wondering about hand inking and if there’s any good way to do it or if I really need proper rollers.

I have been using a 6” speedball brayer. Seems like a pretty moderate hardness material (i.e. they had hard acrylic or squishy rubber, this is in between). I think I end up getting ink all over the edges of the type, which then gets on the outside of the depression in the paper and makes the print look really messy. I’ve tried using really light pressure on the brayer, using barely any ink, using lots of ink, thin ink, thick ink, everything.

I can’t find any good documentation about how to hand ink a plate, so I’m hoping someone can shed some light on it.


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I learned to hand ink on an old iron handpress. We would leave room outside the chase for removeable bearers which were made of aluminum milled to .918”. these could be placed in the form outside the image areas and the roller was rolled over them, avoiding the hard hit the roller might take at the edges of the form, causing the ink to transfer to the edges of the type. This necessitated using a wide roller (not a small hand brayer) in order to bridge the two bearers.

I use a hand brayer at times when proofing a page on my C&P proof press. When I do that, I start the brayer motion inside the type form and ink toward the outside of the form, thus the ink will tend not to build on the outside edges of the form. If you have big gaps in the form, this might not work well, but you do have control over the ink, and can roll it fairly thin on your ink plate before transferring to the form. Maybe better to make a couple passes with the brayer than try to ink with one pass.

One of the early adopters of the Vandercook in fine printing (Allen) made a real point of removing the rollers so that the inking continued to be a hand operation, giving the press person more control over inking on the various parts of the form. He had more patience than I, and I would tend to use the automated inking if available unless a difficult form with light and heavy inking required more hand work.

One of the great features of hand inking is that portions of the form can be inked with a different color and two colors printed in one pass. I have done this on a Vandercook by removing an element (photoengraved block) and inking the form automatically, then hand ink the block and drop it into place in the form (you would have to leave a point of clearance to make it easily removeable) then run the stock to make the 2-color impression in one roll.

John Henry
Cedar Creek Press

I use bearers (made out of linoleum from the art supply store) that sit on either side of the type for the brayer to roll on. They are about an inch wide. The bearers will print on the tympan, so you have to allow for that, but it is a really great way to get evenly inked type.


I am also hand inking, on a small table top proofing press. I tried a Speedball brayer without much success (too hard, too soft, uneven roller, over inking). I recently got a German hand brayer through Graphic Chemical and am very satisfied with it. It has a durometer of about 35-40 and doesn’t seem to ink the shoulders of the type or cuts. It wasn’t very expensive either.

You should try and find a copy of the (out of print) book titled PRINTING WITH THE HANDPRESS by Lewis M. Allen. There is no better resource for the new handpress printer. You may be able to get it at your local library and sometimes they pop up on ebay (that’s where I got mine). Proper inking is crucial to quality printing on a handpress and you cannot do it without roller bearers, which you can probably make yourself. You should also have platen bearers to control the ‘eveness’ of the impression. Printing on a handpress is all about control….an hour of setup and a few seconds to pull the lever. Good luck!

image: hanpress allen.jpg

hanpress allen.jpg

Hi, All—
There was a book from Oak Knoll that reprinted the instructions for a 19th-century hobby press (I think. I’m not being very helpful I know, because I’ve sold my copy and don’t remember the title) But anyway, the book gave instructions for making your own ink balls. As I recall, a shallow dish was filled with liquid composition and a piece of canvas was draped in it. When hardened, the canvas with its coating of composition was attached with padding to a handle. The recipe for the composition was given, I think; but is probably readily available in old printing instruction books. The idea was to replace the old leather-covered balls with a composition surface.

Take a look at the gummy-bear thread for another idea along this line.

I also note that sometimes old lengths of wide border material can be used for roller bearers.

Brian Donnell