Old Ink

If, like me, you’ve been acquiring letterpress stuff for some decades, it is inevitable that you lose track of some of it. It gets buried in the piles of said accumulations.

I uncovered one of these treasures today. I’m printing wedding invitations for a nephew and wanted to see if I had some nicer ink than the Vanderson’s quick drying black I’ve been using. There’s a tiny bit of Kelsey Many Purpose Black in a tube, but I also found an unopened 1 lb. can NA Graphics LP Oil Based Black. A small sticker on the lid shows a Cincinnati address, so it probably dates back to the 1994-1996 when Hal Sterne owned Vandercook.

The cardboard-tube can has a huge dent in the side from some past mishap (probably before I acquired it, but who knows). I decided to open it up and give it a try…about 1/4” of dried up unusable ink on the top. But under that, oh boy, a lot of nice ink. The invitation, on Rives BFK and printed dry, is a nice crisp dark black.

Anyone else using older ink?

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I have some Forbes letterpress ink that’s at least 50 years old and it’s still useable. That, along with several other cans given to me by a large area printing shop when they discontinued their letterpress department is likely much older than that.

Michael Vickey


I would hardly know what to do with new ink.
Years ago I attended an auction of a closed print shop. There was a large lot of ink offered all as one lot. There were no bidders. I asked the auctioneer what was to happen with the ink as I might like to pick through it and take some. His offer was to take what I wanted. I felt a little guilty, but not real guilty. I took a bunch. There were several unopened five pound cans. I guess that stuff has to be 30-40 years old. Still just fine under the skin.
I also have a bunch of stiff rubber base ink. Worked up with a few drops of mixing varnish and it works just fine and has that nice linseed oil smell.

Get some ink on your shirt.

what do you mean old ink, before 1920?? I just picked up a bunch of ink from a very old shop, I never heard of some of the ink companies, has to be some before ww2.

Loads of old named inks at Amberley Museum, Coates etc, personally I prefer Ault and Wiborg letterpress inks which I have couple cans of, also Horsell…….what I really like are the “old ” colours, I sometimes think they have more “integrity” than some newer ones, the colours feel more “solid”- can’t describe it any other way but they also seem to define an era too, have been trying to collect old Colour Sample books eg I have a Winstones?( can”t remember exactly it is at home) where a decorative image is printed in various colour combinations that show it off .Fab.

When I was at school they gave me all the cans of letterpress ink, mostly from Cal Ink, so the other students wouldn’t put them on the offset presses. (Letterpress inks were not made with water-resistant varnishes and used less pigment, which is why they were cheaper then.) I still have and sometimes use these inks that are a minimum of 40 years old. The biggest problem is hickies. It is lot of work on the slab to find and remove them. If drying is a problem, drier can always be added.
The otter problem is that customers today can’t think outside the PMS system, yet still expect exact color-matching. My old Redwood Brown, Chrome Orange and Platen Airmail Blue don’t fit into their software.

thought I’d share pic-Lorilleux and Bolton Eclipse Works Tottenham London sample page of 18 from an ink catalogue offset litho inks 1930, same image all way through but in different colour combinations.

image: LorilleuxBolton.jpg


Just finished a job using an old tube of “Kesley” e-z black ink. The tube ruptured when I squeezed it, but the contents were still good! Nothing a zip lock bagy cant fix.
It just laid on the paper so nice. And the rollers picked it up exceptionally well too. I wish someone could duplicate the formula for the old ink.

Old tubes (and 1 lb. cans) of Kelsey ink are treasured here. I buy them whenever I can find them.

John Haines, I would recommend using aluminum foil to wrap your ruptured tube, instead of (or in addition to) your zip lock bagy. Some of the ink chemicals can go through the polyethylene which the bag is made of. One reason why ink comes in metal tubes and metal cans is because the metal is impermeable, and ink will be best preserved in metal containers..

Thought I would chime in here, I unburied these out of a barn about year ago when I brought home my Heidelberg, anyone know the story behind these inks? Did they ship with the press when it was bought new? Just curious more than anything, I hate to use them, the packaging is really nice.

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Survival Letterpress, I use Hostmann-Steinberg inks. Hostmann-Steinberg is still around and they have many locations around the world. I like their inks.


dickg…..if you have a few minutes, it would be interesting if you would post the names of the old ink companies from which you have inks. they are a part of printing history which we don’t spend much time on but which I think is interesting!

jonathanjeclipse….I like the old color sample books as well. One reason you may like some of the “old” colors is that they were probably made with pigments and varnishes which are no longer used. This may be because some of the older materials are too expansive today, or because they don’t have the properties required by today’s modern high speed presses. In the case of pigments, it may be because some of the old pigments contain toxic heavy metals which are banned today.