Ruling Machine Adventures

Hello all,
I”m interested in talking with anyone who knows anything about the care and feeding of ruling machines.

I’ve been reading up on ruling machines and am endeavoring to fabricate a small scale ruling machine just for small size sheets. There is a lot of descriptive info and I have a basic theory on who this all should work but I would very much appreciate hearing from anyone who knows more ruling machines and especially about the pens and inks.

I am working on a project reproducing 19th century ruled writing paper. The pages I am reproducing are folio sized (8”x10”) folded in half to create a sort of 4”x5.5” 4-page booklet. The paper is lined about 27 points between lines in very light blue or green ink (which doesn’t appear to be waterproof) across the two inner pages (so one side of the sheet) and on the front page (so just across half the sheet) with a little extra margin at the top. My guess is they are lined on the inner pages first then creased and lined across the front page only leaving the back page blank. The paper is very thin, similar to scritta paper and I am working with Tomoe River paper as a reasonable substitute until I can find bible paper in less than 1 ton quantities. I considered letterpress printing the lines but I am fairly confident that the originals I am copying were done with a ruling machine and would like to get them as close as I can in authenticity.

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Pen ruling machines used cams to control the raising and lowering of the pens on the sheet. I doubt a folded sheet would travel reliably through the mechanism. Powdered ink was mixed with water.

Thank you for the insight. My reason for speculating that it was ruled after being folded is that the originals I’ve examined don’t show any signs of the lines wrapping around past the fold. I assumed it was likely to have been ruled after creasing rather than very precise creasing but without any personal experience yet I’m still speculating..

As Parallel (above) implies the entire battery of pens had to be lifted by cams especially for the vertical lines, to lift at the top of the sheet(s) up to an inch or more, before the top, to accomodate the cross (horizontal) lines on the second pass.
And then some unfortunate compositor had to make up and match the Type for the Headings within the cross rule columns, as in item number(s), style, amount, description, etc., etc., and normally, for Spread sheets/Ledgers £,s,d. Vintage Pounds Shillings and Pence signs.

The cross (horizontal) lines were virtually no problem because they did not need to be lifted,! they (the Pens) on the second pass were (usually) in contact with the belt, constantly and Bled IN and Off, every sheet, the one disadvantage was that in continuous contact, the Ink did not last as long & eventually contaminated the *belt* and produced, set off, style on the reverse of the sheets.

Author, stood on the back end for several months, taking off the pile(s) during apprenticeship days `55/`56.
Seem to remember that (generally) Pen Ruling machines were not only beautiful to look at but heavily endowed with BRASS fittings & magnificent Hardwood rollers, fore & aft.

T.H. Good luck. Mick U.K.

There are many of these machines available in Iowa. One in Printers’ Hall used every Labor Day weekend. I have been there the last 3 years to this event. I occasionally help load paper in it to do the rules. At least 10 cartons of 11 x 17 are ran thru it. A very complex machine. The pens are made of copper, a very crude ink distribution but it works. The ink is very toxic. Not sure where your at but you could see this machine run. I know you could be pointed in the right directions.

Mr Richardson at the old London School of Printing taught me pen ruling to a modest level. The students did various test pieces. We actually made pens, and these were thin pieces of sheet brass, which came still flat but ready shaped in outline.
Heavens knows who supplied those. We then had to use the tiny little lever machine to produce the feed groove and sandpaper the end to a proper angle. Wool threads were set up to to feed down from the ink storage felts pinned to the beam. That litttle lever machine out in the trade was the personal possession of the craftsman, as is a compositors composing stick. I wonder if any survive. Professional pen rulers, always men of course tho ladies did the machine feeeding, often had purple coloured hands, and some wore gloves whilst commuting to work. Much of the work I saw in the trade was for account books and often included stopped (ie cam work) and was on top quality ledger paper known for some strange reasons as’ ‘canary’, in fact pale blue. This is UK experience. Glad to assist if I can

Further to the above, last firm that I knew about doing it in maybe the 1960s was Plunkettsa ;trade house’ in Camberwell in S. London. Maybe still others ‘up North’. Towards the end disc ruling machines were more popular for cheap work eg school exercise books. Inks were aniline dyes.

Thank you for all the good information. I am just at the initial stages of this deep dive on information so every clue and insight is helpful. Mick’s observations about the pens not needing to be lifted for the horizontal rules matches what I understood. The pens sound like something I could possibly fabricate and a simple feed mechanism shouldn’t be impossible. I know fabricating a functioning mock up seems like a long approach but I find trodding in the shoes of historic innovators often provides extra insights and understandings of the paths they took.

Reading the historic descriptions of the pens and feed system it seems possible to replicate the actions and results on the simple small scale sheets I am working towards. My actual goal is to provide authentic paper goods for our local museum’s mercantile and penmanship living history programs as well to other living history folks around the country so I anticipate a fairly substantial run making this effort worthwhile..

I’m over in Prescott, Arizona but one of these days I hope to make it to printer’s Hall to observe the Hickok up close. Until then I’ll have to make due with observations, photos, and videos. Incidentally one of the best video’s I’ve found is of a Shaw ruling machine at Good photos of the Hickok at

Thank you for the insights.

When the lines run off both edges, the work was stream fed,
edge to edge, and the sheets per hour output was remarkable. Stopped work with cams lifting, mean a timed feeding gate had to rise and fall and output far less. The feed system was an endless felt belt with strings running above, in contact with the felt, and the paper was sandwiched between. They got the felt as odds and ends from a friendly paper mill.

You can see a pen ruling machine in San Francisco on the floor at The American Bookbinders Museum, though it isn’t fully operational. The Museum was also given all Hickock’s remaining pens and the tools used to make them.