Thank the Ribbons!

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Typewriter RibbonsIt’s Thanksgiving time in America and I’d like to give thanks to the typewriter ribbon and to those who still make them. For without that ink soaked strip of cloth our writing machines would be silent. It’s incredibly nice to still have them available and at such reasonable prices! Thank you!

In the heydey of the 1950s, according to Bruce Bliven author of The Wonderful Writing Machine, typewriter ribbon sales often exceed $50 million annually. Like toner cartridges, everyone needed ribbons. But unlike the myriad array of printers today, typewriter ribbons and their spools are pretty much the same size. Which is a good thing for you! Imagine if every typewriter manufacturer had used different sized ribbons. They’d be much more expensive than they are now. An inexpensive universal spool made of plastic will fit most typewriters.

However, there are many typewriters, especially ones made before the 1950s, that require using the spool that came with the typewriter. While you might not find a replacement ribbon on the same spool, it’s usually not difficult to remove the old ribbon and install a new ribbon on the existing spools. Nearly all ribbon widths are half an inch. Olivetti typewriters are also a special exception. While replacement plastic spools are available, use the metal ones that came with it and re-spool with new ribbon. The spool lockdown nut works better on metal.

WARNING: If you’re re-spooling, wear latex gloves to avoid heavily inked fingers!

Amazing Ribbon Physics

To help you better appreciate the lowly ribbon, Bliven explains that, “…when the type strikes, it squeezes practically all the ink out of the ribbon and onto the paper. A first class ribbon immediately begins to recover from the blow; ink from the surrounding fabric flows into the dry place, and by the next go-around, it’s ready to make another impression as dark — or very nearly — as dark as the first.” And it’s just not the darkness of the impression that is the mark of a good ribbon, but “it’s important that the ribbon be as fine as possible. If a line of metal type is two one-hundredths of an inch thick, the printed impression will be twice as wide. But if the ribbon is made of coarse material and too heavily inked and inked with an inferior grade of ink, the line can be 5-6 times as thick.” In other words, it’ll look smudgy.

How fine is the fabric for typewriter ribbons?

  • Typewriter ribbon (cotton) thread count 300 per square inch
  • Percale sheets 180-200 thread count

Not only is the quality of the fabric important, Bliven lists the amazing qualities we expect from the ink:

  • Won’t dry out for years as long as they’re kept sealed in their little boxes
  • In other words, ribbons are only slightly susceptible to oxidation
  • And yet! the typed impression should be completely dry — by absorption alone — within a few seconds after it hits the paper
  • The first letter typed will be dry by the end of the line
  • The color must not fade
  • He also dispels the popular notion that the darkness of the impression means a higher quality ribbon. “There’s nothing darker than a brand new very cheap ribbon. It throws excess ink all over the page. It’s not the initial blackness that determines how long a ribbon will last. It’s the ink and the fabric quality.”

other interesting tidbits of ribbon wisdom according to bliven:

  • Cloth ribbons have better ink-holding ability than nylon
  • Nylon threads are entirely non-absorbent and the ink merely rests in the interstices without being soaked up

How long should a ribbon last?

Cotton ribbon should yield approximately 900,000 characters or about 180,000 words. If you’re typing double-spaced pages, that gives you 720 pages of rough draft perfection!

But the best ribbons, Bliven says, are made of silk.

However, I couldn’t find anyone still making silk ribbons! The only ones I found were from the 1950s in their original tins, still sealed and selling for $20-$30.

But if you could hop in your time machine and snag a carton of silk ribbons from Acme Typewriter Supplies, Bliven reports that you’ll get 2,300,000 characters or about 460,000 words from a single ribbon. Not only that, “but a medium inked silk doesn’t start out as black, but after a couple hundred thousand words the silk impressions are as a dark as ever.”

That should cover a few novels!

Where can I buy ribbons?

I buy from eBay sellers. The cloth ones are available from FJA Products for $5.95 each, while the nylon ones I get in 10 ribbon value pack from Oregon Toner Company for $24.95. Not that you’ll ever need that many unless you’re George R. R. Martin, but just in case you have a massive typewriter collection to service.

Final Thanks

And finally, I’d like to thank you for reading Typewriter Review!


  1. I have seen people report that ribbons are hard to come by in discussions about typewriters. I think the misconception puts people off the very idea of using a typewriter before they even look into it. We must spread the ribbon word!
    Nice article. New information to me about the properties of cotton and nylon – and silk. I have a couple of silk ribbons and they are lovely!

  2. Very good post! I am grateful, too.

    Baco Ribbons still offers silk. I get their nylon ribbons, which work quite well in my experience.

    Bliven’s estimate of how much you can type with a single cotton ribbon sounds very high, but maybe so!

  3. Found fresh SILK ribbons on Black ribbon: Find number 182176653618 and Black/Red ribbon find number 182176569835

  4. High quality cotton ribbons are available from Baco Ribbon and Supply Company in Ballwin, MO. Phone is 314.835.9300 or 636.394.5475. Web is I order by phone…they wind ribbons to your order and turnaround is quick. Great people!

  5. Thanks for the post, Daniel (strange to thank something from years ago, but it’s still useful!). Have you noticed any difference between the different brands? I was considering to buy cotton ones from Tony’s Typewriter Stuff, everyone seems very happy with it, but man they are expensive. Wondering if it’s worth it, or if I’d get the same or a very good quality with another reliable company. Since the post is now old, would you mind replying my comment updating which cotton ribbon brands (and where) do you buy nowadays and for how much? Many thanks!

  6. I got a cotton ribbon from typewriterstuff on eBay and it’s terrific. $24. Dark imprint. Almost a bit too much ink. It tends to gum up my ‘e’ slug. But since I like the nice imprint, I usually brush my slugs with a stiff brush before I write and it’s good for the day. It’s the only cotton ribbon I’ve used. I’d say if cost is not important, go for it. But the nylon ones are just fine, a bit fainter, but seem OK.

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