Gutenberg’s Inventions – Part 5: Ink and ink balls -- drupa - May 28 to June 7, 2024 - Messe Düsseldorf

[Guest Article] Gutenberg’s Inventions – Part 5: Ink and ink balls

In our series, guest author Dr. Julia Bangert from the International Gutenberg Society introduces the inventions of Johannes Gutenberg. The fourth edition is all about composing stick and hand composition.

Another important achievement by Gutenberg and his team is the development of a special ink. In the beginning, they printed almost exclusively in black. Although Gutenberg was already experimenting with red printing, two printing passes were necessary and he quickly rejected these time-consuming attempts.


The normal water-based ink used for writing was not suitable for letterpress printing because it adhered poorly to the metal type and appeared pale and brown after printing in the press. In art, only a few years before Gutenberg’s invention, people had begun to use oil instead of egg as a binder, and printers now also used this technique to produce oil-based ink. Gutenberg experimented with various combinations of the components turpentine, linseed oil, walnut oil, pitch, lampblack and resin until he found the right mixture for the still radiant black of the letters in his prints.

Ink balls

With the ink, the finished type is inked in the last step before printing with the so-called ink balls (or dabber). These consist of pieces of leather filled with wool or horse hair (sheep, calf or dog leather) and a wooden handle. The person responsible for inking usually uses two ink balls simultaneously. He holds a ball in each hand, takes up ink with them and rubs them against each other to distribute the ink evenly. Finally, he applies the ink to the type with circular movements.

In the 6th and final part of our series “Gutenberg’s Inventions” you can find out how printing in the printing press works in the final step.

About the Author:

Julia Bangert has a PhD in book studies and is an artist. Her dissertation entitled “Buchhandelssystem und Wissensraum in der Frühen Neuzeit” was published in 2019. In addition to her work as Managing Director of the International Gutenberg Society, she works as a book painter and illustrator. Finest colouring and an elegant brush stroke are her trademarks, a perfect gilding is her passion.

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