Making an Inking Ball

In many images of the relief printing studio, you’ll see one of the printers inking up with an inking ball:


book printers
Above: book printers using inking balls, from here.


About a decade ago, I bought an inking ball from a print supplier. When it arrived, I was incredibly disappointed. The basic wooden form was as I had envisaged, but the leather covering was stingy, and held onto the stock by nothing more than a thin piece of what appeared to be fine knitting wool. When I undid this, there was a small circle of felt underneath. The felt didn’t even cover the whole surface of the rounded surface, so there was a lumpy edge. I grumped and tossed it into a corner, not to be seen for years.

Recently, though, I unearthed the unwanted object and decided it was, in fact, worthy of being made over. So I threw out the old, stingy piece of leather and the inadequate felt, and used the wooden form as my base.


wooden form wm
Above: the basic wooden form. Almost indistinguishable from a darning mushroom…


I had some 100% wool felt in the stash, so I worked out what diameter circle I’d need to fully cover the mushroom shape up to the base of the neck, and cut out two pieces. They were then sewn together by a tacking stitch.


tacked felt wm


This was used to draw the felt up around the mushroom,


gathering wm


and sewn around to secure.


stitching wm


Then the outer layer of leather was cut, a circle which would be big enough to be able to come up onto the handle and be bound to it.


leather circle wm


The leather was then carefully gathered up around the base, and tough cotton string was bound around this to secure it to the wooden form.


ink ball bound wm
Above: mad string whipping skills are never truly forgotten, only momentarily repressed


And here it is on its maiden journey:


ink ball in use wm


And the result? Fair to middling, but not overly satisfactory. Then again, it was my first attempt.  I foresee another post when all the proofs are dry.

There is, however, some discussion as to how the earliest woodcuts, prior to the development of the relief printing press, were inked up. Very early woodcut artists seem to have utilised water-based inks, which may have been brushed on. Eventually, these water-based inks were discovered to be unsuitable, as the inks probably tended to dry too quickly on the block, or stick to the paper when exposed to pressure to transfer the image, or bleed.  Oil-based inks then began to be developed.

In The Origins of European Printmaking by Peter Parshall and Rainer Schoch, the inking process is described as ”applied with the heel of the hand, with a cloth, or with a leather ball (baren or frotton)”.

Interestingly, the words ‘baren’ and ‘frotton’ can also be used to describe the flat disc used in hand rubbing, to transfer ink from block to paper. Could this hint at there being a flat disc for inking, as well as a flat disc for rubbing? A flat disc of wooden, perhaps, covered in leather – being flat, there would be less ink transfer into the cut away areas. There may have to be further experiments.