Replacing a ribbon is a fast and easy way to revive an old typewriter. Much the way that a printer can struggle through an old ink cartridge, perhaps your typewriter can just barely put some faded letters on pages. Putting a fresh ribbon on your machine is sometimes all you need to get typing with that decorative piece on your shelf.
Getting new ink on a fresh ribbon is one of the “early wins” and is relatively straightforward. In most cases, people can muddle their way through it by just ordering the first thing that looks right and “figuring it out”. I waffled on making this post at all, but if it helps make this feel achievable for even a handful of folks, it’ll be worth the while.
There’s many places you can find new ribbons from as almost all typewriters use the same user-replaceable ½” ribbon. There are some exceptions - most notably very early typewriters, calculator/adding machines, and much later machines which use self-contained cartridges.
After width, the next most important question is material. Ribbons are available in nylon, cotton, and silk, which become increasingly expensive in that order, and many contend corresponds to steps up in quality. That said, especially when you are starting out you will likely find that any new ribbon performs well, so don’t worry too much here.
Lastly there is color. Most ribbons available are in either black and red or pure black, however it is possible to find some other fun combinations. Switching ribbons isn’t difficult, but isn’t an entirely mess-less proposition, so think seriously about what color options you think you’ll need. I am partial to double black, as I rarely switch colors and find the extra mileage out of my ribbons to be worth losing the color option. Another option here is to look for a black-blue ribbon, both of which are suitable for filling out those long bank forms you will indubitably be using your machine for.
So, you have managed to acquire a ribbon and are getting ready to install it. If you are averse to inky hands, consider a set of gloves and an ink-safe worktop. The ink can be washed away with Isopropyl Alcohol, but not all surfaces will take kindly to this. If you have a pair of tweezers and needlenose pliers, these can also be quite handy.
The first step will be to remove your old ribbon. If your old machine has spools on it, be sure to keep these. Even the plastic ones can be handy to keep - while most machines will use a similar arbor (post) style, some European machines will use a larger DIN 2103 or 32755 style, mostly European Olympias like this early Optima Elite. If your old spools are metal, then you most certainly will want to reuse them! That said, many ribbons these days are available on a semi-universal plastic spool. While not the classiest things around, they often work just fine.
Start by removing the ribbon from the lifter, this is the part which brings the ribbon in between the face of the type slug and platen. It can help to bring it up for easy access, which you can do by pressing a key half way down, then holding the lifter up and releasing the key. Use tweezers or your fingers (if you pass a dexterity check) to un-loop the ribbon, this is a good opportunity to either take a picture or a mental note of how it is threaded here - it is very common to put the new ribbon back in incorrectly.
Now that the ribbon is clear of the lifter, lift or remove the ribbon cover if your machine has one. If not, then you should be able to simply lift out your old spools. If the old ones are plastic and you are replacing them with a similar plastic style, feel free to just drop in the new one. If you are going to reuse some original metal spools, then you will start by removing the ribbon from the old spools. Take the end of the new ribbon and secure it on the post of the original spool, this is often done with a small metal arrow, but there are a few other attachment options. Now, wind up the new ribbon on your spools, taking care to keep the ribbon flat.
Once rewound onto one of the correct spools, detach it from the other plastic side (if it is not already loose) and then secure it to your second spool. Voila, you are ready to replace it onto the posts and then feed the ribbon. Be aware that most machines will have an indexing post to the side of the main arbor, this is what rotates and winds or unwinds your spool; try to line up the indexing holes on your spools so they seat fully. Additionally, if you are using a black-red ribbon, the black should go on top. Thread your ribbon through the lifter again and you should be good to go!
What About Eyelets?
Some machines require small metal grommets in order to trigger the ribbon reverse mechanisms. This keeps you from needing to manually switch directions when you run out of ribbon. Unfortunately, some machines require eyelets while others will outright jam up if you use them. The best rule of thumb here is whether the old ribbon has them. If your original ribbon has them and your new one does not, then consider tying small knots about ~3” away from the post on each end. This will trip the reverse mechanism on most machines and costs far less than buying a dedicated eyelet-punching tool.
Congratulations and happy typing!