My Night in Ribbons

Tonight I learned much about the ways of typewriter ribbons.

You see, when I bought Webby, her ribbon was much used and I knew I needed to obtain a new one. I did a Google search and just like magic, Amazon was there – offering me an array of ancient typewriter ribbons. Twin spools, black and red ink, Brother XL-500 compatible….

But Webby is a little different.

The thing about Brother typewriters is this – they only made the “Webster” in 1965, according to The Typewriter Database. After that, it was all Webster XL-500, Webster XL-747, et. al. Webby doesn’t have an XL or any numbers. She’s just a Webster. The main difference that I can see is that most of the XL models have a tabulator. However, I have found most places say that the Webster is comparable to the XL-500, so the ribbons made for those typewriters should work in the Webster as well.

So I bought the one described above. When it came, I noticed it was very different from the spools already inside Webby. The spools I got were plastic while the ones Webby came with were metal. They also had completely different holes. I figured this was just because they didn’t make metal spools anymore and that the new fangled plastic ones would have been made to work in the old typewriters.

And mostly, they did. They fit on the spool holders, the ribbon fit in the ribbon vibrator, and they turned as I typed.

As I used it, though, I quickly realized that any capital letters were being cut off. The top half was just not there. And when I used the red ink and tried to type a capital letter, half the letter was red and half the letter was black.

I cannot begin to express to you how much Googling I did about Brother typewriters. I found the Database mentioned above, figured out my serial number and thus the year Webby was made, learned about how these typewriters were originally made in Japan, and that no famous writer on any list I found used one. (Apparently, the Underwood and the Smith-Corona were the typewriters of choice.)

I was completely unable to find anything about capital letters being cut off. There was all kinds of advice on how to set margins, how to clean old typewriters, how to do minor repairs on the carriage, and how to fix the alignment when your capital letters weren’t lining up with your lower case ones.

The only thing I found that was worth anything was a set of instructions on how to move ribbon from newer spools to older spools. I didn’t know at the time that this would help me. I thought I just had the wrong kind of ribbon.

So I went back to Amazon and found a ribbon by a different seller and ordered those. The dimensions listed in the description were a little different. I thought this was important because when I compared the metal spools to the plastic spools, they were 1/16th of an inch smaller. That doesn’t sound like much, but I thought it might be the problem.

The new ribbons were in the exact same spools as the original ribbon I had bought.

So I decided to pull the metal spools out of the drawer I had put them in (because you know I wasn’t going to throw them away) and put them back in. I wanted to be sure the capital letters worked when those original spools were being used. They did.

And then I remembered the instructions about moving new ribbon from new spools to old spools. I didn’t look them up again, I just went at it by myself.

And so ensued an hour or so of me making a mess unspooling and re-spooling ribbons. Let me show you!

messy

What a mess.

Here you can see the end result. Those are the metal spools with the new ribbon in place. My left hand is included so you can see how inky my fingertips were. My right hand looked exactly the same, so I took this picture with my nose. Because I didn’t want to get ink on my screen. Stop judging me. I can feel you doing it through time and space.

unspooled typewriter ribbon

Cleo almost stepped on it, too.

Here you can see one of the plastic spools and almost an entire ribbon unspooled. This is the old ribbon and I really didn’t feel like spooling it onto a spool just to throw it away, so I just pulled it all out instead.

the test page

This is where I tried out all my attempts at repairing the issue. You can see many failures.

Here you can see my test page. The problem is on the upper left corner, where I have the alphabet in all upper case. See how they’re cut off? The one a little lower down and still on the left, which is faint, is from the old ribbon. The one in the middle, which is dark, is when I finally fixed it. And of course some gloating in red ink nearby.

It turns out that ribbons are attached to spools using these tiny little arrow shaped spikes. Seriously, they’re pointy enough to pierce the fabric. They look like little spear heads or maybe those spikey things on top of iron fences you see at fancy houses sometimes.

All I had to do was unspool the ribbon from the new spools, pull the ends off the spikes, and re-spool them onto the old spools. I put the metal spools back in with the new ribbons on them and PRESTO. It worked! Except that now they weren’t turning.

I nearly had a conniption. If your spools aren’t turning, your ribbon never moves, and you end up just getting letters that are fainter and fainter until you’ve used up all the ink in that one spot. So basically it’s completely useless.

Fortunately, a little finagling with the ribbon holders revealed that all that junk is connected and I probably just jostled them out of place while I was taking spools on and off. I couldn’t believe the solution was so simple.

In conclusion, I now know that I will have to unspool and re-spool all my ribbons going forward. You might ask why I would go through such trouble when really you can read those cut-off capital letters just fine. If you do ask such a thing, then you are obviously missing the entire point of writing on a typewriter to begin with. You might as well ask me why I go through the trouble of writing on anything that isn’t a computer.

I have to say that it’s pretty satisfying to fix a problem like that. Now Webby just means even more to me because I understand how she works a little better. And while I might get another old typewriter someday (giving in to the Smith-Corona popularity), Webby is perfect. She is just what I needed in my life right now. We’re both a little quirky. (She’s also older than me by twenty-one years.)

2 thoughts on “My Night in Ribbons

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