The Independent Publishing Resource Center (IPRC) Print Camp: Mimeograph printing

Other posts in the IPRC print camp series:
IPRC print camp: Letterpress printing
IPRC print camp: Block printing and altered books

Am I STILL writing about the IPRC’s 2009 print camp?! I’ve already covered letterpress printing and relief printing/altered books, so now onto the third and final installment: mimeograph printing.

The class instructors, Dan and Jake (this is not my photo, btw), started out with the Spirit Duplicator speech. That being: the mimeograph machine is not to be confused with the spirit duplicator, or “ditto machine.” (Here is an interesting article that identifies them as competing technologies, in fact). People over the age of 35 enjoy sharing memories of snorting fresh dittoed copies of grade school math tests, but we’ll have to talk about that another time.

The first step in mimeograph printing is to carefully cut a design onto a mimeograph stencil using a typewriter or stencil cutter. Mimeograph stencils are sort of like carbon copy forms with that thin top layer of paper. Here is someone’s picture of a mimeograph stencil (but even more awesome is the parent site of this link,, which is about collecting vintage vacuum machines. But I digress).

The next step is to put ink (LOTS of ink!) on the drum at the center of the machine (assuming the machine is low on ink), and then place your stencil over the drum. (Here is a page from the mimeograph manual they handed out that explains this all in more technical terms.) When it was my turn to produce copies of my stencil, Dan had just inked the drum. You’ll see how this affects the first few copies:

You then set your blank paper into the tray, and start cranking the handle. It’s definitely more fun if you crank it fast; copies will kind of shoot out of the other side. (Is this the origin of the expression “crank it out?” Because you can rack up a lot of copies pretty fast.) Once the ink had settled in, my copies began to look a little cleaner:

Here is the mimeograph in action (complete with paper jam) with Dan and Brandon at the helm:

In addition to Dan’s demonstration of mimeograph by machine, Jake showed us a machine-less method of mimeograph printing that uses hand-held tools (this picture, also not mine, shows the closest approximation that I can find) and small templates that allow you to print on a diverse array of surfaces (I was sporting a mimeographed arm tattoo for the rest of that day, by way of example.). To cut my smaller stencil, I used a typewriter that Jake had brought. It happened to be an Olivetti Lettera 22.

In the comments section of a prior post, several typeospherians scolded me for trashing the Olivetti, based on my underwhelming experiences with the Underwood-Olivetti 319. “Try the Lettera!” they cried, and thus I found myself in the following weeks lurking eBay for this iconic machine with the one red key. Needless to say, I was delighted to encounter one at the IPRC, and told Jake post-haste that I coveted the machine.

“Well then, it must be yours,” he replied. “I got it at a garage sale for 5 bucks.” (I of course foisted my Flip camera videos of Portland’s Ace Typewriter upon him immediately, which he aptly referred to as typewriter pr0n. This led to a discussion between Dan and Jake about their typewriter hoarding issues and the relative sexiness of the Selectric l vs the Selectric ll. You all should have been there to hear it, you really should have).

Thanks to Jake’s generosity, this Lettera 22 has now pushed my typewriter collection into the dreaded double digits. Y’all were right. It’s a darned good machine.


  1. Just two things:

    1) That first Strikethru mimeo looks like an 80’s punk band logo (in a good way).

    2) Dude(ette), you can’t just tell folks things like “hey check this Lettera I got free styles” because it could very well lead to open revolt. Seriously. I have a pitchfork right here.

  2. Well, actually I paid Jake 5 bucks. But still, Dan told me I lucked out, and he was right.

  3. Bah. I’m just bustin’ ya because I’m jealous.

  4. What, no pictures of the arm tattoo?

    Nice Lettera 22! Knew you’d love it.

  5. Huzzah, a Lettera! I think the two of you are going to be very good friends.

    Is purple ink the hallmark of a ditto’d vs mimeographed document? My earliest typing paper was a stack of purple-inked copies of grade school cafeteria lunch menus from the early ’60s (grandma was head of the lunch room for years).

    Word verification: tabang: what Emeril’s gay brother says.

  6. Great report. I used to help my mom run the church’s mimeograph (although I believe hers had the drum motorized) machine. Hand-cranked is sooooo much cooler.

    Double digits, now? What did hubby get out of this arrangement? Because wasn’t there suppposed to be, like, a hard-and-fast Lifetime Limit in effect?

  7. Another great post! Enjoyed this, thanks!

    So…what *is* the red button on Olivettis for? I’ve been sitting here trying to puzzle it out, but I’m still not sure.

    There’s still something about their appearance that doesn’t work for me, somehow. It’s like…they’re typewriter shaped, but without a real style of their own. They remind me of the cars I used to draw as a kid, something between a VW Bug and a station wagon–car shapes, but unidentifiable as any particular model.

  8. I do have a picture of the arm tattoo, but the problem is, I’m in it.

    Doesn’t that article say something about the purple color of mimeographs? I read something about it somewhere. Purple was the standard color, but there were others.

    Husband has no leg to stand on, because four of the typewriters are at work, technically keeping my Lifetime Total to six.

    LFP, I do see your point on the strange plainness of the Lettera. Its maddening red key is enigmatic, like the Mona Lisa smile. It won some kind of fancy Italian design award though, so what do we know? I do like the red/blue contrast (I would swear I saw a red Lettera on eBay once. Did someone just spray paint one?)

  9. Nup

    One thing you can’t really see on the video is the complete messiness of the mimeograph process. Jake and Dan kindly loaded the machine with ink and they looked like they had been working at a car mechanics all day. They also seemed to delight in telling each other of various boxes of obscure solvents and inks they had found at church garage sales or ebay and how horrible smelling and mess messy they were. Definitely an interesting duo to teach this (nearly) forgotten technology.

  10. The red key is the tab. The very, very first Letteras (1950/1) had no tab key and were sort of sandy taupe colored.

    Word verification: dowma: the way of successful stock selecting.

  11. LFP: Careful! Strikethru published a post bagging on Olivetti’s and wound up being pressured into getting one.

    You could be next!

  12. I remember our old mimeograph machine in school. We would watch through a window during recess while a secretary churned out circulars for the whole school.

    I even remember my Dad having a stack of mimeographing templates at home, which he would type into with his gray-and-white Olympia Traveler De Luxe.