Improving Speedball brayers
Nik Semenoff

Why bother

Speedball brayers are relatively inexpensive units that are a common sight in most print shops. While they preform very well while new, the major defect with these brayers is that the pins that act as shafts to the roller, simply wear from friction with the thin metal frame supporting the rubber roller. At the university here we go through brayers of different sizes as if they were designed to be disposable; which in fact they turn out to be. From the numbers we go through each school year, it is evident that the manufacturer does not want to improve on the devise. The faulty design can be overcome by inserting common oilite bearings to distribute the load over a greater area and so prevent cutting off of the pins from hard use.

At home I have modified all my Speedball brayers to this design many years ago and have not lost one in all the time. The brayers also roll better as there is less friction from the oil impregnated bushings, making inking a plate a pleasure. Because I use brayers for inking small areas of waterless litho plates instead of dirtying a 3-part roller and waste a greater amount of ink in cleanup, they get a thorough workout in my studio. Small brayers are a big help in stripping off ink from a tinting waterless plate if for some reason the formulation of the ink is not right. The ability to move the brayer very quickly over the surface to pick up ink that the larger rollers simply cannot do.

The bushings

Sintered brass bushings are a common item at ball bearing suppliers. Sintered means that brass particles are pressed into shape and heated until their edges bond, leaving spaces within the bushing to hold oil for lubrication. These come in different forms and sizes, but a "top hat" bushing with a 1/8th inch hole and a 5/16th outside diameter is the one you want. Pick the bearings that are 1/4 inch long to give more support for the pins in the roller. If bought in any number, they will cost somewhere in the region of 60 cents each (cheaper in USA).

These oilite bushing suitable for increasing the life of your brayer

Taking the brayer apart and reinforcing the frame

The pins at the end of the roller come out easily by pulling them out with pliers. This leaves the frame of the unit easy to work on if the back of the metal strap is too weak. For wider rollers, this metal is much too thin and allows it to bend with pressure, resulting in the ends with the holes spaying out and releasing the roller. This results in scratches on the plate or damage to blocks if relief printing is being done. The narrower rollers seem to be stiff enough and don't need any reinforcement.

While metal working techniques would be the most professional way to strengthen the metal, I suggest a simple way that should work just as well. This may not be esthetically satisfying, but since most printmaker do not have access to welding units, this should suffice.

A piece of walnut was made to fit, then epoxied to the roughened frame before binding with wire

I recommend cutting a piece of hard wood to the length of the metal and about the same dimensions as the width of the strap. Since the handle is welded on the top, put a notch in the wood to allow for the metal. Now bind the wood to the metal with thin strong wire from one end to the other. If you want to take the trouble, I think taking off the paint from the metal with a file and epoxying the wood to it, would make a much strong unit. Make sure the wire you use is thin enough not to rub on the rubber roller when things are assembled.

Drilling larger holes for the bushing

The outside diameter of the bushing is 5/16th, so use a slow rotating drill bit to enlarge the existing holes at the ends of the frame. You should be able to move the table of the drill press over to allow the drill to come from the outside of the frame and give you a clean tight fitting bushing. If you only have a hand drill, use slow speed and don't push too hard. Hold the frame in a vise if possible.

Fit the bushing into these holes from the inside of the frame making sure the "brim" of the hat is on the inside as this is what keeps the bushing in place. If the holes are exactly the right size, they will fit snugly and all is well. If too tight, a little filing should make things fit, or the use of a intaglio scraper to take off any burs is all that is needed. If the bushing is too loose, then you can apply a bit of epoxy or compress the frame a small amount by squeezing the sides in a vise. It will not take much.

Assembling the brayer

You may find that the roller is a bit too long since the bushing has taken up some of the space within the frame. With a sharp knife, cut off the rubber portion until you come to the plastic core. File, saw or grind off just enough of the core to fit into the frame. Fit the roller into the frame and press fit the pins back into the core, making sure they are driven in properly. There should be no binding of the pins because of misalignment and the roller should move freely. If here is binding of any kind, figure out what is causing it and get rid of it. I have only had one system give me problems of this sort and by twisting the frame a little, the roller became free.

An oilite bushing in place on a 4" brayer. The copper color surrounding the silver colored pin is the bushing


Modification of your Speedball brayer will extend its life by a factor of 50-100 times. As long as the rubber is resilient, the brayer will be serviceable. I have seen brayers with damaged rubber on the roller in the position of the welded handle. In these units the weld was in the inside of the frame and the pressure of inking forced the point of the weld into the soft rubber. This is allowed to happen because of the weak frame on Speedball brayers, and the reason I suggest reinforcing the top part of the frame. For this type of brayer, you will not have to notch the reinforcing wood support.

The greater surface contact area on the pins, along with oil in the bushing, decreases the wear on them so they never will fail. For the small cost of the bushing and short time to make the changes, the brayer will become a worthy tool to have in your studio.

Uploaded August 2000 reviewed March 2003