How to Clean Mechanical Typewriter Keys


I recently purchased an Underwood Standard Portable four-bank mechanical typewriter, from the mid-1920s. It’s a beautiful machine…

Ain’t it purdy?

…which is everything a classic, vintage typewriter ought to be. White glass keys, black steel body, a delightful little bell at the back which goes ‘Ding!’ and all the rest of it. But it frustrated me that the typewriter’s KEYS would stick and jam constantly.

Now in all fairness, I purchased this machine KNOWING that the keys would stick. But I was prepared to take the risk and buy it anyway. I might not get another chance to find a nice machine like this. But having bought it, I needed to get the keys working.

Do you have an old mechanical typewriter like this, with sticking keys? This is what you do to clean them up and stop them from jamming and sticking…

You Will Need…

1). Bottle of METHYLATED SPIRITS. Preferably a large one.

N.B.: Methylated Spirits is called different things in different places. In America, it’s ‘Denatured Alcohol’.

2). A soft brush. Like a small paintbrush. Not a toothbrush, that’s too stiff.

3). A small bowl or cup. This is to decant the meths into, during cleaning.

4). A roll of paper-towels.

5). Patience. Care. Attentiveness.

Preparing the Machine

To start unjamming the sticking keys, you need to rip off about 3-4 sheets of paper-towel. Fold them up along the perforations so that you have a nice, thick square of paper. Lift up the machine and shove the paper underneath. If your typewriter is an open-bottom machine like mine, that’s all you have to do.

If it’s a closed-bottom machine (for example, the Royal No. 10 desktop typewriter), then you must remove the bottom first (just unscrew it).

Having placed the wadding of paper underneath, fill your little bowl or cup, with meths. Fill it UP. You might be here for a long time.

Remove the ribbon from the typewriter. If you’re not already familiar with it, then double-check how the ribbon is installed into the machine FIRST, before you remove it.

Roll two or three sheets of regular A4 paper into the typewriter. This is to act as padding against the constant pounding of the keys against the platen and roller.

If your machine has one, open or take off the dust-cover that covers the type-basket.

You are now ready to start cleaning.

Cleaning the Type-Basket

Assuming that the machine is NOT damaged, and there are no bent hammers, broken linkages or other defects, but the machine’s keys still jam and stick, your next step is to clean the machine. Specifically, you want to focus on the type-basket. The type-basket is that big, smiley face in front of your keyboard.

A typewriter works in the following way:

You press on a key. The key depresses, and it pulls on a lever. That lever is attached to a typebar. When the lever drops, it pulls the typebar up with force, and the head of the bar strikes the ribbon, imprinting ink onto the paper. Releasing the key causes the typebar to gravity-drop back into place, resetting it for the next strike.

Jamming is caused by gunk and debris (dust, white-out crumbs, lint, etc) which gets into the fine, inaccessible areas of the typewriter-basket. This debris creates friction which stops the typebars from working naturally, through gravity and mechanical force, as they should.

This is what you’re trying to remove from the machine. It’s done in the following manner:

1). Dip your brush into the cup or bowl of methylated spirits. Remove it, and shake off any excess meths.

2). Brush the meths into the ends of the typebars, right at the back of the basket, into all the little grooves where the typebars attach to their key-levers. Brush from side to side, along the ‘smile’, and also, up and down in short strokes, to force the methylated spirits and the brush-bristles, between the grooves and gaps of the typebars.

3). Repeat this. Over. And over. And over. And over. Just keep brushing and probing, scrubbing, brushing, and probing and washing and flushing.

— — — —

What happens is that the methylated spirits dissolves the gunk stuck to the type-bars. It then just drips out of the bottom of the machine and collects on the paper-towels below. Any excess spirits just evaporates into the air, leaving a clean, and dry typing mechanism behind.

— — — —

Keep brushing and cleaning and flushing like this. Every few minutes, press the offending keys, along with all the others, to check for jamming, or improvement of function. This process can take a few minutes, or it can take days. If you want proof that the methylated spirits is cleaning your machine, then simply lift up the typewriter. You will have to change the paper-towels underneath the machine throughout the cleaning process, as they eventually become saturated with spirits and require replacing.

In removing the sheets of paper-towels, take note of their condition. A really dirty, jammed up machine will be dribbling oodles of black, grey dust and crud onto the paper, and you’ll be able to see it really really clearly. It’ll look almost like fireplace soot. This is the rubbish you’re trying to get out of your machine.

You must repeat this process until the paper removed from under the typewriter is COMPLETELY CLEAN and has NO debris on it AT ALL. This is the sign that it has all been flushed out and that the mechanism is cleaned and ready for proper use.

To give your typewriter a fighting chance, you might also want to clean under the machine at all the points where the typewriter-keys connect with the type-bars. Removing as much dust and crud as you can will ensure that the machine runs as best as possible. You can do this by brushing methylated spirits along the linkage-points, and then carefully wiping them clean with paper-towels or tissues. You may have to do this several times as well.

How long does it take to clean a typewriter? It really depends on its age, when it was last used, when it was last cleaned, how it’s been treated, its size and how thorough your cleaning is. It could take half an hour. It could take two hours. For me, I was cleaning it, on and off, for half a day, letting the meths soak through the machine to do its job, coming back, adding more, and changing the paper periodically to check the progress.

Important Note

As tempting as it may be, do NOT USE OIL on your TYPEWRITER. EVER.

As every person who repairs typewriters will probably tell you, and as all the period instruction-manuals (including my own) will also tell you, oil is a typewriter’s worst enemy. Do not use WD-40, olive-oil, melted butter, pig’s fat, sewing-machine oil or lard, in the hopes of getting your machine running.

Oil will lubricate the machine, yes. But it will also become a dust-trap as particles settle on the oil (which just sits there, it doesn’t evaporate and dry up) and create a disgusting sludge over time, that will…you guessed it…jam the machine. And you’re back to Square One.

Using meths is the ONLY way to clean your machine, as methylated spirits will just evaporate once the job is done, and leave no residue behind which dust can cling to.

If you MUST have lubricant (which is unlikely, as the whole machine should work on gravity alone), then make sure it is one that is non-greasy, and which does NOT attract dust. Otherwise, you’re in strife.

Is it Really That Easy?

Yes! Following this process, I successfully unjammed about a half-dozen keys in the typewriter that you see up above. It’s a messy, slow, sometimes frustrating method, but it does work. Otherwise I wouldn’t share it on my blog. Hopefully, it will work for you as well!

Happy typing!

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41 Comments

  1. Josh said,

    May 10, 2013 at 3:04 PM

    Every time I see these typewriters on eBay people are asking hundreds of dollars for them, I think it looks great though. There is one at Coffs Harbour for sale on Gumtree at the moment that is only $100.. if I was local I would have purchased it :(

    In other news, I’ve got some paint brushes and metho today, so all set for cleaning!

    • scheong said,

      May 10, 2013 at 4:53 PM

      Best of luck, Josh. Contact me if you have issues.

  2. May 27, 2013 at 7:11 AM

    […] of this beautiful machine. I found an excellent blog post detailing how to properly clean the keys here. After following the directions, the keys moved much more […]

  3. perpetualrenovator said,

    June 16, 2013 at 11:24 AM

    Beautiful machine! I picked up a cute portable today from the 60s by Smith and Corona In great condition. Going to use your tips to unstick a couple keys that are hanging up. Thanks for sharing your tips!

  4. June 17, 2013 at 12:48 PM

    […] it was obsolete… But that’s another story. I bought denatured alcohol and followed this tutorial on how to clean a manual typewriter, oiled the carriage wheel with a tiny, minuscule amount of sewing machine oil and plopped in a new […]

  5. Willy said,

    July 28, 2013 at 1:21 PM

    I commented on a previous post about glass key removal. I have another question about the keys on the keyboard itself. My new Remington Rand Model 1 has a “P” key that is slightly misaligned compared to the others. The type bar isn’t the problem, as it still works perfectly. What’s the best way to realign a key?

    • scheong said,

      July 28, 2013 at 1:47 PM

      Hey Willy, I remember you.

      Misaligned? As in the KEY on the keyboard? Or the typeslug in the basket which hits the ribbon and paper? If it’s the slug, then you can (GENTLY) bend it until it’s realigned. If it’s the key itself…I’d suggest the same thing. It’s a matter of being careful, though.

      • Willy said,

        July 28, 2013 at 11:34 PM

        Yes, it’s the key itself. I have no problems with the slugs, they just need a good cleansing in alcohol. Thanks!

      • scheong said,

        July 29, 2013 at 8:34 AM

        If the key is bent left or right of center, the only way to fix it would be to bend it back (GENTLY) to center. To prevent breaking the keytop, I’d suggest turning the typewriter over (or at least standing it on end) to work at the key from underneath the typewriter, if you can. Although, the position of the ‘P’ key may not make this possible…

  6. Mary F Devine said,

    August 11, 2013 at 2:22 PM

    I recently inherited the same model Underwood as described above. It belonged to my husband’s family. He remembers using it for school papers back in the day, so finding this advice is priceless since I want to restore it for him.
    So here is my next inquiry: WHERE SO I FIND THE TYPE RIBBON? I don’t think there has been any in this machine for decades.

    • scheong said,

      August 11, 2013 at 2:48 PM

      Hi Mary,

      The Underwood Standard PORTABLE takes “universal ribbons”. These are ribbons which come in spools which are 4.5cm/1 & 6.5/8ths in. across, and hold ribbons which are 1/2 inch wide.

      They’re still widely manufactured as the standard typewriter ribbon. You can purchase them brand-new off of eBay.

  7. Liz said,

    October 8, 2013 at 12:48 AM

    Hello! I have an underwood universal that I picked up at a tag sale for 20 bucks. I clean it quite often and it seems to work well right after I clean it. But, I have to clean it every day, or at least before each use. The keys stick up again when I stop using it. Is this normal?

    • scheong said,

      October 8, 2013 at 8:07 AM

      If you have to keep cleaning it, then it’s not clean. Keep washing it through with methylated spirits.

      If the typewriter is really gunky, you may have to physically scrape the crud out of the type-basket with a pin or tweezers, but that’s only in extreme cases.

      • Liz said,

        October 9, 2013 at 11:24 PM

        It doesn’t seem gunky at all though! It works very well after a cleaning, and nothing much seems to drip through the bottom. How do I know if it’s “really clean”? Do I just use spirits on it all day?

        Thank you!

      • scheong said,

        October 14, 2013 at 10:33 PM

        If the keys keep jamming, then it’s for the following reasons:

        1. The keys are bent. This causes them to rub against the typewriter frame, and jam.

        2. The typing mechanism is gunked up. This has to be washed out thoroughly before it will work again. The methylated spirits method is used for this.

        If it’s REALLY REALLY REALLY gunked up (the typewriter sat in a barn for 30 years, for example), then you’ll have to physically scrape the crud off with a needle, but that’s in extreme, extreme cases.

  8. Tim Wright said,

    October 12, 2013 at 8:27 AM

    Thanks, I just bought a Brother 660 TR and has some teething problems. Any idea where I can find a users manual? Appreciateyour blog, I will follow your directions and clean the machine.

    • scheong said,

      October 12, 2013 at 8:39 AM

      There are places online to find manuals, but usually only for the really famous models. I don’t know if you’ll find a manual for a machine this generic.

  9. Jimmy Gutierrez said,

    November 25, 2013 at 6:59 AM

    Followed your direction but didn’t have the alcohol. Used GUMOUT carburetor cleaner instead. Work ed great!!

  10. February 15, 2014 at 3:23 AM

    Thank you will try meths on sticky tabs i have Antique Royal 1903 typewriter had years ago been in loft for last 20 years hence needs freeing off want to sell it but needs tlc at moment. Hoped a collector may be near me in ilfracombe north devon to sell to as moving ,no luck!

    • scheong said,

      February 15, 2014 at 9:11 AM

      Royal was established in 1904. I doubt your machine is older than that.

      • February 16, 2014 at 7:25 AM

        Thanks for info i was told was vintage Royal 1903 , just 1 year out..info on typewriter is Royal..Wilfrid Dunn typewriter depot .
        john bright st Birmingham. ..midlands 4219 made for B,ham
        by USA inc
        protected by America & Foreign patent!

      • scheong said,

        February 16, 2014 at 8:45 AM

        Royal’s first typewriters didn’t come out until 1906. So it can’t be any earlier than that.

  11. February 19, 2014 at 5:15 AM

    you said feb 15th royal established 1904 now on your feb 16th your saying 1906???

    • James McInnis said,

      March 19, 2014 at 7:52 AM

      Factories don’t put out product the day they are established.
      You + are = you’re

  12. Mahima said,

    March 14, 2014 at 9:44 PM

    Thank you for writing this, I am in the process of acquiring my first typewriter… yes I fell in love with those pretty glass keys.

    Do you think this type of cleaning will get rid of a strong mildew smell on a machine and how does one clean the rest of the machine… with the methylated spirits as well?

    • scheong said,

      March 14, 2014 at 9:49 PM

      NO. Don’t use meths on the rest of the machine. To polish the paint and body, I used windex and cotton-balls. And a lot of elbow-grease. This removes stuff like cigarette/nicotine stains very well. But it’s a very labour-intensive process.

      • Mahima said,

        March 15, 2014 at 2:43 AM

        I am so glad I asked! The elbow grease and windex don”t bother me at all… having a machine that will forever smell like mildew does though.

        I may have to pass on that one and look for another machine with a less smelly history…

      • James McInnis said,

        March 19, 2014 at 7:53 AM

        Windex won’t silver the decals?

      • scheong said,

        March 19, 2014 at 8:31 AM

        I didn’t put it on the decals. Just the paint to polish off the nicotine.

  13. Ariana said,

    June 18, 2014 at 4:21 AM

    did you replace the type bar rest pad? if so what did you use to replace the pad?

    • scheong said,

      June 18, 2014 at 7:43 AM

      I did not replace it. But on my typewriter, it’s just a simple strip of foam. I reckon it’d be pretty easy to replace that.

      • apapp21 said,

        June 19, 2014 at 3:30 PM

        another question. how did you get out the screws that wouldn’t budge? I’ve tried the deep penetrating lubricant but nothing seems to help.

      • scheong said,

        June 19, 2014 at 3:59 PM

        To shift jammed screws (which is sometimes necessary if cleaning / restoring), I lubricate with oil, (LIGHTLY) and then I use a screwdriver (maybe backed up with a pair of pliers) to loosen a screw.

      • apapp21 said,

        June 20, 2014 at 9:26 AM

        What rust remover do you suggest? I am using CLR but it’s not very successful. :(

  14. thuaners said,

    July 3, 2014 at 7:57 AM

    Thank you so much for this!!! i just got a typewriter yesterday and was looking on how to clean the sticky keys, this helps me a lot! :D

  15. Gertie said,

    July 23, 2014 at 7:53 PM

    I enjoy looking through an article that
    can make people think. Also, thanks for allowing for me
    to comment!

    • scheong said,

      July 23, 2014 at 8:55 PM

      Hi Gertie, you’re welcome. Glad you enjoyed it.

  16. Alvin said,

    July 27, 2014 at 12:12 AM

    Good day
    Chanced upon your blog while looking for a type slug on a Underwood Standard Portable Four Banks that I got recently. Mechanically, it is perfect except that it is missing the ‘C’ slug. Do you have any idea on who might have spares? Shipping a portable typewriter to where I live already costed over hundreds!

    • scheong said,

      July 27, 2014 at 7:16 AM

      Finding spares is not gonna be easy. You have to find the right font-size, the right font-STYLE, the right typeslug size…It CAN be done, but it could take years.

      • feb said,

        September 2, 2014 at 10:10 AM

        Hi.
        Can I use isopropyl alchol in place of denatured alcohol? I can’t find a store that sells them. Thank you.


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