People think typewriters are cool.
They must do, otherwise there wouldn’t be anyone buying them anymore. And there wouldn’t be anyone fixing them. Or selling them anymore.
And they are.
In the 21st Century, there is a growing number of typewriter collectors, and users who are returning to, or changing over from a computer to, a typewriter. This posting is here to serve as a guide for the novice typewriter-collector, the first-time buyer, the aspiring writer or the antiques bargain-hunter.
You want to buy a typewriter. What do you need to know? Keep reading, and you’ll find out.
Who Uses a Typewriter Anymore?
You’d be surprised.
There’s still a large number of professional writers who use typewriters. There’s still an active repair-community. There’s still an active collecting community. One of the most famous typewriter-collectors and users on earth is Tom Hanks. He’s well-known for it.
I use a typewriter. Hell. I used a typewriter before I used a computer. Not because computers didn’t exist when I was born…they did…but because a typewriter was what my parents could afford when I was growing up. I learnt to touch-type on a typewriter before I ever learnt how to do it on a computer.
What do I DO with it?
What do you DO with your typewriter?? No seriously, what??
A lot of people who own typewriters today use them for writing short stories, novels, books, letters…much like typewriters were always used for. But in the 21st century, some people even use typewriters for blogging.
Called “typecasting”, bloggers will type up an entire blog-posting on a typewriter. Then, they will scan the typed copy, and load it onto their blog.
Because typing on a typewriter produces something more interesting than simply using “Courier New” in your blog-composition window. Because typing on a typewriter produces text variants which not even the most intricate downloadable typewriter-font can produce. An electronic font can’t reproduce things like strikeouts, type-overs, floating capitals, dropped letters, and faded or misformed print, which some bloggers enjoy, because it makes their posts more interesting and personal.
Perhaps…that’s why YOU want a typewriter…eh?
Deciding on What You Want
When buying a typewriter, as with buying anything, it’s important to know exactly what you want to buy and own. You don’t need to know precisely, right off the bat, but you should at least have a general idea of your tastes and desires. Different typewriters have different issues. Different things that could go wrong. Different prices. The variables are almost endless. So before you head off hunting, you need to know what you want, and the issues or restrictions that might come with your choices.
Typewriters – Style & Design Points
When selecting a typewriter, or drawing up a list of potential purchases, keep in mind a few things…
Do you want a Desktop? Or a Portable?
Desktop typewriters are NOT named-so for nothing. Models such as the Remington 12, Remington 16, L.C. Smith Bros. No. 8, Royal 10 and Underwoods 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6, weigh a LOT. The Royal 10 starts at about 30lbs. Something like a Remington 16 or a desktop Underwood goes up to about 50 pounds or more. Can you cart that home from the flea-market? Or ship it across the ocean on your flight back from your overseas holiday? Can you carry that back from the antiques shop halfway across town?
Do you want a portable? How old? Portables are much lighter than desktops, obviously, but they come with their own issues. For example, portables did not become really practical until the 1920s. Portables did not have all the features of a larger desktop typewriter. And portables manufactured during the Depression years of the 1930s were likely to be super-duper cheap, with only basic features. A fascinating look at the impact of the Depression on the American typewriter industry, but as practical typing-machines, you’d have more options with a sharpened pencil!
Do you want pretty glass keys?
Black-letters-on-white, or white-letters-on-black keys, capped with glass, and edged with pretty chrome rings are the signature of the typewriter. They’re pretty, shiny, stylish, artistic…and rare.
Typewriters with glass-topped keys were only made for a relatively short period of time. From the 1890s up to the 1940s. If you want a typewriter with those classic glass keys that you see in movies and on TV shows, then expect your machine to be at least 70 years old. When WWII ended in 1945, glass-key typewriters went out the window. They were considered oldschool and boring. By 1950, there were almost none left in production, and all typewriter-manufacturers had switched over to machines with plastic keys.
Metal or Plastic Body?
More modern typewriters were made with cheaper, moulded plastic bodies that can warp and bend and crack. These are usually the budget typewriters from the 1960s and 70s. A typewriter with an all-steel body is something that would’ve been made before, or during the 1950s. Metal bodies may be slightly heavier, but they offer the strength, durability and assurance that a flimsier plastic body cannot.
Until the 1960s and 70s, the vast majority of typewriters did not have 1-keys, !-keys or 0-keys. Instead, lower-case l’s, apostrophes, full-stops, and capital ‘O’ keys did double-duty for these numbers and symbols. So if your typewriter doesn’t have these keys…relax. They never did. And most other typewriters didn’t, either, until the 1960s and 70s.
It was a common practice, to save money, space, and weight on the manufacture of typewriters. It may make for an interesting and new typing experience, but it’s only a minor adjustment to worry about. If your typewriter MUST have those symbols on its keyboard as stand-alone keys, then you’ll need to buy one made in the 1950s-1980s. With only a few exceptions, all pre-1950s typewriters did not have them.
Ribbons and Spools
The vast majority of typewriters use ribbons. But it’s important to know WHAT TYPE of ribbon your machine uses.
Most typewriters from major manufacturers (Olivetti, Royal, Remington, Underwood, Brother, L.C. Smith, Corona and so-forth) will use a standard, 1/2-inch typewriter ribbon. Today, such ribbons are made of nylon. Ribbons come in either solid red, solid black, or two-tone red-black. Buying an all-black, or a red-black ribbon are the best options for regular typing.
While your typewriter ribbon-size might be 1/2-inch, which is more or less standard across the board (some older typewriters, or typewriters from more obscure manufacturers may use different ribbon-sizes which are harder to find), not every typewriter uses a standard ribbon-spool size.
Most typewriters accept what is called a “Universal Spool”. A universal spool is one that will fit most typewriters, and which sports a 1/2-inch ribbon. These are manufactured in their thousands and you can buy them brand-new online (eBay has dozens of them), or from a stationer’s shop which stocks them.
But…what if your typewriter does NOT take universal-spools?
If it doesn’t, don’t despair. So long as you have your typewriter’s original ribbon-spools, all is not lost.
Simply remove the old ribbon from the spools and throw it out. Now, wind the new ribbon from the new spools, onto the old spools, which were original to your machine. So long as the ribbon and the spools are same size (which is more than likely), you should be able to use the new ribbon in the old spools with no problems at all!
Alternatively, if the original typewriter ribbon is in good condition, you could simply re-ink it and reuse it. To do this, you’ll need a bottle of stamp-pad ink (available at any good stationer’s shop), and my instructions about how to re-ink ribbons.
Where do I Find Typewriters?
eBay, Etsy, Gumtree, Craigslist, and the surprisingly large number of online typewriter-dealers, are all excellent internet sources for typewriters of various vintages and styles. They all come with their ups and downs, of course. With eBay and other online seller-sites, you have to deal with how much, or how little the seller knows about the machine, and what they’re willing to sell it for, and whether or not they’re willing to haggle and negotiate.
With professional dealers, the typewriter you buy may be more expensive, but this is countered with the assurance of a professional restoration which will keep the machine running for years to come.
How much do you Pay for a Typewriter?
Postwar models, ca. 1950-1980s are cheap as old chips. You can find these at any flea-market or junk-shop. Don’t pay more than about $25. They’re really common and to spend more money than that on a functioning postwar machine is just wasting your money.
The machines which cost more are typically the older machines. Those from the 1940s, 30s, 20s and the 1910s and the 1900s. These, in working condition, can go for a couple of hundred dollars. If they’re not in working condition, then the price obviously drops. Don’t pay more than about $200 for something in working condition from this vintage, and don’t pay more than about $50 for something that isn’t working.
As you may have guessed from all this, typewriters are not worth a great deal of money. Don’t forget that until about 30 years ago, every office, every study, every desk in the world had a typewriter on it. They’re super-duper common. So the value just isn’t there. It doesn’t exist. But this is good news if you’re looking for a functional machine on the cheap. Just don’t expect to retire on it if you sell it in the future.
Testing your Typewriter – What to Check For
You want to buy a typewriter. You want to buy it at a good price, and you want to buy it in working condition. Or perhaps you don’t. Maybe you want to buy a typewriter as a fixer-upper restoration project? Perhaps fixing typewriters is your hobby? Or perhaps you want to go on a little desktop restoration-adventure?
But if you do want to buy a typewriter that works, you need to know what constitutes a working typewriter, and what you need to check, to ensure that it does, actually, work.
In particular, pay attention to the following areas:
Roughly 20% of the stuff on a typewriter is rubber. The platen, the feet, the feed-rollers, and in some cases, the paper-bales (although not always, in this last instance).
Rubber is there to act as a cushion, and to provide grip for the paper when you type. The issue with rubber is that it’s a natural product, and is therefore prone to degrading. When buying a typewriter, you want to check the condition of the rubber.
Checking the rubber on the feet is easy. Just lift the typewriter up. You can buy replacement feet pretty easily online, or even at your local hardware shop, if they need replacing.
Next, check the rubber on the platen. Platen-rubber should be firm, but not solid. Tap it with your fingers. If it feels firm, then it’s fine. If it feels like tapping glass or the side of a bowl, then it’s too hard. This can be remedied by sanding the platen with fine sandpaper (to remove hard rubber and expose fresh, softer rubber, and therefore improve grip), or by rubbing the platen lightly with a rubber-solvent to soften up the platen. If the rubber on the platen is in good condition, then you can just leave it as it is, and not worry about it.
Then you need to check the condition of the feed-rollers. This is a little harder to do. Feed-rollers are the two, or four, depending on the typewriter, free-spinning rubber rollers inside the carriage, underneath the platen. They grip the paper when you crank it into the machine, and roll it under the platen, and feed it up the front of the carriage. Feed-rollers. See?
Feed-rollers are also covered in rubber, much like the platen. To find out if your feed-rollers are in good condition, simply roll a couple of sheets of paper into the typewriter.
Does the paper get pulled easily into the machine? Or does it just not go at all? Does the paper come out evenly on the other side? Does it advance evenly when you hit the carriage-lever?
If the answer to all these questions is “Yes”, then the feed-rollers are in good condition. If the answer to even one of them is “No”, then the rollers are not in good condition.
To try and rejuvenate the feed-rollers, you need to remove the platen from the carriage, fish out the rollers (they just sit there) and sand them, or treat them to rubber-solvent.
If the rubber on your rollers or platen is dry, hard and cracked then you should either PASS on the typewriter, or buy it with a view to REPLACING THE RUBBER ENTIRELY. Cracked rubber is completely unsalvageable, and no treatment with paper or chemicals is going to save it.
Rubber that feels like rubber, and rubber that is somewhat pliable, is rubber that’s in good quality. Rubber that is hard, dry, cracking, and which feels like plastic, is rubber that needs to be replaced.
Does the carriage of your prospective typewriter advance smoothly as you type? Yes? Fine. Does the bell ring? Yes? Great! Do the margin-stops work? Yes? Wonderful.
IF the carriage does NOT advance when you type, that means that either the mainspring is kaput (possible), or that the draw-band has had it, and is toast (much more likely). Replacing a drawband is finicky, but possible. Most drawbands are nothing but a shoelace tied around the carriage-drum, and a hook or ring, at the right side of the carriage. This is a repair you could do at home with the right string, a pair of tweezers, and a bit of patience.
Suggested carriage-string materials include fishing-wire, and shoelaces. Keep the original carriage-string just in case you need it as a measurement-guide.
On most portable typewriters, there is a CARRIAGE-LOCK feature. The carriage-lock jams the carriage in-place, so that it does NOT move when the typewriter has been placed in it’s carry-case for transport. When testing a prospective portable typewriter, if the carriage doesn’t move when you type, the carriage-lock may be engaged. Ask the seller to unlock the carriage for you, if you don’t know how. If anything breaks…it’s their fault, not yours!
This probably goes without saying, but keys are important. But there’s a lot more to checking typewriter keys than finding out if they’re made of glass.
For your potential typewriter to be a practical typing machine when you get it home, you need to make sure that ALL the keys work. Typing “The Quick Brown Fox Jumps over the Lazy Dog” will be useless if the shift-key is broken, if the backspace doesn’t work, if the tab-keys are jammed or if the spacebar is broken.
You want to check every single key. You want to check all the switches,, knobs, levers, bells and whistles. Even the keys you don’t think you’ll ever use…check them. Do they press down? Do they pop up again? Do the hammers work? Do the levers work? If you press the backspace, does the carriage move to the right? If you press the shift-lock, does the shift-key actually LOCK? And if you hit the shift-key afterwards, does the key then UNLOCK like it should?
Do the margin-stops work? Does the margin-clear button work? Does the paper-release lever work? Does the carriage-release lever work? Does the carriage-return lever work? Do the tab-stop, clear and set keys all work?
Depending on your typewriter, there can be all that, and more, to check. Does the ribbon-reverser work? Does the ribbon-selector work?
Some things, you can probably do without. For example, it doesn’t matter if the shift-lock doesn’t work, so long as the actual shift-keys work. The typewriter will still function perfectly fine. Just that typing in capitals for long periods of time might be a bit harder.
Do NOT be worried if keys stick or if hammers jam up. That’s just a sign that the typewriter requires cleaning. You can do that easily at home. Here’s my guide to cleaning jammed-up typebars. You can do it with stuff you can buy at your local supermarket.
Buying a Typewriter “in the Wild”
In collecting circles of most objects (pens, watches, books, guns and typewriters, for example), to buy something “in the wild”, is a term used for making a collectible purchase at an establishment such as an antiques shop, junk-shop, thrift-shop, garage-sale, or flea-market. They’re called “Wild” finds because they are purchased outside of the established channels of collectibles dealing, such as fairs, shows, club-meetings, or from online dealers.
When buying a typewriter ‘in the wild’, there are a few things you should know.
You’ve done your research. You see a typewriter in the local flea-market that you REALLY WANT. It’s your dream machine. It’s the Mary Poppins typewriter. Practically Perfect in Every Way. The price looks fairly reasonable, and you wanted it YESTERDAY! How can you buy it so that things work out in your favour?
- Be DISCREET. Don’t ever show your cards. Keep a poker-face. If you mouth off and act like you know everything and then some, the seller’s gonna clam up, and the price is probably gonna go up like a rocket. Play dumb and pretend you know as much about typewriters as a toad.
- Examine the machine THOROUGHLY. Point out any issues to the seller, and ask if he might be willing to lower the price slightly on their account.
- Not many people use typewriters anymore. So the buying-pool may be rather small. If you don’t buy it, chances are that it may be, nobody ever will. This may make the seller anxious to get rid of it. This may be another bargaining-chip in your pocket.
- Typewriters are HEAVY. And BIG. A small portable is 5-10kg. A desktop model is 20-30kg! Imagine this:
You’re a flea-market stallholder. You lugged your damn Remington 16…
…all the way from home, to the market, in your car. It’s taking up space at home. Nobody uses it. It’s getting dusty and rusty and you just want to get it the hell out of your life. It’s dislocating your shoulders every time you have to move it, and you’re just sick of it! Then along comes sumgai* who wants to buy it. You have $150.00 on it. He offers you $100.00. You’re desperate to get rid of it. So you accept it.
That’s what you, as the buyer, should be hoping for. Typewriters, especially the big, chunky desktop models like that Remington 16, are heavy enough to break your leg if you drop it on there. Most likely, a seller who bothered to lug the thing to the market, doesn’t want to lug it back home again! Use this as leverage, and ask for a smaller price. If he really wants to get rid of it, he’ll take it, or at least haggle a bit, just to get it out of his life.
- Perhaps you walked to the market? Or caught a bus? Or a train? Or a tram? If you find a typewriter that you really like, but you can’t get it home, and the price is reasonable and it’s in good condition…have a few words with the buyer. Offer to pay full price if he might be inclined to deliver it to your house. It’s a little more work for him, but he gets his money, and he gets rid of it in the end. You get your machine, and you get delivery thrown in, to boot!
*”Sumgai” is another collecting-term, much like buying stuff “in the wild”. It’s a corruption of the words “some guy”. As in, you show up at the flea-market, ask a stallholder about a particular item that he may or may not have, and the seller replies: “Oh sorry. Some guy just bought it and walked off with it”.
A ‘sumgai’ is someone who got there first and pinched all the good stuff, leaving you with all the shit that nobody wants. To be a sumgai yourself (ie, to get first pick at all the goodies at the market), you should arrive early and have a keen eye. That way, you won’t have to hear the famous speech from the seller about that “sumgai” who bought the pretty 1929 Remington Model 3 Portable for $25 just ten minutes ago and walked off down the street with it.
Remington Model 3 Portable…
Knowing Your Machine
When it comes to buying your typewriter, it’s important that you know what all the parts are, what they do, and how they work. This will help you pick a good machine from a bad one, and it’ll make you a more savvy buyer, which is always good and important.
When you roll the paper into the typewriter, you rest it on the paper-table. This is the back panel of the typewriter. It usually has the make of the machine painted on there as decoration, such as “UNDERWOOD”, “ROYAL”, “REMINGTON” or “L.C. SMITH & Bros”.
Rolling the paper into the typewriter is done by turning on the two platen-knobs, attached to the platen, the central, rubber-covered drum in the middle of the carriage. The carriage is the part of the typewriter that moves to the left as you type. As you turn the platen-knobs and pull the paper into the machine, two, three, or four feed-rollers grip the paper and pull the paper around the platen.
When the paper comes up the front, you raise the bale-rail at the front of the carriage and slip the paper underneath it. The rail has two (or more) paper-bales on it. These are sometimes made of metal, but some are coated in rubber. The paper-bales are there to hold the paper in place when you type, so that the paper doesn’t flap around everywhere. They can be adjusted to whatever position you like on the rail. If you have two bales, then you want them 1/3 in from the left, and 1/3 in from the right, so that they divide the bale-rail into thirds, and hold the paper evenly.
Along with the paper-bales and the rail which holds them are the paper-fingers. They slide along the front rule of your typewriter, in line with the ribbon-vibrator. They serve much the same purpose as the paper-bales, to hold the paper in-place on the platen.
A typical mechanical typewriter has three or four rows or banks of keys. The keys are attached via levers and linkages to the typebars. On the head of each typebar is the type-slug. Pressing a key pulls the linkages which pulls the typebar up, forcing the slug forwards and down, to strike the ribbon.
The ribbon is held in the ribbon-guides and the central ribbon-vibrator. The vibrator is the central ribbon-guide that jumps up and down as you type.
When you reach the end of the line, the warning-bell goes off, to tell you that you have (usually) six keystrokes left, before the key-lock mechanism kicks in. This deliberately locks the keys so that you can’t keep typing. To unlock them, you push the carriage back to the right, using the carriage-return lever. Pressing this lever hard enough also pushes the platen back, bringing up a fresh line, so it is also called the line-advance lever.
Next to the carriage-lever is the line-spacing lever. The line-space lever adjusted the operation of the line-advance lever. By adjusting this lever, you could affect the line-advance lever to advance the page 1, 2, or on larger machines, even 3 lines, to produce double and triple-spaced documents if you needed to.
As you type, the carriage moves along the carriage-race. This is the toothed rail which the carriage rides on. Each tooth is one keystroke. Typing releases the power stored in the mainspring, which is inside the mainspring-drum. As the spring unwinds, it rotates the drum, which has a drawcord or drawstring attached to it. As the drum turns, it winds up the drawstring, pulling the carriage along with it.
When you push the carriage back, the drawcord is pulled out again, and the mainspring is wound up at the same time, ready for the next line.
As you type, the inked typewriter ribbon, stored in two ribbon-spools, moves along, to provide fresh ink. Ribbon-spools are held in a pair of spool-cups. Typewriters made before the 1930s did not generally have spool-cup covers. So if your antique typewriter doesn’t have these covers, don’t despair.
This is a 1926 Royal Portable Typewriter, Model 1:
And this is a 1930 Royal Portable Typewriter, Model 2:
As you can see, the 20s, 1st-model typewriter doesn’t come with spool-covers. The second, 30s model typewriter, does. This was common with many typewriter manufacturers of the period. Companies like Underwood and Corona did the same thing.
Back to the parts of your typewriter…
Most, but not all, typewriters came with something called a “Ribbon-Reverser“. The ribbon-reverser determined which spool-cup would rotate as the machine typed, and therefore, which spool would wind up with used ribbon while the machine was in-use. Switching the reverser-switch back and forth changed the receiving spool from left to right, and vice-versa, as the user of the typewriter required. A handy feature.
Along with the ribbon-reverse switch is the bichrome ribbon-selector. The bichrome ribbon-selector typically had three settings: Black, for black-ribbon. Red, for red-ribbon. And Stencil.
Stencil-mode disengaged the ribbon-vibrator altogether. This allowed you to type out clear stencil-masters on your typewriter. The completed stencil-documents were inserted into duplicating machines…
…and as many duplicate copies of the original could be printed as you needed or desired. They were the Victorian equivalent of the photo-copier.
To set left and right margins on your machine, you have the margin-stops, which are usually (but not always) situated behind the typewriter, on the margin-rail. You shift and move the margin-stops along the rail to where-ever you want your margins to be. Setting the left margin determines where the carriage stops when you push it back. Setting the right margin determines when the bell rings at the end of each line. Once that bell rings, you have six keystrokes left before you need to return the carriage all over again.
Located on the carriage are two more levers or switches. These are the paper-release lever, and the carriage-release lever (there seem to be an awfully large number of levers on these old typewriters, huh?).
Lifting the paper-release lever eases up the pressure on the platen and feed-rollers.
Remember those films about frustrated writers who stop typing, grab their paper and rip it out of the machine, scrunch it up and toss it over their shoulders?
To do that, you need to flip the paper-lever. It allows you to just pull the paper right out of the typewriter, without damaging the mechanism.
The carriage-release lever, or switch, disengages the ratchet-mechanism between the carriage and the toothed carriage-rail. You can now slide the carriage left or right along the carriage-rail to set up your typing start-point wherever you want on the page. Pressing this button will cause the mainspring to unwind super-fast. It will grab the drawcord and yank the carriage all the way to the left. If you’re not prepared for this, expect an almighty bang when the carriage hits the end of the line! That may damage the mainspring or the drawcord (if they’re old and original to the machine), so don’t do it too often, or you may wear them out prematurely. Or if you need to use this switch, hold tight to the carriage, first!
Care and Placement of your Typewriter
You have read about where to buy a typewriter, what to look out for, and how much you should pay. You have purchased the machine of your dreams! Perhaps it’s a 1930s Imperial…
…or an Underwood from the 20s…
Perhaps it’s a sleek, postwar model like the Royal Royalite “El Dorado”…
or a more common Olivetti Lettera 32?
Perhaps you bought yourself a desktop or “Standard” typewriter? A Royal 10…
Or an Underwood No. 5?
Perhaps it’s none of these, and many more, historic and stylish machines? But whatever you bought, it’s important that you know how to look after it now that you have it. Here are some things to consider:
Keep Your Typewriter out of Direct Sunlight
A good typewriter is like a vampire. It’ll last forever, but it’s allergic to strong sunlight. And, for that matter, heat. Keep your machine away from windows that receive full sunlight, or anywhere where it might be exposed to heavy rays or high levels of heat for a long period of time. Remember all that rubber on the platen and the rollers? That stuff can dry up and crack if you expose it to heat and light like that. So try and avoid it.
Keep Your Typewriter Free of Dust
Back when they were the only method of rapid word-processing, a typewriter was an essential piece of equipment in the office, and in the home. For reports, essays, homework, letters and stories and plays and novels. Because typewriters were so important, they were built to last. Any company that produced machines that broke down or were outdated as soon as they were introduced (much like the stuff today), would never have lasted in this highly competitive market.
To make their machines last, typewriters were made almost entirely of steel. There’s very few things that can break on a typewriter. And most of the issues with typewriters (sticky keys, wriggly carriages and so-forth) are usually caused by neglect rather than damage.
Keep your typewriter FREE OF DUST. Dust and debris gets into the mechanism and jams up the machine. And you’ll have a hell of a time trying to get it out of there.
To keep your machine running smoothly, when you’re not using it, cover it. If it’s just a temporary pause in usage (like overnight), you can just cover it with a sheet of paper, to stop dust getting into the typing-mechanism. But if it’s for longer periods of time (up to a week or more), then cover your typewriter with its dust-cover, or its protective case.
Typing on your Machine
A typewriter is not a computer. EVERYTHING is mechanical. To type, you need to exert more force on the keys than you would with a modern keyboard. But don’t smash the keys with your fingers. If you’re not used to typing on a typewriter, even half a page of continuous typing can seem exhausting, but as you do it more often, your fingers will get used to it. Use more force than you usually would, but don’t bear down on it.
Use More Paper
Traditionally, you typed with two sheets of paper inside your machine. One, the actual page of text, the other to act as padding. This provides cushioning against the typebars and the platen, ensuring that they will last longer.
Place Your Typewriter Somewhere STURDY
Typewriters are BIG, FAT, CHUNKY MACHINES.
Or at least, some of them can be. When you get your machine home, make sure that you place it somewhere that’s suitable for it. I probably don’t need to tell you now that typewriters are heavy. A desktop Underwood, Royal or Remington weighs in excess of 30-50 pounds.
Make sure that you put your typewriter on a table, or a desk, that is strong enough to take it. Nothing flimsy that’s going to shake around, or that’s going to warp and bend under the weight of the machine. Something that’s sturdy and which won’t shift and wobble.
Typewriters are totally mechanical. The typing, the shifting of the carriage, the clunking of the levers. Everything produces motion and vibration. You need a desk that can cope with the vibrations and jolting produced by the typewriter in regular operation. If you don’t believe how much vibration a typewriter produces, just watch this:
The typewriter in that video is an Underwood Model 3. But those kinds of vibrations (like what shorted out the desk-lamp) can be produced by almost any typewriter, especially the older, heavier ones. Having a desk that can absorb the shocks produced by the typewriter is important. It makes for a smoother typing experience.
If you want to keep your desktop clean, or if you want to try and muffle the sounds of the typewriter somewhat, you can buy a typewriter-pad online. Typewriter-pads were used in the old days, to cushion typewriters and to muffle the sound of the keys. You simply slip the pad (made of thick felt) underneath the typewriter, to deaden the sound. A cheaper alternative is to use a small towel, folded over and slid under the machine.
Don’t Move your Typewriter Unnecessarily
Unless it’s a portable, and therefore, designed to be moved around, don’t shift your typewriter all over the place unnecessarily. This will prevent potential damage. If you must move your typewriter around, make sure that you have its next destination cleared for landing before you dump the typewriter on top of it.
When moving your portable typewriter around, use the carrying-case. It’s not only easier, it protects the machine from jolts and bumping.
Back when typewriters were more common, large office-buildings would invest in specially-designed “typewriter desks”. These desks had special, drop-down platforms which a typist’s machine could sit in. It was at a comfortable height for typing, and the desks featured a pull-over tabletop which would cover the typewriter from dust at the end of the workday, and which would double as a writing-surface on top of the typewriter, when the cover was pulled over.
These desks are ideal for typewriters, because they are specially designed to deal with the weight and vibrations of these machines. They are obviously no-longer made brand-new, and if you want one for your machine, you’ll have to go out and buy one second-hand.
A typical vintage typewriter-desk, with an Underwood No. 5 desktop typewriter. The desktop cover (behind the typewriter) is pulled up, and forwards, covering the typewriter when it’s not in use, and can double as a writing-surface. The desktop is lifted up, and pushed back and down when the typewriter needs to be used.
Desk opened…and closed…
This is what the same style of desk looks like, when the desktop cover has been pulled up and back over the typewriter.
Cleaning Your Typewriter
The majority of typewriter issues (faded text, stuck and jammed keys, sluggish movement, etc) are caused not by age, but by neglect. To keep your typewriter in working condition, you should keep it clean. This can be as simple as keeping it covered when you’re not using it…even if it’s just with a sheet of paper overnight. But sometimes, cleaning your typewriter is necessary.
Cleaning your typewriter can vary from level to level, from a light scrubbing and polishing, to partial or even complete disassembly, to clean out the gunk inside your machine. To do all this, you’ll most likely need some, or all, of the following bits and pieces:
- Cotton Buds/Q-Tips – To clean out the dust and gunk inside the typewriter carriage.
- Methylated Spirits/Denatured Alcohol – To clean the typing mechanism (see my guide on cleaning typebars on how to do this in-depth). Do NOT use anything else other than this, for this purpose. Meths washes out the dust, and then just evaporates, leaving everything clean and dry.
- A watchmaker’s squeeze-bulb puffer – To blow out loose dust and lint. Handy things, when blowing with your mouth simply won’t do.
- Needle-nose Tweezers – For any restoration, cleaning and repairs of machines, these are ESSENTIAL. I said the same thing in my guide on how to restore sewing-machines, and i say the same thing here. Without these, you may as well give up. You need them to fish out gunk, to scrape away crud, to hold tiny screws while you screw them in, to guide thread, or loose cables and straps, and to hold parts in-place while you fix them back on. They are ESSENTIAL.
- Pliers – These are handy (in conjunction with screwdrivers) for unscrewing stuck and stubborn screws.
- A set of small, jeweller’s screwdrivers – Handy for the tiny screws that you find in old typewriters. You can buy these things cheaply at those convenience stores that sell almost everything in the world, from blue Ethernet cables to toilet-plungers. They cost like $5.00 a set and they’ll last forever.
- Sewing-Machine oil – Yeah I know it’s a typewriter…but sewing-machine oil is a really high-quality, thin, runny, extremely slippery machine-oil. It’s ideal for lubricating all those squeaks and squeals inside your typewriter. But do not use more than the smallest amount possible. ONE drop on any affected area is more than enough. This stuff can be bought at any big supermarket. Or if not, then your local sewing-machine shop or arts-and-crafts shop will most likely have it.
- Tissues/Toilet-paper – Always gotta have these.
- Paper-towels – For when you clean any sticking keys (again, for the reason why, read the guide dedicated to this).
- Small, soft, clean paintbrush (for cleaning keys).
- Small bowls (for holding screws, knobs, plates etc as you pull apart the typewriter).
- Windex – Or a similar product. Typewriters, especially the really old ones, were smoked around…a LOT. A typewriter that’s 50, 70, 90, 100 years old, will have been smoked around for at least 20-30 years, if not its entire life. The nicotine and the tobacco gets ALL over the typewriter and it sticks and clings to the metal surface of the machine. Remember how those antique typewriters have really shiny, high-gloss metal finishes on their bodies? All that gets covered up by the smoke. To remove it, you need Windex, some tissues, and a lot of elbow-grease, to scrub off the smoke and nicotine stains. This can take a LONG time; it took me two days to clean all the crap off my typewriter, and it’s just a little portable number!
Paper, Ink and Ribbons
Almost every typewriter on earth will use standard A4 copy-paper without any issues, easily purchased at any stationer’s shop, or even your local supermarket. Most big stationery/office-supply franchise stores will still sell carbon-paper if you feel the need to have it, or use it.
Typewriter ribbons may be purchased easily on eBay, or from online dealers who repair and/or sell typewriters. As per my instructions regarding ribbons, further up, it’s best NOT to throw out your old ribbon and spools until you’ve purchased a brand-new ribbon for the typewriter, and made sure that everything fits properly.
For Melbournians reading this, standard-size, 1/2-inch typewriter ribbons may be purchased brand-new from INDUSTRIAL STATIONERS: 53-57 Queen St., in the Melbourne C.B.D. The ribbons will fit almost every major-brand typewriter. Even my 80-year-old antique Underwood!