Yesterday I went to a huge antiques center and moseyed around. While there, I found an Underwood Standard No. 5 typewriter…Which I did not buy.
I did not buy it because I wasn’t convinced it was worth it. Given its condition and the price wanted for it, I couldn’t justify coughing up the cash and lugging the thing home.
Fast forward twenty-four hours, and while at my local flea-market, I spied for sale, one…Underwood Standard No. 5 typewriter!
What’s the chances of seeing two in two days?
This typewriter was in better condition, mechanically and cosmetically (which is saying a lot, when you see it). It had a few issues with it, which I was sure I could repair. So I got it for a decent price, and wheeled the thing home.
It’s currently on a table in my room, being restored.
You’ll notice at once that there’s a few issues with it. All the rubber needs replacing, the spacebar has to be glued back together, the right platen-knob is missing (I wonder if I can fix that somehow…) and it needs a damn good cleaning!
I spent most of the day working on this thing. And what a thing it is!
It weighs exactly 28.5lbs. It certainly ain’t light! The entire frame is cast iron, painted black. The mechanism inside the machine is in, so far as I can tell, perfect working order, barring the necessity for a serious cleaning. Once it’s cleaned and repaired, I’m confident that it’ll work significantly better.
The typewriter needs a lot of work. Here’s what has to be done:
- New rubber EVERYWHERE.
I had hoped that the platen was salvageable, but it doesn’t look like it. Heat-shrink tubing and rubber tubing or piping works best for applications such as this. I’ll have to remove the rubber from the paper-bales, the platen, and the feed-rollers underneath. None of the rubber on this machine is the least bit usable. Not even the feet underneath – they’ll have to be replaced as well.
- The space-bar needs to be glued back together.
I had considered replacing it, but I’ll only do that if the gluing doesn’t work first. It’s a relatively simple operation.
- Everything needs cleaning.
This is a very long, dirty and fiddly process. Recommended equipment: Needle-nosed tweezers, watchmaker’s bulb-puffer, flashlight, cotton-buds, tissues.
- Typing Mechanism requires Cleaning.
Methylated spirits in a bowl, and a brush to wash it through the machine. This is easily the most time-consuming part of restoring this machine. It can take days to do it properly.
- Everything needs lubrication.
Break out the sewing-machine oil. This thing needs hardcore lubrication. I oiled the tab-stops, the margin-stops, and anything else on this thing that moves. Normally oil isn’t recommended, due to its dust-catching properties, but when you’ve got a machine in front of you that hasn’t been used in 30-40 years, oil is the only thing that will free-up all the mechanisms that have frozen or jammed.
I even oiled the screws before I started pulling anything apart.
The Underwood Standard No. 5 Typewriter – A Profile in Print
I’ve been after a desktop typewriter (in their day, also called standard, or office typewriters) for a while. And the Underwood 5 was one of the main machines on my hit-list.
The Underwood 5 came out in 1900. Preceding it were the Underwood 1, 2, 3, and 4. All the machines were more-or-less the same, but with small changes and improvements made along the way. For example, the Underwood 3 is unique among Underwoods as coming with extra-long carriages as standard. Anywhere from 14 to 16 inches, all the way up to a foot or more!
This Underwood Standard No. 3, from 1923, has a carriage that’s over three feet long! 38 inches! It’s designed for typing out material for accounting ledgers. Photograph from Machines of Loving Grace
The No. 5 is famous for a number of reasons. First, the sheer quantity produced. Nearly four million of them in over 30 years of production.
Second, the quality of construction. This machine is 86 years old. It’s been unused for at least 40 years. It’s caked in crap and everything on it that can perish, has perished…but it’s still in essentially working order.
Name me something made today that’ll still work in 86 years’ time. Apart from cutlery, I can’t think of anything.
Third, the ease of use. Early typewriters were something of a hit-and-miss thing. You had downstrikes, sidestrikes, thrust-action, upstrikes, blind-writers, pocket typewriters…the Underwood Standard series was one of the first typewriters that took the best and most sensible innovations and put them all into one machine. The Underwood Standard was sturdy, strong, and pretty easy to operate.
You could type on an Underwood Standard at high speed without fear of anything jamming up or breaking. You could SEE what you were typing (not true of all machines of the era), and even when it wasn’t doing anything – it sat on your desk looking cute. Again, not something that could be said of other machines of the era.
The Underwood Standard had a famous, open-frame design. Originally a cost-cutting measure, it’s kinda like a skeleton watch – you can see everything working inside the typewriter. Cool, huh? It also makes cleaning it and checking out how things work, much, much easier!
In the 1910s, Underwood famously built a giant-sized Underwood No. 5 as a marketing gimmick. Yes, it’s a real typewriter, yes, it really did type! It was used to type out the daily attendance-figures of those who came to gawk at it, during the World’s Fair!
The Underwood No. 5 was produced from 1900, all the way to ca. 1933. In that time, Underwood became a household name for typewriters, much like Royal, Remington, L.C. Smith, Corona, Woodstock, Olympia, Continental, and other famous manufacturers.
Back to My Typewriter…
The Underwood 5 came with a number of nifty little features, such as the fold-away paper-stay…
…the steel bar that sticks out, between the two ribbon-spools.
Manual ribbon-adjustment wheels, seen below, on the bottom left of the frame:
Margin-stops with ruler, at the front (on most typewriters, these things are at the back):
If you’ve never used one of these things before, then the margin-stops on the Underwood Standard will trip you up a bit – The LEFT stop controls the RIGHT margin (and therefore, when the bell rings). The RIGHT stop controls the LEFT margin (and how far back you push the carriage for each line). The settings of the stops correspond to the cursor and arrow which you see in the middle of the scale, sticking out of the carriage. On most typewriters, it’s left-stop, left margin, right stop, right margin – Not here!
Behind the typewriter, where the margin-stops usually are on other machines, we have the tabulation-stops, instead! Five in total:
These can be adjusted along the tabulation-rack to set predetermined indentations for sub-headings, lists, etc. Tabulations are operated from the front of the typewriter using the Tabulation Key (today called the ‘Tab’ key). It’ll run much more smoothly once I’ve replaced the crumbling rubber feed-rollers. Right now, the deteriorating rubber is jamming the mechanism.
At the bottom of the frame, you can see the long list of patent-dates:
Also on the Underwood, you have the handy seesaw ribbon-selector:
In that photograph, it’s currently set to “RED”. Pressing it down the other way, would set the machine to BLACK. A lot easier to use (and see!) than on some machines where the ribbon-selector is just some tiny little nub sticking inconspicuously out of the corner of the machine.
On the very left of the machine, you’ll see the margin-release button. It’s on the same level as the ribbon-selector. It’s in the same position on the much smaller Underwood Standard PORTABLE.
This machine was built in late 1927. It is Underwood Model 5, serial no. 2,284,724!
2,284,724…that’s a lot of Underwoods!
I wonder where the other 2,284,723 machines are?
As my restoration journey on this typewriter continues, I’ll update this story with future postings.