Tinkering with a Typewriter – The Underwood No. 5 Standard – POST NO. 3.

The Underwood undertakings continue…

The next step in this saga is to resurface the platen. The platen is the fat, round cylinder which the paper wraps around when you feed it into the typewriter. It’s also the impact-point of all those hammer-blows when you type. So its restoration is essential to the smooth running of the machine.

The exterior diameter of the platen and rubber is 45mm. 

The interior diameter of the platen, sans rubber, is 42mm. 

Therefore, the thickness of rubber required on the platen is 3mm. 

This is harder to achieve than you might imagine.

The first step is to remove the platen from the typewriter, explained in my previous posting on this topic.

Having removed the platen, it was then necessary to break off the old rubber. I did this quite effectively using a flathead screwdriver. I broke off the old glue which had crusted up around the edges of the platen, forced in the screwdriver-blade, and started jemmying away, levering the dried rubber up, and breaking it off as it came away from the cylinder underneath.

If you should intend to do this to your own machine, BE WARNED:

Early typewriters have platen cylinders cored with WOOD, not steel. Do NOT use anything overly sharp, that will gouge out or dig into the wood and cause it to crack or splinter. Otherwise you’re stuck doing even MORE work. That’s why I picked a blunt-point instrument like the screwdriver.

Resurfacing the Platen

To resurface the platen, you need fresh rubber tubing. If you’re lucky, you can find this at a hardware shop, a rubber-supply shop or other similar establishment.

However, specialty rubber like this is not as common in some places as once it was. Here, you must be creative.

There are two options available to most people:

1. Heat-Shrink Tubing. Easily purchased at electronic-supply shops and hardware stores, this stuff comes in a variety of widths, from a few milimeters, to several inches wide. If you have wide-diameter heat-shrink tubing on hand, buy some of that, along with the smaller sizes, to do both the platen, and the feed-rollers.

2. Bicycle Inner-Tubes. I wasn’t lucky enough to find extra-large heat-shrink tubing locally, and ordering it online was prohibitively expensive. However, there is another alternative. Not many people use and restore typewriters anymore, but fortunately for us, lots of people still go…cycling!

Every bicycle must have inner tubes which expand and hold air inside the tires. Nip down to your local bicycle-shop and ask about the largest-diameter tubing that they have available. This is a bit of a hit-and-miss affair, and it’s not nearly as neat and easy as using heat-shrink tubing, but it does work, and other restorers have gone down this path with success.

The tubes that you get need not be brand-new. If the shop is the kind that does in-house repairs for customers, chances are, they’ll have a whole bin or crate of used, punctured tubes lying around. Fish around in there until you find what you’re after.

Having found the right size/s (you may need more than one) of tubes, new or used, take them home and cut them open at the nozzle so that you have the longest length of tube available. Measure and cut the tube to the length of the platen. Also: Curl the tube inside-out. This will expose the SMOOTH inner-inner tube to the surface, which is better for the typewriter. Bicycle inner-tubes are filled with TALCUM POWDER to stop them sticking. You may have to dust or wash this off once the tube has been pulled over the platen.

Next comes the process of resurfacing the platen.

Having removed all the old rubber with care, ensure that the platen CORE or CYLINDER is free of imperfections and damage. Now, start layering heat-shrink or rubber tubing onto the platen.

If you have heat-shrink tubing, this should be much easier. If you have to do it with rubber tubing, it may be more fiddly and time-consuming, but it is possible. You may want to heat the rubber to expand it and make it more flexible while stretching it over the platen-core.

TIP: When removing the old rubber from your platen, keep the ends of the old rubber sheathing intact. This will serve as a guide about how thick to make the new platen-covering. 

An Interesting Observation

During my resheathing adventures involving the feed-rollers and the platen, I noticed that the shift and shift-lock mechanisms on the typewriter seemed to be malfunctioning.

I almost had a panic-attack! I didn’t come THIS far to screw up now! What happened!? What’d I do!?

The carriage kept jumping up and sticking in shift-lock mode, and I couldn’t figure out what was wrong. I decided to sleep on it and mull it over in the morning.

Taking a Holmesian approach, I examined all the evidence and analysed my movements, thinking about what I had done, changed or removed on the typewriter. I also examined the shift-mechanism itself to see how it operated.

As Holmes said: “Whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth“.

The only truth I could think of was that I had removed the platen, and that, judging from the construction and operation of the shift-mechanism, the entire thing was weight-tensioned.

On a hunch, I dropped the platen-core back into the typewriter. Bingo!

As I suspected, the shift-mechanism works ONLY when the platen is in position. The added weight of the platen is what keeps the springs that operate the shift-mechanism in correct tension. Boy was that a relief!

Once the platen is fully resurfaced (it’s taking a while), another post will follow.

 

Tinkering with a Typewriter – The Underwood No. 5 Standard – POST NO. 2.

“There’s so little to see and so much time!…Wait! STOP! Strike that! Reverse it! Thank you! Follow me…” 

– Willy Wonka. 

This machine is a marvel and a headache at the same time.

Since my last posting, I’ve glued the spacebar back together, and it’s holding fine:

Before…

…and after!

I replaced the paper-bales, somewhat inelegantly, with strips of rubber-band, cut and stuck to size. The way these things are constructed, I can’t actually use rubber tubing like I wanted to. The rollers are riveted on, not screwed. I can take them off the machine, but I can’t take the rollers out of their housings.

The next step was to remove the platen. What a damn nightmare.

To remove the platen, you take off both side top-plates (the decorative things at the top). Then you remove the right platen-knob. Then you remove the detent mechanism and carriage-release lever on the LEFT side of the platen. Then you unscrew the platen-shaft screws.

Add a bit of oil.

THEN you pull the whole rod out, from the left. Then, you push the paper-bales back, and fish the platen out.

Now you can remove the old rubber from the platen and the rollers.

Resurfacing the Feed Rollers

The Underwood No. 5 is possessed of TWO SETS of feed rollers. Front rollers and back rollers, held in place by the steel PAPER DEFLECTOR.

The paper-deflector clips into place on the typewriter. Just tug it up and slide it out. Once it’s removed, you can turn your attention to the feed-rollers.

The front rollers sit on a pair of forks inside the machine. Just lift them out and they’ll come out in one long rod.

Removing the rear feed rollers, or the back feed rollers, from an Underwood Standard No. 5 typewriter is a real lesson in patience, research, observation and lateral thinking.

Heed me now: There are NO INSTRUCTIONS AT ALL on how to do this ANYWHERE on the internet, and NO INSTRUCTIONS on how to do this in ANY of the antique typewriter manuals that I have read – not even Underwood’s official repair-manual from 1920, produced specifically for this machine.

THIS is how it is done…

To Remove the Rear Feed-Rollers on an Underwood No. 5 Standard Typewriter

1. RAISE the paper-release lever (on the RIGHT SIDE of the carriage).

2. The rear feed-rollers are CLAMPED between two sets of forks. One pair goes over the TOP of the roller-rod, one pair goes UNDERNEATH the roller-rod. How to remove them, you ask?

In this photograph, you can clearly see the two “claws” that lock onto the roller-bar, between the two feed-rollers (the two clumps that look like antique liquorice).

There are two of those sets. One on the left side, one on the right.

The claws that hold the rollers from the UNDERSIDE are tensioned on SPRINGS.

3. Once you have raised the paper-release lever, the upper claws will move. NOW, push DOWN on the lower, supporting claws (which are on springs and therefore, movable). This will allow you to wriggle the feed-rollers out, to replace the rubber.

To replace them, simply wriggle them back in again on both sides, and then drop the paper-release lever, to lock them back in place.

Resurfacing the Feed-Rollers

Having extracted the feed-rollers, it was then necessary to resurface them. As you see in that picture up there, they are in an atrocious state. A typewriter without functioning feed-rollers is like a car on blocks. It just don’t do what it’s supposed to.

Using a very sharp knife, I hacked off all the dead rubber on both sets of rollers. This was a very long, fiddly process. The rubber is probably as old as the typewriter.

Having removed the rubber, it was then necessary to resheath the rollers in fresh rubber.

To do this, I used HEAT-SHRINK TUBING.

Easily purchased at any hardware shop or electronics supplies shop.

Heat-shrink tubing is normally used for sheathing electrical cables and wires. But it’s excellent for this purpose. You cut off the length that you need, and then slide it over the rollers. Get a cigarette-lighter (or use a low setting on your gas stove), and watch the magic!

The heat causes the rubber/plastic tubing to shrink, and form TIGHTLY around the rollers. It’s a simple matter of doing this to each roller, until you have uniform thickness around each one.

I recommend using two different widths of tubing – a thinner one for the front rollers, and a wider one for the back rollers (which are significantly larger).

Behold:

Up the top, the crumbling, hardened, swollen rear feed-rollers. Below, the cleaned, and resurfaced front feed-rollers. Spot the incredible difference.

Once the rollers have been resheathed…

It’s time to put them back inside the typewriter…

The next step is to resheath, and replace the platen. To do this, I shall be using bicycle inner-tubing. For future reference, the diameter of the Underwood 5 platen with rubber sheathing is: 44.5mm. You can round that up or down as necessary.

 

Tinkering with a Typewriter – The Underwood No. 5 Standard – POST NO. 1

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.

 

The Elements of a Vintage Study or Office

It occurs to me that there’s a lot of blogs and forums out there these days, dedicated to the proposition that all men are not created equal. There are those who sail merrily on their way, oblivious to everything, and there are those who have thrown out the anchors at the top of the falls, holding back with all their might, mankind’s devilish attempts to hurl them into the abyss of blandness, cookie-cutterism and lack of personality and style.

Some Sort of Introduction

Websites and blogs such as the famous Art of Manliness, and The Gentleman, and forums such as the Fedora Lounge, were created to educate people about what life, mostly for men, but also for women, used to be. Before we all got tangled up in what Hollywood and the men from marketing and advertising wanted us to look like.

Some people have seen the older ways and in one way or another, have decided that they would like to return to them, or imitate their style in one way or another, ranging from behaviour, dress, grooming, style, and home decor.

In the 21st century world, the odious ‘man cave’ has made its appearance, both in peoples’ homes, and as a term on the internet. It is an odious term. Yes. I have said it, and it is said.

We already have ‘study’, ‘office’, ‘den’, ‘loft’, ‘workshop’, ‘games-room’ and ‘garage’ as sanctuaries of masculinity, and as places for men and their friends to hide themselves away from others, and enjoy themselves in their own privacy, or enjoy their privacy with their chosen circle of friends.

But apparently, none of these terms sufficiently captured the essence of what the ‘man-cave’ is, which is in itself, a rather fluid term which at times seems to defy definition altogether. A man-cave can be anything from a games-room, a home-theater, a library, an office,  study, a private bar or a model-making workshop, tinkering-room or gym. Perhaps this is why older terminology has been replaced by something more suited to capture such a diverse space that the man-cave has become.

But I’m kinda digressing here. Like…a LOT. I apologise…

The Actual Point of this Posting

One of the most common and popular rooms in the house, and one which may well become a person’s man-cave, is the room which in older times was marked as a study, office, or den. In an attempt to inject these traditionally masculine rooms with masculinity once more, some men have chosen to go the oldschool-route, and redecorate and redesign their studies so that they might look like the great chambers of thought and knowledge that they once were, full of books, wood, leather, whiskey and tobacco smoke.

This posting will cover the details that you’ll need if you want to try and pull off that classic, old-world man-cave study/office look from yesteryear. Those big, classy executive-style offices that you see in old houses, in period movies, and old photographs, with all the lashings of wood and leather and steel and brass, glass and soft, fluffy rugs. The traditional man’s office of yesteryear.

The Stuff You Will Need

The Desk

Every good study…has a desk. It goes without saying. But if you’re going for that old-world look, what kinds of desks should you be looking for? There are several to choose from.

The Rolltop

The rolltop desk is a traditional desk-form from the Georgian era, characterised by the curved rolling lid made of linked wooden slats. The desk typically comes in one of two styles: Either with a quarter-circle curved frontage and side-panels, or a more bendy “S”-styled roll, such as what is pictured above. One is not necessarily better than the other, and it’s up to personal taste which one you want.

The rolltop desk has plenty of space for storing little nicknacks, files, stationery and so-forth, and enough space on it to keep a typewriter, or a computer. Provided the computer or typewriter is of the portable, laptop variety, the rolltop lid in most cases, can be pulled down over the machine at the end of the day, without the top of the computer or the typewriter getting in the way.

The rolltop also has lots of little cubbyholes and pigeon-holes. These are extremely useful for things like stamps, bottles of ink, pens, paperclips, staplers, hole-punchers and other desktop equipment that you would need on an infrequent basis, but would need to access in a hurry when you did.

The Slant-Top or Bureau

The slant-top or bureau desk is characterised by its famous drop-down work-surface, which is usually supported by a pair of pull-out supports, either side of the top drawers. Much like the rolltop, this desk-form dates back to the 1700s, but remains popular with those people who like to keep things neat and tidy. Its rather small size forces you to keep clutter to a minimum, and like the rolltop, a simple flip of the lid hides everything neatly away from the sight of others.

The Secretary Desk

The secretary desk is instantly recognisable from its distinctive shape. It’s basically a bureau with a bookcase stacked on top. This is a handy desk-form if you find yourself constantly needing to flip through reference-books during your work, and you’re sick of having to trek across the study to your bookcases and back, to find the information you need. Simply stack your most-used reference-books in the case above your desk!

One of the great things about desks of this type is that the shelf at the top of the desk is the perfect place to put a desk-lamp where it will provide light, but not get in the way of your work. The upper part of the pigeonholes is also great for storing pencil-mugs, drinks and other things that you might want to access when the desk itself is closed and/or locked at the end of the day.

Rolltop and slant-top desks are almost strictly wall-desks. The backs of the desks are up against the wall, literally. Some people don’t like this. They like having a desk which they can access from all sides. What should you look for?

In this category, there are two common forms.

The Pedestal Desk

The pedestal desk is a desk-form so common that its creation goes back probably to the beginning of desk-building. It’s called a “pedestal” desk because it holds the desktop above two “pedestals” which house the drawers and storage-cupboards within. In its numerous guises and variations, the pedestal desk is the one desk-form that has survived well into the modern day.

The one small issue with pedestal-desks, and other all-round desks like this, is that there isn’t any back panel behind which you could hide wires and cables, so they can sometimes present a more messy appearance.

Particularly small pedestal desks with a narrow space between the two pedestals are often called “kneehole” desks, because the space under the desktop is just wide enough for the writer to slide in and put his knees in there. Compare the kneehole desk below, to the larger pedestal desk further up, and you’ll automatically see a difference in size.

The Partners’ Desk

The Partners’ desk is without doubt, the granddaddy of all desks. They’re called partners’ desks because they’re designed to be used by two business-partners, working face-to-face, sharing one big desk, which is essentially two pedestal-desks placed back-to-back.

Partners’ desks are MASSIVE. They’re about the size of a small car and have enough surface-area to double as an airfield during times of war. I’m pretty sure that during the Battle of Britain, Churchill allowed the RAF to use his desk as a runway for Spitfires when his majesty’s airfields were bombed out of action. Yes. Their finest hour was won thanks to desk-space.

Yes, I made that up. But the size of these desks was such that during the Second World War, those daring R.A.F. chaps used to refer to partners’ desks as “Mahogany Bombers”, due to their gigantic size. And that’s the truth!

These desks also weigh about as much as a whale after it’s gone through the krill buffet. If you’re looking for a power-desk, you must buy one of these. But be warned, they weigh a lot, and they take up a lot of real-estate. You need a BIG study, office, or man-cave, to fit this in!

Unless IKEA has invented a flat-pack version of this, you’ll never get one home in the boot of your car. You might succeed if you have a truck. Best bet is a trailer of some variety, a moving-van, or a pair of teleport-booths.

Classic Desk Accessories

Now that you’ve picked your desk, you need something to put on it. What kinds of things were common on desks 50, 70, 100 years ago? For the accessories and items that make up that classic desktop look of times gone by, read on.

The Lamp

Unless your awesomeness, sophistication and coolness is such that it generates its own, blinding glow of smug superiority, you’ll need a lamp on your desk. If you want something that will match your beautiful antique or solid-wood desk, and not some smunky piece of junk that you bought at IKEA, then you couldn’t go past a traditional Emeralite desk-lamp…

Commonly called “bankers’ lamps” because of their association with banks and their tellers, Emeralite desktop lamps have been manufactured since 1909! Talk about endurance of design! They were originally produced by the company of H.G. McFaddin & Co., in New York, U.S.A. To this day, the classic brass base and stem, and the swiveling green glass lampshade has remained a popular choice for those seeking old-world lighting charm. The brass is shiny and reflective, increasing the amount of light, and the green lamp-shade provides for a nice dash of colour!

But why is it green?

Although you can get these lamps with their shades in almost any colour, from frosty white to lemon yellow, its most common colour, and the colour which everyone associates with these lamps, is green. Why?

Emeralite lamps (note the name: “Emerald Light”) were made with green glass shades because light shining through the glass was softened by the colour green, and was easy on the eyes, while still providing enough light to be useful. The problem was that early electric lightbulbs could be a tad overpowering (some bulbs made in the Edwardian-era are still burning brightly to this day, a testament to their quality and longevity!). Placing a green shade between the light and the user was meant to soften it and make it less glaring on the eyes.

As bankers and accountants often had to update and check ledgers and balance-sheets, usually written in tiny script, having soft lighting that wouldn’t burn out their eyes was important. This is why the shades are green.

It’s also why those old-fashioned visors (such as worn by bank-tellers and accountants) are green. To diffuse the light and make it less intense.

Enough with the history, where do I get one? You can find them easily at antiques shops, second-hand shops, lighting-shops and office-supply chains. The design is so iconic that there are still people manufacturing the exact same style of lamp today, over a century later. You can pick one up, brand new, for not very much money at all.

A Leather Desktop 

You can’t go past the feel of real leather. Soft, cool, relaxing and smooth. And also an essential on any old-fashioned desk.

In the old days, leather-topped desks (such as the ones seen above), were considered the height of quality. The reason is not always obvious. Some people think that the leather is there purely because it’s there, and it’s there because it’s leather, and leather is expensive and if it’s expensive it’s gotta be quality and…yawn.

No.

Leather is found on old desks because it provides a smooth, soft, cushioned surface for writing. Don’t forget that until the 1950s, most people wrote with fountain pens, or dip-pens. Ever pricked yourself with the tip of a steel pen-nib? I can assure you that it hurts. A LOT.

A pen-nib is sharp enough in some cases, to literally draw blood. Since scraping such a needle-sharp pen-point on a wooden desktop would gouge marks and troughs into it, and make writing a very uncomfortable job, desks were lined with leather to give the nibs a smoother journey across the playing-field. These days, leather-topped desks are mostly purchased for their aesthetics, but if you intend to do a lot of handwriting at your desk (with a fountain pen or a dip-pen), then you should certainly buy a desk with a leather top.

Desk Blotters

What’s that, I hear you say? You can’t find a desk with a leather surface? Or they’re too expensive? Or they’ve been ripped up from years of poor use?

Fear not, intrepid study re-decorator, your grandparents already thought of a solution. They’re called desk-blotters.

Desk-blotters are those big leather pads that you see on executive desks, with the sheets of blotting-paper (yes, that’s what it is, blotting-paper) slotted into their corners. You can buy these things second-hand at antiques shops and places like that, or on eBay. Or you can buy them brand-new from homewares shops and large stationery-chains. Blotting-paper can be purchased in huge A1 sheets from places like arts-and-crafts shops, and big stationery-shops. You may need to cut the paper down to size for it to fit into your blotter, though.

Desk-blotters are handy for a number of reasons. Just like with the leather desk-surface, they protect the nibs of your pens from hard, friction-producing surfaces. They also arrest any drips or spills from ink, or drinks, or food (provided that they land on the blotting-paper, which may be changed and removed as necessary). The blotter also protected the leather surface of the desk underneath, if you didn’t want to damage it, but they also had a role in muffling sounds and providing stability which is necessary for the next item on our list.

The Typewriter

You can’t possibly have a nice, classic desktop setup like what you see in the movies, without a pretty, mechanical typewriter.

Remington Standard No. 16., Desktop Typewriter., Ca. 1933

For a machine that really pops and stands out for all the right reasons, and to match the traditional decor of the room, you’ll probably want a typewriter from the first half of the 20th century. A real vintage or antique machine with chrome and steel, and which has all those classic round glass keys with the chrome rings. Such machines ooze class and style.

However, be warned that typewriters of this style are getting harder and harder to find in working condition these days. All-steel typewriters with the flashy glass keys died out after WWII, and are almost unheard of after 1950. But if you’re looking for one (even a non-functioning one to act as a display-piece), then typewriter models likely to be found in old, pre-war offices and households include the Underwood Standard range, (Nos. 1-6), the Royal No. 10 model, the Remington Standard range (Nos. 10-16), and the L.C. Smith & Bros. Standard No. 8 model.

Be warned: A desktop typewriter of this size and vintage is EXTREMELY HEAVY. A Royal 10 weighs roughly 30 pounds. A Remington of a similar vintage weighs about twice as much. Make sure you have a STRONG desk that can take the weight, but more importantly, can handle the bone-jarring vibrations produced by the machine when it operates.

If a huge chunky desktop typewriter is too much to have on your desk, then you could get a nice vintage portable. You can choose from those made by companies such as Corona, Remington, Royal, Imperial, Continental, Olivetti and Underwood. Portables have the benefits of style, convenience, portability, compactness and smaller price-tags.

To find out more about how to buy your typewriter, read this. 

Having a typewriter in your study has many pluses. Apart from the fact that they’re extremely stylish and photogenic, a typewriter can save your ass if for any reason, you have a computer-failure. Anything from a crash to a blackout, to your printer packing up. Provided your machine’s in working order, in a pinch, a ribbon and a couple of sheets of fresh paper will have your letter, your essay, your business-report or other important document done in a few minutes.

Typewriters are also handy for things like typecasting on your blog, for keeping a diary or a journal, and for running off one-off documents that you really don’t want to have to save on your computer and waste disk-space with.

To muffle any undesirable clanking from your typewriter, and to stop it from shifting around on your desk, you may like to place a typewriter-pad underneath it. In the old days, you could buy these things from any stationery-shop. They’re just thick, square pads of foam or felt that you stick underneath your machine.

If you’re using a portable typewriter, a large mouse-pad, suitably orientated, can be an excellent substitute. A larger desktop typewriter will need something that covers more surface-area, and which will have to be much thicker, to cope with the significantly higher weight. To prevent irritating rattling, clinking or clanking while typing, remove any glass objects (jars, sets of drinking-glasses, etc) off your desk. Even the smallest portable typewriter can produce significant vibrations.

Fountain Pens

A man who loves to write should always have a good fountain pen. Not only are they infinitely classy, they are also much smoother and lighter writers than the modern ballpoint pen. For more information about these classic writing instruments, how to buy them, how to use them, care for them and other information, there is an entire category dedicated to them, which may be found on the menus back at the top of this page, on the left side of the screen.

Inkwell or Inkstand

You couldn’t have a classic desktop setup without one of these, could you? An inkwell, or an inkstand (a pair of inkwells on a stand, with slots and spaces for pens, nibs, and other bits and pieces) was a common desktop accessory, which remained popular long after dip-pens were obsolete. Some inkstands were given away as presentation-pieces or gifts.

The traditional inkstand or inkwell that might be found on a traditional desk would’ve been made of glass, silver, or brass.

Rocker Blotter

If you have a fountain pen, then you need a rocker-blotter. Rocker-blotters, in their various sizes and styles, have been desktop accessories since the Victorian era. They can be made of almost anything, from steel to silver, pewter, brass, leather, and a dizzying array of wood-types.

Rocker-blotters come apart into two-or-three pieces. A strip of blotting-paper (or in a pinch, paper-towel) is slipped over the blotter’s base, and it’s held in-place by the top-plate, which in-turn is held in-place by the knob at the top, which simply screws down. Paper is changed as necessary and as frequently as the blotter’s use requires it.

Magnifying Glass

Every household, or every study, and desk, should have some sort of magnifying device. For stuff like reading maps and small print, a standard, desktop magnifying glass is often sufficient. For a magnifier that won’t look out of place in your new study’s oldschool theme, look for a glass with a silver or brass frame, possibly with a cut-glass handle, like the one pictured above. Glasses like that are heavy and solid in the hands, unlikely to slide off the desk and provide good magnification.

Their extra weight means that they can also double as extra-classy paperweights, if need be.

A Good Drinking-Vessel

Either to be stored at the corner of your desk, or on a separate surface such as a sideboard, you should always have a nice drinking-vessel. What it is depends on what you like to drink. Fine glassware for top-quality alcoholic beverages, or even if you don’t drink alcohol, it can look fine filled with water. If you dislike having to constantly fill up your glass, search for something larger, like a traditional 1-pint pewter tankard.

Relax, modern pewter doesn’t contain any lead, so they’re perfectly safe to drink out of. But if you are the suspicious type, buy a traditional-style tankard with a see-through base. Traditionally made of glass, most modern tankards have see-through bases made of plastic (although some makers do still make tankards with traditional glass bases).

This was an innovation from Georgian times, and was created so that drunken bar-patrons would notice if a Royal Navy pressman had dropped a silver shilling into his beer. Press-gangs would enter a bar and look for drinkers. Accepting a shilling from a pressman was taken as your agreement to enter the Royal Navy. To trick drinkers, pressmen would drop a shilling into their tankards of beer. The drinkers would never see the shilling until the beer was all gone, and they were too drunk to notice it. They’d find the coin at the bottom of their mugs and were therefore hoodwinked into joining the navy.

To beat this crooked system of recruitment, people started making tankards with see-through bottoms so that drinkers could make sure there was nothing hiding at the bottom of their booze.

If you’re really worried about people slipping stuff into your drink, get yourself one of those German beer-steins with the lids on top.

Ash-Tray

Fewer people smoke today than they did back in the 30s, 40s and 50s, but an ash-tray is a nice thing to have on your desk, even if you don’t smoke. They’re handy as receptacles for things like loose-change, keys, business-cards and other important, but small, fiddly things that you don’t want to lose accidentally. The classic man’s ashtray is typically made of either brass, steel, or cut glass.

Bill-Spike

Anyone who is in the habit of writing down dozens of little post-it notes, phone-numbers, phone-messages, and other little details on small pieces of paper on a regular basis (like me!) will certainly appreciate a bill-spike.

Commonly found on shopfront-counters, reception-desks and other places where receipts are want to gather, these painfully sharp steel spikes on their metal bases are handy for keeping a tab on little bits of paper which are important enough to keep around, but not large or detailed enough to put in a folder, in a book, or in a drawer somewhere (where they’d probably get lost, anyway). You can pick these things up at places like stationery-chains and nick-nack shops for just a couple of dollars.

I have one on my desk, and without it, I’d forget where I put a person’s phone-number, or the address of someplace, within an hour of writing it down. Having a bill-spike is great for just poking down those flittery bits of paper that some people just have all over their bedrooms, offices and studies. Just write down your note, and poke it on down, and it won’t move anywhere until you want it to.

If your spike has a little coin-catcher, like that one in the photo (mine does), so-much the better. Handy for keeping your loose change in. If it doesn’t, then that’s why you’ve got the ash-tray on your desk for.

Letter Holder

For some people, having a steel bill-spike on their desk can be a safety hazard (if you have kids, for example). An alternative is the traditional letter-holder. Typically made of wood, brass or steel, these things can range from simple one-slot holders, to entire caddies that will hold letters, envelopes, incoming mail, outgoing mail, pens, pencils, scissors, stamps, paperclips, staples and oodles of other things. Handy for storing loose bits of paper in there.

Inbox

No, not one of those electronic things. I mean a proper inbox! Remember when they used to be made of wood? Handy for keeping documents that you’re working on, spare copy-paper and other things. If you need extra help with organisation, get a matching “outbox” too.

Stapler

You couldn’t possibly have a vintage office man-cave, without a stapler. And you couldn’t possibly have a stapler more vintage than the El Casco M5, from 1934.

Established in Spain in 1920, El Casco was originally a firearms manufacturer, producing revolvers. But the Depression hit the company like a kick in the nuts. Desperate not to keel over and die, the company turned its precision machining of firearms into precision machining of exquisite desktop accessories…which it still manufactures today. And the M5 stapler is one of its most iconic designs, and is the stapler that you would have to have in any vintage office.

Other Oldschool Office Fixtures

Oldschool Storage Solutions

Pigeon-holes and filing-cabinets kinda rule the roost here. I don’t believe in things really doing double-duty. An object should have a use, and it should be used for that purpose. Having things that double up as something else can be fiddly and frustrating to some people, just as much as it can be space-saving and time-saving for others. Keep a nice old-fashioned filing-cabinet in your office or study. Two or three drawers, possibly four, depending on how much filing you need to do.

And while you’re at it, invest in some of those old beige/custard/buff-coloured manila folders, the ones made of cardboard. I find these handy because you can just write whatever you need to, on the front of the file, in big letters, to save you having to fiddle around with tags and stickers. And some more modern files don’t have surfaces or colour-selections that lend themselves well to this function. Especially handy if you have poor eyesight.

Sound System

For most men, music is a must. To enjoy your favourite rock, jazz, classical, pop, Latin/South-American, or other genre of music, it sounds so much nicer when it’s coming out of something that looks pretty. Or even if it’s just listening to your favourite radio-station, talkback, music, or otherwise. What’s something that you can put in your new, revamped man-space that will look nice and sound nice?

For those of us who enjoy variety, you probably couldn’t go past a Crosley-brand radio-gramophone. Records are becoming more and more popular these days, and people young and old are collecting records, buying new records, resurrecting old records, and dusting off their old collections.  The Crosley record-player shown above is one of many reproduction units evoking the radio-styles of the 30s and 40s. It can tune into AM and FM radio, it can play all your records, ranging from 33, 45, up to 78rpm, and it even has audio-cassette capabilities. Some units of this style even have slots for CDs (keep an eye out for those, if that’s what you’re after).

Some people find themselves listening to the radio more than they listen to their CD, record, cassette or even MP3-collections. Good, old-fashioned tube or transistor-radios are ideal for this. Some people say that vacuum-tube radios, of the kind popular from the 20s-40s, are the ones that produce the very best sound.

Old-fashioned tube-radios came in a number of styles. The two most common are cathedral…

…and tombstone…

…named for their curved, and rectangular/square profiles.

You can buy an antique one that’s been restored, or you can buy a modern reproduction, which will look the part, sound the part, but cost a fraction of the price.

If you have an extensive collection of CDs or records, you might want to buy an old jukebox from the 1940s or 50s…

You can buy original vintage ones, or you can buy modern reproduction jukeboxes, which are designed to play a stack of CDs, instead of a stack of records!

 Seating Solutions

Don’t be a Victorian, and believe that ultra-comfortable seating is something to be considered immoral and rude. Every office man-cave should have a comfortable office-chair. The modern office-chair was invented in the mid-1800s, and was typified by the Centripetal Armchair:

In many ways, this was the first modern office-chair. It came with a swivel seat, rolling caster-wheels, and had models which came with additional features such as headrests and arm-rests. In fact, when it was unveiled in 1851, it was considered so modern and revolutionary that the uptight Victorians were completely horrified by it! Victorian morality dictated that such comfort and pleasure, derived from a piece of furniture, suggested relaxed, loose morals, quite shocking and improper in those days! As a result, despite its revolutionary design, the chair was a poor seller.

Fortunately, such starched, straitlaced attitudes are not so prevalent today, and you can easily go out and by a comfortable chair without fear of immorality.

You don’t have to buy a chair as fancy as that, but any desk-chair should be comfortable and fully adjustable. If you’re going for that vintage look, older chairs were typically made of wood and/or leather. Not plastic or other materials. Chairs like these (particularly ones made of wood) are often pretty cheap and can be bought almost anywhere.

If your room is large enough, then you might also consider the inclusion of armchairs and/or a couch. Handy for visitors, or just as a place to kick back, relax, and have a nap. Or read. Or write.

A Safe Place

What better place to keep things safe than…a safe?

Of course, there are other alternatives, but not all of them are particularly effective. Those pesky “personal” safes that you can buy aren’t really that effective. If it’s small enough to carry home, it’s small enough for someone to steal. And therefore…useless.

What kind of strongbox you buy depends on what you want to keep safe. Some desks come with lockable drawers. If you have a vintage desk with the keys intact, you could use that as your safe. Nobody’s going to try and carry away an entire desk. Some filing-cabinets also have the same feature, for storing important documents.

But if these two options aren’t suitable, and having a floor or a wall-safe isn’t an option, then your best bet is to get an actual, honest-to-goodness safe. Those old-fashioned steel ones that Wil-E-Coyote loves to drop on the Road Runner. A safe like that in working condition, with a known combination, will keep your valuables of all kinds…well…safe!

Of course, these safes come with a few strings attached – They take up quite a bit of space. And they are also extremely heavy! Be glad that some of them come with stands and wheels! But they are handy in storing stuff that you want to have protected. Now, nobody is going to be running off with your precious collection of ‘gentleman’s literature’.

Coat-Tree

A classic, bentwood tree is always handy. This one belongs to me. Traditionally, hats were placed on the top branches, coats on the lower branches, and things like umbrellas, walking-sticks and canes were placed in the ring around the base. Even if you don’t own a stick or a hat, these things can still be handy as a place to dump your coat when you come in out of the cold. Better than chucking them on the couch, anyway.

Open-Grille Fan

Back in the old days, when health and safety regulations were not what they are today, almost every office or study would have one of these perched somewhere around the room, either on the desk (if there was space…unlikely), or on a stand, pedestal or side-table. Old-style open-grille fans are stylish, easy to clean, and keep you cool the old-fashioned way. Just don’t put your fingers anywhere near it when it’s running, and keep the kids away from it. Or better yet, you could install ceiling-fans. Having a nice collection of paperweights (or paperweight stand-ins) would be important when you have a fan like this in your room.

Rotary Telephone

The old, rotary-dial telephones of the 20s and 30s are iconic, and no vintage office, if you’re trying to recreate one, would be found without one. You can still buy original telephones in working order. Simply plug it into the wall, and let it ring! Some of these old phones have bases and bodies made of steel, so they can be surprisingly heavy. But the good news with such solid construction is that after a heated conversation, you can literally slam down the handset without damaging the unit.

Some Concluding Remarks… 

These are more or less the bare bones essentials that you’ll need to buy, to pull off the look of a vintage office or study, if that’s the angle for your man-cave, or home-office redecoration. You can vary them around a bit and mix them up, but in completion, they’ll turn almost any room into a replica office or home study, straight from 1935.

Any other elements you add in are personal touches to add your own little spin to things. This is my vintage desktop at home:

As you can see, most of the things listed in this posting can be found there. It’s an ongoing project, inspired by my recent purchase of the banker’s lamp in the corner, which in-turn, inspired this posting, for any guy looking to dress up his study or office in a more interesting, vintage style.

 

Buying a Typewriter: What You Need to Know

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?

No, seriously…who?

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.

Why?

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.

Missing Keys?

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:

Rubber

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.

Carriage

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!

Keys

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.

Typewriter Desks

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!

 

Underneath the Underwood

Part of the fun of owning antiques and second-hand nick-nacks is the challenge of pulling them apart, seeing how they work, cleaning them up, and putting them back together. Today, I had such an event with my Underwood…

I bought this typewriter a few months back to fulfill a lifelong obsession with these machines. And since buying it, I’d been exploring the intricacies of old mechanical typewriters. By poking around with my machine, cleaning it and diagnosing problems, I found out how various functions worked, why sometimes they didn’t work, and how they were fixed.

Amazingly, after all that…the typewriter still works.

Despite its seeming complexity, a mechanical typewriter is really quite a simple machine.

You slot paper in the back. You turn the platen-knobs. The knobs turn the platen, which pulls the paper in, and grips it against the feed-rollers inside the carriage. This creates the friction which pulls the paper into the typewriter. As you type, the ratchet system on the typewriter causes the mainspring to release energy, which unwinds the spring, which pulls on the draw-band, which pulls the carriage, which advances the carriage along the race, which actuates a lever to flip a hammer to strike the bell and signal end-of-line.

Smacking the return-lever kicks the platen back a notch (or two, or three, depending on line-setting), and shoving the carriage back winds up the mainspring, and resets the machine all over again. A stopper bar at the back of the carriage blocks the left-and-right movement of the carriage by arresting the two margin-stops at user-set margins. Pressing the margin-release drops the bar and allows the carriage to move freely. Pushing the bar up resets the margins to their previous settings.

All done mechanically with no electronics at all.

The majority of a typewriter is made of metal. Steel. But some parts of a typewriter are made of wood, paper, glass, and rubber. And these may occasionally need attention.

When buying a second-hand typewriter, one of the most common things that may need attention are the feed-rollers.

The feed-rollers are two (or more, depending on the size of the typewriter) invisible rubber rollers or cylinders hiding inside the typewriter-carriage. When you turn the platen-knobs, the platen rubs against the feed-rollers, trapping any paper fed into the machine, and pulling it through the typewriter, ready for use.

Feed-rollers and platens are coated with rubber to provide grip and cushioning. If a platen or rollers are hard or cracked, they need to be recovered, or treated, to improve grip. To do this, it’s necessary to remove the platen.

That’s what I was doing today.

An Exploration

In a recent typing-episode, one of the feed-rollers became dislodged for reasons I couldn’t figure out. I managed to re-lodge it, but I decided that I wanted to have a closer look at the insides of the machine. To do that, I would have to remove the platen to gain access to the rollers.

Because typewriters were so common back in the old days, and there was an active repair-industry going on, access to parts of a typewriter that needed periodic attention was usually easy to get. Such as the feed-rollers.

To get to the rollers, I had to remove the platen, the big, black, long, rubber-sheathed…yeah, get your minds out of the gutter…cylinder that makes up most of the carriage.

The platen is held onto the carriage by a surprisingly simple method. Two screws, one knob and a long hard shaft. Somewhere in there is a joke.

Most typewriter-carriages are assembled the same way, and these directions (or a variation of them) are going to be the likely method of platen-removal, if you ever have to do it to your own machine. Here’s a small tutorial about how to do it.

You will need…

– Small-head screwdrivers (flat-head, most probably).
– Q-tips/cotton bud-sticks.
– Methylated Spirits/Denatured Alcohol.
– Air-puffer, vacuum-cleaner, or a pair of good lungs.
– Needle-nose tweezers.
– Optional: A pair of pliers.

1. Remove platen-knob. 

On my typewriter, the Underwood Standard Portable, you first have to take off the left platen-knob. To do this, twist the platen around until you see a small screw in the gap between the platen-knob, and the endplate of the left side of the carriage. Put your screwdriver on the screw and unscrew it.

You don’t have to take the screw off completely, just loosen it. The left platen knob will now just slide right off.

(On some typewriters, the knob is simply screwed in place. If so, just unscrew it. But check for exterior screws on BOTH knobs, first).

2. Unscrew right-side platen-screw.

Hidden on the platen-shaft is a small screw on the right side, between the platen-rubber, and the right carriage end-plate. Loosen this screw. Again, full removal of the screw is not necessary.

(This applies to my Underwood portable, your typewriter may be slightly different).

3. Grab right-hand platen-knob. Pull!

Removing the left platen-knob, and loosening the platen-screw (step 2), has released the pressure on the platen-rod INSIDE the platen-shaft, which is attached to the right platen-knob.

Pull the right-hand platen-knob. A long, steel shaft will come sliding out. Don’t bend it, or it’ll never go back in again!

4. Remove the Platen!

And that is IT. Two screws, one knob, and a steel shaft, are the only things holding the platen onto the carriage! With those removed, you can now wriggle the platen out! Start with the side of the platen which has the ratchet-teeth on it, first (usually, this is the LEFT side of the platen). You may have to wriggle it a bit, and ease it out CAREFULLY. You don’t want to bend or break anything. Press the paper-release lever on your carriage (usually found on the right side of the carriage) to give yourself a few extra milimeters of wriggle-space, and to get the paper-bale rail out of the way.

To make things just a little bit easier, adjust the line-space lever so that it’s at its maximum (double, or triple-spaced). This will get the line-space lever ratchet-system out of the way, and make it easier to get the platen out (and in, later).

And after swearing, grumbling and wriggling, you’ll end up with something like this:

Here, we have the typewriter, with the platen, knobs and rod removed! The ratcheted, left side of the platen is bottom-most in this photograph.

With the platen removed, you now have full access to the well where the platen was resting. You can flush out dust, wipe away cobwebs and clean it out really good inside! While you’re in there, check on the feed-rollers. They look like this:

Feed-rollers are not attached to the typewriter in any way whatsoever. Their name directly reflects their purpose. They feed paper, and they roll freely. Feed-rollers.

You should pick the rollers out of their well, and check them for ‘flats’, where the rubber has hardened and flattened out, due to years of pressing against the platen, and for excessive wear-down due to constant rubbing. If the rollers are hard (like you see in my photo), you can rejuvenate them by rubbing them with fine-grit sandpaper, or by rubbing them carefully with rubber-reconditioner, which will soften them up, and improve their grip. While you have the platen lying around, you might wanna do the same to it, as well, if it’s necessary.

With the well open, you should clean out all the dust and gunk that’s built up in the previously inaccessible parts of the typewriter. Like…um…this:

…and this…

Once you’ve cleaned as much as you can, drop the feed-rollers back into their slots, and then wriggle the platen back down into the carriage. Thread the platen-rod through the holes provided (you may need to do extra wriggling to achieve this), smack the left-hand platen-knob back on the end, and tighten up the screws.

Special Note:

Screws on typewriters and other old machines can be rather stiff. You can use a pair of pliers to add leverage to your screwdriver to unscrew them with greater ease. But be sure to use the pliers to add more leverage to the screwdriver when you screw the screws BACK, as well, so as to provide enough friction for the screws to grip the rod, and rotate the platen. If you don’t, then the screws won’t grip the platen-rod, and you’ll have free-spinning knobs without the platen moving at all.

 

Fountain Pens and Flexible Nibs

Ballpoint pens are boring.

There. I said it.

One of the reasons why I love fountain pens is because of the variety that surrounds them. You have pens made of gold, of rubber, of wood, of steel, of silver, of plastics of various kinds, you have steel nibs and gold nibs of all kinds of writing styles and characteristics. You have all kinds of inks and filling-mechanisms and sizes and styles. Somewhere out there, is the fountain pen for you.

And perhaps you’re already out there looking for that fountain pen just for you. And perhaps you’ve been looking on websites or forums or online photo-galleries to find the best pen for you. And perhaps you’ve become interested in nibs. But not just any nib. A flexible nib. And maybe you just want to know a bit more about this curiosity of writing before deciding whether or not it’s really for you. That’s what this posting is here to do.

What is a Flexible Nib?

A flexible nib is…a…flexible…nib.

Okay that’s the short story.

The long story is that a flexible nib is a nib that bends, spreads and flexes according to the amount of pressure that the user applies to the pen. The more pressure, the more flex. Less pressure, less flex. Press down and the tines of the nib spread apart. Ease your force and the tines spring back together. Easy. That is a flex nib in a nutshell.

Why do we Want Flex Nibs?

Flex nibs are desirable for a number of reasons, although granted, they’re not for everyone. Flex-nibs are prized by people who like line-variation in their writing, by people who practice calligraphy (particularly styles like Roundhand) or people who just want a bit of fun in their writing. Flex-nibs are also handy for illustrators and artists who require line-variation in their art, such as comic-book writers and cartoonists.

I want a flex nib but…I can’t find any!

Unfortunately for the population at large, fountain pens with flexible nibs are, on a whole, no longer manufactured. In fact, they haven’t been manufactured in mainstream fountain pens for a while now. If you’re after a fountain pen with a flexible nib, for the best results, you’re almost certainly going to have to hunt for vintage pens, preferrably before ca. 1930 (or at least before the 1950s). Fountain pens with flexible nibs were particularly popular in the years between 1880 to about 1930, but their manufacture and use died away gradually since then until now they’re hardly manufactured at all. Many fountain pens made during the first two decades of the 20th century are famous for their flexible nibs and many pen companies were famous for making pens with flexible nibs. Companies such as Swan, Conway-Stewart, Wahl-Eversharp, Waterman and Conklin.

Where did Flex Nibs Come From?

Flex nibs or flex pens have a long history and they started with the quills of the Middle Ages.  Quills, which were the long, flight-feathers of birds (usually geese), were prepared for writing by being de-barbed (having their frilly bits cut off), being heated and dried, and then by being cut into pen-points.

Repeated dipping in ink meant that over time, the pen-points would become soft and flexible. Writers who enjoyed this quality let their quills stay nice and soft and flexy until such time that the quill-points got so soft that they’d just break (at which point, the broken point was cut off and a new quill was cut out of the remaining feather-shaft).

When steel dip-pens started replacing quills en-masse in the 1830s, writers were so used to flexible quills that factories often manufactured steel pens with flexible points so that writers would have something more familiar between their fingers.

In the early 1900s when fountain pens began to replace dip-pens, pen-manufacturers kept flexible gold fountain pen nibs as a writing holdover from the dip-pen era.

In the 1930s and 40s, as the fountain pen became more and more popular, flexible nibs were found to be unsuitable for the office environment, where pressing a pen-nib through paper and carbon-paper meant that stronger, stiffer nibs were required. After that time, flex nibs started being manufactured less and less, and finally died out after ballpoint pens started rising to prominence in the 1960s. Today, flex nibs…true flex nibs…are rare in the modern fountain pen market. Most people who want flex generally buy antique pens, or else buy cheap, steel dip-pens (which generally have flexible properties on a much lower price-level than antique fountain pens which can cost hundreds of dollars).

Using a Flex Nib

Flex nibs are not for everyone. Because they haven’t, for the most part, been manufactured for the past several decades, public knowledge of flex nibs is low. By that I mean, the average person on the street is unlikely to have ever seen one or used one. So, is a flex nib for you? It might be, it might not be.

Using a flex nib requires a light touch. Yes, all fountain pens require a light touch, but this is especially true with flex nibs (and the more flexible the nib, the lighter the touch). Someone transitioning from a ballpoint pen to a fountain pen should get used to using a regular, stiff-nibbed fountain pen first before unleashing themselves on a flex-nibbed pen and all the uncertainties that can come with it.

It’s important to know the limitations of a flex-nib. No two flex nibs are exactly the same and there are varying levels of flex. They range from superflex (also called ‘Wet Noodles’), to full-flex and semi-flex. Superflex nibs which will bend at the lightest of touches are especially common with older pens from the turn of the last century. The majority of pens are full-flex or semi-flex. If you want to experiment with flex-nib pens and aren’t sure whether or not you can handle trying to write with a pen that’s going to jump and down like a pogo-stick, you might want to start with a more forgiving semi-flex pen. These pens will only flex a small amount, compared with say, a 1900 Waterman which would have nib-tines that literally flex like wet noodles.

If you want to experiment with flexible nibs but don’t want to fork out $200+ for an antique Parker that you might only ever use once, when you figure out that flex really isn’t for you…then what do you do?

A lot of people ask this question. “How can I fiddle with flex on a fluff?”

The answer is easy. Go to your local arts and crafts shop or arts-supply shop or fancy paperie or your local pen-shop, and purchase some steel dip-pens and a pen-holder. Even modern dip-pens (but especially older ones) can be significantly flexible. Once you’ve got the hang of preparing the pen, then you can learn to write with it and see if writing with a flex-nib is for you. Think of the dip-pens as the cheap, training-wheels, free-sample alternative to blowing big bucks on antique flex-nib fountain pen. A small stash of flexible steel nibs and a pen-holder might cost $20 (okay, a bit more if you need to buy the ink as well), and it’s a small price to pay for trying out something totally new. Plus, if you break the pen-nib, you won’t cry.

Most importantly when learning how to use flex-nibs is to know how much pressure to place on the pen when writing. A really flexible nib will require almost no pressure at all to write a line a quarter-inch wide. Semi-flex nibs might require a somewhat heavier hand to produce a similar result. Not knowing the limits and capabilities of the flexible qualities of flexible nibs can lead to the nibs being broken or sprung (where the nibs have been pressed down so hard that the tines don’t spring back together when you ease off the pressure). Sprung nibs can be repaired and hammered flat again, but it’s a fiddly, messy process that’s best avoided to begin with.

What are Flex Nibs Made Of?

The vast majority of flex-nibs (for fountain pens, at least) are made of gold. The soft properties of gold make it ideal for nibs of different levels of flex. Dip-pen nibs which contain flexible properties, on the other hand, are generally made of steel. Steel can be a little harder to work when making and using a flex-nib, but it’s cheaper and easier to mass produce for throwaway dip-pens.

 

Pen Shows: How To Play with Fire and Not Get Burnt

There’s watch-fairs, gun-shows, knife-shows, antiques markets and even book-fairs. And yes. There’s even pen-shows. And that’s what this article is about.

To the avid pen-collector, visiting a pen-show is like leaving a five-year-old kid inside Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory. He won’t care that he’s lost and high and freaking out…he’s bloody loving it, and he won’t want to leave when you come along trying to drag him away, kicking, screaming and giving you a Joe Pesci Special that’d make your ears drop off and your hair turn greener than your neighbour’s lawn. Yes. Pen shows are THAT cool.

There are many benefits to buying your pens from a pen-show instead of eBay or another online seller or from a pen-shop. You can take your time, you can chat and converse, you can examine the goods like a Russian mobster checking out African conflict diamonds and you can haggle, barter and bargain until you’re blue in the face, with the guy behind the table, who will just sit there and say “No”. You can test pens in person and see how they write, regardless of if you do, or do not eventually buy them. You can see an array of pens and writing instruments and equipment that you will never see anywhere else, all in one place and in the flesh. And you can buy amazing pens that you’ve always wanted for your collection, right there, right now, on the table. You can just keep going and going until you’ve had enough. Then you take a break and go some more.

Your First Pen Show

You’ve heard about these things called pen shows. You’re a new collector and you’ve seen other people’s collections online and they’re making you greener with envy than Eggs A’la Seuss. You want those pens. YOU WANT THEM. NOW. You want that deep red, 1920s Duofold, or the sleek, 1942 Skyline. The tasteful 1930s Sheaffer Balance or that 1910s Waterman 52. You’ve only ever seen photos of a solid gold 1905 Conklin Crescent-Filler, or that latest Montblanc Meisterstuck with the diamond star on the end. You. Want. It. NAO!!

But hold on. You need to know how to approach things. That’s what this article is for.

Finding Out about Pen Shows

So, you want to collect fountain pens. Or maybe you already are collecting fountain pens. And you want to know how to collect more. So you hear about these things called ‘pen shows’ where collectors, restorers and retailers sell, trade and chat about pens. Mad and insane as it is, you discover that this is true. But how do you find out where these mystical gatherings take place?

Your best bet is to visit the Fountain Pen Network, the internet’s biggest forum for fountain pen collectors, users, traders, repairers and sellers. Here, you can find out about all the major pen-shows that happen around the world. Most of them take place in the United States; New York, Los Angeles and Washington. But there’s also the London Writing Equipment Show and the Melbourne Pen Show in Australia. Due to the large number of shows, they often jostle for space on the calender and it’s important to check the dates for upcoming shows carefully. Some shows only go for one day each year. Some go for two or three. You need to figure out which shows you can visit and how you’re going to get there and how to transport any potential purchases back home safely. If you discover that there’s a pen show in the city where you live, you’re in luck! Most people travel hundreds of miles to visit these things.

Kitting Up for a Pen Show

You should always bring along the following essentials to any pen show:

– A bottle of ink.
– A notepad.
– Tissue-paper.
– A powerful magnifying glass or loupe.
– Pens of your own.
– Wallet with plenty of cash (not all places have EFTPOS).
– A poweful flashlight.
– A good set of nerves!

Attending the Show

When you reach the venue of the show, remain calm and collected. Head in. Greet any people you know and then wander around. Don’t buy anything…just wander. Take in the show and see where things are, who sells what and how things work. Not every person at a pen show is there to sell stuff. Some people show up merely to display their collections and answer questions. Looking at these collections can give you ideas about what you might want to add to your own growing stash of stuff. Ask questions and learn more and make friends and share knowledge. This is what you’re here for. If you wanted to buy a pen, you should’ve gone to the nearest pen-shop.

Once you’ve acclimatised to the environment and done the obligatory meet-and-greet and seen where things are, you can now take your time and start hunting for the pens you want. Shopping at a pen-show has many advantages over shopping online or at a pen shop. At a show, you can usually touch and handle the stuff you want to buy. You can get expert information and advice (as opposed to the clueless marketing-spiel you get hocked at you from every shop-counter in the universe) and you can test the product before you potentially buy it.

Buying a pen at a pen show is no different from buying a pen anywhere else. With loupe or magnifying-glass in hand, examine the pen minutely. Go over every single square milimeter and check for any and all imperfections and flaws. Decide how perfect a pen you want, ask how much the pen’s being sold for and then ask yourself if you think it’s worth that much and perhaps give a counter-offer. Remember to be civil, polite and friendly. Collectors are mutually trusting of other collectors…don’t do anything to sabotage that trust or you may not be welcome at the same seller’s table next year. Be sure to handle all pens with care, respect and delicacy. Some items for sale can be upwards of one hundred years old or more and they demand a light touch on the part of you, the potential purchaser. Always ask what is for sale, whether you can handle something and whether you can perform a dip-test to see how the pen writes. Not all people are there to sell things and not all people who sell things appreciate everyone fiddling with their merchandise.

Other things to Look out For

Pens are not the only things sold at pen shows. Keep an eye out for stuff like ink, blotting-paper, display-cases, books, diaries, pen-pouches, inkstands, dip-pens, nibs, inkwells, desk-blotters and rocker-blotters. Some shows may even branch out into other areas, selling vintage and antique wristwatches and pocketwatches, pieces of antique ivory and even some knives such as straight-razors, pocketknives and paperknives. It pays to keep your eyes open and wandering, to take in everything that a particular show has to offer.

Tableholding at a Show

If you’re a part of a local pen-collector’s club or a local pen-shop, you may get the chance (either someone offered it to you, or you asked for it specially) to become a tableholder at a pen-show. Remember to show up early, set up your displays and post clear signs about what is and what is not for sale. People will wander all over the place and peek at, and touch things that they want to see. Don’t wander too far from your table at any one time and if you must, then get a trusted party (fellow club-member, for example) to keep an eye on things while you toddle off to induge your pen fantasies. Above all – You should strive to know everything…and I mean everything…about the products on your table, whether they’re for sale or not. Nothing is more boring than asking questions of someone who looks like he should know the answers…and getting nothing in reply. You never know. It might spark a conversation that might lead onto you getting that one pen you’ve always wanted…

Whatever the case, enjoy visiting your next pen show, be it your first, second, third or 72nd! Just remember to have fun.

 

Pen Profile: Vest Pocket Fountain Pens

Admittedly, the range of fountain pens we have around today is pretty small. They’re all roughly the same size, they all hold roughly the same amount of ink and they all have the same selection of nibs.

Back when fountain pens were new, things were a lot different.

Fountain pens were once luxury items. To own one was a big status-symbol. Most people at the turn of the last century were still using steel-nibbed dip-pens to do the majority of their writing. Schools in many countries continued using dip-pens well into the 1940s. Fountain pens were expensive things to own and the people who were lucky enough to afford one of these newfangled ‘reservoir pens’ usually only owned one pen, which they used endlessly until it broke, before they purchased another.

As fountain pens became more common and gradually, cheaper, towards the early 1900s when mass production increased output and design-improvements made fountain pens more desirable, more people started wanting them. And they wanted different styles and types of pens as well. As the fountain pen became more and more essential to everyday life, people saw the necessity for keeping one near them at all times.

This was tricky when you consider that most fountain pens made between the 1880s-1910s…didn’t come with pocket-clips, the kind that all pens have today. Such fancy and mindblowing additions to the pen as a pocket-clip wouldn’t show up until the First World War. That’s where the ringtop fountain pen comes in.

Ringtop vest-pocket pens

Without the presence of pocket-clips, it was necessary to find other ways to keep pens from running away from their owners. One of the main methods of keeping a tab on your pen was to have a ring attached to the top of the cap (something that became possible when threaded, screw-on caps were invented, that held onto the body of the pen much more securely than comparable slip-on caps of the period).

There’s a big misconception that ringtop pens are all women’s pens. THIS IS NOT TRUE.

Ringtop fountain pens were common for only a very short period of time, from the 1900s up until the end of the 1920s and they were marketed (and manufactured) for both men and women. It’s easy to tell the difference between men’s and women’s pens purely from their lengths. Women’s pens were longer (four inches or more); they were worn with a chain or a ribbon around the neck, like a necklace. Men’s ringtop pens are significantly smaller, generally being no longer than about three and a half inches.

Why?

If the history of consumer-goods has taught us anything, it’s that women’s products are almost always smaller than men’s. Women’s watches are smaller. Women’s pens are smaller. Rings and chains for women’s jewellery are usually much thinner than men’s jewellery. So why are men’s pens in the case of ringtops, smaller than women’s?

Ringtop pens for men were designed as ‘vest-pocket’ pens. They usually had the code-letter ‘V’ or ‘VP’ (for Vest/Vest-Pocket) heat-stamped or engraved into them. Pens like this were deliberately kept smaller than women’s pens because they were designed to be clipped to a man’s double albert watch-chain and worn in one of the two watch-pockets of his waistcoat (or ‘vest’). On a watch-chain along with a pocket-watch, the setup would look like this:


My vest-pocket fountain pen and pocketwatch. Pen: 1925 Wahl Art Deco vest-pocket fountain pen. Watch: 1950s Ball railroad chronometer

In the days when men still wore waistcoats (a stylistic choice I still carry on) and pocketwatches were still popular (another stylistic choice I keep alive), vest-pocket pens were a popular writing-instrument. Compact, convenient and nigh impossible to lose; even if the pen did fall out of your pocket, the chain clipped to the ring on the cap would prevent it from getting lost.

The End of Ringtop Pens

Ringtop pens for men died out by the 1930s. Pocketwatches were still being made, waistcoats were still popular and people were still combining the two, but the truth was that demand for this pen, which had become little more of a novelty by this time, was dropping fast. The arrival in the mid-1910s of pens with permanent pocket-clips meant that keeping a pen securely about your person with a ringtop cap and chain was no longer necessary. By the mid-1930s, production of both men’s and women’s ringtop pens had come to an end.

Today, ringtop pens are no-longer made as there’s no market for them. They do still exist, as curious reminders of a bygone age, if as nothing else, though. You can still buy them at pen-shows, vintage pen shops and online from pen-dealers and repairers, but unless you’re intending to wear it on a ribbon or necklace around your throat or on the end of a watch-chain, they’ll probably have to make up part of your desktop pen inventory due to the risk of them falling out of your pocket (unless you store them in a pen-pouch when you’re carrying them around).