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.


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:


Roughly 20% of the stuff on a typewriter is rubber. The platen, the feet, the feed-rollers, and in some cases, the paper-bales (although not always, in this last instance).

Rubber is there to act as a cushion, and to provide grip for the paper when you type. The issue with rubber is that it’s a natural product, and is therefore prone to degrading. When buying a typewriter, you want to check the condition of the rubber.

Checking the rubber on the feet is easy. Just lift the typewriter up. You can buy replacement feet pretty easily online, or even at your local hardware shop, if they need replacing.

Next, check the rubber on the platen. Platen-rubber should be firm, but not solid. Tap it with your fingers. If it feels firm, then it’s fine. If it feels like tapping glass or the side of a bowl, then it’s too hard. This can be remedied by sanding the platen with fine sandpaper (to remove hard rubber and expose fresh, softer rubber, and therefore improve grip), or by rubbing the platen lightly with a rubber-solvent to soften up the platen. If the rubber on the platen is in good condition, then you can just leave it as it is, and not worry about it.

Then you need to check the condition of the feed-rollers. This is a little harder to do. Feed-rollers are the two, or four, depending on the typewriter, free-spinning rubber rollers inside the carriage, underneath the platen. They grip the paper when you crank it into the machine, and roll it under the platen, and feed it up the front of the carriage. Feed-rollers. See?

Feed-rollers are also covered in rubber, much like the platen. To find out if your feed-rollers are in good condition, simply roll a couple of sheets of paper into the typewriter.

Does the paper get pulled easily into the machine? Or does it just not go at all? Does the paper come out evenly on the other side? Does it advance evenly when you hit the carriage-lever?

If the answer to all these questions is “Yes”, then the feed-rollers are in good condition. If the answer to even one of them is “No”, then the rollers are not in good condition.

To try and rejuvenate the feed-rollers, you need to remove the platen from the carriage, fish out the rollers (they just sit there) and sand them, or treat them to rubber-solvent.

If the rubber on your rollers or platen is dry, hard and cracked then you should either PASS on the typewriter, or buy it with a view to REPLACING THE RUBBER ENTIRELY. Cracked rubber is completely unsalvageable, and no treatment with paper or chemicals is going to save it.

Rubber that feels like rubber, and rubber that is somewhat pliable, is rubber that’s in good quality. Rubber that is hard, dry, cracking, and which feels like plastic, is rubber that needs to be replaced.


Does the carriage of your prospective typewriter advance smoothly as you type? Yes? Fine. Does the bell ring? Yes? Great! Do the margin-stops work? Yes? Wonderful.

IF the carriage does NOT advance when you type, that means that either the mainspring is kaput (possible), or that the draw-band has had it, and is toast (much more likely). Replacing a drawband is finicky, but possible. Most drawbands are nothing but a shoelace tied around the carriage-drum, and a hook or ring, at the right side of the carriage. This is a repair you could do at home with the right string, a pair of tweezers, and a bit of patience.

Suggested carriage-string materials include fishing-wire, and shoelaces. Keep the original carriage-string just in case you need it as a measurement-guide.

On most portable typewriters, there is a CARRIAGE-LOCK feature. The carriage-lock jams the carriage in-place, so that it does NOT move when the typewriter has been placed in it’s carry-case for transport. When testing a prospective portable typewriter, if the carriage doesn’t move when you type, the carriage-lock may be engaged. Ask the seller to unlock the carriage for you, if you don’t know how. If anything breaks…it’s their fault, not yours!


This probably goes without saying, but keys are important. But there’s a lot more to checking typewriter keys than finding out if they’re made of glass.

For your potential typewriter to be a practical typing machine when you get it home, you need to make sure that ALL the keys work. Typing “The Quick Brown Fox Jumps over the Lazy Dog” will be useless if the shift-key is broken, if the backspace doesn’t work, if the tab-keys are jammed or if the spacebar is broken.

You want to check every single key. You want to check all the switches,, knobs, levers, bells and whistles. Even the keys you don’t think you’ll ever use…check them. Do they press down? Do they pop up again? Do the hammers work? Do the levers work? If you press the backspace, does the carriage move to the right? If you press the shift-lock, does the shift-key actually LOCK? And if you hit the shift-key afterwards, does the key then UNLOCK like it should?

Do the margin-stops work? Does the margin-clear button work? Does the paper-release lever work? Does the carriage-release lever work? Does the carriage-return lever work? Do the tab-stop, clear and set keys all work?

Depending on your typewriter, there can be all that, and more, to check. Does the ribbon-reverser work? Does the ribbon-selector work?

Some things, you can probably do without. For example, it doesn’t matter if the shift-lock doesn’t work, so long as the actual shift-keys work. The typewriter will still function perfectly fine. Just that typing in capitals for long periods of time might be a bit harder.

Do NOT be worried if keys stick or if hammers jam up. That’s just a sign that the typewriter requires cleaning. You can do that easily at home. Here’s my guide to cleaning jammed-up typebars. You can do it with stuff you can buy at your local supermarket.

Buying a Typewriter “in the Wild”

In collecting circles of most objects (pens, watches, books, guns and typewriters, for example), to buy something “in the wild”, is a term used for making a collectible purchase at an establishment such as an antiques shop, junk-shop, thrift-shop, garage-sale, or flea-market. They’re called “Wild” finds because they are purchased outside of the established channels of collectibles dealing, such as fairs, shows, club-meetings, or from online dealers.

When buying a typewriter ‘in the wild’, there are a few things you should know.

You’ve done your research. You see a typewriter in the local flea-market that you REALLY WANT. It’s your dream machine. It’s the Mary Poppins typewriter. Practically Perfect in Every Way. The price looks fairly reasonable, and you wanted it YESTERDAY! How can you buy it so that things work out in your favour?

– Be DISCREET. Don’t ever show your cards. Keep a poker-face. If you mouth off and act like you know everything and then some, the seller’s gonna clam up, and the price is probably gonna go up like a rocket. Play dumb and pretend you know as much about typewriters as a toad.

– Examine the machine THOROUGHLY. Point out any issues to the seller, and ask if he might be willing to lower the price slightly on their account.

– Not many people use typewriters anymore. So the buying-pool may be rather small. If you don’t buy it, chances are that it may be, nobody ever will. This may make the seller anxious to get rid of it. This may be another bargaining-chip in your pocket.

– Typewriters are HEAVY. And BIG. A small portable is 5-10kg. A desktop model is 20-30kg! Imagine this:

You’re a flea-market stallholder. You lugged your damn Remington 16…

…all the way from home, to the market, in your car. It’s taking up space at home. Nobody uses it. It’s getting dusty and rusty and you just want to get it the hell out of your life. It’s dislocating your shoulders every time you have to move it, and you’re just sick of it! Then along comes sumgai* who wants to buy it. You have $150.00 on it. He offers you $100.00. You’re desperate to get rid of it. So you accept it.

That’s what you, as the buyer, should be hoping for. Typewriters, especially the big, chunky desktop models like that Remington 16, are heavy enough to break your leg if you drop it on there. Most likely, a seller who bothered to lug the thing to the market, doesn’t want to lug it back home again! Use this as leverage, and ask for a smaller price. If he really wants to get rid of it, he’ll take it, or at least haggle a bit, just to get it out of his life.

– Perhaps you walked to the market? Or caught a bus? Or a train? Or a tram? If you find a typewriter that you really like, but you can’t get it home, and the price is reasonable and it’s in good condition…have a few words with the buyer. Offer to pay full price if he might be inclined to deliver it to your house. It’s a little more work for him, but he gets his money,  and he gets rid of it in the end. You get your machine, and you get delivery thrown in, to boot!

*”Sumgai” is another collecting-term, much like buying stuff “in the wild”. It’s a corruption of the words “some guy”. As in, you show up at the flea-market, ask a stallholder about a particular item that he may or may not have, and the seller replies: “Oh sorry. Some guy just bought it and walked off with it”.

A ‘sumgai’ is someone who got there first and pinched all the good stuff, leaving you with all the shit that nobody wants. To be a sumgai yourself (ie, to get first pick at all the goodies at the market), you should arrive early and have a keen eye. That way, you won’t have to hear the famous speech from the seller about that “sumgai” who bought the pretty 1929 Remington Model 3 Portable for $25 just ten minutes ago and walked off down the street with it.

Remington Model 3 Portable…

Knowing Your Machine

When it comes to buying your typewriter, it’s important that you know what all the parts are, what they do, and how they work. This will help you pick a good machine from a bad one, and it’ll make you a more savvy buyer, which is always good and important.

When you roll the paper into the typewriter, you rest it on the paper-table. This is the back panel of the typewriter. It usually has the make of the machine painted on there as decoration, such as “UNDERWOOD”, “ROYAL”, “REMINGTON” or “L.C. SMITH & Bros”.

Rolling the paper into the typewriter is done by turning on the two platen-knobs, attached to the platen, the central, rubber-covered drum in the middle of the carriage. The carriage is the part of the typewriter that moves to the left as you type. As you turn the platen-knobs and pull the paper into the machine, two, three, or four feed-rollers grip the paper and pull the paper around the platen.

When the paper comes up the front, you raise the bale-rail at the front of the carriage and slip the paper underneath it. The rail has two (or more) paper-bales on it. These are sometimes made of metal, but some are coated in rubber. The paper-bales are there to hold the paper in place when you type, so that the paper doesn’t flap around everywhere. They can be adjusted to whatever position you like on the rail. If you have two bales, then you want them 1/3 in from the left, and 1/3 in from the right, so that they divide the bale-rail into thirds, and hold the paper evenly.

Along with the paper-bales and the rail which holds them are the paper-fingers. They slide along the front rule of your typewriter, in line with the ribbon-vibrator. They serve much the same purpose as the paper-bales, to hold the paper in-place on the platen.

A typical mechanical typewriter has three or four rows or banks of keys. The keys are attached via levers and linkages to the typebars. On the head of each typebar is the type-slug. Pressing a key pulls the linkages which pulls the typebar up, forcing the slug forwards and down, to strike the ribbon.

The ribbon is held in the ribbon-guides and the central ribbon-vibrator. The vibrator is the central ribbon-guide that jumps up and down as you type.

When you reach the end of the line, the warning-bell goes off, to tell you that you have (usually) six keystrokes left, before the key-lock mechanism kicks in. This deliberately locks the keys so that you can’t keep typing. To unlock them, you push the carriage back to the right, using the carriage-return lever. Pressing this lever hard enough also pushes the platen back, bringing up a fresh line, so it is also called the line-advance lever.

Next to the carriage-lever is the line-spacing lever. The line-space lever adjusted the operation of the line-advance lever. By adjusting this lever, you could affect the line-advance lever to advance the page 1, 2, or on larger machines, even 3 lines, to produce double and triple-spaced documents if you needed to.

As you type, the carriage moves along the carriage-race. This is the toothed rail which the carriage rides on. Each tooth is one keystroke. Typing releases the power stored in the mainspring, which is inside the mainspring-drum. As the spring unwinds, it rotates the drum, which has a drawcord or drawstring attached to it. As the drum turns, it winds up the drawstring, pulling the carriage along with it.

When you push the carriage back, the drawcord is pulled out again, and the mainspring is wound up at the same time, ready for the next line.

As you type, the inked typewriter ribbon, stored in two ribbon-spools, moves along, to provide fresh ink. Ribbon-spools are held in a pair of spool-cups. Typewriters made before the 1930s did not generally have spool-cup covers. So if your antique typewriter doesn’t have these covers, don’t despair.

This is a 1926 Royal Portable Typewriter, Model 1:

And this is a 1930 Royal Portable Typewriter, Model 2:

As you can see, the 20s, 1st-model typewriter doesn’t come with spool-covers. The second, 30s model typewriter, does. This was common with many typewriter manufacturers of the period. Companies like Underwood and Corona did the same thing.

Back to the parts of your typewriter…

Most, but not all, typewriters came with something called a “Ribbon-Reverser“. The ribbon-reverser determined which spool-cup would rotate as the machine typed, and therefore, which spool would wind up with used ribbon while the machine was in-use. Switching the reverser-switch back and forth changed the receiving spool from left to right, and vice-versa, as the user of the typewriter required. A handy feature.

Along with the ribbon-reverse switch is the bichrome ribbon-selector. The bichrome ribbon-selector typically had three settings: Black, for black-ribbon. Red, for red-ribbon. And Stencil.

Stencil-mode disengaged the ribbon-vibrator altogether. This allowed you to type out clear stencil-masters on your typewriter. The completed stencil-documents were inserted into duplicating machines…

…and as many duplicate copies of the original could be printed as you needed or desired. They were the Victorian equivalent of the photo-copier.

To set left and right margins on your machine, you have the margin-stops, which are usually (but not always) situated behind the typewriter, on the margin-rail. You shift and move the margin-stops along the rail to where-ever you want your margins to be. Setting the left margin determines where the carriage stops when you push it back. Setting the right margin determines when the bell rings at the end of each line. Once that bell rings, you have six keystrokes left before you need to return the carriage all over again.

Located on the carriage are two more levers or switches. These are the paper-release lever, and the carriage-release lever (there seem to be an awfully large number of levers on these old typewriters, huh?).

Lifting the paper-release lever eases up the pressure on the platen and feed-rollers.

Remember those films about frustrated writers who stop typing, grab their paper and rip it out of the machine, scrunch it up and toss it over their shoulders?

To do that, you need to flip the paper-lever. It allows you to just pull the paper right out of the typewriter, without damaging the mechanism.

The carriage-release lever, or switch, disengages the ratchet-mechanism between the carriage and the toothed carriage-rail. You can now slide the carriage left or right along the carriage-rail to set up your typing start-point wherever you want on the page. Pressing this button will cause the mainspring to unwind super-fast. It will grab the drawcord and yank the carriage all the way to the left. If you’re not prepared for this, expect an almighty bang when the carriage hits the end of the line! That may damage the mainspring or the drawcord (if they’re old and original to the machine), so don’t do it too often, or you may wear them out prematurely. Or if you need to use this switch, hold tight to the carriage, first!

Care and Placement of your Typewriter

You have read about where to buy a typewriter, what to look out for, and how much you should pay. You have purchased the machine of your dreams! Perhaps it’s a 1930s Imperial…

…or an Underwood from the 20s…

Perhaps it’s a sleek, postwar model like the Royal Royalite “El Dorado”…

or a more common Olivetti Lettera 32?

Perhaps you bought yourself a desktop or “Standard” typewriter? A Royal 10…

Or an Underwood No. 5?

Perhaps it’s none of these, and many more, historic and stylish machines? But whatever you bought, it’s important that you know how to look after it now that you have it. Here are some things to consider:

Keep Your Typewriter out of Direct Sunlight 

A good typewriter is like a vampire. It’ll last forever, but it’s allergic to strong sunlight. And, for that matter, heat. Keep your machine away from windows that receive full sunlight, or anywhere where it might be exposed to heavy rays or high levels of heat for a long period of time. Remember all that rubber on the platen and the rollers? That stuff can dry up and crack if you expose it to heat and light like that. So try and avoid it.

Keep Your Typewriter Free of Dust

Back when they were the only method of rapid word-processing, a typewriter was an essential piece of equipment in the office, and in the home. For reports, essays, homework, letters and stories and plays and novels. Because typewriters were so important, they were built to last. Any company that produced machines that broke down or were outdated as soon as they were introduced (much like the stuff today), would never have lasted in this highly competitive market.

To make their machines last, typewriters were made almost entirely of steel. There’s very few things that can break on a typewriter. And most of the issues with typewriters (sticky keys, wriggly carriages and so-forth) are usually caused by neglect rather than damage.

Keep your typewriter FREE OF DUST. Dust and debris gets into the mechanism and jams up the machine. And you’ll have a hell of a time trying to get it out of there.

To keep your machine running smoothly, when you’re not using it, cover it. If it’s just a temporary pause in usage (like overnight), you can just cover it with a sheet of paper, to stop dust getting into the typing-mechanism. But if it’s for longer periods of time (up to a week or more), then cover your typewriter with its dust-cover, or its protective case.

Typing on your Machine

A typewriter is not a computer. EVERYTHING is mechanical. To type, you need to exert more force on the keys than you would with a modern keyboard. But don’t smash the keys with your fingers. If you’re not used to typing on a typewriter, even half a page of continuous typing can seem exhausting, but as you do it more often, your fingers will get used to it. Use more force than you usually would, but don’t bear down on it.

Use More Paper

Traditionally, you typed with two sheets of paper inside your machine. One, the actual page of text, the other to act as padding. This provides cushioning against the typebars and the platen, ensuring that they will last longer.

Place Your Typewriter Somewhere STURDY

Typewriters are BIG, FAT, CHUNKY MACHINES.

Or at least, some of them can be. When you get your machine home, make sure that you place it somewhere that’s suitable for it. I probably don’t need to tell you now that typewriters are heavy. A desktop Underwood, Royal or Remington weighs in excess of 30-50 pounds.

Make sure that you put your typewriter on a table, or a desk, that is strong enough to take it. Nothing flimsy that’s going to shake around, or that’s going to warp and bend under the weight of the machine. Something that’s sturdy and which won’t shift and wobble.

Typewriters are totally mechanical. The typing, the shifting of the carriage, the clunking of the levers. Everything produces motion and vibration. You need a desk that can cope with the vibrations and jolting produced by the typewriter in regular operation. If you don’t believe how much vibration a typewriter produces, just watch this:

The typewriter in that video is an Underwood Model 3. But those kinds of vibrations (like what shorted out the desk-lamp) can be produced by almost any typewriter, especially the older, heavier ones. Having a desk that can absorb the shocks produced by the typewriter is important. It makes for a smoother typing experience.

If you want to keep your desktop clean, or if you want to try and muffle the sounds of the typewriter somewhat, you can buy a typewriter-pad online. Typewriter-pads were used in the old days, to cushion typewriters and to muffle the sound of the keys. You simply slip the pad (made of thick felt) underneath the typewriter, to deaden the sound. A cheaper alternative is to use a small towel, folded over and slid under the machine.

Don’t Move your Typewriter Unnecessarily

Unless it’s a portable, and therefore, designed to be moved around, don’t shift your typewriter all over the place unnecessarily. This will prevent potential damage. If you must move your typewriter around, make sure that you have its next destination cleared for landing before you dump the typewriter on top of it.

When moving your portable typewriter around, use the carrying-case. It’s not only easier, it protects the machine from jolts and bumping.

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.


The History of the Modern Toilet

The toilet. The latrine. The commode. The privy. The water-closet. The closed-stool.

Whatever you call it, for centuries, mankind has always needed a place to get away from it all. Since the dawn of time, man has required the use of a place or contraption for the peaceful, if not always quiet, ejection of bodily waste. These days, that place is the modern flushing, sit-down toilet. But where did it come from?

Before the Toilet

Damn near every house on earth…has a toilet. It’s that one indispensible invention that none of us could do without. Fridges, TVs, computers, telephones…even electrical lighting…but not the toilet.

But the toilet is an amazingly modern invention. What happened before then?

Primative Toilets

For centuries, a toilet was little more than a hole that you dug in the ground. Toilet-paper was whatever you could lay your hands on…usually leaves.But to give the ancients some degree of credit on hygeine, various ancient societies have had their own lavatorial inventions over the centuries. Civilisations such as the Ancient Eygptians and the Ancient Romans had toilets that worked with running water and which served to keep the populous clean, satisfied and healthy. In Ancient Rome, public bathhouses usually had toilet-chambers available for public use. Ejected matter would end up in the channel beneath the communal toilets, which would then be flushed away periodically by large volumes of water expelled from the public bathhouse nearby.

Medieval Toilets

Societies such as the Ancient Greeks, Eygptians and Romans all had rather sophistocated ideas and inventions to deal with the issue of human waste. However, with the fall of the Roman Empire, the Western World went back to shitting in a hole.

In the Medieval Era, concepts about personal hygeine were virtually nonexistent. A total lack of understanding about how disease was spread, and the dangers of untreated sewerage, caused sanitation nightmares that would send all those Health-and-Safety officers running for cover…sometimes literally!

In the great cities of Europe, such as London, Paris, Prague and Rome, toilets took several steps backwards from the Roman era several hundred years before. In a typical medieval town or city, a toilet was a seat with a hole cut into it that projected out of the side of the building. Any released feculence would just drop into the streets below…bad luck if you were out for a walk. Streets of medieval cities were often filled with several feet of compacted, mashed up, mushed up, foot-trodden weeks of sewerage. The smells were naturally abominable…but at the time, no link was made between this, and any sort of danger to public health.

If your toilet didn’t eject out the side of the building into the street, then it might eject out into a river or stream. Or the muck in the streets would end up being dumped into the nearest river anyway. This led to incredible and unspeakable pollution…and poisoning! Because people used to drink that water, too! And wash their clothes in it. And bathe in it…and cook with it…Water in medieval times was so polluted and foul-tasting that almost everyone drank wine or beer instead. Even kids! In fact, kids would drink ‘Small Beer’ (with a lower alcoholic content), while their parents would drink ‘Big Beer’ (which naturally, had a stronger taste and higher alcohol content).


But what if you couldn’t get your toilet to jut out over the street? Or over a river or stream? Or down into one of the few sewers that would have existed in the medieval world? What then?

Well, then you would make use of the cesspit.

A cesspit is basically a medival septic tank. It’s the huge chamber or room underneath your toilet into which all your bodily waste would be dumped into. Every few weeks…or months…you had to get the thing emptied, just like with septic-tanks today. And to get it emptied, you had to go out and find the chap with quite possibly the worst job in history.

The gong-scourer.

‘Cess’ and ‘gong’ are old English words for sewerage and dung. The gong-scourer was the poor bastard who emptied out your cesspit.

Although in all honesty, he wasn’t that poor. Being a gong-scourer was a job that was literally swimming in shit. It was a filthy, hazardous, dangerous, backbreaking job. You would have to shovel out tons of excrement from all the toilets and cesspits all over town and you had to do this every single night. Because the work was so obviously revolting, not many people would do it. So wise-thinking city-authorities would pay gong-scourers a pretty princely wage in return for their vital and revolting job. How much?

18d for every 1 ton of waste removed.

That’s 18 pence (A shilling and a half) for every ton of waste.

This in an era when the average wage of a working man in London was sixpence a day.

Of course, for some gong-scourers, even money wasn’t enough. A chap named Samson, royal gong-scourer to Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth I of England, was paid half in money, half in rum!

Privies and Closed Stools

In the medieval world, there were two toilets available to you. The most common one ws the privy. Coming from the Latin word for ‘Privacy’, the privy was a removable seat over a cesspit. Any business-transactions done in a privy would end up in the cesspit below. To clear out the pit, the gong-scourer would remove the seat and climb down into the muck to shovel or bucket it out. Not a fun job.

The other, slightly more comfortable and dignified toilet was the Closed Stool. If you’ve ever wondered where we get the word for feces meaning ‘stool’ from…well…take a guess.

The Closed Stool was similar to a modern toilet-chair. It was a box with a hole in it. Inside the box was a large bucket. After the daily interaction with the stool, the bucket was removed, emptied, washed and replaced inside the stool. An altogether cleaner and more comfortable toiletry eperience…what you did with the waste when the bucket was full was another matter.

Inventing the Modern Toilet

As you may have guessed, after the downspiral from the Ancient world, mankind was living in a world of muck and filth. From the Dark Ages up to the 1800s, almost all toilets were of the kind described above. And they only provided temprorary relief from one of our oldest problems.

Where do you put it?

The big problem was that sewers…really effective sewers…simply did not exist. Even into the 1800s, big rivers such as the Seine and the Thames, were little more than huge open drains! What few public sewers there were, would be choked, blocked, overflowing and completely unable to handle the waste of the millions of people who flooded into the cities and towns of Europe during the Industrial Revolution. Indeed, the idea of modern sewers wasn’t given any serious, practical thought until the 1860s, in London. It was then that Sir Joseph Bazalgette designed and helped to build the world’s first modern sewerage-system underneath the city of London.

So, where did that leave the modern toilet?

Ancestors to the Modern Toilet

The first truly modern toilet, of a kind that we might possibly recognise today, was actually invented in the 16th Century, to be precise, in 1596.

The chap who invented it was a man named Sir John Harington. Being godson to Queen Elizabeth I, he probably had the time and money to invent what was effectively the world’s first modern toilet. He called it the ‘Ajax’. He installed such a toilet in his house and then built another one for the Queen. The Ajax wasn’t perfect, but it did work…kinda.

The toilet was installed over a sewer-drain. The cistern behind the seat was filled with water from buckets. At the end of the episode, a plug was pulled. Water flooded from the cistern into the bowl. Then, another plug was pulled and the entire contents of the toilet-bowl were flushed out into the drain below. Effective, but without running water, the cistern had to be refilled manually each time.

The next instance of a modern-style commode does not make its appearance until the 1700s. And just like back in the 1590s, this fantastic new invention, the flushing toilet, was to be used only by a queen. But this time, not a queen of England, but of France.

Marie Antoinette, wife of King Louis XVI.

The setting is the royal palace of Versailles, 12km south of Paris.

The famed Palace of Versailles is the last word in luxury. Huge banquets, luxurious chambers, flashy clothes, powdered wigs and the world-renowned Hall of Mirrors. Heaven on Earth! Right?


The truth was that, for all its luxury and obscene opulence, the Palace of Versailles was little cleaner than a sewer! Animals were allowed to wander at will through the stately halls, and relieve themselves as they pleased. And it wasn’t just animals, either. For a place as expensive and luxurious as Versailles, there were almost NO toilets…ANYWHERE! Courtiers, servants, guests and visitors were compelled to relieve themselves where-ever they could. And I literally mean…WHERE-EVER. Underneath staircases, behind curtains, in the dead-space behind doors, or into chamber-pots, the contents of which would then be ejected out the window into the palace courtyard below.


Amazing as it seems, there was actually a TOILET in Versailles. A real, honest-to-goodness flushing toilet. But it was for the use of ONE person ONLY. And that one person was the Queen of France herself: Marie Antoinette. The toilet (which can still be seen in Versailles today!) was one of the few plumbing fixtures in the entire palace, and was secreted away in the deepest, darkest, most private chambers of the queen’s royal apartments. Apartments which only her most trusted and intimate of servants would ever have seen. Most people didn’t even know the toilet existed!

Over the next two hundred-plus years, mankind improved on Sir John’s design. Eventually, in 1851, the world’s first public…flushing…toilets, were unveiled!


In the Crystal Palace in London during the Great Exhibition. Although the toilets were public, they were not free – For the privilege of emptying your bowels in the latest modern conveniences, you had to give the bathroom attendant one penny before he granted you access to the newfangled ‘flushing toilet’.

Probably the most famous names associated with the history of the toilet, however, is that of an American. A plumber with the unfortunate name of Thomas…


Contrary to popular belief, Thomas Crapper’s name did not lead to the coinage of the term ‘crap’ meaning to take a dump. The word ‘crap’ actually comes from the Latin word ‘Crappa’, meaning ‘chaff’, the leftover husks from stalks of wheat (as in “to separate the wheat from the chaff”). So literally, “Crap” is the leftovers. The stuff we leave behind. The stuff we reject and ignore. Crap.

Why is it called a Toilet?

The word ‘Toilet’ comes from France. Originally, “toilet” referred to one’s personal hygiene and grooming. To “attend to one’s toilet”, meant to keep oneself clean. This ranged from bathing, brushing your teeth, combing your hair, shaving, washing your face, and relieving bodily waste. The utensils and products used in the execution of these procedures were known as “toiletries”. Even today, when you go on holiday, you still take a “toiletry bag” with you.

With the invention of the modern commode, the word ‘Toilet’ moved from the more general term meaning grooming, to the more specific one, meaning a receptacle for bodily waste. And that has been its main definition ever since.

The Victorian Toilet

The toilet as we know it today really came into its own during the second half of the 1800s. In big cities with new, enlarged, free-flowing sewer-systems which were now capable of handling large volumes of waste on a daily basis, plumbed toilets were finally practical. And with this practicality, came a surge of toilet-manufacturers.

Designs varied slightly from maker to maker, but all toilets were made up of a bowl, a C, U, or S-bend, to trap water and prevent the rise of sewer-gas, a seat, and a cistern for the storage of flush-water. For something that was essentially a self-emptying chamber-pot, the Victorian toilet was decorated with surprising artistry, and both the exterior and interior of a toilet-bowl were just as likely to be covered in blue-glaze paint, flowers, forest-scenes, water-scenes and nature scenes as the plates of your finest bone china dinner-service.

Because modern toilets descend from the toilets of the Victorian era, you can still install a Victorian loo in your house today. And it would function just as well as a modern one. It’s the same technology, after all. Just a little bit fancier.

There’s been little change in toilets since the Victorian era. There are now more water-efficient ones, ones which are easier to clean, more comfortable, even those insane Japanese ones that do everything for you, and then some, but the toilet as we know it, has essentially reached the end of the road, when it comes to development.

Want to Know More?

A lot of the information gleamed for this article were taken from the Dan Snow documentaries “Filthy Cities” (“London”, “Paris”, and “New York”), and the Dr. Lucy Woslery documentaries “If Walls Could Talk”. You can find these on YouTube.