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:


…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).


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.