I recently purchased an Underwood Standard Portable four-bank mechanical typewriter, from the mid-1920s. It’s a beautiful machine…
Ain’t it purdy?
…which is everything a classic, vintage typewriter ought to be. White glass keys, black steel body, a delightful little bell at the back which goes ‘Ding!’ and all the rest of it. But it frustrated me that the typewriter’s KEYS would stick and jam constantly.
Now in all fairness, I purchased this machine KNOWING that the keys would stick. But I was prepared to take the risk and buy it anyway. I might not get another chance to find a nice machine like this. But having bought it, I needed to get the keys working.
Do you have an old mechanical typewriter like this, with sticking keys? This is what you do to clean them up and stop them from jamming and sticking…
You Will Need…
1). Bottle of METHYLATED SPIRITS. Preferably a large one.
N.B.: Methylated Spirits is called different things in different places. In America, it’s ‘Denatured Alcohol’.
2). A soft brush. Like a small paintbrush. Not a toothbrush, that’s too stiff.
3). A small bowl or cup. This is to decant the meths into, during cleaning.
4). A roll of paper-towels.
5). Patience. Care. Attentiveness.
Preparing the Machine
To start unjamming the sticking keys, you need to rip off about 3-4 sheets of paper-towel. Fold them up along the perforations so that you have a nice, thick square of paper. Lift up the machine and shove the paper underneath. If your typewriter is an open-bottom machine like mine, that’s all you have to do.
If it’s a closed-bottom machine (for example, the Royal No. 10 desktop typewriter), then you must remove the bottom first (just unscrew it).
Having placed the wadding of paper underneath, fill your little bowl or cup, with meths. Fill it UP. You might be here for a long time.
Remove the ribbon from the typewriter. If you’re not already familiar with it, then double-check how the ribbon is installed into the machine FIRST, before you remove it.
Roll two or three sheets of regular A4 paper into the typewriter. This is to act as padding against the constant pounding of the keys against the platen and roller.
If your machine has one, open or take off the dust-cover that covers the type-basket.
You are now ready to start cleaning.
Cleaning the Type-Basket
Assuming that the machine is NOT damaged, and there are no bent hammers, broken linkages or other defects, but the machine’s keys still jam and stick, your next step is to clean the machine. Specifically, you want to focus on the type-basket. The type-basket is that big, smiley face in front of your keyboard.
A typewriter works in the following way:
You press on a key. The key depresses, and it pulls on a lever. That lever is attached to a typebar. When the lever drops, it pulls the typebar up with force, and the head of the bar strikes the ribbon, imprinting ink onto the paper. Releasing the key causes the typebar to gravity-drop back into place, resetting it for the next strike.
Jamming is caused by gunk and debris (dust, white-out crumbs, lint, etc) which gets into the fine, inaccessible areas of the typewriter-basket. This debris creates friction which stops the typebars from working naturally, through gravity and mechanical force, as they should.
This is what you’re trying to remove from the machine. It’s done in the following manner:
1). Dip your brush into the cup or bowl of methylated spirits. Remove it, and shake off any excess meths.
2). Brush the meths into the ends of the typebars, right at the back of the basket, into all the little grooves where the typebars attach to their key-levers. Brush from side to side, along the ‘smile’, and also, up and down in short strokes, to force the methylated spirits and the brush-bristles, between the grooves and gaps of the typebars.
3). Repeat this. Over. And over. And over. And over. Just keep brushing and probing, scrubbing, brushing, and probing and washing and flushing.
— — — —
What happens is that the methylated spirits dissolves the gunk stuck to the type-bars. It then just drips out of the bottom of the machine and collects on the paper-towels below. Any excess spirits just evaporates into the air, leaving a clean, and dry typing mechanism behind.
— — — —
Keep brushing and cleaning and flushing like this. Every few minutes, press the offending keys, along with all the others, to check for jamming, or improvement of function. This process can take a few minutes, or it can take days. If you want proof that the methylated spirits is cleaning your machine, then simply lift up the typewriter. You will have to change the paper-towels underneath the machine throughout the cleaning process, as they eventually become saturated with spirits and require replacing.
In removing the sheets of paper-towels, take note of their condition. A really dirty, jammed up machine will be dribbling oodles of black, grey dust and crud onto the paper, and you’ll be able to see it really really clearly. It’ll look almost like fireplace soot. This is the rubbish you’re trying to get out of your machine.
You must repeat this process until the paper removed from under the typewriter is COMPLETELY CLEAN and has NO debris on it AT ALL. This is the sign that it has all been flushed out and that the mechanism is cleaned and ready for proper use.
To give your typewriter a fighting chance, you might also want to clean under the machine at all the points where the typewriter-keys connect with the type-bars. Removing as much dust and crud as you can will ensure that the machine runs as best as possible. You can do this by brushing methylated spirits along the linkage-points, and then carefully wiping them clean with paper-towels or tissues. You may have to do this several times as well.
How long does it take to clean a typewriter? It really depends on its age, when it was last used, when it was last cleaned, how it’s been treated, its size and how thorough your cleaning is. It could take half an hour. It could take two hours. For me, I was cleaning it, on and off, for half a day, letting the meths soak through the machine to do its job, coming back, adding more, and changing the paper periodically to check the progress.
As tempting as it may be, do NOT USE OIL on your TYPEWRITER. EVER.
As every person who repairs typewriters will probably tell you, and as all the period instruction-manuals (including my own) will also tell you, oil is a typewriter’s worst enemy. Do not use WD-40, olive-oil, melted butter, pig’s fat, sewing-machine oil or lard, in the hopes of getting your machine running.
Oil will lubricate the machine, yes. But it will also become a dust-trap as particles settle on the oil (which just sits there, it doesn’t evaporate and dry up) and create a disgusting sludge over time, that will…you guessed it…jam the machine. And you’re back to Square One.
Using meths is the ONLY way to clean your machine, as methylated spirits will just evaporate once the job is done, and leave no residue behind which dust can cling to.
If you MUST have lubricant (which is unlikely, as the whole machine should work on gravity alone), then make sure it is one that is non-greasy, and which does NOT attract dust. Otherwise, you’re in strife.
Is it Really That Easy?
Yes! Following this process, I successfully unjammed about a half-dozen keys in the typewriter that you see up above. It’s a messy, slow, sometimes frustrating method, but it does work. Otherwise I wouldn’t share it on my blog. Hopefully, it will work for you as well!