Secrets of restoring    typewriters















































































































































































































































OK, I admit it. My secrets are no more mysterious than those of many hundreds of typewriter collectors in Europe and America but give me a break Ė Iím a journalist. Itís my job to be sensational!
What I can offer is the knowledge and skills Iíve accumulated over a number of years of typewriter restoration Ė and Iíll even throw in a few real secrets as well. For the really dedicated restorer, I've included below some tips on restoring portable typewriter cases.

How far do you go with disassembly? That depends on how much skill you have; how much time youíve got and how much of a glutton for punishment you are. Total disassembly is only for the very skillful or the very brave/foolhardy. In most cases, you can achieve excellent results by simply removing and dismantling the platen and carriage assemblies for cleaning, and cleaning the type basket, frame and keys in situ without stripping down any further. Individual items such as bells can be removed and separately  cleaned. Many of the machines illustrated on this site were cleaned in that way (although some were completely disassembled).

How to proceed
I work in sub assemblies (Platen, carriage etc) and finish each sub assembly before starting the next. By working on a piece at a time, you can see results and feel encouraged to carry on.

When I disassemble a sub-assembly (such as the carriage) I replace the screws in the holes they come from as I go along, so I  wonít lose them and Iíll know where they go. I take lots of pictures with a digital camera as I go and load them onto my PC, so Iíve got a source of references if needed.

I like to work with a tray on the desk or bench in front of me. I keep all the parts Iím working on together on the tray and hold parts over the tray while Iím screwing or unscrewing them, so that if I drop something itís easy to find again. I line the tray with kitchen roll paper to mop up any cleaning fluids I use and keep parts dry.

Parts of the typewriter
For the benefit of beginners, there is a glossary and description of typewriter terms at the end of this guide, together with an illustrated guide.

Dealing with Screws
Typewriters are held together by screws. Some will be rusted or stuck tight by years of grime making them difficult to undo. However, itís important that you are able to undo and do up screws without causing any damage to the heads.

Make sure you use engineerís or clockmakerís screwdrivers, not carpenterís or general household screwdrivers. Engineering screwdrivers are ground so that the edges of the blade that fits into the slot in the screw head are parallel. Carpenter's screwdrivers merely come together at an angle and hence are liable to slip, damaging the head.

Make sure you have screwdrivers that are the same size as the screw head. Using a small driver in a large slot is likely to result in it slipping and damaging the slot. Also make sure the blade is seated properly in the slot. Put firm, but not excessive pressure on the blade and exert a steady force, increasing as and when necessary. You should feel a sticky screw Ďgiveí after a short while. If the screw remains stubborn, on no account try to force it Ė you will almost certainly end up damaging the head (and possibly yourself.)

I promised you a few secret tips that would make typewriter restoration easy and here is my first. Buy two steel engineerís rules, a foot rule and a six inch rule. Donít buy cheap ones. You can find good quality used ones in flea markets. If you have a screw that is stuck, tackle it with a steel rule. Start with the six inch and use the short, straight end with the ruler held vertical. You will find you can exert quite a lot more pressure than with a screwdriver blade. If the screw is countersunk, then use the centre of the curved end.

If you still feel stiff resistance, then turn the rule through 90 degrees and use the long edge to get more leverage. You wonít be able to do this with a countersunk screw, so go straight to the 12-inch ruler and try the curved end. In the case of screw heads that stand proud and are still stiff, you can use the 12-inch ruler on its long edge to get more leverage. I have never found a screw that I couldnít undo in this way, while also avoiding damage to the head.

Rusty screws can be loosened sometimes by squirting WD40 on them. Iím not very keen on this as itís usually messy and puts an oily coating on surfaces that I prefer to keep dry in order to treat directly with rust remover or metal polish.

Set Screws
One type of screw that can give trouble is the set screw or grub screw Ė a screw with a thread and a slot but no head. These are often used in tight spaces, such as holding the platen and platen knobs to the spindle that runs through the middle. This can make them even more difficult to get at, especially once the slot has become worn or damaged. If you are unable to get the steel rule onto them because of space restrictions, hereís another way of tackling the problem. Take a screwdriver the same diameter as the set screw and carefully superglue the screwdriver into the slot. Clean both screwdriver and screw top with a little surgical spirit before gluing and be careful not to let glue get down the threads or onto the adjacent metal surface. Leave it to set for an hour or two and unscrew. Once you have loosened the set screw, screw it back up again and carefully Ďbreakí the glued bond. If youíre lucky (and careful) the screwdriver will come away cleanly, leaving the superglue helping form a new slot on the screw. You can leave this if itís unobtrusive or remove it later with a scalpel.

Tool kit
My typewriter restoration toolkit includes the following items

Flat and round needle files
Sewing machine needles (they have a thick base for holding)
A range of cleaning brushes including soft-haired and toothbrushes
Small and large Long nosed pliers
Range of engineerís and clockmakerís screwdrivers
Small adjustable spanner

A Note on power tools
Many typewriter and other restorers like to use a small rotary power tool made by Dremel. This is a miniature electric hand drill that can take small brass wire brushes and other cleaning and polishing bits. It is a very powerful way of cutting through rust and grime to expose bare metal and also an effective and easy way of polishing nickel plating.

The Dremel is well worth considering. However, Iím not myself very keen on it. Maybe itís the way I use it, but I feel that the Dremel can go too far in producing an artificially bright finish on a machine that is, say, 100 years old and ought in my view to show some fair wear and tear.  I strongly advise experimenting with the Dremel, or similar tools, on a practice machine, before using it to restore your prize typewriter.

My own preference is to clean each part by hand using the techniques described later. It takes longer, but it is thorough and very satisfying. It also ensures that you donít inadvertently go too far in taking the surface off.

Cleaning and restoration
How far do you go?
  My rule of thumb is to do as little as is necessary to make the typewriter shine. I donít aim to make them look new, but I do aim to make them look good. Part of the secret, however, is to seek and find examples in outstanding condition, or where the grime is superficial only. Experience is the only guide here.

Cleaning materials  Always use the gentlest possible cleaning fluids. Soap and warm water is best and this should be applied in small amounts with cotton buds or cotton rags. Surgical spirit can be used to clean off thick grease and dirt but check first that the paint finish is not affected. Always protect any decals from cleaning materials and fluids.

My cleaning kit contains the following

* Cotton rags
* Cotton wool buds
* Washing up liquid
* Surgical spirit
* Rustin's rust remover
* WD40
* 0000 gauge steel wool
* Beeswax polish

Total immersion versus hand cleaning
Some restorers begin by immersing their typewriter in a bath of spirit solvent or soapy water. Some take the precaution of covering up the keyboard with a watertight covering of rubber or plastic to prevent fluid from penetrating the key covers and staining the paper letters.  Personally, I would never subject a rare old machine to this treatment, but always clean carefully and thoroughly, a little at a time, using the least possible amount of fluid and gentle hand methods.

One aid I find indispensable is a model-makerís airbrush (such as Badger or Devilbis) and a can of compressed air which I use to blow dust and dirt out of the workings as I go long. This is an expensive way to clean (a small can of compressed air costs about $5 or so) but I think itís well worth it and one can does several machines. The same set-up can, of course, be used to re-paint under some circumstances.

The first step is to clean out the accumulated junk with brushes, compressed air and solvents applied with cotton buds. This is a laborious task but this alone makes your machine look a hundred times brighter.

Light surface corrosion and rust on disassembled parts can be removed in two stages. First carefully apply proprietary liquid rust remover on cotton buds. These usually contain mild phosphoric acid and act fairly slowly, but keep an eye on progress and always test the surface you are treating first. Remove with soap and water. Nickel and other plated surfaces, or plain steel, can be polished using the finest grade steel wool, either dry or with a chromium polish such as Autosol or Autosolvol sold in car shops.

Itís important not to get the tiny steel wool fragments inside the typewriter, so cover up the works with rags. Remove any stray particles with the air bush or a magnet (attached if necessary to a screwdriver to extend its reach into crevices.)

Rubber platens can be carefully wiped over either with soap and water or surgical spirit on a clean rag. It is possible to have platens replaced (see contacts) at reasonable cost. Personally I feel that the original platen is more authentic even if less than perfect. You can always look for another machine of the same age and replace the platen with a better example Ė the same, of course, applies to all parts.

Black paintwork
Often black paintwork has chips or scratches. Very small chips can be filled in either with black felt-tip or with black nail varnish. Repainting with black enamel paint practically never works because you can never match the edges of the old and new paint so it is usually best not to attempt it.

Some restorers like to sand blast original paint finishes and repaint them with black enamel. I canít myself see the point of this; I would rather spend my time and money seeking a good original example and have the pleasure of enjoying an authentic antique. I am prepared to re-nickel plate small parts if the rest of the machine warrants it and you can buy kits for re-plating (see contacts.) This is a matter of personal preference.  Some restorers like to remove every bright metal part from a typewriter, sand blast it and re-nickel plate in order to achieve the impression of a new typewriter.  My aim in restoration is to bring antiques back to life with a little TLC, looking as authentic as possible, but not to recreate them as something new.

Cleaning blued parts
On many old typewriters some parts, especially leaf springs and some screws, were given a blue finish (as used in gun manufacture). This finish is achieved by tempering the part by gentle heating on a metal plate and then quenching it in oil. It is a very thin coating which is easily taken off to reveal bare steel.

Wherever possible itís best to keep a blued finish if you can. It serves to protect against rust and itís authentic. If a blued surface has rusted badly, then youíll have no real alternative than to clean and polish it up until you see bare metal. If the blued surface is merely dirty or has only light corrosion, wipe it over carefully with a soft cloth and a little WD40. Once clean, wipe with a slightly oily rag. Donít use metal polish or youíll remove the blue finish. You may also occasionally find parts (usually small bearing shafts) that are bluish or blackish in colour and also show small iridescent patches. These are pieces of mild steel that have been case hardened Ė they have been dipped in carbon powder and heated to harden the surface to make it more durable. Treat these in the same way as blued surfaces.

In the case of parts such as springs, the bluing is part of the heat treatment process, needed to impart springiness to the metal. If you tried to reheat such a part to put back the blue surface, thereís a good chance you would lose its Ďtemperí and hence its spring.

In the case of most screws, however, the bluing is merely for show. If you wish, you can try polishing up the head and heating the screw gently until it turns blue Ė then quickly drop it into a small container of machine oil. Quite a bit of experience is necessary to get a uniform Ďfactory finishí blue and itís a good idea to practise on a few unimportant screws first. There are a few blued screws which are hardened (like springs) or case-hardened (like bearings) because they perform a special function, not merely holding things together. These should not be heated. To tell if a screw is hardened or merely mild steel, run a flat needle file briefly across the thread end. If you feel the file bite, itís mild steel and can be safely re-blued. If the file runs straight off as though on glass or stone, then itís been hardened and should not be heated.

Dealing with clockwork motors
Every manual typewriter (except the Blickensderfer) has a clockwork motor that is linked to the carriage and drives it along each time you strike a key or the space bar. No two motors are exactly the same in design, but all of them involve a flat steel coil spring, anchored at both ends inside a casing. Usually there is some mechanism for winding the motor up and releasing the tension to allow it to run down.

Beginners are usually nervous of tinkering with motors, in case they cause some irreparable damage or are unable to get the motor back together again. In most cases, this apprehension is misplaced and motors are often very simple in design and easy to deal with.

You can always simulate the effect of having the motor connected to the carriage by tipping the typewriter onto its left side so the carriage pokes up in the air to the right at 45 degrees or more. The weight of the carriage will usually be enough to simulate the driving force of the motor, enough for you to test the escapement mechanism.

Handling motors safely
A fully wound clockwork motor can be dangerous and must always be handled with great care.

Clockwork motors are almost always provided with a means to wind them up and a means to let them run down safely. If the winder is not obvious in the form of a key, the look for an alternative. In some cases, you use the casing of the motor, or perhaps a protruding rim, to wind it up.

The run-down mechanism is usually some kind of lever attached to a ratchet. Moving the lever allows the motor to run down one Ďclickí of the ratchet. Many clicks are normally needed before you feel the tension leaving the motor entirely.

Motor Tension
How much tension should you put onto a motor when you wind it up? Broadly speaking the answer is less than you might think. The instruction manual for the Remington 7 desk typewriter recommends a force of 1 to 1.5 pounds. Youíll soon know if you havenít put enough turns on as the carriage will be sluggish at the end of its run or the escapement wonít work properly.

Dealing with carriage straps
The motor is connected to the carriage by a link, sometimes called a carriage strap, or driving band. This can be made of metal, braided cotton (like a shoelace) or waxed string. There is nothing sacred about the strap; it simply transmits the motorís force to the carriage. On old machines found in junk shops and flea markets itís common for this to be disconnected or broken (so the carriage wonít move) leading seller and buyer to think the typewriter is irreparably damaged. In fact this is one of the easiest problems to fix. You can always rig up something that will work, until you can find a genuine replacement part or something indistinguishable from the real thing.

Soft metal
Most typewriter parts are made of cast iron, mild steel, aluminium or brass. Mostly these parts are strong, but occasionally, you encounter the use of very cheap, soft metal for unimportant parts. A sign that something is made from soft metal is that it has been bent out of shape by use. Be careful when bending such parts back into shape in case they snap Ė start off using the absolute minimum of force and fingers rather than tools.

Ribbons and ribbon spools
Ribbons and ribbon spools are a perennial problem with old typewriters. Sometimes, one or both spools are missing; sometimes the keeper nuts that hold them in place. Sometimes the ribbon has gone Ė or is often so used up and dried out with age that keeping it is pointless. If your machine dates from the 1930s or later, the chances are that you can use a modern ribbon.

One good place to look for replacement ribbons and spools is on eBay. Scores of different tins are auctioned every day. In some cases they still contain a ribbon, often in its original wrapping. Obviously youíre taking a chance buying these oldies, but at the very least youíre getting the correct spool, and one thatís in unused condition Ė even if the ribbon itself turns out to be useless. Best of all most ribbons sell for just a few dollars. If you fail to score today, you can try again tomorrow.

When reassembling, I clear the work surface and put down clean kitchen roll on a tray, grouping the components to be assembled. I usually leave cleaning screw heads until the reassembly stage and do them all at once as I go along. If the slots in some of your screw heads have been burred (by a previous owner, of course) you can carefully remove the burr with a superfine needle file, and repolish. As with disassembly, I work in sub-assemblies and test the function of each sub-assembly as I finish it.

The final phase of restoration is to lubricate all moving joints and bearing surfaces with a small drop of oil from a oiling pin. I use the oiler that was supplied with the Corona 3 or the Imperial Good Companion, both of which are perfect for the job. A large needle or bodkin is a suitable alternative. The oil I use is Singer sewing machine oil. It's important to oil but just as important not to overoil, so mop up any excess with a rag. Try to obtain the manual for your machine (they are offered on eBay) and use this as a guide to oiling. In some cases, such as the manual for the Corona 4, an oiling diagram is provided.

Every typewriter manufacturer had a department at the end of the production line called 'Adjustment' where experienced experts made sure each machine was running perfectly. Today it's difficult to gain the level of expertise needed working only on one or a few machines, but then as now, as the old hands said, 'everything is in the adjustment', so it's important to spend as much time as necessary on this final stage. The commonest adjustments needed are getting the tension on the motor right (neither under nor over-wound) and making sure type bars do not rub and get caught in the type guide as they strike the platen. It's often also necessary to adjust the escapement mechanism to ensure even movement of the carriage and no slipping. 

Final Polishing
This is the fun part and can be done with good quality wax polish and a soft lint-free cloth.  Spray on furniture polish like Pledge works well on typewriters, although here it is better to spray the polish onto the cloth, rather than the typewriter.


Restoring portable typewriter cases

Most of the portable typewriters sold between 1910 and 1940 or so were provided with a carrying case, normally made of wood covered with dark (usually black) leatherette or similar material, with metal hinges, a lock and a carrying handle.

I often spend almost as much time restoring the case as I do the typewriter itself! Iíve also managed to bring back to life cases that looked fit only for the dump using these methods.

  1. Brush away all loose dust and dirt with a dry paint brush. Wipe over with a soft dry cloth. Brush away any loose rust from metal parts with an old toothbrush. Remove anything that has been screwed or glued to the case (people sometimes stick very odd things to their typewriters Ė like the owner who had screwed two Remington ribbon tins, and spring wire pen holders to the sides of his 1926 Royal case).
  2. Remove any material sticking to the outside or inside such as spots of paint (There always seem to be spots of white paint Ė people never move their portable typewriter when the redecorate.) You can often remove spots of paint whole with the point of a very sharp needle, then remove any residual mark with a little paint remover on a cotton bud.
  3. Use the gentlest possible solvents to remove any other marks and stains on the outside or inside, such as dirt, grease, mildew etc, applied with a cloth or cotton buds.
  4. Apply rust remover to any corrosion on the metal parts, hinges, handle, lock, feet. Apply carefully with cotton buds and keep a sharp eye on progress. Never leave rust remover on a metal surface for a long time, as it will continue working slowly. Try to keep the rust remover away from the leatherette covering as far as possible and wipe away any runs. Keep applying rust remover until you have removed all corrosion Ė this may take some time and patience with repeated applications. Once all corrosion has gone you can polish the exposed surface with finest grade wire wool. If necessary use metal polish as well. I try to use dry wire wool as far as possible and avoid metal polish because it can make a mess of the surrounding leatherette and can be difficult to remove. In some cases you will have to keep applying rust remover until you reach bare metal (steel or brass) beneath nickel plating that has been corroded away. This is not as disastrous as it seems as you can polish the steel or brass with steep wool and it will shine as brightly as the surrounding nickel plating. However, it will tarnish again quickly so you need to paint it with a light coat of clear metal lacquer. This is available from your hardware store as is specifically designed to stop bright metal from tarnishing.
  5. If there is any damage to the underlying wooden box, structure, (such as the corner joints coming apart) repair it at this stage with good quality wood glue and leave for 24 hours to set firmly.
  6. When youíve got the metalwork as bright as possible and the box itself is sound, carefully wash the case inside and out with washing up liquid and warm water. I use a tooth brush and clean with a small circular motion to be sure of removing all ingrained dirt and dust. Try not to flood the surface with too much water as there is the risk you will damage the leatherette or cause it to lift away or take the surface off it. I clean a small area at a time and wipe the area off with a clean damp cloth so that the case doesnít become flooded with water. Leave to dry thoroughly.
  7. When the case is dry, inspect it carefully and, if necessary remove any remaining marks or spots with water or solvent on cotton buds. Donít worry if the surface is still grey or muddy looking as long as most of the dirt has gone.
  8. Now go over the case carefully and trim away any ragged or torn edges of leatherette, and glue down any pieces that have lifted away. I find superglue in gel form is the best adhesive for this job.
  9. The next step is the key to restoring both the natural suppleness of the leatherette covering, which usually becomes dry and tired over the years, and also restoring a nice matte black colour. Go over the entire surface rubbing in a good quality hand cream Ė I use Avon body lotion. This will take some time to sink into the surface but will eventually all be absorbed. If the case is really dry, give it a second coat. If the case has a leather handle, this can be restored in colour and suppleness by repeated applications of hand cream.
  10. If there are areas of bare wood showing though, as at the corners, or through worn spots on the edges, cover up the lighter wood with either black felt tip pen or black shoe polish. In a few cases you may find holes in the surface made by woodworm. These and be filled in with a black wax crayon rubbed over the surface.

Finally, polish up your case with a good quality beeswax furniture or wood polish Ė and get your family and friends round to admire it!

Parts of the typewriter Ė a glossary
A typewriter is a machine that holds a sheet of paper and (usually) moves it in two directions; right to left past a point at which type bars strike one after another to print a line of words; and also backwards and forward to make paragraphs of lines. These actions determine the mechanisms that all typewriters must have.

  • A cylinder or platen around which the sheet of paper is wrapped, with devices to position, to hold and to adjust the paper.
  • A carriage to move the cylinder from left to right and back again past the type guide Ė the point at which the type bars strike the paper.
  • A clockwork motor to drive the cylinder and means of attaching it to the carriage, usually a metal or fabric strap.
  • An escapement mechanism to regulate the movement of the carriage, one letter or space at a time.
  • A set of keys (the keyboard) for the writer to select.
  • A set of corresponding type bars (the type basket) to print the selected letter on the page.
  • A ribbon transport device to move an inked ribbon past the type guide, and reverse it when it reaches the end, or some other device for inking the type.

There are a few other mechanisms that are usually present on most machines:-

  •  A shift key to enable each letter key to carry more than one character.  Shift keys can move either the cylinder, or the type basket.
  • A bell and striker to warn the typist that he/she is approaching the end of the line.
  • A backspace key to move the carriage back one space
  • A margin setting/release mechanism to limit the travel of the carriage, and hence the length of line typed.
  • A mechanism to regulate the spacing between lines (usually 1, 2 or 3 line spaces).
  • A tabulator mechanism to make typing columns easier.




One of the best places on the web to read about typewriter restoration is Paul Robert's Typewriter Restoration Site at http://www.xs4all.nl/%7Ecatch55/  

typewriters often have gold or blue pinstripes.  You can restore these with paint or with thin decals (transfers).  Paint kits are available from www.beugler.com  and pinstripe decals are sold by Finesse Pinstriping at www.finessepinstriping.com

It is possible to have Platens professionally recovered in rubber at reasonable cost.
See www.amessupply.com for the site of the long established Ames Supply Company of Illinois.

You can buy a nickel plating kit for use at home from Caswell Plating in New York www.caswellplating.com

Waterslide decals (transfers) for a number of antique machines are available through The Typewriter Restoration Site at http://www.xs4all.nl/%7Ecatch55/     


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       Copyright Richard Milton © 2003-2009
          Last revised: 06 May 2006

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