Typewriter 101: Tips for Purchasing a Vintage Typewriter
As an English major and teacher, there’s little cooler to me than a vintage typewriter. I have never owned one before now but finding mine and getting it repaired was very educational indeed. I’m in love with the satisfying racket of the typeslug (that’s the part with the letters) and the warm hum of the little electric motor. I bet lots of you might feel the same, so read on, Wildflowers!
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My dad brought me the sage green Smith-Corona electric typewriter (purchased years before at a yard sale) from a ranch outbuilding and after knocking some of the mud dobber nests free from the underside, he remarked that it probably still worked. Much like the automobiles of the same eras, vintage typewriters are built to last. They are heavy, metal, and often times made in America. I live for old stuff like this and promptly set to work figuring out how I’d get it in good working order.
I couldn’t believe how difficult it was to find someone to fix the typewriter. Granted, I live very rurally, but even then I had to make several calls around to various computer and office stores to finally get the recommendation of the delightful Mr. Bill Skillman of www.selectric.com in Ashland, OR. Mr. Skillman has been repairing typewriters for years and is a professional and a gentleman. He repairs typewriters from all over the country and I’d recommend him to anyone. He and his lovely wife welcomed me and my sleepy toddler into their home when I quizzed him about what to look for in a used, found, garage sale, or otherwise rustled up typewriter.
Here’s what the expert suggests when purchasing a vintage typewriter:
Look for inexpensive options because they all do the same thing. Mr. Skillman hesitated to ballpark it for me but he said that a very clean electric typewriter in great working condition should sell for about 35-40 bucks at a yard sale.
If you can, plug the machine into an outlet to see if the motor turns on. If it doesn’t that may indicate a more costly repair.
If the typewriter at hand is completely manual (not electric), type on it on the spot. Dim or faint letters simply mean the ribbon needs to be replaced and that is a simple fix. Try every key to see if the arms swing up and down.
Move the carriage (the big horizontal mechanism that slides left and right). It should feel smooth, with very little play. You shouldn’t be able to jiggle it around too much, nor should it be difficult to slide left to right and back again. If it feels like there’s gravel or dirt obstructing it deep inside (thus preventing it from sliding), or the carriage is completely jammed, you might be wise to pass it up.
Lift open the lid if there is one and look on the underside of the typewriter. If it looks like it was stored in a haystack, as Mr. Skillman explained, mice may have ruined the inner workings permanently. Typewriters that are really dirty, with lots of debris, may not be a wise choice for a purchase. If the lid is missing then it is very likely to be extra dirty deep inside and the lid itself might be difficult to replace.
If you want to see and hear this gem in action, here's my casual Periscope broadcast that is available on my YouTube Channel www.youtube.com/adomesticwildflowerblog
This video will show you what the carriage should look like once it is working properly and what the arms sound like when they hit the paper.
I hope this list of tips is helpful in deciding whether or not to purchase or drag home a particular typewriter.
Once you have either purchased or came into ownership of a typewriter, here’s a few things to keep in mind.
The ribbon (that is saturated with ink) is simply a nylon ribbon about 75 feet long. They can be purchased from the extensive selection on http://www.ribbonsunlimited.com/ and are simple to replace. My ribbon cost about 20 dollars. Inside your typewriter you will see 2 spools (like a sewing bobbin, but bigger and probably black metal). That’s where the ribbon lives. In the same way you wouldn’t throw away an empty sewing machine bobbin, don’t toss your old ribbon until your replacement is in place. I did not personally replace my ribbon but the customer service reviews from http://www.ribbonsunlimited.com/ are outstanding; I’d call for help if I had to change the ribbon myself.
When you are not hammering out brilliant text or clever notes, cover your typewriter with a cloth cover, NOT the vinyl covers many newer models feature. The vinyl keeps the typewriter warm, which causes the ribbon to dry out faster. You better believe I’ve added a fabric typewriter cover to my (very, very long) sewing project list. You’ll be the first to see the results when I whip one up, Dear Reader!