There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.
From the introduction you’ve probably figured it out by now. The kind of typewriters I’m talking about are the good old fashioned manual kind. Nothing electronic. I’ve tried a few of these gizmos, and while they lack the distraction of a web browser, there’s still something distracting about their buzzes and whirs. Perhaps this is a bias. I’m drawn to machines that are more personal and have a personality. There’s such a wide variety of manual typewriters, each with their own look and feel, that there’s bound to be one that fits your style.
But I’m often asked, aren’t manual typewriters hard to use?
I suppose that’s what gave rise to electronic typewriters. To make typing easier and faster. Certainly in an office setting this made sense. Or the harried college student who just needed to get a term paper done. However, from a creative writing perspective, speed and accuracy aren’t always required. In fact, I endorse an approach to writing on a typewriter that encourages a letting go of spelling and grammar and any notion of doneness. The typewriter is a drafting tool. A sketchpad. But it’s also true there are vast ease-of-use differences between manual typewriters. A clunky machine is going to drive your muse under the covers.
But fret not, pilgrim, the Top 10 Writerly typewriters will be revealed at the end.
Now that we’ve set the record straight. Typewriters come in two basic sizes:
Portables are just that, they’re smaller and often come with a case so you can lug it around or stash it under your desk. But don’t confuse these with a MacBook Air, they can still appear large to the modern eye. However, there are some typewriters that I like to call, The Ultra-Portable. The smallest of the portable. The kind used by a foreign affairs correspondent on the road to Mandalay.
Standard typewriters are larger and often associated with office use. You’re not going to be moving this typewriter. It stays on your desk. You’ll sacrifice size for dependability. These are the work horses, but in a quick, sure-footed, thoroughbred kind of way.
While some writers swear by standard typewriters, I find their size a bit off-putting. It’s like the difference between using a laptop and a desktop computer. To me, smaller means less distraction. But a well-tuned standard often has a solid feel not found in many portables. They were engineered for constant use.
WHERE CAN I BUY A TYPEWRITER?
Ideally, you’ll want to try before you buy. Not only are there significant differences in how they operate, but since they’re used, there will be differences in their operating condition. Even if you read a glowing review of a typewriter, the one you get might have issues. This is where buying a typewriter can get tricky. But no worries, that’s where this guide will help!
If you want to get your hands on a typewriter, here are your best bets: (We’ll get into eBay and other online sources next week.)
- Typewriter Repair Shop
- Thrift Store
Due to the rising popularity of typewriters, there’s still such a thing as a repair shop! In addition to fixing machines, you’ll most likely find some for sale. Great! Unless the shop owner is a scammer, you’re probably getting a top-notch machine that’s been refurbished and is ready for writing. Try some out. Talk to the repairman. They might not have what you’re looking for, but you’ve established a relationship. This’ll come in handy, because you might buy a typewriter somewhere else that only needs a tune-up to get in working shape. And if you already have one, an annual tune-up is probably a good idea. Or take it in every 100,000 words, whichever comes first!
The other try before you buy locale is what’s called a Type-In. This is an event organized by typewriter enthusiasts where you’re invited to bring a typewriter and let total strangers have at it. If you don’t have a typewriter, no worries! They’re open to anyone to drop in and try out a machine or two or all! You’ll get a chance to schmooze, ask questions and get the lowdown on all the machines. And if you’re lucky, someone might have a typewriter to sell. Even if you don’t come away with a new rig, you might have a better idea of what kind of typewriter is right for you. Or decide if you even like using a typewriter! (You will, trust me.)
Here’s where to check for a Type-In.
No repair shop around? Check out Craigslist. Even if none appear in your search, there’s an alert feature where you can save a search and it will email you whenever a listing matches your criteria. You’ll need to create a Craigslist account first, then after you search for “typewriter”, the results will appear along with a link that says, “email alert”. If you’re patient this may pay off. You can also post something in the Wanted section. You’d be surprised how many people have something they want to get rid of, but don’t want to create a listing and will search the wanted section for interested buyers.
Want a really good bargain? Haul on over to your local thrift store. But be prepared to do some testing. Bring paper. In my rush to snag a deal, I’ve purchased machines only to find out later they had serious defects. I’m only out a few bucks. But bucks are bucks and now I’ve donated the dud back for the next sucker, I mean, bargain hunter, to buy.
Here’s a list of what to check:
- Keys don’t stick (Pretty obvious, right?)
- Paper rolls into platen (OK, cap’n, got it.)
- Right margin bell dings (Gotta have a ding! That’s half the fun!)
- Carriage return lever advances the paper (Next line, please. Next, thanks. Novel done.)
- Shifted upper case characters align with lower case characters (Don’t get too picky, there might be some slight issues here.)
- Carriage return lever doesn’t rub on body (Might just need a slight bend back, if not pass.)
- Platen roller knobs don’t skip (I got one of these, still works, just not perfect.)
- Engaging the carriage release lever allows the carriage to move back and forth freely (Where’s the carriage release lever? It’s usually on the right side. You hold it down and grip the carriage and move it back and forth.)
- Backspace moves the carriage back one space (Never go back, only forward!)
- Tab moves carriage to tab stops (Probably not needed for creative writing, unless you’re doing a screenplay. In which case, get Final Draft for the computer. Or want to be like Woody Allen.)
- Paper release lever eases tension on platen so paper can be repositioned (Crooked paper, will lead to crooked writing.)
- Platen is not cracked or severely pitted (Spit that one out!)
- Ribbon advances when typing (If it stays in place, your writing will slowly disappear.)
- Ribbon advances in both directions, ribbon reverse works (When it hits the end on one spool, you’ll need to get it back on the other.)
- Ribbon vibrator goes up and down when typing, does not stay in up position to block typing (This is the little thingy that the ribbon threads through.)
- Type is aligned with type guide. Can see when what you’re typing. (You’ll see it or not.)
Sticking or sluggish keys and alignment issues may be easy fixes. These will be covered in the maintenance post. Beware of all other issues unless you’re good at fixing stuff or have a repair shop nearby.
HOW MUCH SHOULD I EXPECT TO SPEND?
Before I get into buying a typewriter from an online source, you’re probably wondering how much a typewriter is going to cost.
Quick answer: if you want a good reliable machine, expect to spend around a $100 – $150.
If you find a local deal on Craigslist or a thrift store, you might be able to nab one for under $50. If you go to eBay, increase your budget to $100-$150, which includes shipping cost. Etsy is another site worth checking. While Etsy is best known for hand crafted items, there are many vintage shops selling their wares. (My shop included!) Expect to spend $150-$250 for a good one. Again, shipping will probably run $25-$40 depending on the size of the typewriter and shipping distance. While I’ve never stepped foot in a typewriter repair shop, a buddy sent pics of refurbished machines going for $100 – $300. This might be your best bet, since there’s no shipping, plus you have a refurbished typewriter and a relationship with the shop.
For one that’s been completely overhauled, expect to spend at least $500 or more, depending on the model. By completely overhauled, I mean one that’s also had all the rubber parts replaced, these can seriously degrade over time and are critical to a working typewriter.
|Craigslist / Thrift Store||$50 or less|
|eBay||$100 – $150|
|Etsy||$150 – $250|
|Typewriter Shop||$150 or more|
|Dealer||$300 or more|
Not too bad, right? For less than the price of Microsoft Word, you can get yourself a dedicated writing machine that requires little maintenance and won’t require any upgrades! Ok, maybe you’ll need to replace the ribbon once in awhile. Yes, they still make typewriter ribbons! (I’ll discuss ribbons and maintenance in a future post.)
NEXT WEEK: eBay, Etsy and other online sources, good and bad
Very much enjoyed reading your column. Looking forward to future posts.
—skip fogarty/oakland ca
I bought a standard typewriter in my own city, Oaxaca City (Mexico). It’s an Olympia SG 3 made in Mexico (my country, where I live) between the years 1977 and 1983, with a cute square font (similar with Larabiefont in computers). This machine used to be (and still is in some places) the standard, the mainstream model used in all Mexican offices disregarding if being public or private offices. Certainly, it’s pretty heavy (about 35 lb) and very huge, and its prize was expensive (about $150 USD) but it’s worthwhile and quite better than the Olivetti Dora I still keep with me for emergency cases (I bought in a thrift shop at just $4 USD but it’s not for heavy-duty use so I worn out after 5 years of continuous use)…xD
Your tips are right. But you must add “The type of touch”. I prefer the “feathered touch”, and I can get this oiling the key mechanisms in a right way…xD
there’s a database of charity driven thrift stores in the US here:
A handy way to find local thrifts and map them out according to distance for optimally planned typewriter searches. (:
I continue to be amazed at people who find typewriters in thrift stores. I must live in a typewriter desert. Over the past year I’ve made approximately 100 visits to a wide selection of local Goodwill, Salvation Army and other miscellaneous other thrift stores and seen exactly two (2) typewriters: a Royal Dart with a broken drawband and an IBM Selectric II that wouldn’t even turn on. For me it’s a colossal waste of time and gas, and I’ve pretty much stopped doing it.
I wish your Craigslist and Thrift Store held true here in Los Angeles but not so. Too many hipsters are driving the prices sky high. Even the jnkiest machines can list for $150 around here.
I found your video very usefull. I’m looking for a typewriter the quiter possible. The people in the store recommends me the Olivetti Lettera 32 or the Olivetti Linea 101. Do you know which one makes less sound or which one is better?
Never used a Linea 101. But the Lettera is a quiet machine!
Thank you for your website and the effort you put into it!
A few questions:
– Do you clean and repair your typewriter yourself or do you send them to a repair shop?
– Have you ever thought about cleaning/repairing them yourself?
I really enjoy reading your blogs, please keep doing so! Thank you!
Greetings from Vienna//Austria
Thanks for the good words, amigo! Glad you enjoy the blog.
As for repairing typewriters, I’ve done some basic things like getting the upper and lower aligned, putting rubber bushings in Olympia SM3s so the carriage is at the right level, bending the little hammer that strikes the bell — that sort of low-grade, any klutz can perform tweaks. Cleaning is mainly spit and polish. Buff the cover. Get the gunk out of the type slugs. Loosen up the typebars with some solvent.
I wish I had a repair shop nearby! What most every typewriter needs is a new platen and the internals de-gunked. I wish I could run every typewriter I have through that process. Well worth the extra cost! Typewriters that have had this service performed are wonderful writing machines! You can really tell the difference.
I say a type I want but the problem is it keep going up it was 20 00 dollar but how can I still get same one I saw it went to a 149 dollar please email my daughter her email is firstname.lastname@example.org she is the who would buy the cheapest one for me