Okay, pilgrim, before you saddle up, there’s something I need to tell you. And perhaps this is a confession. Some might even call it a dirty secret. But I’ll let you decide the label. You could jump in and snag the first decent typewriter. Heck, you might be out for less than a hundred bucks, so why not try out a few? Many of the writers I know who use a typewriter, often have more than one. Myself included! There’s a certain seduction since each one didn’t cost that much. Why not try another? Pretty soon, it’s typewriter of the month club. Resist the urge before it becomes an addiction. I remind myself constantly: I’m a writer, not a typewriter collector! Sure, try a few, if you must, but unload the excess. Let the next worthy hack have some of the action. ‘nuff said. You’ve been warned. Stick to writing.
Carriage vs. Basket Shift
One major difference between portable typewriters is how the shifted characters are typed. Each type slug contains both the upper and lowercase character. When you depress shift, you’ll either be raising the carriage or raising the typebar basket. Since the carriage is heavier, it’ll take more effort. And some carriages are heavier than others, or are hinged and levered differently to make them easier to raise.
For those of us reared on computer keyboards, this can be a big deal. On a computer keyboard, shift is the same as all other keys. But when you use a typewriter with a carriage shift, you’ll notice the difference right away. At first it might not be such a big deal, but the more you type, the more you’ll start to feel the weight of the carriage. You’ll be using finger muscles you never thought you had.
Alternatively, a basket shift will be a much lighter experience. While it still takes a bit of extra effort, it’s much less than lifting the carriage. Carriage shifted typewriters were the norm until the mid-1960s. By then, most manufacturers had moved to the easier basket shift. Smith-Corona was one of the early developers of the basket shift, which they called the “Floating Shift.” It’s that light! This feature is one reason why my 1947 Smith-Corona Sterling is still my favorite typewriter. Well, that and the sweeping black curves and glass top keys. Plus, it was the year that the Miles Davis All-Stars debuted at the Savoy! Magic was in the air.
Another variable to consider is the condition of the platen. This is the big rubber roller that you type on. It’s where the rubber meets the type. A platen should have some give and soften the blow of the type slug. A hard platen will make your typewriter sound loud and may cause your typed characters to penetrate the paper. You can remedy some of this by doubling up on the paper (still recommended!), but the loud smacking will remain. Most machines before the early 1960s that have not had their platens recovered will most likely have hard platens. It’s for this reason that I generally steer first time typewriter users away from these older machines (Pre-1950s). Plus, it’s more likely the old timer will have other mechanical issues. The ravages of the years!
But if the typewriter meets your aesthetics and is in fine condition, you might be able to deal with a hard platen. However, if the typewriter has paper feed problems, the culprit might be the platen along with hardened feed rollers. If the platen is hard, more than likely the feed rollers may be hard as well. The rollers and the platen work together to grip the paper. If they’re hard and slick, you won’t be able to roll paper into the typewriter.
The good news, however, is if you love your typewriter but hate the platen, you can bring it to the repair shop and they’ll send the platen off to be resurfaced or recovered. This is where the old rubber is stripped off and new rubber installed. Expect to spend $200-$300 for this service. You’ll spend more if you need the feed rollers reconditioned as well. If you’re comfortable removing the platen and/or rollers, you can send it off yourself and spend about $100 + shipping. However, platen removal is not for the timid. Smith-Corona portables are the easiest of the bunch. While removing one from an Olympia requires a Master’s degree in mechanical engineering. Here are two that offer platen recovery:
Pica and Elite
In the age before fonts and styles, you basically had two choices of type: Pica or Elite. Pica translates to 10 characters per inch (bigger), while Elite has 12 characters per inch (smaller). Here’s an example of the two:
When I first started writing on a typewriter, I liked the larger Pica. It was easier on the eyes. But the more I wrote, I realized with Elite I could cram more words on a page. This made it read more like Times Roman from my laser printer. It had the same flow. With Pica I was turning pages too frequently. And if you also double-space, you’ll get a lot less words on a page. For me, I like getting into the flow of the writing. Flipping pages got me out of the flow. Elite type reduces some of the page flipping.
I’m assuming you’ll have lots of pages to read! You will! My typed pages are all single spaced Elite. It looks dense! Forget editing this page! I don’t even try. I’ll just import into Word for my edits. (Coming Soon! How to Easily Import Typed Pages into Word)
It’ll take some time using a typewriter before you settle on what works for you.
That’s why I recommend not spending a lot of money on your first typewriter. You might get lucky on your first go, but more than likely you’ll want to experiment with a couple different models before finding the one that’s right for you. Once you do, sell your excess and be content, knowing that you’ve done your homework. Having many typewriters laying around is another distraction! What do I write with today? Settle on THE ONE. Make it your temple. Worship the machine. After a day’s work is done, clean the type slugs with a stiff brush and cover her lovingly and with compassion. Namaste.
If you’re using an Elite typewriter and you like to write personal correspondence, don’t give your friend or loved one squinty eyes. It’s small! While I’d love to swap out the type basket for a different size type, that’s not going to happen. Here’s my multiple typewriter exception. I use a Pica typewriter (1930s Corona Flat Top) for addressing envelopes, writing letters and making easy-to-read recipe cards.
What to Expect with your First Typewriter
Your fingers need to activate levers to make a typebar move with enough force for the type slug to strike the paper and make a solid imprint. This is not like the easy dusting of keys on a computer keyboard. It’s the difference between Guitar Hero and playing a real guitar. (Well, maybe not that hard!) Moreover, if you’re a traditional typist with fingers in the “home” position, you’re going to find it difficult to strike typewriter keys with your weaker fingers. You’ll be better off adopting a modified hunt-and-peck two-finger method with a typewriter. Your two index fingers and middle fingers will get lots of use. You’ll need to punch those keys. Which also has a certain satisfaction. It feels like real work is getting done! It feels good to hit something, even if it’s a bit like self-flagellation. Okay, don’t be so hard on yourself! It’s only a first draft. Not even first draft. Probably more like total you-know-what. But hey, that’s why you have a computer! Add some spit and polish and make it better. That’s your job. But first, get it done. And for that, get to typing!
If you’re on a budget, it’ll be difficult to find a typewriter without some issues. (Unless you buy one from a shop in the Typewriter Marketplace! Smile.) Be prepared to learn some basic maintenance and troubleshooting. The two easiest DYI fixes are sticking keys and misaligned type.
Sticking, or sluggish keys means the typebar doesn’t return in a quick and snappy manner. Typing should be fluid and smooth without any sluggish keys. If the seller has listed it as having sticking or sluggish keys, don’t pass it by! This happens to many typewriters. The typebar fits into a slot in the type basket, which keeps them aligned. If there’s any buildup of gunk or dust in this slot, you’ll get sticky keys. If you keep your typewriter uncovered on your desk, dust will collect in these slots. And to make matters worse, typewriter owners might oil the slots with the mistaken belief that it’ll help free the keys. While this may fix the problem temporarily, whatever oil is in there will gather dust, causing a return of the sticky problems. Then in a never ending quest to free the keys, someone may have continued to oil the slots, until finally, this solution didn’t even work.
The typewriter is built to operate on very little oiling and certainly this is not one of the areas that should be oiled. If there’s a buildup of oil and dust, you’ll want to wash this out with a degreaser. One of my favorites is dipping a small paintbrush in some lacquer thinner, brushing this over the slots in the type basket, then working all the keys. You might need to repeat this procedure several times. The more difficult cases of gunked up machines may require you to give the entire typewriter a degreasing bath in the kitchen sink. I’ve successfully resurrected non-working typewriters with a sinkful of hot water and dish soap. Depending on the typewriter, you may need to remove parts that won’t do well in water. Once you’re done, leave it out in the sun or stick it in the oven on a low temperature and let it dry out.
To keep type aligned, a typewriter often has upper and lower stops. When shift is depressed, either the carriage or the type basket will be stopped by a mechanism to prevent it from going too far. There’s a range of motion when going between shift and normal. These stops are often adjustable. It’s just a matter of finding these stops and with a screwdriver and/or a small open ended wrench, adjusting where the stop ends. Carriage shift mechanisms are often harder on the stops since the weight of the carriage tends to slam against them, throwing the type out of alignment. If you find a typewriter with misaligned type, do a little research on how easy it is to realign. If it’s not a big deal, you might be able to get it at a discount. If you ask for a typed sample, be sure to tell them to include upper and lower case on the same line.
If you’re not mechanically inclined, I’d be leery of any issues besides sluggish keys and misaligned type. But if you purchased the typewriter at a low price, you might find it a fun exercise to get your hands dirty and try and fix it.
Last Words of Wisdom
While typewriters have rubber feet to buffer some of the shock of typing, it’s still a good idea to put a pad underneath. In fact, the Olympia manual recommends it! A pad will also dampen some of the sound and provide more stability. Remember, rubber hardens over the years and the feet are no exception. A felt pad with rubber backing is an ideal solution! I use an under-carpet runner cut into typewriter sized squares. It’s thin and works great. ( Source: Ultra Premium rug pad from Rug Pad Corner.)
Cover & Table
A cover is also a good idea if you keep your typewriter on your desk. Dust and other nasties can settle into it’s delicate parts. Do I need to keep my typewriter out? Yes! Better yet, find a vintage store and get a typewriter table. If they don’t have one, show them this picture and tell them to keep an eye out and when they get one, to call you. These are the perfect height for typing. Regular desk height is too high for typewriters. You’ll need to get some leverage to strike the keys. Get one with collapsible wings so you can have paper handy and a place to stack your finished pages! A dedicated space for your typewriter will make your muse happy. Don’t keep her locked in a case, stashed under the desk or in a dark closet. Shudder the thought! Get her an elegant cover, a place of her own and she’ll reward you with some sweet words!