Mid-century Mid-sized Portable Slugfest

I had yet another of Tim’s dirty typewriters in the house for a clean up – a 1955 Royal QDL. This one wasn’t so bad, just cosmetically off-putting. It was gamely typing through greasy dust. The case is lined with green felt – it reminds me of a pool table. It’s a Minnesota Fats kind of typewriter. The typewriter looked like it had been smoking too much and indulging in Wite-Out.

Moe’s friend Tim is a retired newspaper reporter with a taste for typewriters.  He has some wonderful typewriters that I have cleaned up: a pretty gray Royal QDL, an adorable Royal Companion, a Smith-Corona Clipper, a very classy Remington 5 and now I have here this second dirty Royal, a 1955 Royal Quiet De Luxe:

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I cleaned it up and it looked better though I just couldn’t completely remove the blob of Wite-Out on its cover.  It was typing great though.

I recently acquired a junker 1957 Smith-Corona Silent-Super and I thought: Hey! Perfect time for comparison typing! I can host a mid-century slugfest on my dining room table.

I know that there are 1950s Smith-Corona portable fans and 1950s portable Royal loyalists. I honestly didn’t know which category I fell into, hence the side-by-side comparison.

I also decided to throw a wildcard into the fight – a 1957 West German Torpedo 18a. These are all the mid-sized 1950s portables I have in the house presently. How I wish I had a 1950s Olympia to throw in! I haunt eBay now and then, looking for junker Olympias. I am looking for a really bad looking one.

This tournament is not completely serious or scientific: I have three individual machines before me with unknown histories of use and abuse. This would be a fair competition only if each typewriter had just rolled off the assembly line. As it is, each of them has about 60 years of living under her belt. At the end of this exercise, I won’t be able to say that I am won over by a particular brand – only that a particular machine on my dining room table is my favorite.

However. The Smith-Corona feels like the limited number of 1950s S-C portables that have come through my fingers.  The Royal feels like the limited number of Royal portables I have had the pleasure to type on. So there’s that.

The Contenders

A 1957 Smith-Corona Silent-Super:

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A 1955 Royal Quiet De Luxe:

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A 1957 Torpedo 18a:

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Looks

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so the Silent-Super wins me over with its lovely chunky curves. The Royal QDL’s utilitarian angles are all business while the Smith-Corona’s curves promise a bit of solid fun. The Torpedo is a beautiful machine, but for a 1957 typewriter, it seems a little “old school” compared to the Smith-Corona’s more modern lines. Silent-Super wins.

Dimensions

They are all about the same size:

  • Smith-Corona Silent-Super: 11.5″ width x 12.5″ depth x 4.75″ tall
  • Royal Quiet De Luxe: 11″ width x 11.5″ depth x 5.25″ tall
  • Torpedo 18a: 11″ width x 12.5 depth” x 5″ tall

Weight

  • Smith-Corona Silent-Super: 12 lbs
  • Royal Quiet De Luxe: 12 lbs
  • Torpedo 18a: 13 lbs

Shifting

Basket shift for all three. I like that.

Margins

I am not a big fan of the Royal’s Magic Margins.  And I am lukewarm on any other gimmicky margin control. I love everything about my Remington Rand KMC except its KMC (keyboard margin control).

The Torpedo’s margin setting is under the paper table in back, not visible.

The Smith-Corona’s straightforward margin setting is PERFECT.  You set the margins right there in front and what you see is what you get.

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Carriage Return

Smith-Corona’s carriage return is quiet and light as feather.  The Royal a little heavier and louder and Torpedo is heavy and LOUD.

Sound

I love the gentle tap-tap of the Smith-Corona.  It has a lovely muted quality.  The Royal is much louder and I don’t think it’s the platen.  The Royal’s typebars seem to accelerate as they approach the platen, giving it that snap in the touch and a powerful thwack. The Torpedo is louder than hell and I think it’s a hard platen. “SNACK SNACK SNACK,” it says.

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Ear protection is a good idea

Touch

I love the feel of the Smith-Corona Silent-Super.  It’s got a controlled and comfy feel, like I’m typing on a well-cushioned couch.  It’s slow, but I don’t think very fast, so do I need to type that fast?

The Royal is such a light and snappy typer.  I can type very fast on this one. Maybe too fast.  The Royal feels a little hyper – like it needs to simmer down now. It gets ahead of itself, and I get letter piling when it gets going too fast.

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If I were a better typist, I would probably prefer the Royal.  Unfortunately, I am an inconsistent typist and make too many errors when I pick up speed.

The Torpedo tells me go faster, faster, FASTER – it has, objectively speaking, the best touch of the three, but it’s so loud I can’t type on it very long. I pull it out now and then and each time rediscover its fine, fine touch. It deserves a new platen.

Family Verdict

My husband liked the Royal much better than the Smith-Corona.  He is used to lightly tapping away on a computer keyboard. In fact, when he approached the first typewriter, he started hitting the margin release key as if it were an enter/return key.  It was hard for the him to switch modes.

He found the Royal much more responsive to his light touch, much better suited to his style than the Smith-Corona which he found resistant and slow.   Then he tried the Torpedo.  He loved that even more than the Royal.

My daughter weighed in on the typewriter evaluations. The Smith Corona was too stiff and made her hands feel numb.  She liked the snappiness and speed of the Royal, but the key tops were too small and too far apart, so she worried that her small fingers would slip in between the keys.  The Torpedo had a similar light and fast touch, but its keys were nice and chunky. My daughter’s verdict: the Torpedo was the winner.

My Final Conclusion

My favorite is the Silent-Super.  It’s not the fastest typewriter, but it feels good to me: I love its firm and comforting touch and its gentle sound. I grew up on manual typewriters – we had a big black Royal standard when I was a kid and I typed all my college papers on an aqua Kmart Deluxe 100.  I have a heavy, ponderous hand when I type, so I like typewriters that have a solid touch. The Silent-Super is not the fastest typewriter, but I don’t need to type very fast.  When I type letters, I tend to type slowly along thoughtful, meandering paths.  If I typed faster, I would not make any sense at all. I barely make sense as it is.

Also: this Silent-Super has survived against the odds. It was a greasy, rusty piece of jammed metal when it came to me, but it showed me that it had true grit. This Silent-Super has a spunky toughness and intestinal fortitude that allowed it to rise above its unfortunate circumstances and type ably against two formidable typewriters, the Royal QDL and the Torpedo 18a. You win, Silent-Super.

A Random Picture for Your Enjoyment

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My son took this madonna and doggy picture recently, and I spotted it in his Flickr photostream.  It has nothing to do with typewriters, but it made me laugh out loud.

The Smith-Corona Sans-A-Tab

I have been working this past week on the Smith-Corona that was a freebie from Moe.  Once it was typing, I began to address its cosmetic issues – which were many. Happily, just cleaning it with Scrubbing Bubbles made a huge improvement.

One thing that really bothered me was that the machine was missing its back top cover plate.  Not only did that look bad, but the delicate mechanics were exposed and vulnerable to damage and dirt.

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The blender carefully backs away from the greasy hunk of metal I’ve brought home

So I bought a top back cover for a S-C Silent on eBay and hoped that it would fit my typewriter which I guessed was a S-C Silent-Super. It arrived quickly, beautifully packed. Five stars to the eBay seller.

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And it looked to be an almost perfect fit.

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I was unsure as to how to anchor the top cover to the machine, so I needed to do a little research.

Fortunately for the typewriter, Moe’s shop had two comparison typewriters in stock: a Smith-Corona Silent and a Smith-Corona Silent-Super.

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I compared the anchoring mechanism for the back plate on each machine and took a lot of pictures.  What I came away with was this: if I wanted to use the Silent top cover that I got from eBay, I would have to remove the tab setting/clearing mechanism from my Silent-Super.  I was OK with that because (to me) protecting the delicate insides that were  exposed is more important than a functioning tabulator.

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So I removed the tab setting/clearing pieces and carefully filed them away.  Perhaps some day I will restore the tab function, but for now this typewriter is a Smith-Corona Sans-A-Tab.

I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do about the mismatch in color – blue machine with a brown top cover.  I have seen typewriters that have been decoupaged like this one and I thought maybe the brown top cover plate could be a candidate for fabric decoupaging.  Perhaps I could cover the brown top plate with the tartan of my clan, MacEchevarria.

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However, I was shot down by both my husband and my daughter who were emphatic that I try to match the powder blue of the main machine. They were right.  I couldn’t find the right plaid anyway.

So after carefully washing and degreasing the top cover,  I pulled out left-over house paint and sponged on a thin primer coat over the brown of the Silent cover plate.

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I then mixed up a batch of flat paint (gray acrylic house paint plus tiny bits of blue, yellow and black acrylic craft paint) and came up with a blue that was fairly close to the original Alpine Blue.

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I sponged the paint on because I didn’t want brush marks and I wanted to preserved the pebbly crinkle texture.

After two thin coats, I was getting close to Alpine Blue – it needed just a little more black in the paint to make it just a shade grayer:

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The resulting color match is not perfect, but very close in color.  There are big dings in the front that I have touched up.  I didn’t sand beforehand because I get the feeling there is plenty of lead in this 1950s typewriter paint.  I just painted over the chipped areas with multiple coats and tried to get the surface as level as possible.

I now introduce the lovely Miss S-C Sans-A-Tab:

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With so many chips and dings, this typewriter is a candidate for a complete sandblast and powder coating. However, I don’t think I’ll go that route.  I am currently embracing her imperfections – they are part of her very interesting history.

So Deliciously Low, So Horribly Dirty

One old film that I enjoy more with repeated viewings is 1938’s Pygmalion. It’s the much funnier, smarter predecessor to My Fair Lady. A phonetics professor Henry Higgins makes a bet that he can take a bedraggled Cockney flowergirl, clean her up, train her in proper speech, and pass her off as a duchess. This S-C Silent-Super reminds me of that draggle-tail guttersnipe, Eliza Doolittle.

I’ll be honest: broken, dirty machines like this Smith-Corona are irresistible to me. I take a Higgins-like interest in them: I clean and rehabilitate them, hoping to pass them off as duchesses.

When I saw this S-C Silent-Super in the portico of St. Paul’s, er, in front of Moe’s junk shop, I knew that I had a wonderful project on my hands.

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Here’s Wendy Hiller killing it as Eliza Doolittle in 1938’s Pygmalion. Sorry, no typewriters in this film.

 

The Slippery Smith-Corona Something

Last weekend I had a variety-pack of fun that involved a junior high school musical, a Kentucky Derby hat project, and Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones.  It was jammed-packed with excitement, but I still made time to work on this broken beauty that was sitting on my kitchen counter dripping oil:

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This is the FREE typewriter that Moe gave me last week.  A hauler found it in a house that he was cleaning out.  He drenched it with oil but couldn’t get it to work.  He was going to throw it out, but Moe stopped him.

I am not sure what kind of Smith-Corona I have here.  It’s either a S-C Super or a S-C Silent-Super.  It’s missing the paper table/ top back panel with its identifying label, so it’s hard to say. I think it’s a S-C Silent- Super.  It looks like the Silent-Supers at Typewriter Database and it has an “X” at the end of its serial number like many Silent-Supers: 5T 477968X.  From its serial number, I believe that it’s a 1957 Smith-Corona Something.

When I first brought it home, the machine was as slippery as a greased pig.   The machine was so oily and slippy, I couldn’t safely handle it – it was sliding all over the place. Also, just touching it kind of grossed me out.

I wiped it down with a rag to get the worst of it off and considered its major issue: the carriage was jammed exactly in the midway point of the platen and not budging.  I assumed initially that there was a carriage lock engaged, but no.

The Name of My Song: Tab Rack Carriage Jam

A couple of typewriters that I have worked on had jammed carriages that were related to interference from the tab system:

And I think I can add this Smith-Corona Something to the list.  Here’s the back before intervention:

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Ted Munk pointed out in a comment that the tab rack looked strange. Examining it more closely, I saw that the tabs were interfering with carriage travel, so I gently bent the tab setting/clearing assembly back with my fingers:

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And the carriage began to move. I could hear the tab setter/clearer mechanism rubbing against the tabs, so I bent it back a little more.

The tab set and clear keys were twisted and mangled:

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I straightened the keys out a bit and got the tab setting and clearing mechanism to respond to them, but they are still not reliably setting and clearing tabs. I might not be able to fix the tab system.  Fortunately, a working tabulator is not mission-critical to a typewriter.

I decided to get a replacement cover for the top back to protect the tab system and prevent it from getting bent inward again. I bought this – I hope it fits!

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The draw string was all tangled up inside the mainspring drum.

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I tried to turn the drum gently to free it but it was all gummed up. A firmer hand was required, and I was finally able to turn the drum and free the intact draw string.  I then manually wound the drum several times to free it from its gumminess. Boing, boing, boing.  Springing easily back now. Make sure to read T. Munk’s post Replace the carriage string in your 1950’s Smith-Corona Silent!

As soon as the draw string was re-attached, the typewriter started belting out Doris Day:

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Line Lock Revelation

One thing that was really bothering me was that the line lock was not reliably engaging at the end of the line so that letters were piling up on top of each other at the end.  I have seen other typewriters with this problem and it always baffles me.

I determined that on this Smith-Corona there wasn’t enough tension in the mainspring to pull the carriage at the end of the line with enough force to engage the line lock.  I wound the mainspring another couple more times and the line lock began to engage properly.  My mind is blown! I will carefully tuck this bit of new information away.

Of course there were the requisite detached S-C clevises (spring links) that needed to be re-attached to their typebars:

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Here’s what I think happened to this typewriter:

  1. Someone bought it sometime in the mid-50s and used it faithfully for several years.
  2. When they last used it (maybe about 1970), the carriage was centered using the centering lever and the machine was returned to its case.
  3. Thirty years passed and the oil inside the mainspring congealed and solidified.
  4. Around 2000, someone takes the typewriter out of its case and attempts to move the carriage.  The draw string slips off the immobile mainspring drum and wraps itself around the inside of the drum.
  5. A tinkerer trying to figure out what’s wrong removes the easiest-to-remove piece: the back cover, exposing the tab rack.
  6. Fruitless tinkering yields no results.  The back cover is lost and the typewriter is sent to the garage where it collects greasy dirt and begins to rust. It’s leaned on its back and the tab rack and tab setter are bent inward
  7. A hauler finds it while clearing out a house, drenches it in oil, passes it onto Moe who gives it to me for FREE.

I have made a pass with Scrubbing Bubbles and the grime and grease have receded. The beautiful Alpine Blue is beginning to sparkle.

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ZetiX says these machine have a “Flintstone-esque chunkiness” which is a spot-on description. This is a Wilma or a Betty.

I have a lot of acrylic paint left over from house projects, so I am planning to mix up a batch of blue acrylic paint to match the Alpine Blue.  After carefully cleaning and priming of the chipped areas, I am going to do cautious touch-ups with the acrylic flat paint.

Spring Cleaning: Remington 5 and a Freebie

Moe’s friend Tim has some wonderful old typewriters.  I cleaned up a couple of his beauties a while back. Tim called me on the phone to thank me – such a super nice guy.  He’s a semi-retired newspaper reporter.  He recalls an article about typewriters that he wrote in the late 1990s or early 2000s.  He said it was one of his most heavily commented upon articles.  He’s going to try to dig it up for me.

Tim has this gorgeous Remington 5 which needed a dusting and a new ribbon, so I brought it home for a few days.

I took the top cover off – two screws in the front and two screws in the back.  I cleaned and polished the cover.

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It was a beautiful day on Saturday, so I worked out on the back patio. Everything is in bloom right now: lavender, lilacs, geraniums, anonymous blue flowers:

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Cleaning the type slugs was very easy. With the cover removed, the type bars are completely exposed.  They lie flat, making it easy to scoot a towel under them. I draped the machine and got to work with a tooth brush and mineral spirits.

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The red accent pieces like the paper scale and red keys are so attractive.

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“Self Starter” is a key that tabs in five spaces – for indenting paragraphs.

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The feet are in very bad shape.  If I owned this one, I would probably buy or make a new set.  It’s a rather low-slung machine and could probably use the extra clearance.

This Remington 5 is such a fine typer. It’s got a big, beautiful typeface:

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I don’t think I held onto this one long enough – I didn’t have much time to play with it and do comparisons with other typewriters in the house.  I hope that one day another Remington portable (a good junker) comes to stay for a visit.

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Oh, you beautiful thing.  It is high time I returned you to Tim’s loving embrace.

Moe called me last night and left a message.  A hauler she works with had been cleaning out a house and found a typewriter.  It was jammed, so he doused it with oil.  It was still jammed so he was going to throw it out, but Moe stopped him.  The typewriter was really broken, so she was leaving it outside her shop and I could pick it up any time – it was FREE if I wanted it for parts or whatever.

I swung by Moe’s this morning to drop the Remington off at Moe’s for Tim to pick up.  I took a look at my FREE typewriter.

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Wow.  I brought it home, and it is currently sitting on my kitchen counter dripping oil. It’s comically greasy.

I can’t get the carriage to move, even when I try to disengage the carriage centering lever.

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The top back panel is missing.  Perhaps someone tried to repair it at some time?

I think I have several pleasant hours of tinkering ahead of me this weekend.