The Underwood Five

Sonny Boy was home briefly from college.

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While home, he ran around town capturing the sere angst of our suburbia with my point-and-shoot.

In addition to creating great art, he generated lots of laundry and drank all the milk. The comedy in the household was a little more lowbrow than usual. It was into this environment that I brought home this stately Underwood No. 5, and it became the Underwear 5. This dignified old machine doesn’t deserve us, but that’s the current state of the world right now.

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I have been out of town a lot this summer and playing catch-up at work when I am home, so the typewriters have been neglected.  I got back from the road last week and stopped by Moe’s shop –  she always has something new and exciting to clean up.  I was not disappointed.

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1917 Underwood 5
Serial # 995567-5

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This one needed some cleaning – some sticky keys and sticky functions (bell, line indexing, line lock) as well as the gummy, sliding crawl along the rails that I have come to associate with dirty Underwood 5s.

The decals are in superb condition despite the orange peel texture of the paint.  I don’t know what happened here. I don’t think this is a purposeful texture, but it seems very hard and resilient like an alligator’s skin.

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The service label is from the General Typewriter Company – I should call them:

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I just love these old Underwoods. I know they are common as all get out, but they are just so noble, so durable.  I’m looking for a really bad one to bring home, one similar to the Underwood from Modesto.

I cleaned up this Underwood 5, strategically applying PB B’laster in the sticky spots, flushing the segment with mineral spirits, scrubbing the slugs and giving the whole machine a good wipe down and coating of Renaissance wax.

While I was cleaning the typewriter outside one evening, a thin gray stray arrived to watch me.

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I haven’t met this cat before.  I gave it a little food, as we have a soft spot for strays.  It  turned out to be one of my neighbor’s cats – one with a taste for the adventure to be found in other people’s yards.

Back to the Underwood.

It has elite size text.  My poor old eyes prefer large, readable pica. It’s also easier to clean the slugs on a pica typewriter. The ribbon I threw in was very inky and seemed rather smudgy out of the box.

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It occurred to me that The Underwood Five would be a good band name. We take band names pretty seriously in our family.  When we come up with a good band name, we add it to the running list next to the grocery list.

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This is the track listing for the Underwood Five’s debut album, In for Repairs:

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All track titles found in a 1920 Underwood repair manual.

I brought the Underwood 5 to our neighborhood block party last Saturday night for some much-needed socialization. The Underwood had a beer or two with the neighbors and impressed the hell out of everybody. Of course I found my mark: Good Neighbor Brian. The guy already has an 1913 Oliver 5, and (as I knew he would) he fell in love with this Underwood.  I feel a mix of guilt and odd satisfaction in luring Brian to the Dark Side.

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Brian wanted to buy it, so he gave Moe the money for the typewriter and couldn’t resist another oddity at her shop: an old timey hand crank razor blade sharpener that flips the blade during sharpening:

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The sad, sweet days of summer’s end are here, and my son packed to go back to school. He wanted a typewriter to take back with him for college papers.  My son set his sights on my 1952 Smith Corona Skyriter, little Camper Van Pancake:

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I will miss this one and her metal roasting pan lid, but I know she’s going to a good home, packed carefully into my son’s carry-on suitcase.

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I took my son to the airport Monday. Buh-bye, Skyriter. Buh-bye, Son. Make good choices. See you at Christmas.

wigPalace

Home is where the wigs are.

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Recalled to Life

As I prepared Quin’s Underwood 5 for its return to Modesto, I finished the last items on my to do list. I used a lot of penetrating oil on this typewriter, so I needed to flush out the sticky oil before it started attracting dirt. I flushed everything with liberal amounts of mineral spirits and then gave the typewriter a final blast of air to clear out the steel wool fragments and rusty grit.

I decided to re-do the feet.  I worried that the rubber of the new feet would slowly sink down in height preventing free movement of the back space mechanism under the machine – it hangs low.  I didn’t have any more test tube stoppers, so I added two rubber washers to each foot.  I cut new bolts that go through the rubber feet, sealing the ends with a blob of Sugru. Not great looking, but the resulting feet are about 1″ tall.  Next time I won’t cut my rubber stoppers down in height.

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The last details: a final cleaning of the slugs, padding the spacebar with a little felt so that it doesn’t clatter so much, and giving the typewriter body a good wax with Renaissance wax.  This Underwood 5 is pretty much ready to go back to Quin.

I tested Quin’s Underwood with a sweet little ditty from Tom Waits. I understand that he’s an Underwood 5 user:

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Nobody does lost old-timey sentiment like Tom Waits. That sweet, plaintive matter-of-factness of the last line always kills me.

I may need to do additional shift slide bracket adjustment – I see a little color bleed on my “L”.

I can’t believe that I am doing this, but I am sending the Underwood back to Modesto with plastic ribbon spools.  I know.  It’s a perversion of the form. Quin’s Underwood came with old plastic spools that I discarded – had it really been functional in times recent enough for plastic spools?  I wish that a large lot of old metal spools would show up on eBay, but I am not holding my breath.

Here are a few pictures taken before the return to Modesto.

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I printed out the 1929 Underwood 3,4,5 user manual from Richard Polt’s typewriter manuals archive.

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I wanted Quin to have an optimal typing experience, and that meant she needed a good typewriter pad.  I would have ordered a very nice Jackalope pad from Richard Polt’s site, but he is not shipping until August because he is traveling. So: I went to the carpet store where they gave me an old carpet sample for free.  It was large enough for two typewriter pads, so I cut it in half and sealed the edge with duct tape.  I backed my pads with non-skid material and ta-da:  I had two typewriter pads.  One for me and one for Quin.

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I made a vinyl typewriter cover out of a yard of 54″ wide translucent vinyl.

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I did a rough fit on the machine and then straightened up my lines.

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A haiku for you / pulled out my sewing machine / four seams and we’re done.

I am really glad I made a vinyl cover for the typewriter because I found out after the fact that Quin has three or four cats.

vinylCover

The Revenant: Return to Modesto

Sunday morning I bundled up the Underwood 5 and all its accessories: care and feeding sheet, user manual, vinyl cover, typewriter pad, and the old feet in a baggie.  I drove out to Modesto where I met Quin in the same parking lot where it all began.

She was overcome with giddy happiness.  She has never used a manual typewriter before, so I gave her a few tips and encouraged her to watch Richard Polt’s short video for typewriter beginners.  Quin is a real natural:

Look at Quin go!

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Quin, her poster, and her Underwood 5

Quin made me a beautiful  poster – she’s an art and biology double major.  It says “Fairy Cogmother”.  What a sweet thing! I will have to frame this and put it above my typewriters.

This may sound pushy after receiving such a nice gift, but I suggested to Quin that she include me as a character in her science fiction writing since I am full of PERSONALITY and CHARACTER.  I gave Quin this idea for a character based on me: a space witch who has a mechanical crow as a familiar. Caw! Quin laughed and said of course.

As I drove westward home, I thought a lot about the old Underwood. What a wonderful experience. I may need to get one of my own, but it would have to be in ridiculously bad condition like Quin’s.

There was a hole in my heart, but a new little Underwood flew in from Idaho last week to my home for unwed Underwoods.  Apparently there is an excess of Underwood 3 banks in the woods up north, and I happily brought this one into the fold and hope to rehabilitate it.

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The Underwood three bank came with a bag of interesting pieces. A puzzle!

And then there is this crazy thing that I dragged home on Saturday, the haunted SCM Electra 210 from Moe’s shop:

A haunted Smith-Corona Electra 210 with mysteriously repeating "5" key. Another #typewriterrepair

A post shared by Mary E (@myoldtypewriter) on

 

The whole family enjoys watching this thing.  I will give it a good blow-out and a  degreasing and see where we’re at.  It is very entertaining as it is though.

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Underwood 5: Bit by Bit

I have been spending many happy days outside by the garage working on the Underwood 5 for the young writer, Quin. When I first got it, I had doused the machine in Liquid Wrench penetrating oil to loosen the rust. That horrible burning smell persisted for days and days – working in the fresh air was necessary. Fortunately the weather was warm and pleasant, and I cleaned and tinkered and listened to the neighborhood children play and the neighborhood dogs bark.

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In a recent blog post at Typerwriter Heaven, “Yost 10 – Dremelisation” Rob Bowker  reflected on how rust and corrosion on typewriter surfaces affect his enjoyment of a machine.  I completely agree. Typewriters, especially the levers, knobs and keys need to feel smooth and clean when operating the typewriter.  There is nothing worse than getting oily rust and plating flakes on your hands from an old machine.

One of the first things I did was remove rusty parts a few at a time and throw them into an Evapo-Rust bath. Many of the plated parts were in bad shape with flaking plate (nickel? chrome?) and severe rust.  I did the best I could to preserve as much of the plating as possible, following up rust removal with Flitz polish. Some pieces were down to bare metal, so I polished them with the dremel.

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There is nothing like seeing a previously frozen chunk of rust become an elegant and freely moving mechanism.  These little wheels that fit into the “rising cylinder scale” now spin lightly.

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I removed the paper table and front panel from the typewriter and began to work on the scaly varnish with Soft Scrub. It was very slow going.  It took several days of softly scrubbing to remove the old varnish and see smooth paint beneath. I used cotton swabs and tooth picks to work around the delicate decals. Soon the soft, buttery feel of clean paint began to emerge as the crusty scales of varnish were removed.

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There was so much to be done on this machine, so I typed up a  list and added as I thought of things:

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The typewriter was missing one back foot when I got it, so one of the first things I did was make a temporary cork foot so that the typewriter didn’t lurch from side to side while I worked on it. The three remaining feet had disintegrated into varying heights so it was still a bit wobbly.

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I ordered #4 black rubber test tube stoppers with holes and crafted four new feet. I cut the test tube stoppers to 5/8″ height. In hindsight, I would make the feet a bit taller (eg 3/4″+) so that there is plenty of clearance for the backspace mechanism under the machine which rides pretty low.

I had a diverse collection of bolts (where did I get all these bolts?) that fit the Underwood frame.  I cut the heads off the bolts and screwed the bolts into the test tube stoppers and then onto the typewriter. In the picture below you can see one of the original crumbling feet and the foot I made from a test tube stopper.

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I am keeping the original feet in a baggie for Quin, but I think the new feet are going to work great.  They feel solid and supple and of uniform height – no more wobble.

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This Underwood had two serial numbers, both from 1930.  One on main body: #3643485-5

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and a serial number stamped on the carriage under a cover plate and handwritten behind the paper table: #3633852

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I scrubbed the type slugs.  Most letters were printing very nicely despite the fact that the slugs had significant rust and peeling of chrome.  I have a hand-held USB magnifier (very good for removing glass and splinters from feet) that I ran over the slugs. Despite looking very bad in magnification, the asterisk prints very well.  Capital “M” and lowercase “w” are the only letters that look marginal when printing and even that isn’t too bad.

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Type alignment

I really wanted Quin to have an optimal typing experience, and one of the things that drives me bananas is when the capital letters don’t line up with lowercase letters.

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Fortunately, there is a 1920 service manual for the Underwood 3, 4 and 5 and on page 39, the manual describes adjusting the position of the “motion blocks” to align text.  I found the blocks on either side of the carriage, set at an incline.

motionBlocks

I removed the screws and blocks and threw them into an Evapo-Rust bath.  After they were clean, I experimented with adjusting their position.  I could get the capital letters to print much higher, but not lower to align with the lowercase letters.

I was stumped. What other adjustments could I make to bring those caps down?  Fortunately I had recently re-read Words Are Winged’s posts on his amazing Underwood No. 5 overhaul. One post, “Tuning an Underwood 5” would provide me with an answer. The author observed that while putting his machine back together that his key lever comb was a bit too low and causing shifting to stay too high.

When I first got the machine, I had partially removed the key lever comb to sand rust off it, and now I wondered whether I had seated the comb too low when I replaced it.  I loosened the screws, moved it up a bit and – voila!  Perfect alignment:

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Now the typewriter can answer this age-old question properly:

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One of the last items on my to-do list was to adjust the ribbon throw.  I found that while the typewriter printed just fine in black, several of the letters were printing half red and half black when I had it in red setting. I believe the official name of the problem is “bichrome mixing colors”.

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I cleaned and cleaned the ribbon guide mechanism, but it didn’t seem to make a difference. I went to the Underwood service manual:

I think I need to take the carriage off and see if it’s very dirty back there or if I can adjust G Plate 7 and C Plate 7.

In retrospect, I should have taken the carriage off the typewriter as a very first measure when the typewriter arrived in its rusty and frozen state.  I found out after the fact that it’s a fairly easy thing to do on an Underwood 5. Richard Polt removed the carriage on his and dismantled it in about seven minutes.

Anyhow, at this point, I am hesitant.  This Underwood is typing so well right now, and I worry that I might not get it completely back together properly. There are subtle adjustments and parts positioning that I might overlook.

Should I take the carriage off and see if I can fix the ribbon throw?

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Ames Typewriter Mechanical Training Manual, 1945, vol. 1; courtesy of The Classic Typewriter Page typewriter manuals archive

Ok then, let’s see. The first step is to disengage the draw band from the carriage stud and secure it to the draw band stud on the main frame.  I used a hook to do this.

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The next step is to remove the front scale plate and slide it off to the left.  That’s the right carriage frame stop in my hand.

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Then you lift the front of the carriage slightly…

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…and slide the carriage off to the right.

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Ta-da! The carriage is off:

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It was rusty and dirty behind the segment, so I flushed the ribbon guide mechanism with lots of mineral spirits and got a lot of grit out.  I put the carriage back on for testing, but unfortunately the deep cleaning did nothing for my “bichrome mixing colors” problem.

I took the carriage off again and loosened the two “shift slide bracket screws”.

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I moved the shift slide bracket backward, tightened the screws, put the carriage back on, tested, and saw that I had made some progress.  I took the carriage back off again and adjusted the shift slide bracket a little more, and it was so much better:

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It probably could be tweaked a bit more. How did this thing get out of adjustment? I’ll never know.

I put the carriage back on, replaced the front cover and the paper table and took a glamour shot:

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This old girl is going back to Quin next Sunday. I am still doing detail work.  I really think I need to get another terrible Underwood 5 of my very own to work on.

Here’s where we started:

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One last thing: I am trying to replaced the faded red insert on the color switcher button. I don’t want to change the other key tops though several are in bad shape. I love the old timey font, and it’s important to me to keep this as real as possible.  However, this faded red top really bugs me. I carefully loosened the tabs around the key ring, but that ring is clinging to the key like a nickel limpet. I cannot get it the ring off.  Any tips or tricks?

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I was lurking on Facebook the other day and saw someone using key top pliers with a popper and crimper attachment to remove and replace key rings.  I was green with envy.  If you have one to sell, I will buy it.

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Modesto

A couple weeks ago, I got an email out of the blue from a young writer named Quin from Modesto. Quin had recently attended a writers’ conference and had run into another writer, Kirsten, who owns an Underwood 5 I had cleaned up some time ago.  Remember this lovely 1915 Underwood 5?

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The above Underwood was in wonderfully preserved condition but had succumbed to the hazards of immobility.  It couldn’t move because of gummy, congealed grease, but responded to a light cleaning and manually working the parts.

Inspired by Kirsten’s machine, Quin picked up an Underwood in “rough shape” and was hoping to get it back into working order so that she could use it in her writing. Quin wanted “something a little more manual to help with inspiration”.

Quin was out in Modesto, so I told her that I would drive out to Modesto and check out the typewriter. Anything to help a young writer out.

My daughter joined me for the ride as co-pilot and photographer and companion. We listened to a good podcast, “What Can Vampires Teach Us About Economics?“. Included is a discussion about whether a zombie apocalypse could actually be good for the economy – so interesting.

Modesto is in the Central Valley of California, so we drove over the bridge through Hayward, Dublin, Livermore and over the Altamont Pass with its windmills, through Tracy and Manteca and down to Modesto.

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All the way to Modesto, I was wishfully thinking about what awaited.  Quin had described it as an old Underwood in rough shape.  I hoped it would be an old Underwood No. 5 and I hoped it would be in terrible shape.

Quin met us at a Starbucks off the interstate in Modesto.  She seems like such a nice person. Warmth, happiness, and good nature radiated from her. She opened the back of her truck:

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Wow. Thank you, Quin.  This was exactly what I had hoped for. It was spectacularly terrible.

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My bubble of initial exuberance deflated a bit as I examined the typewriter more closely.  It was completely frozen: the carriage wasn’t moving and several of the typebars were rusted into the comb. There was no telling whether the escapement was working since it was rusted down. Ribbon feed? Backspace? Tabulator? Bell? No idea if those worked since everything was frozen in time. Cosmetically,  it had some kind of embarrassing dermatologic problem with scaly varnish compounded by mud and rust. Oh the rust, the rust as far as the eye could see.

Quin had picked up the typewriter at an estate sale in Escalon, California where it had been living rough in a barn.  This is a true barn find.

I quickly herded the Underwood into my trunk.

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I told Quin I would do my best to get it working and she gave me a big hug. She was fully confident that I would be able to restore the machine. Her confidence in me made me chuckle – but why not? I guess I seem capable and steady.

I asked Quin what kind of writing she did. She told me she wrote mostly science fiction. That cracked me up. She wants to write science fiction on an Underwood No. 5, the quintessence of old-timey technology.  Maybe she writes steampunk sci-fi?

Back we went to our home. Through Manteca, Tracy, over the Altamont Pass with the windmills, through Livermore and Dublin and back over the Hayward Bridge.

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When I got home I took some pictures.

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The typewriter was in very bad shape.  I told my husband that I wasn’t sure I’d be able to get this one running.  There was just too much rust and nothing was moving. My husband gave my shoulder a squeeze and told me he was completely confident in my ability to get the Underwood running.

Well, all righty then. Both he and Quin really believe in me.

I took the typewriter outside and blew out leaves and stringy gunk and chunks of mud from the inside.

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The typewriter was slightly cleaner after the blow out, but its most serious problem was rust. I decided to douse every moving part in Liquid Wrench penetrating oil. I really hate the smell of that stuff. It smells like burning death.  However, it had seemed to work very well in the past to loosen up old, rusty screws.

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The first thing I wanted to do was get that carriage moving. The carriage was completely stuck – either jammed or rusted in place.  I applied Liquid Wrench liberally to the rails and the guts and went in for a nice lunch.

After I came back, I checked the carriage.  Still not moving.  I put a little muscle into it and felt it give a bit – it began to screech an inch or two and get stuck again.  I applied more penetrant to exposed areas and continued to work the carriage.  It slowly began to move along the rails.

I was finally able to move the carriage enough to see the serial number clearly:

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Serial number 3643485-5. Per Typewriter Database, this is a 1930 Underwood No. 5.  I recently cleaned up a 1915 Underwood 5, and it is incredible how very little changed in the Underwood 5 in the intervening 15 years.

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I continued to work the carriage and slowly it began to move, haltingly in short stuttering steps at first and then more and more smoothly as it began to truly glide along its rails. I pulled gently to the left on the carriage and hit the letter “t” – the only letter that moved freely.  The carriage advanced one space.

Joy, joy, joy.  More carriage cleaning and pretty soon the carriage was advancing without my help.

I doused the segment with penetrating oil.  I know that oiling a segment is forbidden in these circles, but I could see the crusty rust all way up the typebars into the segment.  The only letter that moved very well was the letter “t”.  Slowly, the typebars began to wake up.   I promise that I will flush out the oil with mineral spirits or denatured alcohol and a blast of air once I get things moving smoothly.

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A few of the type levers were rusted into the lever comb and had to be tapped free with a mallet. I sanded clumps of rust off the comb and the levers so that they could move freely.

The ribbon vibrator was not moving – the ribbon selector knob was rusted into stencil mode. More Liquid Wrench and some gentle persuasion, and I was able to pop it out of stencil mode. The ribbon vibrator began to flicker with typing. It was very rusty, so I applied more Liquid Wrench around the ribbon vibrator mechanism, and it began to move with more energy.

I got very excited, and I threw some ribbon in to see what kind of typing the dear old thing could do:

typeface

Not bad, Little 5!  Dirty slugs, some alignment problems, and the ribbon vibrator is bravely trying to leap high enough for red printing – we will work on these things.

Here is the Underwood 5 (partially dismantled) after a couple days of cleaning out the rust and working the mechanics.  O! Listen to the sweet little bell:

Look at her go! Typewriter people joke about boat anchors and door stops.  I like to think that most of these derelict chunks of iron are fixable if all the pieces are there.

Sometimes, however, when faced with a very broken typewriter, I feel a bit light headed and lose my nerve.  It hits me in a panicky rush: there is so much I don’t know about typewriters and so very little I do know for sure. Fortunately there is a knowledgeable and supportive typewriter community out there, so I tentatively move forward, one step at a time.

Quin’s frisky little Underwood is feeling her oats.  Listen to her sing:

soundOfMusic

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One Hundred Years of Aptitude

It is not true that people stop pursuing dreams because they grow old, they grow old because they stop pursuing dreams.

–Gabriel Garcí­a Márquez

I think the same can be said of typewriters:

It is not true that typewriters stop typing because they grow old, they grow old because they stop typing.

– Anonymous typospherian

I recently met a victim of disuse at Moe’s shop, a hundred year-old typewriter that aged prematurely because no one has recently typed on it.

A lady wanted to buy it, but it wasn’t working. Moe asked me if I could look at it.

1915 Underwood No. 5
Serial number: 827461

Oh, it’s a thing of beauty and a technological marvel.

I haven’t experienced an Underwood 5 before, so I was surprised at how smallish and compact it is.  It does weigh a full ton – it’s dense with superior mechanics.

This Underwood is solid quality through and through. This is a true $100 machine ($2,345.70 in 2016 dollars per the CPI inflation calculator at BLS).

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Look at all those thickly-plated levers and buttons and knobs and rods and switches and wheels.  Careful of the fingers, kids.

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When I brought the Underwood home, the carriage initially eked out a sluggish, gummy crawl on typing.  It did not want to move.  It was just dirty and lethargic from lack of exercise.  I cleaned and lubricated the carriage rails with PB B’laster and moved the carriage back and forth until it glided smoothly. I put a new ribbon in it.  It was typing better, but there didn’t seem to be enough “oomph” to reach the end of the line.  I added a little tension to the mainspring using the ratchet crank on the mainspring drum in back.

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And away we went.

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I think this beautiful old machine had some serious maintenance in the last twenty years or so.  The feet are soft as a baby’s bottom and the platen, though a little ridged, is nice and soft.

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Someone loved this machine and took care of it.

It’s in remarkable condition – hardly any rust or tarnish on it. A little dusty, a little gummy before cleaning, but otherwise just beautifully preserved for its 100+ years.

Sadly, it’s missing its margin release button. 😦

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I wish I had another Underwood 5 to refer to. Perhaps I could have rigged up a margin release system with duct tape and paper clips 🙂

I brought it back to Moe’s shop and talked to the lady who was buying it. I walked her through its quirks (missing margin release, intermittent line-lock functioning).  The lady (a writer) was so happy to see it typing again. She was familiar with manual typewriters and this Underwood is not so different from machines 70 years younger.

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It is the quintessence of old-timey typewriters and has a remarkable aptitude for typing.  This Underwood is ready for its next hundred years.