Initial cleanup and lubricationThese are happy hours for me, as I get to discover the various parts and features of my new typewriter and I start to uncover the beauty hidden under the filth. The paint on your typewriter may appear cracked and dull, but chances are that you are looking at decades' worth of tightly compacted dirt, grease, ink, sweat, and cigarette smoke. If you can manage to remove that layer of crud, you may find that the underlying paint job is still smooth and can be made to gleam. If you're unlucky, the crud will turn out to be a layer of varnish applied at the factory, which has grown wrinkly and brown with age; that can be hard to remove. Of course, if you're lucky enough to find a typewriter that has been kept in a case, this won't be an issue -- it will just need a little loving care. In any case, you'll find the following items useful:
- Soft, clean, white cotton rags. You'll go through a lot of these. The gentlest approach (recommended at first) is to wipe the typewriter with a wet rag, or a rag dipped in water with a few drops of dishwashing liquid.
- Brushes. you can try toothbrushes, nail brushes, brushes for cleaning firearms or dentures, and artist's paintbrushes. The bristles on brushes can be trimmed to make them stiffer.
- Q-tips are nice for cleaning hard-to-reach areas. (Synthetic-tipped alternative: Tipton's shooters swabs. One collector has written to me: "Instead of using Q-Tips, you can also roll your own swabs using wooden applicator sticks (6" long x 1/16" diameter) and cotton batting. Bamboo skewers work just as well, and they last for days/weeks. One roll of cotton batting will yield about a million swabs. As soon as a swab is dirty, you pull it off and replace it. The most important thing is to use damp--not wet--swabs. You can achieve this by rolling a wet swab on a piece of blotting paper. By doing this, you avoid flooding the surface, and water won't seep into all the wrong places."
- Soft Scrub is a gentle liquid cleanser that is easily available. To remove heavy dirt, try applying diluted Soft Scrub with a finger or rag, and removing it with a rag, over and over and over. Careful: some finishes will be scratched even by this cleanser. But my Caligraph required vigorous scrubbing with undiluted Soft Scrub!
- Try Dentucreme. "yes, the toothpaste for dentures. It is very mildly abrasive and extremely effective on surfaces that would show scratches. I use it on mother-of-pearl and other delicate surfaces." --Lane Welch
- Steve Maloney reports that "Gojo ," a hand cleaner, is excellent for cleaning original lacquer black.
- Scrubbing Bubbles is good for penetrating tiny crevices on wrinkle paint. Use a toothbrush to get it down into the wrinkles. It does have a tendency to remove some paint, and can harm decals, so be careful.
- "For typewriters that have textured finishes. I would not recommend using furniture polish. I have found that the best way to clean these surfaces without buffing down the textured finish is to use a 'fingernail' brush and a solution of baking soda and mild dishwashing detergent. I am liberal with the baking soda and conservative with the dishwashing detergent. The dishwashing detergent is mainly there for removing oils. You might be surprised how much dirt gets accumulated in these textured finishes." -- Paul Dobias
- "A very good cleaner that works well with 'crackle lacquer' finishes is Dow Scrubbing Bubbles. It is a water based foaming cleaner that lifts out dirt and other grunge from the nooks and crannies in the finish. It also works well on smooth finishes, but is really good if you are trying to get down into the detail. It also is excellent for such things as the oil cloth and simulated leather of portable cases. The current product is made by Johnson, and is not as good in my estimation as the original Dow product, but it is still very good. I have used it on car interiors such as headliners, and or musical instrument cases, as well as music amplifiers with Tolex covering. Using a soft brush like an old tooth brush works well. It is then good, after wiping off the last application, to use plain water to wipe down the surface until clean." --Tim McCoy
- "Another more aggressive product, but still water based, is “Krud Kutter” ; this stuff will clean the grease off of an old engine, but not harm the paint. It, like the Scrubbing Bubbles, should be finished with a clean water wipe down, until all traces of dirt are off. There is another even more aggressive version called Krud Kutter Graffiti Remover. I’ve not tried it, but it might be useful in a watered down form, but test it on something before using it on some collectable." --Tim McCoy
- "For postwar machines, use a cleaner designed for pots and pans, or even dish soap--it will cut through the grime and make any gray typewriter a little less gray/dull." --Nick Bodemer
- Oil will improve the functioning of some parts, notably when applied to the carriage rails. Apply very sparingly, with the end of a pin or paper clip. Use a light, high-grade oil. 3-in-1 Oil is an easily available option. Probably a better choice is gun oil, such as Hoppe's Gun Oil. or a penetrant such as PB Blaster .
- It's a bad idea to put oil in the segment (the slotted piece that holds the typebars); the oil can get dirty and gummy after a while.
- It's a bad idea to use WD-40 on a typewriter. It is not a good lubricant for fine machinery and after a little time, it will get gummy and make things worse than ever.
- Gun cleaning solvents can be very useful. I have had good luck with Birchwood Casey Gun Scrubber. Other products I have heard about are M-Pro gun cleaning spray, G-96, and Break Free.
- Liquid Wrench Super Penetrant has worked very well for me in removing old oil and lubricating mechanisms.
- PB Blaster can remove old grease and free up parts. It also can restore shine to dark wrinkle paint, as it seeps into tiny crevices.
- Stronger products (use outdoors, and test inconspicuously on decals and paint) include naphtha (lighter fluid) and carburetor cleaner.
- "Also a good cleaner is equal parts of acetone, automatic transmission fluid, kerosene, and mineral spirits. Be careful of the acetone, however. This is a standard firearms cleaning mixture for cleaning bores, etc. For really gunked up typewriters, it works pretty good." --Paul Ross
- Mineral spirits (e.g. Varsol or Stoddard Solvent. available at paint stores) have been recommended to me. "Brush the mineral spirits on, using a natural-fiber brush which is bonded onto the handle with metal, not plastic. The machine should then be GENTLY blown out with an air compressor. Then apply a light lubrication to moving parts."
- "When performing cleaning and lubrication, I would recommend following up after degreasers and lighter oils with a heavier oil. Also, oils used around chipped and delaminating coatings may contribute to further delamination. For instance, for blowing out dusts, removing some grease buildup, and to leave behind a think layer of lubricant, I would recommend using 'TV Tuner Cleaner,' and then follow up with a light oil." -- Paul Dobias
- "At 50 cents each, Southern Bloomer cleaning rags may be expensive (after all, they're going to get dirty quick), but they put out no lint, and they've been a big help." --Robert Neuwirth
- "Automatic transmission fluid, thinned 50% with kerosene, is an excellent rust preventive and general lubricant. Lots of anti-oxidant material in it, so it doesn't 'gum up' with time. As usual, in oiling, apply sparingly." --Paul Ross
- Instead of lubricating with oil, which can eventually collect dust and make the mechanism stick again, you can try dry, powdered graphite. (This is not recommended for use on anything that has aluminum, since graphite has a high galvanic difference to aluminum and will pit and corrode it.)
- "Tipton's Metal Magic rust and lead Removing Cloths do a good job rubbing grime, rust, and discoloration off typebars and other naked metal pieces. Leaves a bit of a greasy feel, so you have to rub down with a plain cloth after you're done". --Robert Neuwirth
- "Iosso Gunbrite is good at taking off serious surface rust without destroying chromed surfaces, though you have to rub like crazy." --Robert Neuwirth
- Platen cleaning: after an initial wiping with water and Soft Scrub, several brands of rubber/plastic restorer can remove more dirt. For more on platens, see the next section. "Rubber rejuvenators" will clean platens, but not really rejuvenate the rubber. In my experience, the stuff is also good for dissolving old grease, such as grease stuck in the slots of a segment.
- Fedron Rubber Cleaner Conditioner is a heavy-duty solvent that cleans type and platens. If you can find a dauber (like the type used for liquid shoe polish) spread a thin coating on the type and let it work for about a minute or two, then wipe off with a rag. For the platen, if the platen can be removed, put some Fedron on a rag and wipe the rubber off. It instantly removes dirt, ink, and rust marks. Fedron is harsh: be sure to keep it away from paint, decals, and all delicate parts and materials (such as string and plastic). Use in a well-ventilated area: it stinks!
- "That moldy smell" is a common problem, especially with portables--and if you're allergic to mold, it can be a real health hazard. Yes, the smell is caused primarily by mold, combined with decades of dust and cigarette smoke. Mold won't grow on metal, but it will grow on typewriter ribbons and on fabric-covered cases. Take your typewriter out of its case and blow the lint and dust out of it (a compressed air canister for cleaning computer and stereo equipment is handy here). Throw away the ribbon. Look carefully for any surfaces that may have mold on them (the typebars usually rest on fabric or felt; some typewriters also have felt elsewhere, to deaden the noise). Clean and polish the machine using the materials I list on this page. The cases can be cleaned with harsher materials, such as Scrubbing Bubbles, Concrobium mold control, Lysol, window cleaner, or ammonia. Mr. Clean's Eraser Pads have also been recommended to me for this purpose. Then let everything dry thoroughly, preferably in sunlight. Store typewriters and cases in dry environments with moderate temperatures. You may have to clean the cases again every 6 months or so.
"My first experience with a nasty, moldy typewriter was with a Smith Corona Super. I went so far as to remove the felt, but unfortunately, I wasn't quite able to get the soundproofing to really work after that. I switched tactics after that experience. My next machine was with a Smith Corona Silent (Speedline). It is a beautiful machine, but the musty smell was strong enough to fill the room. This time, I used Concrobium Mold Control. It is sold in spray bottles at Home Depot (among other retailers). I took the shell off the Silent, carefully sprayed the Concrobium on the felt (it leaves a foggy glaze on most parts, so I highly recommend being precise in spraying. even pressing the nozzle directly against the felt and slowly injecting the fluid into the felt). After letting it soak into the felt for a few minutes, I sopped up the excess in a paper towel and let the pieces air dry. Sure enough, the Concrobium killed whatever mold and spores lived in the felt and took the edge off the smell. I've tried the same technique with a SC Skyriter with success. From what I understand, Concrobium leaves an anti-fungal and anti-microbial film wherever it is applied to kill whatever fungi is on it and prevent it from returning. Since the felt in a typewriter is almost always hidden and used solely for sound deadening, I can't imagine the film would be a problem. It's been nearly a year since I treated my Silent, and I've not had any ill effects whatsoever.
"In most cases, the wooden carrying case often absorbs the musty odor. This was true in the case of my Silent. I was able to clean the case (inside and out) using the techniques I learned on your webpage, which helped somewhat. To kill the rest of the smell, I took some fresh pipe tobacco (cheap stuff from the drug store will work, as long as it smells pleasant), wrapped about a silver dollar's worth up in a coffee filter, tied it into a bundle using a trash bag tie, and set it in the typewriter case. After a few weeks, the slight remains of the old typewriter smell blends with the smell of the fresh pipe tobacco and the typewriter smells quite divine. I normally wouldn't recommend tobacco use to anybody, but in this case it was put to a really good use!"
Improving paint, metal, and rubber
The typical deep-black color of an early typewriter consists of lacquer, which is quite difficult to restore. Enamel paint was introduced in the 1920s. Typewriters also have many metal parts which are susceptible to rust and discoloration. The shiny metal parts of older typewriters are nickel-plated; some newer machines have chrome-plated parts.
- Rust removal should be attempted by the gentlest method first. In order from gentlest to roughest, I recommend: Mother's Mag & Aluminum Polish (available at auto supply stores); superfine steel wool (try to avoid getting the steel filings into the mechanism); superfine sandpaper; rougher steel wool; a synthetic scrubbing pad; a rotary tool (such as a Dremel) with a wire brush attachment (I recommend the cup-shaped brush; wear eye protection, as bits of wire will fly off); a rotary tool with a cratex attachment (rubber impregnated with a tough material). The cratex attachments do a great job of removing rust, but they will leave a mark; use them for initial heavy rust removal, then finish with a wire brush to smooth out the finish.
- Evapo-Rust is an excellent product if you need to remove rust from the whole body of a machine, or if you want to de-rust individual parts without using the methods above. You immerse things in this product and only the rust disappears. It is nontoxic and reusable. In order to immerse a whole typewriter, you will need 5 gallons (it can be diluted a bit with water if necessary). Remove the body panels and platen. If there are any remaining paint and decals, protect them with a good coat of wax, as the Evapo-Rust can harm them. After soaking in Evapo-Rust for up to 24 hours, things can be rinsed off in water. Then dry them immediately with a hair dryer or other means. (With some parts you may not mind having a residue of Evapo-Rust on them, which will protect against future rust, so there is no need to rinse.) The Evapo-Rust may leave a dull or dark residue on surfaces, which can easily be polished clean. You may also get acceptable effects by spraying Evapo-Rust repeatedly for about an hour, instead of immersing the machine.
Finesse Pinstriping. You can also find pinstriping decals at many hobby shops, or order them from The Antique Phonograph Supply Co. Route 23, Box 123, Davenport Center, NY 13751-0123, phone 607-278-6218.
PLATENSThe platen is the printing surface of a typewriter -- normally, a rubber-covered cylinder. The rubber on an old platen may get hard and slick, so that it doesn't grip paper properly and the type hits it with a harsh, loud impact. What to do?
- Vigorous scrubbing with Soft Scrub will remove the dirty and slick exterior layer of the rubber, and improve the grip.
PolishingHere's the sensuous phase. Loving applications and re-applications of polishing agents will leave your typewriter looking glossy, fresh and grateful. You'll be amazed at the difference!
- For a safe, effective finish used by museums, I recommend Renaissance brand microcrystalline wax. It can be found on eBay and at various online suppliers. Apply and buff the wax with clean cotton cloth.
- A good alternative is a commercial blend of microcrystalline waxes, in paste form, such as Johnson's "Klear" or "AeroWax."
- Mother's Carnauba Cleaner Wax (available in auto supply stores) works nicely. Other car finishes, such as Turtle Wax, can also work well.
- Wax can be removed with a cloth dampened in mineral spirits (such as Varsol and Stoddard Solvent). Use in a well-ventilated area.
- Pledge is an easily available polish that I have often used as a cleaning and polishing agent. Spray it on a clean rag, wipe the part you're polishing thoroughly with the rag, repeat until the rag doesn't look brownish at all. However, I have been warned that overuse of Pledge can leave a sticky residue. It also contains silicone, which may be impossible to remove later; do not spray it on the mechanism, and do not use Pledge on a rare machine. Endust claims that it contains no silicone. Nick Bodemer reports, "For prewar typewriters, I use Old English Lemon Furniture Polish--it works very well, and does not remove decals (even on a 1930s Royal)."
Manual typewriters operate on relatively simple principles, and you can usually fix a problem using patient investigation and some screwdrivers. But don't underestimate the need to keep track of all the parts you remove! You can easily find yourself with a pile of parts that you can't fit together again. Check Online Typewriter Support. by Will Davis, for further advice on operating, maintaining, and repairing a manual typewriter. As for typewriter repair shops, visit my list of them here.
- You may want to invest in a set of gunsmith's screwdriver s. They are available in boxed sets with up to 58 interchangeable bits, as well as ultrathin sets. This allows you to find a perfect fit for every slotted screwhead, so damage is less likely to occur. (Note that older screws tend to have much narrower slots than modern ones.) "The best source for these screwdrivers is Brownell's, Inc. 200 South Front Street, Montezuma, Iowa 50171; tel. 515-623-5401; fax 515-623-3896. Check out their 'Magna-Tip Super-Sets.' You'll wonder how you managed without them. About $82.00, but they'll last a lifetime."
- Magnetic screwdrivers are helpful for holding on to screws.
So now you're ready to do some actual typing with your machine! Even if you're not going to use it for everyday correspondence, it's nice to know that it's functioning and "alive" once again. You need to deal with a few issues such as inking, clean type, and alignment.
- Ribbons for most typewriters can sometimes still be found as close as your nearest office supply shop. The standard width is half an inch, and you'll find that this will work on almost all typewriters made after 1920 or so. If your typewriter can type in two colors (and most can), buy a black-and-red ribbon: it looks nice! For suggestions on ribbon sources, see my FAQ .
- Odd-size ribbons: try ribbons made for computer printers, printing calculators, time clocks, and cash registers.
- How to re-ink a ribbon: "Once a ribbon has run out of ink, and the typewriter has wound it all up onto one spool, remove the ribbon from the typewriter. Get a bottle of STAMP-PAD INK, the same colour as the ribbon (this works best with single-colour ribbons). Keeping the ribbon wound up onto one spool, coat the outermost part of the ribbon with stamp-pad ink, and allow it to saturate through to the interior layers of ribbon, wound around the spool. You should really only have to do this rather sparingly. No more than 2-3 drops here and there. Let the ink soak into the ribbon, and then rethread the whole thing back into the typewriter. It'll run like new :) A bottle of stamp-pad ink is like $5, and one little bottle will last you for many re-inkings. Stamp-pad ink is ideal, because like typewriter ink, it doesn't readily dry out in open air, so that means the ribbon won't dry out overnight, but will stay moist. well. until it runs out of ink again!" --Shahan Cheong
- It may be worthwhile to treat a ribbon that still has ink, but has dried out, by spraying it with WD-40. Lay it out yard by yard / meter by meter and spray lightly and quickly. (Reminder: do not use WD-40 to lubricate the typewriter itself.)