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?
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.
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:
Wow. Thank you, Quin. This was exactly what I had hoped for. It was spectacularly terrible.
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.
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.
When I got home I took some pictures.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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:
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: