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.


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.


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.


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.


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


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.


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.


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.


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


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



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.



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.


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.


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:


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


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”.


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?


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.


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.


Then you lift the front of the carriage slightly…


…and slide the carriage off to the right.


Ta-da! The carriage is off:


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”.


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:


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:


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:


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?


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.






























9 thoughts on “Underwood 5: Bit by Bit

  1. Tyler A. says:

    Oh my gosh. It’s easy to forget where the starting point was when it takes a good while to get a machine clean, but those last two pictures of the machine are like a sucker punch. From barn yard find, to well-preserved and ready to type. I applaud your efforts once more, and note that you excel at dealing with the paint. I’m always having issues with old varnish, and half the time just leave it on rather than deal with it.

    In regards to the red colored key; I long ago decided that, despite cleaning literally every other part of a machine, I would leave the paper inserts of glass keys original. My own Underwood 5’s red key looks whitish pink, as yours does, but I think it helps reinforce the character of the machine.

    I wish you luck in finding another barn yard Underwood 5 for your own collection!

    Liked by 1 person

    • It seems as if that color selector key wants to stay faded pink – I will abide by its wishes.

      I am sure to stumble upon another terrible Underwood 5 for my very own. Once Quin’s Underwood was typing well, I was hesitant to upset the apple cart by dismantling it further. If it were my own, I would have removed the typebars for better cleaning. I was concerned about “breaking” someone else’s typewriter, so I cleaned them in place.


  2. Yes, many lucks on the hunt for a Five of your own to nurse back to health. Clearly you have proven your mettle against the most discouraging of basket cases. 😀

    Watch yourself, tho – before you know it you will have bid on one of those old suitcases full of typewriter repairman’s tools that pop up on ebay occasionally.

    Liked by 1 person

    • If you hear tell of any of those old suitcases full of typewriter tools for sale, let me know. I will put them to good use. I vaguely recall a document that described the use of various typewriter tools – was that at Typewriter Database?


  3. The transformation is truly fantastic! The machine deserved it though – I love my Fiver too.

    When you are returning it to Quin do a proper unveiling and take a picture of her face please. I guess it might be a real life cartoonesque eye-popping-out-jaw-dropping moment 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • I have got to get another Underwood 5 – this one has been great fun.

      I will take lots of pictures when I deliver the typewriter. Aside from the cosmetic improvements, I am happy that it types so well – solid and consistently wonderful. It will serve a young writer well.


  4. Julie says:

    This weekend my first vintage typewriter came to live with me. Totally smitten after only 3 days, I’m eager to clean, lubricate and adjust it to working condition. Wandering the typosphere, I’ve seen several of your posts and was encouraged by your successes. Your transformation of this Underwood 5 is nothing short of astounding! Congratulations on all your good work and thank you for inspiring me. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s so nice to hear. I find typewriter tinkering an incredibly relaxing and interesting hobby – there’s always something new to learn. In addition, a really supportive online typewriter community is there when you are looking for answers. I recommend getting Richard Polt’s book, The Typewriter Revolution. It’s full of great information on using your typewriter as well as care and feeding tips and tricks.


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