Old Lettera, New Lettera

I returned to Virginia with an hankering for a broken typewriter to clean and fix. Cleaning my sisters’ Quiet-Riter and Royal Administrator had whetted my appetite.  I have a type: the junkier and more dysfunctional the typewriter, the better.  They provide me with hours of fun (and gentle, comic frustration). Hey, there’s a meme for my taste in typewriters – albeit one that played out in 2017:

I started cruising Craigslist and local eBay for a likely candidate and spotted this:

Its jaunty burping ribbon cover sold me.

I already have a 1950 or 1954 Lettera 22 that I picked up from Moe’s before she closed her San Mateo shop. Its serial number is S623827, so it’s either 1950 or 1954. Made in Italy.

Just look at that classy embossed Olivetti logo!

And what about that great typeface (which I think is Olivetti Elite Victoria)?

This typeface reminds me of Oliver Printype

This Lettera 22 is in very clean typing condition with the original case and manual; however, it has an intermittent lowercase alignment after shifting issue that I will address in a future post:

Anyhoo, I figured that I could use this working Lettera 22 to aid in the recovery of the Craigslist Lettera.

In preparation of picking up the broken Lettera, I watched Joe Van Cleave’s video comparing two Lettera 22s

I also carefully read through Ted Munk’s post Off the workbench: 1959 Olivetti Lettera 22 and all its comments to familiarize myself with what might be wrong with the Lettera that I was picking up.

As I drove over to pick up the typewriter from the Craigslist seller, I heard a favorite piece of chocolate cake rock on the radio and took that as a good omen:

It was a good omen.  I found the Craigslist seller delightful.  An art teacher, J. has recently started collecting typewriters and she showed me around her collection which included an Underwood 5, a Royal FP, an Olympia SM3, and several others.  She journals in the morning on a Smith-Corona electric.

We wandered out to her car where the Lettera was located and were accosted by deer.

J. opened her car’s trunk and here’s what I found:

This Underwood Olivetti Lettera looks like it’s been camping for the past decade. The back is covered in what looks like bird poop.  It is said that it is good luck to be pooped on by a bird, but this just seems like willful disrespect by a bunch of a pigeons.

There was no case and the inside was rusty and there were clumps of oxidated something (or bird poop?) in the mechanics.  The carriage was not staying put.  It careened to the left and didn’t “catch” when using the carriage release or typing.

I told the seller that I would try to get it typing again and if nothing else it would become a good parts machine for other typospherians.

I brought it home and examined it on the back patio.  Its serial number is 768990, and it is made in Italy. Looks like a 1960 Underwood Olivetti Lettera 22.

I found that I could get the carriage to catch occasionally if I firmly pressed any key.

Hanging out (literally) on the patio

At my garage workbench, I took the bottom plate off (four screws where the feet are).  There are four screws attaching the top cover which I removed.  I was able to remove the cover by setting the margins all the way out and extending the carriage:

It was very rusty and crunchy in the guts:

Krusty Kondition

I carefully blew out the chunks and dirt from the naked Lettera with my DataVac Duster and then began to doctor the stiff parts with mineral spirits. The typebars began to swing.

In the comments for his post Off the workbench: 1959 Olivetti Lettera 22, Ted Munk describes a fix for an errant carriage such as mine:

If you can get the bottom cover off of your L22 and turn it over, underneath the carriage directly in the rear center of the machine is a toothed gear and pawl which you can hit sparingly with a little spray LPS1 or PB Blaster (do not use WD-40 or 3-in-1 oil), which will free up that pawl and cause the carriage to work right again.

I applied PB B’laster, my favorite penetrating catalyst to this area under the machine and yippie – fixed that roaming carriage!

The tabs were sticking and gummy, so I cleaned the tab pins/rack and associated connectors and those started working smoothly. The type slugs were thick with dried ink, so I cleaned them up with a toothbrush and mineral spirits.  Some time in its past, this Lettera was used thoroughly.

Time to test typing, so I stole a red/black ribbon from my daughter’s Voss (it’s a cursive machine and there is bichrome mixing in the descenders which drives me bananas so no red/black ribbon for you, Voss).

I was very glad that the original spools and spool nuts were still with the machine. Looking good, Craigslist Lettera!

I put the top and bottom cover back on my Craigslist Lettera and stepped back to admire my work.  Let’s compare my two Lettera 22s:

The typing feel is remarkably similar – so pleasant for such little machines.  The real difference between the two machines is the noise.  There is a subtle loose clanking, a jangling sound that comes from the 1960 Craigslist Lettera while typing that is absent in the other. The 1950/1954 Lettera has a tight, controlled voice.  I spent about thirty minutes trying to find the source of the soft clanky jangle in the Craigslist Lettera. The platens are about the same in terms of hardness.  I tried to still different parts of the machine with my hands while I typed, but found no source.  I’ll have to take the covers off again and investigate further.

Because its current paint is bubbling and chipping off, the Craigslist Lettera is a candidate for sand blasting and powder coating. I just need to find a DIY space to do that.   I sandblasted and powder coated the Voss typewriter at TechShop.  Sadly, TechShop filed for bankruptcy this year and closed all locations.

A final note: our family’s three year old Microsoft Surface 3 tablet took a catastrophic fall recently and has become electronic waste for recycling. This led to reflections on the declining durability of mass produced writing machines.

Compare and contrast: my new junker Craigslist Lettera is older than I am and will likely be typing long after I am dead and gone. Despite being pooped upon by birds and rained upon and neglected, that thing woke up and types beautifully. Craigslist Lettera wins this round.

35 thoughts on “Old Lettera, New Lettera

  1. Nice work on the Lettera.

    I also have a taupe one from 50 or 54. TWDB is a bit confusing as probably the Olivetti serial numbering may have been. I also have the Victoria Elite, or Elite Victoria whichever it is called, typeface. I have a blue one from 1966.

    Rob Bowker also has some good Lettera repair posts on his blog. Ton S. removed his blog again. His was loaded with good Olivetti information.

    The poopy looking paint is from moisture getting under it and corroding the aluminum casting.
    The bottom had me stumped on the first one I took apart. Thanks to Oz.Typewriter’s post I found how easy it is to remove and reinstall. I posted on mine and the cleaning.


    • There are so many good Lettera 22/32 repairs posts out there. I should add a listing of these in my follow-up post since they were so helpful to me.

      The Lettera serial numbers are really something – maybe because they were made in different factories all over the place. My 1950/54 Lettera uses the prefix “S” which I thought could mean “Scotland” but no, it was made in Italy.

      I think you’re right about the “poopy” bottom. I am scrubbing and scrubbing and that stuff does not come off the way organic matter would. This Lettera is a prime candidate for sand blasting and powder coating. Now to find a place where I can do that.


    • These two Lettera 22s are sweet little machines. I am thinking about taking the older Lettera with me on a cross-country roadtrip this summer and typecasting with it.


  2. Jacy says:

    Glad to see you back! I’ve had a couple of these over the years, and they are pretty great. Although I move on to other typewriters, the Olivetti hold a special place in my collection.

    The font on the older one looks a lot like the Director font on my Hermes 3000. I find it reads well.

    Did the Lexikon make it through the move, or did it get sold off for space? I found one a while back, and it’s interesting to compare between the Lettera 22, 32, Studio 44, and the Lexikon 80. Some really beautiful design.


    • The Lexikon 80 (and all my big standards) are still in California. I am back and forth, so I see it from time to time. I am still blown away by its massive beauty.


  3. Nice work! I’m glad you figured out to clean the escapement and tab pins. Those little Italian racers don’t tolerate any dirt well in those areas. (:
    I think your older Lettera is a 1950 – the embossed logo is pretty early on in the run.


  4. OldGreyBeard says:

    Glad to see you’re posting again. The Lettera 22 is a lovely machine. I picked one up for 5 quid a few weeks ago at a car boot. The missing spool nut was found in the mechanism! The grommets had completely disintegrated & filled the machine with bits of rubber. I was able to get re-manufactured grommets from thetypewriterman.co.uk who also has re-manufactured spool nuts.

    After cleaning with meths the machine works much more smoothly. There is a problem of the q seeming too low and not quite in the centre of its character space. Not sure why.

    My machine was made in 1957 and I was told that the S prefix meant it was made in Scotland. Mine certainly was as it has a badge saying it was made in Glasgow.

    Thanks for the links which are very helpful.


    • Lucky you found that missing spool nut!

      Like yours, the grommets on my 1950 Lettera have melted away:
      melted grommets

      I went to the hardware store and got some rubber washers – we’ll see if they work and if not I may be in touch with thetypewriterman.co.uk


  5. John says:

    I very much enjoyed this post. Your older Lettera is pretty much my platonic ideal of a portable typewriter–it matches my mother’s college typewriter down to the color, the typeface, and the shape and color of the keys. I still miss that machine–maybe someday I’ll find another!


    • Platonic ideal – yes. All other Lettera 22s are but dim reflections of this 1950 Lettera 22.

      Seriously though, I want to replace the melted grommets and fix the sluggish shift and then I will pass it onto you.


  6. OldGreyBeard says:

    Working with typewriters does make you reflect on the shortening life of technology. I have an old laptop I bought around 2010 that works quite well but runs Vista. I thought what a good idea it would be to install LibreOffice but there isn’t an install for Vista and many other bits of software no longer support it.

    On the other hand I was able to get a new ribbon for a 1913 Corona 3 folding and in fact have been able to get new ribbons for every typewriter I have, all of which still work.


    • I am wedded to old technology as well. My work computer runs Windows 7 and is seven years old. Computer years are like dog years, so that computer is about 150 years old. Still runs but gets slower with each passing day.


  7. Great job on the Lettera!
    Your post also does an excellent job of cross-referencing other posts in the typosphere. We need to keep doing that to stitch our little world together.


  8. Greetings. This is great blog you have going here. Among the small portables I’ve used so far, the Lettera 22 is my favorite. A student broke my 1950s Olivetti, so I stole the carriage from my 1960s Olivetti Underwood. I prefer the feel of the pre-merger machine. I was delighted at how easy it was to remove the carriage, and the escapement tooth bar was easy to adjust. Quite frankly, I don’t see why the Hermes Rocket receives all the buzz. It is more portable, but the typing is meh.


    • It sounds like you have made some deep dives into your Lettera.

      I am going to have to do some more comparison typing of the 1950 and the 1960 Lettera. I am pretty heavy-handed: I do a modified hunt and peck and really slam the keys. Because of my “style”, I may not be able to appreciate the subtleties of touch.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. OMGsh catching up on your posts. Love it. I was way overdue. Love that first pic. Hysterical! I would love to give you my old typewriter, I acquired from my mom, to clean up. Whenever you are in Southeast Michigan give me a shout. 🙂


  10. John Cooper says:

    Mary, I can’t thank you enough for the gift of the older Lettera 22. I’ll get a new ribbon for it on Monday, and I expect to use it extensively in the coming months. Do you know how we might go about transferring the gallery on the Typewriter Database from your collection to mine? (I don’t know how to contact T. Munk to ask him about it.)

    It was a pleasure meeting you; I wish that we’d had more time!


    • So nice to meet you. I am happy the Lettera found a loving home where it will be admired and used as it should.

      I’ll contact Ted and see if he can move the TWDB gallery to your collection.


  11. Saul says:

    I used to have an Olivetti electronic typewriter. One of its printwheels was Victoria. I loved it so. It was not the same as the samples you have. One of the outstanding characteristics was descending and ascending numerals, and having thick/thin strokes. It looked more like a printing typeface than typing. It was most elegant. I was so upset when they stopped making these. It was custom designed for them, apparently, and no one seems to have re-created it for no good reason.


  12. Scott says:

    Hi there, I enjoyed reading your post. I’m new to Typewriters, yet they are rapidly piling up as incoming boxes on my front porch. Addictive! Felt I learned a lot from your blog, including the PB Blaster I ordered and just tried using to free up some mechanisms still stuck after alcohol cleaning. OMG, I can’t believe you recommended this without serious warnings and caveats. It sprays liberally out of the can (no other way), and smells horrible, strong toxic petroleum smell. After hours in the sun, no improvement yet today. I seriously regret this and will likely never use it again, all others please know this and be warned! I hope it dissipates with more time in the sun in the coming days, but now I can’t finish and try this new typewriter for some time.


    • I always use the little red straw for targeted application of PB Blaster – just a little dab will do. You can try following up with a blast from an air compressor to clear out excess residue and smell.


      • Scott Bierly says:

        Hmmm, well I took it out of the box today, doesn’t come with a straw, specifically says it’s not needed. I’ll try blowing air on it tomorrow!


  13. Really appreciate your blogs, so helped me un-jam a stubborn Lettera 22 carriage. After many days trawling through YouTube demos, your simple marked-up photos provided the solution. Thanks again, now to get on with the deep clean. (I tend blast with isopropyl alcohol from air brush and various brushes include old toothbrushes)


  14. Your blog is always so delightful. Five years too late: I pinpointed the cause of a “soft clanky jangle” in my Lettera 32 as the front screws holding on the shell being a little loose. Now I am supah tight. I imagine you are as well. Thanks for this wonderful post!


    • Such kind words! Thank you for that and the excellent tip. I have passed on the Letteras I wrote about, but the next one I get (and they seem to come to me regularly), I will listen for the jangle and tighten up that shell.


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