High Quality Analog Leisure – The Return of the Olivetti Lettera

Last week I got a desperate “help needed” text message from J.  As you might recall from a previous post, J. is a typewriter enthusiast who lives in Northern Virginia.  She teaches 4th grade art and has begun integrating typewriters into her classroom.  I had fixed up a rusty Underwood-Olivetti Lettera 22 for her and she has been using it for journalling.  It has become her most favored typewriter because of its touch and light weight. Unfortunately, the drawstring snapped last week and she was devastated.

I have been out of touch with the typosphere for the last few months – busy with work and family and projects and the holidaze, and very distracted by all sorts of digital junk.  I gave up Twitter last week, and my brain is already clearing and functioning better.  I’m not much into Facebook or Instagram, but Twitter clicked with me.   It’s so good and so bad.  Though it fed my craving for constant news and smart unwholesome comedy (especially important in these anxious times), I had the uneasy feeling that my brain and soul were rotting. I was on the way to developing “internet brain”.  I need to think and process thoughts in chunks larger than a few characters, so I stopped visiting Twitter.

I’m generally kind of “meh” on minimalism,  but I recently listened to a podcast about digital minimalism and some of it makes sense. I’m a little turned off by judgy people and scolds, BUT when I really thought about it, I found that my compulsive digital habits were crowding out “high quality analog leisure activities” like typewriter fun and writing and deep thought.

J.’s distress signal about the Lettera’s broken drawstring came at the perfect time.

This past weekend, I headed out to the woods where J. lives.  I brought my little repair kit with replacement drawstring, scissors, bamboo skewers, etc.

Ordinarily, a drawstring repair is very straightforward and takes about 10 minutes. Robert Messenger has a very good description of drawstring/drawband replacement.  However, J.’s Lettera had a frozen carriage as well.

After the drawstring had snapped, J. had continued to use the typewriter and typed almost another entire page by pulling the carriage to the left (she really does love this typewriter so much).  The carriage jammed after that.

My first thought was that the other broken end of the drawstring had migrated into the guts of the machine and was impeding the passage of the carriage.

I took the bottom cover off and looked around with a flashlight.  No drawstring remnants. I really wanted to remove the top shell, but with the carriage frozen, there was no way to access one of screws holding it on.

I took a closer look at the frozen carriage.  Let’s zoom in, shall we?

The type guide is sitting way outside the furthest left margin. A metal piece from the margin release mechanism was sitting outside the carriage.

I was able to get the piece from the margin release mechanism to scoot under the carriage a bit by depressing the margin release button, but once there, the carriage hit a wall and wouldn’t budge. It felt like a hard, metal barrier, not squishy like a drawstring remnant.

I regretfully I told J. I would have to bring the Lettera back to my home workshop and ponder this situation.

Back home I turned to the typosphere for guidance and was not disappointed.  I downloaded the Lettera 22 user manual from Richard Polt’s archive to refamiliarize myself with the Lettera’s unlabeled keys.  I don’t use a Lettera very often and the mysterious unlabeled keys always throw me.

I found a Ted Munk post about  a repaired Lettera 22.  In the comments, someone asked for advice about a jammed carriage, and Ted wisely suggested that she look at the pins on her tabulator rack as they could be impeding travel.

Ah yes! The Jammed Carriage Tabulator-Related Impedance Disorder.  I have seen this before in an LC Smith No. 5, a Smith-Corona Super Something, and an Olivetti Praxis 48.

I didn’t even visually examine the tab rack, I just went ahead and cleared all the tabs per the instructions in the Lettera 22 user manual:


Hurray! The carriage moved! I examined the tab rack with a flashlight and saw a few strands of drawstring – perhaps that was enough to lodge a tab pin in a bad situation. I cleaned all the stringy bits out.

Now that the carriage was moving, I removed the shell and looked for additional pieces of broken drawstring.  I didn’t see anything else, so I set about replacing the drawstring with some heavy duty waxed thread, about 13″ long.

My first attempt at threading the drawstring through the machine went badly.  It followed too high a path and interfered with the tabbing mechanism.  The correct path is lower so that it almost sits in the groove by the mainspring.

The Lettera was back to typing.  I tested and found that there was some letter piling with shifting.

I gave the mainspring another rotation in case it was a tension-related issue.  It seemed a little better, but not perfect.  The uppercase “Q” and the “+” character – both furthest out on the segment were piling with shifting.

I took the bottom plate off and lubricated the rails and tiny hole behind which the toothed escapement wheel hides.

I tested the shifted “Q” and “+” and all was well.  I replaced the bottom plate – and the letter piling problem returned for those two keys. I took the bottom plate off, and again all was well.

The Lettera 22 is a flatty, low-slung creature, so I guessed that the mechanics were rubbing against the bottom plate while in the shifted position. It’s a segment shift typewriter, so everything goes down on shift. The quarters are tight and clearances are small. I had some thin rubber washers, so I added them to the feet to prevent the bottom plate from being over-tightened and pressing into the mechanical guts.

Perfect. No more letter piling on shift.

I have a lot of affection for this beat-up specimen with its jaunty burping lid.  I am thrilled that it has become a most favored, beloved typewriter for someone.

Chewy says, “GGWWWRGHH” in deep appreciation.

J. was very excited to hear that the Lettera was back in typing condition. She rushed over after work to retrieve it. I do love it when things work out like this and weird little mysteries like jammed carriages are solved neatly.

I now return to the high quality leisure activity of slowly reading through all the Typosphere.net posts that I have missed in my distracted state over the past few months. Though not technically an analog activity, it’s close enough for me.  Now I am reading, and funnily enough, a post by Type the Clouds in January describes a digital addiction similar to mine.  Wow, I am a little late to the Cal Newport party because here’s another post about Digital Minimalism… and here’s another typospherian who is paring down digital habits…



12 thoughts on “High Quality Analog Leisure – The Return of the Olivetti Lettera

  1. Great diagnosis on the Lettera 22. It’s a great feeling to work through and solve a bunch of mysterious problems.

    I always am trying to recalibrate my tech use to maximize quality living. I read up on it now and again. Sometimes the solutions are simple, like charging a phone in a room other than the bedroom.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I was starting to get concerned about subtle ways my brain was changing – that feeling of being unfocused and frazzled seemed to come from a constant barrage of information. The solution was simple (“Don’t go to that website”). However, because of character and circumstances, I am a digital maximalist, and it took me a while to get to a place of less.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. I’m so happy to have come upon this today. I had just finished doing Morning Pages (Julia Cameron) and have been thinking about how I’m stuck in a rut of passive consumption. What you’ve done here reminds me of Cal Newport’s idea to build/fix something every week., Brilliant. Rather than fixing typewriters, a job I leave to experts, I’m building dinners each evening and writing my blog and newsletter. I just recently went back to typing at least a page on the typewriter most every day to remind myself of what analog typing does for me.

    It’s a pleasure to be able to read your writing. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Working on the Lettera this past weekend was so satisfying. It reminded me of why I love old junker typewriters so much.

      Thank you for mentioning Julia Cameron’s Morning Pages. I was not familiar with it, but it sounds like a great practice.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Yes! An all time favorite among my own collection as well. Persnickety drawband aside. “The Jammed Carriage Tabulator-Related Impedance Disorder.” —Ha!! Well done you… enjoyed the post very much, and thanks ever so for the linkages. ~Tom~


    • J. needs a back-up Lettera, so I am on the look-out for a junker Lettera to clean up. The Lettera is just the perfect weight. It’s hard to work on because it’s so tiny, but I am understanding it better now after last weekend. There’s a lot to love in this little package.


  4. Congratulations on your repair. I recently unjammed a Lettera 22 with the same repair. I also think there was an escapement problem also. I have also found the rubber washer problem. Not as bad as with Olympia machines, but with the small clearances of the Lettera 22, old rubber can cause problems. I’ve gotten lazy with my repairs and don’t keep the notes and photos like I used to do.


    • This Lettera had a very dirty escapement when I first started cleaning it up for J. The dirt and trapped gunk caused the carriage to careen from side to side without catching. This is a photo of the mud and rust and crunchy bits I had to clean out:

      inside the Lettera


      • ooh, yeah – I remember that one, with all the white rust on it. The L22 I have now is also a bit crusty, and *feels* a bit busted, even though it actually isn’t. All that cast aluminum can get problematic if it goes on a deterioration spiral. /:
        I keep encountering very excellent L22’s owned by others, but I have not yet owned one myself. 😀


      • I’ve had three Lettera 22s come through in various conditions and I haven’t kept any. I have a very heavy hand when typing and they sound loud and jangly and liable to fly apart when I use them. However, I was very moved by how much J. loves this junker specimen, so I re-evaluated the Lettera using a softer, lighter hand. It is nice and much quieter under a gentler hand. I may be won over yet.


  5. TomR says:

    Excellent sleuthing, thanks for posting. I like my Olivettis, but it seems like every one I have has had some sort of mysterious glitch. Carriage fiddlyness seems to be the most common affliction.


    • They are fiddly! However, I feel like I am beginning to understand the mysterious glitches of the Lettera better. I think a lot of their problems come down to how tiny and lightweight they are. A little bit of dirt, debris, or gunk can affect their performance in big ways. When I first got this Lettera, the carriage wouldn’t catch. After a thorough cleaning of the escapement gears (which are hidden behind a plate underneath), it was fine.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s