You’re So Vain: 1956 Underwood De Luxe Quiet Tab

Look at this 1956 Underwood De Luxe Quiet Tab, serial number AA2633478.  He’s so handsome!  Underwood flexes for us and displays the bulging muscles of America’s postwar abundance. Gold accents! He’s living large – the embodiment of industrial designer Raymond Loewy‘s quip: “The loveliest curve I know is the sales curve.”

Just a hunk, a hunk of burning love—a muscle-bound mash-up of Steve Reeves, Elvis, and a ’56 Ford Thunderbird. This is his good side in side serratus and biceps pose:

However. He’s got some issues—commitment issues.  Specifically, he can’t commit to a single place on the carriage rail.  He’s a slippery fellow, unable to settle down.

I picked up this bad boy at Herman’s last jamboree (you meet all sorts) and brought him home. I was looking for a long-term relationship, but this Underwood just can’t stay in one place.

This Underwood portable is a handsome bad boyfriend: easy on the eyes, but difficult in all sorts of aggravating ways. He’s full of secrets, requiring special tools and super-human patience and abilities to unlock him.  I was spending too much time trying to make him behave, but I think I’m over him.

When I first brought him home, I took the Underwood out to workshop and stripped him down. He was very dirty—which I find provocative in a typewriter.  I thought that his sliding carriage issues were related to a dirty/gummy escapement which I’ve seen before, so I patiently cleaned and cleaned and cleaned. No dice.

It would help if I could see something.  Even with all the body panels off, I could not see the escapement.  Everything was hidden behind an interior frame.  I longed for a Royal or Smith-Corona portable set-up where everything hangs out:

I thought, well, let’s pop out the platen and see if I can see anything underneath the platen.

Oh GOOD GRIEF.  The platen screw needs a 4-spline Bristol wrench – which I don’t have:

Someone else might decide at this point to remove the carriage, but there’s no flippin’ way I am taking off that carriage.  I defer to The Wisdom of Blender.

Also from the Teachings of Blender:

Well, unfortunately I can’t find a service manual for a 1950s Underwood portable. The old Underwood standards I have worked on have been true joy.  They had well-documented guides, accessible innards, wide open spaces. Would that all typewriters were like old Underwood standards. Would that Underwood had made their portables as easy to work on as their standards.

Lurking in the Facebook Antique Typewriter Maintenance Group I have come to find that I am not alone in thinking this.  People who tinker with typewriters dislike working on Underwood portables of this era.

Still, I am so curious.  I want to look deep into Underwood’s heart and see if I can understand him any better. Is it me, or is it him?

Which brings me to another project I have been working on with my husband: replacing about 50 feet of sump drainage pipe that had silted up.  The sump drain pipe wasn’t flowing as it should, and we had problems snaking it. What could the obstruction be? Tree roots, pipe collapse, small garden gnome? We pulled the old pipe out and discovered that it had silted up – the old pipe was perforated and had no protective sock.  Fortunately my husband and I got the new pipe in before the Deluge of the Century – three to four inches fell in just an hour.

Now that the pipe has been replaced, it is my job to go out and re-seat the sod.

It is slow, hot work in the heat of the Virginia summer – the red Virginia clay is like cement:

I am hating this project and think wistfully of the cool darkness of the garage where my queue of typewriters sit.  The only thing keeping me sane while I dig in the clay is my “70s Fun” playlist. Scientists say that listening to music of your youth activates dormant neural pathways. Listening to “70s Fun” gives me almost unaccountable pleasure and gets my mind wheels turning – what was the crime Mama Pajama witnessed?  One of the very funniest songs on the playlist is “You’re So Vain” – which is overplayed (I seem to encounter it every time I’m at the grocery store) and thus not fully appreciated for its sly, rueful humor.


Once we finish with this drainage pipe project, we’ll need to regularly monitor the new pipe. So I talked my husband into a  33 ft KZYEE endoscope/borescope. Bill M. recently mentioned borescopes in a blog post, and I thought  that would be good for sump drain pipe monitoring – and typewriter inspection.

The KZYEE borescope is very nice – waterproof, nice bright light, and a tiny 5mm head. I installed the viewing app on my phone and connected to the borescope via wifi.

Wow, this endoscope is neat. This shot looks like 2001: A Space Odyssey, but no, that is a ball bearing inside the Underwood that I darest not deal with:

OK – here we are at the Underwood’s escapement. This is the best view I can get. On key press, the rigid dog jumps into the escapement wheel teeth.

On key press, the rigid dog moves into position.

What I think is happening: the loose dog is a lazy dog and fails to jump into the fray after the key is released, so the escapement wheel flies free and the carriage reels over to the left. The loose dog may be broken or worn.  Perhaps there is a disconnected or broken spring.  I can’t tell because these are the best images I can get deep down in there.

On key release, the loose dog fails to move into position.

I opened up the Manual Typewriter Repair Bible to the Underwood Portable section.  It details operations and fixes for older-model Underwood portables, but I hoped it would have some clues as to what might be happening here in this 1956 Underwood portable.

Third hole from the right, huh?

After loosening the lock nut with a pair of needle nose pliers (too tight in there to get a nut driver in), I tightened what I think is the “Rocker Limit Screw”.

The new borescope is also a wonderful focused light for dark places

This brought the rigid dog into permanent contact with the escapement wheel.  At least the carriage wasn’t sliding way over to the left anymore.  I was able to get some good pictures in its fixed position and wring a type sample out of it with some difficulty.

That’s a pity.  A nice typeface wasted on this here nonfunctional typewriter.

I may end up bringing this fellow to Herman’s in October and let members of the Brain Trust evaluate it.

You’re so vain, Underwood De Luxe Quiet Tab. You probably think this post is about you. You’re fabulous to look at, but I am done with your BS.  You need professional help, and maybe you can find that at Herman’s.

Addendum: many thanks to my sweet, hard-working, but still very dirty 1956 Royal QDL (Adobe Rose East) for doing the typing for this post.

22 thoughts on “You’re So Vain: 1956 Underwood De Luxe Quiet Tab

  1. Yeah, the last of the true Underwood portables are delightful to look at but utter bitches to work or type on. I halfway want to own one of those swoopy things, but have contented myself with one of the less-ostentatious variations with the same typestyle, that someone straight up gave me for free. I do like it, but it’s not that great to type on.. 😀

    As far as a service manual, that’ll be rare – these things came out around 1955-56 and were executed by the new Olivetti overlords by 1959-1960. Not a lot of time for them to get old enough that dealers wanted to buy a service manual to fix ’em.


    • Your theory on the scarcity of service manuals for these makes a lot of sense.

      Hopefully I’ll run into someone at Herman’s in October who has experience with this type of Underwood portable who can tell me exactly what’s wrong with it and suggest possible fixes.


  2. Depending on how that carriage is assembled it may not be too bad to remove, but those (as Ted states) typewriters are bears to do anything with when they do not work. I had 2. I unloaded 2.
    Beautiful typeface though.

    Sure is fun exploring the innards of a typewriter with a borescope.


    • The borescope is a great investment. Thanks for the suggestion. The camera feature is very good (though I need to figure out how to get higher resolution images), and the bright, focused light is very useful when working inside dark typewriters.


      • You’re supposed to be able to switch to higher resolutions in the app, but the largest image I can get is 640×480. I don’t know if it’s a phone incompatibility issue. It’s still worth the price of admission, and I’m really happy I got the borescope.


  3. Nick Merritt says:

    I have one of these, in a two-tone maroon and tan. Very pretty also; sadly, the metal script Underwood on the ribbon cover got bent and broken. But I feel somewhat better knowing I’m in good company: For the life of me I cannot figure out how to get at the locknut and screw to adjust the motion — uppercase and lowercase are well out of alignment. They’re well up inside and at an angle from the supposed access slots such that no tools seem capable of reaching them.

    I do have a somewhat earlier Finger-Flite Champion with the same body shape but a much more prosaic black crinkle finish — really nice machine. (No adjustments needed with that one!)


    • You’re right: the access slots are very weirdly positioned and seem to require specialized tools. I couldn’t get a small nut driver in to loosen the locknut on the rocker limit screw. I had to use a teeny tiny pair of needle nose pliers to loosen it and then a teeny tiny screw driver to adjust the screw. I did this with much difficulty and swearing.


  4. You brightened up my day enormously with this post. I love the looks of those underwoods but I’m all forewarned and will admire them from a distance.! That typeface is wonderful though.


    • I hadn’t read that Oztypewriter post before – thank you so much for passing long! Amazing information in it – Braginetz sounds like he was a fascinating person. He was a poet too!


    • I am slowly reading through the very entertaining notes on your collection. I am surprised I haven’t come across your site before – beautiful typewriters and good reading.


  5. cfclark says:

    Having acquired one of these, an early-’50s “Tower” rebrand from Sears, I’ve begun to understand the frustration you feel. The escapement won’t trip for anything, and getting in to see and adjust it without removing the carriage, which looks like a pain to reinstall (especially with little to no documentation for this generation of machine), looks impossible. Maybe I’ll just hit it with PB Blaster and let it sit for a couple days on the off chance it’s just gummed up. I almost never give up on a typewriter, but a set-aside and contemplation may be in this Tower’s future.


    • It is a frustrating machine, isn’t it? I feel for the poor typewriter mechanics who had to service these things with their almost inaccessible guts. I am so tempted to remove the carriage, but I am going to wait for the next large typewriter conference at Herman’s. There are several mechanical geniuses who attend who may provide me with insights and direction.


  6. Thomas Wyse says:

    I removed thr platen on my De Luxe (off white with “gold” trim and grill) to se if there was a reasonable way to get fractional line spacing. I could come up with anything. But, I want to report that removing the platen doesn’t improve the view of the escapement. The set screws holding the platen rod were the tamper proof kind with little posts in the bottom. I ground out the posts with a tiny diamond bit and ground a small flathead screwdriver to fit the splines to get them loose. What an odd choice for the set screws!


    • Thank you for reporting back! I had considered grinding out the platen set screws, and now I know it would have been for naught. This Underwood portable’s design makes it impossible to service.


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