The Typewriter Man


Typewriter of the Month

Each month, one typewriter will be featured on this page of the website.
It may be a machine that I have been working on, or something that I think might be of particular interest. Click on the picture to enlarge it.

  • Dec
  • Nov
  • Oct
  • Sep
  • Aug
  • Jul
  • Jun
  • May
  • Apr
  • Mar
  • Feb
  • Jan

December 2019

November 2019

October 2019

September 2019

August 2019

July 2019

June 2019

May 2019

April 2019

March 2019

Olivetti L20 circa late 1980's

This is one of the last manual typewriters to remain in production. Like all other models of Olivetti portable typewriter, the ‘works’ were based on the Olivetti Lettera 32, which was introduced in 1964 to replace the previous-model Lettera 22. It is said that the only reason that the previous model was dropped is that it was too expensive to manufacture. Olivetti had a good run for their money when the new model came on stream, because it went on to spawn many, many new varieties during the following twenty-five years. Although the appearance of these models varied widely, and even included the famous Olivetti Valentine, widely regarded as a design icon, mechanically they were all similar.

Olivetti made the various portables in different factories throughout the world. As well as the main factory in Ivrea, Italy, Olivetti had plants in Barcelona, Spain and Glasgow, Scotland to name just a few. To remain competitive, Olivetti spread their wings further afield, and made portable typewriters in the former Yugoslavia and finally Mexico – where the last Olivetti manual office typewriters were also manufactured. After the late 1970’s, Olivetti’s serial numbering system became chaotic to the point where it is no longer possible to identify the year of manufacture of any of their typewriters. Therefore, we can only guess that this Olivetti L20 was probably made in the late 1980’s or very early 1990’s. It is certainly the last of the line. To keep costs down as far as possible, these last machines do not have a carry case, but instead come in a vinyl bag emblazoned with the word ‘Olivetti’ repeated over and over again in the pattern of the fabric.

This particular machine was brought to me for a service, and turned out to be a pleasant little machine once adjusted correctly. The ‘Olivetti L20’ logo was missing from the front of the case, so I made up a black plastic blanking plate to take its’ place. The angular 1980’s styling still looks good today. It is a shame that they don’t still make them.

February 2019

Factory Ribbon Winder - Age Unknown

From time to time, the Typewriter of the Month isn’t a typewriter at all ! This month is no exception. What you see in the picture is a special home-brewed factory jig for winding small batches of typewriter or adding machine ribbons. There have often been instances in my career when I have needed to wind the fabric from a ‘donor’ ribbon spool in order to re-ribbon an obsolete or out of stock spool. Until very recently, I did this by hand. I can transfer a ribbon between spools remarkably quickly; I guess that four decades of practice counts for something. However, this little machine can wind a ribbon faster than me, and has become something of a favourite just lately.

Like many of my ‘cobblers shoes’ projects, I had sat on this device for a long time awaiting some spare time when I wasn’t working on a customer’s machine. It was given to me when I bought a job lot of obsolete ribbon spools from the family of a former ribbon manufacturer. The winder had been used in the ‘works’ for winding small batches by hand, and had certainly seen better days. It had then spent some years rusting away in a shed, and one of the knobs had gone missing. It was dirty, dusty and rusty when I got it. Furthermore, the winding part was semi-seized and someone had bent the handle trying to force it round. My wife is a vintage tool collector, and when I told her about the winder she was intrigued. She started cleaning it up, and then I finally took over to strip and re-paint it. I was able to find a Bakelite knob which was the same thread as the missing one, so that was fitted. On examination, I could see that the gearing-up mechanism to which the winding handle was attached was actually adapted from a hand-turned grinding stone. This is the sort of thing that would be screwed to a workbench in years gone by, to enable you to sharpen knives, screwdrivers and chisels. I would have thought it a difficult operation to crank with one hand and sharpen the tool with another – perhaps you got someone else to turn the handle ?

A good soaking in penetrating oil got things moving a little better, but the mechanism was still jamming. These little bench grinders are riveted together and are not intended to be dismantled. I am always up for a challenge, so filed the end of the spindle rivet off and took the whole unit apart. It was jamming because it was literally worn out and the resultant play was allowing the gear teeth to partly jump out of mesh. Everything was cleaned until spotless, and quantities of a special high-tech gun lubricant applied - which seemed to ease matters. Then I managed to find ‘just’ enough metal in the spindle end to rivet the whole thing back together. Once reassembled, I tried it with a ribbon. Success ! The gearing-up effect of the grindstone mechanism makes the spools fairly sail round at high speed, whilst the steel flywheel smoothes out the variations and keeps everything turning evenly. My guess is that the winder was originally made by the factory maintenance engineer in the toolroom, since there are certainly many custom-turned and welded components there. The idea of using a grindwheel mechanism is a masterstroke and probably makes it unique.

Back in the day, some typewriter workshops were equipped with a ribbon winder for winding ribbon fabric from a ‘factory roll’ containing several hundred yards of fabric onto a customer’s spools when a typewriter came in for service. However, these were an American pattern and were quite different to this one. The ‘factory roll’ went onto a much larger carrier and the whole thing was used vertically – often screwed to a bench-end or even a wall. I remember using one at a firm that I worked for in the late 1970’s. Like some of the service tools that I finally acquired a couple of months ago, I have waited a lifetime to have a ribbon winder of my own. Perhaps good things come to those who wait !

January 2019

1935 Ideal DZ33 Standard

Siedel and Naumann of Dresden, Germany started in the 1870s as makers of sewing machines, but by the early 1900’s had diversified into many other lines including bicycles and typewriters. Later on, typewriter manufacture became the largest part of the business and the sewing machines were quietly dropped. S and N sold their typewriters under a number of names. The portable typewriters were called ‘Bijou’ or ‘Erika’ (named after Herr Naumann’s grand-daughter). ‘Ideal’ was the name chosen for the office-size typewriters. Like some other German manufacturers before the war, they tended to copy and improve upon the best selling products of other factories. Certainly, S and N followed this route with blatant copies of Singer sewing machines and they also did this with typewriters. The Bijou folding portable typewriter was such a close copy of the American Corona 3, that the Corona factory was able to threaten legal action and make S and N discontinue production. Less successful was Underwood who it seems were unable to stop the Ideal ‘Underwood Five copy’ from being manufactured. Clearly the Ideal DZ33 was derived from the Underwood, although in many respects it was an improvement. To remove the carriage on an Underwood Five involves taking out four screws and a bracket. On the Ideal (and the Continental for that matter – another German ‘improved’ Underwood) it is only necessary to operate a concealed lever and pull the carriage to the left. The drawband is neatly and automatically parked and with the carriage off, the machine can be cleaned or repaired very easily. When the war ended, S and N found themselves on the wrong side of the East/West divide, and eventually became subsumed into the East German state industries. Still using the ‘Erika’ trade name for their portable typewriters, manufacture continued until as late as 1989. Utilitarian but well-made, the Erika portable typewriter was one of East Germany’s most successful exports.

When this particular typewriter was made, Germany was fully under Nazi control. In fact I have read that Hitler’s personal typewriter was a Siedel and Naumann. Certainly the German military were using them, and I was told that this typewriter was ‘liberated’ from a high ranking German official’s office during the latter stages of the war. The owner’s father had done the liberating and had then carried the machine all over Germany in his kit bag before finally coming home and being de-mobbed. Since this is a heavy office typewriter, he must have been tough ! The chap went on to be a policeman in civilian life, using the machine to type all his police reports until he retired. Originally with a German keyboard (of course), he had had the machine converted to a standard English ‘QWERTY’ keyboard for his personal use. The right hand side of the machine had been engraved with a German word which means ‘Property of the Reich’. I wonder if he took the machine into work with him, and if so, what his colleagues must have thought of it. An excellent quality machine, no wonder it survived its original use and then a second life typing police paperwork.

Sadly, by the time the machine was brought to me it was in a rather rusty condition. Its original owner had passed away, and his daughter had carefully wrapped it in polythene before placing it in a damp shed. Instead of protecting the machine from the damp, the plastic had actually trapped the moisture like a wet poultice – attacking the plating. Only the original high quality of the enamel finish had saved things from being far worse on the framework. Large parts of the mechanism had seized, but I was able to free it all off in the end and partially re-paint the machine. It could never look as it did when new, but it now works and is once again capable of typing a letter – or even a police report !