Backspacing in Time

By Lee Fleming
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, February 2, 2006

PCs and laptops may rule the world, but how often do they inspire quotations like, "The pen is mightier than the sword, but a well-aimed typewriter packs a good punch, too"? That pithy sentiment -- widely attributed to Anonymous -- reminds us that there is, still, romance in typewriters. People love them for their tactile qualities, the clack-clack of striking keys -- and the fact that you have time to think while committing word to paper.

"Although typewriters are marginalized creatures," says Ron North of North's Office Machines in Northwest Washington, "there's still a call for them."

The Washington area is fortunate to have several businesses that can fix high-tech IBM Selectrics and Wheelwriters as well as old-favorite manual models by makers such as Smith Corona, Underwood and Remington. Although North's just closed its D.C. retail store after more than 50 years, it will continue to service and repair office machines, including IBMs, on-site. "The fact that IBM no longer makes typewriters is another reason there will be pressure on us to keep them running," North says.

Other area firms report that the stream of distressed typewriters, while not huge, is steady and even slightly increasing. Sterling Kingman of Typewriter Serviceman in the District has been taking care of manual, electric and electronic typewriters since 1968. He said he is being called out more often to service older machines. Bill Marshall, senior field engineer for typewriters, serious calculators and computers at Accurate Business Machines in Wheaton, also gets lots of old Royals and Remingtons from customers who won't ever consider going electric, let alone to computers.

Kingman and Marshall agree that the most common problem with manuals is gummed-up oil and grease. This results in slow action on returns, irregular spacing or keys that don't strike. Usually, a thorough cleaning takes care of this. The process requires taking the machine apart -- at the same time checking parts to see if they need repair or replacing -- cleaning it with special chemicals or mineral spirit, a brush and a high-pressure air gun -- then oiling and rebuilding it.

While most typewriter service people make house calls and will take care of minor repairs in your home, extensive cleaning is best done back at the shop. "A lot of times, the problem is something simple, though, like installing the ribbon," says Kingman.

Electric typewriters, such as the IBM Selectric, and electronic models, including the IBM Wheelwriter, also suffer from gunk, says Nassrullah Keya of A to Z Typewriter in Arlington. If you leave your typewriter in the basement year after year without using it, oil and grease will harden into gum. Belts on older machines also dry out, either breaking or slipping, so they can't properly drive the motor under the keys.

"We need to take the machine apart and look at it inside out," Keya says. "Does a key just need to be oiled, a belt replaced, or does the whole machine need cleaning?" If an overhaul is required, A to Z will chemically clean the machine and rebuild it with whatever parts are needed -- and still available. "They are harder to find, but you can still locate them or take them from another machine," Keya says.

Typewriter Serviceman charges about $45 for manual cleaning and adjusting ($60 for older electrics), on-site or at the shop. Accurate Business Machines has a flat fee of $70 to clean and repair a small consumer portable typewriter and $85 for commercial office machines, if brought into the shop. On-site visits run $95 plus parts.

A to Z Typewriter charges $175 to clean and service a Selectric or Wheelwriter; the company does not repair manual typewriters. The price includes a three-month warranty, parts, labor, pickup and delivery. Service calls for smaller repairs and servicing run $65 plus parts; there is no mileage charge or extra labor cost. North's Office Machines, which also specializes in electric/electronic models, charges $95 plus parts for a home visit.

Whether manual, electric or electronic, if a complete overhaul is needed, your machine will be in the shop anywhere from 10 days to several weeks. Some businesses offer loaners while you wait, so ask.

What cannot be fixed? If you drop the machine, no matter what kind, and damage the frame or crack the case, forget it. And if a part isn't available for other repairs, you may be out of luck. Repair services carry some inventory and have a network of suppliers, but the days of fabricating a no-longer-available part are gone. "At one time we welded and grinded parts together, but people just don't want to spend the money," says Accurate Business Machines' Marshall.

Even cloth ribbons for older manuals are becoming difficult to locate. Techs often resort to taking still-good used ribbons from machines that are beyond repair so that others can continue to operate.

Once your machine is up and running again, how can you keep it that way? Be sure to have the typewriter serviced and cleaned once a year. In between, use only denatured alcohol to clean the keys. Don't try to oil it yourself -- chances are you won't use the right kind, and even sprayed-on oil will cause belts to slip. Keep your machine covered to prevent dust buildup and try not to erase at the machine; eraser dust can clog parts.

And don't use your typewriter in the kitchen, says Kingman: "The grease settles into a typewriter and can really mess it up."

Finally, as Marshall says, "use it, use it, use it. Even if you only go through the keys once or twice a month, do it to keep the parts free."

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