How To Buy a Typewriter
Buying a typewriter can be a little daunting at first, especially if you have no idea what to look for. This page should provide some answers.
Sometimes, you don't even need to buy a typewriter to get started. Ask family or friends, especially older folks, to see if they may have one lying about. If so, then you are in luck! You may even have a special typewriter on your hands, so take good care of it. There's nothing that quite compares to a family heirloom.
If you are not lucky enough to know someone with a machine to give you, start looking around locally. Craigslist, Offerup, and Facebook Marketplace are good places to start. Look around for a typewriter that will fit the space you have. Don't get a standard if you don't have a desk. Portables and midsized portables are usually a good place to start. Look for brands like Royal, Olympia, Smith Corona (or any variation thereof), Remington, and Underwood. Don't forget to pick a good-looking typewriter too, as it's hard to use a machine that's hard to look at without puking.
Sometimes, there are no local options. It really depends on your location. Or, there may be none nearby that tickle your fancy. Whatever you situation is, online buying is still a viable option. It's not always as safe as picking one up locally, but it's still an option. Ebay is a great place to look sometimes, but you have to get lucky. Machines on ebay are often overpriced, and you have to make sure to add shipping into the final price. Try to avoid shipping delicate machines like Olivers and early machines, as they won't take kindly to shipping. Portables and midsized portables are also safer to ship than a desktop standard.
So, what should I look out for when buying?
First, glance over the machine for obvious defects. Red flags include missing paper table on many portables, for example -- notably, Royals. Underwoods and early Smith Coronas may have a paper table folded down over the platen (rubber roller) or behind. Paint may be scratched, there may be light surface rust, the platen may be visibly worn. You can tell platen wear by distinctive, regular white marks along the length of the platen. There should not be any cracks on the platen. Remington portables, Coronas 3, 4, and Olivettis have special proprietary spools/covers. Try to ensure they’re there.
Traits that increase value may be special typefaces or keyboards. A few are below.
<< SCRIPT >> Script is a general term for a family of typefaces that look like cursive handwriting. There are two major families of script -- vertical script and standard script--; the former is vertically oriented whereas the latter leans forward like handwriting.
On script machines, the following signs might be found:
-- Slugs are "slanted" to the right.
-- Slugs will have large serifs. If you have a clear image script is among the easiest typefaces to identify.
-- lowercase "R" will look like "N".
-- Standard script machines will usually have no color selector or only two-setting color selector. This is because standard script has characters that are too tall for bichrome ribbons and will type half-black half-red.
-- Standard scripts will always have a 1 key. Vertical script may not have a 1 key, making it harder to spot. On older machines (pre-war), 1 keys are an almost-sure sign of a special typeface.
<< ROYAL VOGUE >> On Royal machines, most notably the P, there is a face called Vogue, designed to emulate the Jazz Age. -- An easy way to check is if the W has 4 points at the top, rather than 3. -- 95% of Vogue machines are Royal Ps. Examples on QDLs and Aristocrats and FPs exist, but are much rarer.
<< QWERTY Olympias SM-4 and below >> -- there will be an 1 key for a special typeface, as well as Olivettis of most models.
Other special keyboards may include SS on German machines of pre-war make (two lightning-bolt runes over the 5, 3, or accents), Pharmacy, (Rx and mG, among other symbols, on right hand keyboard), Mathematics (has +/-/ (division sign) / degrees) and Chemistry (Full set of numerals 1-0, and subscripts on numbers).
There are also matters of personal preference. On standard-size (10.5inch carriage) machines, Elite face is smaller, and machines with rulers running up to 90-100 are usually elite. Machines only going up to 80 have a larger typeface, Pica. These are all factors you should take into account when deciding whether you should or should not purchase a machine.
How do I test a typewriter?
Try to have paper -- a sheet of A4, but worst comes to worst, receipts. You’ll want to test if the machine can feed paper, though in most cases this is an EASY repair to make. This is a feed roller test. An exception to this is the Remington Portable line, whose feed rollers are more difficult to replace.
You will want to test all keys and spacebar to see if they make an impression on the paper. Whether the ink ribbon is fresh or not shouldn’t matter. Mind that machines may be set to Stencil. Test the ribbon vibrator using the color alternator -- usually on the right side of the keyboard or front of machine -- and see if it can lift ribbon to two different heights. Sticky keys are usually an easy fix.
As you test the keys and spacebar, the carriage may not advance. If the typebars do not reach the platen, test for a carriage lock or margins -- usually on the left side of carriage for most machines, or a switch top left of the keyboard for carriage lock, and margins are usually above the platen on the carriage. Of note is that Remington Portables no. 1, 2, Monarch and Scout models may have a keyraise lever on the right-- pull it out and up to begin typing. Once the carriage is free, manually pull the carriage to the left and test the machine for skipping, using all keys and spacebar. If machine skips, this is an intermediate repair for most machines, and may be irreparable on Royal Portables--that’ll need diagnosis. If machine does not skip, it is simply missing a drawband which is usually an easy repair. Test the mainspring, usually on the left carriage rail, and see if it has life left.
Check the machine for missing parts-- does the bell ring? NOTE-- Depression portables, i.e. Remie Scout Model, the blue Royal Signet, and Smith-Corona Comet, among others, may not have bells. Are there missing typeslugs or typebars? Keytops? Surface rust?
If the machine has a case, glance over it for mold. Check also the machine’s soundproofing foam for mold. Replacing soundproofing foam is generally easy. Replacing a case...not so much.
The value of antique typewriters varies by brand, condition, and special traits. If you would like an approximation, one can be found here; however, this document is unreliable and should not be taken objectively.