This page covers common issues that often plague vintage typewriters and their users. Some issues can be repaired with simple tools and minimal mechanical inclination. Others will need professional service.
Problem: Paper won't feed into the typewriter.
Causes: Paper release is engaged
Flat spots on feed rollers
Platen/feed rollers hard and unable to grip paper
Platen slipping - has become separated from the inner core.
Solutions: Check that the paper release is not engaged. The paper release is a lever (usually found on the right end of the carriage) that releases the pressure of the feed rollers from the platen. This is so you can straighten paper before typing since it oftentimes gets loaded slightly askew.
Flat spots require replacement or recovering of the feed rollers. The platen also may need to be replaced if it is hard to the point of being brittle/chipped. Medium-hard platens were the standard platen sold on typewriters. A soft platen didn't allow a hard enough surface for carbon copies or stenciling. Soft platens are mainly found on machines purchased for personal use only. If the platen is cosmetically good, it may only need to be cleaned and reconditioned. If it's chipped, cracked or slipping, it will need to be replaced prior to use. You should also always use two sheets of 24 lb paper when typing. This will provide the best copy and protect the type face and platen from damage.
Problem: Carriage doesn't move when typing.
Causes: Carriage lock engaged
Margins set to center
Drawstring/drawband or mainspring broken
Escapement damaged/frozen/out of adjustment
Solutions: The carriage lock may be hard to locate or be of a design that is nearly impossible to figure out on your own. Refer to your owner's manual if you have one. Underwood portables have a simple carriage catch on the left side right below the carriage. Move the carriage to the right a few inches to disengage. Remington portables have two systems. Early portables require the sliding out of the platen shaft/knob on the right end of the carriage. The lock lever is located on the left end of the carriage and is spooned against the left side carriage release lever. Newer Remington's(Model 5/Streamliner/Deluxe) have a small lever on the left end of the carriage located in the same spot as the earlier models. There is a little ball on top of the lever. Push the lever to the rear to disengage the lock. I always mark the release lever with green tape prior to shipping.
Always check your margin stops! This is another way to lock a carriage for transport. The margins are located on the top rear of the carriage. There are several different methods but the principle is the same. Most early portable margins are set by pushing down on the margin stop and then sliding it to the desired position. If they are set to center, move them toward the ends of the carriage.
If the drawstring/drawband is broken, you might be able to replace it yourself with some 60 lb fishing line or shoe lace and patience. I like fishing line because it won't stretch (if you use the heavier weight) and is impervious to oil. To replace the drawstring, you will need to remove the broken string (take notes/pictures of how it's attached both at the end of the carriage and the mainspring!) and attach the new line. Manually wind the mainspring drum (surgical gloves come in handy here for grip) approximately 5 full turns or until it can't be turned anymore. If you max out the mainspring, back it off one full turn. If the drum slips through your fingers, it will likely give you a nasty cut. Attempt this repair at your own risk. Most shops - those that are still in business - will charge less than $40 for this service.
Mainspring repair/replacement is costly and must be performed by a professional in most cases.
Problem: Keys stick or jam.
Causes: Segment is dirty
Segment type bar wire is rusted
Type guide is misaligned
Type bars bent
Typing too fast
Solutions: If only a few keys are sticking, then it's likely the type bars have been bent. Slowly press the key and look at the center point as the type bar rises. The forked chrome piece in the middle (right in front of the ribbon) is the type bar guide. It helps align the type bar during the last second before striking. If one key is sticking, it is likely hitting one side of the guide. See which side it's hitting and VERY gently push/bend the type bar in the opposite direction. Type bars are easy to bend and you might break one off if you apply too much pressure. Once you get the bar back in proper position, it will no longer stick.
If type bars are sticking in various positions during the striking phase, the segment (slotted curved aluminum piece below the strike point) is usually dirty. Many people say "just add some oil" but that is a bad idea. The oil will bind with the gunk and your typewriter will get worse in a short period of time. You need to try to remove as much dirt and debris as possible BEFORE adding any oil. This can be accomplished in many ways with many items; Q-tips, art brushes, test tube brushes, etc. A small flashlight will also be useful. Once the dirt has been removed, apply generous amounts of WD-40 or machine oil. Type a full line of each character working the oil into the segment slots. After all parts are moving smoothly, remove any excess oil using the same methods as removing the dirt/debris. This service can be performed for less than $100 at most shops. This is not a full refurbish but a simple cleaning/servicing.
When multiple type bars jam at the printing point, you're typing too fast. You have to allow each type bar to almost return to the resting position before you strike the next key. When you type too fast, the type bars collide in the middle and jam. You may also see characters overlapping each other without the keys jamming (and skipping of the carriage). You're typing just slow enough for the type bars to miss each other but too fast for the carriage to move to the next space and lock before the next character hits. You're basically hitting the platen while it's moving. Manual typewriters are a precision instrument as well as a work of art. There is a rhythm that must be found to type fast and accurately. It takes practice so don't give up!
If all the type bars stick at the printing point, then the type guide or segment is misaligned or the type bar wire is rusted. This adjustment/replacement should be performed by a professional repairman. The cost will vary greatly from shop to shop. Prices as high as $400 have been reported for this service. Run from those places!
Problem: Ribbon is not printing.
Causes: Ribbon is old and dry
Ribbon vibrator set to "white"
Ribbon spool isn't rotating while typing
Type bar/face angle or segment misaligned
Solutions: Replace the ribbon with a new one. Avoid large retail store ribbons. Sometimes they have been on the shelf for years. You should also avoid Ko-Rec-Type brand ribbons. They went out of business December of 2008 and I bought all of their inventory. Anyone selling Ko-Rec-Type today is selling really old product. New ribbon should not cost more than $9 per ribbon including shipping to Lower 48 US addresses. Many sellers charge $12 - $17 per ribbon including shipping. They will also list ribbons for $2.99 but charge $6 or $7 for shipping. I sell 2 ribbons for $16.95 or 6 ribbons for $36.95. Those prices include free USPS Priority shipping to Lower 48 US addresses.
The ribbon vibrator is the part that moves the ribbon up and down while typing. There are usually three settings on a typewriter:
Red - for typing on the lower 1/2 of the ribbon when using a black/red ribbon
Black(blue dot) - for typing on the upper half of the ribbon
White - for disengaging the vibrator.
The white setting was used for stenciling. It's now used for realigning the page after a correction. These settings can get changed during shipping. Move the lever back to "blue" to engage the vibrator. P.S. - There was no white ribbon ;-)
The ribbon spool is rotated by a gear system. There could be several issues (loose gears, broken gear teeth, missing/broken springs, missing parts), all of which need a professional to adjust/repair.
Adjusting the type bar/face angles or segment should be performed by a professional.
Problem: Carriage skipping
Causes: Improper typing style/posture
Missing escapement wheel teeth
Damaged escapement/rack bar
Typing too fast or too hard(jarring machine)
Solutions: Usually a random skipping carriage(when the carriage skips a space while typing (T hank you for the flowe rs) means you're typing too fast or hard. You may also be bumping the space bar with the key levers or vibration from the force of your stroke is advancing the carriage. Proper posture and hand position is key to successful typing. Unlike using a computer, your fingers need to be arched so that you have a clean downward stroke. You really can't type the same way on a typewriter as on a computer. Again, practice is important. Luckily, it doesn't take long to become a great typist ;-)
Let's test for the other causes. Type one character 24 times in a row. If the skips are at the same space each time, then one or more of the teeth on the escapement wheel are broken off. Here's an example; HHHHH(skip)HHHHH(skip)HHHHH(skip)HHHHH(skip). One space means one tooth, double space means two. This is a major issue and will cost hundreds to have repaired. You now own a parts machine.
If the skipping occurs only in one place,
Now is the time for al l go od me n to come to the
aide of their party. O ne n ation un der God,
indivisible, with libe rty and j us tice for all.
then the rack bar teeth are worn. That's not major surgery, but you'll need an exact replacement from the same make and model for most repairs. It will also need to be the same font size as the one being repaired. Expect $150+ to repair.
If the carriage is loose, it will also sometimes skip. There are several issues related to a loose carriage and, again, it will be costly to repair. These are all fairly common problems with "as is" typewriters. If you have the special tools and knowledge to fix them, then it's just another day at the office :-)