Restoring a 1937 Typewriter





Introduction: Restoring a 1937 Typewriter

About: I enjoy taking a pile of junk and making something unusual out of it. I like wheeled vehicles, and currently own two motorcycles, two electric bikes that I've built, and an electric scooter pushed by a soc...

This typewriter is a 1937 LC Smith model 11 that I picked up at a flea market.   It had a number of problems, such as the carriage would hang (and when it didn't hang it squeaked), the space bar only worked randomly, shifted characters did not type on the same line as non-shifted characters, some of the key tops were unreadable, and the entire machine was filthy -- inside and out.

But the price was right -- $15.  And, it looked like all the parts were there.  So, I brought it home to see if I could get it back to something of the machine it once was.

Step 1: Tools and Supplies Required

I have no specialized tools to work on typewriters, so I make do with what I have in my little shop.  From a tool perspective, I used the following:
- precision screwdrivers (gunsmith screwdrivers)
- needle nosed pliers
- a 5/16th combination wrench
- a small brass hammer
- air compressor (for blowing out cobwebs)

In terms of supplies:
- Q-tips (about 250 of them)
- coarse automotive rubbing compound
- fine automotive rubbing compound
- automobile wax
- alcohol
- acetone
- metal polish
- and more rags than I could count

Step 2: Fixing the Space Bar

The first thing I tackled was the space bar issue.  If you look closely at photo 1 you will notice that the space bar is not sitting level -- it is higher on one side than the other.

Turning the typewriter on its back (photo 2) I found the problem, actually two problems.  First, a screw was missing that attached the space bar to the space bar lever (noted in photo 2).  Also, the stops on the space bar had been bent downward, probably from someone pulling up on them because of the problem with the carriage hanging up.  I bent them back into position using my needle nose pliers, replaced the screw, and all was well once again in space bar land!

Step 3: Fixing a Jammed Carriage

The cause for the carriage hanging took a bit more time.  What I found was at the back of the carriage, the tab bar needed to be adjusted.  Someone probably leaned this old machine on its back without supporting the weight properly, causing the tab bar to move inward slightly.  I slightly loosened the tab bar's screws on both sides (see photos), lightly tapped the bar back into alignment with a brass hammer, and tightened the screws.  This fixed the "carriage hang" problem.  But, the carriage still squeaked when it moved, which is addressed in the next step.

Step 4: Fixing a Squeaky Carriage

The cause of the squeak was dryness and filth!  I taped an alcohol-soaked cotton swab onto a bamboo skewer, and cleaned the track shown in the photo.  Once I had 74 years of debris cleaned out, I lightly oiled this track with a cotton swab.  The squeak was gone, and the carriage moved like new.

Step 5: Adjusting the Shift Alignment

I then removed all the side and back panels from the typewriter and started my search for how to adjust the shifting mechanism.  On this typewriter the shift key moves the type basket to produce the shifting.  I found the adjustment for this underneath the type basket toward the back of the machine.  Since the shifted characters were printing too high, I turned the adjusting nut to allow the type basket to move lower when the shift key was pressed.  I continued adjusting and testing until it was perfectly aligned, then tightened the lock nut.

Step 6: Cleaning the Inside of the Beast

With the mechanical issues behind me, I started on the lengthy process of cleaning this beast.  With all the panels removed, I began by blowing everything out with compressed air.  This removed the cobwebs, but not the 74 years of caked on dust, dirt, and tobacco residue (pretty much every office in the '30's, '40's, and '50's was filled with tobacco smoke).

This is where the acetone, alcohol, and q-tips came in.  Using q-tips and cleaners, I cleaned every surface possible inside this machine.  The first three photos show the condition before I began, and the last photo shows the improvement inside the machine.  This was a lengthy process -- I worked on this off and on for almost a week, but when I was finished, 74 years of accumulated dirt and grime were gone!

Step 7: Cleaning the Carriage

Then the real work began!  74 years of exposure had taken its toll on the outside parts of this typewriter.  Not only do you have the dust, dirt, and smoke residue to deal with, you also have skin oil, oxidation, and accumulated spills that come into play.

The first thing I did was remove the platen and go over everything painted black with a mild cleaner.  I used a few drops of dishwashing detergent in a bottle of water as a cleaner.  I scrubbed everything I could reach with this cleaner, then dried it carefully.

The next step was to go over everything with a strong automobile rubbing compound (red compound).  Using a lot of pressure, I used this rubbing compound on no more than two square inches at a time.  Next came the fine (white) automobile rubbing compound.  During this process I began to see the beginnings of a shine starting to come through.  In several places I had to apply the white compound several times to really begin to see improvement.

The final step for the black metal parts was to use regular automobile wax.

For the plated (shiny) parts I used a metal polish.

Step 8: Cleaning the Type Bars

Cleaning the type bars on these old machines is tedious.  Using q-tips and alcohol, I scrubbed both sides (and the tops) of each individual type bar -- one at a time!  Photo 1 shows what they looked like before I started, and photo 2 shows the results.

Step 9: Cleaning the Case

Cleaning the case was essentially the same process used on the carriage.  I first wiped the surface with a cleaner, then began with the red rubbing compound, then the white rubbing compound, and finally the automobile wax.

I decided to not touch up the areas where paint had worn off on this machine -- I sort of liked the looks of the battle scars.

Cleaning the outside of this typewriter took almost as much time as cleaning the inside, but what a difference it made!

Step 10: Replacing Bad Key Tops

There were 9 keys on this machine that had key tops that were literally worn out (see first three photos). 

Using a special font on my computer, I printed new key tops on a piece of off-white paper, and laminated both sides with a cold laminating film.  The film on the top side is designed to mimic the original finish of the key tops, and the film on the back side keeps my glue from discoloring the new key top.

I cut these out and glued them onto the old key tops (see the last two photos).

I then cleaned each key with metal polish.

Now I had a fairly respectable keyboard!

Step 11: Completed!

I didn't keep track of how much time I put into this old typewriter, but I'm guessing it was somewhere around 30-40 hours.  I don't really count this time as labor, however, because I enjoy bringing these old machines back to life.

Most people would probably have considered this typewriter beyond help due to the condition I found it in.  The secret to bringing something like this back from the dead is not to be overwhelmed at everything that is wrong, but to tackle each problem one-at-a-time and fix it.  If you stay with it, eventually you have success.

I hope you enjoyed this instructable, and my hope is that it inspires a few people to discover the enjoyment of bringing something old and neglected back to life!



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I am so impressed! Wow! What a difference, and so cool that you cared enough to put in the time. I think these things are worth doing. Nice job!

looks like a really nice job you did there. id like to find a big old boxy one someday. iv got an 1915 oliver 9. couple of ajustments bending the hammers back into shape replacing the ribbon and a bit of a clean its quite happy. the gold printed/transfer name is mostly intact. any advice techniques for getting these areas sparkelly again without destroying the original logo.

This is an awesome post, do you happen to have a template if the letters you used to replace on the keys?

1 reply

I no longer have the template, but it is easy enough to make using powerpoint.

Oh wow! This is almost the same one I have! One major difference is that where it says "LC Smith & Brothers", there is a horse head logo on either side. Mine is in better shape than this, so I anticipate a lot less work, but I've finally decided to give it a good cleaning, get a ribbon and some onion skin paper and have some fun! I have a nice Dremel with all manner of attachments, so I look forward to starting this. I'm so glad to have found this site! :-)

nice job great restoration. Thanks

When I restore one of the old machines I remove all the covers and the platen. I then use a small brush to get out all the cobwebs mouse damage etc. Now here is my time saver I use a dremel with a brass wire brush to clean up rust and old crud.from the bright work and exposed metal parts. A cheap bench polisher from Harbor freight is also good for individual small chrome parts. Rubber feet from ebay and rubber rejuvinater from a print shop supply company for the platen and rollers after a quick sanding.

I'm finishing up on a very badly rusted old royal and will have probably almost 15 hours in it before I'm done. I'll never be able to charge my customer for all my time but as we say these things are a labor of love.

next is .

I just found an identical TW like the one on your pics, quite rusted but recoverable. Came in a bundle with another I have yet to figure out brand & make (see attached pics). Your help will be truly appreciated, and in return, as I read on one of your posts, will send you a couple of Johnson floor wax cans (am the site director for SCJ's last place where we make it!)

Kind regards,


3 replies

Hi JorgeH17. Your typewriter is an Oliver No. 5.

Kind regards,

Wow! Any guess on the year? Looks quite an antique.
Thank you.

No problem. This model was in production between 1907 and 1914. Can you find a serial number? The number will help to identify the exact year.

Unfortunately, Oliver typewriters are notorious for having serial numbers in hard-to-find places, so it could be anywhere on the body. It also looks like many parts on your typewriter are missing (including the front plate and entire carriage), so I'm sorry to say the serial number may no longer exist.

Good luck.

So I finally got around to cleaning my 1938 Underwood, and fixing things one by one, using a trial and error, what-happens-when-I-wiggle-this-lever method, and the one thing I can't figure out is how the bell works. How does yours work?

2 replies

Sounds like what I plan to do! And sixteen bezillion levers later.... may the Remington will be working again!

Start with the bell and follow the linkage. At some point you will probably find a small metal part that should swivel as the carriage passes. When the carriage passes one way it rings the bell, and when it passes the other way (on a carriage return) it pivots out of the way (upward on most typewriters). It's probably stuck in its upward position. Manually free it, then clean it until it pivots easily.

I have an old Remington Model 10 with a serial number that dates it to 1913...eighty-three years before I was born! I found it in my great-grandfather's attic along with a Remington 17 KMC from 1946. I think the Model 10 will be a great on-again off-again summer project. Thanks very much for a really interesting and informative series.

Aloha, I just got a mini Corona Agency Typewriter.made in N.Y. It is very rusted

but all keys and space bar work. There is even the original black ribbon in the

spools. Should I use water on Q tips to clean it or should I use Q tips dipped in the automotive oil to clean it. I haven't done anything yet because I'm afraid to ruin it.

Mahalo & Aloha

Melani from Hawaii


You are a life savior! Thank you so much! I had a jammed carrier but now everything is functional again!

Thanks for sharing! I have the 1940 version of this model which is in decent working order but needs a deep clean & the space bar is giving a little trouble. It has been a journey figuring out what all the levers do! At first the carriage didn't move all the way to the left but playing with the margin lever finally got it in place. Why is the ding of that bell so satisfying? It probably used to drive the people who had to use it daily nuts!

I have an Underwood No. 5, not too rare to learn by trial and error. I've disassembled it (chronicling everything with photos) but I'm afraid to take anything else apart. My question: dipping the entire thing in warm water with a smidgen of detergent, and ensuring it dries properly, is not recommended? We used to do that with M16s in the Army, which was also frowned upon, but it saved a lot of time and effort.

1 reply

I've read about people dipping typewriters in order to clean them, but I've never done it myself -- sort of have a fear of rust developing in tight places. My own method is to first blow it out with compressed air, then flush out crud with alcohol, then only add a tiny bit of thin oil to key pivot points (but not the type bar slots). In terms of disassembling, only dissemble what you absolutely have to. Old typewriters can have somewhere around 2,500-3,500 individual parts (including screws), and it would be virtually impossible to completely dissemble one and then get it reassembled properly. Speaking of dipping M16's -- I have a friend who puts his black powder revolver in the dishwasher to clean it. Works for him, but it has a lot few parts than a typewriter! Good luck with your project.

Ahh i see. i thought it had something to do with the colour. this however makes more sense. i've bought a typewriter today. its from new york. remington number 12. it's gonna need a very big clean up though. thanks for your help