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Anachronisms Aren’t Just for Hipsters Anymore: Your Typewriter Buying Guide

By Valerie Farabee

Whether it’s the allure of anachronism or nostalgia for a different time, the clickity-clack of the typewriter keys beckons to many, the young and old. The personal computer has replaced the use of the typewriter in most respects, and with it the knowledge of what to look for when selecting a new-to-you typewriter. Priceonomics and I have put together a guide gleaned from the dustiest, most analog areas of the Internet to help you when you decide to buy a new (to you) typewriter!

The first step, as with most anything you need to learn how to buy, is deciding what you are going to use said ‘thing’ - in this case, a vintage typewriter - for. How are you using your typewriter? Are you creating a permanent office space where the typewriter will live? Do you need to be able to use it when you move into your van for the summer?

A portable machine comes in a case and can be moved around. It’s the laptop to your desktop, in modern parlance.

A standard machine is a larger machine intended for use in an office. Compare these to the souped up desktops that live in large office complexes today.

Mid-century machines are often in much better condition than machines dates from the 1930s and before. The very old machines usually also need more work to be functional. Late model typewriters, from 1970 on, usually have plastic bodies and inferior construction quality than typewriters made from the 1960s and before. Plastic bodies can warp, bend, and crack, while metal ones offer strength and durability.

Refurbished typewriters that have gone through a cleaning and repairing process cost anywhere from $75 up to a several hundred dollars, but an unrefurbished antique typewriter that is not rare should not cost you anymore than $75, max.

What About Those Pretty Metal Keys?

Typewriters made before 1950 include the glass typewriter keys with the chrome rings but missing some keys in high use now. Until the 60s and 70s, the vast majority of typewriters did not come with the keys 1, !,or 0. If you need a typewriter with those symbols, you’ll need to look for one manufactured between 1950 - 1980, virtually all of the pre-1950s typewriters did not have those keys.

How Much Does a Vintage Typewriter Cost?

Postwar models, that is to say typewriters made from the 1950s - 1980s, are cheap and plentiful! You can find these at flea markets and junk shops for $25 or less. They are very common, to pay more than $25 is a waste of your money.

The older machines, manufactured from 1900 - 1940, will cost much more than the post-war cheapos. An older machine in working condition runs about $200. If you have a great typewriter repair store, you can find non-working typewriters from this vintage for $50 and under. Refurbished vintage typewriters can be had from $200 all the way up to $800!

Things to Look Out for When Taking the Plunge

If you have decided to buy a typewriter that is in working condition, it helps to know a few things about a working typewriter! Check these three things out to ensure that you aren’t buying a lemon: the rubber, the carriage, and the keys.

Rubber. Much of the typewriter is made of rubber, from the platen and the feet to the feed-rollers. Rubber is prone to degrading over time, so it’s important to check the condition of the rubber before buying a typewriter.

Check the feet. This one’s easy: lift the typewriter up and look. Replacement feet are easy to come by.

Beware the Platen!The Platen is the central rubber covered drum in the middle of the carriage. The feed-rollers grip the paper and pull it around the platen when the typewriter is being operated. The platen rubber should be firm and not solid. Test it by tapping it. If it feels like tapping something hard, like glass, then the rubber is too hard!

The Feed-rollers are a little harder to check as they are located inside the carriage and under the platen. They grip the paper once it is fed into the machine, roll it under the platen, and feed it up in front of the carriage. To check if the rollers are in good condition, roll a few sheets of paper through the typewriter and see if it is pulled easily through the machine and comes out evenly on the other side. If so, the rollers are in good condition!

Carriage. The Carriage is the part of the typewriter that moves left when you type. Assuming you are able to test your typewriter in person, you are looking for a carriage that advances smoothly as you type, with working margin stops and a bell ringing at the end of a line. Good job! Beware the carriage-lock feature on portable typewriters - if it doesn’t move when you first test it, make sure the carriage-lock is not engaged before deciding it’s a lemon!

Keys. If the keys on your typewriter don’t work, how much writing are you going to be able to do? Not a lot! Type a few “The Quick Brown Fox Jumps Over the Lazy Dog” sentences to see if the keys work, and double check the backspace, the tab-keys, the shift key and the shift lock, and the spacebar. If all of those things work, you’re in business! If the keys are sticky and the hammer occasionally jams, your typewriter is still good to go and just needs a little cleaning!

Try Before You Buy!

Though you can find typewriters on websites like eBay, Etsy and Craigslist, your best bet is to actually try one out at a flea market or typewriter store (yes, though few, they still exist!) so you can get a feel for how your product works! This enables you to check the rubber, the carriage, and the keys in person. Type a paragraph and see how it all works and feels to you.

Enjoy tickling those particular keys, and happy typing!

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