Sunday, August 19, 2012

Sholes Visible: exploring ancient grease

Professionally cleaning a typewriter usually involves removing the external shell, immersing the mechanism in a vat of specialized chemicals, drying it off, and then carefully lubricating the machine at select points. But sometimes, typewriters seem to have gotten a quickie treatment: the whole thing was dunked in light lubricant and handed back to the customer. I bet this made everything look shiny and run smoothly for a while, but in the long run, you have a typewriter that's covered on every surface with a hardened film of dirty grease.

Terrible? Not necessarily! For the collector, this ancient grease can be a boon -- it can serve as a protective layer that fends off worse damage.

Sometimes what looks like rust on a machine is actually just a layer of grease. I was happy to discover the other day that this is the case on parts of my Sholes Visible. Check out what happens when you rub steel wool on what seems to be a badly rusted part. Under the "rust" (actually grease and dirt), the original nickel is still in pretty good, though not perfect condition.

The same is true of the key levers:

You may find a machine that looks bad when you get it -- such as my Crandall Visible no. 4, which looked like it had dull and damaged paint in this auction photo ...

... but you may discover that the appearance is simply due to a layer of grease. I was thrilled to find that this was the case with my Crandall Visible. I could just wipe off the grease with my fingertip and reveal shiny black paint underneath.

I'm not as lucky with the Sholes Visible, but my discoveries give me hope that eventually it's going to look good (though not new). I'll close this installment with a view of one part that I've restored. This is the slotted comb for the keyboard. I used Soft Scrub on the painted part and steel wool on the greasy metal. The shift lock at right had some real rust and needed to spend the night in Evapo-Rust. In the two special slots for the spacebar, you can see little cushions which consist of tiny pieces of leather, over a century old.


  1. Great insights in to old typewriter restoration. I like those old machines of yours, especially how you bring them back to life.

  2. The Crandall turned out beautifully. I'm sure that the Sholes will be no different, now placed in your expert hands. These posts of bits and pieces of it are really building up the suspense, I must say.

  3. Thanks for the update. Why use steel wool to take the grease away, and no degreaser?

    1. You can use degreaser if the grease is still a little viscous, but the grease on this Sholes Visible is hard and dirty -- I don't think degreaser would work. Naturally, I use steel wool only on bare metal -- it would damage paint. I use Soft Scrub on paint.

    2. Richard, by "bare metal," I hope you are not including nickel. I have found that steel wool scratches almost every surface, including nickel, chrome, brass, ... almost every common metal except steel itself. The scratches are not so obvious on metals as they are on paint, but steel wool definitely dulls the formerly mirror-finish of the finishes designed to be shiny. Sometimes I do use steel wool to cut an into hardened grease to give an opening for chemical degreasers but never rub even moderately hard with it.

      (Here I am preaching to a guy who polishes Silver Surfers! Nervy!)

      == Michael Höhne

    3. Thank you, Michael, what you say is true. I don't use steel wool on nice nickel (it just needs a little polish), only on crusty and nasty nickel, and I use the finest grade of steel wool available. BUT you are right that it can leave new scratches. I am not always as careful as I ought to be.

      Alternative restoration recommendations from readers are always welcom here.

  4. Great to see this restoration update on the Sholes. You make an interesting point about how the old grease can actually work to preserve the surface of an antique typewriter. Like a protective armor.

  5. It's surprising to me that grease can cover every surface of a machine. I wonder if a typewriter in a case has a unique ecosystem with high volatility aromatics evaporating, condensing and then baking on. Anyway, I will look at the grungy machines in a new light.

  6. I have a few machines very caked with grease and grime. I've been putting off the cleaning process out of fear of what will be left afterwards but I guess I have nothing to be afraid of!

    Thanks for the updates on this process - I'm loving every one!

  7. I'm always impressed that you can get them back together. Can't wait to see it.

  8. As always, we are envious and impressed with your skill at restoring your fine writin' iron. The Crandall looks practically new! I wish you the same success in bringing your Sholes back to life (: