Monday, August 20, 2012

Sholes Visible: varnish

Previous installments in this restoration saga have shown how I remove rust with Evapo-Rustremove dirt using Soft Scrub and remove hardened old grease from bare metal with steel wool. But a more challenging job faces me, a challenge you'll often have to deal with if you're restoring a typewriter that's over a century old.

Early typewriter factories usually applied varnish over their black paint, to create a deep shine. (I originally used the term "lacquer" here, but consulted Paul Lippman's American Typewriters: A Collector's Encyclopedia, where he writes that the underlying color is lacquer, applied in several layers, but the top surface is varnish.)

The varnish has often yellowed and cracked, creating a very ugly surface.

I haven't found a perfect solution, but Soft Scrub is helpful again. Here's the paper table of the Sholes Visible; I've rubbed the bottom half with Soft Scrub until most of the yellowed old varnish is gone.

Here's a closeup; you can see the cracks in the varnish, and you may also notice that there are still fine cracks in the cleaner, blacker surface below. The Soft Scrub has removed the bumpier, brittler, yellower level of varnish, but you still won't have a perfectly smooth and glossy surface. Applying polish such as Renaissance Wax will improve the appearance.

When removing varnish, you want to avoid removing decals and pinstripes (you can see in the photo above that the pinstripes were applied to the black paint and then the varnish was applied over the pinstripes). This is easier said than done. The best approach is the tedious one—applying the Soft Scrub with something like a Q-Tip, carefully working around the edges of the decorations you want to preserve, and applying Soft Scrub directly to the decorations only if it's really necessary to get the varnish off them.

Working around the edges of that "Sholes" decal (which was applied crooked at the factory) is going to be a job of many hours!


  1. This is interesting, as you're not removing the lacquer completely - wholesale.

    I'd imagine with soft scrub this might take a considerable amount of time, and possibly skill.

  2. Painstaking work I can imagine, especially around the decal. But the difference is dramatic.

  3. Quite a daunting task! It looks amazingly better, and I am sure it will only improve. Luckily, we here on the typosphere need only wait for a new post to see the dramatic difference as opposed to tediously scrubbing between letters with a q-tip. Hats off to you, good sir.

  4. You need a lot of patience.
    I really like your posts on this project; thanks for sharing - very interesting.

  5. It must be tiring to do all of that work, but well worth it in the end. I've not had good results with some of the old wrinkle finishes. They seem to either not clean or smooth-out when rubbed. I have also never did anything to the decals to clean them since I was always afraid they would come off after cleaning one very gently with only water.

    Thanks for your posts on How-To restoration.

    1. What's worked best for me with wrinkle finishes is Scrubbing Bubbles and a cotton rag. Test in a small area first to make sure the S.B. doesn't discolor the paint.

  6. Richard, I'm very much enjoying this series on the restoration. Fascinating stuff.