Ode to the Joys of Manual Typewriters

By | March 25, 2012

Last week I purchased an authentic Royal KMG manual typewriter on eBay for the low, low price of $40. The line was introduced in the 1940s; the machine itself — a 40-lb. steel behemoth — has aged well.

Granted, I had to perform a bit of repair; some of the keys stuck, so out came the WD-40 and gun oil. There’s one part of the travel of the carriage that’s stiff in the middle, so I need to figure out how to re-tension it. And I need a new ribbon. But otherwise, it’s a fresh, friendly and fully functional manual typewriter.

I used to have a Royal KMM when I was in junior high — it was the bridge device between my beloved Commodore 64 and my first PC, a Packard Bell 486SX-20. I wrote all of my papers in 7th and 8th grades on that Royal.

The typewriter is a magical thing. The Royal KMM/KMG line actually had a patent for its “magic margin” — you flipped a rod, and the typewriter updated its margins without fussing behind the cover. The machine had three ribbon settings — black, red and “white” (for no ribbon, used for corrections and carbon paper). It could tab, shift, shift lock and automatically single-, double- or triple-space sentences. And you can’t kill the thing. You buy an old Royal, it’ll outlive you.

So why did I pick it up? Four reasons.

First, I’m going to grab an antique office desk — the tiny steel kind, circa 1950 — and put it in the alcove of my living room. The typewriter will join the vintage ham radio equipment I’m collecting.

Second, I intend to use the typewriter. Typing forces writers to think carefully about their prose. There’s no CTRL-A/Delete. No drag-and-drop sentence shuffling. If you screw up, you retype the sheet. That sort of discipline — to get it right the first time — is on the wane with too many writers who use editing as a substitute for planning, so using the typewriter for my daily journal will, I think, prove salutary. Especially if I type by the light of my oil lamp.

Third, every writer who loves the craft ought to own a manual typewriter. Not only are they supremely useful for filling out paper forms, but possessing the accouterments of authorship reminds yourself daily that writing is a vocation, not a hobby.

Fourth, nostalgia. When I was a wee lad, I was eager to dump that old Royal in favor of a shiny new computer. It even had Windows 3.1 and the LotusWorks Suite! Now that I’m older, and surrounded (nay, tethered) to electronic devices, there’s something reassuring about manual typewriters. In the same way that there’s something reassuring about my well-worn, much-loved copy of Webster’s New International Dictionary … second edition. 

So that’s my story. Manual typewriters: Just because they’re old, doesn’t mean they’re useless.

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    • Schube

      If you still want to know how to adjust the carrige tension, I’ll tell you.  First you unscrew three srews to remove the plate under the right side of the carrige, (when looking at it from the back).  Then you should see a wheel with a black cloth on it.  right in front of the wheel there should be a brass colored screw.  Turn the screw counter-clockwise to tighten the tension on the carrige.  And clockwise to loosen the tension on the carrige.  To test, move the carrige as far to the right as it will go, then press the TABULAR button on the keypad.  Let me know if this helps.

             If you have a manual for your typewriter, would it be possible for you to email it to me at [email protected] ?  I just got a Royal Kmg typewriter myself, but I can’t find a manual for it.  Thanks!!!!! 

    • Adam

      WD40 is
      unfortunately one of the worst things for typewriters as it will harden over
      time and the gum-like nature of it will seize up the internals. It, at
      first, seems to be working miracles, and then the scary stuff begins. The
      gun oil is not a bad call, but typewriters actually are best lubricated
      only on the carriage rails, and everything else should be freed up using
      mineral spirits, and no lubrication. While this may seem counter-intuitive,
      trust the wisdom of the old guys who did it fro 5 decades or more (the ones who
      taught me) – they will all say to stay away form wd-40. As for any oils
      (beyond the carriage rails) the reason it is ill-advised is the dust attracting
      properties they possess, and then you’re back to square one doing a full on cleaning.
      If the key levers are not bent, then they’ll be fine, once cleaned with mineral
      spirits. I have a small collection of 10 machines, and have learned some
      hard lessons, but none more valuable than the above suggestions, form several old
      school typewriter men in the know with experience. Just passing their
      sage experience along.

    • Jason Gillikin

      Thanks for the advice, Adam. Next time I clean the KMM, I’ll follow your guidance!

    • Adam

      The specific tension required is between 1 and 1.5 lbs tension – you can pick up a “spring scale” fairly cheaply to ensure the correct calibration. As to the manual, you did not specify the operations manual or the service manual. The ops manual is on the Machines of Loving grace website, if you nose around. The operations manual is not there but it is for the 1948 Royal Quiet Deluxe which has much of the same features. Link: http://sevenels.net/typewriters/royals.htm If you are thinking of the service manual and are up for tackling that level of complexity, it used to be on Richard Polts site site.xavier.edu/polt/typewriters/tw-restoration.html but for some reason it appears to be down today. It features all the desktop Royals of that era (along with several other mainstream American makes) in the Ames Service guide. It is as detailed as you’d ever need to get – I serviced my escapement with it – it was very complicated, and I wouldn’t advise tackling anything on the KMG without it – hopefully, his site will go back up soon. Cheers

    • Adam

      PS Correction to the above: “The KMG ops manual is NOT on the Machines of Loving Grace website, but if you nose
      around, the operations manual for the 1948 Royal
      Quiet Deluxe is there – which has much of the same features.”


      Guys you know a magic typewriter real just watch brother ax 12 magic typewriter