Sunday, October 2, 2016

A New U: Replacing a key legend on a Royal KMM typewriter

As most readers know, I volunteer as a typewriter repairman to support a local nonprofit, WordPlay Cincy. When a customer asked me to "refurbish the keytops" on his KMM, I knew I had a big job ahead of me. Fortunately, fellow typospherians Greg Fudacz and Rich Mohlman came to the rescue, as I said yesterday. Greg provided a set of vintage key legends, and Rich lent me his key ring tools. I thought readers might be curious to see how the procedure works.

In case you need key legends, I've created a PDF that includes both white-on-black and black-on-white legends. The PDF is 8.5 x 11 inches, the standard American letter size. If you print it on a laser printer (using "actual size," not "shrink to fit"), you will have your own legends that you can cut out and install in a typewriter. The image is high-resolution (1200 dpi), but the quality of your printout  will depend on your print settings, the capacities of your printer, and the nature of the paper used. Just click the image below to get the PDF.

Now, let's take this letter U as our candidate for refurbishing:

First we need the key ring removal tool. It is designed to pull the ring up while holding the center of the key down.

The Royal KMM uses key rings that are held on to the key by three little tabs. Some other typewriters don't use such tabs, but simply fit the rings tightly onto the circumference of the key.

If you look closely at the image on the left below, you will see that there are areas on the tool that are meant to accommodate the key ring tabs. The assumption is that one of the tabs is more or less in front of the key, facing you (so always replace the key ring the same way). By turning the piece in the right photo below 180º, you can also use this tool on key rings that don't have tabs.

The tool is positioned over and under the key:

With light pressure, this key ring came right off. There was no need to unbend the three tabs first. It doesn't always go this smoothly!

The key ring often gets stuck in the tool and needs to be coaxed out with a little pressure from a screwdriver or such. Then you want to make sure that the tabs are fully unbent, so that the ring will fit easily back onto the key. Don't overdo it — the tabs will break if they are bent back and forth too much. (The ring will probably still work with two tabs.)

Under the ring is a plastic disc. The top is concave, for a pleasant feeling on your fingertips. Older typewriters usually have flat glass discs.

Under the disc is the old key legend, which I'm prying up with a pin. Probably this Royal was dipped in a cleaning solution that seeped into the keys and discolored the legends.

Here is the naked keytop. In the center is the tip of the key stem, which has been flattened out to hold the keytop in place.

We insert the new key legend.

Now it's time for the key ring replacement tool:

Again, there are two settings for the tool, depending on which kind of key ring you're working with. It is currently set to deal with rings with tabs. The bell-shaped piece squeezes the ring downwards, applying equal pressure all around, forcing the tabs into the curving sides of the lower piece and bending them around the base of the keytop.

We position the disc (concave side up) and the keyring over the key, put the tool in position ...

... squeeze ...

... and voilà!

Just repeat that fifty times (for the 42 character keys, two shift keys, shift lock, tab set and clear keys, backspacer, tabulator, and margin release), and your KMM has a bright new keyboard. Isn't typewriter repair fun?


  1. Very pretty! You made the use of this tool look inviting and easy, as well.

  2. Thanks for the detailed post. Now I have my next machine shop challenge (if I can get time on the machines). I think if I get 2 sets of parallel jaw pliers I may be able to fashion a set of tools -- at least for the typewriters I have.

  3. Great description and very good detail photos - I wasn't sure how these tools worked.

  4. I bet the rectangular keys are tricky, is there a way the tool helps you deal with those?

    1. Good point. No, the tools work only with standard-sized circular keys. On the KMM, the shift keys are larger circles; you need to unbend and reattach the rings using the tip of a screwdriver or such. The KMG has some large rectangular keys that I suppose need the same kind of treatment.

      The whole job can be done without these tools, but of course it's harder.

    2. I hadn't noticed the round shift keys on the one you had, it's a 1939: first year. I guess doing it the untooled way isn't so bad on just a handful of keys. I have been looking out for such tools for a while now, eventually I will find some. This post was excellent for helping me better understand how they work.

  5. A good workman always proclaims his tools. Thanks for this post and the PDF. :)

  6. Excellent lesson!!!Thanks for the PDF!

  7. super stuff, like the detail on the tool, and the pdf is a lifesaver.

  8. Do you know where I can buy/rent these tools? Are there any makeshift methods you would recommend? The rims on my typewriter are too tight to be pried off with precision screwdrivers...

    1. I'm afraid I do not have a substitute. It's easy to mangle a tightly attached key ring unless you're using the right tool. You may be able to rent one from Brian Brumfield,

    2. It's the key removal tool that is most important. You can usually squeeze the key rings back on using pliers.