Old typewriters see 'tremendous resurgence' as writers unplug

Thom Cholowski has about 80 typewriters at his home in Saskatoon but he’s not a collector — he’s one of only a few typewriter repair people in North America.

People from across North America buy Thom Cholowski's restored typewriters

Thom Cholowski has old factory manuals that he follows to repair the typewriters and uses special tools to take them apart and calibrate them. (Chanss Lagaden/CBC)

This story was original published on Sept. 22, 2019. You can read an update about it here.

The typewriters lined up on Thom Cholowski's kitchen table are like a display in a museum, the cases gleaming in the sunlight from the window. These are a few of the machines he has restored and hopes to sell at a pop-up shop at a stationery store on the weekend.

Cholowski has about 80 typewriters at his home in Saskatoon, but he's not a collector — he's one of only a few typewriter repair people in North America.

"There is a tremendous resurgence in typewriters and I think it's awesome," he said.

"People are rediscovering it. I am selling them to writers. I am selling them to children who are saving up. I am selling them to legal offices. I am selling them to senior citizens' homes. People from all over North America."

A passion for history and antiques

Antiques dominate the decor of Cholowski's home. A working jukebox sits in his living room and he has an antique wooden wall telephone in his kitchen wired up as part of his intercom system.

He said he has had a passion for history and antiques since he was a child and he formerly worked for a museum as a conservation manager, restoring artifacts.

His current part-time work as a typewriter repair person started when he purchased a Canadian Pacific Railway telegrapher's typewriter.

"It's an incredibly rare typewriter," Cholowski said.

"Every railway station had one for typing train orders and it types only in capitals because there is no such thing as lowercase in Morse code. But it was very specific to railway stations and so when the railway did away with Morse communication, the typewriters were pretty much unusable outside of the railway station and so nobody bothered to save them."

This CPR typewriter from the 1930s types only in capital letters. (Chanss Lagaden/CBC)

He started to restore that CPR typewriter — and then he repaired another typewriter, and another one, and another one. Word started to get around that he knew how to repair typewriters.

A cross between a clock and a car engine

Covered in decades of grime and with pieces broken and missing, the typewriters are typically in rough shape when he gets them.

"People used to smoke profusely around these machines so nicotine is a major issue," Cholowski said. "Nicotine bonds to the paint and to the metal so it's very difficult to remove."

He describes typewriters as a cross between a clock and a car engine. When he gets a machine, he takes it apart using special tools, cleans each component and replaces any missing or broken parts.

Some of the components are over 100 years old and it's impossible to find existing parts, so he has a small machine shop where he can fabricate the pieces he needs.

Thom Cholowski doesn't keep the typewriters he finds; he repairs them and sells them. He had these typewriters for sale at a pop up shop in Saskatoon on Sunday. (Soul Paper/Facebook)

After he puts it all back together again, the last step is to hand-polish the case and clean the keys. He doesn't repaint the machines, though; he prefers the original colours because they're reflective of the time when when they were built.

While older machines tend to be consistently black, in the '50s, there was an explosion of colours, like "bubblegum pink, sea foam green, and bright canary yellow," Cholowski said.

By the time his customers get a typewriter from him, they're as close as they can be to factory new.

Each typewriter has a unique feel

Cholowski said people are rediscovering typewriters and using them as a way to "unplug."

"These are very personal machines … you are the only one doing this. You're not plugged into the Internet; you're not part of a community. It is you and this machine."

People come from all over Western Canada to try the machines before they buy one, sometimes typing on dozens until they find the right one for them.

The glass-topped keys feel much different than the ones that are cupped to fit your fingers, and the Hermes 3000 has additional springs to cushion your type.

Thom Cholowski says one of his pet peeves is when people take the keys from old typewriters and make jewellery out of them. (Soul Paper/Facebook)

"When you find a machine that you resonate with, it becomes a part of you," Cholowski said.

Old typewriters are relatively easy to come by and often pretty cheap to purchase but most of them aren't working, Cholowski said. When you purchase one of his typewriters, you're essentially paying for his time. He said it can take him anywhere from several hours to several weeks to repair a typewriter, depending on the extent of the damage and the complexity of the machine.

One of his restored typewriters will run you $200 to $400, while some of his collectors' pieces sell for upwards of $2,000.

But as Cholowski has proven, with proper care, a typewriter can last a lifetime.


Ashleigh Mattern is a reporter with CBC Saskatoon and CBC Saskatchewan.


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