Downers Grove 23-year-old repairs typewriters for a living

Lucas Dul repairs vintage typewriters in his parents’ Downers Grove basement. He wants to open a brick-and-mortar shop because, he says, demand for his work is great.

Anthony Vazquez / Sun-Times

Lucas Dul tinkers in a windowless workshop, his machines heaped on shelves — some pristine, some tucked away in their original leather cases, others mere carcasses.

So many that he has lost count.

The nail on his left thumb was shattered when a piece of hardware fell on it a few weeks ago. Otherwise, his hands are unblemished — 23-year-old hands devoted to a technology most probably consider all but extinct: the typewriter.

Dul works out of his parents’ Downers Grove basement, repairing typewriters. He has repaired hundreds of them since, at 14, he picked up a 1930s Royal No. 10 at an antique shop and tried to fix it.

And there are so many more that need screws, springs and rubber pieces replaced — or whole mechanisms rebuilt.

“Even full-time is not enough to cater to the need that’s out there,” Dul says. “I have a backlog 70 people-deep. Sixty machines sitting behind you. Every single one of them needs work.”

Typewriters that await repairs at Lucas Dul’s home in Downers Grove.

Anthony Vazquez / Sun-Times

Artists, writers, collectors — all still want typewriters, he says.

Dul is more than a fixer. He’s a romantic. A purist. A crusader of sorts — an island in a digital ocean.

“It’s also about ultimate control,” says Dul, who cherishes his time alone in his workshop. “You are not being told what to do by any operating system. You don’t have to worry about spellcheck or making errors. It’s a process that’s completely in your hands and organic.”

A Royal typewriter that’s waiting for repairs at Lucas Dul’s home in Downers Grove.

Anthony Vazquez / Sun-Times

Typewriters are also a cure for “digital burnout,” he says.

Richard Polt, a philosophy professor at Xavier University in Cincinnati, writes about the “surprising second life of typewriters” in his 2015 book “The Typewriter Revolution: A Typist’s Companion for the 21st Century.“ Polt says many people who today use and collect typewriters weren’t even born when they were in wide use.

“It’s a very wide variety of people, and they’re doing all sorts of creative things — not only writing but decorating the typewriters and making music with them, making art with them and connecting them to digital devices,” Polt says. “But what they all have in common is that they’re interested in exploring nondigital technology.”

As a child, Dul says he liked the feel of machinery and to pull things apart to see how they work.

“I just always loved doing things with my hands,” he says.

Born long after the era in which there still were typewriter repair apprenticeships, Dul taught himself how to repair them. He started by repairing his own and those of his friends, then began to see a wider need for his talents.

He found others — in Tampa, Philadelphia and elsewhere — who, like himself, love the clacking of the machines, fellow fixers he calls a “secret underground world.”

In Dul’s workshop, his deeply gouged work bench, with solid-wood clamps, looks like it should be in a museum. His drill is the hand-cranked variety. And he owns a copper-headed mallet that looks like something unearthed during a Viking artifact dig that he says is gentler on steel parts.

Some of the tools that Lucas Dul uses to repair typewriters, including (far left) a copper-headed mallet. The softer metal helps Dul avoid denting the steel parts of typewriters.

Anthony Vazquez / Sun-Times

And then there are the typewriters — defiantly un-sleek machines, their stairstep keys, levers and ribbon spools inviting curious eyes and fingers. None is quite like another.

Dul points to a model built about 100 years ago by The Oliver Typewriter Co., at one time headquartered in downtown Chicago, that wouldn’t look out of place on a steampunk-themed movie set. Dusty, rust-spotted and clunky, its claim to fame was the batwing-shaped bars that strike the ribbon and paper from above.

A 100-year-old Oliver typewriter, with “bat-ear” bars — one of Lucas Dul’s many vintage models.

Stefano Esposito / Sun-Times

Another machine, a 1930s Hammond Multiplex, has a circular shuttle that pops out and allows the user to replace the individual English language pieces of type with Hebrew, Arabic and other languages. Besides being an inventor, James B. Hammond was a Civil War newspaper correspondent.

“This is absolutely brilliant, and Hammond’s story is brilliant as well,” Dul says. “His company caught fire. His brother tried to steal it. All kinds of crazy stuff.”

The typewriters in Dul’s workshop also include an Omega II that was a gift from Tom Hanks, who, decluttering, recently has been donating his machines to the remaining corps of typewriter repair specialists across the United States.

Dul has worked on machines dating from the 1880s to the few still being made today.

His average charge, he says, is about $350 a job.

“The Williams Typewriter,” the book that Lucas Dul wrote about his favorite model typewriter.

Anthony Vazquez / Sun-Times

He’ll repair your typewriter even if you only want it to look pretty on a shelf.

But he still hews to the notion that typewriters were built for a purpose: to work. And he rejects the idea that they’re slow or inefficient.

“I can type over 100 words a minute,” he says, his fingers a blur as he attacks the keys of an Olympia SGI De Luxe.

He wrote a book about a year ago about his favorite typewriter model, the Williams.

So did he write it on a typewriter?

“No, I wrote it on a computer because I’m lazy,” he says.

Dul’s customers include David Brechbiel, 65, a web designer who lives in Indiana, started collecting typewriters in 2015 and owns about 250, most of them on display in his basement.

“I call it my own personal museum,” Brechbiel says.

He estimates that there are half a dozen typewriter repairmen across the Midwest. Dul has worked on about a dozen of Brechbiel’s machines.

A typewriter’s keys recall a bygone era.

Anthony Vazquez / Sun-Times

“I know that, if I give it to Lucas, he will find a way,” says Brechbiel, who calls Dul “topnotch” and an “old soul.”

Dul has an associate of arts degree, but most of his learning has come through reading on his own. He says people sometimes ask why he hasn’t pursued more higher education.

“That’s not going to help me out in life,” he says. “I don’t really care about the university I went to. I just want to do my own thing.”

He says he’d like to find a brick-and-mortar location where he could have a workshop and display and sell vintage typewriters.

Though he “appreciates the headspace of being alone at times,” he sees the benefits of being able to display his work and talk with like-minded people.

“As shops are closing, I’m trying to open one up,” he says. “It’s a great business model.”

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