The Kowal Portable Typewriter and Adding Machine

Shiny! Look what I’ve got. The first Kowal Portable Typewriter and Adding Machine.

The keyboard, beforeI mentioned that I wanted to modify my computer to have some of the stylings of a portable typewriter. After a great deal of thought I decided to go with sticker applications on the keys due to the wee attachment points on the existing key caps. To create the sticker, I started by taking a photo of my keyboard as close to straight on as I could. If I do this again, I will scan it instead.

Next I grabbed a stock photo of a typewriter key. Now, since the computer keyboard has a lot of keys that a manual typewriter doesn’t, I knew that I would have to create keys from scratch. So, I erased the letter on this one and used it as the template for all the keys. For the font I chose P22’s Parish Roman, which is a gorgeous spin on the standard Roman fonts. You’ll see how lush it is in the next photos.



I laid out the keyboard directly over the photo I took to control for spacing. If I do this again, I will squish the keys closer together so that I have more space around the keyboard area for making adjustments to fit. I thought I allowed enough, but I didn’t.

The keyboard in progressI’m about halfway through the process in this photo. I used a piece of paper to make a template to cut the keyboard area of the sticker to the right size. As you can see, I wound up with silver space all the way around, but in my original, I was going to run the sticker right up to the edge of the keyboard. I think the image was enlarged slightly when they placed it on the sticker. The process of modifying the keys is pretty simple. Here– I’ll show you.

Removing the keys Pop the key off the keyboard with a butter knife.
Cutting out the stickers Cut out the corresponding key with your exacto knife. I was paranoid about losing a piece so I only cut out one key at a time.
Applying the sticker Carefully center the sticker on the key.
Trimming the sticker This is the squiggly part. I had to bevel the edges of the stickers as I was trimming them, or the edges were noticeable and distracting under my fingers.
Coloring the edges of the key Next, I colored the edges with a permanent marker. I initially did that before adding the sticker, but the edges of the sticker showed up as white. Over the two week since I did this, the ink has crept under the stickers giving a slight patina to my new keys. It doesn’t look bad in this context, but it’s not what I planned. I’m also discovering that in a couple of places, the ink is wearing off–not surprising, but faster than I expected. Next time, I think I’ll try to seal the edges as well as experiment with black enamel paint.Edited to add: I now use black nail polish. It is smooth, glossy and chip-resistant. The black marker wound up rubbing off.
Ready to install Here’s the finished key ready to be installed.

And here it is in all its glory.
The finished modification

Well, not quite all its glory. I still have to do the space bar, but I need to go to an art store for that. I’m debating about doing the space around the screen itself, which would be pretty, but just seems like a lot of wasted sticker, unless I can come up with something clever to do with the middle section. Hm, I guess I could do a style thing to the power supply… Nah. That would just be silly.

Edited to add: In response to comments.

  • I used to create the sticker. These are repostionable tough stickers designed to protect the exterior of a laptop and have prooved pretty durable on the exterior, which I did about a month ago. I travel a lot and so no signs of wear, so I went for the interior. The stickers have a beefy vinyl coating so I think they’ll hold up to wear.
  • I don’t believe that I’ve done anything which will impact the warranty. Although it’s a moot point, since the laptop is well past warranty date.
  • And for the curious–the plan for the space bar is to use a very thin wood veneer to make an “ebony” space bar. It comes in paper thin sheets at the art store. I expect this to be the spot that shows the most wear, but that’s the way it is on actual vintage typewriters too.
  • Edited to add: I finished the space bar. Pictures and process are detailed here.
  • The design is based on a blending of an early Royal, a Remington and a Ox-blood red Smith-Corona.
  • The background is actually a screen saver from 3planesoft. I wound up deleting it after trying the demo version, because it goes through this loading thing that was bulky. It is pretty though.

Further edited to add: The fine folks at have said that they would like to offer readers of my blog a 10% discount. Just enter the discount code KOWAL during the check out process. You might also want to use their old interface, as the new one does some resizing that might frustrate you.

Even further edited to add: I made a Deco version for my new computer.

96 Responses

  1. Geoffrey

    Yay, you’re back up. It was lovely to meet you and see your delightful machine at ReaderCon.


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  10. Abizar

    WalMart has a great collection of plastic stickers/tags that look like old keyboard keys. Usually in the crafts section.

  11. Mary Robinette Kowal

    Geoffrey: It was so nice to meet you at Readercon too. Hope all is well with you.

    Amy: Thank you!

    Jonquil: Actually… I will (hopefully) be starting to take orders in August.

    Abizar: You know, I looked everywhere for those, because I remembered seeing them. I finally gave up, in part because I realized that a computer keyboard has more and different keys than a typewriter.

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  13. ivan

    sorry … didn’t notice … and by the way .. my words were in their short forms … if u didn’t know …

  14. Mary Robinette Kowal

    I do recognize the text messaging form, however, that does not mean they are correctly spelled. “U” is a letter. “You” is a word.

    I’m a writer and like antiquities. I do not ask for much.

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  16. -d-

    The clock is pretty, but it drives me crazy because it has a second hand that acts like it is out of a different clock – one with a balance wheel instead of a pendulum. Also, there are some axles that look like they are running right through a gear. The escapement is well done though. Just turn off the sound so you don’t notice the two different rates of ticking.

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  20. onlyocelot

    You’ve had a re-linking on MAKE blog again, under the heading Typewriter Art. Yours is the last “related” picture and link, and it still looks as great as ever!

  21. nick

    Hello Mary. I keep checking back on this page ever couple weeks since finding it through boingboing. If you do decide to sell this as a kit or service please give me a yell.

  22. geof

    i followed a link from a link and found your creation – it’s beautiful and inspiring and, most delightfully, achievable.
    thankyou for sharing,

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  26. Giraud


    What a surprise! This is Elaine in Portland, Matt’s wife. I was just doing some crafty surfing and came upon this. You are indeed a crafty goddess. I can’t wait to tell Matt. How are you and Rob? Are sound and wine still part of your life? Matt was interviewed on a local podcast that aired last night. We went to a listening party on NE Williams. Every time I see sound-challenged visuals or beautiful puppetry, I think of you guys.

    I hope you are both well!

  27. Emily

    Beautiful Artwork! I would like to make the paper keys to decorate scrapbooks with…in the process of that, did you just take a pic. of an actual old key and then print it onto cardstock?

    1. Mary Robinette Kowal

      I downloaded a picture from and used that. Then printed them on special stickers. I’ve since done another project where I printed them onto regular sticker paper. I think you could do it on anything, really.

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