Entering the World of Thermal Typewriting


The Typestar 4/5 (Internally the 4, branded the 5)

It has been a significant amount of time since I last updated a post on my blog.  Well, today I decided to dive into Thermal typewriting, a sub-category of electric machines that use thermal print heads, officially called "electronic typewriters."  I created a YouTube video at the end of last summer detailing my first thermal machine ever, a TTY or Teletype machine designed as an aid for the hearing impaired.  That machine featured a large VFD display and printed with a very low resolution thermal printhead.

Typing late at night.

I absolutely LOVE this display

The TTY machine didn't get a whole lot of use, my go to machine for the last several months has been my Groma Kolibri, a little East German made portable with lovely typing action.  However as my daytime schedule became more packed with school and repair work, my time to write creatively or respond to letters shifted further and further into the night where I was not able to make noise lest I disturb others sleeping.  The TTY was fabulous for this purpose as the thermal print mechanism meant it made virtually no noise at all while typing, and the 30+ character VFD display was plenty visible in low light, however the poor print quality and lack of format control made it rather difficult for most practical use.

First type test

As you can see above, one of my first type samples on this machine, the TTY only types lowercase letters in a dot matrix 5 dots high.  It also suffers from impression evenness, as the tops of some letters unfortunately cut off.

Zooming in, the unevenness of the print and the low resolution become very apparent.  The individual dots in the matrix are completely visible.  So this lead me down the road of wondering what other options existed out there as far as thermal typewriting.  And that's when I re-discovered some of Joe Van Cleave's older videos on the subject, particularly the Canon Typestar which caught my attention.  Unfortunately none of the machines I saw had a display that was as big as the TTY machine, or nearly as bright, but the print quality appeared to be worlds better.  I went onto eBay last week and picked up a Typestar 5 for around $40.  There are a lot of machines in the Typestar line, but from what I hear the 4 tends to be the best all round, though I wasn't able to find one.  The 5 seemed to me close enough, and the price was decent.  It came with two extra print cartridges, a manual, carbon paper (not sure why) and a power adapter.  The print cartridges were the original intended way to use the machine, and they contained a carbon filament ribbon which got thermally bonded to traditional paper.  However with the use of thermal paper, you can forgo the cartridge and type just fine.

My Typestar 5

The design of the machine itself is actually rather nice.  It is roughly the same size as the TTY machine but comes with the addition of knobs for paper feeding which I like.  The display was nice and sharp, and for the most part it worked.  Unfortunately the motor responsible for feeding the paper is very weak, and prone to breaking which it was on this machine.  That meant that every time I hit enter, I had to remember to manually roll the page up two clicks.

The other thing I noticed about this machine was the platen detent.  It was very lose, you could roll an entire half line without actually clicking into the next place which meant without careful manual advancing, the line spacing was all over the place.  The print quality, however, was exceptional compared to the TTY machine.

The machine features two typefaces: Courier and Cubic Proportional, as well as two sizes: standard and stretched.  With just the thermal head on thermal paper, it worked very well.  Due to the broken motor, I got a full refund on eBay and used the money to buy another Typestar 5 for $30.  This machine was a little different.  It had extra features, a different advance motor, and screws on the top of the case rather than the bottom.  Turns out it's some transitional model that retains the guts and brains of the 4, with the badge of the 5.  It shipped rather quickly and I had it a few days later.

I should mention that I have been using rolls of thermal fax paper, got a pack of six for under $20 at Staples.

Typing on the 4, detailing my thoughts and comparisons

This machine printed even better, it was actually noticeably darker and more even, and most importantly, the advance motor worked very well.  I also noticed that the line space detent was much tighter, with almost no play in the feeding without hearing and feeling the click.  It also featured automatic margin justification which is a feature on the Typestar 4, that was removed from the Typestar 5.

The  print quality is MUCH finer.

Within just a few minutes of using this machine it became clear to me that it was both MUCH better than the Typestar 5, and infinitely better than the TTY machine.  I'll still love the gorgeous blue VFD display of the TTY, but for practical use I think the Typestar 4 will become a permanent addition to my typing arsenal.  It runs on 4 D cell batteries with the option of using rechargeable batteries which I think is very nice.  It makes this machine MUCH easier to transport as opposed to the TTY machine which uses Ni-Cad batteries to retain time and date information, and operates the machine for a mere 15 minutes.  

The advance motor for the Typestar 4

Presently, I am still looking for a replacement motor for the 5.  It actually types, so it seems a shame to get rid of it or scrap it for parts when the only real issue is the advance.  While both these machines bear the Typestar 5 mark, it is clear from the internals that one is definitely a rebadged 4.

Inside the actual 5

Inside the 4

Working with both these machines has for sure been an enjoyable experience, and I am looking forward to learning and fooling around with more thermal machines.  The nice thing is they will never need ink!  I will probably use the cartridges I have for writing on standard paper here and there, and especially for label making as the stretch typestyle and automatic centering feature makes for very nice labels.

Labeled one of my backup drives

So that's about it for my one week foray into actual thermal typewriters.  I would still like to figure out a way to attach a paper holder to  the back of the typestar to hold the page, but for now it's working fine as is.  Additionally, I am aware that Brother makes letter sized thermal paper so I may give that a try in the future as well.


  1. Quite interesting. Does the typing stay dark on the thermal paper in the long run? Technically, these electronic portables are a complete departure from older mechanical designs, so they deserve close study, but most collectors ignore them.


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