Inside Dave Benning’s Surrey, B.C., art studio, dusty old typewriters have been given a glossy new life. 

Each of the restored machines clicks and clacks with a distinctly-painted theme; a starry night sky with Woody from Toy Story as a tribute to Tom Hanks, Harry Potter, Star Wars, a fiery red-and-black design with characters from Stranger Things.

Benning says the old-school typewriters tap into the appeal of vintage items such as vinyl records and classic cars. 

“We looked at typewriters as a really nice throwback to a simpler time and just an easier way of life where things weren’t so complicated,” Benning said. “You didn’t need WiFi. You didn’t need all the extra bells and whistles.”

A young man with long curly hair and an older man with short white hair and a white goatee hold colourful typewriters covered in art with posters of Paul McCartney, John Lennon and other celebrities on the wall behind them.
Brendan Raftery and Dave Benning have partnered to restore vintage typewriters. (Baneet Braich/CBC)

It all began two years ago as a pandemic passion project between two friends. Brendan Raftery, a Port Moody, B.C., musician with a keen interest in collecting and refurbishing typewriters, restores the vintage machines, and Benning applies new custom artwork. 

Together, they’ve revamped 12 typewriters, most recently giving a refurbished machine to Canadian author Margaret Atwood and another to the family of Terry Fox.

Raftery says restoring the antique machines found in people’s attics, closets and crawlspaces keeps them from the landfill.

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Brendan Raftery and Dave Benning have found a niche market — repairing typewriters and turning them into a piece of art. They share their passion with host Belle Puri.

“I’m cleaning off 50 years of cigarette smoke and cat hair and making them fully functional,” said Raftery, who has collected about 168 typewriters so far, mostly from Facebook Marketplace.

“These machines are 70, 80 years old, and they’re good for another 80 … My goal is to keep them going.”

A vintage typewriter designed in honour of Terry Fox.
Darrell Fox says the typewriter created in his brother’s honour was particularly meaningful since Terry Fox kicked off his Marathon of Hope with a letter written on a typewriter. (Dave Benning and Brendan Raftery)

Family of Terry Fox touched by tribute

Recently, Benning and Raftery gave a typewriter to the family of Terry Fox. It features images of Fox on his Marathon of Hope and a quote from him in a typewriter-style font that reads: 

“Even if I don’t finish, we need others to continue. It’s got to keep going.”

Terry’s brother Darrell Fox said he was deeply impressed by Benning and Raftery’s work. 

“The quality of the likeness, the images that he has chosen, the quote that he used really, really moved me extremely,” Darrell Fox said.

The gift was particularly significant, Fox says, as Terry announced his Marathon of Hope with a letter written on a typewriter. 

“Some of the words that Terry typed were incredibly powerful, and we use them today 43 years later when we’re focusing and sharing Terry’s message.”

Capturing the career of a Canadian literary giant

The pair recently gifted author Margaret Atwood with a typewriter highlighting her career. 

Benning says he reached out to Atwood’s social media team and heard she was interested.

The pair took two months to prepare the typewriter, which pays homage to the Canadian literary giant’s novels and poems and presented the 1939 Corona Zephyr typewriter to her in person at the Vancouver’s Writers Festival earlier this month.

Three typewriters covered in art representing Stranger Things, Star Wars, and Harry Potter sit on a workshop desk.
Vintage typewriters restored by Dave Benning and Brendan Raftery are tributes to ‘Stranger Things, Star Wars, and Harry Potter. (Baneet Braich/CBC)

“It was a real tough thing to capture such an amazing career on such a small machine,” said Benning. 

She’s now keeping the machine in her home, he said. 

The pair plans to honour other noted Canadians. They are starting a project that is an homage to actor John Candy and will soon start a typewriter featuring Michael J. Fox. An Adam Project-themed Olivetti Lettera 22 features the image of Ryan Reynolds.

The work has been well received, Benning said, and in some cases autographed. Their Star Wars-themed typewriter was signed by Anthony Daniels, the actor who portrayed C-3PO.

“He was blown away,” he said of Daniels.  “He’d never signed a typewriter before, but he’d signed pretty much everything else.”

The artists hope to continue preserving typewriters whether they end up sitting on a bookshelf to be admired or used to write more stories. 

“If we could tell a story on a typewriter that is made to tell stories, I think that’s something really cool,” Benning said.

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