September 6, 2011

Getting Down And Dirty With Your Vintage Lady

Over the course of the last week I've been taking apart my little Singer hand crank machine to clean and repair it.  I was terrified when I started out, but with a good set of instructions there is absolutely no reason to fear this job!  In the links section of one of my recent posts I told you TFSR has a fantastic guide to completely breaking down, cleaning, repairing and reassembling your vintage Singer machine.  I can't stress enough how complete their instructions are; they show you how to take apart and put back together everything, and they point out what problems you need to look for and how to fix them.  It's intended to help folks clean up machines to send to Africa, but there's no reason you can't use it to help you clean up your own machine.  If you feel so inclined, you can always check out their how you can help page to give back a little.

As for how to go about prettying up the exterior of the machine, everyone seems to have a different opinion.  I followed a few of the instructions here and got decent results.  You can always test out a few products on an inconspicuous area to see what works best for your machine.

I won't be showing you what I did step by step; I'd only be badly repeating the information given in the TFSR guide.  I will show you what the guts of my machine look like, and I'll point out the things that needed a little extra TLC.  So without any further ado...

 Bobbin cover plate and slide plate removed, bobbin assembly pre-cleaning

I started out with the bobbin area.  I actually ended up doing this twice; the first time I was too afraid to take the whole thing apart.  I used tweezers and a small paintbrush to get out all the lint and bits of stuck thread I could see, oiled the moving parts and called it a day.  Later I changed my mind and decided to get back in there and do it right.  I'm glad I did!

 The second time around I actually lifted out the feed dogs to clean them.  Thank goodness I did, 
because I'd have missed a lot of grunk otherwise!  Look at all that nasty oily lint stuck under there!

 The rest of the bobbin assembly lifted out.  Check out the accumulated lint!  BTW, the red blob there isn't lint; 
when cleaning your machine don't pull it out by mistake.  It's a bit of felt meant to clear out lint from the hook ring.

Next I popped off the pretty faceplate and cleaned under there.  Lots more lint and grunk!  While I had the faceplate off I tried to shine it up with various things, but it stubbornly resisted being prettied up.  I'll have to poke about for something that will do a better job on it.  

I just pulled out all the lint and used a brush and rag to clean things up, then 
oiled all the moving bits.  I didn't end up having to take apart anything in there.

I turned the machine upside-down to clean and oil all the moving parts down there (no pics, sorry).  I moved on to the hand crank/balance wheel assembly. 

The handcrank pulled off the machine and opened up.  

The balance wheel took a little tugging to get off.  Old oil had caked up in all the parts here and needed to be cleaned out.  After I removed all the grunk I shined up the stop motion screw and the silvery part of the balance wheel with chrome polish.  I had my doubts about that stuff, but holy crap did it clean and shine metal parts up well!

Stop motion screw half cleaned with chrome polish.  What a difference!  

While the balance wheel was off I pulled off the bobbin winder too.  The guide says you shouldn't take it completely apart unless there's something wrong with it; otherwise just clean it up, oil the parts that need it and put it back on.  Except for an old, crumbly rubber tire, mine was fine.  I ordered a new rubber tire from Sew-Classic (BTW, love them!).  When it came it was as simple as popping the old one off and putting the new on.

 Bad crumbly rubber tire

 The bobbin winder reassembled and halfway through winding a fresh bobbin.

Before I put the bobbin winder, balance wheel and handcrank back on I cleaned and polished the exterior of the machine.  It's hard to get into some of the tight corners with all that stuff on, so best to do it while it's off.  After gently cleaning the exterior with a little dish soap and water and letting it dry, I rubbed it down with a light coat of sewing machine oil.  I wiped the oil off and tried a little Turtle Wax, but it didn't really give me the shine I was looking for so I stuck to the oil.  Remember to be careful of your decals when cleaning!  

Once I got it all back together I gave the handcrank a test spin and just about had a heart attack.  The wheel had spun more or less freely before I cleaned it, but now it was sticking and starting to freeze.  I was sure I had screwed up royally somewhere.  Turns out I didn't do anything wrong at all; the moving parts were just finally getting around to protesting the little bit of grunk that couldn't be gotten out and the lack of lubrication.  While I had already liberally oiled all the parts that moved, it takes a while for the oil to penetrate everywhere it needs to go.  The solution was to just continue to gently turn the crank so that the moving parts could distribute the oil to where it was needed.  A short while later I felt everything release and the wheel spun perfectly freely. 

The first time I disassembled and cleaned things I didn't touch the upper tension assembly.  I didn't want to mess with it unless I had to.  Once I had reassembled the machine I gave it a test run.  After some fiddling with the tension settings I was able to get a good stitch with even tension, with just one issue.  Every inch or two the stitches would form a big ugly loop on top of the fabric.  

 Ugly loops, but only every inch or two.

I could see the take up spring seemed to be sitting at a funny angle and was catching on the thread regulator every now and again.  Figuring that was the issue, I decided that this time I had to take it apart.  

 Seriously, does this damn thing have enough parts?

Sure enough, the spring was sitting at a funny angle because the tension mechanism housing was turned too far downwards.  All I had to do was turn it slightly, then reassemble everything.  

 Just needs a little clockwise turn

That completely fixed the issue!  Of course, now I had to totally reset the tension.  Bah.  

 Lots of test stitches to reset and tweak the tension.  At least there aren't any big loops!  

When all was said and done, I had a beautiful, perfectly running machine.

If I can do it, so can you.


  1. You truly amaze me. Want to come up and clean my 2010 singer? please?

    Does it seem to you that the new "thing" with sewing, costuming, even photography (with me) is authenticity in process? It's not just about the final product anymore...I know you're going to sew hella killer mad awesome win torpedo amazing costumes on this thing and they will be even MADE using historical methods, machinery, etc. WOW, I mean WOW!

  2. Oh modern machines still scare the crap out of me! Besides, you generally can't get into them. I tried to open up my brother last year to fix it, but you can't. Silly really.

    You may indeed be right on the authenticity thing. Over the last few years I've noticed that the costume bloggers I follow have been more into doing things using authentic methods and tools. The very fact that more people are taking up old skills and tools and using them to add greater historical flavor to their creations encourages others to tackle similar projects, so I think we'll continue to see such a trend. As for myself, I think I'm just insatiably curious to see how old things work! I can't wait to see you messing with a big old bellows camera. Your stuff is so fantastic already; it will be awesome to see what effects you get with a real vintage setup!

  3. Dear Laced Angel,
    Thanks so much for the article and links to the repair directions and parts source. I've had a handcrank for several years now which gets use pretty often in my costuming and regular sewing, but other than oiling it and getting some lint out, I've never cleaned it. Recently it has begun to misbehave, so it's obviously time for a more thorough examination.

    Very best,
    Natalie in KY

    1. You're very welcome! Good luck with your machine :)


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