Oiling your vintage Singer – part 1


I’ve been asked to do some stuff on oiling vintage Singers, so I’d best get started!

In order to oil your old machine, you need three things.  You need the right oil.  You need a means of getting the right amount of the right oil in the right place.  And you need to know how much of this right oil to put where.  OK, you also need some kitchen roll, loo roll or whatever to mop up drips of oil which didn’t end up where you wanted them to, so maybe we ought to make that four things.

Let’s start with the oil.  Don’t use 3-in-1 oil.  You need good quality sewing machine oil, not 3-in-1 oil.  Proper sewing machine oil is very thin/runny stuff indeed, and you get it online or from your friendly local sewing shop if you’re fortunate enough to still have one.  They won’t sell 3-in-1 oil, which is a Good Thing, because you don’t want 3-in-1 oil.  Or olive oil, as was used on the last 66K we bought.  Not WD40 either, or anything which might get used on a car, motorbike or boat, like 3-in-1 oil.  That is not what you want.  Despite what it says on the tin, 3-in-1 oil is not ideal for sewing machines.  Far from it.  It is evil.  If you do use 3-in-1 oil, horrible things will happen to your sewing machine, the birds will stop singing and you’ll never win the lottery.

We buy our nice sewing machine oil by the litre from an industrial sewing machine supplier, but you can get 125ml (I think) bottles of kosher Singer oil online including p&p for much the same price as most shops charge for it (around £4) and that will last you ages.

Incidentally, when your vintage Singer was new,  it left the shop complete with either a green tin of Singer oil or a small Singer oilcan …

That’s the smaller of the two sizes of the green Singer sewing machine oil tin, with both sizes of Singer oiler and a standard reel of Gütermann for size comparison.  Whatever the size of tin or oiler, it was held in place inside the case or cabinet by one of three types of clip.  There was one made of flat spring steel strips which held the green oil tins, and there was a strange-looking black device made from folded sheet steel which held the round oilers.  Unfortunately I couldn’t find examples of either type to photograph without moving and opening more machine cases than I could face doing this morning, but here’s the third and most common type of oil can clip …

That one fastens to the case by screws through those two upright loopy bits at the back of it, and if it’s been strained open a bit it will also hold the small green Singer oil tin.  Incidentally, one reason why the clips are missing from many old cases is that they can put a nasty old scrape in the finish of your machine if you’re not careful when putting it in the case or taking it out – particularly when they’re on the inside of a bentwood case.  However, if your case is missing the oiler/oil tin clip and you want to replace it, as far as I know the only way to tell which type it originally had is to work out which are the holes made by the clip screws.  If the hole centres are 30mm apart horizontally, you need the clip shown above.  If there’s two holes one above the other, you need the flat spring steel type which takes the green oil tin.  Two holes not 30mm apart means you need the black sheet steel queerthing which unfortunately I haven’t got a picture of for you.

OK, back to your brand new bottle of Singer oil.  When you take the top off it, you need to cut the tip off the spouty bit, and for that you need a clean cut very close to the top.  Cut it too far down and the hole will be too big, your oil will go everywhere and you won’t half grumble.  Do that right and you’re in business, although if you’re really keen on maintaining your machine, sooner or later you’re going to want something which gives you better control over how much oil you deposit where.  What you will want is called a precision oiler, which you get online or possibly from a fishing tackle shop (they’re used by anglers for oiling their reels, or whatever you call the wossname on the rod that the fishing line is wound on).

Now, I was going to say that we have here, from the left, my large, medium and small oilers, a reel of Sew All, then three common types of period oiler.  Then it occurred to me that I could, for the benefit of our militant feminist reader, say that left to right is Mummy, Daddy and Baby oiler.  But actually it’s good, better and best oiler, so let’s stick with that.  Good oiler is a regular fixture on Ebay.co.uk, and the tiddler’s on Ebay.com.  Better oiler took a lot of finding on Google and I’m currently trying to get a few for sale, so hopefully more about that one in due course.  In use, better oiler is just as good as best oiler and it’s cheaper, but best oiler’s made just that bit better and I like that.

The red oiler was hiding in the bottom of a cabinet we bought ages ago and would be fine if it didn’t leak, as would the Perfect Pocket Oiler next to it.  That also came with a machine but its cap didn’t, and that one’s quite common.  You even see it branded Imperial Typewriter Co.  The one on the right’s a lovely little thing which we suspect is American, and which would be a delight to use if it didn’t leak like the other vintage ones do.

On thinking about it, you know I said you need three things and we then updated that to four?  Well, better make that five because now we’ve done oil and oilers, you also need your instruction book, which we’ll be referring to in part 2 …

PS  Don’t use 3-in-1 oil 😉


5 responses

  1. I don’t know if this is remotely useful, but I had some small glass jars with pipettes in them (bought very cheaply from a chemist) and my husband transferred my machine oil into one of them and finds them very easy to use for most machine oiling. The pipette means that it is easy to use just one drop of oil.

  2. Hi Colette

    Yep, some of those diagrams do leave a lot to be desired. I’m aiming to fill in some gaps in coming posts, but in general terms, as long as you don’t oil a motor, my advice would be if in doubt oil it! Ref the motor grease, that’s a whole can of worms. The lube you have is indeed the right one, but I don’t know enough about those potted motors to advise on proper procedure for them.

    I do though know that those felts through which the grease is supposed to find its way have always struck me as a weird idea, and that there’s a lot of people in the US using Vaseline to grease their potted motors with. I guess their reasoning is that it’s kinda greasy and they have some in the house, therefore it will do the job …

  3. Those Singer Instruction book illustrations with tiny arrows pointing to oiling points are almost impossible to decipher in places, so I now have an over oiled machine too (and ought to have shares in kitchen rolls).
    In spite of shaving tiny amounts at a time of the red plastic cap with a scalpel, one minute minute the red top was solid plastic, the next there was a huge gaping hole in the end. At this rate my bottle of new Singer oil won’t be lasting very long. I think I need a precision oiler.

    On the subject of lubricants for Singers. My 201K-2 instructions state that for the potted motor -only Singer Motor Lubricant should be used.
    I have an unopened tube of Singer Motor and Gear Lubricant. Is that the same stuff?
    The instructions also say that I should be filling the two cups each with about a quarter of the tube. The tube I have contains 1/2 oz of lubricant. Does it really take 1/4 oz of lubricant?

  4. Hello Vicky

    Don’t worry about too much oil – it won’t cause any problems at all with the workings.


    (Sid tends to drown them! -E)

  5. Hi Sid and Elsie,
    I have been quite liberal with the oil on all three of my Singers (just collected a third ) is this going to cause problems with them?
    and yes i am one of those that cut the red lid too far down on the singer sewing machine oil bottle!!
    luckily part of my recent purchase was a little round oiling can so more precision in future! 🙂