How to clean a vintage sewing machine – some thoughts on that


Picture of Singer "Lotus" 66K in treadle base

Q.  “What’s the best way to clean a vintage sewing machine?”

A.  “Carefully.”

We get asked that question quite often, and the simple fact of the matter is that “carefully” really is the best answer!  However, I usually feel obliged to expand upon that a bit, so in the hope that this post will henceforth save me saying the same thing over and over to different people, here goes with a few thoughts.

As with most things, there’s a lot of stuff on the internets about how to clean an old machine, but soon after you start wading your way through it all, two things become apparent.  One of them’s obvious and the other’s maybe not.  The obvious one is that most of the folk explaining how to do the deed are in the US of A, and the other’s that we don’t normally know how many machines their method has worked on.

So, Mavis Fenderbender in Chevrolet KY uploads a wobbly video to You Tube showing at great length how she transformed an old wreck she got at the yard sale last week – and we immediately have two problems.  One is that the product which Mavis used for stripping off the grot of ages is “King Krudbusta”, a tin of which she picked up from a bargain bin in Walmart maybe 10 years ago now.  And the other is that Mavis is keeping quiet about how she managed to take all the decals and some of the paint off the last machine she tried restoring.

A couple of years ago, I kept seeing on the interweb that a certain aerosol cleaner intended for car upholstery was the thing for cleaning up old sewing machines.  All you needed to do was spray it on, let it soak in, then wipe it off with a soft cloth.  It was of course made in the USA, and it took me a long time to track down a UK source.  But I got there in the end, and one day set to with a spray can of it and a really filthy 66K which I’d stripped for spares.  Sprayed the magic stuff on, let it soak, wiped it off and sure enough off came most if not all of the filth.

We were so impressed I immediately used it on a potentially very pretty but at the time disgusting 28K which stank like an ashtray.  On went the spray, we let it soak, wiped it off and oh look – the lovely gold decals are now silver …

That prompted several months of experimenting with different lotions and potions in an attempt to find out what worked reliably and what didn’t, the outcome of which can be summarised thus:-

1  What works on one old sewing machine may or may not work on the next one.  I once soaked a 99K in paraffin (kerosene) overnight with no ill effect whatsoever, but the next time I tried it, it took most of the clear coat off an apparently identical 99K of about the same age.  I still haven’t worked that one out.

2  The usual advice to test whatever you’re thinking of using on an inconspicuous part of the machine first takes no account of the fact that the finish in that inconspicuous area might well react differently to that on the rest of the machine.

3  We know that at least where most old Singers are concerned, there’s a clear coat over the decals and the black enamel.  Personally, I suspect that the type of clear coat used changed over the years, but even if it didn’t, I’m convinced that nowadays the way it will react to any particular solvent or cleaning agent is unpredictable.  And once that clear coat goes, the decals’ days are surely numbered.

4  As far as we’re concerned, the only totally safe cleaning process involves household soap and warm water on a soft cloth in small areas at a time, immediately followed by a “rinse” with a different cloth dampened in warm water before moving on to the next area, then after drying, a polish with a little sewing machine oil on another soft cloth.

5  Whatever you use and however you go about cleaning a vintage Singer, do it good light and keep a careful eye on the area you’ve just worked on.  If you notice any change in the appearance of the surface other than it looks cleaner, stop what you’re doing and work out what’s going on.

6  The general rule of cleaning is if in doubt – don’t!

The chromed parts are easy.  To bring back as much life as possible to them, we always use Solvol Autosol, which is available in the UK at Halfords and most places that sell car polish and suchlike.  And that illustrates the other problem – our many overseas readers are now wondering what their local equivalent of Solvol Autosol is!  Alas, I have no idea, but it’s a very mildly abrasive metal polish which is typically used for polishing the aluminium castings of vintage motorcycle engines.

Finally, just to put what I’ve said above into perspective, I do sometimes wonder why so many people seem to be obsessed with returning a vintage sewing machine to near-enough “as new” condition.  If that’s your thing, fair enough and the best of luck to you in your endeavours.  But it would seem wrong to us if a machine that’s 50 or 100 years old didn’t have its “fingerprint” of cosmetic wear and tear and the usual minor dinks and scratches.

A total restoration would freak us out.  We’d be scared to use it!

Edited to add – when it comes to the woodwork of cases and cabinets, again we don’t aim for perfection.  Any lifted veneer is carefully glued back down, rough edges are lightly sanded, and after that it’s just whatever whatever the wood needs to minimise any significant scratches and scrapes.  We tend to favour Rustins Scratch Cover in the appropriate colour (they do a light and a medium/dark and yes, you can mix them), and Elsie also likes Rustins Finish Reviver now she’s got the hang of using it!


10 responses

  1. Emm, I really do need to do a thing about bobbin winders. Stay tuned to the blog – it might happen any day now …

  2. Dear Sid,

    Thank you so much for all the information and advice on old Singers. My grandmother and later on my mother had a bentwood-cased Singer treadle. One of my daughters got a hand-crank, rotating shuttle table machine from a charity shop some thirty-odd years ago, now saved for her own daughter later on, and another daughter’s daughter has just asked for (and had purchased for her) a machine which seems to date from 1901 but housed in a 20/30s table into which the machine tucks away. The same young granddaughter has just purchased for me for Christmas, generous girl, a rotating shuttle 27 (I think) table model (with holes so it can be linked to a treadle.) Four generations of Singer fans!

    Following all your advice and really good photos, I have oiled and cleaned the latter two machines and they run like silk. (Whoever first said that they were “over-engineered” was right – but who’s complaining?)

    I have a question for you: the “rubber tyre” on the bobbin-winder of my machine will wind perfectly if you just rest a finger lightly on it but is not in contact with the balance wheel otherwise. Obviously this is hardly an onerous task but do you think I should buy from the Singer Co. a replacement “rubber tyre” and if I do, how do I “lever off” the original tyre? There are no screws but a sort of metal wheel-rim. I suppose I am also wondering also if Singer will continue to sell such parts indefinitely.

    Thanks again for all the useful information.


  3. I have just found your wonderful blog! I own a Featherweight and just recently purchased a Singer 66 from a thrift store which I am hoping to use for machine quilting. Thank you for all of your helpful information. My purpose is to use this machine, not make it a beauty. So my goal would be to only clean it up a bit and oil it without taking it apart.

  4. Hi Sid, your comments & help is excellent. I have a 306 electric treddle that needs service here in Melbourne, Australia. I know it needs specific needles but when running it smells like burning. Any suggestions whom to send to here? Can I buy motor from Aust or you ? Thank you

  5. It would be nice to hear of the wooden bases and lids how to restore those as well.

  6. How very timely your post is for me as I have just acquired a12K Ottoman Carnations – thank you. I am not going to clean it, especially not the decals as I don’t mind that the machine looks a bit dirty in places.

    But I do wonder if any earlier oil and dirt deposits left on will continue to damage in years to come. The area under and on the handcrank is a bit gunky. And then I have also been told that any cleaning is likely to damage the lacquer surface as well.

  7. I have a 1924 or 1930 Singer with the Lotus design on it.. treadle but has foot pedal… I want to sell it but have not found one like it to see what price… does anyone have an idea or know how I can find out… nothing on ebay like it….

  8. I love your blog and sewing machine suggestions and comments. I recently purchased a hand crank machine from your country. It was in working order but did need a little wiping off which was easy. However the beautiful case ended up breaking apart in the journey from UK to USofA. My husband was able to put it back together and got it glued so no nails were used, just like the original. He cleaned it up and it’s beautiful. Rather looks like a coffin but that’s OK. I might just have my ashes put in there. ha ha