Tag Archives: sewing machine oil

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 😉

Basic sewing machine maintenance – Singer 27K and 28K


Diane asked this morning what she ought to do about tickling the tappets of her late granny’s Singer 27K which she’s just rediscovered.  The machine still works, so there’s obviously nothing drastically wrong with it, and Diane’s done the sensible thing and downloaded a copy of the book of words, so the question is – should she be doing anything by way of essential maintenance before she starts doing some serious sewing with it for the first time in 40 years?

Well, in my opinion the short answer is “not a lot really”.  I’d start by tilting it back in its base and seeing what the underneath’s like.  If it’s covered in oil and fluff, an old paintbrush will get rid of a lot of that, but if you really want to go to town, a bit of paraffin or a squirt of WD40 on a rag should shift anything you don’t like the look of.  One thing to watch though when you tilt it back on its hinges is that the whole lot doesn’t tend to roll over onto its back, which can lead to fun times if it does – especially if it’s come loose on the hinges.  And beware of old rusty pins and bits of broken needles whilst furtling about under there.  Once you’ve got rid of anything really oily or a bit yukky underneath, get the Hoover out, but before you attack it here’s a couple of tips.

First off, if you open the bobbin plate, you will see the hole shown in this snap …

Picture of area under bobbin plate of Singer 27K

Either that hole will have nothing in it except general grot, or it will have a plug of felt which may or may not be oily.  Odds on it isn’t oily.  If it does have  a plug of felt, that will probably be a very nondescript colour and may not even be recognisable as felt, but if it’s level with the top of the hole it usually is.  That’s an oil wick, and it’s referred to in the manual.  The picture above is the bobbin area of Cleo, Elsie’s 27K treadle machine from 1900, and Cleo is feltless on account of I haven’t got round to putting a new one in.  It’s been on my list for ages and it will happen one day, but Elsie is wisely not holding her breath.

My point is (hey, we got there) that if there’s something in that hole and you reckon it looks like a felt plug, be sure to put your finger over it before applying the nozzle of your vacuum cleaner.  If you don’t, you will soon feel a bit of a silly and wish you had.  And don’t ask how I know that.

The second tip concerns the needle plate, under which live the feed dogs, which tend to accumulate fluff.  If you have a screwdriver which fits the needle plate screw (labelled above) properly, have a go at unscrewing it while pushing down fairly hard on the screwdriver so it doesn’t chew up the slot in the screw.  If it doesn’t want to turn fairly easily, either you’re turning the screwdriver clockwise when you should be turning anti-clock or it’s being awkward.  If it does start unscrewing, take it out, take the plate off and do your thing with the Hoover (but don’t suck the screw up it) before replacing it.  If the screw doesn’t want to play, stick your tongue out at it and don’t worry about the fluff for now.

After that, all I would do is follow to the letter what it says in the book about routine oiling, then make yourself a nice cup of tea before knocking up a quick copy of Kate Middleton’s wedding dress for next door’s eldest.

I’m assuming, by the way, that Diane’s Singer 27 is a hand-crank.  If it’s a treadle, there’s a bit more to think about which I can cover in another post.  If it’s been motorised, there’s not a lot you can actually do yourself to improve whatever state the motor’s in, especially when poking round wiring which is bound to be fairly brittle with age is never a good idea.  It is a good idea to check the drive belt though, and to think about getting another before it goes the way of all drive belts.  You can get the belts pretty much anywhere.

Finally, a warning.  If you’re not familiar with proper sewing machine oil, be aware that it’s very “thin” and runny stuff.  Newspapers under the machine and some kitchen towel in the bottom of the base is the rule here before we even get the oilcan out!

PS If you have an early 27 or 28 and you’re wondering why yours doesn’t have that round criss-crossed button thingy seen in the picture above at 2 o’clock to the shuttle, that’s because yours hasn’t been modified with the later shuttle lifter-upper like this one has …

3-in-One oil is evil


When I come to power, one of the first things to happen will be the introduction of a total ban on the general sale of 3-in-One oil.  People will still be able to buy it to cure squeaky door hinges or whatever, but only if they sign a properly witnessed form by which they solemnly undertake never to even think about applying it to any part of a sewing machine.

I do wish the firm which makes it wouldn’t push it as suitable for sewing machines, because it most definitely is not.  It is totally unsuitable.  I don’t know what they put in the stuff, but I do know that over the years some of its constituents evaporate and they leave behind a horrible hard waxy brown residue ideal for gumming up the works of an old machine.  Which is exactly what it does.  And it is a real PITA to remove, which is why I’m grumpy about it.

Please, gentle readers of this blog, promise me that you’ll never use anything but proper sewing machine oil to oil a black Singer.  It’s the least you can do for it.

And if your excuse for reaching for the tin of 3-in-One is that your machine is grinding to a halt, you haven’t got any sewing machine oil and Waitrose don’t sell it therefore you can’t buy it, just search Ebay for “Singer oil” and take your pick of several suppliers who will be pleased to send the postie your way with a bottle of it which will last a lifetime for less than a fiver including p&p, which, if our experience is anything to go by, is what your local sewing machine shop would charge you for one – if you had a local sewing machine shop.