Wednesday, 18 September 2013

How Should I Clean My Vintage Sewing Machine?

Myra asked via email "I have my Grandmother's Singer Sewing Machine...I would like to clean it up and use it, also teach my granddaughter how to sew a little. I didn't realize how gunky and dirty it really was ......any suggestions?"

Jessica J asked "...what can I use to safely clean the metal parts?"

Theresa asked "... Also how do I clean her?"

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This is probably one of the questions I get asked the most, and when I was looking for advice on how to clean up my Singer Machine I found terrible advice. (Please don't dip your machine in a vat of kerosene)

Clean your vintage sewing machine - our handmade home

You can read a bit more about me first meeting my girl here

Before I go on, please remember the following...

  • I am not an expert. 
  • I don't spend money on unnecessary products or parts, so this is a cheap way to get your machine running smoothly. 
  • I assume that your machine was rescued from a skip or a damp garage and has not been cared for for some time. It is probably mucky and tarnished, with cobwebs and random sticky patches.
  • I assume that your machine is generally working but hasn't been used for decades.
  • If you want to treat your machine like a priceless antique, spend a fortune on her and have her look like new, this probably isn't the guide for you. I just want to help you get it good enough to be a functional piece of equipment again.

Here is what I found worked the best to clean up my machine from a tarnished and mucky mess. It was a 2 day job.

You will need:
An old toothbrush
Wooden cocktail sticks, for gently poking and scraping out dust and fluff.
Cotton buds (q-tips)
A ball of cotton string
A couple of rags (preferably lint free, old t-shirts are fine though)
A couple of microfibre cloths

Singer sewing machine oil (available on ebay if you can't find it locally)
Peek Polish (also available on ebay)

New needle and some thread

A pot of tea < -- This is essential

Step 1

Give the whole machine a wipe down with a damp microfibre cloth (or rag) to remove as much of the loose dust and dirt as possible. You are unlikely to do the machine any damage. You may feel you need to use a little warm water with a little dish soap in it, but do make sure you wring the cloth out well, you don't want to introduce any excess moisture to the machine, you just need to surface clean.

Wipe the machine first, then the table and round the drawers to the treadle mechanism at the bottom. You might need several cloths to get the muck off. Always start a clean cloth on the machine body, you don't want to rub a cobweb from under the drawers into the mechanics of the machine.

Step 2

Remove the end panel.
Use an old toothbrush to loosen and scrub out any grime, grit or fluff behind the panel. It might help to turn the balance wheel slowly while you do this to draw out any fluff that many have been trapped, blow fluff and dirt away. Only use a dry toothbrush, don't introduce moisture to the inner workings of the machine. You can spray some WD40  into the workings and use a cotton bud if you need to scrub off little parts of grime and dirt. WD40 can damage the decals and the black japanning so make sure you wipe any drips off with a dry rag immediately.

This can take a while and I never managed to get the parts shiny clean and looking like new, but clean enough and all the actual dirt and fluff and sticky bits must be gone.
Once you have got rid of all the grit and grime from the inside you should polish the bars, and clean and polish the end plate with peek polish, you only need a tiny amount of polish. Replace the end plate.

Step 3

Remove the old needle,  the needle clamp, the foot and thread guide, carefully lay them to one side and clean and polish the needle bar, wrap the cotton string round the bar and pull the ends back and forth to polish it. Clean and polish all the small parts before re-assembling (don't put the needle back on, you will need to replace it with a new needle)

Step 4

Remove back panel and similarly clean out as much grit and grime as possible. Do the same in the bobbin chamber under the slide plate and remove the plate above the feed dogs. This is a often where a lot of fluff and grime lies, so give it a good clean. Only use WD40 where there is sticking or bad grime on the inside. I needed a new bobbin case as the original is too tarnished to use, ebay is great for sourcing spare parts if you need them.

Repeat this process on all moving parts, getting access by removing panels where ever you can, I do these one at a time, so that screws and parts don't get mixed up, and I remember where I am.

The bobbin winder is tricky, you can remove it if you like but I didn't. I just cleaned and polished it as best as I could in situ.

Step 5

Cleaning the balance wheel - I have been told wire wool should remove the tarnish and then it can be polished, my balance wheel is very badly pitted with rust and I have never tried wire wool on it, but it still works fine and that is all that matters to me. The most important thing is to get dust, fluff and grime off.

Step 6

To clean the black japanned areas and the decals use singer sewing machine oil on a dry lint-free cloth. The black areas can be rubbed quite hard to clean them up but with the decals you must be careful if you want to retain them as they are. My decals were already quite badly damaged, so I wasn't too upset when I damaged them with WD40, but they are so pretty you really should keep them in as good condition as possible. WD40 will remove the original gold and leave them silver.

Step 7

If you still have the old leather treadle belt it will probably be loose and need tightened. To do this find the metal staple and carefully prize it apart, slip one end off of the staple and snip an inch off the leather. Poke a new hole in the leather using a bradall or a strong darning needle. Put back on the staple and pinch it together firmly with pliers. Treat the belt with olive oil on a cloth, you will see the leather change colour as it absorbs the oil. Immediately after treating, the belt will be extra slippy, but after 24 hours it will be nicely reconditioned. Alternatively, you can get a new belt on ebay for around £5.
If your treadle is squeeky, give it a little spray with WD40.

Step 8

I suggest you do this on day 2
Once you have all the machine dust and grime free, and polished as much as you can it is time to oil the machine.
Remove the end panel again and drip just 2 drops of oil on each moving part, turn the balance wheel a couple of times and drip another drop on each moving part, replace the end panel.
Next, you will see a line of holes along the top of your machine, these are oil holes, drip just one or two drops into each of these. Drip oil into the oil holes near the feed dogs and over by the balance wheel and bobbin winder, and any other oil holes you see. Use the treadle or balance wheel to run the machine for a minute or so (this will disperse the oil around all the moving parts) I would now go round the whole machine again and drip one more drop into each oil hole and onto each moving part.
Use a dry rag to give the machine a quick rub down and clean off any excess oil.


You will need to leave the machine alone for a few days now before using it. This will allow the oil to really seep in and avoid any rubbing off on your sewing work.

When sewing on the machine for the very first time use a brand new needle, use fabric scraps and just go back and forth and round in circles until you figure out how well the machine is working, adjust the tension if necessary, and get used to the rhythm of the mechanism.

Each time you use your machine (or maybe once a fortnight or so if you use it every day) remember to oil it a little (just a drop on each oil hole or moving part) this will keep it running smoothly and stop it from seizing up or getting into a bad state again.

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I do hope that helps some of you clean up your machines and get them running again. I am sure their are other ways of doing it, and there are probably professionals that offer a clean-up service

I have found one Youtube user who has some beautiful machines and gives details about how to use, thread and clean various machines in detail... all her machines are pristine and super-shiny - here is the link to her lovely channel

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Let me know how you get on in the comments below

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