Saturday, March 14, 2015

VS2 Restoration: Paint and Decals

This is the last in a series of posts about the complete restoration of an 1891 Singer model VS2.

The usual reminder: I am not an expert.  I do all of this for fun and I learn by experimenting.

Here's how the experts repaint a vintage sewing machine, such as a Featherweight

  • strip off all of the old paint
  • create a completely smooth surface using the same techniques and products that auto body shops use.
  • paint
  • decal
  • clear coat
I've read the blog posts and watched the YouTube videos and am in awe.  I hope to rise to those levels one day and repaint a couple of Featherweights myself.  But I am not there yet.  

On my first re-paint I did not strip off the remaining badly chipped original paint. Hammered Rustoleum has a texture that hid all of the chips beautifully.  The decals melted themselves to the smooth undulations of the texture with no problems.  

On my second re-paint I did strip off all of the old black paint.  This paint was originally baked on in layers and is thick enough to hide small irregularities in the casting.  I painted it with a sparkly paint. The sparkles created a different type of texture, rather sandy.  It was not thick enough to hide some gouges in the metal, yet it was textured enough so that the decals did not meld down into the surface.  (Clear coating before applying the decals probably would have fixed this).

For this third re-paint, the Singer VS2, I am going with what worked well, Hammered Rustoleum, this time in black.  I went into great detail about the wonders and perils of using this paint here so take a look if you want more of a tutorial.

The first of several coats

The same quart of this paint has covered two treadles and this machine and I still have a lot left.  I think it has gotten thinned down because it did not cover the surface irregularities very well.  I built up some paint in the low spots and then put a couple more coats on.  24 hours drying time between coats.

Keeler Sales gave me a copy of their brand new VS2 decals as a thank you for providing them with measurements of the bed.  At the time I delivered the machine to Sadie and Patricia these decals were not yet on the market, which was an additional thrill for me.  They are now though and you can get them here.  I would tell you about this even if they had not given me a freebie.

I scanned the decals, printed copies of them, and checked the placement of each piece before beginning.  I learned this the hard way on the sparkly blue machine.

Another thing I learned the hard way is that it is very difficult to work with long strips of decal.  Look for breaks in the design and cut them into segments.  It makes life MUCH easier.

You can see the smooth and subtle texture of the paint and the way the decals just flow on to the surface.  You absolutely cannot see the edges of the decals.

On the first two machines I had trouble getting the decoration smooth on the convex surface at the top of the pillar.  The trick is to look for breaks in the design and cut from the outer edge towards the center in several spots, like spokes of a wheel.  This allows the decal to shape itself smoothly to the curved surface.  It worked perfectly this time.

All of the openings were taped prior to painting.  I left them in place during the decal process.  The next step is the clear coat.

I mask off the chrome hand wheel before spraying the clear coat.  Thin strips of painters tape are clipped so they can follow the round edge, followed by more thin strips until the chrome is covered.  There is probably a better or faster way but this works for me.

Three or four coats of clear coat.  Read the can for the drying interval, which was pretty quick.

After the last coat of clear coat dries, remove all of the painter's tape and re-attach the bobbin winder, the tensioner, and all of the access covers.

DD A and I delivered it on Christmas Eve, wrapped up in plastic bag meant to wrap a bicycle and with a big red bow.  You can see the bag on the floor in the photo above.

The sisters were delighted to see their grandmother's machine brought back to life.  From its 1891 vintage I suspect it may even have been their great-grandmother's.

Gasps were gasped (by the sisters).  Tears were shed (by Sadie's husband).  Christmas cookies were consumed (by me).  A good time was had by all.

Pat, me, Sadie

This was the highlight of the year for DragonPoodle Studio.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

VS2 Restoration. Cleaning and Sanding the Machine

The continuing saga of the complete restoration of an 1891 Singer model VS2.  If you enjoy reading a detailed description of cleaning a 124 year old sewing machine, then you have come to the right place.  If the destruction of the remaining decals on a rusted machine will distress you, then don't read this post.

Decision, decisions.

rusted bed

This machine had obviously seen a lot of use, and perhaps an extended period of time being stored somewhere in a humid environment (which was everywhere here in NC before air conditioning).  Dirt is a temporary condition which can easily be corrected, but rust is a whole different ball game.  The bed of the machine was extensively rusted, but the rust didn't stop there.  There were spots of rust scattered over the machine, and the rust obviously extended under the paint.

So the decision should have been easy.  Sadie and Patricia were definite that they wanted it "pretty".  Even though there were tantalizing sections of the original beautiful Victorian decals remaining, there was no way to bring it back to "pretty".  The rust would have to be sanded off, every bit of it.  It would have to be repainted.  The new paint would not match the old paint, so I could not just paint part of it.  There was no way to save the remnants of the decals.  I still agonized over this for a couple of weeks before I could bring myself to do anything that would remove those fragments of original decals.  

But there was good news as well.  When I first brought the machine home back in May, I contacted Keeler Sales about replacement decals for the VS2 (aka VSII).  At that time they told me that they did not have any, but that they were working on them.  In September they contacted me (and a couple of other people) and asked if I could send them the dimensions of the curved bed of the machine.

I took measurements, made a template, scanned it and sent it to them.  When they completed the design of the decals they very kindly sent me a set!  You will see them on the machine in the final post of this series, coming soon.  ish.

Big moment for the DragonPoodle.  Immense satisfaction and pleasure at this transaction.

So finally a decision:  I would repaint and re-decal it.  This meant that I could be very aggressive about cleaning it inside and out.

Regular readers may take a short break while I mention for the upteenth time that I am NOT AN EXPERT and I have learned everything I know in the last few years by reading stuff on the internet and by experimenting.

Below I have separated cleaning the inner mechanisms of the machine and cleaning the surface (prior to painting) but in reality these went hand in hand.


Although the machine was turning relatively freely, there was plenty of old oil showing on in innards of the machine.  Oil dries out over time, leaving behind a residue.  Those of us who fix up machines refer to it as "varnish" but in reality it has nothing to do with varnish.  It just looks like varnish.

The dried up oil that is showing is actually causing no problems, because if you can see it, it is not inside of the mechanisms.  So it is a symptom rather than the actual disease.  But if you can see a lot of varnish on the surface, there is dried up oil lurking within the mechanisms also.  My goal is always to bring a machine back to the best condition that I can, so I wanted to clean it inside and out.

Sewing machine folklore states that immersing a machine in kerosene and leaving it there for a period of time does wonders for removing old oil and dirt.  If I had bought a big enough bucket and enough kerosene back in May when I first got my hands on this machine, and left it in there throughout the summer and early fall, this might have worked.  But I can testify that a two week long soak does NOTHING for either the surface or the innards.  I had tried this once before a couple of years ago on another machine and had the same lack of results.  So much for the kerosene.  Unless you have months to leave it there.

But this is part of the fun:  experimenting, and then reporting to you, dear readers, what my results or lack of them are.  Might not be fun to a normal person, but it is fun for me.

To get rid of the dried up oil I use Tuff Stuff (discussed below in the surface cleaning section) and/or alcohol.  Both will destroy decals.

In my experience alcohol (either denatured from the hardware store or rubbing from the drug store) does a fabulous job of removing dried up oil.  I use a toothbrush and scrub away with the alcohol on all the unpainted metal moving parts. Remove the access covers and the nose plate and scrub out all the innards you can reach, while being a total fanatic about protecting all the painted surfaces from drips.  Since I am repainting this one I could splash the alcohol around freely.

Of course this only removes the visible varnish at the surface, but some of it will run down into the joints and melt away the old oil in there too.  For this reason it is VITAL that after EVERY cleaning session you completely re-oil the machine.  Even with these precautions, I ended up with a completely frozen up machine (meaning that the moving parts would not move) after two of my extended cleaning sessions.

Not to panic:  I knew that what had happened was that gunky stuff had moved around and re-hardened somewhere.  More cleaning,  more oiling, and some heat with a blow dryer freed things up both times.  This is the basic plan for cleaning up the innards of any vintage or antique sewing machine.

I worked on this project sporadically, and it sat for a week or two (or a month or two) at a time.  When I returned to it right before painting it was not turning as freely as I liked. At one point in the rotation of the movement it was catching or hanging up.  I decided to pull out the big gun and attack it again.

Literally, the big gun.  The heat gun, actually a tool for embossing.  Normally the heat from a blow dryer is enough.  The heat gun blows air heated to 650 F.  This will melt plastic parts (none on this machine).  Could it cause paint to bubble?  I have no idea.  So it is my weapon of last resort, only to be used on a cast iron and steel machine.

I guessed that the problem was in the mechanism where the shuttle swings back and forth, and a little oil there improved things.  So I blasted it with the heat gun, and dripped more oil through it for several minutes.  The oil dripping out of the bottom of this was gray with gunk rather than clear.  I kept at it until it dripped out clear, then repeated this with all of the moving parts on the machine for good measure.

Let it sit overnight and then tested it again.  Turning freely, problem solved.  Two months later, still turning freely.

SURFACE CLEANING  (prior to sanding and painting)

Step One:  Remove everything that can be removed.
Take LOTS of pictures so that you can put it back together correctly afterwards.

Step Two:  Clean it thoroughly.
Why bother (you undoubtedly wonder)?  It's going to be sanded, right?  Won't the dirt just come off with the sandpaper?

Well, yes, but not EVERY inch of it will be sanded.

My favorite product for (relatively) easy deep cleaning is Tuff Stuff, labelled as a multi purpose foam cleaner.  You spray it on, it foams up, the foam turns brown as it dissolves the dirt.  I do this in a large shallow metal pan and the dissolved dirty cleaner runs down into the bottom of the pan.  As the foam starts to dissolve I give it a light scrub with an old toothbrush and then wipe dirt off.  Spray again and repeat.  And again.  And again.  Etc.  Remember, it took about a hundred years to accumulate this dirt, so don't be surprised by how long it takes to remove it.  You will know when you are finished when a) the foam no longer turns brown and b)  the machine no longer feels sticky with grease.  

BE WARNED:  THIS WILL DESTROY THE PRETTY DECALS.  I usually only use this on the underneath side of the machine and on treadle irons.  

I also spray this into the workings of the machine as far as it (and the toothbrush) will go.


A light sanding is the final step in preparing the machine for its new paint and decals.  I sanded just to create a slightly rough surface for the paint to adhere to.

I sanded off all of the rust.

see the rust?  keep sanding...
After sanding I wiped it all off with a microfiber cloth and some alcohol.

The next and last post in this series will cover the process of painting and applying the decals. Yes, those pictures WILL be much prettier than the ones in this post.

Saturday, January 31, 2015

VS2 Restoration: The Cabinet. And lots of off-topic tips.

Third in a series of posts about the complete restoration of an 1891 Singer Model VS2.

The last post covered applying new veneer, but before that could happen I had to remove the brass fittings in the cabinet top, and the wooden spindle (?) that holds the machine in place when you tip it back,

The brass bits were dirty, corroded, and sometimes full of detritus.

Treadle Belt hole

Two tabs on the back of the bonnet cover slide into the two corresponding slotted domes on the cabinet top.

The thing that holds the hinged pin that secures the machine head to the cabinet was surrounded by a rubber gasket.  It was a mess to remove, and I wondered how I would replace it.  But the attachment hinge itself was broken, so in the end it did not matter.

A few of the brass bits were missing, and I found a bag of VS2 brass fittings on eBay.  So now I have some extras for another project.  There is ALWAYS another project in the future.

By the way, a wire brush on the Dremel tool cleans all the gunk and corrosion off of metal parts brilliantly. I also used it on the metal sewing machine parts like the bobbin winder, the needle holder, the slide plates, etc.

The key to using the Dremel is to let the speed do all of the work, just apply it lightly and DO NOT USE FORCE.  I know this.  I remind myself of it every time I get the tool out.  And eventually I get all absorbed in the project and bear down.

If you are using a wire brush when you bear down, guess what happens?  The little wires break away and fly off.  If you are wearing a cashmere sweater, as I do every day in the winter, the little wires embed themselves in the cashmere.

Just in case you doubt that I wear cashmere every day, even when working on sewing machines, let me reveal my secret.  I buy all of my cashmere sweaters at thrift stores, where all the sweaters are the same price, around $3 to $4.  I have five of them now collected over a couple of years.  The men's sweaters are usually a thicker cashmere than the women's.  And a man's XL, with the sleeves rolled up, fits my magnificent figure very well.

So a couple of hours of this project involved picking tiny wires out of a cashmere sweater.  If it hadn't been cashmere I would have just thrown it away. I also scrupulously cleaned the area, not my favorite thing to do.  But I shudder to think of those tiny wires embedded in the tiny paws of my tiny elderly dog.  A couple of them embedded themselves in my own paws, not fun at all.

I bought a bunch of relatively cheap wire brushes online, but I know from sad experience that the brand name ones fly apart when abused also.  Another tip if you buy the cheap ones:  run a bead of super glue around the base of the brush where the wire tendrils attach.  I do think it helps, but it does not prevent user-stupidity.

I finished the metal polishing by setting up a work station surrounded by a large cardboard box, and wore a bright yellow lineman's raincoat over my cashmere sweater.  And here's yet another tip:  If you need a raincoat that is truly WATERPROOF and not just WATER RESISTANT, lot of luck if you are shopping women's fashions.  Go to your local hardware store and look for the raincoats that outdoor workers wear.  I think I paid $10 for mine, but that was a couple of decades ago.  I could have gotten matching pants too.  Wouldn't that be fashionable?

I persuaded the newly polished brass bits back into position.  Some of them needed more persuasion than others, and I used a scrap piece of wood on top of the brass and then tapped that wood piece with a small hammer.

look at the lovely gleam on all the polished metal parts

In the "before" photos you can see that the finish looks very dark. In real life it looked almost black, and the surface was rough.  The old finish had both decayed and absorbed considerable dirt over the last 100 years.  Much (but not all) of it had to go.

All of the myriad decisions about what to do with these old machines are influenced by personal preferences--both my own, and the owners.  Sadie and Patricia wanted it to be pretty.  I don't like machines that have had all of the character sanded off.  Plus I don't really trust myself with sandpaper.  Obviously the cracked and peeled and just generally ruined top had to be replaced with new veneer.  But on the rest of the cabinet and bonnet I used denatured alcohol to remove a great deal of the old finish.

The bonnet was black with age and had fallen apart.  I glued and clamped it and let the glue dry overnight.  I sloshed some denatured alcohol on with a soft cloth, let it sit for a bit and scrubbed it off with 0000 steel wool.  I used a toothbrush to get into the nooks and crannies.  I repeated this process until it looked like mahogany rather than black dirt.

original drawer, black with age and dirt, corroded drawer pull
One of the drawers was broken when it came to me and the other one was completely missing.  I found a decent enough match on eBay, but in oak instead of mahoghany.  I sanded it it well, attempting to remove all of the old finish (taking this process father than my usual approach), and then applied the red mahogany stain.  Looks pretty good.  Not perfect, but I doubt anyone would notice anything different if they were not obsessively looking.  The drawer handle is slightly different also, but again it is close enough.

Can you spot the differences in the drawer finish or handles?  Neither can I.

Here's a warning, though, if you are searching eBay or any other site for a replacement Singer drawer.  Not all Singer drawers are created equal, and it is not just the difference in the wood.  I have several spare drawers here, but did any of them fit?  Of course not.  The dimensions were different.

I used the alcohol + steel wool process on the entire cabinet and original drawer.  Then I went over everything with Howard's Restor-a-Finish in mahogany, just to even out the color.  I did all of this before we replaced the veneer because I did not want any stray dirt, stain, or chemicals to contaminate the nice new veneer.

And at this point I owe you all a huge apology.  I began this project with the firm intent of documenting and photographing every aspect of the restoration.  Then December happened and I decided that I had a good chance of finishing it and getting it back to Sadie and Patricia before Christmas.  And I completely forgot about the photos.  We did take a few as we delivered it.

But there are no pictures of staining process.  I dithered about doing this for a couple of months after Dexter applied the veneer (see last post).  I was terrified.   I had tried using stain before to even out the color on old beat up pieces, and wasn't too thrilled with the results.

It turned out to be very easy and worked beautifully.  I only stained the new veneer.  Lightly sanded it with 220 grit, then wiped it down with mineral spirits and then a tack cloth.  Tested three different colors of stain on scrap pieces of the veneer.  "Red mahogany" was the right color.

You can see the naked un-stained veneer at the top of the photo

Tests on the scrap piece showed that two coats were better than one, but I saw no difference between two coats and three.  I followed the directions on the can.  Painted it on with a disposable sponge brush, let it sit for 15 minutes, wiped it off.  Let it dry 24 hours and then repeated.

I followed up the stain with tung oil, which is my favorite finish BECAUSE it is super easy and I really know almost nothing about furniture refinishing.  Wipe it on, wait a bit, wipe off the excess, wait 24 hours and do it again.  All the experts say to sand in between coats.  Did not work for me and I will never do it again!  I ended up sanding right down through the stain which meant that I had to restain that part and then put more tung oil on it.  Like I said, I'm not very good at this.

It does need SOMETHING  to smooth out the surface.  So if the sanding does not work, what does?  0000 steel wool (pronounced Four Ought).

Pull a scrap off one of the wedges in the pack
It smooths off the tiny bit of roughness without the danger of messing up what you have already done.  Wipe down with mineral spirits on a soft cloth, and follow up with a tack cloth.  I ended up with three coats of tung oil on this piece. On the last coat, I applied the tung oil over the entire piece, not just the newly veneered top.

The final step was a coat of Howard's Feed N Wax, which I also recommended to Sadie and Patricia as the maintenance product for the cabinet.  It produces a lovely luster.

I am not advertising or promoting any of these products, just sharing what I used and giving you my unpaid opinions about them 

So, folks, that's how I did it.  I do not claim it is the RIGHT way to do it.  But it worked for me.

And the same pictures that you have already seen, again.  Because they are SO worth looking at.   But really because I just did not take enough pictures.

The angles of the photo creates different shades of color but if you compare the top of the bonnet with the newly veneered cabinet top you will see that the color match is flawless.

Next post:  Paint and decals, and I DID take pictures of that!  See you soonish.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

VS2 Resoration: Veneer

The continuing saga of the complete restoration of a Singer VS2.  See the previous post for more details.

And a warning:  if you don't like taxidermy, don't read this post.  What does taxidermy have to do with veneer?  Nothing, but there is plenty of taxidermy coming up for your enjoyment.  My personal favorite is the coyote.


The veneer on the top of the cabinet was discolored, split in places and missing in others.

I did strip off the original finish first (using Citra Strip) to see if it was salvageable.  The grain on the old wood just cannot be matched today.

But I decided that although I could fix it up, it was too far gone to ever look terrific.

I had carefully checked with owners Sadie and Patricia before I began to find out if they wanted a conservation job (fixed but showing the wear and use patterns) or a restoration (fixed up to look as good as possible).  They wanted it pretty!  The original wood was never going to look pretty again, so I consulted my friend Myra and her husband Dexter, who have successfully replaced the veneer on old treadle cabinets before.  They advised me on what to get and where to get it.

So I took a piece of the bonnet top to The Hardwood Store in nearby Gibsonville NC.  You can order from them online but because I don't know much about wood I wanted to consult them in person.  The store clerk confirmed that it was mahogany.  Most of the treadles I have restored have been oak, but this one is clearly much older and it didn't look like oak to me.  I ordered a 2' x 8' roll of peel and stick mahogany veneer and had it shipped to me.  It arrived THE NEXT DAY.  Impressive.  The roll is enough for two treadles with bits left over.

I had never done any veneer work before so I worked out a barter with Dexter where he would both do the work and (even more importantly) teach me how to do it.  In return he got my late husband's Sennheiser cordless headphones.

Before taking it over to Dexter I fixed the loose veneer on the bottom by gluing and clamping.  There were several areas that needed it, the photo only shows one of them.  Elmer's wood glue does the trick.

BTW, when you are gluing veneer down, clamps are an ABSOLUTE NECESSITY.  Just weighting things down with heavy things is NOT going to do it.  My mission in life seems to be to make as many mistakes as possible and this was one of them--my first restoration was a family treadle and the reglued veneer on that one has ripples in it from not using clamps on it.

I filled in the missing area of veneer on the bottom with wood filler.  The photo shows a jar of wood putty which I discovered is NOT the thing to use.  It never hardened.  I think it is just for tiny holes like old nail holes.

DON'T use wood putty!

I had to scrape it all out and clean it all off before replacing it with wood filler.  That dried nicely and I was able to sand it smooth.  The whole point of repairing the bottom of the cabinet, which no one will ever see, is to get it smooth so that the person using the machine will not get their clothes snagged on a rough surface underneath.

Notice that some of the holes go all of the way through at the same width and some of them don't.

I also popped all the hardware out of the top so that the veneer could be applied.  Then I took it over to Dexter and he prepared it for the re-veneering.  (No photos of this part.)  He carefully sanded off all of the old glue and got the surface smooth.   Then he sealed it with polyurethane varnish.  He says that you have to put enough coats on so that there are no longer any dull places showing.  If it is not completely sealed, the veneer will not adhere properly.  It took three coats of the poly.

We worked in Dexter's spacious man-cave, and we had plenty of supervision.  These are only a few of the supervisors.  I will show you more of them as we move along.

We talked about the fact that some of the holes are smaller on the back then they are on the top.  I offered to make a paper template of the entire top.  Dexter said to wait and see if he could get all of the veneer off in one piece, in which case we could use it as the template.  I never dreamed that this would actually work.  I have removed veneer before, and it was a highly destructive process!  But in this case the veneer was pretty loose all the way around and he got all of it off by sliding a putty knife in between the veneer and the wood beneath. Only one tiny piece broke off.  Pretty neat, huh?


The major crack in the veneer went through to the wood below.  I asked if we should fill it in with wood filler, but he said no.  If the filler expanded later it would push up on the veneer.

He laid the old veneer on the new veneer and traced around it with a pencil, and allowing for the missing pieces that had cracked off on the edges.

Then it is a fairly simple matter to cut the veneer with ordinary household scissors.  Cut OUTSIDE of the pencil line.  You want it a smidge too large because you will sand it down to fit properly soon.  He held it in place while Myra cut it.

The peel and stick process is also easy, but it IS necessary to be precise, and it is a two-person job.  Dexter first peeled back about one inch of one corner.  He stuck this in place and then made sure that it was lined up properly.  At this stage it is easy to make corrections.  When he was confident that it was aligned correctly Myra peeled about a hands-breadth at a time, and then he smoothed it down firmly with his hands.  

Peel,  smooth, peel, smooth, until it is completely applied.

Dexter then trimmed off the excess with a carpet knife with a new blade in it.  He tried a few inches in both directions before deciding how to tackle it.  Even though the long edges ran with the grain of the wood, he said that it will obviously be easier to cut going in one direction than in the other direction.

Hold the blade at an angle because the edge should be beveled.

The coyote that did NOT get to eat the chihuahuas.

DEXTER'S SECRET WEAPON.  Do you recognize the object below?

If you said "Callus remover for your heels", ding ding ding, you are correct!  He finds a metal file to be too abrasive--it tears up the edge of the veneer.  He also likes the callus remover because it is plastic around the edges and will not damage the edges of the wood below the veneer.

Use the callus remover on the first pass to remove the roughest spots.  Follow with a sanding with 100 grit sandpaper.  Then a final sanding with 220 grit to make it all smooth.  He used a back and forth motion perpendicular to the edge, like shining shoes.  Does anyone shine shoes anymore?

another supervisor

He used an exacto knife to punch a little hole though from the back in the places that needed to be cut out.  You do this in case the marked holes on the top are not in exactly the right place.

From the top side, he cut from the punched holes to the outside of the openings in several places, then carved around the circles.  You can see in the photo below that he was right to be cautious about the placement of those pencilled circles.

Finish up by sanding the edges of the openings.

He was careful to be sure the grain lines matched as he placed the veneer on the extension leaf.  Then it was the same peel and stick process, followed by sanding the edges.

A final light sanding of the entire top removed the remaining pencil marks and prepared it for staining.  All it needs before that is a light wipe-down with mineral spirits.

Eh, voila!  Perfection!

Wonder why all the photos of Myra and Dexter do not show their faces?  Because they requested it that way.

And even more supervisors.  And I did not even show you all of them.

Next post will cover staining and re-assembly.