Wednesday, March 21, 2012

A Tale of Two Treadle Irons. NOT a tutorial, just looks like one.

Restoration Field Notes
 All of us who are interested in bringing the old machines back to life have read a lot of contradictory information on the boards about what to do and how to do it.  The most accurate advice (and plenty of others have said this also) is "there is no one way to do things."  Chemicals that do a beautiful job on one machine destroy the finish on another machine.

I'm planning a series of blogs with "field notes" in which I will tell you what I did, why I did it, what else you might consider doing, what I screwed up, what I did to fix it, and the truly astonishing revelation of how long it took to do it.  These may look like tutorials, but that would assume that I know what I am doing.  Usually I don't. 

This is a really long post and it is ONLY about treadle irons, so read on ONLY if that topic fascinates you.  Tune in next week for more cute pictures of Heather and her adorable children and what they have been creating with their people-powered sewing machines.  

A Tale of Two Treadle Irons
Treadle on the left:  Before.                       Treadle on the right:  After.

Two set of treadle irons recently passed through my hands that had very different characteristics. 
Side by side before restoration they appeared to be an almost identical dirty brown.  One had layers of greasy dust and the other one had dust and light rust.

My only experience is with Singer treadles, so that's what I am talking about here.

Remove the cabinet from the irons

This is easier and less intimidating than you might think.  There are four screws that hold the cabinet on to the top of the irons, and there may be additional brackets holding them on to the legs .  Peek under there and you will see them.  Take them out.  Lift the cabinet off.  It isn't heavy and one person might be able to do it, but it is bulky so if you have an extra person around, grab them for a minute.  Literally, a minute.

You can skip this step, but it really is simple and quick to do and it makes cleaning the treadle irons much, much easier.

It's also possible to disassemble the treadle base but I never have.  If the treadle is operating (pedal moves the pitman rod that moves the wheel), that's good enough for me.  And if it is not operating, I would not have bought it in the first place.  There are too many decent treadles out there at decent prices for me to bother with a broken one or one with rust or missing pieces.

Total time required:  less than 5 minutes

Repair or replace parts

I would only do this if I had inherited a family treadle that needed repair.  Objects with family history are in a special category that transcends economic considerations. 

If you have acquired a non-family non-working treadle, you will probably find it cheaper to  buy another treadle than to buy parts to fix it. Of course, a sudden onset of VSMAD often results from the initial treadle acquisition, so you may just consider that first treadle as a parts machine for your future treadles.

VSMAD:  Vintage Sewing Machine Acquisition Disorder

Remove any rust

Extensive rust would also deter me from buying a treadle, but you may spot an otherwise decent, functioning treadle with a few spots of rust.

Someone else will need to chime in on rust removal.  See below on what I tried that did not work.

Clean the irons

Here is a project where you don't have to be obsessively careful about cleaning products.  I have used a variety of kitchen cleaners (PineSol, Mr. Clean and the cheapo orangey stuff)

Slosh the cleaner on a section of the irons with a brush or a cloth, scrub.  Use a toothbrush to get in the crevices.  Wipe it off.  Repeat.  Repeat,  Repeat.  Repeat.  Turn it upside down.  Repeat.  Repeat.  Repeat.  Repeat.  You get the drift.

Greasy, furry logo before cleaning

There's a good chance that it has not been cleaned in 100 years.  The first one I cleaned had greasy grunge that actually looked like brown fur.  Just keep scrubbing and cleaning until it is gone.  Your goal is to get all of the dirt off.  Once you begin to get down to the actual paint you should be able to distinguish between an area that is tolerably clean and one that still needs further scrubbing. 

Don't worry about rinsing at the end.  There is one more step to go that will remove any residue from the cleaner.

If possible, do this outdoors.  First, the horrible brown stuff that will flow down off the treadle base has to go somewhere, and outside is a better place for it than your floors.  Next, there are so many nooks and crannies on a treadle base that even in the best interior lighting you will not be able to see all of the dirty bits easily.  Full sunlight is the way to go. 

Some of the paint may have chipped off, and some may be loose and will come off with the cleaning.  If it is loose enough to do this, I want it to come off now. 

Approximate time will vary according to the degree of filth.  The brown furry greasy one took about 2 hours to clean.  

Dusty rusty one on left, before cleaning
One of my treadles had light rust under the dust, and I thought some 0000 steel wool might take the bloom of rust off.  I was wrong about that, but on the upside it did not remove or scratch the remaining paint and it did a dandy job on the few spots of grease (under the oiling points) that were on these irons. 

I dunked the steel wool in the cleaner, let most of it drip off, and then gave the whole thing a scrub down.  I went lightly over the gold logos, and again the steel wool did not appear to do any harm.  After scrubbing each section of the machine I wiped it down with a cloth dampened in the cleaner.  

I might try steel wool again, cautiously, on a greasy one.  Remember, just because it didn't scratch the paint on this one does not mean that it wouldn't on another one.

I was somewhat concerned that all this liquid would merely promote more rust, but it evaporated quickly.  It was a crisp day with low humidity, around 50 F.

The lack of decades of grease meant that this cleaning went much more quickly.
Time for the steel wool wipe down:  just under 30 minutes.

Comparing the two led me to wonder about their histories.  Perhaps the greasy one sat in a kitchen, and the rusty one was in a parlor.  Sitting in a parlor in the humid South for decades before the age of air conditioning could have led to the rust.  And the layers of grease undoubtedly protected the kitchen irons from rust.

Pause to evaluate

I imagine it is easy to repaint a treadle base.  A spray can of black Rustoleum should do it.  The question is, do you really want to do this?  This is just another one of those personal preferences.

Logo after cleaning.
My own preference is for machines that look good but show some age.  If the chipped paint reveals gray iron, I leave it alone.  The gray softens the look.  If you paint it glossy black it will probably look terrific, but may not appear in harmony with your vintage cabinet and machine.  Think of a wrinkly old lady you have seen with dyed jet black hair.  No matter how good the dye job, it's never going to look right.

After cleaning, were you astonished to discover gold paint on the Singer logos?  If that paint is worn, you can ponder whether to touch it up or not.  I did, and lived to regret it.  I should have stopped at this point.  See above about age-appropriate beauty treatments.



Brightly painted logo.  Too brightly.


Painting the gold trim

I touched up the gold paint on the formerly-greasy irons, which I am keeping for myself.  I'm not entirely happy with the results.  It looks a bit garish to me.  Not garish enough for me to want to try to fix it, however.

You need a good small artist's paintbrush and a can of gold paint.  I used a Rustoleum American Accents gold satin paint, simply because I had a can of it sitting around.  And you need a steady hand.

I had the most trouble with the large oval surrounding the logos, and my paint job looks sloppy.  I did it first freehand, was not satisfied, went back and marked it off with blue painters tape and did it again.  It looks better but not great.  From a distance, however, it looks just fine.  And I'm not expecting anybody to get down on their hands and knees to examine the paint job.

Sharpie makes a marker with actual paint in it.  My new favorite thing for touching up chipped paint on a machine.  Or painting over mistakes in the gold paint.

The logos have raised images and lettering, and if your hand is steady enough and your brush is small enough it is a fairly simple matter just to lay some paint down.  If you are lucky the outlines of the old paint are still in place and you will only need to fill them in.

Approximate time:  This took me another two hours.

Oil the moving parts

Normal maintenance is a drop of oil at every point of movement.  We're not ready for that just yet.  The goal here is to flush out any cleaning fluid that sneaked into the joints, at the same time dissolving and flushing out old dried oil, dust and dirt.  This phase is also best done outdoors.

Use sewing machine oil.  There are a myriad of other products, all more expensive.  If you use them you will have to flush them out with sewing machine oil at the end, because they leave residue behind that will dry and harden.  So skip the expensive stuff and stick with the cheap stuff.  Any brand of sewing machine oil will do. 

Run oil into each point of movement until it starts to drip (it will only take a few drops).  Use either the treadle pedal or the flywheel to turn it several times,  More oil, more turning, more oil, more turning.  Is it moving more freely?  Keep going.  When it stops making improvements, sit at it and treadle it for a couple of minutes.  Oil it again, treadle it for another couple of minutes.  Keep going if you are still detecting improvements.  If the performance is smooth and consistent, leave it for a day.  Then oil 'er up again and treadle it for another couple of minutes.  Still smooth and consistent?  Then wipe off all that oil.

Time:  Depends on how gunky the joints are.


The final step in the cleaning process is to use an automobile cleaner/wax product.  I used Meguiar's, but I don't think the brand matters.

The bottle instructs you to wipe it on and polish it off.  I put much more effort into the front end of the process, and use it as a cleaner and rub it on.  More brown stuff may come off on the cloth. At the end of this vigorous wipe down, use a clean cloth to wipe on a coat of the cleaner/wax and let it dry thoroughly.  Then use a microfiber cloth to wipe off the wax and buff it to a shine.

Total work time (not including drying time):  One hour.

There is still brown stuff coming off.  Shouldn't we press on and clean it some more?  Happily, the answer is "no".  At some point you stop taking off the dirt and start removing the 100 year old paint.  The question is:  where is that point?  Since I can't tell, I just relax, admire my work and move on. 


Pop the cabinet back on top and put the screws back in.

Time:  less than 5 minutes.

Again, the disclaimer:  read the blogs and boards, but in the end you have to make all of the decisions and you will be the one stuck with the results.  Whatever you decide  to do, test a small and inconspicuous area first.

Thanks to Nicholas Rain Noe of The Vintage Singer Sewing Machine Blog for suggesting some detailed restoration blogging. 

To anyone who read this far, hope you enjoyed it.  Leave a comment, like "more please" or "promise you will never do this again".


  1. More please, lol. I love your blog.

  2. Love the old irons, I have a couple of tables made of them, I know I am a cannable... sorry. But I love all things Singer. I do have a red head Singer in a treadle cabinet but no where to put it upstairs, all the grandbabies learned to treadle on it. I am interested in watching these posts, keep up the great work! I bet I am not the only one either!

  3. Interesting and informative.
    Pamela in SOMD

  4. I'm with you on do you repaint or go with the old vintage look. Thanks for the comparison tute! Very helpful seeing the difference. I'll just clean off the dirt since I prefer the vintage look.

  5. Really interesting. More Please :)

  6. Awesome, thanks for posting this! And it's a great way to multiply your efforts, as armed with this knowledge, some people (me included) will now feel more confidence to tackle jobs like this ourself. I have a Singer 29k71 whose base needs this treatment, and which I've been avoiding because I didn't know where to start. So really, you've just "rescued" dozens of treadle bases with this post!

    - Rain

  7. Rain,
    Thanks for the feedback, much appreciated. In fact, it was your suggestion that got me going on this. I feared that I would be stating the obvious, and I also feared being a bit pretentious since there are many long-time treadlers out there who have much more experience with these things. Nice to know that this is useful.

    and thanks also to those of you who are not-Rain. I appreciate your feedback very much also.

    Cheryl Warren

  8. Thanks to your pictures, I dared to paint my irons for my Red Eye. They were so rusty that it was necessary to be able to take the machine in the house - I couldn't see any gold at all.
    I found the artist brush too messy so I used a small disposable sponge brush that I dipped about a quarter of an inch into the gold paint, wiped most off, and dragged the slant across the surface of the logo. Worked well! It only took a few minutes once I got the hang of it. Now I have a lot! of gold paint left over. Thanks for your inspirational non-tutorial - do more, please.


  9. Yes, it does depend on the irons. My Davis has glossy irons and a stronger degreaser removes the painted details.
    The letters on the Singer aren't really gold paint. They are more of a brass finish, which is why the gold appears so harsh.
    The layers of crud really do afford some protection and as much as they are likely to be household grease they are probably the same layers of lacquered SM oil topped with dust. I had excellent quick work with LA's Awesome from the dollar store and a stiff toothbrush. Follow quickly with a water rinse and a buff with TurtleWax Bug and Tar remover.
    I too threw caution to the wind and had a set of irons for a Red Eye sandblasted ($50)and then painted them (decal) red with black accents. Totally devalued, but personally- awesome!!
    Just discovered your blog- I will be back. Thank You.

  10. Nice Job. I have several treadles. I guess its time to take a break form sewing machine repair and tend to some irons. I, too, like the used look. Probably won't be painting anything; just cleaning and waxing. I love Mother's Brazilian Carnuba Wax. Smells good and really gets a good shine.

  11. I use black shoe polish- the wax kind to give a little color and gloss. It doesn't make it too perfect just well cared for lookoing. I also used the polish overthe repainted gold to tone it down. Very nice post! A real addition to the body of knowledge-thanks!

  12. Hi, I have 4 treadles that need to be cleaned, ARGH! I'm going to do them one at a time though,
    Maybe a suggestion, I'm thinking about using gold paint and a pounce brush. Like a sponge brush, only you dab, press the paint onto the surface rather than brush,. several light coats of a self leveling but thickish paint and you don't have to worry about having a steady hand. Now, have I tried this ON treadle iron? No, But I have done this on other item that had a flat surface and recesses. Any paint that gets into some place you don't want, you can use q tips to quickly wipe it out and off.
    When I finally get around to cleaning thoroughly my treadles, the painting will probably be a huge disaster and I'll make a big muck up out of it. :)
    I'm looking forward to it!

  13. Rub n Buff, available from hardware and craft stores, comes in a variety of metallic colors, is easy to use, and very forgiving; just wipe off excess bits. Might be worth a try for the lettering next time.

  14. Thank you for the honest and informative post. My two treadles look and work fine right now, but when I acquire one that requires restoration, I'll be ready!

  15. Just rescued a White treadle from a farm grainery. Loads of work to be done. Your post will be invaluable! Just knowing how easy it is to get the irons off the cabinet is a blessing. We will be using a small car to transport it home. The irons and the cabinet need the most work. Now we know how to do it. Thank you! (The sewing machine itself is in almost perfect condition)

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  17. Thank you for this information. I hit my irons with rust converter and found most of the gold has worn off. I was thinking I might use some rub n buff to put some gold back on but after reading this I'm not going to. I want it to look authentic. Thanks!

  18. Thank you for this information. I hit my irons with rust converter and found most of the gold has worn off. I was thinking I might use some rub n buff to put some gold back on but after reading this I'm not going to. I want it to look authentic. Thanks!

  19. FYI, Cheryl, I'm discovering that a lot of "black grundge" on old machines is dried Whale Oil. It's very reluctant to leave. LOL.

    Than you for the tutorial.


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