Tuesday, January 6, 2015

VS2 Restoration: The Early Months

1891 Singer VS2      Before

That is not dirt, folks, that is rusted out metal.

and after

In this series of posts we will explore the complete restoration of a Singer VS2.  I have planned for a long time to write up a fairly complete documentation of a project like this, and was just waiting for the right machine to come along.  Today's post shows the "before" pictures and discusses the restoration of the cast iron treadle.  The rest is coming soon, I promise.

This is what I decided to do, based on what the owners of the machine wanted me to do.  It is not the right way, the only way, or the best way.  I'm not promoting any particular products or techniques, just sharing my results with you.

Background:  My daughter has fabulous neighbors (Herman and Sadie) who have done a lot for her.  I have been very thankful to know that she has such great and supportive people living next door to her, and had been looking for a meaningful way to say "thanks".   Somehow baking a loaf of bread just was not enough.

Then Sadie's sister Patricia retired and moved in with them and brought with her their grandmother's treadle.  Aha!  I volunteered to restore it for them.  Patricia wants to sew with it.  The absolutely perfect project.

Assuming that some of Sadie's friends and relations will read this, let me make one thing absolutely clear up front:  this is what I do for FUN.  You may be tempted to think:  Oh My Gosh, what a horrible lot of work!  But it is only work if you don't like doing it.  For me this is FUN.  The longer it takes, the more time I spend having FUN.

The machine looked pretty bad.  The irons had rust and corrosion.

 The veneer on the cabinet was peeling up and had missing spots.

One drawer was missing.  The other drawer was present, but completely unglued and the bottom was split.

The bonnet had also come apart.

The ornate drawer pull was corroded.  And the top of the drawer had a missing corner.

The base of the head was rusted and corroded, and some of the bed decals were gone.  Literally gone, because they had gone with the paint when the paint flaked off with the rust.

The chrome plated metal parts had rust and corrosion, which also means that some of the chrome plating was gone.

On the upside was the most important fact of all:  their grandmother had sewed on it regularly and kept the important working bits maintained (simply meaning that she brushed the lint out and kept it oiled).  How do I know this?  Because in spite of all that obvious wear and tear, both the irons and the head were moving absolutely freely.

And that is the truth and beauty of these old machines.  Take just the slightest bit of care of them, and they will last for centuries.  Literally, centuries.  We kid ourselves by thinking that civilization inevitably advances.  What are we creating now that will endure for centuries?  I can't think of anything.  Not anything positive anyway.  Pollution?  Species extinction?

THE IRONS:  Cleaning the irons

There was 130 years of dirt on these irons.  My guess is that it had been kept in the kitchen a good portion of that time.  I have seen machines with this furry coating of dirt before.

Think of the dirt in such as case as tree rings.  Decades upon decades of accumulated dirt.  You will never get it off all at once, no matter how strong the cleaner you use.  Well, maybe sandblasting would do it.

I removed one of the legs at the beginning, which left the machine still standing but also gave me much better cleaning access to the flywheel and all of its workings.  By the time I finished I had taken both legs off of it.  They were each held on with two large bolts and came off fairly easily.

legs off, propped up on a metal table

I sprayed it with Awesome from the dollar store, recommended by Myra.  Working on one section at a time:  sprayed it on then immediately scrubbed it with a thing like a brass toothbrush.  Gave it another spritz and wiped it off with a paper towel.  It literally came off black at first.  And this was really black, a coal black, darker than I have seen before.  Made me wonder if a coal stove was in the kitchen.  My great-grandmother grumbled every time she did any baking in her electric stove.  She said it never baked as well as her old coal stove had done.  Sadie and Patricia later confirmed that their grandmother also had a coal stove.  I love antique sewing machine investigations.

Repeated the Awesome/scrub/wipe three or four times (many more times for the joints), each time getting less.  But it was still coming off brown on the fourth wipe.

And eh, voila!  The logos on the sides still have some of their original gold paint.
there are some traces of the original gold paint but much of this is rust

And this is just phase one of the cleaning.  Removing the bulk of the grime.

The 80% principle

At each phase of the cleaning, the goal is to remove 80% of the dirt that is there.  Then move on to the next phase.

For phase two, I got out a hand-held steamer.  Chose a small section of the cast iron at a time, ran the steam over it, and then wiped it off with a paper towel.  Did this twice.  We're down to a light brown stain on the paper towels by now.

can you see the steam coming out?

After the furry coat of dirt has been removed, the irons are revealed.  About 50% of the paint is gone, and there is some rust on the bare iron.  There are spots where the original casting was bad (just guessing) creating jagged spots.  But the good news is that what I originally thought was corrosion was just peeling paint.  There are only a few tiny spots of corrosion.

Phase three was the Dremel tool.  Wire brush attachments removed obviously flaking paint.  I don't need to take it all off because the new paint will cover up lots of imperfections.  But the paint that is left needs to be holding on and not ready to jump off!

The logos on the sides got more attention.  A diamond tipped tiny cone shaped bit cleaned out the details.  I have painted these before and the crisper the logos the better the final paint job will be.

The pitman is now revealed to be made of wood, a feature only found on older Singers.  The pitman is the rod connecting the pedal to the flywheel.  Later pitmans were made of cast iron.

Doing all of this is tremendously satisfying.  The dirtier it is, the more fun it is to reveal the bones of the machine beneath.

Phase four:  Denatured alcohol and steel wool
After all this cleaning, the irons were still slightly tacky with a remaining film of grease, but the final scrub down with denatured alcohol and steel wool (twice) got it clean enough.  The goal is to have a clean surface that the new paint will adhere to.

I did this over four days right after Hurricane Arthur had passed by and left us some fairly cool, dry weather.  And although all of the restoration is more fun if you can do it outside, this is the only part that ABSOLUTELY has to be done outside.  The dirt that drips down from the cleaning products, and the dirt that flies around from the scrubbing is something that you don't want in your house.

Painting the irons

My favorite product for painting treadle irons (well, OK, the only one I have ever used) is Hammered Rustoleum paint in black.  I have a can that is more than ten years old but was only opened a year or two ago.  Hoarding, anyone?  The color is more of a dark graphite gray than black, and I think this slightly softer color is more attractive with an antique machine than a strong black would be.

Several people have asked why I don't use the same Hammered Rustoleum in a spray can.  I like painting, and I like the total control I get with a paintbrush.  If you sprayed you would have to tape off all the joints where metal moves against metal.  With a paintbrush I just carefully avoid them.  It's just a personal preference.  I'm willing to believe that spraying IS easier and faster, but I like using the paintbrush.

To touch up the gold logos I use a Sharpie gold metallic PAINT pen.  Not the regular Sharpie metallic marker.  I tried several different types of gold paint on an earlier treadle restoration and this one was the best and quite easy to use.

If you mess up, and I certainly did my share, just paint over the mistake and try again.

When Sadie and Patricia originally turned the machine over to me, I asked them what level of restoration they wanted.  They told me they wanted it pretty, as pretty as I could make it.  Over the next several posts I will show you how I leaned to replace veneer, and how I overcame my fear of wood stain.  I will reveal to you just how I obtained a set of Singer VS2 reproduction decals MONTHS before they came on the market.  And I will continue the ongoing love affair with Hammered Rustoleum paint.

I also need to get back over to their house to take many more "after" photos.  In my rush to finish it up so that I could deliver it on Christmas Eve I forgot to take pictures of the finished machine in its cabinet, on its treadle base.  Made my self-created deadline, but only have a few photos taken in their front hall.


  1. Wow, it is awesome. I have a couple of dismal looking treadles waiting for me, too, so I'm very interested to see how you handled the veneer and finish. If mione turn out even a quarter as nice as yours, I'll be pleased. Wood restoration is totally new to me. You did an amazing job!

  2. Beautiful result! It's wonderful that you have the desire and patience to bring these babies back to life!

  3. Beautiful, and such a nice way to recognize kindness.

  4. Beautiful! Can't wait for further posts. I have the same machine, , same year, same decals, but 2 drawers on either side, and in fantastic shape. I don't know that I have the knowledge or the guts to do a big restoration like you've done!

  5. I shall defintely be following along. I'm hopeing for some great tips and instructions for my 28k handcrank, and my 27k in a drawing room cabinet (it has a wooden pitman). Both machines work great, the 28k needs some work, and the drawing room cabinet needs a lot of work - thankfully the 27k is great as it is! I'm especially looking forward to what ever you do with veneer and also how you put that top cover back together - think I will need to buy veneer but not sure what wood my cabinet is made of.

    The before and after phots are amazing - how long did it take you altogether?

    1. Ha ha! I am not answering the "how long did it take you?" question publicly because I don't want Sadie, Herman, and Patricia flipping out any more than they are already flipping out! Contact me by email and I will be glad to tell you. Your posts are set to "no reply" so I can't email you back directly.

    2. Sam,
      One could extrapolate based on DragonPoodle's posting schedule that it was the better part of November and December! Lots of the fiddly bits get serviced and wait to dry so, really, who's counting all this fun?
      Personal experience says it takes longer than you thought it would, and doesn't last long enough. And when you're done you can't touch it enough times. And you'd be surprised to know that other people think you're weird when you smell your furniture...

  6. A.maz.ing!!!! I look forward to your to your next posts. My mom has my grandmas treadle which if the only machine she used. It's a 128 (I think) and is in very good shape including the cabinet. I need to see about sewing on it. My mom keeps it in the living room but it's not being used.

  7. So interesting and what a wonderful job done! Hubby and I restored a 1910 66 red eye and enjoyed working on it together. She sews a lovely stitch. I'm always interested in seeing what folks do and use in their restoration work.

  8. I am so glad you are writing this series! I am going to learn a lot from you and am pinning them so that I can find them again!

  9. Wow. You are doing a beautiful job. I'm looking forward to your future posts: How did you repair the drawer? what products did you use on the wood? How did you restore the rusty bed on the head. What did you use to repaint it? What did you use to spiff up the drawer hardware? I know all the answers are coming and I'm so looking forward.
    I'm currently doing some work on a Singer 66 Redeye head. In was in terrible shape so I figure I don't have anything to lose. Yesterday I used aniline dye (alcohol soluble)/shellac mixture to paint all of the black areas of the head. In a day or two I'm going to try kind of a french polish with shellac/boiled linseed oil mixture over the whole head. Learned about it in a post by Glenn in the Quiltingboard website.

  10. Wow! You do beautiful work! If you happen to be in the Dallas area, I have lot's of projects (treadle table, Superba D mother of pearl inlay handcrank, a Singer wood box with dowels that broke, etc.) that you can have fun with. ;-)
    Oh, and I confess to enjoying the smell of my older machines too. I loved that comment from Dre in PA.

  11. How incredibly gorgeous, Cheryl. And what a labor of love!
    Looking forward to the rest of your information! (And feeling fortunate to "know" someone who shows this kind of love!)

  12. Lovely! I need to clean the irons on my very first treadle. I started my cleaning up, on later treadles. I've never painted any part of a machine or base, other than a plain, wooden base for a hand crank. I'm not the best at that stuff.

  13. I have 4 treadles. I want to do the irons on them. I have one with a cabinet in good shape but the other 3 need medium to extreme help. Thanks so much for sharing the information.


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