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.


  1. You are like the sewing machine doctor/surgeon! Amazing changes, even just cleaning. LOL JUST

  2. Amazing process. Although it is sad to see the original go, it will be usable and not a boat anchor. I have never seen one if these in person. I just finished restoring a Red eye FOF grandma's for my sister in law and it has a huge gap of paint missing where the stupid sleeve was attached around the top. It is not rusty, but I left it as is. It is on my blog. It sews like a champ. Can't wait to follow all your process. I used Tuff Stuff on treadle legs of a cabinet I restored and it worked great.

  3. What a USABLE beauty she will be! I like to think all of these old items have a bit of soul to them... and would much rather be used, loved, restored, instead of keeping all her stuff "original". Bang up job. LOVE it. Thanks for sharing.


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