Saturday, July 11, 2015

A Radical Approach to (Sewing Machine) Beauty

For the umpteenth time, let me remind you of what I am NOT, and that is any kind of an expert.  I like to bring sewing machines back to life.  I experiment.  I report the results here, including failures. I really don't care what the "rules" are.

1894 Singer Model 28, after the restoration.  Note the unusual black handwheel.

On to talking about sewing machines.

Nothing much has been happening in the studio or workshop this year as family matters seized me by the scruff of the neck and shook me about for several months.  Things are all calmed down now and I came back from the NC TOGA re-inspired to work on machines.  

First up on the workbench was a Singer 28 original hand crank meant as a birthday present for my friend Becky.  Her birthday was in February so I am just a bit overdue.  She is not a sewing person yet but thinks she might like to become one.  I gave her a choice of machines available and discussed the pros and cons.  She made her decision based on the aesthetics of her new apartment.  She wants something that will look nice if left sitting out.

Part of the fun is the detective work involved in figuring out the life story of the machine.  There is something about this one that has me stumped though.  More of that below.

 The bed decals are in pretty good shape (some wear, a bit of silvering) while the decals on the arm are quite scuffed.  This is easily explainable if someone had one of those dreadful pin catchers wrapped around the arm.

The clear coat is worn and cracked and crazed.  I've read that the cracking can be from dramatic temperature swings, perhaps from being stored in an attic or outbuilding.  Some of the paint has chipped away, particularly along the edges.  All of this is quite usual.  But the really puzzling bit is that the paint is completely worn away (not chipped, just worn away) in places.  So the decals are remarkably good but an inch away are small patches of bare metal.  I can't think of any explanation for that.

the gunk inside the head was even worse than this but it is hard to get a photo of a black interior

The inside workings of the machine had just about the thickest layer of gunky old sewing machine oil I have ever seen, along with the usual thick wodges of lint.  It cleaned up easily--not quickly, but easily, and the machine is spinning freely now.

The slide plates and other metal bits were slightly rusted and corroded.  Dremel wire  brushes to the rescue.  It took quite a bit to get down through the corrosion to bright metal and I am pretty sure that I ended up removing all of the original chrome or nickel plating.  This leaves what I assume is steel that might be subject to further rust and corrosion, but more about that later.

nice and shiny now!

And wouldn't you know it, the day AFTER I did all of this I read a post on TreadleOn about using aluminum foil to clean rust off of these parts.  The original article is from Roberts Cycle and is well worth a read because it explains why this works and how to do it.

The base of the bentwood case was coming apart, so it got clamped and glued back together.  

The bentwood top was structurally sound, just dirty.  I wiped it down with a barely damp microfiber cloth which works well to remove loose dirt.  Next wipe was with 0000 steel wool and Howard's Restor-A-Finish.  Final wipe down with Howard's Feed-N-Wax.  And now it looks like this:

After all the degunking and surface cleaning I had a machine that looked like it had the mange.  With nice bright decals, go figure.  Big chips in the paint, clear coat cracked and crazed and hazy in patches.  With other patches denuded of paint entirely.

I first tried just wiping it down with sewing machine oil (wipe on, polish off), which left it nice and glossy and not bad looking but within a week the dust accumulation quite spoiled the effect.

Time for a radical rethink of the whole thing.  Becky wants something that looks good.  She is not a sewing machine purist who would be upset by any particular treatment.  

So.  I filled in the big chips with a black Sharpie paint marker (not the same thing as a regular Sharpie).  I ignored the bare patches because the metal underneath is a dark color that blends in reasonably well.  I very carefully sanded down the worst of the crazing with 400 grit sandpaper (but not over the decals)


Gasp.  Sacrilege!

Normally I scorn poly and would not have it anywhere near a vintage or antique piece.  But I did use it on a new piece of 3/4 inch plywood that tops a cutting table in the studio and I had some left over.

And now it is all shiny and looks quite nice.  Not perfect, but who is after 121 years?  Becky was thrilled with it.

Would I use the wipe on poly again?  Only in very special circumstances like this, but maybe I am being too conservative.  The good news is that the decals are now protected from further wear, and the poly is also protecting the bare metal from rust.  The bad news is that no further work can be done on the surface.  In the case of this machine I think it looks just about as good as possible.  But I am constitutionally averse to doing something irreversible.

Astute readers will note that the bobbin winder is missing.  I put it back on before Becky took the machine home.

OK, OK, I am overthinking this.  The machine looks good and sews well.  Becky is thrilled.  End of analysis!


  1. Love the job you did. I love to rescue machines, but I try to keep the amounts reasonable. Thanks for the article on the chrome. I need to buy a dremel to do those kinds of jobs. Thanks for posting!

  2. I learned the aluminum foil trick from my mother when I was a child wanting to clean my bicycle wheels. Now that I've taken a bit of chemistry (albeit ages ago), I can tell you that Robert's "Geek Stuff" section has some problems. When something is oxidized it loses an electron. When something is reduced it gains an electron. Reduction has nothing to do with the substance "breaking down". Reduction refers to a reduction of electrical charge -- ie, when something gains an electron, its charge goes from x to x -1. It has gained an electron but it is reduced (confusing, I know.) If anything, "breaking down" is associated with oxidation, not reduction. The chrome in his example is not in competition with the aluminum -- the competition is between the iron oxide and the aluminum. Aluminum (which has a low, not high, reduction potential), could theoretically donate electrons to rust, but aluminum forms an oxide layer when it hits air, making it less likely to react. It seems unlikely that you could remove oxygen atoms from rust by rubbing it with something. You'd be changing rust back into iron. I suspect that the rust removing ability of aluminum foil is more of a physical reaction. Rubbing with a srubbie or a Mr. Clean magic eraser will often remove rust. The theory of the polishing effect of the aluminum oxide is interesting, though.

    1. wow, thanks! you have made a great contribution to my blog and I really appreciate it.

      and they think of us sewing machine ladies as woolie headed old grannies in rocking chairs.


    2. Since the electron is a negatively charged particle I think of reduction as adding a minus ie subtracting =reduction.
      The is a mnemonic oil rig. Oxidation Is Losing Reduction Is Gaining. Not sure sewing machine enthusiasts will ever need this for anything else but what fun!

    3. Since the electron is a negatively charged particle I think of reduction as adding a minus ie subtracting =reduction.
      The is a mnemonic oil rig. Oxidation Is Losing Reduction Is Gaining. Not sure sewing machine enthusiasts will ever need this for anything else but what fun!

  3. Your 28, Cheryl is the twin of my 1895 28k as regards condition - first machine here -

    Even down to the worn away paint down to the metal. I'm convinced this is from the years of being rubbed by fabric going over it as that's where the main wear is. Maybe my decals are a little more worn though on the bed.

    I've just polished the nickel plate with chrome polish - and it's as good as I can get it without doing anything else.

    I know all about that gunked up machine experience. I did take photos of mine, though I have yet to do a post about it. It's the worse state any of my machines were in - and as this was my mothers I can guess where all the gunk came from. Not useing sewing machine oil (probably 3in1), coal dust from our coal fires and she smoked like a trooper, and my dad!

    I must get round to sorting out the base - and the coffin top. You say you glued it - how did you feed the glue into the joints and what did you use? I'm currently stripping the top with 151 oil soap. The machine itself I polished with Autoglym super resin polish. It's looking the best it's looked since I can remember!

  4. I was looking for the bobbin winder. My SIL got me a machine, but, my inlaws have it until the end of Sept. It is an enigma to me. I was wondering if your machine had the same type of bobbin winder. I think mine is a re-do, because the paint and decals don't fit the age of the machine. You did a great job on this machine. I hope your friend decides to do a little stitching.

  5. One of the best tools I ever bought was a Dremel. I keep finding stuff to do with it, and buying more heads to do those things badly.
    A well loaded Marks A Lot or Sharpie has been another good tool, I have a couple pair of character tap shoes I've kept going (as well as a pair of Doc Marten boots) by filling in the inevitable wear points at the toe. Nothing drastic, just does a nice tiny fill job. And takes a polish.
    A spritz of clear aerosol varnish makes many metal things happier....

  6. So, has someone painted over the former chrome on the handwheel, or do you have another explanation?

    1. There was some discussion of this on a Facebook group after I posted this. Apparently it is original (and looks it). Some thought it was more common. in Britain than here. People have seen it in the US but not often.

  7. I used wipe on poly before I even saw this blog and it sure beats the mess I made with shellac, lacquer, etc on a messed up featherweight. Goes on as smooth as silk and dries nice too. I gave up perfection a long time ago with these old japanned machines. They can be monsters to clean up. Glad we think alike! Great blog. Pat at the NJ Shjpre

  8. So, of course, I got a little creamed on a Featherweight group. Some saying poly not antique... considered crappy, etc. etc. I like the way it looks!


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