Clean Tension Disks on Your Sewing Machine Tutorial – No Disassembling Needed

Hello, everyone, I was working on a vintage sewing machine the other night that was immaculately clean, everywhere!!! No lint fuzzies, dust, or old oil anywhere. It was spotless everywhere except for the upper tension disks. They were spotless to the eyes but sticky to each other. Having seen this before on my own machines I knew how to quickly solve the problem. I thought I would share the fastest, easiest way I know of to clean sewing machine tension disks without disassembly.

Easily clean the tension disks on your sewing machine using some scrap fleece

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It was just the tension disks…

I would like to backup and bring you all up to speed on this entire situation. One of the guys at work asked me if I would look at his daughter’s sewing machine, I naturally said sure. He says she bought it last year when she was moving back home. She didn’t have room for it when she got to mom and dad’s house so it was put into the closet without opening it.

Fast forward to two weeks ago, she opened it, set it up, threaded it by the book, and began sewing beautiful thread nests, and snarls. After locking up the hook several times she gave in. Her mom is an avid seamstress and she couldn’t get it to function either so she had another seamstress give it a shot and still no good. The tension won’t adjust and it has a lot of problems picking up bobbin thread now. Couldn’t be returned, no warranty-authorized dealers in a 200-mile radius. It doesn’t sound so good, does it? Also doesn’t sound vintage either. Mom’s solution to resolve the Christmas present projects planned by the daughter, Grandma’s old machine!!! It hadn’t been used in years but she sewed everything from silks to canvas with it. So it should do just fine.

Grandma’s machine is a mid-80’s Taiwan-made Necchi and it is in pristine condition. As expected it was dry and needed oiling. Grandma should have skipped the last heavy canvas sewing job she used it on because the timing was off and the needle height needed to be adjusted. Once that was done the tension disks were sticky almost like wax. The disks looked clean but the thread acted tacky.

Clean Tension Disks Supplies

When I just want to clean tension disks and buff them up a little I use a short strip of fleece, 8-10 inches long and ¾ to 1in wide. When you stretch fleece it tends to curl into a round hollow tube and it will grow in length.

Fleece scrap to clean tension disks
Pull fleece to make a small tube to clean tension disks with

How To Clean Sewing Machine Tension Disks Without Disassembling Them

With the feed dogs raised and the tension disks released this tube will slide easily between the disks. If I am just buffing some excess oil residue from the disks then I will use a dry piece of fleece and lower the feed dogs to reapply pressure to the tension disks and gently pull the tube back and forth between the disks.

Carefully pull fleece into tension disks
Carefully pull fleece into tension disks

It is imperative that great care is taken not to damage the check spring while working the fleece around between the disks. If the disks are sticky with old oil residue then I use a little alcohol on the fleece and follow the same procedure as before. Again gently and be mindful of the spring.

Fleece cleaning sewing machine tension disks
When “flossing” fleece between tension disks, keep the fleece out of the spring

Warning About Using Alcohol

Remember any time alcohol is used don’t allow it to drip onto the finish of the machine especially when the finish is shellac. It is why you don’t see Mel applying the alcohol to the fleece in the video below she did it over the trash can and no one wants to see in a trash can. To help control the alcohol poke a small hole in the foil cap of the alcohol.

Small hole in rubbing alcohol bottle
Use a pin to make a small hole in the alcohol bottle to better control alcohol on the fleece

If it does get on the shellac dab it off immediately (within seconds) don’t rub it off. Allow it to evaporate entirely, allow time for the shellac to dry, and then wipe it down with SMO (sewing machine oil). After using alcohol on the disks I always buff them with a clean dry piece of fleece. I find it easier and less stressful than taking a tension assembly apart to clean especially if all that needs to be cleaned is the tension disks themselves.

I hope some of you find this tip to clean tension disks as handy as I have. Until the next time may you never forget to close the rotary cutter, and if you do forget, may you not be reminded by the edge of the blade.

—- Paul

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Clean Sewing Machine Tension Disks In Action

In case you are a visual learner we have put together a video of how we clean tension disks.

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If you’ve been struggling with inconsistent stitches, bird's nests, or broken thread, it’s time to get to know your sewing machine's tension disks! Proper cleaning and maintenance of your sewing machine tension disks can make a world of difference in the quality and consistency of your sewing. In this guide, we’ll walk you through the step-by-step process to get your tension disks sparkling clean and your sewing machine humming along smoothly.

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