Old sewing machines are like a siren to so many people. What do you do when you bring one home and it doesn’t work? We repair them! This guide will walk you through each step for vintage sewing machine repair.
The instructions below are written by my husband Paul. If you are new here Paul is an HVAC/R by trade. He writes all of the technical pieces here at The Quilting Room. His directions are so well written even I can now repair vintage sewing machines. There are two ways to navigate this post, the table of contents below to reach the step of the repair process you are at, or go page by page.
All old sewing machines that have been in storage will need a bit of TLC if we are planning to put them back into daily service. Some might only need a good dusting and the joints oiled. Others will need a bit more TLC and those are the ones we are going to focus on in this guide. Vintage sewing machine repair is attainable for anyone.
For the purpose of this guide, we are dealing with a head only. No motors, lights, or electrical work are needed on this machine. If you need to rewire your sewing machine those instructions can be found in our rewiring vintage sewing machines guide.
Resurrection vs Restoration
I use the term “resurrection “instead of the phrase “restoration” because, in my personal opinion, a restoration is a complete teardown and all new parts replace the worn ones. All the paint and chrome would look like new with no chips or pits, the decals would be new and basically, it would be a brand new old machine. There are some enthusiasts who do this kind of work and do it very well. I admire their talents and the machines when they are finished.
I am just not the one to do that kind of work. We clean and polish our machines. I do bring back all the original functions if possible and will replace broken parts with repaired ones when new ones are not readily available. I also find the character in chipped paint and worn-off decals to be appealing.
All the pin rash scars left behind by years of love and affection on some of these old machines are stories waiting to be heard. I admire the beauty of a machine handled so much the nickel plate, or chrome is worn off and the steel under it is polished smooth and turned to brown. I only add more chapters to its life when I use it. Another scratch or more worn-off decal doesn’t detract from the story, it adds to the history.
Vintage Sewing Machine Repair Step 1 – Clean the Outside
When we start a resurrection project here in the quilt room we survey the entire machine and determine where we need to start first. For this example let’s just assume that Let’s also assume the mechanical parts are stiff and sluggish with old oil and grunge with rust keeping the presser foot from moving. Sounds pretty typical for a lot of machines being pulled out of long-term storage, not exactly abused but accidentally neglected.
Now the machine category starts to diversify. The older basic black, straight stitch machines were usually decorated one of two ways. They were hand-painted, sometimes inlaid with mother of pearl. Or they were adorned with water slide decals. The black painted surface was covered with shellac to seal the paint and add gloss to the machine. Some of the decals were placed on the machines before the shellac and some were done after depending on the manufacturer.
Protecting Water-Slide Decals
If the decals were on before the shellac then the shellac will protect the decals from damage while cleaning the body. If not then they can be damaged by different cleaning solutions. The damage can range from removing the color from the decal (silvering) to actually removing the decal with a water-based cleaner. Most manufacturers from that era recommended using sewing machine oil (SMO) for cleaning the outside of the machine. It doesn’t remove water-soluble decals and it is safe for the shellac finish. It isn’t a very quick way to clean but it is effective when used with a cotton ball and a plate full of persistence.
Most petroleum-based solvents and cleaners work to speed up the process of cleaning. It is advisable to always test a small section out of sight or on the underside of the machine before using anything other than the recommended products. And always bear in mind the flammability of the cleaner and the ventilation requirements, some cleaners are not meant to be used on the kitchen table or any other room in the house.
Alcohol (the rubbing kind, not the drinking kind) will eat a shellac finish in seconds. If you accidentally spill some on the shellac do not wipe it off. Allow it to evaporate and the shellac to set back up solid. Then carefully use SMO and a cotton ball to buff the surface clean. With a little luck, it will polish out and be unnoticeable.
Cleaning Machines With Varnish and Clear Coat
Since technology leads to progress, it is acceptable to believe that with the technological advantages of multi-stitch machines we should also expect some changes on the surface of sewing machines as well. Since we have more than just forward and reverse stitches we have also added color.
Gone are the basic black machines. Also gone is the shellac finish. Varnish and the clear coat is now the latest greatest thing to shine up the finish of the newest sewing machines. Decals are also a thing of the past as well.
The varnish and clear coat over the paint are much more forgiving when it comes to cleaning. It is of course always advisable to test any cleaning agent on an inconspicuous spot before soaking the entire machine only to find out it removes everything down to the bare metal. Most clear-coated machines are easily cleaned with any household water-based spray cleaner or automotive product safe for paint and polished to a glow with furniture polish or car wax.
Cleaning Plastic Parts
Plastic body parts, side pieces, and knobs really don’t need much explanation. Plastic is plastic and should be handled as such. It matters not what it is or does, it is still plastic and can be washed as easily as the dishes in the kitchen.
Godzilla and Crinkle Finish
The machines with the crinkle finish sometimes called Godzilla finish are a beast of their own. We have a post dedicated to cleaning Godzilla finish machines.