How to Rehab a Vintage Sewing Machine

From Featherweights to classic Sewmor machines, vintage sewing machines make a beautiful addition to any quilting room. With their shining black bodies and gold art deco or swirl designs, they’ll add a decorative touch to any room. Spend enough time searching auctions and flea markets for antique quilts and you’ll eventually come across some of these antique beauties. Pick one up at a discount price and you’ll get more than a decorative touch. With a little bit of work, you can turn a dusty old machine into a quilting workhorse that’s ideal for the modern quilter.

What to look for in a vintage sewing machine
Take a look at today’s upscale sewing machine: tons of bells and whistles, but they’re mostly made of plastic. There’s a reason vintage sewing machines weigh so much: they’re made entirely of metal. That’s good news, because that’s what makes them so sturdy and reliable. These were the dream machines that another generation of quilters loved, because they do exactly what you need them to do. The solid construction of vintage machines means that most of the potential problems you’ll find are due to dirt and dust. Learn how to clean these machines without damaging them and you’ll have the key to restoring a dream machine you’ll use for decades.

The inner works
The worst problem with most vintage machines is decades of grime, dust, and contaminants inside the working parts. The key is knowing how to clean these parts without damaging them.

To begin cleaning your vintage sewing machine, first remove the throat plate and you’ll find the bobbin case, along with the inner works of the machine. Pull out the bobbin case and use tweezers to remove any stray bits of thread you find. You’ll need a good flashlight, and you might be able to see the works from underneath. Use tweezers, makeup brushes, or dental picks to remove any accumulated dust, dead spiders, and the like. Once all the fuzz has been removed, put a dab of Liquid Wrench on a cotton swab and use it to wipe off all the mechanical parts. Change to a new swab when the old one gets dirty. This will remove the soil that can gum up free movement.

The outer moving parts
Lay out paper towels and label each one for a different part of the machine. This will prevent the parts from getting mixed up. Remove each part carefully, taking note of how each piece was connected. Use small brushes to remove any particles from inside these parts. Inspect the belt carefully. If it’s dried out or cracking, get a replacement belt from a sewing machine store or an online parts store. There are stores online that specialize in parts for vintage machines; unless yours is very rare, you’ll be able to find a new belt. Keep the machine deconstructed until the body is cleaned.

The paint job and chrome

Most of these charming vintage machines are black with gold decorations. The problem with cleaning these is that the formulation for the gold paint changed from year to year and brand to brand. The smartest thing to do is to begin with the mildest cleaning solution and try it on an inconspicuous spot at first. You’re not likely to wash away the gold decor, but many chemical cleaners can affect the paint and turn it silver. In fact, if you find a vintage machine with silver designs, it’s likely that someone tried to clean it carelessly in the past.

Begin with mild soap (like Ivory) and water to clean off the first layer of grime. Apply a soapy solution and allow it to soak in for about ten minutes. Wipe it off, then rinse to remove any residue. Assess the finish, then decide if it needs more work. If so, carefully try mild chemical mixtures such as Simple Green or 409, always testing in a small area before moving on to the whole body. Always rinse and dry after every attempt to make sure you’ve removed every bit of cleaner.

They may not do 120 fancy stitches, but a vintage sewing machine can be your go-to solution for quilting and sewing almost all your projects. Once yours is cleaned and running smoothly it can serve you for decades to come, and might even be around to pass on to the new generation of quilters in your family.

Happy (vintage) quilting!

Related article: Cleaning and Maintaining Your Sewing Machine

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22 Responses to “How to Rehab a Vintage Sewing Machine”

  1. Barbara hatcher

    I thhink you’re tips will help me with my vintage matchine. Will comment later thanks for tips

  2. Dave

    Hello, Ya’ll… I have three Singer’s, All Vintage that Sew Very Well. And, refurbished each one to Operate Correctly. Their Wonderful Sewing Machine’s.

  3. Deb

    How is the cable (the wire) that is connected to th cover hooked to the machine cabinet on a 1900 New Home treadle machine? There is a small pice of wire cable left on the cover in the back of the old.wood cabinet
    I am pretty sure it helps.hold up the machine when you lift it up
    How do I fix this

  4. Ann

    This is horrible advice! Only sewing machine oil should be used to clean a sewing machine. Water based cleansers will remove the finish and decals.

  5. judy

    Help! I have a 1946 Singer treadle machine, the machine drops down into the table top. It is a long, long time since I used it and I can’t remember how to open the top and pop the machine up. Can anyone out there tell me how?
    Thank you,

  6. Judy

    I had to soak the screw, used at the top right, in Catsup to get the stuff off it. Worked Great!

  7. Leanne

    I was recently given – yes given – a 1922 Singer treadle machine. It was manufactured (based on the serial number) in Kilbowie Scotland in 1922. It is in excellent shape other than needing a new belt. I plan to take my machine to a repairman who has been working on vintage machines for 50+ years.

  8. Elise

    I have a vintage Feathweight – my question is how do I get rid of the musty smell in the leather case?

  9. Gillian Hearn

    What is the British equivalent of Liquid Wrench, Simple Green and 409 , please. I have a very old Singer in need of a clean up. Thanks in advance.

    • Customer Service

      Hi Gillian. I am not sure if there is an equivalent, however has all of those cleaners that you can order.

      Hope this helps !

  10. Nancy

    Thank you so much for your enlightening article! I am the proud owner of my grandmother’s machine and have been reluctant to try to get it going; I’m feeling more confident now!

  11. linda

    some of these machines had feet for a lot of other stitches – where can these be purchased

    • Customer Service

      Hi Linda. Your best bet for finding any older machine feet would be to search for them online. You should be able to find old collectors or dealers who either have what you need or could help you find them.

      Hope this helps !

  12. Phyllis R

    Where did you find your background information? Never ever use soap and water or strong detergents on an antique or vintage machine! These chemicals destroy the shellac clear coat and destroy or silver the decals as your machine pictured indicates! Why did you photograph the back?

    I collect, restore and use vintage and antique sewing machines. My oldest machine is a hand crank that was manufactured during the 1860s. My collection includes hand cranks, treadles and electric machines. When asked how many machines that I have, I reply “More than ten.”

    I collect and use my machines for fun and never ask my domestic/home machine to sew materials/fabrics that should be sewn on an industrial sewing machines. Industrial machines do only one thing, but they do it well, fast and for long hours.

    I do this for fun and cannot be responsible for any machine damage. A product may not damage the finish of one machine, but will destroy the finish on another machine. Test everything first. Work slowly. It took many years to deposit the crud on a machine and oil to dry and become black so it will take time to properly clean and service your machine.

    Below are a few suggestions for cleaning, servicing and caring for you vintage and antique sewing machines.
    Use only sewing machine oil and cotton balls, leftover batting pieces and q-tips to clean very old or rare sewing machines.
    First, make notes or drawings andtake photos of the sewing machine as you work. After removing the slide plates, face plates, inspection plates, and fiddly bits store them in labeled plastic bags, empty egg cartons. Do not lose the screws as many are hard to find.
    Begin cleaning in the mildest possible manner and test all products in an inconspicuous place.
    Oil all moving parts with sewing machine oil or a modern lubricant such as TriFlow. (Liquid Wrench should be only used in a very well ventilated area!) I use CLP BreakFree to penetrate frozen or metal-to-metal paces.
    Grease the metal gears.
    While carefully protecting the black japanned finish, the clear coat and decals, clean the shiny internal bits with sewing machine oil, a q-tip dipped in alcohol and wipe with a cloth, cotton ball, etc.
    If the top coat/clear coat is intact, a non-pumice hand cleaner such as Goop may speed the cleaning process. Be sure to test all cleaners in an inconspicuous place such as behind the pillar.
    The shiny bits on pre-WWII machines is nickel, not chrome. Nickel is a warm silver while chrome is a much harsher silver color. Later machines, including those manufactured in Japan have chrome shiny bits. Use an appropriate polish for the metal shiny bits.

    De fluff, lubricate after each eight hours of sewing.
    Consider joining Yahoo groups such as WeFixIt, TreadleOn, Vintage Singers, and other fine sewing machine groups and use the search function of each group.
    I have no financial connections to any product I recommend. Due to health reasons, I use only mild products which do not have strong odors.

    • Suzanne

      I realize this is YEARS late in coming, but since I’m reading it in 2022, I know others are as well. Thank you for speaking up to let others know what NOT to do when cleaning up an antique or vintage machine. I shudder to think how many lovely machines might have been ruined cosmetically had you not posted.
      And just for informational purposes, there’s another excellent product which will unlock stuck gears and linkages. It’s called Free All and it works very well. The only downside is that people like yourself would have to use it outside (if at all) because it does have a yucky odor.
      I’m glad to know there are others who care sincerely about our “grand old ladies” of sewing. My 301A and 201-2 thank you.

  13. Carol Pickens

    Be sure to oil with good sewing machine oil, after cleaning, the necessary moving metal parts. Have the motor checked out by a qualified sewing machine technician especially if it smokes when running the machine.

    • Customer Service

      Hi, Debbie. Yes, you could have the machine rewired if necessary. However, if you plan to do that I would recommend consulting someone who works on older vintage machines and get their opinion on rewiring as well. They would be able to give you a better idea as to if that is possible with the current wiring or if anything needed to be replaced.