How do you clean and oil an old sewing machine?


Cleaning and oiling an old sewing machine is a process that requires you to be knowledgeable about what you are doing. Old sewing machines, especially antiques and some vintage ones, are metallic shellac or japanned (covered in tough black gloss). Their more modern successors are acrylic (still considered vintage).

It is crucial to understand this to avoid damage to the outer protective coating as shellac reacts to alcohol-based cleaners. This can ruin decorative decals and lead to a scratched surface. Acrylic sewing machines require tender care as well. If left unattended, their surface may scratch or crack.

To clean and oil an old sewing machine, you will need a microfiber cloth, screwdrivers (both flat and star), non-alcohol-based soap, cocktail sticks, earbuds, cotton yarn, sewing machine oil, an old toothbrush or soft brush, and water.

Cleaning an old sewing machine with alcohol-free soap

If you still have the manual from the old sewing machine, now will be the time to take it out. Manufacturers have instructions on how to carry out the cleaning and oiling of their sewing machines. If it is not available, as is often the case with vintage machines, just follow these steps.

First, using an old piece of cloth, wipe the dust off the sewing machine to prepare it for intense cleaning. It is advisable to check the condition of the finish of the sewing machine to make sure you don’t damage the coating. If the finish coat appears cracked or missing, avoid those spots and consider having it repaired by a professional.

After wiping the dust off, mix soap and water in a separate dish. Remember to use non-alcohol-based soap. You can consider using Murphy’s oil soap or Dawn dish soap. Dip the microfiber cloth in the soapy water and wring it out.

Then, carry out a spot test in an inconspicuous area of the sewing machine. That helps check the reaction of the surface to the soap. If the soap affects the protective coating or finish, stop immediately. If it’s fine, proceed to wipe the sewing machine.

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Wipe section by section. After each section, clean with a damp cloth dipped in clean water (with no soap). Then dry the sewing machine with another clean cloth. Be gentle in the process while continually being on the lookout for damage.

Handling the inside of the machine

Now that you have a clean sewing machine on the outside, it is time to get inside. That is where the screwdrivers come in handy. Most metallic sewing machines will need the loosening up of a few screws. Acrylic machines might have instructions on how to open up the casing. It is good to have a small dish to put the screws on, due to some being very small and could easily get lost.

Cleaning the needle and presser

Start with the needle and the presser. Unscrew and remove the two. Using the cotton yarn, wrap it once around the needle bar first. Then using both hands while holding on both ends of the cotton yarn, move the cotton yarn sideways to clean the needle bar. Do the same for the presser bar. You can add metal polish to clean even better.

Carefully remove interior parts

Remove the plates surrounding the feeder dogs to reach into the parts within. Using the cocktail sticks, remove the accumulated dirt around the bobbin and shuttle mechanism. An old paintbrush can come in handy in removing more dirt. If some parts are detachable, remove them carefully and clean. Place them back afterward.

Open the faceplate and clean the needle bar and presser bar within. They may have accumulated dirt and oil over time. Use the same cotton yarn move to clean the needle bar. The presser bar is not necessary to clean. Clean other regions within the faceplate using cocktail sticks and brushes.

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Afterward, finish with cleaning the tension discs. Remove them carefully, noting what came out first to give you an easier time putting them back in place afterwards.

Stop motion screw

On the other end, if possible, remove the stop motion screw. It can be a challenge with hand-cranked sewing machines since you will have to remove the handle first. However, in treadle and electric versions, it should be easily accessible.

Undo the screw to the stop motion screw and remove it and the washers. Note how the washers fit, so that they can be put back in place well. Clean the inside of the balance wheel, if possible, as most of the time dust and oil accumulate here.

Under the base

Now tip the sewing machine to reach underneath its base. A stack of books may be of help to support it. Clean underneath the sewing machine with the old toothbrush and piece of old cloth. 

Oiling your old sewing machine

You can now oil this region. If the sewing machine is electric, be careful not to get oil onto the motor mechanism. Tip back or put the sewing machine back upright and oil the regions inside the faceplate. Just put a little oil to prevent excess sewing machine oil from dripping onto your work.

Finally, oil the shaft. There are holes to put in the oil in old sewing machines. However, it is even better if you access the driving shaft and its mechanisms. You can open a plate in the back of old sewing machines and access these. Clean off any dirt and old oil residue left on the shaft and its mechanism.

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Put everything back in place and wipe off any dirt or oil that might have gotten on the surface. Then polish the sewing machine with sewing machine oil. Put some on a piece of clean cotton cloth and apply gently. You can use a small paintbrush to get into the inner regions. Don’t forget the cabinet and the treadle as well for treadle sewing machine versions.

Frequently Asked Questions

How do I get the rust off my old sewing machine?

You can use kerosene, a commercial degreaser, or isopropyl alcohol to remove rust from your old sewing machine. The first two are preferable as the latter reacts with shellac coating. Be careful because not all machines can handle isopropyl alcohol, which can ruin the protective outer finishing of some sewing machines.

How do I restore the finish of my old sewing machine?

It is not advisable to repair the outer protective coating of an old sewing machine as you risk damaging it further. You might be successful, but it won’t be the same condition unless you don’t mind the new look. It is best to have it checked and repaired by a professional.

How do I maintain the surface of the sewing machine?

In addition to applying sewing machine oil to your older sewing machine, you can also consider waxing. Waxing will leave your sewing machine looking beautiful. Apply wax and buff with a piece of cloth. Wax is applicable on the sewing machine’s wooden cabinet and antique and vintage sewing machines.

Be gentle with your old sewing machine

Despite being built solidly, old sewing machines still need a lot of care. That is because they can get rusty or wear out quickly with poor maintenance. Being precious artifacts, cleaning and oiling them regularly will keep them in top condition for generations to come.

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