Other parts of this series:
When we completed Part 1, we were left with about 70 separate pieces to be cleaned in order to restore this 1920 Singer 15-30. In my case, I am not going to clean or reinstall the light and motor as I'm converting this machine back to a manual model as originally designed. I'll be adding a hand crank. Later in this series, I'll direct you to information on proper maintenance of the motor for those who are working on electric model 15s or other classic machines, like the Singer 66 or 99.
The principles and suggestions in this tutorial can be applied to many different machine models.
These are the items and products I typically use when reconditioning a machine. I'm not going to illustrate each product and explain where to buy it. All of these items are available online, and you can perform a Google search to investigate them further.
My company is not affiliated with any of these products and we do not receive any promotional consideration. These are simply the products I love.
A variety of stiff nylon brushes and toothbrushes for cleaning. Avoid cheaply made brushes, because a cheaper brush will often lose bristles more easily while scrubbing. Those nylon strands might get buried within your moving mechanisms, out of site, and complicate matters.
Lint-free cotton and terry rags (or at least "low lint.") You will see that I also use red shop rags, but I use these for very greasy/oily applications and cleanup - otherwise, they produce way too much lint and small loose threads. Having some terry rags will be important.
Evapo-Rust for heavily rusted parts. It's very safe and doesn't reek.
Loctite Naval Jelly Rust Dissolver for mildly to moderately rusted parts. Not everyone will like this product, but I've had so much success with it for my entire life that it remains a favorite for me. It works quickly and effectively, but it can really irritate the skin because it is phosphoric acid in a gel form. I recommend gloves and eye protection, and always be ready to rinse eyes or skin with water in the event of a mishap.
Bluecreeper Synthetic Multi-Purpose Lubricant. This stuff is magic. They offer an SMO (sewing machine oil), but for cleaning your machine you need their original synthetic lubricant. The product "penetrates, lubricates, and protects." Throughout this tutorial, when I say Bluecreeper or penetrant, I'm talking about Synthetic Lubricant, not the SMO.
Alcohol - denatured or rubbing alcohol will work. Mineral spirits would be okay as well. Do NOT allow these products to get on the black finish of your classic sewing machine.
Containers that allow you to "bathe" parts in our various cleaning liquids. These must be a type of container that doesn't leak - so be careful of things like cardboard coffee cans. I use plastic containers.
Light compound cleaner for removing the top layer of grime from your sewing machine. These are generally products for auto finishes and plastics. To my surprise, I have found that Nu Finish Scratch Doctor is excellent for this - not for "removing scratches" but for an effective cleaner and polish. Another good option is Meguiar's #2 Fine Cut Cleaner. These products have to be used very carefully if your machine has exposed decals lacking the original shellac clear coat. More on this later.
Meguiar's Ultimate Polish (optional) for the final "high-gloss" polish on your machine.
Metal polish liquid or cream. There are many brands that work, just read the label and make sure that it isn't merely "chrome polish." You want metal polish suitable for stainless steel.
A heat source - a hair dryer, heat gun, or if you are willing to take great care, a butane torch. Warning! If you wear rubber gloves as I do, bear in mind that a rubber glove that begins melting from heat can create a horrible situation. If you are using a torch, you must also take great care to not accidentally put the flame against any rags near or under your machine/parts - or yourself. Keep your flame away from combustible containers and products. And since I'm stating obvious concerns, have a fire extinguisher or adequate water source nearby to respond to emergencies.
Rotary tool with buffing wheels (optional). I list this as "optional" but I really can't imagine working without one. I use the Dremel brand but you can find a much less expensive model at Harbor Freight - I cannot attest to its quality but I've had good luck with Harbor Freight tools. Without a rotary tool or bench-mounted buffer, your fingers are going to get a hell of a workout polishing small metal parts.
Fine grit sandpaper. I like 1000 - 2000 grit. Because we will be using it against steel, even 600 grit would work. Steel wool or green kitchen "scrubby" pads will do the job, but they create way too much debris if used near your sewing machine. If you opt to use steel wool or scrubby pads, use them well away from your machine on individual parts.
Brass wire brush. I use both a hand brush as well as a brass brush wheel on a motorized variable speed drill.
Cotton swabs - these can be either cosmetic or cleaning swabs and should not be foam. Be advised that these are very helpful but pieces of the cotton can come off. Use them carefully around assembled mechanisms that should be kept free of debris and lint.
Toothpicks can be used to clean tiny crevices.
Small to medium vise-grip or "jaw locking" pliers (optional).
Small strip of leather (optional) to pad items held within the vise-grip jaws. I use a piece of an old belt.
Padding and oil protection for your work surface. If you're fortunate to have a shop work bench, protecting the surface may be less of a concern. But if you are working on a household counter or table, you must protect it well. Old towels and cardboard are an option.
Rubber gloves - like the "medical" kind. These can really help to avoid staining your hands and nails excessively while working with dirty parts and fluids. They are also very important when working with the Naval Jelly rust dissolver.
Eye protection to protect you against splashing solvents/cleaner and shavings when using your brass wire brush.
Various sized wooden blocks (optional) are helpful for propping some machines in place while working, but are not required.
Let's get started!
For Very Dirty/Grimy Machines
Your machine might be as grimy and covered with gunk as mine:
On a machine this dirty, I like to first "bathe" the machine with a safe product. I don't use kerosene-based products on the decorated exteriors of my machines because some collectors have claimed that kerosene can compromise decals, and I don't care to touch or smell the stuff, honestly. Bluecreeper might not seem like the most economical product to choose, but it's what I use because it does an outstanding job of breaking down grime and it smells pleasant. (Incidentally, Liquid Wrench is a kerosene product that can work well to break down grime, but it smells awful and I don't want it on my decals. That said, it can do a fine job on your grimy mechanisms in place of Bluecreeper.)
You could also use SMO (sewing machine oil) to clean your machine, which was the original recommendation by Singer. It won't work as quickly and effectively as Bluecreeper.
Your classic black Singer was originally manufactured with a "japan finish" that received a clear shellac coating. Some will refer to this coating as "varnish," because technically speaking, a japan finish is a form of varnish.
It is not uncommon for the outer clear coating to be worn away in areas as shown on this Singer 201:
Seeing the worn-away coating on the image above, you can thereby imagine this same issue on the decal areas, leaving the decals far more vulnerable to damage.
Worn-away shellac leaves the decals susceptible to being dulled, scraped away, or having their color compromised during cleaning and polishing. For this reason, no matter what product you use - even SMO - treat exposed decals gingerly. You will learn with careful attention just how much rubbing and scrubbing any exposed decals can take. If in doubt, you may choose to only lightly clean your decals with SMO.
I've never worked on a machine with decals that could not withstand at least gentle rubbing with Bluecreeper and the compounds/polishes I'll discuss later. I simply use my preferred products carefully, and immediately back off if I see even a hint of a problem. That said, if I were working on a valuable model (either monetary or sentimental value), I would take extreme care with the decals.
I used a toothbrush and Bluecreeper to scrub the exterior of my machine, and I allowed the Bluecreeper to remain on the surface for hours to break down as much grime as possible. If you attempt the same technique, please "spot-check" your decals occasionally to see that they are not being compromised.
Note: on mid-century machines with their automotive-like colorful finishes, Bluecreeper will easily remove surface rust. Check out the before-and-after on this neglected Brother machine:
Bluecreeper will even clean your brass Singer badges safely! A higher shine can be attained with brass polish, Brasso, or Bar Keepers Friend. If your badge has a colored ring or special colored indicators (anniversary and special models), be very careful using polishes on the badge. Work gingerly with constant observation.
The "Business" Areas of Your Machine
We want the exterior of our machines clean for both cosmetic and practical reasons, but the areas that house the mechanisms should be cleaned for performance. Care to guess what I use to scrub these areas? Yep. Bluecreeper. As we proceed below, you'll see that when scrubbing the mechanisms, we're actually forcing the Bluecreeper penetrant deep into the moving parts giving us the benefit of deep cleaning.
Interestingly enough, if your sewing machine moves freely and the mechanisms (like the shuttle area) are dirty, you can often still sew effectively. These all-metal machines are beasts and typically far more forgiving of grime than a plastic and nylon sewing machine. However, clean mechanisms are going to vastly improve the reliability of your stitches and the precision of your variable speed control. But there is another interesting reason to clean your machine's mechanical and internal parts: smooth, clean surfaces resist heavy buildup of lint, help keep mechanisms in proper alignment, and errant threads will pull away more easily if thread becomes wrapped around turning parts.
Scrub all the areas you can reach with your stiff brushes and Bluecreeper. If you want to brave the odor, you can use Liquid Wrench or even kerosene.
Heat all internal and mechanical areas where you scrub. You'll be amazed at how clean and shiny Bluecreeper can get a warm-to-hot metal component. Stubborn oily gunk will give way.
Notice below that in order to make this project most accessible and comfortable for "newbies," we did not disassemble some areas of the machine in Part 1. The areas we left intact are all mechanisms that will typically clean up very well without disassembly. You may be surprised how far into the machine you can scrub using brushes.
Below, I applied heat to all those shiny parts and rocking shafts while scrubbing with Bluecreeper. Sticky, decades-old grime and oil were easily cleaned away. For stubborn areas you can try your brass wire brush or even the sandpaper that we will discuss later. Notice how generally clean and dry the underside, shafts and other parts appear below. This is because I took several minutes to patiently continue rubbing and wiping away the excess fluid.
A cotton-swab dipped in Bluecreeper is useful for cleaning tight areas:
Before we tackle polishing the black exterior of the machine, let's spend some time on rust removal and polishing the shiny metal parts.
You already disassembled your machine in Part 1. Hopefully, you kept the parts of specific components - like the bobbin winder - together in their own container or zip lock baggie to help you deal with the myriad sizes of screws when it's time to reassemble them.
For heavy rust, follow the directions on Evapo-Rust. Below is a before and after example of the level of rust that this product will remove. DO NOT PERMIT THIS PRODUCT ON YOUR MACHINE'S SURFACE - USE ON ONLY METAL PARTS REMOVED FROM THE MACHINE.
When rust is as heavy in the above example, the surface of the metal has been so compromised that you should expect it to appear dull, gray, and even "powdery" after using the steps explained on the label of Evapo-Rust. The dull, rust-free metal will require polishing to recover the shiny appearance.
For mild to moderate rust, I prefer the Naval Jelly. DO NOT PERMIT THIS PRODUCT ON YOUR MACHINE'S SURFACE - USE ON ONLY METAL PARTS REMOVED FROM THE MACHINE. I place the parts in a plastic container and brush the Navy Jelly all over the surfaces. I gently shake and jiggle the container to help the gel coat the pieces thoroughly. Following the directions on the Naval Jelly, I allow the product to remain for 15 minutes. Warning: please use rubber gloves and eye protection when working with Naval Jelly - it is phosphoric acid.
After 15 minutes, I rinse the parts with warm water and dry them thoroughly. I have a compressed air tank which is a tremendous advantage for forcing water out of parts with crevices. Without one, you simply have to dry with rags and perhaps "blow" hard into any crevices to help remove water. You should further "chase" water out of your parts using a light silicone (WD-40 will work), then wipe away the excess spray as thoroughly as possible afterward. Without compressed air, I would rather "bathe" previously-wet parts in Bluecreeper, then wipe them thoroughly with a rag.
Parts cleaned with Naval Jelly may be left with a dull appearance:
Removing Grime from Small Parts
An alcohol or mineral spirits "solvent bath" can loosen or remove oily grime and dirt from your shiny plated parts prior to polishing:
I also frequently bathe and scrub dirty parts in Bluecreeper, which penetrates crevices and small mechanisms to help break down and force out the "gunk."
Using Abrasive Methods on Stubborn Areas
I use very fine sand paper to accelerate cleaning the presser bar and needle bar, as well as any shafts that can benefit from more aggressive cleaning. I cut my sandpaper into a small strip. Emery cloth or emery tape could be used similarly.
My brass wire brush helps remove grime from areas such as the slot on the needle bar:
Polishing the Shiny & Plated Metal Parts
Apply your metal polish and follow the directions. All the metal polishes I've used require you to rub them on, then polish. You will observe black residue accumulate as you polish, and it will ultimately buff away.
When using a rotary tool, don't immediately set it to the highest speed. Polish at the lowest speed that the wheel will turn against the surface. You can increase the speed as you see the black residue polishing away. If the residue becomes sticky like tar, it will likely wipe away with a clean cloth.
(No rotary tool? Don't worry, I'll show you another technique shortly!)
Parts with a grooved/ridged edge, like the stop motion wheel shown here, can benefit from polishing the ridged edge. The ridges won't "trap" the polishing cream as much as you might suspect, and it's easy to clean it away regardless of the ridges. You can start by using your brass wire brush to clean out the grooves.
If you've invested in a brass wire wheel for a variable speed drill, you can hold the drill carefully as shown below to clean out the grooves on your stop motion wheel and thumb screws.
IMPORTANT: allow your part to touch the spinning brush where the rotation of the brush is moving away from your face and body. Use the variable speed of the drill to avoid working at an unnecessarily high RPM. If the part slips from your grip, this ensures that it will not be propelled at a dangerous velocity into your face. Keep in mind that a flying part could hit something else in the area as well.
There are bench-mounted rotary tools that can be setup with a wire brush as well, but my assumption here is that most people do not have access to such a tool, while a drill/brush combination is more common and affordable.
Admittedly, even better than a terry-covered board or a rotary hand tool, a bench-mounted buffing wheel works magic without much effort:
Polishing Without a Rotary Tool
Okay, your fingers, wrist, and shoulder are going to get a workout, but you can still polish metal nicely without power tools.
Wrap a terry cloth tightly around a small narrow board:
Apply metal polish to your part:
Rub the part against the terry cloth on the board. Start lightly to allow the polish to spread evenly over the part and actually get into the terry fibers a bit. Increase pressure against the board - this allows easier polishing.
You can do the grooved edges of parts as well. Apply metal polish then work the part against the terry cloth on the board.
Continue polishing your metal parts with whichever method you can. For those without a power tool, the board will allow you to get creative with your angles against the edge of the board:
There are some parts and mechanisms with crevices that can trap the excess metal polish. You can use an alcohol or mineral spirit "bath" to dissolve the residue. I gently shake the container or use a stiff brush to help the solvent clean the parts. Wipe dry and hand polish the parts once removed from the solvent.
Remember how we can't let the rust remover get onto the colored surface of your machine? This means that the shiny part of your balance wheel could require extra effort. Without the benefit of power tools, use your leverage against the terry cloth on the board.
I polish as many areas as I can to a smooth shine. Again, this helps prevent the buildup of dried gunk and lint, making your normal maintenance light and easy as you enjoy your machine for sewing in the months and years to come.
Wow, look at those feed dogs! Prior to polishing, my wire brush did a great job of removing gunk from within the teeth. Still, final attention with a toothpick was required to get the last little bit of grime.
I likewise use a wire brush to clean the threads of many screws thoroughly, especially the presser bar pressure control and thumb screws since they should be easily turned by hand.
You must be very - VERY - careful to not bend, crush are mar your threads or metal parts, but it is possible to use the leather strip and vise-grips to hold small parts for brushing and polishing.
Cotton swabs can help with hard-to-reach crevices:
With a couple of hours of effort, my parts are beautiful:
The Bobbin Winder
In Part 1, I opted to leave a portion of the bobbin winder intact. This makes the job a little easier for new enthusiasts, and it also is a perfectly adequate level of breakdown for effective cleaning. I use Bluecreeper to scrub the assembly:
I will apply heat to this tarnished/stained area of the bobbin tire pulley:
After scrubbing with Bluecreeper then polishing with metal polish, the appearance of the pulley is improved:
Having scrubbed this dirty bobbin winder with Bluecreeper, I want to show you something cool. I rubbed my toothbrush bristles on a terry cloth towel, and look at how clean the bristles are - an effect of the amazing properties of Bluecreeper:
Polishing the Body of the Machine (Bed, Pillar, Arm)
Remember I allowed my machine to essentially "soak" in Bluecreeper?
I then wiped it dry and gathered my compounds, polish, clean cotton cloths, and gloves to keep my hands and fingernails from becoming stained by the dirty compound residue. You can see that the Bluecreeper "bath" alone cleaned the machine to a level that might be adequate for many people. But I want a glossy machine, as close to its original beauty as I can manage without doing a complete strip/repaint/decal.
There is no real need to photograph the polishing process, because the technique is basic and familiar:
- Apply a small amount of your compound to a soft clean cloth (I'm using the Nu Finish Scratch Doctor).
- Use firm circular motions when the surface is large enough to allow it, and use firm rubbing in any possible direction in areas that are too tight or curved for circular motions. Avoid allowing compound/polish to enter the oiling holes of your machine as you rub and wipe near the holes. If it happens, don't panic as we'll address this in the next part of this series.
- Compounds are not typically left to dry the way wax is left to turn to a haze. Compound is a cleaner, not a polish or wax. Rub your compound firmly onto the surface and as it begins to look and feel dry, turn your cloth to a clean area to buff the compound away. Repeated applications working in small areas will achieve great results.
- As mentioned repeatedly, take great care to observe how the decals respond to any rubbing. Try a light touch and increase pressure by small increments. With any sign of compromising the decals, stop. Clean and polish the areas around the decals. With a carefully maneuvered fingertip, you can likely clean all the way up to the very edge of the decals.
- Buff the surface clean of compound and repeat until you have a pleasing shine.
Following the compound, you may optionally choose to use the polish I have recommended to achieve a high gloss. I apply Meguiar's Professional Polish very similarly to the compound - it just isn't as abrasive and is more forgiving in that it does not dry as quickly, and it buffs away very easily.
When I clean and polish the balance wheel cover, I take the time to get it very smooth on both sides:
Keep in mind that we will continue to handle this machine as we reassemble it, so its going to get smudges and fingerprints all over it. However, by cleaning and polishing prior to reassembly, we're not working around exterior mechanisms like the tensioner and bobbin winder. We don't have the risk of our cloths snagging on springs. When the machine is fully assembled, we will buff it again and if your decals could not withstand polishing, we might even perform a light polishing with sewing machine oil.
Part 3: Reassembly is now available!
Want to Learn More About Vintage Sewing Machines?
Our documentary, Still Stitching, is the only feature-length film ever on the passion for VSM collecting. History, technical information, personal stories, and dozens of gorgeous machines!
Do You Enjoy Quilting?
Check out our Quilter's Stash Box - the subscription box for quilters.
Share this post