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Reconditioning a Singer 99 Case - Part 1: The Handle

Posted by James Wolfensberger on

I love refurbishing sewing machine cases as much as I love bringing the old machines back to life. I know that there are many in our VSM community ready to tackle their own beautification projects, and I'd like to share some techniques as I recondition this Singer 99 case.

To begin, this case isn't bad at all, but the owner wants it freshened up. We'll work our way to stripping off the fabric and refinishing the wood underneath. We'll leave the leather because thankfully it's in nice condition.

But for the moment, I'm going to jump ahead a bit because while many 99 owners may not wish to strip the fabric from their cases, they might want to spruce up that handle.

It's always easier to refurbish an item when we disassemble as much of it as is practical, especially when there is metal to polish. However with machine cases, removing the hardware from where it attaches to the case isn't entirely merited if the case is solid and nothing is broken or falling off. I want this project to be something that most collectors will feel comfortable doing, and even I would not bother removing this particular handle, so we will disassemble the handle without removing it from the case entirely.

Remove the two small screws on top of the handle using a screwdriver tip that fits properly and snugly into the cross-tip grooves. It's very unlikely that these screws will be stuck, because they are screwed into the plastic of the handle.

With the screws removed, you'll find that you can carefully remove that gold "Singer" component out from the clear (amber, really) handle. It's a metallic coated paper and can be easily damaged. Treat it carefully!

Looking closely at the metallic paper, we see corrosion.

I'm not sure what that corrosion is exactly (mold, dust evolved into gunk by humidity, alien life forms?) but I do know how to carefully remove it. Start with a soft clean cloth slightly dampened with distilled vinegar. Yes, we're applying a damp cleaning agent to paper, but the metallic coating is going to allow this without soaking the paper. Start with as little dampness as possible and essentially wipe away the flaky grime with your fingertip behind the cloth. You should be using such a light dampness that it dries away quickly and easily. Take great care not to accidentally push the paper into a crease or fold as you rub it. Work gently and slowly. Don't expect perfection from the vinegar unless your paper is in great shape already. We have another step to really spruce it up.

After the vinegar, I recommend using a very light cleaning compound or polish. My favorite is Meguiar's Mirror Glaze #2 Fine-Cut Cleaner, available in many auto parts stores and on Amazon. I use this product on sewing machines as well. "Fine cut" means it is a very light abrasive, just slightly more aggressive than a "polish."

Use just a drop of Meguiar's #2 on a soft cloth. We don't want to attack this little slip of metallic paper aggressively - we could tear it, crease it, or even scrub the gold color away possibly. Be gentle and polish the gold surface until the corrosion is gone. In this next image, the paper is already polished, and I'm showing you that tiny amount of cleaner I recommend for the job.

 With the gold paper complete, we turn our attention to that crusty amber plastic.

Again with distilled vinegar, use a small scrub brush, a small stiff paint brush, cotton swabs, or any combination that allows you to clean the grime away from inside the amber plastic. This piece of the handle has always been durable in my experience, but be careful nonetheless! I imagine that in some cases the plastic could have become brittle, so I recommend handling it gently as well.

It's very important that the gold paper and the interior crevices of the amber plastic are allowed to dry thoroughly before reassembly - otherwise mold and corrosion will return. So dry the plastic as best you can with a soft cloth. I chase water out with my air compressor, but as long as you allow time for things to dry, you'll be fine.

Next, polish that amber plastic with your fine-cut cleaner. Again, I recommend the Meguiar's #2, so you aren't going to dull the surface of the plastic. Polish and buff the plastic with a soft cloth and you'll be pleased with the result. I do not recommend polishing this plastic with a rotary tool or mechanical buffer unless you really understand how the heat generated from a high-RPM tool can actually melt the plastic. Admittedly, I do use a mechanical buffer, but I have a light touch and good instincts about how surfaces respond to the buffing wheel. I suggest you play it safe and clean/polish your amber plastic by hand.

Next we have to tackle this oxidized brass.

Here's the catch: it isn't solid brass. It's a brass plating over either zinc or steel, which means we can easily polish away the brass if we're not careful, revealing the silver surface underneath the brass color. To complicate things further, the brass plating was originally coated with lacquer to protect the shine, and that lacquer is often partially worn away and often darkened or even nearly black. Meanwhile, where the lacquer still exists, brass polish may not do much because the polish isn't working against the brass plating, it's working against the lacquer. If your cleaning/polishing method cuts through the lacquer to reveal a shiny brass surface, you will find yourself polishing the brass again in the future to maintain the shine. You could coat the brass in lacquer again, but if the metal part isn't well prepared, the lacquer will just be trapping contaminants that can tarnish the brass beneath the lacquer.

My typical preference is to polish until I achieve the best brass-colored appearance that I can achieve and accept that the metal will require polishing in the future as occasional cosmetic maintenance.

When we have particularly heavy corrosion that a cleaner won't remove well, we have to make the choice of leaving some of the corrosion on the surface, or polishing to the point of having the silver-colored core peeking through the brass. In some instances, I have opted to purposely polish away the brass plating entirely, because it was in such terrible condition, but I hope you can do your best to maintain your brass plating.

In the example below, I made the decision to polish as much of the corrosion away as possible in a particularly rough area. This did remove some of the brass color, but the generally "less corroded" appearance coupled with an allover shine was a decent result.

If this is new to you, you just love your case, and you want to take very careful steps to avoid damaging your leather, I recommend masking it off before we aggressively clean and polish the brass.

With the leather protected, I can scrub with a small brush; I can use damp cleaning products, and I can even carefully use a rotary tool for polishing. Don't expect the masking tape to be an impenetrable shield, but it does help you to work with less concern for the leather surface.

A rotary tool is very helpful to a VSM collector. It makes polishing your silver/nickel parts much easier than working strictly by hand, and with care you can use it on brass as well. Most people know the Dremel brand, which I use. However Harbor Freight has a really inexpensive model. I can't vouch for it, but I've found many of the economy tools at Harbor Freight to be perfectly functional.

When polishing metal - especially plated metal - with a rotary tool, take care to start at a low rotation speed/RPM and slowly increase your speed as you observe how the metal's surface is responding. Don't immediately crank your tool to its highest speed. Use a metal polish (not "chrome" polish) and allow the rotary tool's buffing attachment to really work the polish over the item at a slow to moderate speed - you'll see the polishing compound turn very black as a shiny surface is exposed.

If you want to try using kitchen products rather than purchasing metal polish, try baking soda and lemon juice mixed to a paste. It may not do a great job by hand if you're dealing with a crusty lacquer or a heavily corroded surface, but a rotary tool might give it the umph it needs.

The residual polish can be cleaned away from crevices with a small stiff brush and a little of the distilled vinegar if necessary. Then buff your metal to it's final shine by hand.

Once you've done your best to polish the metal, make sure your metallic paper and plastic handle are perfectly dry, then reassemble. Here you see that the metal isn't flawless - it is decades old - but it certainly looks clean and has a reasonable shine. The metallic paper and the plastic handle look fresh again. 

When beautifying VSMs or their cases and related hardware, little details can make a worthwhile difference. I liken this to detailing a car. If you bother to also polish the screw heads and do your best to remove any gunk in the little cross-tip grooves, your handle will look better than leaving the screw heads tarnished.

To clean the leather, I use another Meguiar's product - their Leather Cleaner and Conditioner. Mother's brand makes a good leather product as well. You probably have your own favorite. The only point I would like to make is I recommend avoiding "The Original" Armor All. Better products clean and condition. Original Armor All just kind of coats the surface with a shiny silicone that's going to dry out quickly and likely do more harm than good over time. I'm into classic cars also, and I've seen the results from ongoing use of "The Original" Armor All - not good. Meanwhile, they have other specialized products that I have not tried, because I'm just not a fan of the brand.

If you've done your handle, you'll be comfortable proceeding to your latches as well, using the same techniques to clean and polish them. Always be careful that you don't polish away the brass plating, unless you intend to.

Best of luck with all your do-it-yourself endeavors! If you prefer to spend your time sewing and let someone else do the dirty work, we can do it for you - just contact us for pricing and planning.

Ready for Part 2: Removing Fabric? Click here to proceed!



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