If some of the following seems to be merely stating the obvious, I beg you to bear with me. Much of the advice I offer you today springs from errors I have made myself. If I risk boring you now, it is only to prevent the greater agony of your making the same mistakes later on.
Some survive 50 or 100 years of life in more or less perfect condition. In such fortunate circumstances, it is seldom necessary to do more than wipe away the dust and oil the moving parts. Other machines survive less well and the only way to clean these is to dismantle part or all of them and clean each piece individually. It is a slow, dirty, daunting business but it is by far the simplest and most satisfactory method. It is possible to transform a filthy and sometimes unintelligible lump into a fresh, albeit "used" machine.
The object should be to temper the symptoms of neglect. Dirt does not tell you much and rust, if it is unstable, will just eat away at the metal. Before you start, make sure you have enough space; a bench or (clear) desktop is about right. Make sure it is an area which can be left undisturbed. The whole process may take a day or two and having to move a collection of unfamiliar components from one place to another may lead to unnecessary confusion when it comes to reassembly. Make taking apart, cleaning, and putting back together, three distinct processes.
This operation is made simpler by having the right tools, nothing unusual is needed: screwdrivers that fit the screws, a variety of spanners (wrenches), one of which is adjustable, and a can of penetrating oil. If you doubt your ability to put each piece back in its right place later, a rough sketch of each area before dismantling should help.
If the machine turns, remove any plates that conceal the working parts and turn it slowly, looking at it from the top and from the under side. It should become clear what each piece does, and make reassembly easier.
Screws come in great variety and it is important that similar but different screws from the same machine do not get confused. Be patient. Do not use undue force trying to remove a stubborn screw and risk shearing the head leaving part of the thread in the hole.
If a screw l seems very hard to undo, leave it, work round it, clean its head in situ. When undoing screws in holes in japanned metal, make absolutely certain that the screwdriver blade is not wider than the slot in the screw head. If it is, it will chip the japanning as it turns.
The advantage of partly or wholly dismantling a machine is that the cleaning process for one material need not interfere with a part normally adjacent to it made from something else. Oil should be kept well away from woodwork, which it will stain. Metal polish should not be allowed to lodge in the cracks of crazed paintwork.
The metal parts of were either left bare, painted, or plated. The moving parts, usually partially or completely concealed, are made or iron or steel. Visible screws, flywheels and the slide plates of lockstitch machines were often plated with nickel or later chromium. So too were cloth plates of many chain-stitch machines, of which the one of the Willcox & Gibbs is a typical example. Other visible parts were sometimes made of brass, which was occasionally plated as well.
Well-oiled, the bare metal parts may have worn, but should not have rusted. Sometimes age, or the use of inferior oil, may mean the oil has gummed the works. Where there has been no oil, these parts may have rusted. Even if these pieces can be made to move again by a few applications of penetrating oil, it is always good practice to remove each piece and clean off all the rust.
Plated steel parts, despite their protective coating, often rust too, the plating becoming a fragile bubbly surface. Unplated brass pieces go dull or turn green.
There are essentially two ways of cleaning metal parts. If the parts to be cleaned have a film of "gummed" oil or grease it is best to remove these with a solvent. Paraffin is reasonably effective, although there are degreasing agents on sale at car and motor-cycle shops which are quicker-acting. If rust or other forms of stubborn dirt are the problem, then it will probably need metal polish.
Always use a solvent in preference to a polish. It means less physical hard work and the risk of removing anything other than dirt is avoided. Often, though, it is necessary to use both.
The safest and most-effective metal polish is Solvol Autosol, which can be bought at most garages and motor-cycle shops. It is very mildly abrasive, but it is infinitely preferable to its sloppier, less-effective counterparts or the irreversible damage which can be caused by over enthusiastic use of wire wool or emery cloth. If a rusted surface simply develops a hard grey-black sheen rather than succumbing to the action of the metal polish, very fine wire wool or used emery cloth, carefully used, may be enough to blister this sheen and enable the metal polish to work. They should not come into contact with the metal surface underneath.
A rag buffing wheel on a lathe or an ordinary electric drill can speed up the polishing process but the manual process is just as effective. It is often easier to keep the rag still and move the part to be cleaned. A strip of coarse rag can be tied to some fixed point, say a table leg, and held taut with the left hand. Squeeze some polish on to it and then run the part up and down the cloth lengthwise. This is a particularly good way of cleaning screw heads.
Where plating has been badly corroded, cleaning may remove much of what is left. Where the plating is on steel, the polished surface usually presents a finish similar in appearance to the original, and safely free from rust. The presence of plating should be recorded. Plated brass, particularly slide plates, will look quite different if the finish changes from dull nickel to polished brass.
No hard and fast rules can be made about plated brass or steel and each decision to clean or not to clean will have to be made on its merits. Replating always looks wrong.
The colour most-commonly associated with is the black of japanning. As well as being an effective protection against rust, japanning was a cheap way of giving the largest parts of the machine a decorative finish. Each casting to receive this treatment was fettled and dipped in viscous black paint. The japanning was then dried in oven for some hours.
Coloured decoration could be applied to the black ground either as paint or printed transfer, though nearly all ms were decorated with gold leaf or gold paint. Hand painting was supplanted from about 1880 onwards by transfers. These demanded less skill to apply, gave a uniform finish and were cheaper. Another common way of decorating European sewing machines was by setting thin slivers of mother of pearl into the japanned surface. Once all the decoration had been applied, a final high gloss coat of varnish was sometimes given.
These painted finishes survived more or less intact, depending on the quality of materials used, the thoroughness with which they were applied, and the use and abuse the machines received in their working lives. Japanning can chip and scratch. A clumsily held screwdriver, sharp pins, buttons and zips, or even constant ordinary use, wear away varnish, transfers, gold and paint. The habit of wrapping a sheath of folded blanket or rag around the overhanging arm may have been a practical means of keeping pins handy but it is also an effective way of obliterating the decoration underneath.
Regular care and studied neglect both offer hazards to the chances of the paintwork surviving intact. Anything more than light dusting, over 60 or 70 years, will wear varnish and decoration away. Repeated applications of furniture polish can build up into a hard brownish translucent layer, difficult to remove. Neglect, on the other hand, may allow rust to take over so seriously that it attacks the castings, despite the thick layer of paint.
One problem which I have come across, and for which I have yet to find a satisfactory solution, is the crazing and lifting of varnish. Crazing is not serious while the varnish adheres but sometimes it becomes detached from the japanned surface, lifting with it the painted or transfer decoration. In this state it is fragile and if it is to remain in place, cleaning which involves friction has to be avoided.
Before attempting to clean any painted surfaces gently wipe away the dust and then look at it very carefully. These baked surfaces are often hard and durable and if there is a layer of congealed oil or polish, paraffin and rag may be all that is needed to remove it. Test a small area on the underside of the machine. See if it removes the film. See if it leaves a whitish surface or "bloom" when it dries and check that this bloom can be removed with a rag moistened with light mineral oil. Acetone or solvent are not safe. Nor is thinners. Spit sometimes works, but be sure it is not mixing with the dirt to form an abrasive paste. Above all make absolutely certain that nothing you do loosens or removes the remaining decoration. Sometimes dusting is all that can be safely done.
I have never yet seen a repainted well enough to convince me that the gains outweigh the losses. A in perfect condition can be impressively beautiful. We can see what it looked like when It left the factory and the freshness and vigour of the decorative finishes, which helped to sell it, are not dimmed by chips, scratches or grime. A "used" , on the other hand, can tell us much about its working life; which parts were handled most often, what sort of work it did, even how it was usually picked up. Even if the skills are available, I do not think trying to make a used look like new is a worthwhile exercise.
There are many types of woodwork associated with ranging from a simple packing case to elaborate treadle cabinets. The rapidly developing mass production methods used in the manufacture of the machines themselves were often reflected in the cabinet which housed them. Not surprisingly, it offers evidence of the refinement of machine tools and factory processes, rather than the skills of the traditional craftsmen.
A typical table is made up of pine, with a walnut or mahogany veneer on top and a moulding of the same wood running round the edges. Similarly, a typical case would be made up of veneered panels, sometimes relived by a sliver of inlay in coloured woods. Most woodwork of this sort was assembled in "Steam Manufactories", and glued together at high temperatures. The surface was almost invariably varnished, rather than French polished.
Damp affects all woodwork and this type of cabinetwork is particularly vulnerable. The veneers are apt to expand and bubble up, or the pieces of carcass wood may expand at different rates, causing the outer veneers to wear and tear. The varnished surface will inevitably get scratched.
The techniques needed to rectify any of these conditions are well known and are amply explained in a number of books dealing with the care of old furniture in general. However, it is worth making yet another plea for caution here; the varnished surface is the right one, and a bit of herut-searching should always be gone through before considering any of its removal, for the sake of uniformity and a new finish. Plain packing cases also deserve some attention. They were often thought to have served their purpose if they protected the machine on its journey usually by rail --- - from factory to shop or customer and being rough they were discarded. Those that survive sometimes bear the stamp of the factory from which they came and provide an interesting contrast to the stained or veneered boxes which could be had for a few shillings more.
Most treadle and some hand machines use belts made of leather. These become brittle and weak with age, and it is usually simpler to replace them than to attempt any time consuming and probably fruitless treatment. The original should be kept. Replacement belting can usually be bought from independent (i.e. not Singer) shops. Particular attention should he paid to the gauge of belting and type of connecting staple used. The small brass connectors found on Willcox & Gibbs machines should always be kept and re-used. If the pale colour of the new belting seems too obtrusive, I do not think it is too unscrupulous to stain the belt with Topp's Scratch Cover.
The Small rubber tyres often found on bobbin winders become hard and break or decompose with age, the same shops should also be able to supply replacements of these, though the original may be needed to illustrate a change of colour. Many American machines were supplied with white rubber tyres, rather than black.
Some machines rest on leather or rubber blocks; if these have worn or disappeared make sure the nails or screws which held them in place are not digging into the bed of the machine. Like wise with blocks on the base.
Newly polished metal surfaces are more vulnerable than when they were dirty. It may be decided that the visible parts, screws, slide plates, cloth plates, thumbscrews and the flywheel if it is plated -- should be lacquered. This will enable them to be handled in its life as a museum object, without the fear that each fingerprint will lend to rust or corrosion. Making sure the surfaces are scrupulously clean, one of the aerosol lacquers can he used. Obviously, this operation is simpler while the machine is still dismantled. No lacquer should be applied accidentally or intentionally to the japanned surfaces.
Once the machine has been carefully reassembled, lightly oil the moving parts. Most machines have oil holes each of which should receive one drop. Wherever one piece of metal acts on another, gears, cams, rollers, needle bars, slides and levers, etc., oil should also be applied, as well as on all bearings. Wipe off any excess oil. Remember to oil treadle stands as well. Some machines of the late 19th and 20th century are built on the principle of compensating construction which means that wherever there is a chance of a part wearing, there is also provision for the wear to be taken up. Needless to say, this principle has since been abandoned. Careful scrutiny of the underside should reveal whether the machine is of this sort or not. If it is, it may he possible to readjust it so that it runs freely, but silently.
If the machine is complete, it ought to work. The vast majority never "break down" at all, although sometimes they are wrongly adjusted, or fall into the hands of operators ignorant of the principles on which they work. If the handbook is still with the machine, read it very carefully with the machine in front of you.
(Incidentally, if it is fragile, make two photocopies of it, store the original and one copy for reference, and use the second). Make sure it has the right type of needle. Sewing machine needles have a short groove on one side and a long groove on the other. Different machines demand that this long groove should face in different directions. Make sure the upper thread is threaded correctly. If no Handbook is available, looking at the threading of a modern machine may help. Likewise, see if there is a logical way of threading the shuttle, if it has one. Do not be afraid to try different combinations of threading and adjustment, but always sew these test seams very slowly indeed, in case you are wrong. 95% of all old will eventually sew, so be patient and persistent.
If it is to be part of a static display, a ought to be out of reach and, if necessary, behind glass. The temptation to see if it really goes round proves irresistible to many children and even some adults. the same primal instinct can occasionally be put to good use. After repeated and vigorous admonitions to keep their hands well away from. the needle, children of about eight upwards are fascinated by turning the handle and sewing a short seam. This is especially true if the machine is unlike any they have seen before.
The superficial moving parts make more sense if the machine can be seen working.
Do not stand it in strong sunlight; the woodwork, if it has any, will fade. Dust it occasionally and oil it from time to time, always taking care to wipe off any excess, as it will attract dust and dirt. It will always look better and make more sense if it is shown threaded up.
If it has to be stored, one or two precautions should be taken. Like everything it must be protected from damp. If it has to be stored for a very long time (five years or over) in one place, it may be worth separating the machine from its woodwork and smearing the mechanism all over with viscous but good quality oil. For shorter periods, it is practical to rely on the oil applied to the moving parts of the machine to prevent it from rusting, while one lacquer should keep the plated parts safe. If it is not protected from dust in any other way, it is best to put it in a black polythene sack.
Treadle tables can be dismantled to save space. Indeed, this is probably how most of them left the factory when they were new. Try not to damage the lacquer on the legs when dismantling the stand. Tie the legs and brace together with wide twisted strips of rag so that no two pieces actually touch but so that the whole bundle is quite firm. Put all the screws, nuts and bolts that belong to it in a strong bag, label it, and tie it to the legs.
Sewing machines of similar size in rectangular boxes may be stacked quite safely on top of one another provided two smooth blocks of wood are laid lengthways either side of the handle on the lid to life the upper machines' bases clear and keep them stable.
Always lift a hand using two hands and taking a firm hold of the base. Never use the overhanging arm as a handle, for convenient as this may seem at first, it invariably rubs off more decoration. Even if it has a cover with a handle. It must be remembered that many of these lids and their locks were intended only to keep dust and prying fingers from the machinery inside, and not as carrying cases. The handle may only be there to lift the lid and not the machine as well, as some people have discovered at some cost to their feet.
Note from Graham Forsdyke
I heartily endorse all this well-thought-out article has said and particularly commend the caution over replating and re-painting in all but the most exceptional circumstances.