Clara's Cleanup Part One - Refinishing a 1924 Singer 66

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Clara's Cleanup Part One - Refinishing a 1924 Singer 66

Sometimes when constructing (not embroidering) articles we use a sewing machine – and all the ones we currently use in the shop are Singer model 66’s. There are two that are currently threaded up (Elizabeth, built in 1941 and Beatrice, from 1918) as well as a few others that do occasional duty and sometimes volunteer a belt or a bobbin case while I clean one from another. I didn’t mean to start a collection, but some I just couldn’t resist – and as hard as they are to pass up they are even tougher to let go. So Elizabeth and Bea have been joined by Dorothy (1917), Clara (1924), and Evelyn (1949), as well as a model 27 (Rania, 1906) and a model 99 (Helen, 1954). Whoops. Well, there was one on the road free last week, and I managed to refrain, so that’s progress, anyway.

Top-down shot of Singer 66, aged and worn with faded red eye decals. Ancient masking tape stuck to sewing surface.
The tape might seem original, but Clara is older than masking tape. She is slightly younger than water skis and convertibles, though.
 

A couple of these machines came in lovely condition, although most of them certainly did not – decades of grime, missing parts, and even faulty wiring are par for the course for cheap or free machines. But they were built well; even if their mechanisms are frozen up with old grease and disuse they often need nothing more than a good cleaning and a little adjustment to come back to life. I planned on doing a bit more than the usual cleaning with this one, mostly to see what a difference a timing adjustment and reduced friction from clean hardware would do for her stitching.

If we’re going so far already, why not give her a pretty new design to match? Cleaning her up as thoroughly as I planned would likely ruin any potential antique value, so there was no reason not to go all the way, really. There was little resale value to begin with; these machines were made by the millions and built to last, so they aren’t as rare as one might think. This one cost me $20. Ones in good condition certainly sell for more, but since I get them for use and don’t mind cleaning up and tuning them, I don’t mind getting beaten-up machines. These old girls are made to work, and with some patience and a good cleaning, they usually still do.

Vintage singer 66 sewing machine, faceplate off in grimy hand, internal mechanics newly cleaned. Faceplate is lotus or thistle design.
Cleaned up internals next to the faceplate, not yet cleaned. Strangely enough, Clara's faceplate will match the new decals we ordered for her. 
 

Clara, poor dear, was one of the worst off.  She came as a package deal with Bea, and I only narrowly escaped a third that day (fortunately there wasn’t enough room in the car for the cabinet). She was frozen stiff and quite a mess. A few hours and a box of q-tips later, we had her functional though still a sorry sight compared to her sisters. Her 98th birthday is coming up in a couple months - a perfect deadline for giving her a makeover. No more rust, no more age-old masking tape, no more worn and scratched details  – she will be completely refinished, and with a lovely new design to boot.

Clara, Bea, and Dot all have the ‘Red Eye’ decal design – the most common found on old American-made 66’s. People refinish vintage Singers with all sorts of bright and colorful modern designs, but I prefer the originals, particularly the ‘Lotus’ pattern. It’s not as common as the Red Eye in American 66’s (however it’s much more common than the Red Eye in British made machines, so go figure), but they are just as gorgeous. I was able to find decal sets for the 66 in the Lotus, Acanthus and the Celtic Knot patterns; Elizabeth and Bea might get makeovers too one day. Dot and Evelyn both have little wear on their designs, so they’ll stay as they are, just shined up a bit.

Motor mount plate for singer 66 sewing machine, held in hand. 98 years of dirt and oil have turned it brown and nearly black, but a lovely embossed design peeks through..
Ninety-eight years of dirt and grime, but still beautiful
 

(Side note: I found out that decals can be put on all sorts of things, and I think my stand mixer may end up dressed as a vintage sewing machine as well. At this point no small appliance is safe. You can get blank decal paper, too, and print your own designs.)

But back to Clara. With several dings, some deep chips, and a few patches of rust, she needed to be taken down to the paint in order to be smoothed out and re-finished. I stripped off most of her hardware – not only the faceplates and bobbin race, but the flywheel assembly, tension discs, feed dogs, even the bobbin hook. This means I’ll have to fix her timing, but it wasn’t great to begin with, and she at least has timing notches to make it a little less tedious. I’ve never adjusted timing like this before, but it seems simple (if fiddly) work.

vintage Singer 66 motor mount plate, newly cleaned up and shining like a silver dollar. Filigree design catches the light.
She shines like a silver dollar! When she's done she will just glow.
 

  Some of the hardware was simple, but some required a ratchet, penetrating oil, heat gun, and a pair of pliers, in a couple places. Ninety-eight years of lint and grime had compacted in every nook and cranny. One thing I couldn’t remove was the Singer badge, so I’ll need to carefully mask it off when we paint it. I put the pieces in baggies, section by section, to keep everything tidy and make it easier to put back together later. There are many different screws, and some of them are fairly close in size. All the bare metal will need to be majorly cleaned up and degreased to remove old oil and dirt before it goes back together.

With much of the hardware gone, it was much easier to strip the old clear coat and decals off and sand down the paint. I think the clear coat was varnish or lacquer or something similar; it was brown and sticky where I tested it with rubbing alcohol. I used plenty of alcohol and elbow grease to get it off to avoid breathing in particulates as much as possible.  It certainly cut down on the amount of sanding necessary, though it couldn’t eliminate the need for it entirely. 

A vintage Singer 66 in background, foreground littered with greasy rags and cleaning supplies, a hand covered in machine grease in front.
I never remember to use gloves until it is far too late
 

When it came to the painting and decals, I decided to call in an expert. My dad grew up working on cars; he started as a teenager and still does, though now it’s for fun instead of a paycheck.  Compared to the big wood-finish decals on ‘70s era station wagons, the decals on a little sewing machine would be a piece of cake. He inspected my sanding job, gave pointers on paint finishes, and promised a day where we could do the enamel and decals. That should be fun – but until then I’ll work on cleaning all the little bits until the weather and our schedules cooperate.

Singer 66 vintage sewing machine, sanded down to the paint and stripped of hardware in preparation for refinishing.
Clara in a shocking state of dishabille. That badge shines, though! 

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