How to Rehab Vintage Sewing Machines


You see them at flea markets, garage sales, and estate auctions: beautiful old sewing machines that you’d love to use on your modern sewing projects. Most of them are shining black with gold decorations in swirls or art deco designs. If you find a great deal on a vintage sewing machine, it can serve as more than just a great decor item in your sewing room. With some careful TLC, you can bring most of these old machines back to life, turning them into machines that you’ll rely on for years.

Unlike today’s machines with mostly plastic parts, the sewing machines from the 60s and earlier were made of metal. That’s why they’re so heavy when you pick them up: all solid metal parts. These machines were built to be family workhorses, lasting through decades of weekly use. This is good news for you, because metal parts don’t break as frequently as plastic ones do.

The worst problem with most vintage machines is decades of grime, dust, and contaminants inside the working parts. The key is knowing how to clean these parts without damaging them.

The Inner Works

To begin cleaning your vintage sewing machine, first remove the throat plate and you’ll find the bobbin case, along with the inner works of the machine. Pull out the bobbin case and use tweezers to remove any stray bits of thread you find. You’ll need a good flashlight, and you might be able to see the works from underneath. Use tweezers, makeup brushes, or dental picks to remove any accumulated dust, dead spiders, and the like. Once all the fuzz has been removed, put a dab of Liquid Wrench on a cotton swab and use it to wipe off all the mechanical parts. Change to a new swab when the old one gets dirty. This will remove the soil that can gum up free movement.

The Outer Moving Parts

Lay out paper towels and label each one for a different part of the machine. This will prevent the parts from getting mixed up. Remove each part carefully, taking note of how each piece was connected. Use small brushes to remove any particles from inside these parts. Inspect the belt carefully. If it’s dried out or cracking, get a replacement belt from a sewing machine store or an online parts store. There are stores online that specialize in parts for vintage machines; unless yours is very rare, you’ll be able to find a new belt. Keep the machine deconstructed until the body is cleaned.

The Paint Job and Chrome

Most of these charming vintage machines are black with gold decorations. The problem with cleaning these is that the formulation for the gold paint changed from year to year and brand to brand. The smartest thing to do is to begin with the mildest cleaning solution and try it on an inconspicuous spot at first. You’re not likely to wash away the gold decor, but many chemical cleaners can affect the paint and turn it silver. In fact, if you find a vintage machine with silver designs, it’s likely that someone tried to clean it carelessly in the past.

Begin with mild soap (like Ivory) and water to clean off the first layer of grime. Apply a soapy solution and allow it to soak in for about ten minutes. Wipe it off, then rinse to remove any residue. Assess the finish, then decide if it needs more work. If so, carefully try mild chemical mixtures such as Simple Green or 409, always testing in a small area before moving on to the whole body. Always rinse and dry after every attempt to make sure you’ve removed every bit of cleaner.

They may not do 120 fancy stitches, but a vintage sewing machine can be your go-to solution for quilting and sewing almost all your projects. Once yours is cleaned and running smoothly it can serve you for decades to come, and might even be around to pass on to the new generation of sewers in your family.

Happy (vintage) sewing!

Related article: Tips for Cleaning Your Sewing Machine

Have something to add? Leave a comment or email

Share tips, start a discussion or ask one of our experts or other students a question.

Make a comment:
500 characters remaining

37 Responses to “How to Rehab Vintage Sewing Machines”

  1. Joan

    I wonder why this article has not been changed to reflect correct information on cleaning vintage sewing machines with decals? Do NOT use soap & water or Simple Green. There is a chance that the decals will be destroyed by either of these. Brush off the dust then start working with a soft cloth and sewing machine oil. Do not rub hard. Keep rubbing the sewing machine oil in and eventually the built up dirt, oil and possibly nicotine will come off. The machines have a clear coat of lacquer over black enamel paint. You do not want to strip the lacquer that protects the decals & paint. You also do not want any of the water, soap, or whatever you are thinking of spraying on the machine to react with the decals and destroy them or make them change color. I cleaned a machine coated in grime & nicotine working off & on over the course of 5 days by gently rubbing with machine oil. The machine is beautiful now.

  2. Martha Benefield

    I am looking for a bobbin and bobbin case for a 1937 Montgomery Ward treadle.

  3. Lois

    I would use sewing machine oil before soap & water for cleaning machines with decals. I have lost/silvered decals with soap & water.

  4. Mary

    How can I repair a toy vintage Sew Handy Singer? It won’t pick up the thread to form a stitch.

  5. Kathy Coe

    How do we rehab a featherweights black carrying case?

  6. Suzanne Gabel

    To those out there with "frozen" machines. There is a great product that will help. It's called Free All and is readily available on Amazon. Spray it lightly (it doesn't take much) on frozen parts, let it sit a little while, then test to see if things are unfrozen. If they're not, spray a little more and wait. Usually things loosen with the first spray. Free All is NOT a lubricant, so once the parts are working again, clean them with an alcohol-dampened paper towel then oil or grease appropriately. When using Free All, be sure to be in a well-ventilated area. If you're cleaning an antique (or vintage) machine with the black "Japanned" finish. DO NOT use anything on it other than machine oil and/or a quality wax. Anything else can ruin the finish. That includes water, and in particular alcohol, which will destroy the finish, so be careful if you're cleaning gears and linkages with it. Vintage machines - those painted in light colors are safe to clean with alcohol, but a nice coat of wax makes their paint nice and glossy too.

  7. HANG

    I have a heavy duty old singer sewing machine and when I sew it, the machine doesn't pick up the bottom thread and the top threat went through just break on every stitch in the bottom side of the fabric. What causing and how can fix it? Thank you!

  8. Charlotte Miller

    How do you clean it off rust? Mine got left in in a storage unit for a year, and now it's rusted real bad.

  9. MAY

    Care & cleaning vintage sew machines seem very helpful, can’t wait to start on my old Singer.

  10. Stephanie Povey

    I would not use any of the cleaners listed in this article. The absolute safest chemical to use for surface cleaning is sewing machine oil.