Vintage sewing machines

Fixing up vintage sewing machines for hobby use.

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My (adult) children gave me a vintage Adler sewing machine for my birthday. The idea was to use it for hobby work - I occassionally make things like phone cases from leather.

I love the machine. It is a beautiful little thing, and a mechanical marvel.

The Adler seems to have infected me with a strange virus - I have developed an almost irresistable urge to buy up old machines and rescue them from the junkyard (or worse.)

The recent Hackaday articles on using industrial sewing machines for hobby work convinced me that the old machines are a valid hacking subject.

This project page will be a collection of posts about my adventures in cleaning, restoring, and using my Adler and any other sewing machines the infection may force me to pick up.

"Vintage" as applied to sewing machines has a somewhat specific meaning.  Antique sewing machines are ones made before 1900.  Vintage machines were made between 1900 and about 1970. Modern machines are anything after about 1980.

Vintage machines were made after all the early wrinkles were worked out and before the manufacturers switched from all metal construction to using plastic in the housings and mechanisms.

The all metal machines are nearly indestructable.  About all that can kill a vintage sewing machine is rust or being dropped on a hard floor - cast iron tends to be brittle.

Supplies (needles, bobbin cases, replacement parts, etc.) are often still available for popular vintage machines.  Sometimes because there's a lot of new-old-stock still around, sometimes because modern machines still use parts originally designed for older machines, and sometimes because there's enough of a market that somebody, somewhere, fired up a production line to make new parts for the old machines.

  • Electrical power for a vintage sewing machine

    Joseph Eoff03/05/2022 at 12:56 0 comments

    Many of the older sewing machines were originally made to be "people powered." 

    While most folks don't know what to call it, most everyone has at some time seen a foot operated, treadle powered sewing machine:

    That's my daughter's Pfaff 31 treadle operated sewing machine.

    There were also machines made to be hand powered.  They had  a hand crank on the balance wheel.  The operator had to crank the wheel with one hand while guiding the material with the other.

    The hand cranks were attached to the machine using a boss.

    This picture shows the boss on my daughter's Pfaff 31:

    It's a bit hard to see, so I've marked it in red:

    The boss on nearly all sewing machines is about the same size and in the same location.  Because of this commonality, there are commercially available sewing machine motor sets.  You can buy them on Amazon or from other online sources.

    This is the motor from my Adler 8:

    It was probably not a good choice, but it came with the machine when my kids bought it.  It is rated for 10000 RPM maximum.  Given how smoothly the Adler 8 runs, it can probably reach a large portion of that 10000 RPM - which translates to about 1600 stitches per minute given the 9mm to 54mm pulley ratio of the motor and the machine.  An 8000 RPM (or lower) motor would be a better choice for the Adler.  In general, too slow is probably a better choice than too fast.

    The long slot on the right would normally be screwed to the boss on the sewing machine.

    My Adler 8 doesn't have a boss.  It was built before motors were a common idea, and it was built for speeds you couldn't reach with a hand crank.  It was intended for use purely in its treadle table.

    I don't have a table for my Adler 8, so I built a wooden base for it to sit on.  The base has a wooden arm as a motor mount:

    It is often possible to convert a treadle powered machine to electrical power by simply buying a sewing machine motor kit and screwing it to the existing boss on the machine.  The opening in the table won't have been designed with the the motor in mind, though, so you may no longer be able to fold the machine down into the table with a motor attached.

    If you've got the table, though, I do suggest you try sewing with the treadle before going electric.  It takes a little practice, but it isn't that difficult to do:

    That's me trying out the treadle on the Pfaff 31.  Up to that point I had never operated a treadle machine.  I didn't quite manage a steady rhythm, but then I was operating a camera while guiding the material and working the treadle.

    The treadle belts are almost always dried and cracked on old machines.  They are simple leather belts, though, and are still available.  You can buy them online for just a few dollars.

  • Choosing a vintage sewing machine for hobby use

    Joseph Eoff02/22/2022 at 13:26 0 comments

    In my limited experience, vintage sewing machines are rather like cats - they choose their owners rather than the nominal owner having much say in the decision.

    My wife was given her Pfaff 262 by a friend.  My wife wouldn't trade or sell the 262 for any newer machine - it suits her very well.  The 262 is a stodgy grey machine - its beauty lies in its abilities, not its appearance.  The 262 is a zig-zag machine, with some fancy stitches to go with the plain ones.  It is also fast, powerful, and damn near silent.  I wouldn't use it to sew leather like I do with my Adler, but mostly because my wife would not be amused by the changed thread tension settings it would take to do leather.

    My daughter mentioned handsewing a blouse (despite owning a modern sewing machine,) so I sent her a picture of her greatgrandmother's Pfaff 31 and asked if she'd like to use it - love at first sight.  Her modern machine is a typical beginner's machine - zig-zag, inexpensive, plastic, noisy, slow.  The Pfaff 31 is straight stitch only, treadle powered, quiet - and beautiful.  She's going to use it to make a stuffed (plush) animal for a friend's infant child - as soon as her university exams for the semester are completed.

    My Adler was a gift from my kids - they bought it because it was inexpensive and the seller said he used it on leather.  It was filthy and sad looking - and I found it irresistible from first sight. I've spent considerable time cleaning it and getting it back into a state where its beauty really shines.

    Between them, those three machines represent a good selection of the reasons to own and use a vintage sewing machine.

    The Pfaff machines are common here - we live relatively close to where the Pfaff factory stood before the company was sold off and production moved to where ever it is that things are made these days.  I can get on the eBay "Kleinanzeigen" (classified ads) on pretty much any day and find Pfaff machines in my area that I could buy complete (head and table with motor or treadle)  for a pittance - or just for the effort of driving over and taking it off the hands of someone cleaning out a basement or attic.

    The Pfaff 262 is "modern" enough that I can buy spare parts on Amazon.  The Pfaff 31 is common enough that I could easily get spare parts on eBay.  Both machines are closely enough related to more modern machines that consumables (needles, bobbins, bobbin holders) are available on Amazon.  User's guides and other information is available at various places on the internet - Pfaff still provides downloadable guides for many of of its older machines.

    The 262 was a professional machine for its day - made for daily use by tailors and seamstresses.  It is fast (but not too fast,) solid, flexible.

    The 31 was a home machine (a domestic, as sewing machine enthusiasts refer to them.)  It is not especially fast, but it is reliable and solid - and simple to use.

    The Pfaffs are the ideal case - good solid machines, common, well documented, have easily obtainable spare parts and consumables. They are what you want to look for in a vintage machine.

    My Adler class 8 is pretty much the opposite of the Pfaffs.  While it is a good, solid, reliable machine, it is less than ideal in that it isn't a common machine.  

    User's guides are hard to come by. 

    Compatible needles are still made today for industrial machines - which the Adler 8 was in its day. It was made for factory style use - it was made to be fast, even when operated by a treadle. 1200 stitches per minute may not sound all that fast compared to a modern industrial machine, but it was doing it with nothing more than foot power.

    Spare parts are a matter of poring through eBay, looking for bits and pieces and buying things because they were made for a similar machine and might fit the Adler 8 - or not, you take your chances and sometimes guess wrong.  I've...

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  • A quick look at our zoo

    Joseph Eoff02/16/2022 at 20:18 0 comments

    Between my wife and I, we have three sewing machines.  We had four for a while because I was refinishing one for my daughter.

    Let's have a look:

    Pfaff 262

    This one belongs to my wife.  It is her main machine - she uses it for just about everything.  It was given to her by a friend who didn't have room for it anymore.  We've had it for probably 15 years or so.

    The Pfaff 262 was built in around 1962.  It does simple zig-zag as well as some fancy zig-zag patterns.  Besides sewing really well, it is very quiet.

    AEG 376

    My wife uses the AEG pretty much just when she needs a free arm - that's why she bought it.

    The AEG squeaks and groans and makes a lot of racket - you'd think it was hammering its way through a wall instead of sewing a couple of pieces of light cotton cloth.  It is a new machine, made some time in the last 5 years or so.

    Pfaff 31

    This is the machine I recently cleaned up for my daughter.  It isn't as quiet as the Pfaff 262, and it only sews a straight seam.

    It is a pretty machine, though, and while it may only do straight stitches, it does it very well.

    The Pfaff 31 belonged to my daughter's great grandmother.  The machine was manufactured in 1939.

    The Pfaff 31 doesn't have a motor - it is driven by a treadle in the cabinet.

    Adler class 8

    This one is mine.  It was made in about 1926.  It is a straight stitch machine, and was (according to Adler) one of the fastest sewing machines of its time.  It could do 1200 stitches per minute when driven with a treadle - no motor, just wiggling your feet on a board.  I don't have the original table with treadle that it would have been in when new.  It has to make do with an anemic 100 watt electric motor.

    It doesn't manage 1200 stitches per minute when sewing two pieces of 2.5 millimeter thick leather, but it does get on down the road.  It is frighteningly fast when sewing lighter materials.

    Sewing leather is the reason I have the Adler.

    This is the first real project I used the Adler on:

    That's a holster for my somewhat over dimensioned phone.  I'm still learning how to use a sewing machine, so there's lots of mistakes to be found in the holster.

  • Refinishing the cabinet of the Pfaff 31

    Joseph Eoff02/14/2022 at 17:47 0 comments

    I ended up refinishing the outside of the cabinet for the Pfaff 31.

    I hand sanded it to remove the old finish, then sanded it just enough more to remove the stain.

    The cabinet itself is made of oak and oak veneer.  It was originally stained in walnut to go with the walnut veneer on the front of the cabinet.

    Many of the older cabinets were made in the same style and quality as other furniture of the times.  The machines often stood in the living room of the house where it would be seen by visitors, even when not in use.

    Later cabinets were made of cheaper materials, though I'm not sure when the change ocurred.  The Pfaff 262 (made in the mid 1960s) that my wife uses also has a good quality cabinet made of oak and oak veneer (though in a lighter color.)

    I sanded the old finish off the the Pfaff 31 cabinet by hand because I was afraid of sanding too deep if I used a power sander.  The oak veneer is less than 1/8 inch (3mm) thick - it would be easy to sand through that with the rough sand paper it took to remove the old finish.

    I left the walnut veneer alone - I didn't sand it at all.

    Sanding off the finish 2

    With the old finish and stain removed, I applied new walnut stain to all of the oak pieces.

    Stain, oil, and sandpaperInvisible patchesI used that bottle of "Fernol" on the walnut veneer.  Fernol is an oil based furniture polish made to clean up and restore old finishes.  It took care of the scratches and the house paint drips on the front of the cabinet.

    Shellac and ethanol

    I applied shellac over the newly stained wood.  I had a half a liter (or more) left over from when I cleaned up my Adler 8 and built its base.

    Shellac has a beautiful effect on wood.  No other finish I've seen comes close to making the wood grain stand out so beautifully.

    I use the ethanol as a thinner for the shellac.  The shellac I used was a thin "cut," but even so I found I needed to thin it some, else it would dry too fast for me to get an even coat.

    The refinished cabinet looks like this:

    Pfaff model 31 in its walnut (Nussbaum) cabinet 1
    Pfaff model 31 in its walnut (Nussbaum) cabinet 3

    After the cabinet was refinished and reassembled, I wiped the Pfaff 31 down with the Fernol and reinstalled the machine in its cabinet:

    Pfaff model 31 in its walnut (Nussbaum) cabinet 5Sewing machines are traditionally cleaned with sewing machine oil.  Wipe on, wipe off.  It leaves a thin film that shines and prevents rust.  You do have to wipe off, though.  My Adler 8 appears to have only ever had oil applied to it without the excess being removed.

    I think the results of the refinishing (though far from perfect) were worth the time, especially as compared to this:

    Cabinet 2

    My daughter and her boyfriend visited us this weekend.  They took the Pfaff 31 home with them.

    She's promised to send pictures of the first completed project sewn on her great grandmother's sewing machine.

  • Initial state of the Pfaff 31

    Joseph Eoff02/12/2022 at 22:08 0 comments

    The Pfaff 31 I've cleaned up for my daughter had an easier life than my Adler 8.  The Pfaff 31 belonged to my father-in-law's mother - that's my daughter's great grandmother.

    Great grandmother died over thirty years ago.  My father-in-law kept her sewing machine. He took the machine out of its cabinet and used the cabinet as a work table in his workshop.

    The machine was in beautiful shape.  It had a bit of dust, but whatever oil great grandmother used on it was wonderful stuff - it sewed like she'd just used it yesterday, despite not having been used in thirty years.

    The cabinet took some damage in being used as a workbench.  There were some dings and scrapes in the surface, but nothing major.  The worst was that the finish on the sewing table and the cover was ruined.

    The walnut burl veneer front was undamaged, though it was grungy and had a couple of drops of white house paint on it.

    The only real work to getting the Pfaff 31 ready for use was in restoring the cabinet.

  • Cleaning up the Adler 8

    Joseph Eoff02/12/2022 at 11:52 0 comments

    The Adler class 8, like many older machines, is finished in black japanning.  The golden decorations may be water transfer decals or gold leaf - I don't know how the designs were applied to the Adler 8.  To protect the decoration, there was a coat of shellac applied over the entire surface of the machine.

    The shellac coat on my Adler was worn off in places - everywhere the gold decorations are damaged there was missing shellac.

    Additionally, the shellac was soaked through with sewing machine oil.

    Given the damage to the finish, I decided to strip off all the shellac and refinish the machine.

    I felt bad about that for a while because of the (inevitable) damage that stripping the shellac does to the gold decorations.  When I found that many people simply strip the machines to bare metal and repaint them with modern paint, I felt much better about how I cleaned up my machine.

    Shellac disolves in alcohol.  I used 99% pure ethanol to remove the shellac from my Adler. I buy what is known as "bio fire starter fluid" in Germany.  It's 99% ethanol, and it is fairly cheap (a couple of Euros for a  one liter bottle.)

    I used paper towels soaked in ethanol to wipe off the oil soaked shellac, then cotton pads (made for removing makeup) to do the final cleanup.  The paper towels tend to leave scratches in the surface and to remove more bits of the decorations.  The cotton pads do less damage, but soak up less shellac.  Paper towels to remove the bulk of the shellac, cotton pads to carefully remove the last thin layer over the decals.

    After removing the old shellac, I applied a coat of fresh shellac over all the japanned areas.

    I removed most of the external metal parts to clean and polish them separately.

    This is what the Adler looked like after clean up and refinishing:

    I later polished some of the metal parts that I only cleaned the first time around.

    Cleaned up like that, I'm not worried about it getting filth on the leather (or cloth) or the thread while sewing.

    I wasn't going for some museum exhibition level restoration.  The Adler is meant to be a working tool, not a decoration.  All I wanted was clean enough to use and that it looks taken care of.

    The mechanical parts were adequately clean and (overly) well oiled.

    There was only one real mechanical problem, and it took me a long while to realize that it even existed.

    I only discovered it when I tried to properly adjust the thread tension to sew cloth instead of leather.

    That's a story for another day.

  • Original condition of the Adler

    Joseph Eoff02/11/2022 at 20:23 0 comments

    When I got the Adler, it would sew but it needed to be cleaned up.  It also had a small problem, though I didn't know it at the time.

    Here are a few pictures of the Adler taken shortly after I got it:

    As you can see, it looked really grotty.

    The last picture shows that it could sew despite the grunge.

    The machine was too pretty to leave in that condition.  Besides which, while I'm no neat freak it was simply to grungy to use.  It needed a clean up, soonest.

  • Introduction

    Joseph Eoff02/11/2022 at 13:22 0 comments

    I've had my Adler class 8 machine for a little over half a year.  In that time, I have cleaned it up and built a base for it.  My Adler was built in about 1926, if the serial number tables on the internet can be trusted.

    The Adler was an industrial machine - it was made for professional use by folks making clothing assembly line style.  It could sew 1200 stitches a minute when powered by a foot driven treadle.

    In the last month or so, I have fixed up a Pfaff model 31 for my daughter.  The Pfaff belonged to her great grandmother.  It hadn't been used in over thirty years.  Its serial number says it was manufactured in 1939.

    The Pfaff was a home machine (a "domestic.")  It was produced in Kaiserlautern, Germany.  That's about 40 kilometers from where the great grandmother lived when she bought it.

    The Pfaff didn't need any mechanical work or cleanup - it sews like great grandmother put it away yesterday instead of over thirty years ago.

    The Pfaff's cabinet needed a little TLC, though. It looked rather ratty after spending much of the last thirty years doing duty as a workbench in my father in law's basement.

    Besides not having a cabinet (and being filthy,) the Adler had a slight mechanical problem that it took me a while understand and find.

    Later logs will show some of the details of cleaning up and using both machines.

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