Categories: Do-It-Yourself Ideas

Diy: Cleaning up Your Vintage And/Or Antique Sewing Machines

Many of us swear by specific products. I’m a fan of many of them because what works on one brand of an antique sewing machine, is terrible on another (such as chrome-polishing agents). I’ve seen discussions on many boards, up to arguments so heated that people leave groups. I’m one of them that left groups because of terrible advice that I KNOW will damage a machine’s finish.

I’m going to list a lot of products, from ordinary to extraordinary (priced on some – they’re not that great IMO). Feel free to send in suggestions, reviews, or other data on the products you use. I think the more information we have, the better. With everything suggested, ALWAYS test in an inconspicuous spot on the underside of the machine, on an inner area that has paint spray-over, etc. Be aware that using a heavy hand to scrub vigorously, no matter what the product used, can end up being a bad thing. A light touch with a need to repeat is always a better default until you get the hang of the product you’re using.

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Basic Clean-up

You’ve got several options to remove the dirt, grime, old dried-on oils, lint, and crud that these machines accumulate. The first consideration: what type of clear coating does it have.

Shellac Vs. “Acrylic, Enamel, Japanning-process” clear coat finishes

Ancient machines, especially pre-1900s quite frequently had shellac clear coats vs. the more modern style (I guess it’s closer to an acrylic). Very old Singers, like the earlier fiddle bases, are a lot more tender than the later Singers. As a personal example, my Singer 12 is more of shellac. A quick way to find out is to get a cotton swab damp (not dripping wet) with isopropyl alcohol – just plain old rubbing alcohol people have in their house. I don’t care if it’s 70% or 91%. Both will soften shellac almost immediately. Pick VERY inconspicuous place, like on the underside where there are little crevices that won’t show. Just start doing a gentle swab in the area. If the coating gets immediately sticky or feels like it’s smearing, STOP. You’re beginning a step of a “French polish” – and you don’t want to do that! If lint starts to stick, get a tweezer and pull it out. I have cheated when I did this by accident to the bottom of my W&G – I cut my finger on something, and had IPA on the table in my Old Bat Cave, and quickly cleaned the cut. My finger was still wet, and I touched the underside of my machine. My finger sort of smearing! I freaked out, as that’s not a feeling you want to experience. I’m lucky I wasn’t holding the top side. I merely wiped my finger, re-dampened my pinky and sort of smeared it back in place quickly. Not good for the finish, but it looked better than a fingerprint.


What is the overall state of the machine? Is it suffering from pin rash, rust (not on the bare metal – on areas that SHOULD be painted), chips, wear so that some of the clear coat/foils are missing? Has it been repainted? Your machine could have a bit of all of this, or could simply be in fantastic shape but covered in dust. Each situation may require different care.

Here are a few examples from MY collection:

Let me review the condition issues on some of my examples.

The 1889 Singer 13

It’s in fantastic condition. Just dusty and dry. Minor damage to the front corner from normal wear. I didn’t know about testing the surfaces when I cleaned it, but thankfully I just stuck with the basics because it didn’t need much. It’s a machine that just needs Gojo or sewing machine oil to start. Turns out that was all it needed (except for bare metal).

The 1874 Singer 12

It’s obvious by the odd color that it’s different than 1889 one, and although I know now that the 1889 Singer 13 is more of acrylic, the 1874 Singer 12 is definitely shellac. I was about 90% sure based on the color and how it felt – it’s just a little different – sort of more grabby – not sticky per se, but your fingers don’t slide as easily across the surface. I did the q-tip test underneath on a corner on the inside square frame and yup – shellac. This means it’ll take a different, gentler approach.

The 1910 W&G

The W&G – duh – obvious shellac. This was the one that I smeared my finger on the underside slightly. W&G are notoriously “tender” anyways, so if you ever get a horseshoe, be EXTREMELY careful. You can about sneeze the foils off. This got a lot of gentle q-tip cleaning in spots to make sure I first caused no harm, haha. I defaulted to Gojo  (after testing in an inconspicuous spot) and also used sewing machine oil on the areas that evidenced some wear.

The 1936 Singer 112w116

Well… it’s an industrial, and it’s new enough that I know it’s acrylic, but it’s got significant condition issues, particularly along the bed. This can be somewhat normal. They got worn down to the metal, and then finally got pushed into a corner when companies either shut down or upgraded. Then they began to rust… So you know where there’s rust meeting paint, there will be paint lifting, damaged, pitted, and it is extremely common to see industrials with pin rash, most of the foils gone from improper cleaning over the years, or just too-vigorous cleaning, etc. You’ll probably end up needing to repaint (as this 112 will need it). But if you just want to get it up and running first, you can clean everything as best as possible, and merely use sewing machine oil on the bare metal areas to prevent rust. You’ll have to really wipe off the surfaces thoroughly, so you don’t get oil on your materials, but it’ll due in a pinch while you decide what color you want to repaint it with. :D

The 1892 Singer VS2

It’s worn and probably was cleaned with something inappropriate as the foils are silver in places. I don’t care; it’s a fiddle-based, and I love it. It hasn’t been cleaned yet, but I’ll have to be gentle like it WAS shellac because of the previous damage and noticeable foil damage.  I MAY end up re-foiling it sometimes (or doing a hand-leafing to it instead so it’ll be truly golden instead of the more modern yellow replacement foils that I don’t care for personally but remember that’s ONLY my opinion so ignore it if you don’t agree).

The 1924 Singer 31-20

It’s an industrial, so it started out black, but someone repainted it, most likely in the ’50s or ’60s to mimic the newer colors coming out. However, they didn’t do sufficient prep. I cleaned it up to use it for now, but it’ll be getting a full repaint in the future. Since it’s a crappy repaint, you have to be a bit more careful if you want to keep it intact, or only throw in the towel, strip, and repaint. You aren’t going to cause more damage to the value with a repaint at this point unless you do a worse job.

When in doubt, treat it like shellac. By the way, a lot of the old hand-cranks, in particular, the hand-painted ones, are almost always shellac, and those hand-painted flowers and decorations are EXTREMELY delicate. Yeah, I have one. Pain in the butt to clean it, but oh-so-worth-it! <3

Per some of the members, White sewing machines are particularly delicate, so DEFINITELY use these ideas in a pre-test spot first! ANY machine with early shellac should be considered fragile as well.

How do you clean these machines? Let’s talk about products…

Body of machine

Many people recommend using microfiber cloths with most of the cleaning products listed below. Some stand by good ol’ cotton t-shirts that have the seams removed, so it’s only soft material remaining. I use both on my machines because I like the slightly scrubbier factor of microfiber cloths sometimes, and the gentle t-shirt material for my shellac-coated machines. Just wash them and don’t put fabric softener in the wash, as that can cause hassles with buff-out – like streaks no matter how much you buff. Grrr!

Applicator supplies: toothbrushes, chip brushes, small paintbrushes, Q-tips/cotton swabs, etc.

Sewing machine oil (regular)

Great for virtually all machines, shellac or not, and on the metal surfaces too. You can slather it on and let it sit overnight for that crusted-on oil or other schmutz. You can apply it liberally in areas with adhesive residue (like tape or sticker residue) – soak a bit of cloth and leave it in place overnight. It can soften adhesives.

I keep some SMO in a small jar (like a small jelly jar) with a narrow artist’s paintbrush so I can slap it on and get it into the deeper parts of the machine my hands won’t fit into. Also a go-to-lubricant – the “when in doubt, use this,” kind of thing.

Sewing machine oil (synthetic)

I think some of the recommendations are more popular in some countries due to availability.

  • Kerosene – recommended by Singer. NOTE: I haven’t tried it on shellac machines, use it at your own risk. If anyone has used it on shellac machines – specifically the painted parts (such as with a head unit soak to clean the inner workings), let me know the outcome. Can be used to spot-clean or full soak. You can find Kerosene in the U.S. at the big Orange Box home centers – out in the garden area as they have it as tiki lamp fuel, etc. Available in gallon jugs.
  • Gojo hand cleaner (original formula WITHOUT PUMICE) – is lanolin-based so it helps soften old oil & cleans years of dust/grime. Slather it on generously, let it sit for 10-20 minutes, and wipe off. Repeat if necessary. NOTE: There have been few people who warned that it was damaging to machines with worn shellac, so spot test on inconspicuous places first.*
  • Goop hand cleaner (WITHOUT PUMICE) – Use it like Gojo hand cleaner. NOTE: There have been a few people who warned that it was damaging to machines with worn shellac, so spot test on inconspicuous places first.
  • LusterSheen (similar to Goop or Goo Gone) – apply liberally and let sit, then wipe off.
  • Zymol cleaner/polish – mainly an automotive glaze so if used too aggressively can abrade the surface. It has micro-abrasion properties to gently rub swirls out of paint.
  • Autoglym Super Resin Polish – to buff out after cleaning for beautiful, finished shine.
  • Awesome cleaner (available at dollar stores) – used on the more modern 1950s enameled machines in general per some VSM members. Just apply it and wipe off. Follow with a rag lightly dampened with hot water to remove residue. Dry thoroughly (ok to use a hairdryer on low to dry everything quickly) – then re-lubricate
  • CRC 2-26 Lubricant – be sure to get the “safe for plastics” type. CRC 2-26 is plastic safe, multi-purpose precision lubricant, penetrant and corrosion inhibitor. Its unique viscosity allows it to cover more surface area and penetrate deep into the surface of all metals, including steel, copper, brass and aluminum alloys. 2-26 displaces moisture and leaves a thin, long-lasting film to protect against corrosion. Some use it to wipe down the machine to provide a protective barrier.
  • Murphy’s Oil Soap – apply, gently rub, then wipe off with SMO. Apparently, an alternative method to clean sewing machine head units for those with respiratory issues and/or chemical sensitivities. I supplied link to it for those who want to check it out.
  • Automotive Carnauba wax (any brand you like) – for polishing/protecting after cleaning. Some love it; some don’t.
  • Clorox Wipes (non-bleach formula) – wipe down the machine to help remove the smoke smell and smoke haze. Follow with SMO after drying. They “smell nice” per contributor.
  • Simple Green All Purpose Cleaner – for initial cleanup. Test on an inconspicuous spot first.
  • Goo Gone adhesive remover – Can help soften/remove tape or stickers. Use cautiously on foils that are already damaged/clearcoat missing. When in doubt on shellac machines or with damaged foils, soak with sewing machine oil (saturate – and even put a small rag or cotton ball soaked with SMO over the area to keep it wet).

Bare metal parts (brightwork)

If not rusted

  • Sewing machine oil (see above) – all types/brands – takes elbow-grease, but great to coat the bright metal parts when you’re done cleaning too!
  • Flitz chrome polish – it’ll take bit of elbow grease, but it can clean up reasonably rusty metal.
  • Simichrome polish – it’ll take a bit of elbow grease, but it can clean up reasonably rusty metal.
  • Autosol Cleaner – A metal polish – elbow grease intensive as well, but effective.
  • Maas Metal Polish – A metal polish – elbow grease intensive as well, but effective.
  • Zam metal polish – A metal polish – elbow grease intensive as well, but effective.
  • Blue Magic Metal Polish Cream – A metal polish – elbow grease intensive as well, but effective. NOTE: Can be more aggressive and has wicked stink so use outdoors or in well-ventilated areas.
  • Nevr-Dull Magic Wadding Polish – Also elbow grease intensive, but it’s gentle and does an excellent job on very lightly rusted/tarnished metal, and shines up chrome reasonably well.
  • Mother’s Mag Polish – elbow grease intensive, but if it’s good enough for chrome on cars…
  • WD-40 – can help clean bare metal parts, but don’t use it as the final lubricant per numerous members of vintage/antique sewing machine boards.

If rusted to severely rusted

  • Evaporust – slow but works well, and seems gentle. Be cautious of long soaks – it can turn parts that start out pewter gray to sooty black! Check frequently.
  • DIY Electrolysis kit – works overnight and does a killer job. Will remove paint, so if you have a piece with paint and a lot of rust that you need to redo anyway, it’ll do a great job of it. Bare metal gets clean quick!
  • PB Blaster Penetrating Lubricant – For loosening rusted bolts, etc. Be cautious of overspray – do not get onto the outside body/painted surfaces. Clean with SMO after using.
  • Liquid Wrench Penetrating Lubricant– For loosening rusted bolts, etc. Be cautious of overspray – do not get onto the outside body/painted surfaces. Clean with SMO after using.
  • Oxiclean Versatile Stain Remover on really dirty plated and mechanical parts (absolutely NOT for painted pieces).
    • 2 c. Boiling water with 2 Tbsp. Oxyclean
    • Add parts and let set till cool.
    • Rinse and dry thoroughly with a hairdryer.
    • Be sure to either polish or wipe down with SMO immediately to prevent further rust.
  • Aluminum foil + vinegar wad up the foil into a crunchy, pointy ball, dip in vinegar, and start scrubbing. Wipe off and follow with SMO.
  • Vinegar soaks you can soak rusty parts in vinegar. It is slow, but it does work.
    • If left too long, it’ll turn the part a pewter gray. Check frequently, in other words.
  • Isopropyl Alcohol (IPA) – apply with a cotton swab or rag and clean bare metal.
    • It CAN remove paint, particularly on older machines, so avoid getting it on painted surfaces.
  • Methyl Hydrate – cuts through varnished oil on BARE METAL.
    • Apply with extreme caution!!!! Make sure if you’re using a rag or cotton swab that they’re not saturated to the point that they’d drip. You don’t want it running across painted surfaces.
    • Methyl Hydrate is a synonym for Methanol, aka Methyl Alcohol. Denatured alcohol is Ethanol that has been made poisonous (denatured) through the addition of various adulterants. Methanol (aka Methyl Hydrate) is the most common, but you may also see gasoline, methyl ethyl ketone, ethyl acetate, butyl acetate, and others. Methanol, like ethanol, will evaporate completely, making it a good cleaner for that sort of thing. However, it is also somewhat toxic, so go easy on it, and wear gloves, please.
  • Kleen Strip Painter’s Solvent – This is the stuff that replaced MEK and Toluene to clean paint brushes – in the paint section at home centers. Like Methyl Hydrate, it cuts through old varnish ON BARE METAL in seconds, but cuts through PAINT in seconds, too. Apply with extreme caution!!!! Make sure if you’re using a rag or cotton swab that they’re not saturated to the point that they’d drip. You don’t want it running across painted surfaces.
  • 1,500 to 2000 grit sandpaper with SMO as the lubricant – This will help buff it out rusted metal parts and help bring back a bit of the shine. You can work through progressively finer grits as you choose.
  • I start with 1500-grit wet-to-dry sandpaper (available at automotive stores, Walmart, Amazon, etc.
  • I add SMO instead of water. The SMO makes it easier to “float” the sandpaper over the surface, so you have more control.
  • Use this technique slowly and wipe with a clean rag to check frequently.
    • This helps on significantly rusted parts (you probably soaked them in Evaporust and/or did electrolysis on them, so you know how bad they look even when rust-free).
  • Fine emery cloth – similar to using sandpaper.
  • Fine Emory cloths/boards – similar to using sandpaper. Just go slowly.
  • 0000 steel wool – abrades light rust from metal.

Lubricants & Penetrants

  • Kroil Penetrating Oil – penetrating oil for those heavily rusted parts.
  • PB Blaster Penetrating Catalyst – penetrating oil for those heavily rusted parts.
  • Blue Creeper penetrating oil – penetrating oil for those heavily rusted parts.
  • Marvel Mystery Oil – penetrating oil for those heavily rusted parts.
  • Kerosene – a penetrating oil for those heavily rusted parts, and a general cleaner as it is recommended by Singer for “soaking the machine to clean it.”
  • Electric Motor lubricant (researching name of it)specific for electric motors with the wicks (like Featherweights) – you can buy custom-crafted stuff from the Singer Featherweight Shop.
  • Vaselineto lubricate gears, etc.
  • Gun oil (various brands) to lubricate gears, etc.
  • TriFlow Synthetic Sewing Machine Oil can be used to clean the body of the machine and the metal parts as well as your go-to machine lubricant.
  • TriFlow Clear Synthetic Grease (for gears – follow the manufacturer’s directions if you’re dealing with nylon/plastic gears as they may have different lubrication requirements). Liberty Synthetic Sewing Machine Oil can be used to clean the body of the machine and the metal parts as well as your go-to machine lubricant.
  • Liquid Bearings Synthetic Sewing Machine Oil can be used to clean the body of the machine and the metal parts as well as your go-to machine lubricant.
  • Blue Creeper Sewing Machine Oil can be used to clean the body of the machine and the metal parts as well as your go-to machine lubricant.
  • WD-40 lubricant – a VERY SMALL minority within the VSM groups actually recommend it. Use it at your own risk – it gums up after a while and can be challenging to remove.
  • White Lithium Grease (aerosol)

View Comments

  • DeLuxe Family, Sewing Machine, Quality JAPAN: My first sewing machine bought from my grandmother. Does any one have any information on this brand?

  • I have a 1920 66k which appears to hav3 been inhibited with some kind of wax coating. How can I remove the coating?