Thursday, April 18, 2013

The Wrong Oil

I'm working on an old White sewing machine.  DH got it for the foot control, but I want to try to fix it up to sell.  The problem seems to be that the previous owner used the wrong kind of oil.  

It took DH's muscles to un-screw the center knob.  And my sons helped me get the handwheel off.  After trying to pull it off, we tried to pry it off with a screw driver, which didn't work.  Then we finally positioned a screw driver on the inside metal casing, and smacked it with a hammer.  That worked!

The "Before" picture is fuzzy, but you can see the red-ish, sticky, old oil.  That is what old oil or the wrong kind of oil looks like, and it feels tacky to the touch.  It's just like glue.

To remove the old, gummy oil, I put some WD-40 on it and scrubbed it with an old toothbrush.  It didn't get all of it off, so I used a very fine sandpaper to get the rest off.  The inside of the casing on the handwheel also needed scrubbing as did the center knob and the position ring.

So, what kind of oil should you use?  Only "sewing machine oil."  That doesn't include 3-in-1 oil, engine oil, olive oil, or FAX machine oil.  And, as you can see, it doesn't include WD-40.  We only use WD-40 to REMOVE the old oil.


  1. Just found your blog and I've found it fascinating!
    Do you mind me asking where you learnt to maintain sewing machines? (Although you're obviously going to say somewhere in the States .... whereas I'm in the UK).

  2. I've been apprentice to a man who has been repairing sewing machines for at least 25 years, and who was a motorcycle mechanic before that. I've been doing hands-on training for about 3 years. I did get to go to Bernina University once. But, Powerpoint presentations and service manuals don't compare to hands-on experience.

  3. I have a question...

    I got an old Singer 457 and before using it, decided to clean it up and oil it. I used sewing machine oil wherever I could reach with the tip that I had, but I ended up using 3-in-1 for the places that I needed the telescoping tip. I don't know what the previous owner used, but there were a couple of brownish-looking spots in there.

    Do I need to worry about cleaning the 3-in-1 out now, or will it be okay if I just be sure to use only the sewing machine oil from now on..?

    Thanks for your help!

  4. I would try to remove the 3-in-one oil, and the brownish spots. How we do that is to use WD-40. The problem with that is you need to remove most of the WD-40 or it will continue to break down the oil that’s there. At the shop, we remove the WD-40 with an air compressor and flannel rags. After it’s removed, then re-oil with a clear sewing machine oil. There are some great sewing machine oilers that have a long spout, and they’re not very expensive. They’re well worth their $4.50 price.

    1. Ugh... The morning after I posted my question, I found my machine had frozen. I'm in mourning... However, I do have a back up, which I cleaned and oiled (with sewing machine oil only!) and it seems to be happy. So, I can use it until I am able to revive the Singer.

      Thank you for your quick response! I love your blog!

    2. 3 in 1 oil is exactly the same as sewing machine oil there is no difference. It is the same as singer all-purpose machine oil is the same as 3 in 1 oil as well as other lubricating oils (they all lubricate, penetrates rust and cleans up old oil), only difference is that Singer sewing machine company doesn't want you to buy anything but their oil (it's called being proprietary so that they get your money not the 3 in 1 oil company).

    3. Hi Sharon,

      I beg to differ. I’ve seen sewing machines that have been lubricated with 3 in 1 oil, and they get this layer of black residue. In my mind, the name says that it has 3 ingredients in 1 oil. Sewing machine oil is just clear mineral oil. Singer isn’t the only one who makes sewing machine oil. We don’t carry Singer oil in the store, we get the generic oil from Brewer.

  5. My Wife has an old Elna... it was kinda working but she wanted me to service it... but I knew nothing about em and well I she said her mom just used to put sewing machine oil anywhere it it looked like she could put it... so I basically sprayed oil in holes (but not sewing machine oil )

    Now the engine turns but nothing moves anymore...


    I see the error of my lazy approach... I normally research something before I do it...
    Any suggestions?

    1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  6. Hello, I am glad I found your Blog. I have a 1913 RCA VICTROLA and I am in the process of cleaning off the old gunky oil and buildup. I was advised to use "sewing machine oil" NOT 3 in 1. I wanted to understand the difference. I've never even heard of sewing machine oil until last week. Now I know. Thanks!

    1. I found a great blog on the computer. A sewing machine mechanic's advice is to clean all the old oil (that shouldn't have been put there in the first place) as follows: (IPA is alcohol)
      > Service your own machine!!!
      > Run the machine flat out with no thread and drip the IPA on the race etc
      > and just listen to it speed up. Keep running it until it evaporates and,
      > if it slows down significantly, repeat the process until all the "glue"
      > has gone. Oil lightly. You can even disolve a little oil in some IPA and
      > use it to wash it into the bearings etc. without getting too much oil
      > around.
      > Oil deteriorates when it is left still. I used to advisse my customers
      > to get the machine out about every month or two and run it flat out for
      > a few minutes. You will be amazed at how much difference it makes and
      > how infrequently you need to have it serviced as it just won't get that
      > sluggish feel.

  7. I do like the idea of running your machine every month. That should help keep it from freezing up.

    But putting alcohol on the race won't do anything to remove the old oil. The gummed-up parts are the shafts and eccentrics.

    WD-40 still does a much better job than the alcohol.

  8. I just discovered your blog - it's fantastic!
    I have a Rocketeer (singer 500) and it's the best machine I've ever owned. I can't get the handwheel undone and I REALLY don't want to mess it up. Is it just brute force I need to unscrew it, or am I missing something? I imagine I shouldn't have to undo the screw on the handwheel just to loosen it. Should I just buy two strap wrenches and go for it??
    Oh, also I use gun oil (Balistol) on my knitting machines because it doesn't harden, or harm the plastic bits. What are your thoughts on this?

  9. Hi Lisa,

    There’s a small screw on the inside knob on the handwheel, which you need to loosen. Then just brute force to turn that inner knob. If brute force doesn’t get in unloosened, try heat from a blow dryer. Then if you still can’t get it undone, strap wrenches are a great option. I’ve never seen or used gun oil. I did look it up on google, and it says it’s a cleaner as well as a lubricant, so I’d say no, don’t use it on your sewing machine. It sounds like it’s similar to WD-40, which is a great solvent, but not good for lubrication on a sewing machine. Only use clear sewing machine oil.

    I hope you’re able to get your handwheel cleaned up.

  10. I have a pfaff 1197 that seems to have seized up,if I undo the clutch that turns but nothing else?Have oiled it,left it sit but still doesn't move?

  11. Hello,

    The Pfaffs of that type are notorious for having a drive shaft that freezes up. It’s in the bottom, right side of the machine. If you can work WD-40 into it, you might be able to get it free. However, I’ve found that I usually have to release the collar on the shaft to get to the frozen spot.

    Good Luck to you!