Saturday, July 30, 2011

A Visual Guide to Identifying Singers from Crappy Craigslist Photos, Part 3: Is it a 201?

In the first two parts of this series, we learned to identify model 15s. If you've ruled out the model 15, we'll next see if it's a 201 before moving on.

The 201 can often be mistaken for a 66 in bad Craigslist photos, because the silhouettes can seem similar. If the photo's high-quality, you can see the difference, as below:


But many times the photo is too small, dark or blurry to clearly see the top line. In that case, we resort to identifying a 201 based on a few things.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Craigslist Adventures in Vintage Sewing Machine Buying, Part 1

I'll interrupt the "Identifying Singers" guide here to briefly mention why buying sewing machines on Craigslist can be a real pain. Here's an actual photo someone sent me when I asked to see the sewing machine they were selling:

The worst part is, that's happened to me (and some of you) more than once. It just blows me away. It makes me want to e-mail them back saying "Do you want to buy my car? Here's a photo:"

Or maybe I should invite some friends over for dinner. I can e-mail them saying "Are you hungry? I was thinking about making this:"

Lastly, I'm thinking I should carry this photo around in my wallet. During small talk with strangers I could say "Check out my girlfriend, ain't she a looker?"

Craigslist can be pretty amazing.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

A Visual Guide to Identifying Singers from Crappy Craigslist Photos, Part 2: Narrowing Down the Model 15

In the last entry we learned to deduce if we were looking at a model 15--or something else--based on the giveaway "runway" and "ski jump" of the machine's profile.

If it is a model 15, we'll next figure out if it's a 15-91 with the potted (direct-drive) motor, a 15-90 with the side-mounted (belt-drive) motor, or an earlier model 15 that might have been treadled, hand-cranked or converted to electric.

If it's a 15-91 or 15-90, it will have minimal decals on the arm, just saying SINGER with some slight flourishes (see top photo). Earlier model 15s will have more extreme, ornate decals on the arm and pillar, like these:

Photo too small to see detail, but you can see a lot of gold on the arm, too much to be a modern 15.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

A Visual Guide to Identifying Singers from Crappy Craigslist Photos, Part 1

This is a visual guide to identifying certain black, cast-iron vintage Singer machines: The 66, 99, 201, 206, and 15 both potted and belted. These are the models I find to be most common in my area (NYC).

The excellent online Singer identification guide from Sandman Collectibles is the current gold standard for identifying vintage Singer machines. It asks you to check off a list of features seen on your machine, narrowing it down until you arrive at the model number. It's predicated on having the machine in front of you, where you can see everything clearly.

But what if you're looking at a tiny, dark, poorly shot, grainy, out-of-focus photo on Craigslist or eBay and can't answer all of the questions asked by the Sandman page? This will help SOME of you (please read the caveat at the bottom of this entry) to look at a Craigslist photo and figure out if it's the model you're looking for or not. In general I don't look for common technical details like where the tension dial is or what side the light is on; I just look at the overall lines of the machine and a couple of clues that show up no matter how crappy the photo.

Case in point--the other day I clicked on a Craigslist ad saying only "Singer sewing machine" and saw this photo:

The photo's small, dark, shot from a weird angle and shows no detail, but I immediately knew it was a model 99. (I later e-mailed the woman and she confirmed it.) How did I know? You'll find out in this series of entries.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

A Look at Spoked Handwheels

Until the solid handwheel became standard sometime in the 1930s (I believe), Singer made spoked handwheels or "balance wheels," as they were then known.

I'm guessing they phased them out for both practical and safety reasons. Spoked handwheels were heftier than their solid successors, and the extra mass provided momentum that probably came in handy when machines were hand-cranked and treadle-powered; the advent of electric motors obviated that need. As far as safety, if a child or careless operator stuck their fingers between the spokes while the machine was running at high speed, the results would probably have been unpleasant.

Here are three different types of spoked handwheel you're liable to come across:

Left, replica. Center, Singer original 5.5". Right, Singer original 6".
First let's look at the one in the center. I don't have hard dates on this, but I believe this is the one you were liable to find on a Singer of the 1920s.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Documented Fix: Singer 237 Tension Assembly

I only collect and repair certain models of black cast-iron Singers made through the 1950s, and those are all I planned to cover in this blog; but when my neighbor mentioned she had a thrift-store 237 that was giving her problems, I couldn't help but take a look. (While I solved the problem, this post will be more of a documented fix than a tutorial, as I've only performed this procedure a couple times and don't know it thoroughly enough to try to teach it yet.)

First thing that jumped out at me was the duct-tape spool pin. I don't know much about the 237 except that it's from the '60s, and my first thought was "Wow, Singer really started cutting corners." My neighbor confessed to creating the spool pin.

I started reading up on the 237 on the Yahoo Vintage Singers group--it is a wealth of information--and found that it's actually a well-regarded zig-zag machine, the last of the all-metal interiors Singer made (although the little door that holds the rotating hook in place is plastic).

She said the machine was giving her tension problems. When I first encounter a machine, I never plug it in and start running it, not since I found a finish nail buried inside a 221, and a 201 with a mis-installed hook retaining ring. Had I plugged either of those machines in and hit the gas, I might've wrecked something. So I always eyeball the machine first.

Giving the 237 a visual once-over both inside and out, it finally hit me. Folks, you notice anything unusual about this photo?

Let me zoom in for you:

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

How to Oil Your Sewing Machine (Using the 221 Featherweight as an Example)

Oiling your machine can seem intimidating for the mechanically-challenged, but like most things I'll cover here, it becomes quick and easy the more you do it. And you should do it, so that your machine will last and last. (It's also important not to overdo it, which I'll cover below.) See that machine up above? It's a 1937 model 221, the first Featherweight I ever fixed up, which I gave to a friend for her birthday. It runs like a top and I plan for it to continue doing so through regular oiling.

These guidelines can be applied to any machine, but I'm using a 221 here because someone specifically requested a 221 oiling demo.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Get That Silver Shiny!

Today we'll cover cleaning up the shiny, silver parts of your machine. I've had very good results using Maas Metal Polish, which kind of smells like lavender. It's the first metal polish I tried, so I can't say if it's better than any others; if there's an alternate product you recommend, please let us know in the comments.

Here's a 201-2 with a not-so-nice stop motion wheel. That's the knurled silver dial unsexily referred to in the Adjuster's Manual as the "clamp screw."

Now let's get down to work.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Screwdriver Check for Readers in Australia, Canada, China, UK Etc.

In the bobbin case removal tutorial, I asked you to use a US dollar bill to see if your screwdriver blade was the appropriate width, because I figured everyone would have a dollar bill. But now I see in the blog stats there are readers overseas as well, and you guys probably don't have as much of our precious currency on hand as you'd like.

Instead of mailing you all dollar bills, I've been casting about my apartment for measuring devices indigenous to your countries, like a kangaroo, a flapjack, a chopstick, a press scandal, et cetera when I realized I should just use the machine itself. So here it is: If you have a Singer 201, don't have the little silver Singer screwdriver, and want to see if a different small screwdriver is one you can use to pop the bobbin case clip open, check it this way:

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

201 Bobbin Case & Retaining Ring Re-Installation

First we covered How to remove the bobbin case, then we went over How to remove and replace the rotating hook assembly. Now that we've got the hook assembly area nice and spiffy, time to get everything back together. You may have heard that it's difficult to get the bobbin case and retaining ring back together, but you're going to be thrilled with how easy this is. First, put a drop of oil in the hook assembly, on the little track where the bobbin case will ride.

201 Hook Assembly Removal

We've removed the bobbin case in the last entry, revealing the bare hook assembly beneath. As you can see in the photo, the area underneath the hook assembly is filthy. We've got the bobbin case off, so we might as well remove the hook assembly to clean down there. We only need to remove one screw, that big one in the center.

This screw is a rare case where a B-Square bit (#10 3/8) fits perfectly, and a Brownells bit (#360-4) is workable but not a perfect fit. If you have the Chapman screwdriver set, the bit labeled "98" is likewise just a passable fit, not perfect. (UPDATE: On one of my 201s, I found the Chapman "97" bit fit better than the "98," although both machines have screws with slots that seem identical to the naked eye. Test both bits first--stick them in the slot by themselves and wiggle them loosely--to see which is a better fit before you start to remove the screw.)

Click here to read an earlier post about these screwdriver sets, and click here if you need to order the Brownells bit.

Please note that the Chapman bit numbers are read with the blade pointing to the left. In other words, this is a "98," not an "86:"

Try the Chapman "98" bit as well as the "97" to see which fits better.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

How To Remove a 201 Bobbin Case

Taking the bobbin case out of a 201-2 is simple. Dead simple. These instructions look long, but you'll only have to follow along with them once or twice. After you do this a couple times, it'll be as easy as removing the gas cap on your car.

You will need the correct tools: A screwdriver with good bits, and the small, silver Singer screwdriver (pictured up top) that came with many machines.

If you don't have the Singer screwdriver, find the tiniest flathead (slotted) screwdriver you can find. To see if it's the right size, take out a dollar bill. See those letters at the top of the bill that say FEDERAL RESERVE NOTE? The width of the screwdriver blade's edge should be about the same height as those letters, as seen in the photo below. If it's much smaller or bigger than the letters, it will probably not work. (Update: If you don't have U.S. money to check with, click here.)


Screwdrivers, Part 5: Bits That Fit a 201-2

Above and below are photos of screws you might need to get to on a Singer 201-2, and the corresponding Brownells screwdriver bit number that will fit that screw. You can then order the bits you need at this link to Brownell's website (at $2.99 a pop).

I'm not sure if this is helpful to anyone, but if it is and there's a high enough demand, I can do a similar "Bits That Fit" for a 221 Featherweight, a 206 or a 99.

I've made these photos pretty big, because on other instructional websites I've seen I always find the photos too small. If these are difficult for you to load, too big, or not big enough, please let me know in the comments.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Screwdrivers, Part 4: Bits That Will Fit a 15-91

If you've already got some assorted screwdriver bits that will fit parts of your Singers, and a bit-holding screwdriver handle, you don't need to purchase an entire set. You can save a couple bucks by ordering just the individual bits you need from a company like Brownells. So what I've done here is photographed the various parts of a 15-91 and labeled, below, which Brownells bit will fit it. (I figured looking at photos of the screws in question is easier than figuring out the name of the screw and checking that against a list.)

You can then order the bits you need at this link to Brownell's website. They're $2.99 a pop. Happy fixing!

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Screwdrivers, Part 3: Which Set Do I (or Don't I) Need?

As I mentioned earlier, a good set of hollow-ground screwdriver bits is a must if you're going to work on your machine. You can choose to buy an entire set or buy the bits individually, which may work out cheaper depending on your needs. If you are a gun-owning household, you may already have a set lying around the house, as gunsmithing screwdrivers are hollow-ground. (By the way, the hexagonal shafts of screwdriver bits are standardized, so you can use any bit with any other manufacturer's handle.)

Here I'll review the three sets I have experience with, and point out some purchasing errors I made, in hopes you won't do the same. If you already have some screwdriver bits that fit some Singer parts, do not buy an entirely new set, that's a waste of money. Just wait until the next entry, where I'll cover some individual bits you can add to the ones you have. That will be a lot cheaper.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Screwdrivers, Part 2: Removing Your Needle Plate and Feed Dogs

Up top is a Singer 201-2, a 206, a 15-91 and a 221 Featherweight. They all use the same feed dog screws and needleplate screws. You'll want to remove your needleplate and feed dogs pretty regularly to clean out all the lint that gathers underneath them. Now let's talk about how to easily get them off.

In the last post, I wrote about how the arm of the machine makes it impossible to get a screwdriver straight into the needle plate or feed dog screws. Even the stubbiest screwdriver just won't fit. That doesn't stop other people from trying (and failing), so inevitably you'll see these machines with partially stripped screws.

If there's any purchase left in the screw at all, here's two tools you can use to get those screws out. (If they're already too stripped, you'll have to take it to a pro.)

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Getting Comfortable Wrenching on Your Machines: Screwdrivers, Part 1

Worth fixing.

I'd happily spend the weekend tearing a machine down, but that's not everyone's cup of tea. An experienced sewist friend told me "Most sewers don't care or want know anything about the mechanics [of the machine]. They just want to sew." I get that. But I still want to use this blog to illustrate some simple things you can do to keep your machine in top condition.

Experienced wrenchers may find my tutorials too dumbed-down. There's a reason for that. A lot of people tried their best to help me in the beginning, but because they were already experienced, they'd say things like "take your screwdriver," or "get a soldering gun and some solder;" they already knew in their head exactly what kind of screwdriver or tool, and they'd assume I did too. So I'd go to the store to buy a soldering gun and find out there's four different kinds, each of them different wattages. And five types of solder, "lead-free," "rosin core," "60/40," "63/37" and I wouldn't know what to buy. I'd guess anyway and usually buy the wrong thing.

When I'm learning something new I need everything spelled out for me, because I'm a little thick that way. So I'm going to write the exact kind of tutorials I wish I had read when I started out. I also hope to reach the greatest amount of people, including the tool-challenged and the clumsy, so I'll err on the side of overexplaining.

Before we can get to making some common adjustments and fixes for your machines, I'll need to talk tools a bit. I'll start with screwdrivers.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

How to Restore Your Stitch Length Indicator Plate

Okay folks, today I'm going to show you how to get those pretty gold numbers back onto the stitch length indicator plate, so you can actually read the darn thing. Here's your typical "attic fresh" 15-91 that's seen better days:

The stitch length indicator plate's numbers have been worn away by time, making the numbers illegible.

Now I'm gonna show you how to fix that.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Building Out the Workspace

I love tools, and there was only one thing that could make me rip out the six-foot double-door tool cabinet I'd built some years ago: I needed more space to work on the Singers. After a while, tearing down 15-91s on your desk or kitchen table just doesn't cut it anymore. So I compressed my tools into denser storage and got to work.

  I salvaged some 2x3s left over in the photo studio from a shoot and ordered a couple more from a local lumberyard. Did some quick calculations and hit 'em with the chopsaw. Ripped a sheet of 3/4" birch plywood and rounded off the edges with a router. Nothing fancy, no trim necessary.

  Also routed a little half-circle in the back consistent with an electrical conduit running up the wall of my place. Plywood's eight feet long but I had nine feet of space, so I cut an extra piece, seen here at right. Then I polyurethaned the surfaces and edges, three quick coats with sanding in between.

  I scored six black Steelcase file cabinets for free off of Freecycle. Placed 'em side-by-side with space in the middle for my legs. The toughest part was shimming and leveling them all, the floors in my place are six kinds of crooked.

Then I laid the simple 2x3 lattice on top, screwing it into the cabinets from the bottom.

Dropped the plywood sheets on top of that with a couple of pocket screws to keep it in place.Next I just needed to populate it with machines.

That last part wasn't a problem.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Why Vintage Singers?

My mission is to reinvigorate interest in old Singer sewing machines, and help those already using them. In this age of plastic junk, it's incredibly satisfying to use an all-metal machine that was made over 50 years ago and still runs like it was brand new. A well-cared-for or well-restored Singer will run forever and do its job with excellence. If you've ever seen the beautiful straight stitch laid down by a well-tuned Singer then you know what I mean. If you don't know what I mean, you will after I populate this blog with enough entries.

Singer would take twenty- or thirty-pound chunks of cast iron and precision-machine them into refined, powerful and versatile tools. They dominated the global sewing machine market from roughly the late 1800s to the 1950s. They made the best stuff, designed by the best engineers, manufactured using the best techniques with the best materials. That's why the machines are still around. I have an expensive fancy-schmancy cell phone that is state-of-the-art, and chances are I won't have it in two years; it will break or become obsolete. Similarly, the computer you're reading this on is not something you'll give to your grandchildren. But I've fixed up thrift-store Singers that I know will still be sewing after I'm dead.

The machines I've fixed will last not because I'm some kinda super-mechanic, but because they are designed incredibly intelligently and built with durable materials. You don't have to be a rocket scientist to perform the basic operations necessary to get them running, so I hope you will not be too intimidated to try them. The basic mechanical principles they operate on were worked out in the 1800s. With just a little effort you can turn a frozen-up boat-anchor Singer into a lifelong machine, and I want to help you do that by sharing what I learn as I go along.