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.
Why to Oil
In a lot of public buildings you'll see marble steps that have had a dip worn into their centers. Obviously marble is quite hard and unyielding, but when twenty million pairs of Nikes traipse up and down them, it eventually starts to wear away.
The steel in your machine is no different. Two pieces of metal rubbing against each other over and over will eventually wear some material away, reducing the precision and effectiveness of that part. (I believe that's why I often see 15-91s and 201-2s with screwed-up bobbin winding assemblies, though that and its fix will be covered in a different entry.) But just a drop of oil between two parts provides a metal-protecting cushion that greatly extends the life of the machine. That's why we oil.
How Often to Oil
The general rule is to oil the machine after every 8 hours of use. Make it a habit and you will be thanked by subsequent generations who are able to use the machine.
More is NOT better
When you hear the phrase "a well-oiled machine" that doesn't mean the thing is drenched in oil, it just means oil has been correctly applied in all the right places, so the machine runs smoothly. If you over-oil a machine, you run the risk of oil going someplace it's not supposed to go, like on wiring insulation (which is bad news). All it takes is a single drop to properly oil an area, which is why this next part's important.
The Delivery System
You need a good delivery system for oil so that you can get it to the right place. By "delivery system" I mean the straw or nozzle. Here are four ways to deliver oil, which are not created equal:
- The White Diamond with telescoping "zoom spout" that I see in many NYC sewing machine repair shops
- Tri-Flow oil, around which I've placed a broccoli rubber band so I don't lose the included straw
- Singer All Purpose Machine Oil, available at Jo-Ann Fabrics and other sewing supply places
- a syringe, available from many chemists/pharmacies/medical supply stores, that you can fill up with oil yourself
Note their different tips:
Now here's a quick review of each:
White Diamond. I hate this telescoping "zoom spout." At first it sounded like a good idea, but in practice it's difficult to use, especially if you're clumsy. It's difficult to get a single drop out of it, it either gives me too much or not enough. Squeezing the bottle produces inconsistent results. Even when I could get a single drop out, the drops came out too big to cleanly hit the target. I've seen sewing machine repair guys use this thing with the precision of a surgeon, but I'm no surgeon and I'm writing this review for klutzes.
Tri-Flow Oil. My favorite. The sewing machine forums are full of people extolling the virtues of this oil, which has Teflon in it to increase its slipperiness, and the straw is the best: It's easy to see the fluid traveling down it so you can predict when the drop will come out, and the drops are the smallest, which gives you better precision. At the bottom of this entry are some places where you can buy it.
Singer Oil. The nozzle hole seems tiny, but the drops come out huge, so I often make a mess. I also don't like that it's not see-through, so the drops can come out unpredictably. With no straw or nozzle, it's impossible to get the oil into remote places in the bottom of the machine, the bottle just won't fit.
Syringe. I'd read reviews about the benefits of using syringes to get to hard-to-reach places, but in practice I hardly ever use this thing. The Tri-Flow straw gets every place I need to go. But if I had a choice between using this and anything except the Tri-Flow, this would be it. You can't use the "drop" method with the syringe, you use the "touch" method. See description below.
How to Oil
The "Drop" method. When servicing an oil hole, you just squeeze a drop out and position the straw so the oil drop falls into the hole. (There's an occasional problem with this, covered below in "Start Oiling.") If you don't know what an oil hole is, don't worry, you will soon.
The "Touch" method. When oiling two moving parts, you can try the "drop" thing, but you'll find sometimes there's no room to maneuver, so you do this following "touch" procedure. Unfortunately I failed at photographing this--it was impossible to oil with one hand and focus the camera with the other hand and time everything perfectly to capture the shot. But here's what you do:
You get the straw near the target point and angle it downwards, or gently squeeze the bottle, until a droplet is hanging off the end of the straw. Then you just touch the droplet to the point where you want the oil, and it gets absorbed into that point. You have to see it to understand it. Oil doesn't work like gravity makes you think it would, it touches the part then seems to automatically flow around it. That's why you only need one drop of oil. You drop the oil off at the entrance, so to speak, and then it finds its way around the store.
Where to Oil
The good news is you don't need a diagram to refer to when oiling your machine. You might the first or second time, but after that it won't be necessary. Here's why:
Let's say there's a bunch of flies in my kitchen, and I'm sending you in with a flyswatter to kill them. I could draw you a map of my kitchen with detailed notes that say "There's two flies on top of the fridge, one on either side of the sink, three by the fruit basket" etc. which is kind of silly. Better that you just go into the kitchen and hit anything that moves.
Similarly, look at the relevant parts of your machine, seen below, and turn the handwheel over to see what moves. Any place where two pieces of metal are rubbing together, that's where you put a drop of oil. There are a few places you can't see that still need oil, and Singer made those locations obvious by placing convenient oil holes there. So you don't need to memorize diagrams, just use your eyes.
I've taken the following photos as a reference, but frankly speaking they're more confusing than they're worth. Those photos will quickly outlive their utility when you learn to just oil every part where metal moves on metal.
Prep Your Machine
All you need is your machine, a towel, some oil, and good lighting. A flashlight will help for the bottom parts of the machine, but I prefer a swing-arm lamp so I can keep both hands free.
First look for oil holes. On the 221, I usually do these two on the pillar first. (Use the towel to cushion your machine as you place it on its side.)
I've seen a few 221s where these two holes are clogged up with old, gunky grease. If you see that the hole is clogged, take a Q-Tip and roll it between your fingertips to make it pointy. Then stick it into the hole and swizzle it clean. You'll often bring it back out covered in nasty old grease.
Once the hole is clear, put a single drop of oil in each. Then I usually give it 30 seconds to absorb where it's supposed to before I right the machine. (Yes, 30 seconds is probably overkill.)
Sometimes the droplet comes out too big and "sticks" to the hole like a bubble instead of going down inside, like this:
When this happens you can prick it with a pin to make it lose tension and fall inside. (Don't be a genius like I was the first time and blow on it, or I hope you're wearing goggles.)
Now find more oil holes. If you don't know what one looks like: If there's a hole in your machine and there's not a spool pin sticking out of it, it's for oil. On the top of the 221 we see four.
We also see one on the bobbin winding assembly.
Inspect the holes. If it's an "attic fresh" machine you may find old gunky grease clogging them. Do the Q-Tip trick or carefully clean them out with a pin, then put a drop of oil in each hole.
Then check out the panel with the spool pin on it. The screw that the red arrow points to? For convenience's sake, you can keep that screw loose enough so that it holds the cover on yet still allows you to pivot it open.
Inside we find another oil hole, and two spots indicated by arrows that should also get a drop of oil.
After oiling those, I take the faceplate off with its single screw.
As I said earlier, you won't need to memorize these photos, it's just a reference. Turn the handwheel to get things moving, and observe wherever two parts of metal rub against each other (arrows), then get a drop in there using the "drop" or "touch" method. Also look for more oil holes (circles) and put a drop in each.
In the photo above, I could not see the oil hole in the photo below. Turning the handwheel reveals different oil holes.
More places where metal rubs on metal.
After those points are done, I re-attach the faceplate and flip the bed up. Looking underneath, I remove the bobbin case and put a drop of oil on the hook race. If you're not sure exactly where to put it, just look for where metal rubs on metal.
Turn the handwheel over a bunch of times to let the oil circulate, then put the machine on its side. Keep the bed flipped to the "up" position to give it some support, and don't forget to lean it on the towel to avoid scratches.
Unscrew the bottom cover. And by the way, when you put it back on, you don't need to go nuts tightening the screw. The cover's not going to just fly off, so screw it shut gently. On some of the 221s I come across, this thing is screwed shut like someone's life depended on it.
Now we see this.
Don't be intimidated, just turn the handwheel and look for moving parts or oil holes. To help you recognize them, see the arrows and circles here.
Be careful with this one indicated below, because it's very close to the wiring. Just place one careful drop on the metal, we don't want a bunch of oil dripping on the wiring insulation. That will eventually eat through it and cause potentially dangerous electrical problems.
After you've done these points, that's it, you're finished. Remember, just one drop of oil in each location, be careful not to spill any on the wiring, and you can't go wrong. Close the machine back up and you're good to go.
Where to Buy Oil
Tri-Flow is the brand of oil I recommend. All you need is the 2 oz. size, it will last you forever. If you're looking for it locally, bicycle shops may carry it, that's where I got mine. If you're already ordering parts from Jenny at Sew-Classic, she carries it too; maybe you can use it to boost up your total and get the free shipping. If you can't find it near you and want to order it online, here's an Amazon link:
If you order it from the Amazon link, I get a tiny percentage. I put these links here in case any of you need the product and want to support this blog in the process. The price is the same as it is on Amazon's normal site. But remember, you don't have to buy anything through this blog, so feel free to ignore those links.
By the way, some of you may have noticed I did not oil the geared parts of the machine. Those parts get grease. I'll cover grease in another entry.