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.

Original Singer 5.5"

It's got nine spokes and measures about five inches in diameter.

Assuming my kitchen scale is accurate, it weighs in at nearly 1 lb. 10 ozs, or 732 grams for those of you on the metric system who can't be bothered to fool with our silly ounces.

Below is a modern-day replica of the handwheel above, this one made in China. It's easy to find at a sewing machine parts supplier.

Replica 5.5"

The diameter is just about identical to the original.

It's just a shade heftier at 1 lb. 11 ozs.

I actually dislike this handwheel. Although it serves its purpose well enough, the manufacturing quality of it does not sit well with me. Up until the 1950s and arguably the '60s, Singer was known for making the best stuff to exact manufacturing tolerances. If you look at the spokes on the replica handwheel, they're sloppily cast and have sharp edges. Additionally, the paint is bubbled, uneven and rough, despite the glossy finish.

Sharp edges on the spokes. Tsk, tsk

What really drives me nuts about the replica is that the bore is off-center. Take a look:

Replica bore

Now compare that to the original Singer handwheel's bore:

Original Singer bore
In actual usage on a machine, the slightly off-center bore of the replica does not affect the operation in any way. But if I look closely at the replica handwheel while it's on a machine and spinning, I can see a wobble in the rotation that I really don't like. Admittedly this is because I am biased: I was formerly employed as an industrial designer, and part of my job was supplying tooling drawings from which manufacturers would cut steel molds. The molds cost in the hundreds of thousands of dollars and the draftings had to be utterly precise. If I got the tolerances wrong I would have been fired, and I spent a lot of late nights getting them right. So to this day, when I see shoddily manufactured goods, I feel irritated to see people getting away with it.

When I look at the Singer handwheel spinning on a machine, there's no wobble and the tolerances are perfect. That makes me happy, and proud to be working on such a finely-constructed machine. I realize that this is because I'm more hung up on the machines than the actual sewing, and that if you were sewing a project on a machine outfitted with a replica handwheel, you would not notice the difference. Nevertheless, I will not purchase a replica handwheel again because I don't want to support that kind of imprecise manufacturing. As a former product designer I hate junk and I really miss well-manufactured American goods, which is part of why I love old Singers so much.

I will grudgingly admit that the three benefits of a replica handwheel are 1) they're easy to find a supplier of, 2) they're affordable, and 3) they're slightly chunkier than the original, which may feel a bit better in your hand.

Replica at left, original Singer at right.

It is also worth noting that the replicas are slightly taller (in the orientation pictured below), which means the bobbin winder often does not contact them correctly since they sit a tad farther out.

Replica at left, original Singer at right.

If you have a Singer with a spoked handwheel of the 5.5" variety, you may wonder how you can tell if it's a replica or original. If you pop it off the machine, it will have SIMANCO stamped on the back.

The replica just features rough metal on the back.

However, Singer also made a larger spoked handwheel that does not have SIMANCO stamped on it, below:

Original Singer 6"

This one is off of a model 66 made sometime in the early 1900s, and it's a bit larger at six inches in diameter. You'll also notice it only has six outer spokes.

It's the heaviest of the three featured here, weighing in at 2 lbs. 4 ozs.

Since it's an original Singer part, the bore is perfectly centered.

You may hear that the spoked handwheel off of one Singer machine will not fit another. Here's why. Look at the bored-out center shaft on the Singer 5.5":

5.5" handwheel

Now look at the bored-out center shaft on the Singer 6":

6" handwheel

As you can see, the latter has a taller, or longer, shaft. That's because it rides on a longer bushing. The bushing is the part you see pictured below. It's a sort of flanged metal sleeve that fits over the actual shaft of the machine, and serves as the coupling for the handwheel.

5.5" at left, 6" at right, each with their respective bushing.
The inside diameters of both bushings are identical and will fit on the same shaft. So if you take the spoked handwheel off of a certain machine to put on another, make sure the bushings match in length. If they don't, take the original bushing as well.

To provide some more clarity, here is what the bare shaft of a machine looks like:

Here is what the shaft of a machine looks like with a bushing mounted on it:

Getting these bushings on and off is not easy, but it is doable with the right tools. I'll prepare a tutorial for a future entry in case any of you would like to tackle this.


  1. Interesting. I'm supposed to be getting a spoked handwheel (or 3) at TOGA next weekend. I'll check them out, but, beggars can't be choosy. I'll keep my eyes pealed for the real deal, if I ever come across them. Thanks.

  2. Fascinating stuff! Makes me wish I had a vintage Singer, just so I could fix/service it properly. Keep up the good work for those lucky people who do have one! :)

    Kathy in Oz

  3. Just FYI, the only spoked wheel I have is on my 1926 66 Treadle, and the Simanco is stamped on the outside of the wheel - a little hard to decipher under the paint layers. There is no stamp on the inside of it.

    And I LOVE those spoked wheels! Still looking for a hand crank machine :)

  4. I've converted several vintage Singers to hand cranks and agree about the overall crappiness of the repro spoked wheels. The repro hand cranks are just as bad if not worse--but they do work.

    How many vintage sewing machine nuts would it take (all providing feedback or other pokes) for someone to contract with a manufacturer who would do a better job?

  5. Hi,
    I wanted first to thank you for your wonderfully informative blog.
    So, does this mean I can take a wheel from an early 15 (1899) and put it in a 15-88? The former still has the chrome, the latter is worn black, is why.

  6. I dropped a Singer 127 and it landed on the hand wheel. The hand wheel spoke is bent, I think. It turns very hard compared with the way it used to. Is there any way to straighten the spoke?

  7. sir please prepare a tutorial on how to remove these bushing....

  8. Are you sure the solid handwheels were 'standard' from the 1930s? There are hundreds of thousands of machines made in the fifties (especially at Kilbowie) with spoked handwheels. My 15k from 1952 has one.

    Perhaps a greater number of people in the U.S. were using electric machines and the spoked wheels were kept for longer in the Kilbowie machines for hand-cranks and treadles?