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".|
|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.
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:
Now compare that to the original Singer handwheel's bore:
|Original Singer bore|
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":
Now look at the bored-out center shaft on the Singer 6":
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.|
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.