Oil and varnish are a girl’s best friends

Especially if that girl is a vintage sewing machine.

It’s only been about a year since I started using the older sewing machines, i.e., the ones of at least 100 years old. Before that, it was new machines at first (new in the early 1990s) followed by progressively going back in time until I found machines worth keeping.

What happened a year ago is that we moved house. In my old place I had two vintage machines decorating my sewing room (that is, the space previously known as the lounge), and this was all they were doing – decorating.

There, up on top, you see a Singer 98K and a Stoewer VS3, both bought for next to nothing and never intended for use because they were completely stuck and rusty. However, I was keen to prevent further rust formation, so I oiled them with 3-in-1 which says “Lubricates, cleans, prevents rust” on the label.


Do not use 3-in-1 for day-to-day lubrication! In my experience, this oil is more of a cleaner than a lubricant. But it is an excellent cleaner.

In this respect it is similar to old oils, which is exactly why it is so good at dissolving solidified oil. So if, in spite of this warning, you are using 3-in-1 for lubrication and your machine gets seized up, the best thing to free it, is to use 3-in-1, contradictory, as it may seem. It’s like the fastest way to melt ice is to pour water over it.
After that you must switch to a proper sewing machine oil for lubrication!

So then, there they were, my two vintage machines, sitting pretty and pleasing the eye, for the next five years or so.

When we moved last year, it was February, cold and wet, and I didn’t want to leave them in the garage to rust, so I brought them in. Stoewer didn’t have a lid, so I picked it up by the balance wheel and by the head – and nearly dropped it – the wheel spinned and the needle went up and down, almost through my finger! Whoahhh! It’s alive!!

That made me sit up and take notice. The 3-in-1 had completely freed the mechanism in both machines, and even removed the rust. With just the one oiling!

Of course now that my first bullet shuttle machine was moving, I had to take it for a spin, – and a whole new world opened to me – the world of flauwless stitching. My teachers in tailoring college used to say that one should not entrust everything to a sewing machine because your own hand can always sew better. “If your machine does not produce a perfect stitch, do it by hand” – was the mantra. But with this vibrating shuttle wonder I suddenly saw the end of my hand sewing! Whoah again!

Clearly, the Stoewer girl – now named Greta – had to join the sewing crew. I found out about the maker (see, got her dated (1905), ordered new bobbins, swapped the hand-crank for a motor, added a light, lowered the presser bar to fit modern low shank feet, even got her a prettier face plate – they are the same as Singer 27 class. But one important thing still remained: crumbling varnish and vanishing decals. Something had to be done about that!

The original varnish was shellac, it dried out, cracked and was coming off in flakes. It was taking the decals with it too, so removing it was not really an option. I asked around, and polyurethane varnish appeared to be the answer.

This DuraClear varnish is of water-based craft variety, brush on. Spraying really doesn’t work here. It’s fast drying, very fast drying, so you can do 7-8 coats in under half an hour. Use a fine artist’s watercolour brush and work in light thin layers. That tiny amount of varnish in the bowl was all that was needed to do everything, so the whole bottle will take you through many, many machines.

Here is the varnish going on. All I did as preparation was wipe the machine with a damp cloth to remove dirt. It had to be a very light wiping though to keep the decals from coming off! There may have been some traces of oil or grease left on the surface – no problem. Don’t fret over it, the varnish will still stick. After the first coat, it mostly sticks to itself, it’s like wrapping the machine in shrinking clingfilm.

I tried different methods on several occasions, but the best way I found was to apply a fairly thick coat with 8 layers or more straight away, then leave it to cure for two or three days. The varnish will be dry to the touch, and dust won’t stick to it, but it will still be gooey inside the coat.

At this point, your brush strokes will be still visible, in particular on the bed.

The thing to do now is to polish them out. I used very fine grade sandpaper (3000, 5000 and 7000, progressively) with 3-in-1 oil. I tried other things, but this really works best.

The first round of polishing with the 3000 grade is when you remove all ridges left by the brush strokes. This requires a lot of elbow grease! Keep going until the surface is smooth to the touch, don’t worry if it looks dull – this gets polished out in the next two stages. It helps to wipe off the oil every now and again and apply some fresh oil. Don’t forget to wipe it off the sandpaper too!

When you are happy with the smoothness, switch to grade 5000. This will polish out the dullness and the varnish should look clear now. It will still not be shiny, that comes with grade 7000.

If you discover some unforgivable ridges while doing the grade 7000 polish, you have to go back to grade 3000, then 5000 and then 7000 again to get rid of them. So it’s best to double check your grade 3000 result and not to be impatient to move on! Obviously, not something I would ever do. 😉

Anyway, after all this polishing you may be forgiven in thinking that you’re done. Not quite. The varnish takes about six weeks to cure and fully solidify, and in this time it will appear dull, clear, dull again, clear – it will vary as it cures. If you want a brilliant glossy finish at this stage, you can always buff up the varnish with a polishing cloth with a very small amount of silicone polish. But it won’t last, the varnish will go dull again after a while.

So be patient and leave it alone for a couple of months, literally. Then buff it up with a proper soft cloth and silicone polish – the stuff for removing scratches from acrylic head lights and mobile phone screens. Only use a very small amount of it because it dissolves the varnish! Alternatively, you could do another round of grade 7000 polishing with 3-in-1, then buff it up with a dry cloth.

This glossy finish will not go dull any more. In fact, you will be inadvertently buffing it up every time you use the machine. Well worth the wait!

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12 thoughts on “Oil and varnish are a girl’s best friends

  1. Varnish! I do of course oil my Bernina but I never thought about with vintage machines that you need to keep the outside of the machine looking good too! I am enjoying your blog learning so much about vintage machines! 🙂


    1. Thanks! 🙂 Varnish is not just for looking good, it also seals the machine from rust. It’s probably most important for cast iron machines because they rust easily. Cast steel used in later models, is more resistant to rust. But cast aluminium is again vulnerable – that white powdery mold-looking stuff is aluminium oxide, the aluminium version of rust!

      And you don’t have to throw your machine in the sea for it to rust. Humidity in the air is sufficient, especially if it’s sea air – salt makes it even worse.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Brilliant post with great advice that doesn’t need a huge workshop full of tools to achieve. I’m here via a link from the ISMACS digest. This is exactly what I need to do to preserve one of the machines in my possession… yeah, I got the bug nearly 2 years ago. The only reason there are only three machines is because I haven’t made room for any more! Those bumps, pits and worn decals are (in my opinion) a testament to the generations of women before me who used and loved their machines so all I want to do is make the machine good to use without causing further damage to the decals or risk rust development further down the road.


    1. Thank you! This is exactly what I feel too: these are not new machines, they’ve had a life and a history, and making them look new would erase that! I just wanted to seal it like in a time capsule. 🙂


  3. Thank you, Elena, for your great blog! This information is just what I need to protect my vintage Singer. Thanks too for visiting my blog, I followed you here! I will be following you now (not in a stalkerish way… well maybe a little bit) I love all of your practical information!


    1. Thanks! 🙂 I am foremost a user of the machines, not a collector. I like to update them rather than necessarily keep all the (sometimes awkward) original features. The machines were built to sew, not to sit on a shelf as a lifeless object.


  4. Hi Elena, what are your experiences with how light can different types of sewing machines be made to turn? I find hypnotizing those machines which turn so lightly that the needlebar almost or completely falls down under its own weight. My 1990s Bernette 740e (pendulum needlebar, fancy and mock-overlock stitches) is one such machine, obviously only with the motor disengaged.

    Are machines with a timing belt stiffer going? My Lada T132 (even with motor belt removed) is quite stiff (absolutely no chance of needle ever moving on its own), and I don’t know if it just needs more 3-in-1 treatment or if it is already as good as it gets. I’m unable to access the mechanics at the bottom of the tower because the motor blocks the access, maybe it’s stiff there…

    A sewing machine mechanic was showing me his pre-1900 transverse shuttle machine with non-sinusoidal needlebar movement (not a crank arm), and I was surprised that it wasn’t turning without resistance. So perhaps only Singer 15 descendants can be made to turn super-free?


    1. Singer 15 is certainly NOT the only machine type that can run free. I think that internal belts in general would prevent free movement – after all, their purpose is control. However, it would depend on the construction also there. I wouldn’t deny free movement also for geared or belted machines, in principle. But all other beltless machines can run perfectly free, in my experience. However, after a century of oiling and not flushing there is bound to be a lot of solidified left-overs in all the joints. I takes a lot of running to flush it. Months and may be years.


  5. Elena, I have just gotten a Lotus 66:with very good decals. I have been researching how to protect the decals. Some people use a silicone car wax recommended from the Featherweight Shop. I’ve never been crazy about water based urethane and wonder if a oil base would be ok? The Featherweight Shop recommends a 2K catalyzed clear coat urethane. I don’t know where I would get that?


    1. Sorry Ruth, I am no expert in these matters. I picked this varnish by recommendation and it worked well. I never looked any further.


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