No oiling required – myth or fiction?

Because it certainly isn’t the truth. If your vintage machine has moving parts, it will need oiling. And if it doesn’t have moving parts, it is probably not a sewing machine. 🙂

“Permanent” lubrication

Brand new machines don’t always need oiling in every joint for at least a few years. These types of lubrication are often called “permanent”. But nothing is forever, not even diamonds. What they rather mean to say, is that you most likely won’t need to renew the lubricant during the warranty period. Sometimes it is even guaranteed “for the lifetime” of the machine, which roughly equals a dog’s lifetime – about 15 years. It certainly doesn’t refer to a human lifetime (80-90 years), or the lifetime of the metal body of the machine (300-1000 years). I suppose we should be glad they picked dogs and not gold fish. 😉

There are different techniques for providing alternative lubrication. For example, ball bearings can be impregnated with a lubricating layer that keeps working for about 15-20 years. It is done by “cooking” the bearings in a special motor oil at exactly the right temperature (somewhere about 225C) for 48 hours – not something you could easily do at home. Another option is to use self-lubricating plastics like Teflon – but do you really believe your 1960s machine to have Teflon parts? It was still a new material then, and very expensive. Have a look inside – spot anything like your non-stick skillet coating, dark grey and slightly sparkly?

A yearly service

What you are most likely to find inside a vintage sewing machine is steel and cream-coloured plastic. Those can be quite different plastics, with different properties, some standing up to wear better than others, some cracking, some grinding down, some plainly disintegrating.

You will also find some parts covered in grease.

Grease is supposed to stay in place for a long time and keep slow-moving parts well lubricated, it is mainly used on gears, cam cylinders and the like. Grease works for a few years, then it needs to be renewed because it is drying out and starts hampering movement instead of facilitating it. Hence a general advice to take your machine to the shop for a yearly service, regardless of how much or little you use it.

Another reason for that advice is thorough oiling of all the joints under the front cover and in the underbelly.

Old sewing machine manuals used to show you how to oil and grease your machine so that no yearly service was required.

Then someone figured they were missing out on an excellent source of income, and routine oiling was cled in mystery with a myth that taking off the front cover would void the warranty and generally call the wrath of Old Gods upon you. Don’t believe it. Unless there is a seal that would be broken, it is absolutely safe to take off the cover. And besides, does the warranty still hold after 50 years?

The mystery of oiling

Oiling even without a manual is actually quite simple. Take off those covers so you could see the mechanism, remove the bobbin and thread and slowly turn the balance wheel. Observe the motion. Oil every spot where two parts are rubbing against one another. Flip back the machine to expose the underbelly, or take off the belly cover, and do the same. Stay away from the motor, if unsure. Do this both for straight stitch and zig-zag to see every joint move. Run the machine for a few minutes afterwards to help spread the oil through the joints. Thread it and sew a bit on a scrap of fabric to clear excess oil from the hook assembly. That’s it. No mystery about it.

There’s no mystery, but there are some points worth noting.

Which oil?

There are many types of oil suitable for sewing machines, and probably just as many unsuitable ones. I am not a chemist, so can’t explain properly why that is, but from experience I would say that if unsure, better buy the one specifically designed for sewing machines rather than a generic type. “One size fits all” usually means “one size fits none properly”.

With that said, I can of course share my own experience. 🙂 Just remember that there are plenty of other oils that work very well too.

Firstly, according to Singer, you need grease for gears and oil for joints. That was true for the lubricants of 60 years ago and may not necessarily hold today. Besides, 60 year old oil is not going to be as good as it was back then. I therefore don’t use old oil and grease because they don’t keep that long.

Looking at modern lubricants, there is a very large choice. Note also that sewing machine oil designed for modern machines may not necessarily be ideal for vintage machines too because machinery and lubricants develop in parallel, and old machines were designed with the oil of the day in mind. For example, an old Jones manual from 1890s advised quite categorically to only use the best sperm oil in their machines, but we prefer the whales alive nowadays, and use fossil or synthetic oil instead.

Old oils tend to be heavy, but some old machines run very well on light oils of today, whereas others positively hate them. Just try it out.

I use two types of oil for lubrication, found partly by serendipity and partly through experimenting, both synthetic: Liquid Bearings generic oil and Millers industrial sewing machine oil. I also use 3-in-1 petroleum-based oil for cleaning only. It’s fantastic for dissolving solidified oil but itself solidifies after some time, so cannot be used for lubrication.

Liquid Bearings comes from the USA and is quite expensive, especially with the postage and import tax. However, you only need a little at a time, and one 2 fl.oz. bottle will last you a long time. You can get it on eBay. It comes with extremely handy thin needle nozzles in three lengths that allow you to reach the joints without bathing the shafts in oil too. I decant other oil into those bottles as well. 🙂

This is a fairly heavy oil that I use on plastic and metal gears instead of grease, as they suggest on their website. I was doubtful at first, but tried it on several machines, and found that it lubricates far better than grease and stays in place for a very long time – exactly what is needed. It is also excellent for cylinder joints – the kind where a fork wobbles about a rotating cylinder.

And of course it is my wonder oil for stuck screws because it is in fact penetrating oil.

Millers industrial grade sewing machine oil is a British product, they supply oil to the textile industry in Yorkshire, among other things. They don’t sell directly to the public, but many shops carry it. Again, I get mine on eBay, £5.95 per 500ml is hard to beat. 🙂

It is a lovely light oil, and is normally used in industrial machines that have a constant lubrication system – a tube feeding oil to the joints constantly. The oil must flow well for this to work.

This oil is excellent in fast moving joints, as well as in the hook race. But because it’s light, it needs topping up frequently. Yet it makes the machine run very smoothly, so the extra oilings are well worth it. Besides, most vintage machines have clearly marked oiling holes on the body, so you don’t even have to remove any covers. Oiling is quickly done!

Oiling holes in joints

Older machines still ask you to take those covers off and to expose the underbelly to reach the oiling points. New machines ask you to take them to the shop instead. 😉

Most shaft joints have oiling holes which help to get the oil into the joint where it’s needed instead of spreading it on the outside where it only traps dirt. Use them if you see them, you may need to turn the balance wheel to make the joint move so that the hole would come into view.

Oil wicks

Some machines, old and new, use oil wicks for prolonged lubrication. These are basically bits of felt stuffed into joints or other startegic places such as the hook race. You are supposed to keep the felt well saturated with oil so it could feed it to the moving part it’s lubricating.​​

Sometimes these wicks become displaced, so instead of oiling the joint, they are just dripping oil everywhere, but you’ll quickly spot that once you take the covers off. 🙂 Sometimes instead of a single piece of felt in the right spot, a felt sponge with rope wicks is used, as in my New Home 743 overlocker.

This would work well if the machine had been in constant use, so the oil fed to the joints would get used up. When left idle however, even already after half an hour, the oil starts overflowing the joint and dripping along the shafts and out of the machine through the bottom leaving a puddle underneath and the feeding sponge dry.

That isn’t a very good design, so in a later incarnation of the same overlocker (now called AEG 760) they’ve replaced that sponge and rope system by a single large felt stick.

So I’ve done the same thing with my New Home to stop the flooding. 🙂

It does require me to take off the front cover now to refill those wicks, but I should be doing it anyway to oil the rest of the joints.

Too much or not enough

How much oil is required for each joint or friction point depends on the size of the contact surface and the speed of movement of those parts with respect to each other. The greater the surface and the faster the movement, the more oil is needed and the quicker it is consumed.

For example, those overlocker joints pictured above, are both quite large and fast moving, so the oil is quickly disappearing. This is why they need those reserves in the oil wicks, or you would have to replenish them too frequently.

Sometimes you can’t quite tell how big the contact surface is because it is hidden inside the joint.

The top joint above presents such an unknown because we can’t tell how far the inner shaft extends into the outer shaft. It could be from just a few millimetres to the entire length of the axis for all we know. The solution is then to start with a drop or two, run the machine and see how quickly the oil gets absorbed into the joint. I tend to give it as much oil as it will take, I stop when the oil starts spilling out. Don’t forget to clean up the excess!

Oil in, gunk out

Vintage machines usually have some remnants of old oil sitting inside the joints. It may take literally years and years to get that fully dissolved and washed out, so you are likely to find black liquid pouring out of the joints. Don’t worry, this is not zombie blood. 🙂 Simply wipe it off and top up with fresh oil as needed.

Note also that old oil mixing with fresh oil during the running of the machine may increase the volume of the oil drop inside the joint causing it to spill out. So don’t worry if you find that zombie blood, err, black liquid around the joints even after you had already wiped them clean. It’s fine, wipe it off, top up and carry on – it gets less and less with time. 🙂

No oiling required, provided we do it for you

Here is what an AEG 760 overlocker looks like under the hood.

The manual claims that no oiling is required, but do be sure to bring it in for a regular service. And what will this service consist of? Oiling! This many joints on such a complex machine will require regular oiling, no ifs or buts about it! There are no impregnated ball bearings or Teflon parts here, it’s all steel and therefore needs oiling. And I can do it myself and save heaps of money, and you can too!​ Just think of all the fabric you could buy instead of paying for oiling… 😉

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11 thoughts on “No oiling required – myth or fiction?

    1. Thank you! 🙂 I was puzzled by oil wicks the first time I saw one, so I thought other people might be too. And it took me a while to figure out what those round holes in the joints were for. There is very little information about oiling, it’s all “take me to the shop” these days. So I thought I’d write up what I discovered. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yes, it’s an interesting change! I have a spinning wheel, where the expectation is that you regularly oil it yourself, so I was surprised to find so much less information available on sewing machines.


      2. I think that’s because spinning is an “old craft”, so it’s ok to require skill. Everything has got to be so easy these days that any monkey could do it. We can’t expect people to use their brains – god forbid! Where would it all end? 😛

        Liked by 1 person

  1. Love this post! So useful and informative. 🙂 And “zombie blood” made me laugh! Your blog is so awesome, Elena! Thanks for providing such an excellent and friendly, easy to understand source of information to us all!


  2. Brilliantly written, excellent clean concise information and great quality useful photos. Love the humour throughout. Especially the Zombie blood which I totally agree with. It’s slightly green appearance does conjure up those images. Thanks for taking the time to write such a high quality and useful article.



  3. I can’t stop wondering how is oil “consumed” so that we need to add more – where to does it disappear from a bearing? Does it slowly evaporate? Does it solidify and gets pushed out onto the shaft? Does it creep out of the bearing onto surrounding surfaces by capillary action? Does it slowly drip away by gravity? Thank you for your insights and I’m sorry for commenting on an older article!


    1. Hi Jana, this is a good question! I think all those things you mentioned do take place. Dripping away happens if the machine is left alone for a long time, but it is quite noticeable after 50 years sitting in a cupboard, for example. Solidifying doesn’t happen so much with modern oils, and should be avoided because it can clog the machine. That is to say, make sure you use high quality oil suitable for sewing machines! Different machinery requires different oil, and top quality Ferrari motor oil is still not suitable for a sewing machine, despite of its superior quality. The type must be right too! 🙂


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