Singer 201-2 Restoration

My 1947 Singer 201-2, S/N AH040755

I wrote about this machine once before a few years ago, but only brought it down to Lexington to work on it at the beginning of July. I’ve had a delightful time cleaning restoring it over the last couple weeks, and just wanted to post some pictures and musings. I did have it correctly identified before – it is a 1947 Singer 201-2, in good mechanical and OK cosmetic condition. The machine’s story from the family has settled on it being my great grandmother’s machine down the matrilineal line, but I don’t know if they were the original owner, or what exactly has happened to it over the last couple decades. My grandmother noted that she remembered her mother doing upholstery work on it, and my mother remembers using it as a child, and it was in my grandmother’s basement three years ago. Descriptions follow pictures below.

Cleaning


The first task was cleaning. There was various grime, old dead lubricants, textile fluff, and other expected sewing machine crud built up, and it had to go. The cleaning process also provided a good chance to inspect the machine thoroughly inside and out, to find out if there were any problems or replacement parts I needed to address.
I tested a couple solvents (Limonene, Lighter Fluid, Isopropanol, etc.) on the finish and oil residue, and Isopropanol seemed to do the best job of removing the defunct oil without threatening the finish. I’ve heard some of the lacquers used on old sewing machines come right off in alcohols, so fair warning to others. The officially recommended solvent is Kerosene, which I didn’t have in my apartment, and didn’t particularly want to, so it’s nice that things worked out.
I did one slightly odd thing that seems to be frowned upon by a lot of sewing machine folk – I used an antioxidant gun/tool oil on the non-working parts of the machine (shafts and non-contact faces of parts and whatnot), figuring the non-gumming demands are about the same, and putting a nice preservative layer on the metal surfaces should help it last another half century. I don’t see any sign that it is discoloring or affecting running properties, so I’m tentatively calling it a good move. The working parts are all oiled with Teflon-bearing Tri-Flow “Superior Lubricant” oil.

Wiring and Motor

The internal wiring looked to be in decent condition, and I was thinking I might get away without replacing it, but when I pulled the motor assembly to get the unspeakable, chunky, discolored sludge from 65+ years of adding various greases to the tubes out (See above), I discovered that the motor wiring was shot. As in crumbling insulation spreading funk all over my work space shot. I had seen a series of nice instructions for fixing such things on VSSMB a while back, and decided to just go ahead and re-wire the motor. There is some kind of oily funk that has leeched into the original winding tails over the years, so even with flux it was a little hard to get good joints, but they’ll do. I did most of the rewiring work correctly, with color coded 18AWG stranded wire and suitably-sized heat-shrink and such, but I really should get a ring terminal set/crimper and some of the 22-18GA #8 terminals that Singer internals use to make the connections nicer/easier to service, there are a number of places I’m using wrapped wire that would be much more elegant with a terminal. I left enough slack in all the wires to fix that later. Apparently at some point a little bit of oil was introduced into the casing of my motor (DON’T do that), so the carbon buildup was extra sticky and awful. I cleaned it out as best I could with dry q-tips, as to not introduce any other fluids into the motor, went over the commutator with a toothpick for the grooves, a lightly alcohol-damp q-tip for the surface, then the suggested eraser, and called it good enough.
The drive is re-lubed with (gobs of) clean petroleum jelly, applied with a narrow-tipped syringe to get to the appropriate spots. I’ve read warnings about using modern doped greases near the motor, and recommendations for petroleum jelly, so it seemed like the best choice. Loading the syringe from a jar is a rather messy process (not pictured to avoid contaminating camera). I had a little trouble with the grease wick replacement, and ended up damaging and re-shaping one of the clips and springs because it hung up on the way back in. The wick seems to be held firmly in place, so it should be fine functionally.
I used the original AC connectors – the supply end was a “good enough” connector, and the Singer three-terminal is actually one of the nicest connectors I’ve ever run in to. It screws apart, has double-grooved hollow screw terminals, with wire-routing clearance cut into each, and has tightly fitted notches for each part to lock into when closed. It isn’t terribly easy to set up correctly, as there are a lot of parts with pretty tight fit, but it is indefinitely user-serviceable and makes a nice connector. The replacement exterior wiring is the 18AWG SPT-2 jacketed stuff that Sew-Classic sells and recommends. I went ahead and bought a pre-made foot controller cable because (as previously mentioned) I’m not set up to install ring terminals and it seemed worth it for the convenience. The original controllers really are a spring-loaded brush moving around on a carbon pile, which is pretty cool (if a little scary) for my not-so-inner EE.
Lower Gear assembly, tri-flow grease.

Lower Gear assembly, tri-flow grease.


I applied a small amount of the widely recommended Tri-Flow grease into the lower gears (Which I didn’t disassemble for more than surface cleaning, I didn’t want to re-time the whole machine), and it is running quiet and smooth that way, so it seems to be suitable. It is interesting to note that the gear train is all metal except for the worm gear (not the worm, the gear that mates with the worm) in the handwheel that interfaces between the motor and machine, which is an early composite called Textolite that General Electric started manufacturing in the 1930s. It was apparently primarily used in counter-tops, but makes a strong, quiet composite gear. I’ve waded through a lot of pictures and discussion on old sewing machines and can’t say I’ve ever seen or heard of a broken one, just people fretting that it might break.

Cabinet


I just rubbed the cabinet down with some wood furniture cleaner and did some general cleaning and adjustment. However:

  • I found all sorts of pins and thread bits under the drawers. I also found the missing last pin for the (probably not OEM) bobbin rack in the top drawer under one of them, which is nice.
  • Someone messed with the finish relatively recently. It looks like there is a slightly sloppy layer of modern urethane-type finish on top of whatever the veneer was originally finished with, without a sanding job. It isn’t particularly pretty, and there is a peeling spot in the middle of the rear panel. I’m trying to avoid dealing with that.
  • My swing arm support for the leaf has to be flipped up and out by hand. The springload gets it into position once lifted, but the little release button looking thing in the back hinge not only doesn’t deploy the arm, but the pieces that are there could never work. There does seem to be a shim washer in the back assembly, and another distinctly aftermarket looking washer in the little felted foot/latch, so I’m assuming a piece of the mechanism is lost to the ages. Unfortunately, I can’t find a picture of an intact one to clone/replace it from.
  • The lift plate (the little black spring-loaded plate behind the machine column in the cabinet) wasn’t deploying flush without encouragement. It turns out you can just take out the top drawer, loosen the nut, build some tension with the big honking iron handwheel, then re-tighten the nut to adjust that. The nut for adjusting the lift plate tension is almost exactly 15mm, which I suspect means it is really 19/32″, one of those delightful “What the fuck were they thinking?” fractional sizes that has thankfully fallen out of widespread use. It sadly doesn’t seem to want to stay tight, I may need to adjust the spring with some pliers.
  • I’m not precisely sure how the wires are supposed to be routed in this thing. Since the power cord sticks up, I have it clear of the machine. I routed the motor controller wire through the little hole in the flip-up plate.

Mistakes
The biggest thing I did wrong was not using hollow-ground screwdrivers. Everyone tells you you should, I managed to nick up the slots on a couple screws even being careful with my usual taper-points, and it isn’t the first time I’ve had trouble with that on a project. I sucked it up and ordered a decent set of hollow-ground bits from Chapman for around $40, but it hasn’t arrived yet.

I found out looking at someone else’s 201 restore log that there is supposed to be an oiling felt in the presser regulating thumb screw. There was no sign of one when I took it apart, and I couldn’t find it in either the lists of parts or in any modern vendor’s parts offerings. It is mentioned in the adjuster’s manual, and seems like a good idea, so I think I will just cut out a suitably sized chunk of craft store felt product, douse it in oil, and shove it in there.

I didn’t think terribly carefully about how this thing fits into my tiny apartment when I brought it down. Because the cabinet is quite directional with the leaves, and sucks to move with the (~30lb) head installed, I need to scoot some furniture around to get it usable and not in the middle of the floor.

Conclusions

Old sewing machines are the best sort of hobby: mechanically satisfying, good community, reasonably inexpensive, historically interesting, and less likely to result in personal injury than any similar hobby. If I ever get a chance I’d love to take on a really trashed old Singer (maybe a 221) for a ground-up rebuild – I’ve looked at other people’s project machines and it seems like fun. Most of the hobbies I enjoy fall under the “Making things that make things” umbrella, and these are right in line.

Furthermore, 201-2s are particularly awesome machines. They use a horizontal rotary hook, which makes beautiful stitches and is incredibly smooth – there is basically no mass moving out of the axis or suddenly accelerating to make the machine buck (A.B. Wilson doesn’t get enough credit – he designed and patented both the rotary hook and the 4-motion feed that most good machines use… in 1851 and 1852 respectively). They’re driven through a metal gear-train (no belts whatsoever), which will last forever and provide enough power to sew through pretty much anything that fits under the presser foot. It isn’t the most practical object I’ve ever owned, but I’ve already done some small projects and mending on it, and it is very satisfying, both historically and mechanically. I’m still [re]learning some technique, both because I haven’t done much sewing lately, and more specific things like how to use the various attachments for this era of machine.

Resources

  • Instructions for using Singer Electric Sewing Machine (P.H. Built-on motor) 201-2 (local mirror, PDF) – This is the standard user’s manual for the 201-2 and it’s various attachments. Enough detail unless something needs serious work. Singer/SVP has an Archive of original documentation, from the era when the included documentation was useful.
  • Adjuster’s Manual for Singer Machines 201-1, 201-2, 201-3, 201-4 and 1200-1 (local mirror, PDF) – This is the official service manual for 201 class machines, it took some google-foo and patience to obtain a copy, despite being referenced all over the place.
  • Sew-Classic – This is where I got most of my parts supplies, they are very reasonably priced and stock things I can’t find anywhere else. The product pages and attached blog are full of good advice.
  • Vintage Singer Sewing Machine Blog (VSSMB) – Nicholas Rain Noe’s excellent Vintage Singer Blog. Especially for the detailed motor-rewiring documentation above, and accurate documentation for modern replacement parts (wire gauges, connector sizes, etc.).
  • Old Singer Sewing Machine Blog – Sid and Elise’s (now discontinued, but being maintained by Fargosmom) Vintage Singer Blog. Lots of useful information, particularly in terms of modern updates coupled with original Singer documentation.
  • My Sewing Machine Obsession – Elizabeth sharing her stories of sewing machine collection and repair.
  • My Sewing Machine Addiction – Elle Dubya’s project log about restoring a trashed 201-2. Excellent pictures of the innards and such.
  • April 1930s – This is primarily a shop specializing in good condition, beautifully restored, and thus expensive vintage parts and notions to do with 221/222 machines, but their part number information and use examples are helpful for all low-shank machines.
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15 Responses to Singer 201-2 Restoration

  1. THANK YOU! for posting the link to the adjuster’s manual. This is the only place I’ve found it, and I am loving tinkering with the 201-2 I’ve acquired. I found the other links you’ve listed above and rebuilt my motor too with the great tutorials on the Vintage Singer Sewing Machine Blog. Another good one to look at is http://theprojectlady.blogspot.com . She helped me get the top tension disc apart, fixed, and back together. I am green with envy over your cabinet!

  2. Cathy says:

    Hi Paul,
    Thanks for posting your 201 restoration. I’ve been researching gear grease for replacement and there are so many questions unanswered about petroleum jelly. You have used it so I want to know if you are satisfied with it? Any downsides to using it that you know of?

    You are the first person I’ve seen that has combined OEM with vintage sewing machine parts! Made me chuckle a little bit from my days in the computer industry. Thanks so much. Your work looks great!
    Cathy

    • pappp says:

      I haven’t had any problem using petroleum jelly in the drive assembly, last time I checked it seemed to be staying on the gears, not discoloring or denaturing / picking up worn off material / dissolving anything, and I’m not getting any suspicious noises.

      I’m a computer engineer, sometimes (read: all the time) the lingo leaks into my everyday speech.

  3. Harry says:

    Hi , Paul
    Thanks , for your insight. I recently finished cleaning up my great grandmothers ,
    Singer 127.
    I ‘m awaiting shipment of a Singer 201k potted motor with the knee control on the cabinet. A friend of mine told me that I should have chosen a belt drive because of
    the “dreaded” fiber gear. I wasn’t aware that there was this weak link hiding in this Black Iron Lady. Your article , reassured to some extent , that it isn’t that bad.
    However , in the event that this fiber gear fails , what would you suggest.
    . From what I understand , replacement gears are not manufactured anymore.
    . Do we search for another 70 year old replacement?
    . Do we attempt conversion to a belt – drive , or hand-crank ?
    . In attempting the above conversion , we have to keep in mind that only the early 201-2 models have 4 holes on the body to accept the conversion parts .

    What are your thoughts ?

    Regards , Harry
    Orthopedic Surgeon

    • pappp says:

      For all the hand-wringing I’ve seen on the ‘net about the Textolite gear in 201-2s, I’ve never actually seen a documented failure, it’s some kind of layered fiber mats (not sure if the stuff Singer used was glass or otherwise) impregnated with a PF resin, which is incredibly tough stuff in the same vein as modern axial fiberglass composite construction.

      Composite gears are awesome in terms of vibration isolation, so the machines are probably considerably quieter for having them over an all-metal gear-train, and belts do require regular maintenance and are prone to slipping when the machine loads up, so there is a service and power benefit to the gear drive.

      If it did fail I’d be inclined to just watch ebay for a replacement.

  4. JustGail says:

    Thank you for posting the Adjustor’s Manual link! I’ve tried to find a version I can print out and lay beside the machine while I work, with no success…now maybe I can figure out why the handwheel doesn’t move. It’s not locked up tight, but I can only move it back and forth a bit. The needle and feed dogs do move a bit as I move the handwheel.

  5. Linda in TX says:

    I just picked up the 1951 version of the 201-2, and the #42 cabinet, for $15. The machine is in very good shape, but the veneer on the cabinet is shot. I’m in the process of taking that off, to be sanded down and refinished, somehow. I’m having trouble getting the inside drawers out. There must be some kind of catch to hold the drawer on the rail, but I’ll be hanged, if I can see what it is. The top left drawer was a piece of cake, but will you PLEASE tell me how to remove the inside drawers? Thanks SO much!!!

    • pappp says:

      Those drawers are tricky, they’ve got a spring catch accessed through a hole in the bottom of the drawer. Pull them forward until they stop, then push a screwdriver or something down through the hole near the back center of the drawer bottom to depress a steel leaf spring and pull it the rest of the way out. Someone else posted good pictures here

  6. Brenda says:

    I have a 1953 202-2 singer I have had this since 2001 and never used it. I started sewing on it and was doing fine then it locked up on me. Can’t get it unlocked. The motor was working fine. I had oiled it before I started using it. Could you p,ease tell me what might be wrong with it. The bobbin holder won’t turn because the up and down mechinisium doesn’t work.

  7. Donna Allman says:

    I have this 201-2 inside of the Cabinet 42. I just acquired in and brought it home from the shop after a $100 tune up, overhaul. When I plugged it in the machine started running at full speed and I can not get it off. Thank you for posting the manual which has led me to looking at the sewing motor controller which must be the source of the problem. I can send a photo of it and the foot pedal which is simply a rod extending out of the cabinet. ( I haven’t seen this in any photos of other Cabinet 42’s…
    Naturally I am still waiting for a return call from the shop. Any advice? Thank you.

    • pappp says:

      Controller is a Rod? Is it a knee controller? That setup usually came with a foot pedal.
      I have some detail about the cabinet here and here

  8. Joe Campbell says:

    Great blog. Wonderful discussion of your 201 oddessy. As with some of your other readers I too have looked unsuccessfully for the 201 adjuster manual. But I have a 201K23 and wonder if there is a manual for it. Perhaps not as the 201 internals are supposed to be the same. If there is another adjuster manual, would you know where I might find it? Thanks!

    • pappp says:

      I’ve never seen a 201K23 adjusters manual, though my understanding is that much of the internal apparatus is the same as a 201.

  9. Bruce says:

    The trick to opening stubborn ancient screws without scratching or munging them is to get a tool called an impact screwdriver. With these tools, the screw head is placed in the slot ( or Phillips head), then the tool is hit with a hammer. I use a rubber hammer. The hammer impact simultaneously holds the screw driver tip to the slot, and the the converts much of the down force to unscrewing force. I have been using a cheap one from harbor freight, with my own adapter using a older Stanley 4-in-one screwdriver that adapts its rather large tip size to the smaller tips typically used. I did find a nice small one one amazon from Japan, which I plan to buy but have not done so yet. Look for : Anex 1903-N Impact Screwdriver. Before I used this method, I had a lot of trouble with very tight screws. Now, I can open them without damaging them.

  10. Bruce says:

    By the way, Last week I bought my first 201-2. I just started working on it today. I don’t think it was run in a very very long time. The grease in the bottom gears has hardened, and there appears to be no grease at all int the top bevel gear at top of its vertical drive shaft. At first it would hardly turn over. I scraped out the old grease and put in some high quality bicycle bottom bracket grease I had. I hope that works ok. I found that acetone works beautifully to remove the brown oil varnish such as that that covered main drive shaft at the bottom of the machine. I agree, this is a very inexpensive and satisfying hobby for those who enjoy fixing old machinery.

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