Servicing a Treadle
A sewing machine treadle is a very basic and simple machine, beautifully so in it's way. All it really is is a framework to hold a drive wheel, a pedal and a pitman rod that connects them. The whole is held together with large screws and bolts. When you work the pedal, the pitman rod drives the wheel through a crank or eccentric connection… that's it. Of course, a belt is connected to the wheel and in turns drives the sewing machine, but for now all we are talking about is the treadle itself. There is a ton of information here. Read it all the way through a couple of times, while studying a treadle, before actually doing anything. You may also want to revisit the page several times over the initial posting period. It's a complex thing to explain, and I am sure I will be making changes and clarifications as I get feedback from users. Also after the July 18 Treadle On Gathering, I will experiment with adding pictures, if it doesn't make the page too big for the site.
Things you will need to service your treadle:
A very large flat head screwdriver.
A short, or stubby but fairly large bladed flat head screwdriver.
Two adjustable end wrenches or a good set of open or box end wrenches, US Standard
A pair of pliers
A can of Liquid Wrench ® or kerosene
A tube of Singer motor grease, or other light grease
Possibly a can of really heavy grease, like water pump grease
A razor blade or knife
A small paint brush or two
A wire brush
If you plan to paint the treadle while you have it apart, flat black spray paint, spray enamel, gold colored paint and small brushes.
Note: The above list implies a really complete overhaul. If all you are after is a cleaning and oiling, you won't need so much. If you don't have something named, use what you do have, except for the large screwdriver. Using too small a screwdriver is an invitation to either a ruined tool or a hole in your hand.
You are going to need a good place to work. This job involves grease, dirt and oil… don't do it in the sewing room unless you can spread a tarp. I have a nice plywood top fitted to my table saw in the shop, and I find that's a real good place to work on a treadle. The floor works well too, but involves a lot of getting up and down. If you are lucky enough to have a high surface like I do, don't be bashful about getting help to lift the treadle up there. I heft these things around a lot and have built up the muscle to do it. I know these instructions will be put to use by many ladies, and some folks of shall we say "mature" years. Use the judgement that comes with maturity and don't try to lift something that could hurt you by yourself.
One other caution… handle the cast iron parts with some care. They are heavy enough to have some inertia when they are moving, and if fingers get between them, it hurts. Leather gloves are not a bad idea.
OK, the first thing you have to decide is how much of a job you're doing. I am going to write this with the old treadle that you just bought at a barn sale in mind. It has been in dusty storage for 50 years, wasn't cleaned when it was put away, and now is dirty and stiff. If yours is in better shape than that, I leave it to you do decide what adjustments to make in the instructions.
For a really thorough job, I like to take the cabinet off. First, take the machine out. To do that, loosen or remove the belt, tilt the head back and loosen the set screws that attach the head to the hinge pins at the back. These screws are found under the machine. When they are loosened enough, you can lift the machine off of the hinge pins. Set the machine aside.
You can unfasten the cabinet by crawling under it on the floor, but I usually lay a cloth or old shop blanket on the table top and tip the machine upside down on the table. This lets me get at the underneath screws very easily. BE VERY CAREFUL TO CONTROL THE FLIP TOP LID WHEN DOING THIS! Usually, you only need to unfasten four large screws that hold the treadle legs onto the top. Have a nice big can or bucket to put all screws and bolts and small pieces in. It's very embarrassing to finish the job and not have as many pieces as you started with. Lift the treadle off of the top or the top off of the treadle, as appropriate. Set the cabinet aside and put the treadle back up on the table, but right side up.
Study the treadle mechanism… see how it works… watch what moves and what is connected to what and how. Think it out and develop a comfortable understanding of the mechanism you are working on. Basically, what we need to do is just clean it and allow it to work as designed. Generally, any grease or oil in the mechanism has both collected dirt and dust and dried out, making a bad situation. First, everything gets stiff and slow, but even worse, instead of acting as a lubricant, the old dried oil with the dirt in it becomes an abrasive compound and increases the wear on the parts.
Here is a diagram of a Singer treadle:
A good beginning is to squirt a little Liquid Wrench on all the moving joints, nuts, bolts and screws. This will loosen things up and make disassembly easier. (Note: this does not apply to the connections of the wooden pitman rods… don't put kerosene or Liquid Wrench on the wood.)
For a really thorough job, I start by disconnecting the pitman rod at the pedal. This requires a discussion of pitman rods. There are two types… wood and metal. The wood type usually is a rod with a hole approximately 1/2" in either end. There is a round rod or projection on the pedal. The rod slips over this and there is a pin to hold it in place. (You may not need to disconnect the rod if you are not doing a really complete cleaning and repainting job.) To remove the retaining pin… if it is a cotter pin, simply bent it straight and remove it. If it is a solid metal pin, tap gently on either end… if it doesn't move, tap a little less gently on either end. When you see that it will move, tap from that direction. This may be a tapered pin, so you don't want to try to drive it through the wrong way. When reassembling, I always replace a solid pin with a cotter pin.
NOTE: Both at the pedal and at the drive wheel, you may find actual roller ball bearings. Some of the better machines (White, Pfaff, others) used them. That's great. Don't let them throw you, just carefully study how they are fitted in before taking them out, and be sure to put them back in the same way after cleaning and re-lubricating them.
Another caution… if the pitman rod is wood, it will be very dry, which means brittle. It is easily broken or split, especially at the ends, where there is a sliding wood mechanism for adjustment. Start right now and rub it with some wood restorative… I like Howard's Feed and Wax. When you're finished with this job, continue to rub oil on the pitman every few weeks for several months to restore moisture and strength to the wood. Note: if disaster strikes and the pitman breaks… don't panic… you can make a new one yourself… see "Making a Pitman Rod" further along.
Generally, you don't need to take the pitman apart at the crank end.
If you have a metal pitman, there will be a donut shaped ball bearing unit at the crank end, and the pedal end will be terminated in a ball and socket nut in the corner of the pedal. You will need a pair of wrenches to disassemble the ball and socket. As you do, study how it goes together. You're going to need to get it back together after you clean everything. Also, in future, this socket is an important adjustment for keeping your treadle operating smoothly and quietly. To disassemble, hold the top nut still with one wrench while backing off on the lock nut below the pedal. Once the lock nut is loose, you can use the stubby screwdriver to back the center screw out until the whole unit comes apart.
At this point, you should have the pitman disconnected and the pedal flopping free. Look at the ends or sides of the pedal. You will see that it is hinged on two large screws that have lock nuts on them. Use a wrench and back off on the lock nuts. Now, using your large screwdriver, back these screws all the way out until you can remove the pedal. If you study the screws, you will see that the ends are cone shaped. These are actually bearings, while they don't have rollers or balls as we usually think of bearings, they are bearings none the less.
The pedal is a good place to learn about cone bearings. Using a brush, a rag, and some kerosene or Liquid Wrench, clean out the cone and clean off the cone screws. Squeeze some grease (I use the Singer motor lube) into the cone. Now put the screws back in. Note that if you screw the screws in real tight, the pedal won’t move at all. If you back them off, the pedal can move freely… if you back them out further, the pedal will have side to side play and be both noisy and sloppy. Here is the secret of correct adjustment of cone bearings, as taught to me by my father when he taught me how to overhaul my bicycle. Tighten the bearings until you know they are too tight and restricting movement. Now, back them out until you THINK you feel play. That should be perfect. What you are aiming for is to leave enough extra space to accommodate a film of grease, no more. If you can really feel a noticeable amount of play, that's too much. The pedal should be nice and free in its movement, but not sloppy.
It would be great if I could stop the instruction on cone bearings there. Unfortunately, I can't. For the adjustment to stay in place, it is necessary to "lock" it. This is the purpose of the lock nuts on the cone bearing screws. To lock the adjustment in place, hold the screw steady with the large screwdriver, while tightening the lock nut down with a wrench. You may actually find yourself putting back pressure on the screw to counter the forward pressure of the nut. The trick is get the nut locked down tight with the adjustment the same as when you were happy with it. The natural thing is to get a perfect adjustment, then make it too tight when you tighten the lock nut. Practice this… do it half a dozen times until you get a feel for it.
You have now learned the most important single thing about treadle adjustment. However, if you are doing a complete disassembly, I got ahead of myself and you will want to take the pedal out again so you can take the legs off. I did this deliberately… you need the practice. If you are doing a complete disassembly, this is the time to remove the screws from the legs, or braces as they are sometimes called. You can lay them aside.
Next remove the dress guard, which is held on by one bolt at the bottom. There is no need to disassemble the little belt control lever.
At this point, you should still have the frame center with the drive wheel, crank and pitman assembled as a unit. Study how the drive wheel is attached. Looks an awful lot like the cone bearing arrangement we met on the pedal, doesn't it? Surprise! That's exactly what it is. If you back off on the lock nut you can then back the cone bearing screw all the way out and remove the drive wheel. This is where a major mess may be found. People had a habit of winding two bobbins at a time… wind one, put it in the machine, wind another ready for the next change. What to do with the second full bobbin? I know, let's just leave it in the bobbin winder! Wrong! Sometimes the belt would pick up the loose thread end and wind miles of thread around the drive wheel, which somehow pulled it down into the drive wheel bearings. I have found layers and layers of thread wound into the bearings. You can either disassemble everything, or cut and tweeze and pull to get it all out. Before reassembling you will want to clean out the cones, clean up the screws and grease the cones. However, if you are going to clean and/or paint the frame, save that for later.
You now have an essentially disassembled treadle frame. If you want to clean it up, this is the time to do it. I generally wipe it all down with either kerosene rags or 409 cleaner, depending on how much grease, dirt and lint are on it. (I had an industrial frame once that I couldn't believe. They apparently oiled the machine daily, but never wiped the frame. In a clothing factory, you can imagine the buildup of greasy lint…). Once you've gotten the plain dirt and grease off, wire brush any loose paint or rust off. If the rust is bad, you may need to sand or use a wire brush on a drill. Once the frame is clean, decide if you are going to repaint or not. If yes, two coats of flat black, one coat of enamel (I like Rustolium ® paint). Finish by hand painting the Singer emblem (or other name/emblem on the ends) and the name on the center frame with gold colored paint.
We need a moment to talk about wheels. They are frequently a problem. Often they are frozen with either rust or jammed up threads. If the treadle has been pushed around on a cement floor with frozen wheel, the wheels will have flat spots. I have seen them literally almost worn down to the axle. If the problem is threads, you can cut and tweezer until you get them all out and the wheels turn freely. If it's rust, Liquid Wrench and oil should do the job. If they're flat, you have a problem.
To cure flat wheels, you have to solve two problems. These are getting the old wheels out, and finding new wheels to put in. Study a wheel. It's a metal circle with a hole for an axle, and the axle is a large rivet, inserted and then pounded over on one end. To remove a wheel, you must first file or grind off the pounded over end of the rivet until you are down to the actual axle hole. This is most easily done when the frame is disassembled, but can be done with the frame stood on end. Use either a grinder, a Dremel type tool with a grinding or sanding cylinder, or a good metal file.
Once this step is dealt with, you must drive out the remainder of the rivet. Things get tricky here, so pay attention! You need a large nail set or drift… smaller than the diameter of the axle rivet, but big enough to give some surface purchase. I definitely prefer to use what is called a "dead fall hammer" for this job, though it is not absolutely necessary. They aren't too expensive in a tool store. This is a hammer that produces little or no bounce or vibration. Cast iron is very brittle. If you whang away with a heavy hammer, the vibration can transfer throughout the piece and cause cracking or breaking amazingly far from where you are actually pounding. I nearly ruined a treadle once. I couldn't get the axle to move so I kept getting bigger hammers and pounding harder until I succeeded in driving it out. Only afterwards did I discover that the fine filigree work in the leg had broken in four places. It cost me $45 to have them welded. The best way to deal with this is to drill a hole in a board, larger than the diameter of the head of the axle rivet, and hold the leg in such a way that the head of the rivet is in that hole. Drive the rivet out by driving it into the hole. That way, the board provides support for the metal around the rivet.
The next problem is new wheels. The classy way to go is to have a machinist lathe turn you a new set of metal wheels, get new rivets, and install them. It's an easy machining job, but you might now want to go to this expense. Some treadles had hardwood wheels. If you know someone with a wood lathe, you can get a set of those made. The quick and dirty fix is to buy a set of plastic casters, four screws of appropriate size, and two nuts and a lock washer for each screw. The plastic casters will probably have a hub that is a little too wide for the opening in the leg. Put a piece of sandpaper on a board and sand that extra hub off. Put the wheel on with a bolt, using two nuts with a lock washer between them to hold the new "axle" in. It'll work.
If you have lost track of where you are at this point, don't feel bad, so have I. :<)
Assess the job and see if there's more you want to do. If not, reassemble the whole works, taking care with the cone bearings as you have learned.
This is the point at which we will be making all the final adjustments that will mean a smooth working treadle. First, we need to revisit the metal pitman with it's ball and socket attachment joint. This really is a variation on the cone bearings, only in a spherical shape. Clean the whole assembly, put some light grease in it and put it back together. Be sure to do a good job of the cleaning… a bit of dirt in this particular assembly can drive you nuts by making the treadling stiff.
With the whole works back together, hold the drive wheel and put pressure on the pedal. Try to rock it just a little. Does it sit firm, or is there play in it, causing it to make a clacking sound. Again, this is one of those situations where you don't want things too tight, but you don't want so much looseness that the pedal has "free" travel in it's joints. This causes wear and noise. If you feel there is too much play, and you can identify it as coming from the pedal joint, adjust either the ball socket, or if you have a wood pitman, the adjustment in the end of the wood pitman. (It has a little set screw in it). A wood pitman also has an adjustment at the crank end. If you can see that there is play there, you can tighten that up. Again, not too tight! The metal pitman has the donut shaped ball bearing ring at the crank end and there is no adjustment. I have one treadle on which the metal pitman rod itself has been bent and I have never been able to get the donut bearing race to ride in a perfectly vertical plane to the crank. It has developed some play and tends to make a little noise. I quiet it down by using a very heavy water pump grease there to quell the motion.
Alright, you're satisfied that the pedal adjustment and the pitman crank adjustment are OK. Now for the big question. How does it treadle? Work the pedal and see how it feels. Is it stiff? If so, see if you can tell where. With a metal pitman, the most common culprit is the ball joint. With others, it's the cones on either the pedal or the crank. Back things out, readjust, try again. Keep it up until you are satisfied that there is an easy treadling motion without excessive vibration or noise. With the treadle set on the floor, really get it going with a good foot motion, as fast as you can. Remove your foot and observe. It should keep going for a bit… a dozen to 20 revolutions. (I have had White's that almost kept running as if they were motorized. White really built a fine treadle frame). As it comes to a stop, the weight of the pedal and crank should drag toward the low point of the cycle. A really nicely adjusted treadle will reach this point, and rock back and forth a couple of times without making a full revolution before settling at the low point and stopping.
Congratulations, you have serviced a treadle. Oooops, you ain't done yet. Put the cabinet back on if you took it off. Put the machine back in. Either put the belt back on or install a new one. (See the page on belt installation on this site). There is one other nice adjustment you can make that will make your sewing a lot easier. That is to adjust the treadle to the needle's stitch cycle. I only learned this one very recently. With the crank and pedal at the bottom of their cycle, hold the drive wheel firmly and turn the hand wheel of the machine until the needle is at the top of it's cycle. Now, when you stop sewing, the natural tendency of the machine will be to stop with the needle up. (Note, if you prefer to run a loose belt, as I do, this is an adjustment that will not be permanent. I often get some belt slippage, so I have to redo this. It's easy, so it's not a big deal).
I hope this very long piece works for you. I have had so many inquiries on this whole subject that it became very obvious there were numbers of people out there really laboring at treadling, and it should be a very easy, relaxing motion. Many of them didn't know it should be easy, others thought perhaps it should, but were reluctant to tear the treadle apart. I wanted to take some of the mystery out of it and get most folks to where they aren't afraid to maintain this thing. Remember, literally millions of these machines existed on farms and frontiers and in mining camps, etc. There was no sewing machine shop to take them to, and if Ms. Frontiersperson (Boy, am I getting PC, or what?) had suggested to her husband that he throw the old Singer on his horse and take it to town for adjustment, I don't think it would have gotten far. No, Great Grandma probably had a pretty fair idea of how to maintain her machine herself, and mostly did so. So can you.
Treadlers frequently encounter the problem of having the treadle pedal bump on the carpet when treadling. Our carpets today are much thicker and softer than they were in the old days. If you have this problem, go back to the main Index page for the site and scroll down to The Wood Shop. There is a page there on how to make carpet protectors and/or treadle runners that will resolve this problem, and also make your treadle easier to move around.