My Life Flashed Before My Eyes!

It’s been a little more than 24 hours, so I guess it’s safe to talk about it now…

I was editing my weekly video for my YouTube channel, it was episode 31 of Sunday Morning Quickies. I had been editing it for a little over 2 hours when my computer decided that I needed another heart attack.

The screen was black. Not even a BSOD, it… went… black…

I miss the days of reset buttons on computers. I also miss the days when a laptop battery could be removed from a hung computer to force it to power off. Hell, I miss built in optical drives and PCMCIA slots (am I showing my age?). Anyway,I was looking at a very expensive laptop that wasn’t very old, sitting there with a black screen, yet the keyboard backlights were shining.

What to do?

I waited about 20 minutes. Well, to be honest, I didn’t “wait”, I went online on my phone and got the number for Dell technical support!

By the time someone in the call center answered, my laptop had been sitting there like a brick for over half an hour. In broken English, the customer service representative was asking me all sorts of questions, none of which was “what can I do to help you”. They were insisting that my computer had a tag on the back that had a Dell service code. I was basically being called a liar because no such tag exists on my laptop. They wanted to know where I bought it (Best Buy), and were adamant that there was a sticker. I offered to take photographs of the back, front, and sides of my laptop to show that, NO, there wasn’t a damn sticker on my damn dead laptop!

Let me say here, I wasn’t concerned about the laptop per se, not the data contained therein. I have an 8TB drive that is connected to my laptop that constantly backs up all of my data. Every time I save a file to my laptop, it automagically backs that file up on my external drive. I’ve learned my lesson, having had HDD failures in the past. I won’t allow my cardiac health to be compromised by failing to have a backup system in place and always working. No, my concern was for the file that was in progress! The video I was editing that was due to be released at midnight, now just less than 2 hours away!

Anyway, while the Dell representative was busy berating me for not having a service number tag or whatever it’s called on the back of my laptop, the screen popped back to life! It wasn’t my normal screen, rather a screen that indicated that Windows 10 had taken a massive dump in its virtual diaper and needed a bath, some baby oil, and a fresh onesie. I set my cellphone on speaker, placed my phone of the desk and stared at my screen and breathed a heavy sigh of relief. I let the rep from Dell spew forth a bit more vitriol while my computer ran a battery of power on self tests. When my “normal” log on screen appeared, I hung up on the rather nasty Dell rep, knowing that this was going to be the last Dell laptop I would ever buy, rather I would go back to building my own desktop machines in the future and NEVER have to deal with crappy Dell customer support ever again.

New Feature!

As a service to the members of the Vintage Sewing Machine Community, I am now maintaining a new page on my website “My Recommended Tools, Materials, and Suppliers“. I’m doing this for a couple of reasons, one of which may be considered kind of selfish. First (the selfish one) I hope to minimize the amount of email I get with the subject line of “What kind of…” or “Where do you get…”, and second, to help newcomers get a firm grasp on what tools, equipment, and supplies we use (though not all will require everything).

Anyway… Take a peek at the lists when you get a chance. I’ll be updating them periodically – as in when something new crosses my bow that I find interesting.


A Funny Thing Happened After My Last Bout With Covid

As I mentioned back in the middle of October, I had a second bout with Covid-19. As soon as I tested positive, my Primary Care Physician sent me to the Emergency Room of Monmouth Medical Center in Long Branch, New Jersey for a monoclonal antibodies infusion. 17 hours later, the fever broke and I felt GREAT!

Feeling “great” lasted for all of 2 days.

I woke up that morning and my right arm was numb, VERY numb. I thought I must have slept in a weird position and maybe pinched a nerve. 2 more days passed and my arm wasn’t getting any better, in fact, it was getting decidedly worse! I had almost no strength in my right hand (or arm) – I was so weak on my right side, I couldn’t even grasp my coffee mug. It was time to see someone, since it was Sunday, off to the Emergency Room I went. The young physician’s assistant that cared for me was certain it was just a pinched nerve, so he gave me some steroids to ease any inflammation and sent me home. I did check in with my regular doctor the next morning. He was concerned, but advised me to continue the course of steroids and keep him posted of any progress, and to immediately call if it got worse.

The next day was worse, much worse.

I woke up that Tuesday morning and had no feeling at all in my right hand, zero, zip, nothing. I could move my fingers, but even something as simple as grasping a pen was out of the question. As soon as the office opened, I was on the phone. I happened to get an RN on the phone who has had some relevant experience. She didn’t tell me, but as I was told later, she suspected that I was having an auto-immune reaction to the monoclonal antibodies. I was told to come in right away.

Well, long story short, I was indeed having an auto-immune response. Unfortunately, there is precious little that the doctors could do for me, so I had to tough it out and try to exercise my right arm and hand as much as I could to rebuild strength and prevent muscle atrophy.

So here I am, 124 days later. While I’m somewhat better, I still deal with a significant loss of sense of touch in my right hand. Some days are better than others, of course, but all in all, I would say I’m no better than 70% of my pre-monoclonal infusion self. It’s been an uphill battle, and the challenge of restoring sewing machines with a diminished sense of touch has been a monumental obstacle to attempt to overcome.

If I were to turn back the clock to the date of my infusion, knowing what I know now, I would still accept the treatment, albeit in my non-dominant left arm instead of my right! My first bout with Covid was pretty bad – especially because it was before we even knew what Covid-19 was (this was in January 2020). I was running a very high fever (104.3F) for 4 days, and only massive doses of steroids kept my airways open so I could breath. The recovery period was long and arduous. Eight months later, I still could only barely perform any physical labor. Compound this with a heart attack in October of 2020, and I think it’s pretty clear why I didn’t want to get Covid a second time. Liz also came down with Covid within a day of my getting sick, but luckily, she didn’t have as bad a time as I did.

When the vaccine became available, we both took the jab. We were not yet eligible for the booster shot when we both were diagnosed a second time. Liz too, received the monoclonal antibodies, but fortunately, she suffered no ill effects.

I write all of this, not to seek sympathy. I write this to share my perspective as someone who has had the disease more than once, and over two years since first contracting Covid, am still dealing with the aftermath.

I have lost too many friends to Covid, the most recent is my old friend Sam. Sam and I shared a birthday, though he was 8 years older. We worked together in the Audio Visual Department at Fort Monmouth for many years. He was a funny guy, always quick with a joke or a humorous story. He left behind a wife, two daughters, and some grandkids – and he was way too young. Rest in peace Sam…

Worth the Effort

The picture shows the a before and after of the hook race / bobbin case and feed dogs of a Singer 15-30 from 1913. The machine belongs to a customer, now turned friend, who is just getting started in vintage sewing machines. I know technicians who, if they were presented this machine, would have said “Sorry, I don’t have the time to do THAT”…

Well… How much time HAS this machine taken? The rest of the machine was just as bad, if not worse. There was crud about 1/16″ thick on the rock shafts below the machine. The connecting rod and stitch length regulator fork were barely recognizable for the layers of grime. Everything in the needle bar area was covered in a thick layer of oil turned varnish that held all parts like glue. The disassembly took about 90 minutes, which is about an hour longer than it would usually take me to do that task. The presser bar alone consumed 20 minutes of my day getting it freed up. I had to drill out the pin that binds the crank to the oscillating hook shaft, one hundred nine years of crud has welded it secure.

The larger, non-polished components all went to the garage shop where I have a bench grinder with a wire wheel and after about an hour, the majority of those components were stripped of their protective crud coating. Final, detail cleaning, took place in the main shop and required several more hours of labor.

The hardware was tackled in the usual way; screw threads were cleaned with a wire wheel on a rotary tool, screws were chucked into the 1/2″ chuck on the bench motor so the heads could be cleaned and polished. The tapers of all six pivot screws were polished to a mirror like finish, as were the mating surfaces on the rock shafts. Every screw, every washer, every nut got the same level of attention – it all looks like new.

The reassembly required the same level of attention to detail. All threaded holes in the main casting were “chased” with taps so as to eliminate any potential contamination to the threaded connections. All metal to metal contact surfaces were polished to a mirror shine to minimize friction. The rock shafts were adjusted to eliminate lost motion (aka slop), yet to be free moving. Nothing was left to chance.

Total time in reassembly – I lost count after 4 hours. Is it worth the effort? Well, I can’t bill the customer for the actual hours I put into this machine, so why did I do it? I did it because I really don’t like the 15-30! I wanted to go nuts on a machine that’s decidedly NOT my favorite. In doing so, by going to the extreme on a machine that I really don’t like much, forced me to find new ways to extract every little bit of performance hidden in her iron body. An extreme rebuild on a model 66 or 99 would be a labor of love, but on a 15-30… It was hard work!

I really think I grew as a mechanic servicing this machine to this extreme degree. I enjoy challenging myself, and I really like getting my hands dirty. The filthy, disgusting mess that this machine was turned out to be the perfect vehicle to test my abilities.

As for my customer, her bill will be for a normal service…

The Second Time Around

Having Covid-19 sucks.

Having Covid-19 a second time, even after being fully vaccinated, sucks even more.

My favorite songwriters, Jimmy Van Heusen and Sammy Cahn wrote a song for Frank Sinatra- The Second Time Around, the sentiments of which are decidedly not, my friends the case with Covid-19.

On a brighter note, my primary care physician was able to get me in to the local hospital when I received the monoclonal antibody infusion. I don’t know if it did any good or not as my symptoms were even more severe after I had the treatment, but 16 hours later, the fever finally broke.

BTW – The first time I had Covid, I was running a 104+ fever for 4 straight days. This time, it got up to 104.4, but only lasted a couple of hours.

So… With the monoclonal antibodies in my system, I’ve been told that tests are pretty much useless, and that I’ll test positive for at least three months. The doc at the hospital said to stay away from people until I’m symptom free +10 days. That’s the best part, I don’t have to be around people…

Did I mention that Covid-19 sucks?

Own Your Mistakes

A couple of weeks ago, my friend Sandy contacted me saying she tried rewiring the motor and lamp of her Singer 15-91, but was running into trouble with the motor. I told her to just send it on over to me and I’d have a look at it and see what the trouble was.

Sandy’s initial complaint was that the motor, even after rewiring, was moving real slow, and needed a push to get it going. I suspected either a bad field coil or a bad armature – both of which were the case. The field coil was way out of whack, so I suspected an internal short on one side, and the armature had an open winding, both had to be replaced. I could have just swapped the entire motor, in which case this posting would never have been made, but Sandy worked REALLY hard cleaning the exterior of her motor and wanted her original is at all possible, so I gutted a known good motor I had in stock, replaced her parts, and buttoned it up and shipped it back.

A few days later, I had a phone call… “Bob, why is this motor running backwards?”

Oh… Crap… Send it back…

I’ve lost track of how many Singer potted motors I’ve rewired, it’s been a lot, that’s for certain. This was the first time I messed up reassembly. In retrospect, it’s actually very easy to mess this part of the process up, and in spectacular fashion!

Here’s what happened. There are 4 wires that are user accessible at the field windings, two that go to mains power, and two that go to the brushes. Without getting too deep in the weeds, the orientation of the wires that go to the mains is irrelevant, we’re talking AC power, so there is no polarization to concern ourselves with. The wires that go to the brush holders… Well, that’s another story. The brush holders are 180 degrees apart from each other, and their brushes carry current to the commutator bars. Swap them side for side and it DOES matter, the motor will run in reverse! This has to do with the phases of the windings and some other technical stuff we won’t concern ourselves with, so suffice it to say that when I did my “quality control checks”, my brain was focused on the initial complaint, a slow running motor with starting issues, NOT the end result, a motor that runs great and spins in the correct direction!

So… Yeah… I was humbled beyond humble. I told her Sandy was going to make this a teachable moment and make a video for my YouTube channel (which she agreed would be a good idea), not to humiliate myself even more, but to stress that anyone can make a boneheaded mistake. You can see the video here. Make some popcorn and enjoy a laugh at my expense, if you wish, or take it another way – as a word of warning that familiarity breeds contempt and that we must ALWAYS check and double check our work, regardless of how many times we have completed the task in the past.

“Watch Out Where The Huskies Go”

I was working on a 31-15 made in 1910 for my friend Brandi. This machine was absolutely filthy. I had gone with her to pick this machine up about 10 months or so ago, and when we arrived, it was sitting outside, under a tarp, in its table, and with clutch motor. Brandi paid for it, we loaded it up in my truck, and headed back on down the road.

Fast forward to a few weeks ago and I picked the machine up from Brandi’s house, still in as found condition. My intention was to use it as the subject for a couple of videos, and in the process, get it back in perfect sewing condition.

I did a substantial amount of work on the underside of the machine, carefully cleaning and adjusting, and moved on to the needle bar / presser bar area. Both the needle and presser bars were so filthy, I briefly considered tossing them both into a drawer and pulling out nice, clean examples to use instead, but cooler heads prevailed and I started up the buffer and went to work.

The needle bar cleaned up easily, and in a few short minutes, was looking as good as new – at least as good as new as an 111 year old needle bar can…The presser bar, on the other hand, had an interesting thing going on that was soon to provide an inordinate amount of comic relief.

The presser is a partially hollow bar, one with a small hole on the top side. During the more-than-a-century that this particular 31-15 has been on this Earth, someone, or more precisely, a group of someone’s, had been pouring oil – even if only in miniscule amounts – down the top of the presser bar adjuster nut in a vain attempt to lubricate the presser bar.

We all know (or should know) that “new” oil will loosen and clear “old” oil. Over time, the “new” oil being poured down the top cleared up the “old” oil that was clogging the tiny hole at the top of the presser bar. During subsequent oilings, more and more and more and more oil was being applied to the top of the presser bar, and gradually filled it to the top.

Then the machine sat. It looks like it sat for decades.

Once again, we all know that old oil, given the opportunity to sit, will first turn to sludge, then to a yellowish varnish that becomes quite solid.

That is, until it meets a buffing wheel.

Yes, I unwittingly took that presser bar to the buffing wheel, a wheel freshly charged with yellow buffing compound, and went to work cleaning over a century of hardened schmoo from its exterior. Little did I realize what was happening inside.

Buffing metal generates heat, and LOTS of it. Apply heat to an old oil sludge, and guess what you have? If you said “reconstituted yellow, piss like, old oil varnish that runs like a river” DING! DING! DING! WE HAVE A WINNER!

Yes… All over me, all over the shop floor… What…A…Mess…I mentioned to Brandi what had happened. She thought it was the Funniest… Thing… Ever…

Me? Not so much…

Brandi is, of course, still my friend, and I will always be happy to service her machines. I’m starting to see the humor in all of this myself…

The moral of the story: If you see it’s a hollow part, assume it’s been flooded and act accordingly.

A Very Small World

It’s a cliche, I get it, but it’s also true; we live in an increasingly smaller world.

I had a phone call today from a woman named Brenda who said she was given my business card by an employee at the local JOANN Fabrics and Crafts store. She said she was a beginner and was having pretty bad tension issues and couldn’t seem to get anything to work correctly. I asked what machine she had and what class bobbin it uses. Brenda told me that it’s a Singer Simple, and uses Class 15 bobbins. She also said she’s had it for about 6 months.

Now I’m not a snob or anything, but I just don’t work on those cheap, disposable plastic Singers. I should also say up front, all of my initial contacts are house calls, if the machine needs to come to the shop, I will transport it, both ways. My service call fee can easily exceed the cost of one of these disposable future inhabitants of the landfill, but my curiosity was piqued, I had to see just how bad this thing was. I grabbed my Towa TM-2 Class 15 Bobbin Case Tension Gauge and my field kit, and headed out the door for the 22 mile trip to Brenda’s house…

Now before someone calls me out as a rip off artist, going on a call for a machine that clearly isn’t financially viable, I had zero intention of charging Brenda for the call, regardless if I could resolve her issues or not.

When I got there, Brenda showed me the mess she was dealing with, and yes, she had tension issues, BIG issues. I started out by unthreading everything and rethreading her bobbin case and testing tension. It should be about 200mN on the gauge, this one was showing less than 30. I got that squared away (or so I thought) and threaded up the machine.

The first line sewn looked pretty good, but not great. I did a second line without making any changes and it was horrible! Upper and lower tensions didn’t hold at all. I opened the bobbin compartment to remove the bobbin case and as I grasped the lever on the case the retaining ring, hook, bobbin case – EVERYTHING came spilling out onto the table. It was a complete piece of junk. The latches wouldn’t even hold the retaining ring securely.

At that point, I told Brenda I wasn’t going to charge her to “repair” this thing. I was brutally honest, the “Simple” was simply a piece of junk and I’d rather put her in a quality machine where I could give a meaningful parts/labor guarantee. I asked Brenda what kind of projects she wanted to sew, and we both came to the conclusion that, at least for now, a simple straight stitch machine would do the job. I offered to go pick up one of my freshly serviced Model 99’s if she wanted. I even offered a “try before you buy” and a stellar deal, and she agreed.

I drove home, did a quick test on a Singer Model 99 from 1929 that I had in a base (no case top), installed a new Alphasew .9 amp motor with an electronic foot controller, grabbed a half dozen new metal bobbins, a new needle oiler, and of course, one of my business coffee mugs and headed out the door.

Upon my return to Brenda’s house, I set up the 99 in her sewing room. The machine was already threaded and ready to plug in and go. I sat her down and told her to give it a spin.

The look on Brenda’s face was one of amazement! After the first line of stitches, I had her flip the work over and every stitch was absolutely perfect. Hey, it’s a 99, they’re bullet proof perfection, of course it looked great!

So there we are, Brenda is happily sewing away, testing the machine, and I ask her what she does for a living. She tells me and we compare day jobs. When she finds out that I work in video teleconferencing by day, she mentions that her father does too! “Yes, he worked at BlahBlahTel”. “OMG! I work at BlahBlahTEL! What’s your Dad’s name?” “Warren” was her response…

It was then that I found out that her Dad sat 3 cubicles away from me… FOR THE PAST EIGHT YEARS! Granted, we didn’t always work complete shifts together (I went back and forth between the US, APAC, and EU shift hours), but we spent a significant amount of time working together – he in Tech Services, and me in Operations.

So… It was only WELL after she had tried the machine that I found out she was my friend’s daughter. That did change the terms of the deal, to say the least! The “Friends and Family” discount immediately came into play.

No regrets here, the mission is to not only save vintage machines, but to make sure sewists – especially new sewists – have machines they will love to use instead of machines they swear at. To be able to help the daughter of a friend is sometimes the icing on the cake.

Well… What was it that got me out of the house to go look at a $79 piece of junk? I don’t like to be a condescending jerk and say to someone “It’s not worth my time”, though I really would have been justified in doing so. I guess sometimes, there’s a little gravitational tug that changes our course forever, at least it changed the course for Brenda. The universe does work in strange ways…

As a postscript… I gave Brenda my email address and told her to send me a message and I would email her a pdf of the manual for the machine, as well as some helpful links. When she emailed me, she told me she told her Dad what happened!

Note: “BlahBlahTel” is obviously fictional. To avoid any legal issues with the real BlahBlahTel, I won’t disclose the actual name of the company. Not here anyway, and not until I retire…

I love It!

That’s what Camille, a repair customer of mine, said to me today when I asked her how she liked her “new to her” Singer 99 that I set her up with a couple of months ago.

Camille first contacted me to repair a family heirloom, a 1970’s Kenmore zigzag machine that had been languishing in a corner of her sewing room. It’s probably a stretch to call it a true heirloom, but I’ll use that term in its truest sense as it had been handed down by a family member and she really wanted to keep it running. The repairs were really quite simple, clean out an inordinate amount of packed in fluff, clean the thread path, replace the belt and bobbin tire, remove old, dried out grease and oil, and re-lubricate the appropriate points. No broken parts were found, so it was very straightforward.

When I returned the machine after servicing, we spoke about our various sewing interests. She told me that she’d been taking quilting classes, which was one reason she was interested in getting the Kenmore working, as that it’s far more portable than her “big” machine. She asked me about the older Singers, and soon the conversation turned to Featherweights, 99’s, and 128’s. Camille expressed a genuine interest in the vintage Singers, so I knew it was only a matter of time before a classic would be in her sewing room. Prices on Featherweights (at least in our area) are absolutely stupid high, and when I extolled the virtues of the humble 99, its slightly higher weight, larger arm depth, and drop in bobbin, she was intrigued, to say the least!

Within a few weeks, I found what I believed would be the perfect machine for Camille, a beautiful, mid 1950’s 99 with back tack! The machine was in a less than usable case, but I had an awesome bentwood case that was the perfect fit- It offered great protection and portability, and has that Woohoo! classic Singer look. We struck a deal and soon the little 99 was all hers.

Fast forward to today…

Camille sent me an email, just to touch base, letting me know how pleased she was with the machine, and attached some pictures of projects she had made with “Millie” as her 99 is now known (named for her great grandmother). Coincidentally, I had been thinking about Camille as I had just found a box of presser feet and other attachments that I thought might be useful to her. A quick phone call and I was on my way over to drop off the goodie box.

I chatted with her and her husband for about 45 minutes when I dropped off the box of attachments. She told me how much she absolutely loves that little 99. Camille gave me permission to use the pictures she sent me, so here they are, her first three projects sewn on Millie.

It’s days like this that really make me love what I do. I wouldn’t trade it for the world…