If you’ve ever had the good fortune to learn tips for sewing from an old pro who’s been sewing for decades, you’ve probably heard about the importance of oiling your machine. But what you might not realize is that modern sewing machine oil—and the machines themselves—are not quite the same as they were in the past.
What Is Sewing Machine Oil Used for?
Sewing machines contain complex mechanisms that must move with precision. Oil protects your machine and ensures it will continue working the way it needs to. The oil prevents wear on the levers and gears as they shift and move while also preventing rust from forming on the metal parts.
Many modern machines come pre-oiled to protect these intricate inner workings, so luckily, if you’ve purchased a brand new machine, you probably won’t have to worry about oiling it for a little while.
What You Need to Know About Sewing Machine Oil
What Are the Different Kinds of Sewing Machine Oils?
There are three different kinds of oil: mineral, synthetic, and natural. Mineral oils and synthetic oils are like the ones used by cars to keep the engine running smoothly. Natural oils are typically plant-based oils and are most frequently used for cooking, such as olive and coconut oil.
The oils made for most sewing machines are made with white mineral oil. Your manual might recommend one brand of oil, though, in most cases, any sewing machine oil should work well.
Some vintage machines, however, require a thicker grease for their motors and gears. The original grease for these machines had a low melting point and was thick enough to stay put where it was placed until the motor worked and became warm, melting the grease gradually. This prevented the oil from flying off the gears and splattering on parts where the oil should not be. The vintage machines that need this special grease have a felt wick above the motor’s shaft and bushing.
Do All Sewing Machines Need to Be Oiled?
No. Some machines (especially newer ones) won’t require any oil; at least not frequently, and possibly not outside of professional maintenance. The first thing you’ll want to look at is your machine’s manual.
If there are no instructions on how to oil your machine, you’re in luck! Your machine has been pre-oiled by the manufacturer and is probably a self-lubricating machine. Today, most manufacturers include a special oil injector to apply oil while the machine works.
If your machine is less than 50 years old, chances are that you have one of these self-lubricating machines. These machines are often made with plastic parts—plastics that deteriorate when they come into contact with oils. To solve the problem of unwitting home sewists applying oil to plastic parts, manufacturers lock away most of the interior mechanisms so that users can’t even access them. These machines usually won’t require oil until they break and require professional maintenance from a skilled sewing machine repairer.
On the other hand, if you’re working with a vintage sewing machine, sewing machine oil will be your best friend and regular sewing companion.
How Often Do I Need to Oil My Sewing Machine?
If your machine is not a newer, self-lubricating machine, you should refer to your model’s instruction manual for how frequently to oil the machine. But sometimes things happen and the manual gets lost and replacements aren’t available online. So what then?
A good general rule for lubricating older sewing machines is to apply oil every week, month, or three months, depending on how frequently you use it. Weekly oiling is necessary for heavy, daily use. If you’re using a vintage machine as part of your tailoring or Etsy business day in and day out, you’ll want to apply sewing machine oil regularly each week. You might even want to oil your machine daily or every other day if you use your machine for 8 hours each day.
If you use your vintage sewing machine regularly, but not daily, you can probably get away with oiling only once a month. But listen out for any problems in case your machine needs more oil. When the machine sounds dry or loud, it’s probably a good time to apply oil.
Infrequent, once-a-month users should try to apply oil every three months.
Do Self-Lubricating Sewing Machines Ever Need Oil?
There is one time that you may want to apply oil to a self-lubricating machine at home. Bobbin issues are fairly common with even new machines. If you have repeated problems with the bobbin thread catching despite your best efforts to clean the area thoroughly, you might want to try applying a tiny amount of oil to the center post of your bobbin case before your drop a new bobbin in. Apply a tiny bit of oil to a Q-Tip and wipe the post gently.
However, if you have a drop-in bobbin case with nearby plastic pieces, you should avoid oiling any parts of the case. The oils will affect and warp the surrounding plastic, causing your bobbin to not seat correctly.
Older self-lubricating machines, especially those that have sat idle for a long period of time, may need special attention from a professional sewing machine technician. Sometimes the oil inside the injector dries up on older self-lubricating machines. In cases like these, it’s best to leave the re-oiling to the experts who can get your machine up and running again.
Can Sewing Machine Oil Go Bad?
Sewing machine oil can go bad if stored improperly. Most sewing machine oils will last for five years, but if the oil is stored in direct sunlight, in the cold, or where it has contact with water, the oil can go bad much quicker. Bad oil might be the culprit if you have an increasingly loud machine that is oiled regularly.
Bad oil often takes on a strange appearance and odor. Bad sewing machine oil might look dark, murky or cloudy and it might have sediment or become sludge-like. A clear container can help you check that the oil is still good. Make sure to store your oil properly, away from bright, cold, or humid environments, to extend its shelf-life.
Is There a Substitute for Sewing Machine Oil?
The sewing machine oil that your machine recommends in the instruction manual is usually your best bet, though, if you’re in a pinch, there may be alternatives you can use. You should be wary of blog posts claiming to use other types of oil as a substitute for sewing machine oil. What works for one person’s machine doesn’t work for everyone’s sewing machine.
Some forums and blogs recommend using 3-in-1 oil, which is made for bicycles. Professional tailors and seamstresses working on their machines daily often find 3-in-1 oil works well for their sewing routine. However, 3-in-1 oils contain solvents that become gummy when the machine sits idle. Use 3-in-1 and let your machine sit for too long, and you’ll find your sewing machine has seized up.
Others might recommend using motor oil, but there are harmful additives in motor oil that aren’t just harmful to work with, but can also damage any plastic parts that your machine might contain.
The best substitute for sewing machine oil is white mineral oil. White mineral is the primary ingredient in most sewing machine oils and is well suited for protecting the mechanisms inside your machine. Food grade and industrial white mineral oils both work well. The only difference is that food-grade is processed at a higher quality to make it safe for human consumption, making it slightly more expensive. Swan Mineral Oil is an affordable substitute for sewing machine oil. With 16 ounces costing less than $10, a few dollars can last for years of heavy use. (https://www.amazon.com/Swan-Mineral-Oil-16-oz/dp/B001B2RG1C?psc=1&SubscriptionId=AKIAILSHYYTFIVPWUY6Q&tag=duckduckgo-d-20&linkCode=xm2&camp=2025&creative=165953&creativeASIN=B001B2RG1C)
Is There a Grease Substitute for Vintage Sewing Machines?
Some posts recommend using Vaseline as a substitute for sewing machine grease such as Sew-Retro Grease™. However, this is not a good substitute for vintage sewing machine motors. The problem is that Vaseline has a significantly lower melting point than the greases formulated especially for sewing machines. When Vaseline is added to a felt-wick machine, it melts too quickly and sprays throughout the motor. This causes the motor to overheat, ruining the insulation on the connecting wires, and ruining the motor.
Tri-Flow grease should never be used to grease a sewing machine motor for the opposite reason. It does not have a melting poin, and will not transfer to the shaft or bushing of the motor as the machine works. It also contains Teflon, which isn’t a good combination with felt wicks. Stick to non-flowing, low-melting-point motor lubricants that have been specially formulated to work efficiently in sewing machines.
How Do You Oil or Grease a Sewing Machine?
Unplug and Disassemble (If Necessary)
Your machine should be turned off and unplugged before beginning. Check your manual before disassembling. You might need to unscrew and remove exterior covers, but some machines are made with easy lubrication ports so that no disassembly is needed.
Clean Dust and Lint
Once you’ve identified the spots that need oil (or grease) you should clean away any dust or lint in the area. You can use a can of compressed air and a small brush like an old toothbrush to clear away any stray lint. This part is important because you don’t want to trap the debris under the oil.
If you are cleaning the motor gears of a felt-wicked machine, you’ll want to use kerosene to clean any clumped grease from the gears. Use a precision-tipped bottle to apply the kerosene directly to the spots that need cleaning and then brush away the old grease with a gear cleaning brush or old toothbrush.
Apply Oil or Grease
Apply a small amount of oil or grease to each spot that your machine requires it. Place your machine on a piece of cardboard to catch any stray drips. If you are greasing a vintage felt-wicked sewing machine, you’ll want to remove the bottom drip pan (if yours has one) to allow the grease to drip through and onto the cardboard.
Turn Handwheel to Transfer Oil and Wipe Away Excess
Once the oil or grease is applied, turn the handwheel a few times to transfer the oil/grease throughout the mechanism. Check the machine for any excess oil or grease. Use your finger to wipe away the excess. Try not to use cloth, paper towels, or any other fibrous substance to wipe away the excess because it will leave fibers behind in the oil and affect your machine’s performance.
A sewing machine is a remarkable piece of machinery and oil keeps it working as it should. Newer, self-lubricating machines rarely require the same oil maintenance that older machines do. But if your machine requires regular oiling, make sure you keep up with that maintenance. Oiling your machine regularly will help keep it working like new.