Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Vintage Sewing Machine Foot Pedal Fires and How To Prevent Them

 Hello everyone today we are going to discuss safety. Not the typical use your tools safely kind of discussion although it is probably a subject some of us could use a crash course in due to complacency. No today we are going to discuss our sewing machines. We are going to point out some of the flaws that are inherent to older sewing machines.  Things such as no power switch to turn them off when not in use.  I want to point out some of the things we take for granted and shouldn’t.  I want to share some different Ideas and different practices we use here to keep our machines safe and happy in their environment.

foot pedal fires


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My main intention for writing this particular blog post isn’t to incite a riot or to scare anyone away from the Vintage sewing world. Actually, it is cast some light upon some of the things we as individuals commonly overlook. Or we don’t grasp the gravity of the potential disaster that could happen because we didn’t know to take defensive action sooner.

What Causes Fires in Vintage Sewing Machine Foot Pedals


In my opinion, the #1 safety hazard to be overlooked pertains to the lack of a main power switch on most of the early Vintage sewing machines. When the sewing machine was first electrified the only switch that was thought to be needed was the LIGHT switch. It was taken for granted the power didn’t need to be shut off to the foot /motor controller because if it was not pressed into service the motor would not try to run. And for the most part, this is true. Also maybe the assumption was that the machine would always be unplugged when it was not being used even if it was not a portable machine. I am not trying to imply that companies intended to put forth an appliance that might harm its environment and its user. But here is what can happen if these machines are left plugged in.  It is quite possible for the controller to gain enough wear through use to not fully disengage the motor when the knee lever or foot pedal is released. By not fully disengaging from the motor the controller can sit there by itself passing electrical current through the resistors of the control at a level it doesn’t try to run the motor. We all have run a resistive controller for long periods at low voltage to the motor so the motor would run slow as we sew. If we do this long enough and slow enough what usually happens? Well because the voltage is dropped by the resistors, the resistors absorb the unused portion of the electricity turning it into heat to be carried away by the air and thus cooling the resistors in the process. What happens is the resistors can create more heat than the air can dissipate. Enough heat to turn the resistors red hot inside the metal or Bakelite housing. Given this situation, one can only imagine what the potential threat is during the night while everyone sleeps or during the day while the house is empty while everyone is at work or school. Leaving a machine fitting this description plugged-in and not attended to carries the same potential threat as leaving a candle burning when you leave the house. Sure most of the time it will put itself out. A house fire will eventually put itself out also but it can claim all of your possessions and possibly your life or a loved one’s life in the process.

This actually hits pretty close to home for us at the Quilting room, no we did not have a fire but here is what we did have happen. We were sewing on a vintage machine and lunch time rolled around so we stopped and had lunch. About the time lunch was over we had unexpected visitors and we spent about four hours playing with the grandkids. And now it's suppertime. We had just finished supper and relaxing in the front room when we heard a machine start running. The one we left when we stopped for lunch. When I got to the room and put my foot on the pedal it instantly burned the ball of my foot through my sock. Instinctively Mel who got to the room seconds after I did grabbed the cord and pulled it from the wall. She held the pedal up while I put a 14-inch hot plate under it on the floor. After about half an hour it was cool enough to handle and I removed it to see what had happened. When I took the foot pedal apart it was obvious what had transpired. The pedal had not fully released when we stopped for lunch and had set all afternoon slowly getting hotter and hotter until the heat broke the ceramic base the resistors mount on. When it broke it allowed enough current to get to the motor and that’s what got our attention. As it turned out no real damage was done. I installed a new electronic controller on a machine that really needed it anyway. Tender spot on the ball of my foot for a couple days and a darkened varnish spot on the hardwood floor. In my opinion, it was a small price to pay considering the alternative outcome.   We had never given any thought that a situation like this could ever happen, even though it is super simple to understand how and why after the fact. We are grateful and lucky. Because of this experience, we have changed our way of thinking and here are some of the things we have done to try to eliminate the possibility of it ever happening. The first thing we did was to make sure anytime we are using one of the machines with the resistive type foot pedal or knee bar and no power switch, we use a power strip with a lighted  ON-OFF switch to plug the machine into. That way even in the dark we can instantly tell the power is positively OFF. Some of our machines have now been retrofitted with ON-OFF switches molded into the power cord. And since we do repurpose a lot of things I have even started to collect the power cords off of curling irons and blow driers and such to use for the replacement power cord. These recycled power cords are usually heavier gauge than needed and come equipped with a built-in breaker on the plug-in of the cord and are generally longer than we need. They can serve dual duty, we can use the test function as an ON-OFF and it will trip in the event of a short circuit. As far as the heat buildup due to slow needle speed, we have started using 10- 12-inch clay, granite, or marble tiles like we would use in the kitchen to sit a hot pan on to rest the foot pedals on. If they slide around we use a non-slip cabinet liner mesh on top of the tile, same with the tile moving on the floor another piece of non-slip there and we are set.. My thinking is it will at least stop the dark spots on the hardwood and it won’t let us burn the linoleum in the kitchen. The only carpet we have is the bedroom but I would imagine the tile would protect it as well.

We also like to use electronic foot controls instead of the resistive type pedals not only for the heat factor but also for the ability to achieve full motor strength at slow speed. But that’s a topic for another time.

How To Prevent Vintage Sewing Machine Foot Pedal Fires


Since we are talking about overlooked safety situations Have any of you ever burned your forearm on the light fixture of your machine? I have too many times to count.  Thank goodness for revolutionary progress and the invention of the L-E-D light bulbs.  I don’t know of any situation where the standard bulbs actually started a fire but having burned my arm a few times it would not surprise me to learn they have. I like the replacement L-E-D bulbs and use them any chance I get. I feel I can see better and they actually are more energy efficient. Even if it takes a million bulbs to make a pound of savings after the cost I still like using them.

If this post helps to keep someone else from overlooking the obvious possibilities I will consider it well worth the time I took writing it. Maybe my shortcuts will work for you and maybe you have some you can share with us.  With that in mind until next time enjoy your machines safely your way.

If you've got a vintage sewing machine you are getting ready to restore our guide for reviving vintage sewing machines is for you.  Sign up below to get the list with links to how to do it and a list of the items you need to tackle the project.



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Melissa Shields
Melissa Shields

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6 comments:

  1. I had a problem recently with the foot pedal of a vintage machine I had been using for years. I had my slippers on while sewing and all of a sudden my foot got burning hot. I immediately unplugged the machine and haven't used it since, because I am afraid of a fire. Luckily I had another machine on hand to use, but it was also vintage so I unplug it at the end of the day before going to bed. I also never leave it plugged in when I go out. I have always, in the past, left my machine plugged in around the clock, for years. I am so afraid of a fire now that I never do. Once this happens, does the foot pedal need to be re-wired or replaced? Thanks, Mel.

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  2. I had an OSMG (Old Sewing Machine Guy) tell me his number one tip for using VSM is ALWAYS unplug your machine when you step away from it. Even if you just go to the bathroom, or step out of the room for a moment, unplug the machine. He told me he knew of a lady who stepped away from her Singer Featherweight for 5 minutes, and came back in to find her sewing machine and table in flames.

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  3. I also never use a VSM without a Residual Current Detector. I also have a small portable one I take with me when I'm sewing outside the house.

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    Replies
    1. Where did you get residual current detecyor and what does it look like

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    2. I bought mine in Australia, but you'd be looking for something like this locally:

      https://www.bunnings.com.au/arlec-single-outlet-safety-switch_p7050029

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    3. This would be very similar if not the same as the outlets that are put in bathrooms and kitchens (anyplace there is water present). GFCI Ground Fault Protection.

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