Jan 22

Cleaning and Restoring Charlotte “the Free”

I wish I had gotten “before” pictures of Charlotte, the “Free Sewing Machine Co” treadle powered machine I picked up a couple weeks ago. This is about the best I have: 


Her lines are lovely and the stencils are very pretty, but hidden beneath a century of grime and corrosion. Her Japanned finish was matte, and her brightwork was so corroded I couldn’t tell if it had been brass or chrome. 

I thought to get pics of the back side before cleaning it, and took photos of the whole process. So here are the before shots of the back:


Closer, look at the grime around the screws and oil ports: 


Even closer: 



I started with the recommended method of rubbing with lubricating oil, but that wasn’t really getting very far. It removed some of the dirt, but was doing nothing to get through the grime or oxidization.

I decided I could find a polish for the brightwork at least, and after consulting with my favorite local hardware store guy I took home a product called “Flitz:”

71AduP4L79L SL1500

 It did a spectacular job on the brightwork. It is odorless, doesn’t seem to irritate my persnickety princess skin, left no scratches, and removed the corrosion admirably.

I kept reading on the bottle: “Restores paint too.” and thinking hmm. hmm.

I had noticed on ebay someone was selling a drive band cover identical to the one on my machine with better paint for $12. I felt like this left me very little to lose. I took it off, and tested on the underside first. One gentle rub and the Japanning brightened right up. I very carefully worked over the stencils, and they gleamed with no sign of damage. 

I cleaned up carefully and did some research. It seems there are a number of products folks successfully use to do this job, including TR-3. I haven’t tried it and don’t much care for the materials data sheet, but the existence of polishes that would safely clean up sewing machines without damage bolstered my confidence. I worked over the machine, and was thrilled with the result. 

This was my set-up:


I started with tri-flow and a rag to get as much loose as I could:


then switched to the Flitz polish with an extra soft natural bristle toothbrush:


Working an area small enough to let me remove it before it dried, as per the instructions: 


Then wiped off:


Buffed and stropped: 


Carefully cleaned out the polish left behind in crevices: 


Then went back to touch-up stubborn areas with more Flitz on a cloth with my finger:


I rubbed carefully, wiping away occasionally to see progress: 


The result was amazing. Here are the dirty rags and shiny machine: 


… and the corroded faceplate. That’s next! First Flitz:


It found some shiny parts, but just wasn’t getting through the worst. When I was visiting The Captain he recommended polishing paper or fine 0000 steel wool for cleaning tension disks, and I decided to try something similar. I had some “Norton Soft Touch Mico-Fine Sanding Sponges,” so I decided to try them:

Nor soft touch sponges 26190 1347663082 1280 1280

Note these were 1200 – 1500 grit. The result was spectacular: 


That’s the same plate, and the corrosion from it on the sanding sheet. Which is thankfully washable, so that sheet is the one I used on the whole machine, with some cleanings.

The sanding sponge left a bit of a haze, so I used another round of Flitz? 


And, wow. What a difference:


It’s hard to capture shininess, but notice the table is now casting a reflection from the column and the needle bar. And that filthy spot from the beginning of the post is now clean: 


Cleaner than the picture, actually. I hadn’t seen the splotch of goop between the leaf and stem on the head until I post-processed the images. That’s gone now, too, as is the little bit of remaining oil stain under the oil port.

Next up: waxing. I want to add some protection to the stencils, and I’m hoping to get a little bit of fill into the scrapes on the table.

I’m thrilled with the progress, and have been sewing with her. VS machines do NOT like free motion work. At all. but she makes beautiful stitches quietly and smoothly. 


Skip to comment form

  1. gabrielle

    Wow! That looks beautiful. I love the leaf decals.

    (I found your blog via TreadleOn.)

    1. Jennifer Leigh


      I really like this machine. 🙂

  2. Nancy D

    Great job on the clean up. I love my free.
    From another ‘Onion”
    Nancy D.

  3. Deb

    looks great but in the uk Fritz is £24.36 =$40.44??? amazon uk – Flitz Bu 03515 Blue Metal, Plastic And Fiberglass Polish Paste – 5.29 Oz.

  4. Laura

    Thought about posting before to say nice job on the clean-up, but now I must after your new post on Treadleon asking about favorite irons. I have a Free No. 5 in the same cabinet as yours. It’s in beautiful condition and sews wonderfully, but it’s my least favorite of all of my treadles! I have 3 Singers and a White FR, so 4 other irons, and they all treadle easily with no real difference between them. They each have their nuances, just as sewing machines do. I’d be hard-pressed to choose a favorite based on the irons (although I do like the “left” pedal orientation of the White FR a lot). HOWEVER, those Free irons–?? Such hard work to treadle. I have to hold the back of the cabinet to get started or the whole thing scoots away from me. Once I get going it’s not too bad, but god forbid I need to stop sewing and re-start, haha. But even when we’re going full steam I don’t get the rotations you describe. Thanks for your posts. Kinda confirms that if I spend some time oiling and greasing those Free irons, maybe they’d loosen up and I might want to sew on that machine more. Enjoy your Free!

    1. Jennifer Leigh

      Do yours have the ball bearings in all the joints? I have to actually clean and photograph the irons and cabinet.

      1. Laura

        Yes, the ball bearings are there. The manual has instructions for oiling the irons in six places (this is one of those manuals with high entertainment value, I find). I’ve always figured I needed to closely read and follow the Captain’s instructions on greasing irons, which I haven’t taken the time to do. These machines, cabinets and irons are beautiful, aren’t they?

  5. Janice

    Jennifer, Congrats you did an amazing job on Charlotte, Wow she looks beautiful ! I love watching the pictures of her improvement.

  6. Darlean

    I’m looking for a head for the machine like yours. Some show just “Free” on the head and some show “Free No. 5”. Do you know anything about this? Hope when I get one and get it cleaned up it will look as good as yours. Will be coming back to your site.

    1. Jennifer Leigh

      “The Free” head was the first new model produced after Will C. Free renamed the company, probably in about 1908. The Free #5 was a later model, without the front inspection panel and with a different balance wheel/hand wheel. I’m not certain when it was produced. There isn’t really a lot of information about the model designations available, and I’ve looked hard for it. I just finished writing an article on The Free for ISMACS.

      If you’re looking to purchase a head, check that the balls are present in the bearings and move freely. I adore this machine.

  7. Jo Anne

    So you used the Tri Flow to wash down the machine before you used the Flitz? I’m using just a plain old sewing machine oil to clean the outside of my machine and it’s not doing a very good job. My japanned finish is starting out matte also. I was thinking of using Zymol to clean and polish it. Have you tried that product?

    1. Jennifer Leigh

      I have not used Zymol.

      Much of the gunk on machines ends up being oil soluble, so a sewing machine oil is good at lifting it. TriFlow is what I use for oiling the machine, but any sewing machine oil will work fine.

      I strongly recommend testing products on the underside of the machine’s japanning, and avoiding the decals or testing on a tiny part of them and making sure they don’t get damaged.

      Flitz is a mild abrasive designed to repair scratches in car finish without leaving a haze. If you machine is matte because it has oxidized, then Flitz should do a good job. If it was a matte finish originally then it won’t. Hard to advise without knowing more about your machine. 🙂

  8. Deb

    My HUSBAND (yes. I said husband) has a Free No. 560 Long Bobbin Cabinet Model Treadle.

    Yeah, when we met, I did wonder: “Mr. Hockey, Softball, Baseball Sports Loving Analytical Man has a vintqage treadle sewing machine???” and promptly ignored my own question. Why? Well, how do you form an opinion about a person based on 1 possession? You can’t. Well, I couldn’t anyway.

    17 years of inactivity have gone by except for 2-3 glimpses of the vintage treadle for company. But, in a fit of creative desire, I nagged him to open up the machine a few weeks ago & let me take a look. WOW! WOW–I certainly don’t remember it being so pretty (excitement) or so dirty (sigh).

    I’m a beginner sewer (I have made one baby quilt & the requisite projects in Home Ec in HS umpteen yrs ago). I have a lowly $39.97 closeout Brother (Costco) and have gotten a bit of confidence and a WHOLE ‘lotta desire. That is, except for my lack of skill at controlling the speed which makes me want to fling it out the 2nd story window & splurge on an expensive machine so I can’t mess up. Cause anyone (namely engineers) will tell you, “the right tool for the right job”. Back to the treadle. I grabbed a flashlight & started examining.

    I took a good look at the Free (perhaps she is deserving of a name) and I’m completely lost. I have never seen a bobbin like that or so many parts! So much for confidence. I can’t even imagine how many hours it’s going to take to study the book, clean it, learn how to use it and then tinker with it to get it right.

    Oh yeah, what was that “creative desire” that prompted me to look at the treadle in the first place? It was Tim Latimer’s website: https://timquilts.com/ He makes treadle sewing look so easy and his creations are stunning. (this is not a plug for him–I just happened to find his work when I was searching for some quilting stuff–I have 2 antique flower gardens in perfect shape made by my great grandmother that need binding). Dang, if I stop looking at his work, maybe I can forget about the vintage treadle for another 17 years!

    I’m a little dejected, but your photos & all the commentary has made me decide to give it a go. Thank you for all the valuable information!

    When are you going to have more posts for Hack Your Clothes? I have some lovely vintage wide chenille rick rack that I’d love to have some ideas on what to do with.

    1. Jennifer Leigh

      In my experience they clean up in a couple hours, and the dirtier they are, the nicer the finish underneath will be.

      Long bobbins are an acquired taste, but they have fantastic piercing power. With the right needle you can sew through anything you can push under the presser foot. I have not had success doing free motion work on these machines, but haven’t tried a great deal.

      Generally, I do piecing on treadle machines because of the increased control of the needle. Once you get the hang of the treadle it’s easy to control each stitch.

      I’m not paying attention to Hack Your Clothes these days. I kind of burned out on the project before it really got off the ground.

      Good luck!!

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: