Dec 01 2011

Sewing Machine Oil. An Excellent Woodshop Lubricant.

Published by at 7:34 pm under Hand Tools,Power Tools

Over the course of time I have had opportunity to observe how many oils and lubricants perform in the woodshop, and the trades. My Father and Grandfather used 3 in 1 oil in their shops, along with other brands of light machine oils available at the time.


They also often used non-detergent 30-weight oil, but it’s terribly messy and doesn’t perform well on a lot of woodworking equipment where exposure to cold temps and sawdust are concerned. In light of what my ancestors did, I found myself thinking about, and wanting better lubricants.

Modern research has evolved some very nice, specific-use oils that work great in targeted applications. Synthetics, Silicones, and so-called “Dry” lubricants. I would be remiss to not mention WD-40 too, but even as it is thought of as a lubricant, it is actually more a solvent with temporary lubricating properties, and although it was named to be a water displacer, it makes a poor corrosion preventative. It is however, a great lube for oilstones and for wet sanding steels.

Oils and lubricants are a field of endeavor that is very hush about it’s formulations. Manufacturers keep their cards close to their chests. Often, there are components of a lubricant that are proprietary information, and the “brand” is hanging on that formulation. It’s also very scientific. The competitive edge is helpful if the lubrication company has it and the competition wants it too. The makers know exactly what they target a lubricant for, and what they use in it’s bases to create it, exactly. If it works, the manufacturer garners all the profit from being good at what it does.

To the many end users of oils and lubricants, all we know are the brand names, and what the creators target the product to do. We tacitly accept that the product will do what is advertised. For instance, most of us are familiar with penetrating oil, but most of us do not know what all is exactly in it that makes it penetrate and why. After awhile we come to know which brands we like, and which types are for what, and if they work well for us or not. Mostly we don’t need to know a lot beyond that, when all we really want is stuck parts unstuck, or a hinge to swing a door quietly. Rest assured there is a recipe for the stuff, and the maker knows why it works. In essence, we just use the oils they tell us to.

I tried a lot of the different products that have become available, and as I started out to say, observed. I didn’t have any way to scientifically test them, nor was that my aim. I just wanted lubricants that were slick and protective of my bearings and mechanisms where metals had to interface. So I applied them as directed, and let them do their stuff, and after awhile I determined if I liked them or not.

So how did I get to sewing machine oil? For years I was an advocate of the light machine oils, like 3 in 1, and in addition to my own supplies, I had a good supply that had once belonged to my Grandfather and Dad. Why such a supply? Old School is why. Their generations stocked up on the things that work for them. Scarcity is not an option. Along the way I tried some of the modern synthetics out too, to see if I liked the performance. I rejected quite a few because I didn’t like the way they performed in a woodshop environment, or the way they had to be applied was wrong for me.

Bicycle lubricants showed some promise, but I felt the formulations really were most properly targeted at bicycles, and they often didn’t “feel” as slick as oils. Often sawdust seemed to either cling to, or weaken many of them, causing adjustments to feel coarse. Sawdust is going to cling to most lubricants anyway, but my want is for that to not be too clingy, and for the lube to keep feeling like it is working. I had run low on my stash of my old school 3 in 1, so I decided to go after more. It was then that I learned that packaging had evolved to plastic, it was no longer in the old, familiar rectangular can!

I bought a new bottle of 3 in 1 and began using it on the machines and hand tools in my shop. After a short time, I observed that it didn’t seem to be working in the same way I had been accustomed to. I did a little google research and read in many different places around the internet, that I was not the only one noticing 3 in 1 had changed the formula some. I also learned that 3 in 1 had also changed ownership sometime back, and some people were speculating about it not working the same as it used to. It’s still a light machine oil, but in my non-scientific observations I noticed it was evaporating quicker, and leaving behind a heavier yellow waxy film on everything, which it had always done, but this was more pronounced than the old product and it seemed to dry stickier than it had been, attracting sawdust even more than before.

There is a down side to this yellow waxy coagulation that happens when 3 in 1 oil dries. It seals off the area from future oiling, causing reapplications of oil to not so easily penetrate, but rather just run off to areas where oil isn’t important. Things that need oiled, need oiled in a maintained way, not a once in a lifetime way. Sealing off future oilings is not productive or maintainable. I found that I had to clean off this coagulated mess to reapply oil to assure oil penetration and sometimes it was in a difficult place to reach. This isn’t coagulation isn’t what I want to deal with, and I don’t care for the yellow-amber mess it leaves behind.

Needless to say, and it’s just my observed opinion, I needed better oil than that for the equipment I use for my living. For what it is worth, and surely not based on scientific test evidence, I am not using 3 in 1 in my shop anymore.

I have a friend in the Sew and Vac business, and one day while we were talking about an antique sewing machine we had in for adjusting, lubricants came up in discussion. As I told him of my observations and dissatisfactions regarding light machine oils, he just looked at his feet and smiled. After I asked about his acknowledgement, he pretty much told me that he’d observed this too, and has repaired many sewing machine’s and vacuums that 3 in 1 had been used in. He said 3 in 1 is not a bad oil, but it’s application when used in sew and vac applications is wrong.

For sewing machines and vacuums, he felt 3 in 1 does evaporate too fast, faster than manufacturer recommended oiling intervals, leaving metal on metal, plastics and nylons. It does leave a waxy varnish build up that clogs, and gums up the works. Not what you want on those machines, and the same thing I was observing with 3 in 1 oil in my shop. I was applying it where I do, and in a week, I felt I had lost lubrication and had a yellow varnish stain to show for it. Varnish from hardened oil paraffin is a future seal to fresh oil and a side effect I don’t want. Oil needs to get where it needs to be and lubricate, not become hard and seal off future oilings. I decided that while 3 in 1 is an adequate product, I wanted something better in my shop.

After he got done singing the praises of sewing machine oil, we left with a bottle for the shop.

Sewing machine oil (or how any oil is actually formulated) is challenging to research. I’m no petroleum engineer, and don’t really need to be, but I know it is good stuff. I can tell you that it is a mixture of three different base oil types- paraffin, mineral and aromatic. It can be found in 5 weight (ISO 22) and 10 weight, (ISO 32) with 5 weight being most common. It is classified as a “white” or clear oil, non-staining for use on fabrics and I’m told light on the paraffin, heavy on the mineral. It is a formulated oil with corrosion inhibitors and other additives that help it do the job as well as possible. (Well oiled machines are rarely rusty.) I find it is plenty slick and leaves no varnish or paraffin residues behind on anything I have used it on.

Like any oil, it needs to be reapplied regularly because there is wear and evaporation. With busy tools I find a drop every 10 – 25 hours of use depending on the application, and things stay good. For the less used items, I go with the feel. If it feels or looks like it could use a drop of oil, it probably does.

We have two old Singer, gear driven sewing machines, which are in the 70 year old range and have seen high usage in their time. They are clean as can be and show little to no wear on the mechanisms, thanks to the use of sewing machine oil. Proof is in the condition of these machines, which have moving parts like a steam locomotive.

It has become my “go to” shop oil. I like to apply it to the spring and quill of my Drill Press regularly, as well as the tilt mechanisms on the Band Saws and Jointers. I really like it on the knob spinners on shop machines. It is great on toggle clamp mechanisms, and I oil all the acme screws on my clamps and vises with it. It is also great on the ball and socket of the clamp pad feet, as these need to spin freely.

I like it on eggbeater drill shafts, and in the chucks of both the eggbeater and brace. It is nice on the brace knob as well. It works wonderfully on plane adjusters as well as a light coat under the frog on the plane base. Try it also as a refreshener on Japanning. Rubbing some sewing machine oil into the Japanning on your planes with your finger, and buffing it off brings luster to the Japanning that looks nice and fresh! I’d even recommend it as an initial protectant on freshly cleaned and sanded metal. It works well as a light honing oil on oilstones if you like. It is great on anything with a lead screw, set screw, or threads that would be ok with an oil lubricant, but before you use it on the Table Saw adjustment screws, consider candle wax there instead due to extreme sawdust.

Another couple tidbits. Do you need to oil an electric motor? Fans, Drills, Belt driven equipment, Vacuums? Yes you can! Sewing machine oil is detergent free and fine for use in motors, but remember this is not a formulated oil for long time use, the is a pure, light weight machine oil, which is most commonly found in 5W formulation. You’ll need to be a good maintainer and oil regularly and perhaps sooner than recommended intervals.

If you are really looking for an oil that is a bit more formulated for use in electric motors, and situations where a synthetic, longer lasting oil is easier to use, Royal Purple 02514 Synfilm oil is available from Amazon and places like O’Rielly’s Auto Parts, though it may not be stocked in your local store. Ask them for it. I sometimes see it on ebay as well. It comes in a 2 oz bottle and costs between $5-10. RP 02514 Synfilm falls between an ISO 32 and 22, putting it between 5 to 10W oils. It is compatible with and mixes well with oils that have been previously applied so no worry there. Royal Purple Synthetic Oils are the highest recommended oils known to antique fan and motor restorers. It is a purple colored oil and is not odorless like sewing machine oil, so use care in your applications if clear and odorless are factors that you may require. Google will lead you to a supply. You may have to pay attention and determine the recommended interval for your applications, but this is good stewardship of your tooling.

Sewing Machine Oil is also very equivalent to clipper oil. Hair clippers stay sharp longer and work with greater ease, especially the battery powered ones when clipper oil is added to the cutter head assembly. Happily Clipper oil is also 5W machine oil. So if you don’t want to hunt and purchase clipper oil, sewing machine oil substitutes fine and costs way less.

I’d also like to add that if you don’t find yourself drilling metals often, but need to drill small quantities on occasion, Sewing Machine Oil will work as a cutting fluid for use at the drill press. As a light machine oil, it flows similarly to common cutting oil, and will serve you well in the short term. Any lubricant while drilling metals is better than none. If you are going to be drilling metal as a rule, “Cutting and Tapping Oil” would likely be a better formulation, because it is formulated with lubricants that are like paraffin and grease in an oil suspension that will retain lubricity better under heat and pressure.

So if you like, pick up a bottle of sewing machine oil. Often, stores like Walmart or Target have a sewing section and you can find it there. If you like buying local, the local sew and vac shop is a great resource. Something very helpful in many instances are Needle Applicator Bottles for precision application. Ebay is a great source for these, Often a drop will do and go a long way. I’d like to recommend it to you.

While I’m at it, I’d also like to recommend some other products that years of experience and observation has helped me develop as favorites. Renaissance Wax (or it’s equivalent) as an excellent corrosion inhibitor. It is also pretty good at cleaning and preserving. Have you considered Paste wax as a corrosion inhibitor, and surface prep and glue release agent? It does far more than buff out to a shiny surface. Wax is a great way to help things glide and slide. Candle wax for lubing both screw and machine threads and plane soles.

Are you in need of a really good penetrating oil? Kroil is an excellent penetrating oil. I’ve tried most of the most popular penetrating lubes on the market and this one is the best I have found. Nothing I’ve scientifically tested, other than my experience with it. For me, Kroil takes less time to work and requires less effort to accomplish the desired result. It also makes a good cleaner. It is also widely recommended for cleaning firearms and the like. If you happen to have Automatic Transmission Fluid and Acetone on hand, a 50/50 mix of those makes a very good penetrating lubricant as well.

Here is a Spray Bee’s Wax available from that really improves the friction factors on saw plates, and helps protect them as well. As a matter of fact, it has tons of great uses in the shop, the house around furniture and appliances. It’s good for woods, metals, glass and tile… It’s really a nice product. Save a little on shipping and order more than one can, you’ll be happy you did!

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© Copyright 2011 by Rob Hanson for All Rights Reserved.

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