How to Make Human-Powered Tools: Treadle Sewing Machine

Human-powered tools are not only better for the environment than their gas and electric counterparts, they serve as an act of self-sufficiency, too. Learn how to build a treadle sewing machine and discover the difference human-powered tools can make.
By Tamara Dean
February 15, 2013
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 "The Human-Powered Home," by Tamara Dean, is your complete guide to modern pedal-powered, treadled and hand-cranked devices for the home. 
Cover Courtesy New Society Publishers

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What if I could harness some of all this energy my own body produces? An unusual question, to be sure — yet human power is a very old, practical and empowering alternative to fossil fuels. The Human-Powered Home (New Society Publishers, 2008), a MOTHER EARTH NEWS Book for Wiser Living, is a one-of-a-kind guide to human-powered tools gathered from a unique collection of experts. This book discusses the science and history of human power and examines the common elements of human-powered devices. For those who are beginning to understand the importance of a life of reduced dependency on fossil fuels, this book can be a catalyst for change. 

Buy this book in the MOTHER EARTH NEWS store: The Human-Powered Home.

Read more from The Human-Powered Home:
How to Make Human-Powered Tools: Bike-Frame Cultivator

After reading about Anne Kusilek’s enthusiasm for treadle sewing machines maybe you’re inspired to try treadling yourself. This plan guides you through converting a mid-20th-century electric sewing machine to be treadle powered. One advantage of using a newer-model sewing machine rather than an original treadle machine is that it provides a wider variety of stitches. At the same time, using a treadle allows you to sew free from the grid. This plan is the simplest in the book, and after you’ve learned how to make the conversion, you could do it in 5 minutes or less for a friend.

The parts list includes a sewing machine with an external, belt-driven motor. Though the criteria are very specific, you won’t have any trouble finding machines that fit this description. And providing they don’t have a special feature that collectors covet, you can get a good, used machine for $20 to $40. Because these machines were manufactured to last generations, and because they don’t rely on electronics, virtually all of them still function well. (You might also find a bargain on a machine whose motor is faulty; since you’ll be removing the motor, it doesn’t matter whether it works.) For optimal performance, consult a sewing machine maintenance manual and clean and oil the machine properly before use.

Treadle bases — the stand that contains the cast-iron treadle drive and a wooden table, sometimes with drawers on both sides — are also easy to come by. Prices depend on condition, but average about $50. Make sure the treadle apparatus is whole and working. Some treadle bases have been converted to side tables or plant stands, their drives dismantled, and of course, these will no longer operate a sewing machine.

Ease of construction: Very simple, using standard tools and minimal skill

Time to make: 1 hour or less

Cost to make: $75 to $125 for used sewing machine and treadle, plus new belt

Ease of operation: Very easy

Following is an overview of the steps in this plan:
• First, you’ll remove the electric sewing machine from its case, then take off its attached motor and light, if it has one.
• Next, you’ll place the sewing machine in the treadle base.
• Then, you’ll thread the new treadle belt through the handwheel and band wheel and measure it for cutting.
• Finally, you’ll cut the treadle belt to length, connect the two ends and test your converted treadle sewing machine.

• A sewing machine with an external belt-driven motor, such as one manufactured between the 1930s through 1950s. It should (and given the vintage, probably will) have a rectangular base that measures 14-1/2" by 7". In other words, make sure it’s a regular, full-sized flat-bed machine and not a small portable or child-sized machine. As examples, Singer models 66, 15, 99 and 27 are good choices, but many others also meet the criteria. Avoid machines whose motors use friction drives in the form of a motor-driven spindle that rubs against the handwheel as it turns. The machine you choose needn’t have a working motor or foot pedal, but verify that its mechanical parts function. In particular, check to make sure the needle moves up or down when you turn the handwheel.
• A treadle base for a sewing machine with a standard-sized opening that measures 14-1/2" by 7". These dimensions are typical of the most popular Singer treadle bases made between 1900 and 1960, for example. Avoid those designed for sewing machines with fiddle back or 3/4-sized bases. Verify that the entire drive, including the treadle, Pitman rod and band wheel, is whole and functional.
• A treadle belt. These are available from several online suppliers and at some sewing machine repair shops. Most are leather, but one made of rubber or polyurethane will also work. Make sure the belt comes with the hook, or staple, used to fasten the two ends of the belt together. The standard length of approximately 72" is suitable.

• Flathead screwdriver
• Permanent marker
• Wire Cutters (or a heavy-duty pair of scissors)
• Two pairs of pliers
• Hammer
• Small nail with a fine point
• Workbench or other sturdy work surface

Steps for Converting an Electric Sewing Machine to a Treadle Sewing Machine

1. If your sewing machine came in a carrying case (or cabinet), take off the cover. Then remove the sewing machine head from the case. Usually this means tilting it back (away from you) and pulling it up to disengage the machine’s base from the two hinge pins mounted on the rear panel of the cabinet. Note: For safety’s sake, do not allow the sewing machine to be plugged in at any point during this project! 

2. If your machine has a light, take it off by removing the screw or screws that hold it to the back of the machine.

3. Now examine the sewing machine to determine how the electric motor is attached. Usually, it’s supported by a bracket that’s fixed to the machine with a single, large screw. Use the screwdriver to remove that screw and bracket, as shown in Figure 2 in the Image Gallery.

4. Take off the rubber belt that connects the handwheel to the electric motor. This might require prying the belt out of the groove with a screwdriver or similar implement.

5. For some electric sewing machines, removing the light, motor and belt is enough to release the entire electrical assembly (including the foot pedal and cords). However, on other machines the cord is attached to the sewing machine’s base. If this is the case on your machine, use the wire cutters or scissors to cut the cord where necessary. Set aside the motor, foot pedal and cords. You won’t need them again.

6. Take a look at your treadle base. If a belt is still intact, notice how it’s looped around the band wheel (sometimes also called a balance wheel or drive wheel), through the metal loop on the rear of the drive (the belt guide), through the holes in the wooden base and metal plate on top of the base and also through the metal loop on the front side of the treadle drive (the belt shifter). Remove it by severing it with the wire cutters or scissors, and then pulling it off the machine.

7. Place the sewing machine head into the treadle base. If the machine was held in a case with hinge pins, as described in Step 1, it will probably fit into the corresponding hinge pins in the treadle base. (If your sewing machine’s base is too small for the treadle base, you’ll need to create a shelf for it. A piece of 3/4" plywood works well. Set the plywood on top of the treadle base, then measure and mark where you need to cut holes for the treadle belt, right above the holes in the metal plate that’s on the treadle base. Do this now, before threading and measuring your treadle belt, because the added height of the plywood will add to the belt’s length. If your sewing machine is wider or longer than the treadle base opening, you may set it on top of the treadle base or make a plywood shelf for it.)

8. Wrap the new belt around the groove in the handwheel where the motor’s rubber belt rested previously. Then thread one end of the belt down through the front hole in the metal plate on the treadle base, through the open slat in the front of the wood base, then through the belt shifter and around the band wheel. Thread the other end of the belt down through the rear hole in the metal plate on the base, through the open slat in the rear of the wood base, then through the belt guide. Draw the ends together. They should overlap by at least a few inches.

9. Tug on the ends until the belt is as tight as possible around the band wheel, as shown in Figure 3 in the Image Gallery, then use the permanent marking pen to mark where the end that has the staple in it meets the end without a staple.

10. With the wire cutters or scissors, cut the belt where you marked it in Step 9.

11. Unthread the belt from the machine and place it on a workbench or other work surface.

12. Next, you’ll need to punch a hole in the end of the belt that doesn’t contain the staple. You could use an awl or tool designed especially for this purpose, but I’ve found that a small nail and a hammer works fine. It’s helpful to first pound the free belt end with the hammer to flatten it against your work surface, as if you were tenderizing meat. Then position the point of the small nail where the staple will enter, about 1/4" in from  the edge of the cut end. Hold the nail steady while you hammer it through the treadle belt. Attempt to center the hole between the sides of the belt.

13. Thread the belt through the treadle drive again, just as you did in Step 8.

14. Next, you’re ready to connect the two ends. (If your staple came wrapped with a piece of tape, remove that.) To loosen the belt so that you don’t have to wrestle with tension while you fasten the staple, slip the belt off the band wheel.

15. With a pair of pliers in each hand, thread the open end of the staple through the hole that you made in Step 12. Insert the staple fully, but don’t cinch it closed yet.

16. Put the belt back on the band wheel.

17. Now test the tension in the belt. While sitting at the sewing machine, start the needle by turning the handwheel, then push the treadle to continue operating the machine. If the belt slips or sags, it’s too loose, and you’ll need to remove the staple from one end, then repeat Steps 9 through 15. It might take a few attempts before getting the right amount of tension in the belt.

18. When you’ve determined that the belt is sufficiently taut, you’ll need to cinch the staple closed. First, though, release the belt from the band wheel by pressing the lever on the belt shifter and pulling the belt away from the wheel. Then find the staple and, holding the closed-staple end of the belt with one pair of pliers, clamp the open staple down tight with the second pair of pliers, as shown in Figure 4 in the Image Gallery.

19. After you’ve used your treadle sewing machine with its new belt for a few weeks, you might have to reduce the length of the belt again, as it will loosen the most during initial use. After that it should remain relatively stable.

Variations and Considerations

• Dick Wightman, an expert on treadle sewing machines who shared his insights with me for this plan, advises replacing the solid handwheel on a belt-driven electric machine with a spoked handwheel. He says spoked handwheels like those found on original treadle machines are 20 percent heavier than the solid handwheels found on electric machines. Therefore, they are better at maintaining momentum and smoothing out the variable force applied when treadling. If you want to replace your machine’s solid handwheel, choose an old, cast-iron handwheel rather than a newer aluminum or plastic type. For more information on replacing handwheels and on using and maintaining treadle sewing machines, check out Dick’s website. You can also connect with other treadle sewing machine enthusiasts through his site’s forum.
•Although the plan suggests using a sewing machine built no later than the 1950s, it’s often possible to convert electric sewing machines manufactured between the 1960s and 1980s to be treadle-powered, too, because most of these also rely on a belt drive. However, their motors might be installed internally, rather than externally. If that’s the case, conversion to treadle power will not be as straightforward as the process described in this plan. To convert a late-20th-century sewing machine to treadle power, first confirm that it’s belt-driven and not computer-controlled, or electronic. Then determine how to disengage the motor. If the motor is internal, you might have to take off the sewing machine’s face or side panel and remove the drive belt. Other machines allow you to disengage the motor simply by pulling the handwheel out and away from the machine. Next, you need to figure out how to secure the treadle belt on the handwheel. If the handwheel doesn’t have a groove, consider replacing it with a handwheel that can accept a belt. Finally, make sure that the sewing machine’s cover or right-hand panel is not so wide that it will obstruct the belt.
• If the belt on your treadle-driven machine continues to slip even after you’ve made the belt tight, check to make sure the band wheel groove is free of debris, dust or oil. Wipe it clean with alcohol, if necessary.

This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from The Human-Powered Home: Choosing Muscles Over Motors, published by New Society Publishers, 2008. Buy this book from our store: The Human-Powered Home.

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Post a comment below.


6/2/2013 5:33:37 AM

Hello everyone I was hoping that someone here could help me.  I just purchased a vintage sewing machine in the hopes of converting it to a treddle machine.  It's in amazing shape, seems to have the original finnish and cords, a strange tool that seems to be a screwdriver for the machine.  Looks more homemade than anything but works well.   I was also able to get a few accessories with it small stuff but helpful the one thing that I DIDN'T get was an instruction book I was hoping that someone here had one or knew where I could print one out.  I don't need an original hard copy just something to go by to USE the machine not collect it.  The information on the machine that I have is:  International Sewing Machine De Luxe (spelled that way on the machine or somethings missing), serial # E5505312 with an M inside a circle.  The motor is on the OUTSIDE of the machine in a casing, a light on the back with cover (i'll stick an LED in there to light my work),  looks like an 1800s style housing with the shaped housing next to the needle assembly, it has a small rubber belt that stretches from the motor to the wheel, it looks like there was something attatched just under the wheel but not certain as to what; there are several "Service" panels original to the machine; it reverses as well as winds bobbins, NOT on top but it'll work.  I could get someone to take a picture of it if that will help you. It seems to have all the metal tags and things from the factory still on the machine.  Please if you recognize this machine and can help i'm lost.   Thank you so much for your time, I didn't know where else to turn that wouldn't send me on a wild goose chase.  THANK YOU!  Jenny

Mary Jane Harvill
4/4/2013 1:54:56 PM
I have an antique treadle sewing machine in great shape that I have had for many years but have not been able to use because it doesn't have a bobbin. It doesn't take a round bobbin like modern machines but a long one. Does anyone know where I might be able to locate such a bobbin?

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