How to Make Human-Powered Tools: Treadle Sewing Machine

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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. 

What if I could harness some of all this energy my
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The Human-Powered Home (New
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common elements of human-powered devices. For those who are beginning to
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book can be a catalyst for change.

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How to Make Human-Powered Tools: Bike-Frame Cultivator

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.

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

Ease of
Very simple, using standard tools and minimal skill

Time to
1 hour or less

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

Ease of
Very easy

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

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
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

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

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.

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.
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.