In this episode I’ll be showing you how I revamped an old sewing machine table that was very worse for wear – and how you can too!

For a long time now, I’ve wanted one of these old Singer sewing tables – to go with the antique sewing machine I inherited years ago from my grandmother! These things are antiques, and finding a decent one going for under a thousand rand is a little difficult these days – so I figured I’d find a tatty old one – and make it decent!

I grew up using old hand-cranked sewing machines like this – my aunt had one, and every school holiday I would visit her in East London – which resulted in me making all sorts of wonderful outfits for action men and other toy figures I had back then! When my ouma passed on in 1989, her sewing machine came to my mother – who really didn’t like sewing. In fact, I used it rather more – and used it to make myself some clothes, dresses and so on.

Even in the 2000s when I bought an electronic sewing machine, I felt more comfortable using the old Singer – it was just… familiar… homey. I knew exactly what I was doing with it – whereas the modern one, in spite of numerous visits to the repair shop just kept on breaking needles and doing weird things that earned it the nickname “the demon-possessed sewing machine”! I sold it online a couple of years ago, for about as much as I paid for it.

Anyway, so here stood the Singer sewing table I acquired via a friend who owns “Mama’s Attic” in Heugh Rd, Walmer. It was going for R895 – a bargain, considering it’s in very good physical condition, although worn, tired and in need of a lot of TLC! (A pristine example generally sells for around 2 or 3 thousand). This one was also missing one entire drawer and frame, but this offered me two choices – either I could remove the other drawer, or I could build a duplicate of the one it still had.

This table was obviously a hard-working table – and the machine that was still in it, even more so! The machine itself was missing a few bits and bobs, but still turns over smoothly and after a thorough clean-up, could be put back into service again. I wouldn’t need that, I decided, so it was the first item to be removed and put aside… I’d deal with that later. I wasn’t planning to use it in this table anyway – my ouma’s 1948 machine would call that home eventually – and that one is in perfect original condition and working order!

Both remaining drawers were also filled with assorted crap – old buttons, rusty screws, dust, a few coins and so on. I tossed the less interesting stuff in the bin, and proceeded to give everything a thorough scrubbing. There was no varnish left on this wood at all – just grime (eeeeeuw!) and it had weathered a bit, so I wanted to give it a thorough preparation from the start!

I separated the cast-iron legs from the table top and took the wooden part to my workshop for further work – sanding and any other repairs that needed to be done. I dismantled it further by removing the hinged portions of the unit – the top cover and the wooden flap that holds the sewing machine up etc.

I sanded the pieces using a “mouse” sander which is a fine, precise tool that can reach most little nooks and crannies, while being gentle enough to not rip off what was left of the original layer of veneer.

I decided to varnish these articles individually before reassembling them, so I also took off all the hinges, screws and metal-ware and gave them a thorough cleaning as well, letting them soak in a mixture of white vinegar and baking soda. You could also use coke, but I think considering the scarcity of proper coke with all the sugar still in it in South Africa (thanks to that silly sugar tax) makes that a bit wasteful *wink*.

Varnishing was fun! I opted for a dark-stained varnish, and bought a liter of it at Builder’s Express – on a 50% off special. While the varnish was drying, I set to work on the legs of the table. Fortunately this didn’t need too much work as all I had to do was give it a clean with a wire brush and then a damp cloth to remove all the dust before I set out spraying it black with engine enamel paint. This dried very quickly and I was able to reassemble the base again within the hour.

I allowed all the varnished wood bits to dry overnight and then began the task of reassembly the following morning. There is a sequence in reassembling the wood components, due to the spring-loaded support for the sewing machine, which covers some of the screw holes once fitted – so you have to first install the fixed support plank that goes above the main table surface first before installing the spring mount. Reassembly is quite straight-forward otherwise, and once I’d got all the screws cleaned up and organized according to where they were supposed to go, proceeded quickly.

Once the table was mostly whole again, I carried it indoors and screwed it back onto the base. It was simpler to do this with the table upside down on the floor – on a soft mat to protect the nice newly varnished surface from scratches! Then I righted it again and attached the remaining flaps and lids. There wasn’t much to do further, the end was in sight – but I was quite knackered already and decided to call it quits until the following weekend!

I mentioned earlier that one of the drawers was missing, and in fact more than half the little wooden frame that holds the left side drawer was missing as well. I decided that yes, I’d have to repeat the stripping and varnishing process on the right side drawer and its frame – and the remains of the left side frame – and then I’d have to manufacture copies of the missing bits to create a replacement left side drawer!

I spent the week planning and thinking about that, and then on Saturday morning I began with sanding and varnishing the center drawer, and then set out to build the frame.

There are two rectangular box frames in this item, and four side planks that connect them – and the drawer inserts between them. The two supports facing the inside of the table are plain and simple – making a copy of the one I had left was simple as well. The two outer ones – which were missing – had decorative grooves on the outside, and I was hard-pressed to copy those items from the two right hand side examples. I’m happy to say I managed rather nicely – after cutting them to the right size and duplicating the concave mounting surfaces to match the groove round the circumference of the box frames, I also created these grooves using my bench grinder.

Then I had to make a box frame as well – and this was an interesting process, because all it took was four appropriate pieces of wood cut to the same dimensions as the original, including the rounded corners. I also had to duplicate the concave groove around the outside circumference as well, and this went off without a hitch. After the bench grinder had done the rough work, I smoothed it out the rest of the way using the mouse sander again. The whole thing went together very nicely! I finished my Saturday work session off by varnishing both completed frames and left them to dry overnight – and went to put the center drawer – complete with the new knob I’d bought for it, in place.

The next day, I set out to finish the right side drawer and to build the left side drawer. This went off without a hitch, I’m happy to say. I duplicated the original as faithfully as I could with the wood I had available, and once varnished it was difficult to tell them apart! I fitted a new matching metal knob to each drawer and ended my work session for the day by reattaching both drawer frames and inserting both drawers in place!

Now that I’ve tidied this messy old thing up, I’m left with a beautiful collectable item – and all I’ll still have to do is sort out the fitting of the sewing machine and I’ll be able to do some creative needlework more comfortably in future!

Pictures included – enjoy!

That’s all for this time – have a DIY week!


This website is about Christina Engela’s inspiring and innovative DIY projects. Follow Innovation DIY on Facebook.

To view her main website, visit Christina Engela – Author. To view Christina’s previous human rights advocacy work, visit Sour Grapes: The Fruit Of Ignorance. You can also visit Our Ghost Encounters, a website about the paranormal.

If you’d like to send Christina Engela a question about her life as a writer or transactivist, please send an email via the Contact form.

All material copyright © Christina Engela, 2021.

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