Simple Upgrades Make An Old Industrial Sewing Machine New Again

Eric Strebel peeks through his Pfaff 463 industrial sewing machine.

Well, this is a pleasant surprise: it seems that industrial designer [Eric Strebel] recently got a hold of an industrial sewing machine to tackle the softer side of prototyping. What doesn’t surprise us is that he did some upgrades to make it more user-friendly. Check them out in the video embedded below.

So, what’s the difference between a machine like this and what you might have around the house? Domestic sewing machines have a motor about the size of your fist, and it’s inside the machine’s body. Modern domestics can do light-duty work, but they can’t handle making bags and upholstery or sewing a bunch of layers of any material together. Industrial machines have either clutch or servo motors that are easily five times the size of a domestic’s motor, and are built into the table along with the machine.

Pfaff 463 industrial sewing machine with its new brushless DC servo motor.[Eric] found this Pfaff 463 on Craigslist. It was built somewhere around 1950, and it only does one thing — a single-needle, straight stitch, forward or reverse — but it will do it through damn near anything you want (unlike those computerized hunks of plastic made for home use nowadays). Again, these machines are always built into a table, and they come with a lamp.  While the machine itself may be a workhorse, the light is wimpy, so [Eric] replaced it with a goose-neck LED light that has a magnet for sticking it anywhere light is required around the machine.

No matter the size, electric sewing machines are driven with a foot pedal. On a domestic, the pedal is loose and you just put it on the floor wherever you want, but industrial foot pedals are built into the table frame. [Eric] drilled a bunch of new holes in the side of the pedal so he can move the connecting rod closer to the pivot point. This gives him better control with less footwork.

The biggest, baddest upgrade [Eric] did was to the motor. Although there was nothing wrong with the original  clutch motor, it makes the machine go very fast so that garment workers can fulfill their quotas. Because of this, it’s difficult to control. He upgraded to a brushless DC servo motor for greater precision and easier prototyping. He got really lucky, too, because it mounted directly into the old holes.

We agree wholeheartedly with [Eric]’s sentiment about old sewing machines, or any old machine for that matter. They tend to be overbuilt because planned obsolescence wasn’t a thing yet. If you can’t afford or find an industrial, an old Singer or something similar will likely serve your purpose, as long as you use the right needle.

If you already have an old domestic machine sitting around, you might be able to breathe new life into it with a 3D printer.

30 thoughts on “Simple Upgrades Make An Old Industrial Sewing Machine New Again

  1. A few early electric sewing machines were controlled by a thigh pedal instead of a foot pedal. You pressed your leg out against it to turn on the machine. Those were mostly found on machines that had been converted from treadle machines and kept the treadle for non-electric operation. An external electric motor was added, coupled to the machine with a drive belt.

    It was harder to get fine control of speed with those, which was one reason for retaining the treadle; you could switch to running the machine when you wanted to do some slow stitching in a particularly complicated area. Just as you can now, you also had the option of turning the wheel on the side by hand if you needed to move through an area very slowly.

    1. My wife’s old Singer (I guess it is mine now) cabinet has mounting bracket to snap the foot control up underneath and a paddle pushes the foot pedal like you mentioned.

        1. Oh, no, she’s vacuuming at the moment.
          She bought a multi-kilo-dollar sewing computer a couple of years ago.
          I am only allowed to carry that one to the car and back for its frequent trips to the shop.

    2. I just wondered … I think I can control the pressure of my knee pressing UP against the table more precise than my free floating foot on the sewing machine foot switch. Might be an alternate, more precise control scheme for those machines.

  2. Sailrite is the way to go if you want portable and heavy duty (walking foot : double advance fabric)
    But I had to change the motor with a BLDC as the original one is crappy at best for slow and precise thick jobs.

    1. I too swapped a BLDC into my Sailrite machine.
      I went with a sensored skateboard motor and a VESC to drive it.

      This solution is worlds better than the original universal motor and triac foot controller that the machine came with. I can effortlessly sew incredibly slowly through very thick and tough materials. As an added side benefit, due to the high switching frequency and smooth FOC waveform from the VESC controller the machine is now much quieter.

      I’ve also had the chance to play with Sailrite’s new DC motor and while I think that the DIY brushless is still better, the DC motor they now sell is no slouch. I would recommend it to anyone who is looking to purchase one of these machines.

        1. I haven’t documented this publicly but I probably should.
          I did take plenty of photos…
          Probably the largest drawback to my conversion is that it must run on battery power.
          This is because my solution uses regenerative braking to aid in controllability and power supplies generally don’t like to have regen current thrown back at their outputs.
          At one point I worked on a regen clamping circuit to shunt this extra current into a resistor.
          I never got that solution stable enough to use (I kept blowing up the transistor I was using).
          I recently discovered that there are off the shelf regen clamp boxes that should be more robust than my DIY solution.
          I have one of them on order now and I hope to get the thing running off of wall power soon.

      1. Yes but not portable.
        I had an old industrial singer but the table is too much an hassle.
        Sailrite with BLDC is beefy as a bull and can get hauled around for any job, like on a sailboat.
        The only feature I miss it the foot lift with the knee pedal.
        If anyone come up with an attachement device to add the feature on the case?
        But to compensate, I’m thinking about having an automatic needle up/down feature at the touch of the pedal.

  3. It’s surprisingly inexpensive to upgrade a machine to a servo drive. I had a Juki LS 340 someone gave me, and for about $200 from a commercial sewing machine supplier in Atlanta, replaced the table completely and put in a servo drive. I think the servo was all of $110 or so. And these units are made to adapt to old machines. They’re still belt drive, they just replace the constant speed motor and clutch assembly.

  4. I have this same machine!! I got it for $100 and had it serviced $75 and then found an industrial machine repairman and got a 1 hr lesson in how to work “The Beast”. I control the speed by hanging on to the wheel.. otherwise it’s like driving a race car. I’d like to learn more about it… I use mine to make upcycled goods from old jeans. I would like to figure out it’s oil needs in the bobbin area… And how to match the needles to threads… And where to find the info.

    1. There’s nothing magical or greatly complicated involved, that’s true.

      On the other hand, cleaning and fixing up an old machine is a great way to get performance that you’d have to pay an arm and a leg for in a modern machine – if you could get one at all that does what you need.

      The old industrial machines are a great bargain. If they run at all they’ll work better than a modern machine, and they’ll likely outlast you when used for typical home/hobby tasks.

  5. When it comes to sewing machines, old machines are where it is at. Domestic or industrial.
    This is true of lots of things actually (especially tools).

    Not all industrial machines necessarily sew heavier materials. In many cases it is about duty cycle. An industrial machine is designed to sew all day long without long breaks in the action, day after day. Hence the bigger motor. Many domestic machines will sew heavy materials just fine with the appropriate needle, but there are limits of course and it is all about selecting tools appropriate for the task.

    Nice article. Has me hankering to start cruising Craigslist for an industrial machine that needs some care.

    1. I am in the market for an industrial myself, and have a rather long article coming out soon about getting ready to buy one. I do touch on the fact that just because an industrial itself is heavy duty, doesn’t mean it’s set up to do heavy duty work.

      I picked up a 1965 Singer 338 a couple weeks back and I’ve got a project going about it if you’re interested:

      1. I looked at your article about the 338. I wonder if a link-belt exists that would fit those pulleys? If so, they are well regarded and I think you just remove links to get the length you want. The idea of printing cams is interesting. For me, just being able to zig-zag allows me to do bar tacks which are really useful on outdoor gear.

    2. I own 5.5 classic domestic machines. The 0.5 is a Pfaff that I have never managed to fix. Three of those are Singer, including a nice model 401A slant needle. My favorite though is my Elna “super” model 62C. It will handle heavy thread that the Singer balks at and has sewn things I never thought it would with ease. A second Elna came my way and I figured it couldn’t hurt to have a spare. I would call the slant needle a gimmick.

      Hackaday needs some articles on home coffee roasters.

  6. Great video.
    I have an old 31-15 singer industrial workhorse made in 1923 .
    I installed wheels under the casted table legs to move it around.. I installed the machine in a shorter 95 series table which I cut open with a heavy duty jig saw to fit the longer arm of the 31 series factory machine . Also had to router out for the mount hinge.
    I really would like to upgrade to the newer clutch as the old one is not bushed so it rattles a bit but you have given me an idea on the servo motor instead.
    I’ve used this for many repair projects such as repairing my window awnings. Basicly if it fits under the presser foot it sews it. LOL but no reverse lever so I use the knee lift to overcast the end of the stitch.
    I have a couple of desirable home machines (one i pulled from a dumpster in mint shape which i custome made a needle thumbscrew for on my metal lath and milling machine 😁)but this one is set up all the time so it is my go to machine.
    I have also found that you can take apart and adjust the old home peddle contacts.
    What I love about old machinery is that for the most part everything can be rebuilt.

    35 yrs ago I had a chance at a older industral paff walking foot but the guy wanted 500.00 and that was more than I could justify at the time *sigh*

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