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Industrial Sewing Machine: Acquired


Well, it’s done. After weeks of trawling Craigslist, an hour-long phone call with an intelligent stranger about a different machine that wasn’t going suit my needs, and a two-week delay while the seller and I waited out their unintentional COVID exposure, I am the proud new owner of a vintage Consew 206RB-3 industrial sewing machine.

So far, it is exactly what I wanted — at least a few decades old, in decent shape, built by a reputable maker, and it has a clutch motor that I can upgrade to a servo motor if I wish. I even like the color of the head, the table, and the little drawer hiding on the left side. Connie Consew is perfect!

Decidedly Not Portable

The internet was right — these things are heavy. According to the manual, the machine head alone weighs 25.5 kg (56 lbs). The motor probably weighs another 50-60 lbs. There’s a small wooden peg sticking up from the table that has the job of holding the head whenever it is tilted back for maintenance or bobbin changes. I’ll admit I didn’t trust the little peg at first, but it does a fine job of supporting all that weight on a single point of contact about an inch in diameter.

Even so, the nice lady I bought the machine from offered to deliver it to my house like it was nothing. One of the first things my husband and I did when we went to look at it was try to lift the table. It wasn’t happening for us. But through the magic of a shoulder dolly and the physics of gravity, the seller and her husband floated this thing out to their trailer and drove it across town back to my house.

A Quart Low

So let’s take a tour, shall we? You’ve probably seen a sewing machine before, but there are a few obvious differences with an industrial machine. The biggest one is lubrication. Whereas the instruction manual of the average domestic will tell you to put a single drop of lily white sewing machine oil in the bobbin area once every couple of months, even with heavy use, an industrial machine needs to be oiled frequently and in dozens of places. On top of that, there’s a little tank in the underside that holds about an ounce of oil. This machine has an oil pan, but it isn’t meant to be filled up with oil — it’s just where oil collects and drips through from the oiling points. However, some machines have a pump and a fill line in their oil pans.

Anecdotally, this machine did not go at first when I went to check it out. The motor came on just fine, but the hand wheel wouldn’t budge at all, and the pedal did nothing. I suggested adding oil. After putting oil in all the ports, she started moving again. Apparently it had sat for a while. That’s okay, because that means I get to become intimately familiar with it as I clean and re-oil it.

This Foot is Made for Walking

Image via Sailrite

This is a compound walking foot machine. Let’s break that down. ‘Walking foot’ means that that the foot — the many-varied and interchangeable part that holds the fabric down to the bed — has a set of feed dogs that help push the fabric along the from top side at the same time that the regular feed dogs feed the fabric from underneath. The ‘compound’ part refers to the little middle bit, which moves up and down at the same time as the needle and also walks the fabric along.

Here’s a great visual explanation of the differences between drop-feed, walking foot, and compound walking foot machines. Compound walking foot machines are great for my needs in that they give an even stitch through multiple thick layers of fabric, which is what I need to sew vinyl, canvas, and leather. Like I said in the first post, industrial machines are purpose-built. This one is for heavy duty use, and it spent many years doing upholstery work. It even made a motorcycle seat!

That Motor Though

The motor in a standard sewing machine for home use is pretty small — about the size of a fist. Even the motor in my “heavy duty” Singer 4452, which is supposed to have 50% more power than a regular domestic’s motor, is pretty darn small compared to Connie Consew’s motor. This is a 1/2 horsepower clutch motor. The operating instructions I have are for a 206RB-4, and I’m really not sure what the differences are between the 206RB-3 and the -4, though I suspect they are slight. According to the manual, it will do 3300 stitches per minute! Look how fast it goes:

Because it’s a clutch motor, it runs continuously when powered, even when not sewing. It’s rather loud, too, although not as loud as I was expecting. Still, I will have fun replacing it with a servo motor that be much quieter and easier to dial in the speed. Gonna miss those cool controller buttons, though. Maybe I can re-use the motor for something else, like a go-kart. Just need an inverter.

For A Few Dollars More

Even though I really like this machine as-is, there are a few upgrades I’d like to do. Many of them are along the lines of what [Eric Strebel] did to his industrial Pfaff — move the pedal more toward the right, swap out the clutch motor for a servo motor, and augment the built-in light with something containing many small LEDs.

I’m going to try to replace the pad on the knee lifter, which lifts the presser foot from its normally-down position. While there’s nothing wrong with it, the outside is all crackled and flaky. I’ve already looked into it, and it seems that I’ll have to buy the entire knee lifter assembly. Maybe I’ll just make a little shower cap-style slipcover for it instead. I also think I’d like to get a link belt because they’re cool looking, though that might not be a good idea. I’ll have to check with my local sewing machine shop and see what they think.

Sew What?

Now that I have this baby, I can make better bags and backpacks with less hassle and at higher speeds. I could even start making stuff out of leather. I plan to start my sewing adventure with Connie Consew by working on  a half-finished bag made from upholstery fabric that the Singer 4452 couldn’t handle. But first, I’m going to go through and give her a tune-up, making sure she’s got plenty of oil.

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