Saturday, August 21, 2010

Weapons of Minor Destruction - Manly Sewing Projects #4 & #5

Here's two recent manly sewing projects for a couple of my favorite weapons of minor destruction.  Manly Sewing Project #4 is a belt sheath for my trusty camping hatchet.  Nothing special, just nicer than the piece of plastic it came in.  I made it before I got the Luberto Classic harness stitcher, so it's just sewed on the Juki upholstery machine, but it's functional.

Manly Sewing Project #5 is a bit more complicated and involved a lot more "firsts" for me.  Its my first gun holster, my first time making my own stainless steel belt clips and my first try at using copper rivets.

This is an inside-the-waistband holster for my Smith and Wesson Sigma.  Basically, you shove it in the back of your pants.  Kinda like in all the movies, but without the risk of it slipping down and falling out your pant leg.  I have a hip holster and an undershirt with a built-in shoulder holster, but I wanted something I could wear under a t-shirt in the sweltering Houston summer.  This first picture is the side that goes against your back.

The holster attaches to your pants/belt with a metal clip.  I couldn't find any stainless steel clips so I made my own out of heavy gauge 304 stainless steel sheet.  I cut out a long strip with a jigsaw, sanded the edges and bent it in my woodworking vise.  Next time I'll use thinner material or drill some small holes along the fold lines to make bending easier.

In this picture you can see the double bend clip a little better.  When you shove the holster in your pants the inner bend clips over the top of your pants so it can't slide down and the outer bend clips around your belt so you can't accidentally pull the holster out of your pants when you draw the pistol out.  I attached the clip to a small square of leather with two copper rivets.  Basically you put a copper rivet through a punched hole, slip a copper washer down the rivet shaft, cut the shaft close to the washer and then lovingly beat the end of the shaft until it mushrooms over, holding everything firmly in place.  Then I stitched the small piece of leather to the holster.  That way there would be no copper rivets on the inside of the holster to scratch the pistol.

I sewed everything on the Luberto Classic machine, soaked the holster, jammed the pistol down into the wet leather, and then used my trusty vacuum press to get a nice tight fit.  Maybe a little too tight, though it will loosen up with use.  I might slick the inside with a little paste floor wax as well.  Since the gun is stainless steel and plastic, there was no worry about it rusting in a wet leather holster.  If it were a blued steel gun, I would have lightly oiled it and wrapped it in shrink wrap first.

These cost at least $50 to buy from on of the brand name holster makers, and I've never seen one with a nice stainless steel clip, so I guess it would have to be custom made it would probably cost more.  I figure that I used less than $5 in materials, and about 3 or 4 hours of time.  I'm pretty sure I could make the next one faster, and I've already thought of some design improvements.

So if anyone out there wants a custom holster and is willing to leave their gun with me for a day or two, give me a shout.  I can only make so many holsters for my own guns before it gets a little silly...

Super Suction!

So a while ago I decided to try using a vacuum bag press to form leather cases.  I'd seen the vacuum bag presses used for veneering and making skateboards and figured the principle would transfer well to leather forming.  So far it seems like I was right.

I bought a vacuum press kit marketed by Roarockit for making skateboards.  It cost about $50, and it came with a hand pump, some breather mesh (helps get all the air out) and some awful sticky mastic (tar) tape for sealing up the open end of the bag.  It worked pretty well, and in fact I used it to form the magazine holster featured in Manly Sewing Project #2.  But pretty soon I learned that I hate mastic tape and manual pumping sucks.

As luck would have it, I managed to get my hands on a gently used laboratory grade two-stage rotary vane vacuum pump.  It would have cost me about $3000 new, but I got it for free since it was headed for the scrap pile merely because the lab didn't need it any longer and had no other avenue for disposing of it.  It works flawlessly and is actually way more pump than I need since it will draw a high vacuum at a rate of 12 cubic feet per minute (I only need about 2 cu.ft/min).  Since it weighs about 60 lb I'll be building a rolling cart for it eventually.

I also went to and ordered a valve kit, hose, brass valve clamp, and bag closure.  I installed a second valve on my vacuum bag and got rid of the mastic tape.  Now I can use my vacuum pump and the bag closure seals really well without the sticky mess.

Here it is:

The plywood board in the bag is for when you want to press from the top only rather than top and bottom.  The black mesh stuff is also placed in the bag either with the article inside it or else with the mesh next to the article, to help provide small passages for all the air to get sucked out.

Here's the valve I installed, and the valve stem clamp on the end of the hose.

This is the original valve that works with the hand pump (not shown).

This is the marvelous clip for the bag end.  Basically the bag gets sandwiched between the white and blue pieces.  Works great.

Obviously there's no leather in the bag in this shot, but you can see how the breather mesh works and how tightly the vinyl bag forms to the pistol.

Here the mesh is placed next to the pistol instead.  This method still allows you to get all the air out, but doesn't leave a funny mesh pattern on your leather.

I've made a few cases in this press already and it works great.  I used to have to prepare my leather (soak it and then mostly dry it until it's damp and stretchy) and stretch and form it by hand.  It took a long time and almost never looked quite right, especially for complex shapes.  Now it's just 10-20 minutes in the press and I can pull it out and let it dry.  I can also sharpen creases and lines by hand a little more if I want before drying.

Eventually I'll probably make my own bag out of polyurethane sheeting because it's stretchier and should allow the press to mold even tighter, but this works for now.  I'd also make it more squarish rather than long like a skateboard.

Heavy Metal

Apparently a lot can happen in three months.  In my last post I proudly displayed my new Singer 29K.  I spent a little time with it, sewing patches onto my Scout uniform, making a few little odds and ends, and decided I needed something capable of handling heavier thread and longer stitches.  So I posted an ad in Craigslist and Steve from Kansas offered to buy it and pay for the shipping as well.  Even luckier, I sold it for twice what I paid for it!  I built a sturdy plywood shipping crate and it made it from Texas to Kansas in 4 days without any troubles at all.  In case anyone wonders what it cost to send a 128lb package from Texas to Kansas by UPS, the answer is $112.69.  So those of you who weigh less than 150 lb, who don't suffer from claustrophobia and don't mind primitive toilet arrangements, and who enjoy non-perishable snack foods and tepid water, UPS may have a cheaper alternative to flying...

Here's the 29K in its crate, lovingly made:

A few weeks later, I made quite possibly the luckiest find yet, again on Craigslist.  Some guy in Washington was selling a gently used Luberto Classic harness stitching machine, for a ridiculously low sum.  This was my dream machine, and with a good chunk of the funding provided by the sale of the 29K, I snatched it up.  The Luberto Classic is made in the USA of quality materials, is completely manual, capable of stitching 3/4" leather, and has a needle feed jump foot for perfect stitches without marring the leather.  But since they sell for about $7000 new, and because those who buy them rarely sell them, I had long ago accepted that I would never in my life own one.  Sometimes life is full of pleasant surprises.

Since the machine weighs about 150 lb, I was nervous about it shipping here without getting damaged.  But once I walked the seller through the process of crating I felt better.  The machine was partly broken down and shipped in two separate packages to avoid outrageous shipping fees.  Everything got here fine.  I had to put it back together and replace a few siezed cap screws (thank heavens my dad taught me about impact screwdrivers for motorcycle crankcase screws!) but it all went together fine.  It also came with a VHS tape of how the adjust and maintain the machine.  I watched it twice, then burned it to DVD on my computer.  Then I went and completely stripped the machine down, cleaned it, oiled and greased it, and adjusted it to perfection.  This is by far the easiest machine I've ever worked on.  Yay!

Here it is:

As you can see in the last photo, it'll sew through nearly an inch of stiff vegetable tanned tooling leather.  It can handle thread up to size 415 and stitch length varies from 12 to 4 stitches per inch.  The needles for this thing are about 2.75" long and 3/16" thick!

I've only had the chance to do a few small projects on this so far, but it is amazing!  Watch for some extremely manly sewing projects in the future...

Friday, May 14, 2010

New (old) Arrival - A short-ish post I swear!

Yeah, yeah, my posts tend to ramble on longer than most but I figure it's the only form of a journal I keep these days so maybe it's okay.

Anyway, after more than a year of looking I finally managed to find and acquire a particular sewing machine that I've had in mind for leatherwork for some time.  It's a Singer 29K172 long arm "patch machine" made at the Singer factory in Kilbowie Scotland in 1935.  It was used by cobblers (shoe repair dude in layman's terms) to do repairs and finish work on shoes and boots.  It can only sew about 1/4" of leather but a lot of the work I do is less than this so I don't mind.  The really cool thing about this machine is that it has a very long, very skinny arm that will allow you to get into tight spaces (such as the toe of a shoe) and it has a uni-directional top-feed foot.  Why is this exciting?  Well, let's say you wanted to sew a patch onto the sleeve of a jacket (c'mon, I know you've been dying to).  You just slip the sleeve over the arm and let the the foot walk all around the edge of the patch, changing directions and turning corners without ever repositioning the sleeve.  As far as I know, there's no other sewing machine in existence that can do this.  Any sewing enthusiasts out there are almost certain to think this feature is really cool.  For the rest of you staring blankly at your screen wondering how deep my dorkiness really runs, just trust me, it's COOL!

Even cooler, it's a totally manual machine.  You turn a giant crank by hand to operate it.  One turn equals one stitch.  Being somewhat prone to Luddite tendencies (look it up kids), this really appeals to me.  It stitches nice and SLOW allowing for excellent control.  I wish it sewed a little thicker material and could use thread heavier than size 138, but I'm pleased with it nonetheless.  It's first real job will be sewing some small knife sheaths with my Boy Scout troop as we work on the Leatherwork merit badge.  I think Sarah plans on making some leather baby shoes.

I had to make an 8-hour day trip to Fort Worth to pick it up, but the price was phenomenally low, like 10-15% of the cost of a similar "clone" machine made new in China.  A nice old gentleman with an orthopedic business used it as his personal machine at home and was clearing out his garage.  What a find!

Just Call Me "Omar The Tentmaker" - Manly Sewing Project #3

Okay, I didn't actually make a tent, though I might tackle some sort of lightweight tarp-type shelter someday like a zillion other outdoor enthusiasts who seem to think they've found some magical new configuration of ripstop nylon and a few poles which they proceed to hawk on eBay or in the monthly Boy Scout magazine that shows up at my door.

No, Manly Sewing Project #3 was not a tent, but it was a cover for my outdoor grill!  I sure felt like Omar the Tentmaker as I had to repeatedly cram nearly five yards of heavy fabric under the head of the sewing machine.

I can hear you saying "But Eric, you could have just bought a grill cover from any number of stores and for pretty cheap as well and without all that work!"  And you'd be mostly right, except that not all grill covers are made equal!  I tried to go buy one before I decided to make one and it went something like this:

  1. Go to Academy Sports and search for grill covers
  2. Find cheap grill cover for $7 that appears to be make of recycled plastic shopping bags thinly pressed and heat fused together at the seams.  I'm pretty sure this won't even make it onto the grill once without tearing somewhere
  3. Find slightly more expensive grill cover for $13 that has the same construction as the $7 one except that it has a backing sort of like quilt batting but much thinner and more cobweb-ish.  This one might survive the first use but I wouldn't trust it past about three uses.
  4. Give up at Academy and go to Wal-Mart
  5. Find NOTHING at Wal-Mart
  6. Refuse to go to Sears because that place really bugs me
  7. Refuse to go to some specialty grill store because I'm pretty sure it's far away and I'm absolutely positive that if they have anything better than Academy it will be obnoxiously overpriced
  8. Go home in frustration and look online
  9. Find better quality grill covers on eBay and online stores, but they're not an exact fit for my grill and they're about $80 or more.  Since I only paid $170 for the grill there was no way I was going to spend more than half of that just for a cover.
  10. Give up and decide to make my own.
Any why not?  I have an industrial walking foot upholstery sewing machine.  I'm married to a master seamstress who can free-hand wedding dress patterns in her mind's eye.  I'm pretty sure I can buy much better fabrics than even the expensive covers are made of.  I'm even pretty sure I can make it for cheaper (I firmly believe you don't have to count the cost of your time if it's a hobby you enjoy).  Best of all I can make it just how I want it!

I trolled eBay for fabric and finally settled on 5 yds 600D Polyduck canvas.  It's basically a 600D polyester canvas with a thin sheet of PVC bonded to the back.  Polyester has great UV resistance for outdoor use and in theory the PVC backing will make the fabric waterproof.  Unless you seal the seams the finished article won't be truly waterproof, but I'm not really concerned.  I just didn't want the grill "catch trays" filling up with water, and mostly I wanted to keep the dirt, dust, pollen, etc. off the grill.

I also got some killer deals on big rolls of 2" nylon webbing, 1" grosgrain ribbon for binding, and 2" velcro.  Actually, I bought a LOT of webbing and ribbon.  Like 200 yards of each!  I couldn't help myself, it was CRAZY cheap and I knew it would get used for other projects I had in mind.  Sarah looked at the giant rolls of webbing and ribbon with one raised eyebrow, and commented that it was a lot of material.  But to her credit she didn't actually ask me if I'd lost my mind, God bless her.

Sarah helped me figure out a pattern of sorts.  We draped the entire sheet of 60" wide fabric over the grill and determined that the front-top-back could be one big piece and we'd need two smaller pieces for the sides.  I cut out the the big piece and we draped it over the grill again, measuring the dimensions/shape we would need for the side pieces.  We could have gone with a design that was much more form-fitting but that would've been way more complicated and I doubt it would have improved the utility in any way.  With all three pieces cut out it was as simple as pinning everything together, sewing the seams with the grosgrain ribbon on one side, then laying the seam flat and stitching over the grosgrain ribbon for a nice flat finished seam.  The size 92 Kevlar thread I bought earlier worked great.  I also installed two handles in the top seams to make it easier  to lift off, and put a velcro webbing strap at each corner so you can gather up and secure the bottom of the cover.  Hopefully it will keep stormy weather from pulling the cover off.

Best of all, the total cost to make this was about $25-30, and I'm sure it's better quality than any of the ones I found online for 3-4 times the price.

With Sarah's patient help I also learned a lot of really useful things.  I suppose I might have been able to get the job done without her help, but it probably would've taken way longer and almost certainly wouldn't have looked as good.  Thanks Sarah!

I am MAN, watch me SEW!

No, wait! I meant:

I am MAN, watch me GRILL!

My bargain Craigslist find.  New cost about $600, I paid $170 used.  100% stainless steel frame, trays, burners, EVERYTHING!  Truly a metallurgists grill.

The finished grill cover.  I decided I wanted it loose enough that it wouldn't be a fight to get it on/off and so I could get at the tank/storage area underneath just by lifting up the bottom edge of the cover rather than removing it completely.

Handles on top for easier removal.  A length of small diameter vinyl hose was sewn into the handle to give it some bulk, shape and stiffness.

Bottom gathered up with velcro straps

Velcro straps on the back side as well

Sunday, May 2, 2010

An Ode to Chaco Sandals. Farewell, Fallen Friends...

After nearly 11 years of faithful  and trouble-free service, I finally threw out my old Chaco sandals.  The soles were worn through and the straps were starting to get pretty frayed in some spots.  Here they are moments before I tossed them in the big trash can outside.

So why is this worthy of a post?  Mostly because I was sad to see them go and I thought an online memorial service of sorts would ease the pain of their passing.  You see, I wore these things EVERYWHERE I possibly could for the last 11 years.  Well, except for 2 years while I was a missionary in England, but still, that's a long time!  Even when I lived back in Canada I wore them as long as the snow didn't cover the tops of my toes, which was usually from late April until mid October.  I've done yard work in them, forded streams in them, gone boating in them, hiked through Japser and Banff in them, walked miles around Paris and through the catacombs in them, and just plain sat around the house in them.  Like green grass and mosquitoes, the appearance of the famous Chaco zig-zag tan lines on my feet, like a solar mark of Zorro, were a sure sign that summer was in full swing.  They fit me almost as well as my own skin and never gave me a moments trouble.  They have become the standard by which I will judge all other footwear until such time as some other pair of shoes manages to last longer, trouble free, in perfect comfort, and with the same degree of utility (all of which is doubtful).  I thought I lost them once when we moved to Calgary for the summer and I was forced to buy an inferior pair of Nike sandals but they turned up when we moved again and we were reunited.  Throwing them out today was almost an emotional occasion.  I felt like I was betraying an old friend, like the kid who had to shoot Old Yeller.  I really wanted to keep them for their nostalgic value, but I kept thinking of those mentally ill "hoarders" on TV clutching bags of trash while brave interventionists try in vain to reason with them.  I suppose keeping on old pair of shoes doesn't guarantee I'll wind up a hoarder, but that's the trouble with slippery slopes.  They're slopes, not cliffs and they usually start off with the gentlest of declines.  Oh, and they're slippery.  Sorry, getting off track here...

My father thought I was crazy paying $105 (plus 7% GST, thanks much Mr. Mulroney)  for my Chacos back in 1999.  He gave me the same look he gave me when I told him I wanted a North Face backpack for school after destroying 2 cheap ones in 3 months.  I had to pay for it myself since it cost 3X as much, but it survived 6 years of abuse through high school, some university and summer construction jobs.  During a recent visit to see the grandkids, my father admitted he never thought my Chacos would turn out to be such a good value and wondered where he could get a pair.  It was a victory so small and quiet as to almost go
unnoticed, but a victory nonetheless.

I've already bought a new pair of Chaco sandals, and yes I suppose I'll have the chance to make some memories in them just like the last pair, but therein lies another sad story.  You see, my old Chaco's  were proudly made in Peoria Colorado in a small factory where craftsmanship and service were evident.  You could send your old Chacos back to the factory and they'd resole or otherwise repair them as needed.  Well, when I was shopping for a replacement pair, I discovered to my shock and dismay that since 2009 all Chacos were now produced in China like everything else.  The company's general manager said the decision was made to move to China because they can be produced cheaper, they have fewer defect rates, and the Peoria factory just didn't have the machinery capable of producing future designs.  Somewhere else I read that the savings per pair was only about $7, but maybe that's not true.  If in fact the move to China was necessary for the survival of Chaco sandals, then I guess I'm grateful, but it's a hollow sort of gratitude.  I'm not American, but there was something nice about buying a product that was made here.  Yeah, I'm sure their materials were purchased from overseas and it pretty much came down to assembly only in the Peoria factory, but it was something anyway.

I won't go into an anti-China rant or anything like that because I believe it's every consumer's fault that the vast majority of our consumer goods are made in China.  At some point, or perhaps gradually, North Americans decided they didn't want mundane factory jobs, but still wanted to buy stuff for cheap.  I guess that's why American universities have an abundance of useless degree programs filled with students who would be better served by good trade schools and it's also why the Chinese make all our stuff.  It's not like the Chinese held a firecracker to our collective heads and forced us to move production there.  We wanted more for less, and the Chinese provided it.  I shudder to think what will happen when the Chinese (and India, Taiwan, etc.) decide THEY want to be educated and have a higher standard of living.  Who will make cheap crap and shiny things for white trash?  When they don't have any competition, what's to stop them from raising their prices to raise their own standard of living?  And rightly so I suppose.  But I digress...

My new Chinese-made Chaco sandals look pretty much like the old ones.  I got black straps this time.  The footbed is a little thicker, the outsole tread is a little more aggressive and the straps are a little wider, but they're unmistakably Chacos.  Construction and materials look pretty much the same, so I guess I can hope they'll last as long as the old pair.  I'm disappointed to report that they still cost the same as when they were made in America, about $100.  Whatever savings were realized by moving to Chinese production certainly aren't being passed onto the consumer.  I hope you sleep poorly at night on a lumpy pile of filthy cash Mark Paigen, founder of Chaco.  As for me, I guess I'll march on, as it were, with new sandals that doubtless are functionally adequate if not special.  

So farewell American Chacos, you were one of a kind.  I'll try not to think of your slowly decaying soles lying at the bottom of a heap of common trash in some landfill in Texas.  If by some chance the resurrection of inanimate objects is permitted in the next life, my old American Chacos will be on the short list along with Linkin' Logs, the green blankie I dragged around everywhere as a little kid, and my 1992 Subaru Justy.

Friday, April 30, 2010

Kevlar is Kool! - Manly Sewing Project #2

Remember that half-finished leather project a few posts back?  It was a magazine ("clip") holster for my trusty Smith and Wesson .40 if you couldn't tell, and I finally finished it!

I wasn't happy with how it was turning out so I couldn't decide whether to toss it out or try and finish it.  One of the biggest problems was that I wasn't happy with the tread I used for stitching.  It was just size 69 bonded nylon upholstery thread and I really needed something bigger and (ideally) stronger.  As luck would have it I found some size 92 Kevlar thread on eBay last week and it arrived yesterday.  Kevlar thread is normally used for sewing fire retardant items, and is way too expensive for everyday sewing.  The usual price for a 1 lb cone of size 92 Kevlar thread is about $120.  I got mine for about $15!!!  I have no idea why such a low price, but it was cheaper than buying plain old nylon upholstery thread, so I got 4 spools of black and 2 of brown.  When it arrived, I realized just how much thread 6 lb is!  I flame tested the thread and sure enough it's Kevlar.  It sews and looks much nicer than the other stuff I was using and works great in the Juki walking foot.  My Necchi can handle the Kevlar thread as well but the bobbin side stitches just aren't as tight as they should be no matter what tension settings I use.  It's not really meant for use in home machines, but I figured it was worth a try.

Anyway, I finished sewing the holster, trimmed it to shape, added the belt loop holes, applied dye and top finish, and here it is:

I'm still not thrilled with the stitches.  I clearly need more practice doing tight turns with the machine, but I'm sure it will be perfectly functional even with wonky stitching.  In case you're wondering, I formed the leather over the magazines using a vacuum press.  I bought one of those vacuum presses they sell for making skateboards (no, I don't make skateboards) a while ago for leather work and possibly veneering.  It has a manual pump for now, but I scored a nearly-new free lab-grade vacuum pump awhile back (new cost is approximately $3000) that I think I'll adapt to use with the vacuum press bag.  Not sure when I'll get around to that, but watch for it in a future post I guess..

Sunday, April 25, 2010

First Manly Sewing Project - Tactical Tie-Down Strap Keeper

Most of us manly men own at least a few tie-down straps.  They're great for strapping down furniture on the roof of your Honda Civic, holding up dilapidated sections of fence in the back yard (you fixed the front yard fence properly, right?), "clamping" broken stuff together while the glue dries, hanging kayaks from the ceiling of the garage, or "securing" your car's trunk lid partly shut while you transport thirty-seven 8' two by fours home to make that crappy shelf you promised you'd build months ago.  Their utility is only limited by your imagination, kinda like zip-ties or duct tape, but for heavier jobs or jobs where you'd like to wallow in laziness a little longer and are looking for the peace of mind that can only come from a product with an 800lb breaking strength printed right there on the tag.

They come in various sizes and invariably end up in a tangled heap in the garage, your trunk or wherever.  Oh sure, you can neatly roll them up and place them lovingly on a shelf next to your wrenches, but the next time you reach for those wrenches if you so much as brush past one of those rolled up tie-downs it'll promptly unroll itself like it was spring loaded.  This in turn will set off the other three next to it and soon all four are making a dive for the spider infested gap behind the shelf and you end up with a blood-pressure-spiking aneurysm-inducing rats nest of multicolored nylon webbing with a few hooks and ratcheting mechanisms hopelessly trapped in the melee.  If you're particular about that sort of thing you'll probably stop what you're doing and dedicate 5 minutes to untangling it all and making everything pretty again.  If you're like me, you'll leave the mess and fix it later when you actually need a tie-down strap.  I suppose that's not what a good steward would do, but if I died that same hour I'd hate to think I spent 5 of my last 60 minutes on earth fussing over some straps I'd never use again.  Super lame...

So rather than risk a lame surprise ending to life, I decided to make a simple pouch for securely holding four rolled-up 1" tie-down straps.  It's made of black ballistic nylon, webbing and velcro and looks like it'd be at home on a tactical vest, so I decided it's a "tactical tie-down strap keeper."  I'm sure the US Infantry has a Light Armored Temporary Fixers Brigade somewhere who'd love this thing.

Best of all, it was my chance to test out the new (old) Necchi BU Mira sewing machine I recently bought.  Once I figured out the right tension settings and zig zag stitch length to use with the size 69 upholstery thread, it worked fairly well and happily plowed through 4 layers of 1050D ballistic nylon with no problem.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

The Japanese Workhorse and the Vintage Italian

Based on the title, I betcha didn't think this post would be about sewing machines, huh? If you're not disappointed, read on...

A while back I started learning about sewing machines. Why? I don't remember exactly, although I think it's at least in part because I've done leathercraft for years, making small fitted cases for knives, camping gear, etc. and I always stitched by hand, which sucks, so I wanted a machine that would sew heavier leather. Minor problem: a sewing machine for stitching heavy harness leather costs about $2500-4000+. Good news: I don't typically sew leather THAT heavy, so it turns out an industrial walking-foot upholstery machine will do most of what I need. New problem: industrial walking-foot sewing machines cost $1800 new, $900 used. Lucky find: a Craigslist classified ad for an unidentified Japanese-made Juki industrial sewing machine for $200. Although the picture in the ad was pretty crappy, I could tell from the paint scheme that the machine was not ridiculously old, and if I squinted just right I thought I saw a walking foot. I decided to go for it.

Turns out it's was for sale at some junk "emporium" south of Houston so I jumped in the Jeep, utility trailer in tow, and raced down to this place to have a look. Sure enough, it was a walking-foot upholstery machine that the guy purchased as part of a warehouse lot at auction. It had a few paint chips and some surface rust on a few exterior bits, but the insides were nice and oily with no signs of rust. I could see it would need cleaning/servicing and a few minor parts, but everything turned freely and the motor even ran. Sold! Good thing I moved quick because apparently there were three other people who also said they were coming right away to pick it up. There's something satisfying about literally racing to get a bargain.

Long story short I got it serviced, replaced the old clutch motor with a DC servo motor for better speed control, repainted the stand, and it works like a charm! If you can fit it under the foot, it will sew it, all day long. Truly a Japanese workhorse. Here's a few shots:

Behold the mighty walking foot:

Here's an example of what it will sew (it's clearly not finished but you get the idea):

There's only one problem with the Juki: it's a straight stitch only. Now admittedly, a straight stitch is all you ever need for sewing heavy leather, but I started to envision making other cool things like gear bags and camping stuff, out of heavy fabrics like ballistic nylon, canvas, tarps and seat belt webbing, and a zig-zag stitch is a must for that kind of work. I had no room for an industrial zig-zag and didn't really need one anyway, but I knew I'd need something with a little more grunt than Sarah's Bernina.

So I started trolling through vintage sewing machine forums and learned all kinds of cool stuff about sewing machines from days gone by. One machine in particular sounded just right for the job I had in mind. Enter the Vintage Italian: a 1950's Necchi BU "Mira". By all accounts the Italian-made Necchi BU Mira was a marvel of engineering and while not an industrial machine it could handle heavy stitching tasks that most home machines would balk at these days. Best of all, it has all steel components machined with nice tight tolerances and a healthy 1.1 amp motor. No plastic gears or internal timing belts to break. So I started keeping an eye out for one on Craigslist. It didn't take too long (sometimes it's handy living near a city of 4 million people!) before I found one that looked to be in decent shape and appeared to be in the original cabinet as well. I took a trip into Houston to check it out and it looked well worth the $80 asking price, so I took it home and started to clean it up, scrubbing years of old yellowed oil and grease off everything. I had to replace the old dried-out bobbin winder tire and un-seize the handwheel so the bobbin winder would work. The motor was in good shape, but all the wiring had deteriorated and had to be replaced. I converted the motor controller from a knee type to a foot type and replaced the 55 year-old belt with a new nylon cogged one. With a good oiling she runs as smooth and quiet as I imagine she ever did. Even the timing was still set correctly. Here's a few shots:

The cabinet has some dings and scratches but is fully functional:

Maybe you're not into the avocado green color and chrome but I think it's cool. The machine is nice and simple to operate too. There are three levers for needle position, stitch width, and stitch length. That weird contraption hanging off the front is a "Wonder Wheel" that can be connected to the needle position and stitch width levers to produce decorative stitches.

Why is it called the "Mira?" I dunno, but I guess it's as good a name as any for a hard-working Italian girl.

All steel, no plastic or belts!

Singer class 15 bobbin/hook. The green lever drops the feed dogs for embroidery/darning.

The other really cool thing was that the cabinet came crammed full of stuff! Extra bits and pieces for the machine, an automatic buttonholer, vintage sewing patterns, a tin full of buttons, and the original paperwork:

Apparently, a Mrs. Williams bought the machine in 1955 for the sum of $393!!! She traded in an old machine, put a little money down, and made payments of $10.62 a month for the next 2 years. I went to an online inflation calculator ( ) and found out that the purchase price of $393 in 1955 is like $3113.62 in 2009 dollars based on the Consumer Price Index. Crazy huh?

I haven't decided what my first project will be with this machine, but probably firewood totes or a barbeque cover.

Oh, and if any of you were thinking of calling me some kind of sissy for being into sewing machines, I'll refer you to the chainsaw post of 2009...