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Reconditioning a Singer 99 Case - Part 3: Sanding & Wood Repair

We continue our Singer 99 case project with sanding and wood repair. These same principles and steps can be used on many of the vintage sewing machine cases.

The Four Parts of this Tutorial

In previous parts of this tutorial, there weren't many required materials. Now we're getting into the meat of the project. I recommend:

  • Razor blade / cutting tool. You will see me use a box cutter blade with no handle. It's just my preference and arguably not the safest way to work, but it affords me the most precise control and the ability to apply even pressure very near to the area I am cutting. Proceed with caution at your own risk, and consider using a hobby knife or something with a handle.
  • A palm or "mouse" sander or comparable device. You will have to sand away thick hardened glue from the surface of the case, and you should not expect to do this without the aid of a power sanding tool. If you don't have one, I've seen them as low as $18 at Harbor Freight.
  • Sandpaper sheets for your palm sander in 50, 120, and 220 grit. The 50 grit could be replaced with 40 or 60 if those are the only heavy grit options where you shop.
  • 220 grit sandpaper - a regular sheet for detailed manual hand sanding. You could use one of your 220 papers from your power sander, but the backing on those sandpaper pads adds thickness. I prefer a regular sheet for detailed sanding, and if use the recommended sanding block listed below, you will need a standard sheet of 220 grit sandpaper.
  • Sanding block (optional and recommended). Even though we will do the majority of our sanding with a power sander, I find I get the best results if my final sanding step is by hand with a block. These things come in rubber or you can make one out of a block of wood.
  • Wood glue (possibly). It depends on the condition of your case. I don't recommend using a multi-purpose glue that "can be used for wood" among other materials. I strongly recommend that you use actual carpenter's wood glue.
  • Sandable wood filler (possibly). This will be used if your case has gouges, splits, or holes that should be filled to improve the cosmetic appearance. You can apply the wood filler with a damp finger or a putty knife.
  • Pre-stain wood conditioner (optional but recommended). This product helps prepare the wood for finishing by limiting splotches and raised grain.
  • Cheap foam paint applicator. This is a good choice for applying the pre-stain.
  • Clamps (optional). If wood panels need to be re-glued on your case, clamps can be very helpful and sometimes necessary. You will see an example of these clamps later, and just keep in mind that they can be purchased very cheaply if you avoid the name brands and settle for the "cheap" ones which do the job just fine.
  • Damp and dry cloths for wiping away wood glue and wood filler as needed, and dealing with dusty surfaces.
  • Dust mask. You're going to be sanding away thick, hard glue that was applied to the case about 50 years ago or more. It creates a tremendous amount of dust, and I don't recommend inhaling it.
  • Eye protection. That thick dust I just described can get in your eyes. Not good.
  • "Medical" style gloves (optional). You may want to use gloves when handling glue or wood filler.

In Part 2, I discussed leaving the faux leather in place on the sides of the case since it was in nice condition. Meanwhile, our client has given it some thought and wants us to remove the faux leather. We're going to stain the entire case, except for the stitched leather pad on the top. We have left the latches intact on the side of the case and will work around them, because they are in decent condition and the chore of removing/replacing them is likely overkill. If you wish to remove and replace your latches, you will need an understanding of how to grind away the latch mounting stud heads, remove the studs which are embedded in the thin plywood and tend to break away some of the wood, repair any gouges to the wood, and reinstall the latches - all in a manner which will ensure the latches remain strong and functional.

I do often replace the hardware on the refurbished cases that we sell, but it is beyond the scope of this tutorial.

Should we strip the interior of the case?

I personally don't see much value in stripping and refinishing the interior if it is already in decent condition. We can take steps to leave it as is. If you nonetheless wish to pull all the paper from the interior walls of the case, sand the interior, and then refinish it, you certainly can. I'll preserve this Singer 99 case interior as-is.

If I were to just begin pulling the faux leather from the exterior sides of the case, it would likely tear past the bottom edge of the lid and then rip the paper inside of the case. So we have to strip that narrow, 1/4" bottom edge and leave the interior paper intact. I angle my blade and essentially "peel" the faux leather from the edge.

With the exterior faux leather detached from the interior paper, we can begin pulling it off the case. This material can be more challenging than the fabric in Part 2. If the faux leather is already damaged, torn, or peeling off, it might provide a loose spot to begin pulling. If not, find a seam as shown below and it could be a convenient starting point.

It can take a firm grip and a strong, steady pull. Once the faux leather is pulling away, maintain a slow, even pull - this will help the material to come off in a larger section. Sometimes pliers can help with the pulling, but if their jaws slip off or the fabric tears abruptly, be careful not to strike yourself in the face with your tool, fall backwards, crack your head on the floor, spend the night in the emergency room, and regret ever starting this project.

Often the glue is so strong that you're lucky to just get narrow strips to pull off. Keep working at it - you're committed now!

Often you'll find that very narrow strands of the material remain after pulling away large sections of the material. When you sand the case later, the power sander will quickly knock off those strips, so don't labor over removing them now.


Once all material is removed, you're ready to start sanding. Please use your dust mask and eye protection. Sanding away the glue will create heavy dust. It's best to do this outdoors or in a work shop where heavy dust is acceptable and ventilation exists.

  • Wear your safety equipment.
  • Don't let children or pets inhale the dust.
  • Proceed at your own risk.

Start with the heavy grit on your hand-held power sander - 40, 50, or 60 will do. This heavy grit is only to remove the hardened glue. You will find that this grit is so heavy for the soft plywood, that it will sort of "chew" the wood. Be especially careful sanding the edges and corners of your case - just knock off the glue, don't attempt to smooth the wood as this heavy grit will never smooth the surface. Watch closely and as the hard glue nearly disappears, stop using the heavy 40/50/60 grit in that area.

Below you can see light traces of the glue - I've gone far enough with my 50 grit sandpaper.

Once your case looks similar to the image above, switch to the 120 grit sandpaper. I didn't care what direction you moved your sander while essentially grinding off the glue, but once you're working with the 120 grit, move your sander in the direction of the grain, back and forth. Use light-to-moderate pressure, but allow the tool and the sandpaper to do the real work. Using hard pressure briefly can help on a rough, troublesome spot, but the hard pressure will also tend to pack the sandpaper's grit with dust, which can in turn create gouges and circles in the surface of the wood, making more work for you. Also, the plywood is very soft and only 1/4" thick. If you grind into the surface beyond having removed the glue, you can create divots and actually thin the wood.

After you've sanded the entire exterior with the 120 grit, switch to 220. Keep in mind that you will probably have to do some wood-filling and gluing on your case, so at this stage you don't have to achieve an absolute perfect surface. Personally I like to get the surface very close to my final smoothness, then perform wood repairs.

Even prior to wood repair, I block sand all the flat surfaces after I've used the power sander. Always, always sand in the direction of the grain when block sanding. Use moderate, even pressure throughout long strokes end-to-end on the surface you are sanding. When you properly block sand your case with 220 grit, it will become very smooth to the touch.

When sanding, don't let dust build up indefinitely on the wood's surface and on your sandpaper. Clear the area of dust occasionally. This will help you achieve a uniform, smooth surface.

Having used the power sander and the manual block sander, I then turn my attention to "detail sanding" near the leather pad, around the latches, and on all the edges of the case. We haven't done any wood repairs yet, and you may wish to do so prior to detail sanding. I detail sand before and after wood repairs. As you work, you'll get a sense of the method that fits your intention and skill level.

We'll also have to use all of our steps on the bottom of the case as well. All of the principles and techniques are the same.

Using the Wood Glue

Your case may have joints that are loose and require glue. This does not necessarily mean that you should completely separate the panels of your case. If you're not experienced with wood crafts, you might take on more than you can handle if you break the case down to it's individual panels for regluing.

Most cases have a little flex or weakness on some of the joints that just needs a bit of reinforcement with fresh glue. You simply force glue into the offending joint or "seam," clamp it, and wipe away the excess glue, called "squeeze out."

My customer's 99 case actually had an entire side panel of the bottom that had no glue holding it together. The piece slid out easily from it's corner joints.

I apply glue to each piece where they will attach:

I fit the panel into place:

I wipe away the excess with a damp cloth, then clamp, and finally wipe away any remaining "squeeze out" resulting from the clamping. When you clamp, you want to apply enough pressure that you know the wood pieces are flush with one another and pressed together firmly, but you don't want to apply any more pressure than is necessary at any point where the wood can flex and possibly crack. Follow the directions on your wood glue product to determine how long it should remained clamped.

This case also had a gap between the bottom panel and one of the sides of the base as shown below.

I forced glue into the crack, then clamped this area. The wood tone looks darker in this image, but only because I had wiped it with a slightly damp cloth prior to gluing. Here you see the glue "squeeze out" resulting from the clamping. I wiped that excess glue away.

Repairing Gouges, Holes, and Cracks

Resist the temptation to sand so deeply into your wood that you smooth every gouge or hole, creating divots or distinct "low spots" in the surface. It's fine to smooth minor imperfections, but this wood is thin and we've already reduced the strength of the case by removing the fabric. I often reinforce refurbished cases with oak ribbing and steel brackets, but that is beyond the scope of this tutorial.

So if an edge/corner has holes or divots as in the photo below, we should fill those areas with wood filler.

Follow the directions on your wood filler product. Essentially, you fill the areas with the product, avoiding excess. If you use too much filler, you create work for yourself when you have to sand it down. Also, a thick layer will require more dry time. Two or even three applications of the wood filler will yield a better result than trying to fill a deep opening all at once.

IMPORTANT! Wood filler becomes as hard as wood, but it does not create adhesion in the way wood glue does. Do not expect to skip wood glue in weak areas and just fill the weak joints with wood filler as this will not provide the strength that wood glue provides.

Below, you can barely see the wood filler I've applied, because I've used an appropriate amount that will dry quickly. Once dry, I'll sand it and reapply a second layer if my repair isn't as smooth as I expect.

When you sand away the excess filler and create a flush, flat, smooth surface, you should find that only the hole/gouge/crack is filled. Typically you will not "feather" out the filler when feathering can be avoided, because even though the wood filler will claim to be "stainable," areas with significant amounts of wood filler can still become apparent - it can absorb the stain a little differently from the natural wood, contributing to a splotchy appearance.

Have a look below. If you were to rub your finger across the repair, you would not feel any edges, but notice that the wood filler remains only where the gouge existed. It is not feathered out beyond the edges of the original blemish.

When in doubt about the smoothness of your repair and whether a significant indention or low spot still exists, apply wood filler again, allow to dry, and sand.

Pre-Stain and Final Sanding

Above you see my preferred product, Minwax Pre-Stain Wood Conditioner, and a very inexpensive foam brush. You might choose a different brand of pre-stain. Follow the directions of your product. With the Minwax brand, it's as simple as applying the pre-stain over the entire sanded surface of the wood, then waiting 30 minutes prior to a final sanding. You will likely find that the pre-stain product has raised the grain and your case is no longer smooth to the touch - this is normal and part of the effect of the pre-stain.

For the final sanding, use 220 grit by hand. Use your sanding block on the flat surfaces, and a small section of sandpaper for the edges and detail work.

We're ready for the final part of this tutorial, Part 4: Finishing.

The Four Parts of this Tutorial

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

All your hard work was worth it. The case looks beautiful. You have inspired me to get to work on mine. Thanks so much for the pictures and descriptions. They are sure to be helpful.

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