Old Kenmore Sewing Machine Foot Control Repair

Foot control - inside view
Foot control - inside view

One of Mary’s first investments when she got out of college was a sewing machine and she’s been using it ever since. Of late, it’s gotten a bit sporadic and the foot control seemed to be at fault.

The symptoms were that the foot control required too much travel (equivalently: foot pressure) to get up to speed, it started abruptly (poor speed regulation), and sometimes cut out without warning.

So I took it apart to see what I could do.

Two pins in the side hold the top cover in place and serve as pivots. Loosen the two visible screws in the center of two of the bottom feet, hold the top half of the case down, and slide the pins out.

A wedge on the top half presses down on the middle of the steel bar, pressing it into the rheostat. A dab of silicone lube on the wedge greatly improved that action.

Rheostat graphite wafers and contacts
Rheostat graphite wafers and contacts

The speed control itself is brutally simple: a carbon-pile rheostat in series with the 120 VAC 1 A sewing machine motor. The ceramic case and heatsink tab tell you that things get pretty toasty inside that Bakelite case.

Disassembly is obvious, which is one of the nice things about old electrical gadgets: you can puzzle out how they work and how the parts fit together just by looking. A slew of graphite disks slides out from two cylindrical tunnels in the ceramic case, followed by two graphite contact buttons. The brass fittings on the front have carbon dust on their raised surfaces, but are basically just stamped & machined metal parts.

No fancy electronics, no firmware, just a high-power (and utterly non-inductive!) carbon variable resistor.

The rheostat has three modes, in increasing order of pressure:

  • Off — no pressure on the foot control
  • Resistive speed control — resistance varies with foot pressure
  • Full throttle — rheostat resistance shorted by front switch
Rheostat speed control contacts
Rheostat speed control contacts

With no pressure on the foot control, there’s a generous gap between the contact bar on the back surface and the two graphite buttons sticking out of the ceramic case. There’s no way for the contacts to close by shaking or accident.

A bit more foot pressure connects those two buttons through the shorting bar across the back. Light pressure on the graphite disks means a relatively high resistance, on the order of several hundred ohms, and relatively low current to the motor. Of course, that also means the motor has poor starting torque, but … a sewing machine doesn’t need a lot of torque.

Increasing foot pressure squeezes the disks together and decreases the resistance. It drops to a few tens of ohms, perhaps lower, but it’s hard to get a stable measurement. The motor averages all that out and trundles along at a reasonably steady pace.

Rheostat full-speed contacts
Rheostat full-speed contacts

Finally, the brass disk in the central case tunnel shorts the tabs on the two brass end contacts and lets the motor run at full speed. Increasing the foot pressure beyond that point doesn’t change anything; the spring-loaded shaft can’t deform the tabs.

The steel shaft and contact disk can short one or the other of the two piles, but that just decreases the already small resistance by about half. That might give the motor a speed boost instantly before jumping to full speed.

As nearly as I can tell, the carbon disks evaporated over the decades, as the piles seems quite loose and required a lot of foot motion to reach the first contact point. I lathe-turned a pair of brass disks about three wafers thick, so that they’d take up the empty space in the piles.

I also filed the brass end fittings flat so that they contact the disks over more of their surface. The first two disks looked like they had hot spots: loose carbon collected in the areas where the contacts didn’t quite touch them. I doubt that actually improved anything, but it’s the thought that counts.

The spacers worked reasonably well, although I wound up removing one graphite disk from each pile to ensure the full-speed contacts would close properly. They’re in a small plastic bag tucked under the aluminum heatsink tab, where they can’t get lost. With any luck, the bag won’t melt around them.

Rheostat with brass spacer button
Rheostat with brass spacer button

A few days later, the sewing machine stopped working entirely. The foot control itself seemed to be working correctly, but a bit of poking around showed that the cord had a broken conductor just outside the strain relief. I cut the cord off at the strain relief, hacksawed the strain relief apart, then rewired it. The cord is now four inches shorter and everything works fine again.

I think this would be a nice candidate for a PWM controller, but then I’d have to shoehorn all that circuitry into the base of the sewing machine or add another cord to the foot control. Ptui, this works well enough.

Memo to Self: Replace the entire cord next time.