Why I Love My Old Singer 503 Sewing Machine

This is my workhorse sewing machine. I supplement her with my embroidery machine and my serger, but if I could only keep one machine, this is the one I’m keeping. 
She’s a over 50 years old and I inherited her from my mom, who purchased her for $50 (cabinet included) at a garage sale. 
In fact, I like her so much I have a backup model (not in a cabinet) that I got at a garage sale for $25.
She is a Singer 503 Slant-O-Matic, sometimes also referred to as a Rocketeer or a 503a. 
So, why do I think you should hunt for and buy one of these old machines instead of a new one? Mostly because she can do pretty much everything a brand new machine twice (or more) her price can do and then some. 
With the exception of electric motors and computerization, the mechanics of a sewing machine haven’t changed all that much since they were invented almost two hundred years ago. Now granted, she has attachments to achieve what newer machines use their computers to achieve, but I kind of prefer the mechanical attachments. They don’t give you error messages. 
First, she’s all metal. Take a look at the inside:
There’s no plastic here, which means her parts don’t wear or break as easily. 
See the thread path illustration on the left in the picture above? It’s more complicated than most of the new machines, and as a result I have very few tension issues. See, the more back and forth of the thread, the more loopers to put it through, the more opportunities to regulate the tension before it gets to the needle. 
She comes with a variety of stitches, just like a new machine
The difference is that her stitches are tied to discs, not a computer. The disks look like this:
and they snap in and out here
The pattern of bumps around the edge of the disc translates to what the needle does, kind of like playing a record. Pretty cool, I think. These discs are the only plastic part in the machine. 
Included in the cabinet when my mom bought her was the original manual and an assortment of feet and attachments. 
My Rocketeer can do automatic buttonholes when I attach this piece

It goes on where the foot attaches. You take off the foot and attach this piece, press the pedal and the buttonhole sews out for you. It has metal disks in different sizes that you switch out to make different size buttonholes. 
I was in college sewing on a new Brother machine before I learned how to make 4-step machine buttonholes because this attachment spoiled me. 
She also came with two ruffler attachments. They’re both the same, one was just a spare I guess. 
It doesn’t look too different from a modern day ruffler, does it? It works the same way; you attach it instead of the regular foot and she’ll ruffle away. 
So, she straight stitches and zig-zags and does multiple other stitches with perfect tension, she can do automatic buttonholes and ruffle just by pressing the pedal. Why would I even think of replacing her?
Seriously, between my mom and I we own 5 of these older Singer machines (the 300 and 400 series machines were also great, these were made in the 1940s and 1950s). We can’t help but compulsively buy them when we see them, saying they’re for “spare parts”. But who needs spares when the originals don’t wear out? (OK, but don’t tell my dad or Hubby that. We need them to believe the spare parts argument in order to feed our vintage machine addiction). 
If you ever see one in working condition, BUY IT. Unless I see it first, then back off. 

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  1. says

    Tears! This was my momma’s machine that I learned to sew on!! This is IT!! Sweetness.. oh I wish I had this machine… (deep breath). It was such a wonderful and powerful machine..

  2. Tracy Suzanne says

    Hey Melissa. I had to come over as soon as I saw this picture on Friday Flair. This was the same machine I grew up with. And it was by far the best machine I ever used. Being young when my parents died (26 and 27) I foolishly thought that a newer machine would be so much better. Wrong! Your right, those machines never wore out. Other than having the occasional tension adjustment made, they were perfect. Oh’ how I wish I had mine. And they now say the new singers are junk, made not to last. Oh’ how I long for the days when appliances lasted for 25 + years.

    I’m your newest follower. Hope you have a great weekend.
    Hugs…Tracy @ Cotton Pickin Cute

  3. grammy deed says

    Ok girls I am going to date myself but I started on a treadle machine at age 11. My Mom then got one of these machines with the cams while I was in high school. That is when I learned to use a ruffler on the machine. Then right before I graduated high school I got a new Kenmore machine that I used forever. Then went on to buy a New Home then Janome and now an Elna. I guess I need to start trying to find an older machine cause you are right-much better and all metal parts. Proud to be an accomplished seamstress.

  4. says

    “Grammy” you’re only dating yourself if the treadle was bought new. :)

    I ended up getting a 503 throught Ebay. Mom had one for as long as I could remember (probably bought between 61-62) before trading it in for a Bernina 830, which is the machine I am now using. With my wife’s sewing studio, we’ve got a section of display of older/vintage machines, the oldest is a Singer 66 crank circa 1906.

    Any time we’ve had our sewing setup at a craft show (promoting the sewing school/studio) we get a lot of reaction if I’m working on a project there, so many are intrigued at a “Man sewing”.

  5. tonksfam says

    I got mine from my grandmother years ago. I learned to sew on it (I didn’t have the opportunity to learn growing up), and I still love it for every project I do today. My mother (who is a professional herself), doesn’t seem to see what I see in it. I just figure she has never been able to work on it herself. I love, love, love it, and you can’t beat it’s beautiful retro style. I honestly don’t know if I’ll ever want to own a “modern” sewing machine.

  6. says

    Found one in the original cabinet for $20 and it looks brand new – machine AND cabinet. The machine even has masking tape under the front with notes on when it was cleaned, lubricated, and adjusted. Last entry was 1987 but entries before that were every two years. What a find. It is, however, missing the accessories and power cable/foot pedal, but I found one locally in a junk shop that also repairs machines.

  7. says

    Found one in the original cabinet for $20 and it looks brand new – machine AND cabinet. The machine even has masking tape under the front with notes on when it was cleaned, lubricated, and adjusted. Last entry was 1987 but entries before that were every two years. What a find. It is, however, missing the accessories and power cable/foot pedal, but I found one locally in a junk shop that also repairs machines.

  8. says

    My mom has one, original owner, I am trying to find a serial number to find when it was made. She was trying to figure it out by how many WEDDING DRESSES it had made and if she made my oldest sisters on it(!), which would mean 1960!
    When looking I managed to break one of the plastic spool holders on top of it. I found an online source for it no problem and ordered it. She had me swap the left spool holder to the side that I broke (the right one), easy stuff to work on. WHY are there two of them anyways?
    Would the machine have the cover up on top always? Hers is not there, may have been at some point though (meaning the hinged lid on top).
    WHERE is the serial number???

    • says

      I have a 501A ( same machine). There are two spool posts for when two thread lines are used with a double needle. If you look closely at the tension knob, you will see two separate areas for running your thread. My serial number is on a tag on the back left lower area. This was the style of the machine my grandmother bought. She WORKED for Singer in thier store in Spokane, wa. She NEVER bought another machine, and she could have had ANY machine. I LOVE IT! Looking for one for my son.

  9. says

    PS this is in the original cabinet as well, I think that lid should be there. I see a stamped number under the hinged wooden lid on the cabinet I think it was 2874?

  10. Sue Ann says

    So glad I found your site!! A good friend just gave me hers that has been in their barn for a few years. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to take it in to be cleaned, but after reading this post I will definatley be keeping “her” :) Thanks for all the great info!!

  11. Torry says

    Just found this through Google because I wanted to look up the machine that my wonderful repair guy (CJ) found for me when I said I wanted a “work horse.” He called today to say he had a Singer 503, so I was looking up to see what feet I wanted him to get for me. Any suggestions? You sold me on this machine even more that CJ did, which is saying something!

    • Dorothy says

      The owner’s manual is the logical starting point. Originals can be bought from eBay. If you do a web search, you may find one that is printable for free. You’ll want to print on both sides of the paper; it’s nearly 100 pages—at least that’s black and white, aside from the cover. You can control the size of the print that way, too. Eventually manuals may be available for e-readers, one would think—but I am a dinosaur and don’t have that yet.

  12. Carol says

    I have my mothers 503a plus original accesories. I am trying to fill in the missing extra attachments listed in the book. I was wondering: when I look on ebay there a lot of other slant accesories like two different monogramming attachements, do either of them work on the 503a?

  13. Torry says

    Okay, I’m throwing myself on your mercy! My new-to-me 503 keeps breaking the upper thread. Any ideas? I’ve changed the thread and the needle and rethreaded several times. This is the first time I’ve used it, so maybe I’m missing something.

    • A says

      It depends. To start, are you using thread appropriate for the machine? (you might think that’s silly, but I accidentally used hand quilting thread on my machine. It gave me trouble and took me a week to figure out). There’s a guy on youtube that does 503 machines. Watch how he threads it or check the link to the manual below, just in case this machine is a little different that you are used to. Consider that the tension may be off (for normal cotton fabric weight and thread, my 503 runs on a tension of 3-4); this assumes that the bobbin tension matches. How to set the tension is in the machine manual, pretty easy. (link to a downloadable copy https://sewingdude.wordpress.com/2012/09/07/singer-500-service-manual/ ). There could be a small snag in the needle, invisible to the naked eye. If those tips don’t help at all… There are several great vintage sewing machine blogs. The bloggers/owners are knowledgeable and willing to share their knowledge! Good luck!

    • Dorothy says

      Score! Congratulations. With a cabinet, etc., it’s probably better cared for than my freebie….but I’d rather have a case than cabinet, as I have reached official ‘sewing machine addiction’ status.

  14. Nancy Gammill says

    I am a big fan of my mom’s 503 a and I am looking for replacement parts.
    How can I find an affordable hook, #172080?
    Also, Would a 503 a Rocketeer fit in the cabinet for my 503 a slantomatic?

    • Dorothy says

      503 is a class of machine; Rocketeer is a nickname. ‘Slant-o’-matic’ refers to slant needle and gear drive. The book for my freebie machine boasts ‘Slant-o-matic 503 special’; the machine itself is labelled 503-a. Confusing, no? Are you pondering the purchase of a second ‘Rocketeer?’ Consider eBay for parts; look for a seller with a high rating. Lucky You to have your mom’s machine.

  15. Dorothy says

    I got myself a free 503 this past weekend—the kind that’s put out at the curb with other stuff when people move. I have been looking casually for one for several years, and then this thing suddenly drops out of the blue. No cabinet or case—the sliding cover for the bobbin case is missing, the top cover exists but is not attached, and the hinged cover that has the threading pattern on the inside—missing. Sort of looks like it was stored in a garage. Does is run? I haven’t a clue; I’ve yet to drag it into the house and plug it in. My daughter got married this weekend, and she had just phoned to say she was 20 minutes away from arriving at the church with her expensive wedding cake that needed to go in the church refrigerator right away. On the same street as the church, I saw the freebie pile. It’s like “Why TODAY, Lord?!” Heaven help me, I scooped it up and put it in my car, but have not made time to sit down and mess with it. The person giving it away said “it runs, but I got a new machine that I like better.” The foot pedal, etc., is there, and the bobbin case itself, which is rather crucial, and a box of cams n’ such, which I have not looked over for completeness or lack thereof. The foot pedal is the same as 2 or 3 of the machines I already own. At the same place, I also scored a flat screen computer monitor that works. Sometimes life is crazy like this—but if sewing machines start to drop from the sky, duck and cover ‘cuz they are heavy muthas….

  16. Dorothy says

    One week after the daughter’s wedding, I have hauled the sewing machine to a power source, and despite accumulating some dirt from storage, it does hum and produce a lock stitch. Sweet !!! I looked inside the box, and found the manual plus all of the original 8 ‘fashion discs’, plus the zigzag disc. All of the attachments mentioned in the book are there, plus a cleaning brush and the ‘loopy’ screwdriver. The slide plate is missing; that was available on eBay and I ordered it. The hinged cover with the threading pattern inside—a guy in Canada wants 40 bucks, plus shipping, so I’m going to wait on that, and see if one comes up cheaper, later. (If I get the machine good and clean, I can be absolutely sure to place a cover over it between uses). Seems to me the cost of the ‘Rocketeer’ type machine has fallen a bit on eBay; I suspect it climbs approaching Mother’s Day and Christmas. This machine may go to the Church quilt room, joining the rest of my collection of ‘workhorses.’ It’s time I treated them all to some TLC—but I have been avoiding it, as that room can get hot in the summertime (upstairs).

    • says

      Glad it’s working Dorothy! I tried to respond to your comments through email a couple times but they’ve been getting returned to me. I just spent today fixing up 2 more 503s!

  17. Melissa says

    It’s ironic, but I just bought at Singer 401A w/no manual or attachments yesterday that was completely frozen up. But, since I had heard the reputation of that particular model, I purchased it anyway and brought it to my local sewing machine repair lady who does an excellent job of resurrecting antique machines (She replaced the cam-stack of my Viking Husqvarna 6020) so I’m confident that I will get it back in excellent condition. That’s not the ironic part, after spending hours scouring the internet and ebay for attachments and top hat cams and coming up with no luck, I visited a thrift store this morning, and found a Singer 503 with all of it’s original attachments, manual, accessories, etc. Only the poor 503 is in such poor condition (the top door is off, the side door hangs by only one hinge and it is -F-I-L-T-H-Y-!! Honestly, the only reason I took it home and not just the attachments, (which was what originally caught my eye) is that unlike the 401A, it’s not frozen up and I can turn the handwheel, although it hesitates. I’m hoping I can resurrect it back to decent condition, and what a cool bonus would that be, to have TWO vintage Slant-o-Matic singers!!

  18. Ro says

    The manual for the 503a is online at http://www.ismacs.net/singer_sewing_machine_company/manuals/singer-slant-shank-503-sewing-machine-manual.pdf. Using it, I was able to do basic maintenance on my machine. It’s very complete, with excellent pictures. I agree that having all metal construction really makes a difference. My dad always said, “a machine is only as good as it’s weakest part”, and if you have a lot of little plastic pieces, you know it’s going to breakdown sooner rather than later. I had a problem with breaking thread that ended up having two causes. First, the tension plates were completely filthy with sticky black film. When I cleaned it out using a folder dollar bill then a stiff brush, the thread started moving nicely. Second, my needle had been bent from repeated snags in the tension plates, which was causing skipped stitches. When I replaced it, the problem was solved. It’s hard to find a decent repair shop that can really fix a machine. My mother still sews on her Singer machine from 1941. It’s the one I learned on. It drives like a Jaguar.

  19. Vicky says

    I am still sewing on this machine. My Dad bought it for me for my 16th birthday, many years ago.
    It’s still working great. I agree with many others who commented that the newer machines just don’t compare.
    I need to buy some bobbins–can you tell me what type I need?
    Thanks for sharing.

  20. melody boswell says

    i inherited my 503 from my mom. i actually still have the sales receipt! i went with my dad to buy it for my mom as a christmas present-he was so proud! mom made my wedding dress & all 5 of my bridesmaids dresses on it. it has traveled all over the country & still works like a champ. we are currently repairing awnings & are a little intimidated by the use of reinforces thread & adjusting the tesions-any advice?

  21. Debbie says

    My mother in law was an accomplished seamstress who sewed a lot for her friends and family. I can see her sitting at this machine sewing for hours! She made our daughters beautiful dresses with the ruffler your talking about. Two weeks ago she suffered a stroke (she’s 89 yrs. old) and seeing this machine brought tears to my eyes. I never realized what a treasure she had although she refused to get a new machine when her husband would offer to get her one. Our daughter has picked up the mantle and is now sewing for her 2 daughters. Thanks for sharing the info with your readers! Today was my first time to find your blog!!!

  22. Deb Lanter says

    Do you sell parts for the 503A Rocketeer? Mine hasn’t been used in awhile and just now I tried to wind a bobbin and it wouldn’t turn to wind. My husband looked down into the bobbin holder (with a flashlight) and it looks like it has deteriorated down where the wheel suppose to turn. Have you ever had any trouble with this ever happening and could you offer me any suggestion on getting this repaired. My uncle bought this machine new and it was a gift from him before he passed away.
    Deb Lanter

  23. Melody L says

    I was just given a 401a that used to belong to my husbands grandmother! It has been working great for me except going through thicker layers- like sewing over a seam for a fleece plush. The machine just doesn’t have enough power to go through the fabric. Sometimes if I turn the hand wheel it will go through, but usually even the hand wheel will just turn without the needle moving. If,you have any suggestions, I would be so grateful! :) From, another Melly

  24. Lauren says

    I’m dying!! I just bought one of these an hour ago as a backup to my 300 series (straight stitch only) and serger. Just getting it set up. Love. Love. Love! I love your blogpost too. :) I also have a thing for vintage machines–would never buy new. Happy sewing!

  25. says

    I have a Singer 503J which has been causing me grief for years with eating thread, uneven tension, dripping oil. In the last few years it’s been fully serviced twice and the pressure foot replaced. It was a gift from my talented mother 40 years ago, but I ‘m not much of a seamstress and don’t need all its bells and whistles (buttonholer, embroidery) If any of you readers are near PEI Canada and want one, name your price (starting at $100) and come and get it.

  26. says

    Just picked up one of these at the flea market for $20. I was insistent on getting an older machine because they’re all metal. I grew up on White and Domestic machines and never used a Singer. But so far I LOVE this one. Only two problems so far: the buttonholer and ruffler are missing (I’ll have to at least find a buttonholer somewhere) and I can’t get the handwheel to unlock to keep the needle from going up and down when I wind a bobbin (winds the bobbin just fine and stitches just fine). Any thoughts on how to go about solving the handwheel problem short of taking it to an expensive sewing machine repair guy? Thanks!

  27. lisa annette lee says

    I am so glad I found your post on the 503. My mom just inherited one; we knew it was special because it was all metal and that is such a rarity. I can’t wait to see her tomorrow and tell her what you said about your machine. Thanks!!

  28. Angela Castro says

    I just picked one of these up free off the road, with the cabnet. I thought it was a desk and noticed the lip on top. I am giving it to my Mom and I’m so excited to have found it.

  29. Classy says

    Glad I found this site I saw this machine with attachment today and I’m thinking about going tomorrow and purchasing it I have several vintage machines the last one is a 301a and I love it

  30. Wildwood says

    Well I have wrestling with my 503a for days and will be taking it for repairs soon. I know this to be a great machine, but years of neglect have taken a toll! Once I get this bad boy going… look out:)

  31. bert says

    Purchased this machine for $30 thinking just to get the knee lever controller that comes with its cabinet. I was thinking of restoring it then sell it on Craigslist to recover my money. However, my wife loves its rocketeer design and wants to keep it. Hence, this one will be put on the display shelf for ocassional use but lots of nice viewing. In the meantime, I will be playing with our 401A. I just recently scored a 201-2 for $75 in great cosmetic condition and so happy about it. I should stop buying them anymore before I my addiction becomes incurable.

  32. Tanya says

    Your article made me very reminiscent. I grew up watching my mom sew on a 503 and even though she purchased a couple other machines over the years, she held on to her “old reliable” as she called it. When her newer computerized machines would falter she would pull out “old reliable” and it would always get the job done. A couple years ago I accompanied my daughter-in-law on a sewing machine shopping trip. The shop we visited had a lot of really cool machines with all the bells and whistles, which were very attractive. I told the sales clerk about my moms 503 and she said, “Whatever you do don’t ever sell that machine. They don’t make them like that anymore.” And it was a store that didn’t even sell Singer machines :)

    When my mom passed I inherited her 503 and a garage full of sewing crafts, fabric, and every other needle type craft you think of. It’s a crafters treasure trove! She pretty much did anything with a needle and thread – sewing and crocheting being her favorite. Mom made everything from clothes to wedding gowns to costumes to blankets to seat covers for my dad’s ’69 Chevelle Malibu on her 503. You name it she sewed it. I now have grandchildren of my own and feeling the itch to create and what better way than to do it on “old reliable.”

  33. AuntRooWho says

    I have a 503a in the cabinet. My grandmother taught me how to sew on it 50 years ago! I got it when my mom passed. I just set it up again after all this time and plugged it in. It still works!! I am amazed! My grandmother kept it so clean… No lint or fuzz accumulation. I have the manual and all the discs and feet. Can’t wait to start using it again!

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