Singer 401, 401A, 403 & 403A, & 404 Sewing Machine Review
The Singer 401 (401A), 403, (403A) and 404 (404A) are all models in the Singer Slant-o-matic/Slant Needle Deluxe Series from the late 1950‘s, early 1960‘s. They are all gear driven (no belt), slant shank, all metal, aluminum bodied sewing machines with a fully rotary hook. This review will provide a technical break down for each model along with commentary on it’s strengths and weaknesses from a usability standpoint. as well as in depth information about presser feet, buttonholers and other attachments for these machines. (free manual downloads at the bottom of the page)
There is also an article on the Sew-Classic blog about refurbishing the Singer 401. It has more photos of the internal workings and additonal technical considerations.
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Information about the 400 series 'Slant-O-Matics' and the 'Slant Needle Deluxe' from a 1960 Singer sales brochure
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|Information about the available cabinets from that same brochure
What’s up with the “A”? Really, not much. It is believed that the letter A at the end of the model number denotes the Singer factory in Anderson South Carolina where the machine was made In one of the Singer Service manuals, I noticed that there was reference to suggest that the "A" stood for "automatic". Other than the letter on the name plate, there is no difference between a 401 and a 401A . When discussing the models, I just drop the letter. There were some 400 series slant-o-matics made in Germany, and their model number ends with a “G”. This review doesn't cover those in particular, but in many ways, they are very similar to the models that this article will address directly.
|Photo of the Singer 401 (401A):
| Photo of the 403 (403A):
| Photo of the 404 (404A):
Specifications, Let's start with the 401:
The appeal with the 401 apart from it’s sturdy build and all metal construction, drop in bobbin and smooth rotary
hook, is it’s ability to produce many decorative stitches with the built-in cam stack and additional, external cams.
|Some of the built-in stitch patterns on the 401 are shown under the "hatch" for the cam stack. It also provides the settings on the machine for making the various stitches.|
|With the 401, you can use two needles or a double needle. Just be certain to not go too width with the twin needle, and to exercise caution with the double needle set up on zigzag or decorative stitches. You want to make certain that the needles fall within the needle opening on the presser foot and the machine.
The Singer 403 (403A):
Now, the 403 is exactly like the 401, EXCEPT it doesn't’t have a built-in cam stack. In order to produce a zigzag or decorative stitch, the machine relies upon an insertable cam. It uses the exact same cams as the 401. Below, you will see a thumbnail link to the stitch and cam charts for both machines.
The Singer 404 (404A):
This model is just like the 403, EXCEPT that it is a straight stitch only model. So, you can’t use a twin or double needle either. The 404’s were often used in school home education programs because of their sturdy build and ease of use. The 404 is a bit lighter than the other models as well.
Poratable or cabinet?
The 401, 403 and 404 can be installed into a cabinet or used as a portable model, but they're not super light for toting around. The 404 is the lightest at about 19 pounds.
Need a SEWING MACHINE CASE for the 401, 403, 404, 500 or 503? Sew-Classic has them!
These machines all use slant shank presser feet. Below are some thumbnail photos of some of the various, vintage feet. Click on the images to enlarge.
Sew-Classic has slant shank Presser feet in stock and can order tham for you
|Originally, the Singer 401, 403, and 404 all came with Singer button style controllers. These are very high quality, adjustable and repairable carbon pile type controllers, and they are compatible with the knee levers found on many vintage Singer cabinets. The controller pops right into a holder and the lever apparatus engages the button on the controller.
However, many people have a hard time using them as a foot controller because they just don’t know the "trick" to using them:
When the controller is on the floor, the cord end should be away from you and the side with the two “buttons" should be nearest to you. The “button” on the right is stationary, and the one on the left is the one that actually controls the speed. Place the ball of your foot on BOTH buttons, and use a tilting motion of your foot to push down the button on the left to control the speed of the machine.
If your machine is missing the controller, or you still can’t get used to the original, button controller, then there is a solution. The button controller can be removed from the cord set and a different, two wire controller can be used to replace it. If you do a lot of slow speed sewing, you might wish to consider an electronic type controller. Unlike the carbon pile or wire wound resistor type controllers, the electronic controllers don’t produce heat when use continuously as slower speeds.
With the 401 and 403, you have several options for making buttonholes. With the adjustable needle position and zigzag capabilities, one can make a manual buttonhole or use one of two types of automatic, buttonhole attachments.
|One type of buttonhole attachment is the “Professional” buttonholer. This type requires that the machine be set to a narrow zigzag, and it comes with 20 different templates. The templates are installed from the top of the buttonholer, so you don’t have to remove the attachment from the machine in order to change templates These include eight sizes of straight button holes ranging from ½” to 1 ½”, 5 different sizes of keyhole buttonhole templates, an eyelet template, and six different sizes of bound buttonhole templates. Be aware that many of these professional buttonholers come with feed cover plates that WON’T fit on the Singer 401 or 403. So, it’s important to get one with the feed cover plate that is compatible with the elevator style throat plate on these machines. The correct feed cover plate for these machines is part number 161825.
The last type of buttonholer is the type that is for any, straight stitch, slant needle Singer. There are two versions of this. The first is black, and usually comes in a maroon, plastic box. It’s Singer part number 160743. The second style can come in a cardboard box or is often found in a “Jetson” (torpedo shaped) pink case. This buttonholer is a beige plastic and the part number is 489510. These buttonhole attachments can be used with the 401, 403 or 404 as well as the 301. It uses the machine’s straight stitch setting and moves the fabric side to side to create the buttonhole. They come standard with an assortment of 5 different sized templates in straight and key holes designs. Additional templates are out there, but it does NOT use the same templates as the Professional buttonholer.
There are two monogrammer attachments, but they only work with the 401 and 403. The most commonly available is called the “Professional” monogrammer. It makes smaller letters (about 3/8” high) and works a lot like the professional buttonholer. In fact, it requires the same feed cover plate if you want to use it on the 401 or 403.
The second monogrammer makes larger designs, and it's called the “Deluxe” monogrammer. The challenge with this unit is finding the long, rectangular templates for the various letters. They often only come with a few of the letters as they were sold separately from the monogrammer attachment. People usually only purchased the letter templates they thought that they would use.
The 401, 403, 404 are TERRIFIC all purpose machines for altering, mending and making clothing as well as home dec applications & various crafts. They have good piercing power when in proper condition and set up with the correct needle and settings for the project at hand. Hemming jeans, sewing sheers or silk, quilting, etc.. are wonderful tasks for these machines. They will stand up to much use and some abuse and still hum along nicely with just a wee bit of care.
These machines were NOT cheap when new. In 2008 dollars, a Singer 401 would run you about $2,600 and a 403 would be close to $2,000 when the original price is adjusted for inflation. The 404 was certainly less money, but it was never a “cheap” machine either. By today’s standards, these machines are basic, but the new models cannot hold a candle to the 401, 403 or 404 when it comes to build quality and durability. These classic, vintage machines will last long past the life span of any new machine on the market.
THERE IS NOTHING INDUSTRIAL or industrial strength about them. These are HOME sewing machines, albeit very good ones. That said, if you are in the market for a home machine for a steadier diet of heavy duty type projects, I wouldn't’t make the 401, 403 or 404 your first choice. Some of the cast iron, vertical needle machines are a bit better suited to this type of sewing. Also, the horizontal hook can make free-motion quilting tricky on these machines.
What about the Singer 500 & 503 (500A & 503A / aka "rocketeer") slant-o-matic machines??
The Singer 500(500A) and 503 (503A) internally are essentially identical to these 400 series slants mechanically, but they have a different bobbin winding mechanism, thread path, and exterior cosmetics. The hinges on the needle bar door and top 'lid' are prone to breakage on the 500 series slant-o-matics. I will give them their own review at a later date.
(Singer 403 with it's "top" off)
Perhaps you are hoping to find one of these machines in “attic fresh” condition at a yard sale or thrift store. There are a few common issues these machine can have. On the 401, it’s very common for the internal cam stack to be frozen or gummed up. It can be tedious, but a little cleaning and elbow grease will free things up nicely. On the 401 & 403, often the swing needle assemble gets gummy or stuck as well. On the 404, 403 & 401 It’s also not uncommon for tension parts to be missing or coated with grime. Also be on the look out for broken or mission thread guides. If anyone over lubricated or oiled the motor (not uncommon) the motor will be slow or even smoke. Usually this can be resolved by removing the motor and getting inside and properly cleaning the armature and the brushes and anything else that is coated with oil or grease. The only other not uncommon issue I’ve had is with the thread clearance at the bobbin case cushion spring (bracket). You can bank on it needing a new bobbin winder tire and possibly new rubber feet or cushions on the bottom of the machine. These deteriorate with age. I’ve only had one of these machines require any sort of timing adjustment, so I don’t consider that to be a common place for these machines. In the end, your best bet is to thoroughly test the machine to make certain of it’s condition before you purchase one that is in that “attic fresh” state. If the machine is going to require work or repairs, it’s better to know about them before you purchase it.
If you are considering an eBay purchase, You may find my eBay Buying Guide for Sewing Machines helpful.
Link to Free download of Singer 404 and 503 Slant-0-Matic Sewing machine manuals.
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