Oiling The Motor – A Necessary Task?

Keith Cross phoned me this morning asking what he should do about oiling the motors on the two Mass Art shop Vandercooks. One has an oil cup (or two?) with spring cap(s); the other, two cap bolts on top of the gear box similar to my late model SP15. What did I do about oiling the motor on my press he wondered.
I had to say that I had never in the 16 years I’ve owned my SP15, ever concerned myself with oiling the motor, or rather, the gearbox. The motor armature turns on sealed bearings does it not?
The SP15 Manual in all its brevity, states: “follow motor manufacturers instructions for lubrication of the motor.” The make and model of the motor are not in plain view. There is no addendum in the manual, nor instructions in any of my paperwork. All other lube points on the press are mentioned under the LUBRICATION heading as well as the schematic and parts diagrams.
My curiosity piqued, i spun the forward most cap bolt off my gearbox and shown a light down in. I could see the box was essentially dry, with the tan patina on steel parts of 44 year old oxidized lubricant.
So, do I top my gearbox up with S.A.E. #20?
Or is there some intermediary level to come up to, e.g. as in an automotive differential, to avoid losing mechanical drive energy to the resistance imposed by fully immersing ring and pinion in a heavy oil bath?
And is this even necessary? It’s run fine for years.

mjb / interrobangletterpress.com

Notify of
Oldest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Fritz Klinke
15 years ago

In Michael’s picture of the 2 plugs, I think the one in front is the breather cap–there should be a small hole drilled just under the top. Often these units were sent out with a regular plug and the vent plug was attached by wire to the motor labels, and when the press was set up, then the filler cap replaced the solid cap. I would not anguish about the particular brand or weight of gear oil so long as a gear oil is used. Even 20 wt oil is superior to running a gear box dry. Any gear motor will need lubricant and all of them will have a filler hole with a plug in it or the oil cups–out of sight should not be out of mind.

Keith Cross
15 years ago

Thanks Michael for posting this inquiry. We have three Vandercooks at MassArt in Boston (Paul, you’ve seen the SP15s before, long time ago)–two SP15s and a Universal 1. The older of the two SP15s has threaded nuts similar to those shown in Michael’s Flickr lightbox (see above), but the newer one has cups with hinged lids–seems pretty obvious that oil belongs in there but I wasn’t sure about the older motor. I will have to check again for breather holes and drain plugs (neither of which am I familiar on these presses–for shame). I am unclear if both motors, no matter what year of manufacture, should be lubed with the same grade or different grades. I will have to take pictures when I’m in next or maybe a colleague at MassArt can take them sooner (Luanne?). The Universal 1, upon cursory inspection, doesn’t seem to have a motor oil cup. I access the motor from the panel under the feedboard. Any hints here?

Paul Moxon, Moderator
15 years ago

I have seldom seen a Universal or SP with an insufficient oil level. However, to verify that oil is present, slowly loosen, but do not remove, the plug on the side of the gear box. Oil should begin to seep, if there is sufficient quantity.

I want to note, that for older models such as the No. 4 checking the oil level needs to be much more routine. At the gear box there are two external oil cups each with a spring-hinged lid. A label on the lower cup reads “Oil Level”. Peer into this cup while adding oil to the upper one. The oil will work down to the lower cup.

Fritz Klinke
15 years ago

According to the label off a new Reliance Vandercook gear motor for reliance XL Masterducer Right Angle Single Reduction and Combination:

“Lubrication is extremely important for satisfactory operation. Proper oil level must be maintained in the gear case at all times. The correct level is indicated by the red plug. (note–this tag is off a big gear motor for a Univ III, so there may not be a red plug on like the SP-15 gear motors, but possibly a oil level plug–I should go look, but—-) Frequent inspections of the unit not running, (preferably when warm), should be made by removing this plug to see that the level is being maintained. If low, (without replacing the oil level plug) add lubricant through one of the upper openings until it comes out the oil level hole. Replace oil level plug securely. (some units may have a “breather” plug and that’s to allow air to escape as well as too much oil)

Lubricant should be drained and the gearcase refilled after the first 250 hours of operation; then every 1500 hours or six months thereafter, whichever happens first.”

There’s more on the label, but you should really be feeling bad about now about the neglect you all have been giving your gear motors. It further states in effect NOT to top off a gear case because warm oil has to have room to expand into, otherwise it could result in damage to the seals. It further states that if the motor has been in any other position than normal that oil may have leaked out and “insufficient lubricant will damage gears and bearings in very short time.”

I chose at random one of the oils listed on the label: Mobil Extra Hecla, and the link to this oil is:

http://www.mobil.com/USA-English/Lubes/PDS/GLXXENINDMOMobil_Cylinder_Oils.asp and it is rated for up to 300 rpm.

Another listed oil is Shell Spirax Heavy Duty and the link is:


And in looking in the Grainger catalog, they list several gear oils by Mobil. I would think those listed under Industrial Gear Oils would be satisfactory–better than thin air, sawdust, or 3-in-one oil. Ignorance is bliss, but not when it comes to oiling equipment. Reliance also noted that sealed bearings were good for 5 years without attention–good one. We do not have replacement gear motors for the SP-15, -20, etc. Treat these units like they are made out of gold–have a competent motor shop rebuild if necessary, and be prepared to spend in the neighborhood of $500 or more if you attempt to find a new replacement gear motor that even comes close to the gear ratios Vandercook had Reliance make these to–not off the shelf items to start with. The Vandercook dripless oil we sell is original Vandercook stock (though on the blueprints it is listed as a “way” oil, and not a gear oil) and I use it for things like this without problem. Dripless oil is sticky–meant to be on slow moving sliding parts, like machine ways.


Alex Brooks
15 years ago

about a year or so ago i posted the same question to the letterpress listserv. i never received an answer. Here’s my post:

“Recently I decided to change the oil in my vandercook universal I motor (apropos of nothing other than it hasn’t been done in 42 years).

Part of this was inspired by a hang tag next to the motor with a list of recommended lubricants. part of the tag reads: “CAUTION: All of the lubricants listed above contain extreme pressure additives. UNDER NO CONDITIONS should unapproved substitutes be used as a lubricant with an
unsuitable additive may cause serious trouble. For information on additional approved lubricants, write factory.”

All of these lubricants are no longer made, so I called Reliance and asked them what modern oil to use. They referred me to their archives dept. who informed me that they couldn’t find a motor with my serial number. Here’s the entirety of their response via e-mail: ” I have looked again, are there any letters in front of the numbers? I’m not having any luck locating documentation. We have also checked
underground storage.”

So, long story short – what oils do people use in their reliance AC motors. The best answer i could get out of reliance – their new AC motors take Chevron SRI#2. This is a 100w oil, which seems about right, but in the archives i found a post where someone said to use SAE20 in the motor as well as the bearings, rails, etc.

any advice?

alex (i have also checked underground storage) brooks
press eight seventeen
lexington, ky”

Duncan Dempster
15 years ago

Funny, I’ve been wondering this recently myself. The SP20 I teach on has just in the past few months started to get heavy use of the motor. Can’t for the life of me find any oil cups on it, although the thing is virtually inaccessible inside of the cabinet. My department’s machinist shrugs and says some motors aren’t meant to be lubricated, they just expire. But surely the gear assembly needs some lube… I’m totally ignorant when it comes to motors, unfortunately. But the thing keeps running. Incidentally, on this press the ink drum is chain-driven rather than belt driven.

The Arm
15 years ago

Hey Michael,
Definitely top it up. But before you go squeezing a bunch of oil in there I suggest you first make sure that the seals aren’t shot. I have put oil in one of the oil cups only to find it running down through the cabinet an hour later. If that happens you want to get your motor to a rebuilder for some TLC.
How does your motor sound? while you are in there take a look at the belt and pulley. The ink drum will run irregularly if the belt slips.

Daniel Morris
The Arm Letterpress
Brooklyn, NY

Copyright © 2024 vandercookpress.infoTheme by SiteOrigin
Scroll to top
Would love your thoughts, please comment.x