Here's how to figure out what to look for, and what questions you might need to ask before you bid.
The best move you can make is to find some local machine knitters and get their advice before you start looking. Join a machine knitters guild or association. Most states in Australia have one, and NZ machine knitters have a good active national group. They will help you find machine knitters who meet close to where you live.
Another way of contacting others is to join an email group which discusses machine knitting, for example one of the Yahoo groups such as SouthKnit, or visit reference sites such as Wikipedia, or browse the Machine Knitting category on a web search engine or web directory. Try to visit a local machine knitter and look at their machines to become more familiar with their features. Most of us love encouraging people to get started!
Would you prefer to buy a very cheap machine to use until you know which features what you want, or to wait a bit longer for a well researched purchase? Make sure that any machine is complete and in good condition before buying, bargain or not. There's no point battling with a machine that doesn't work right, so a temporary first machine still needs to be in excellent working order, though it's OK for it to be lacking in features.
If you have no-one to advise you, consider purchasing a standard punch card machine, either Brother (e.g. models 820 - 860) or Singer (e.g. 321 - 360, 260, 280), which has been used recently and is complete and in excellent condition. You don't want mechanical problems when you're learning. Or any time for that matter! Bear in mind that a lot of second hand punch card machines, like the Singer 321 for example, were made as early as 1970. A machine that has been used through each of those 35 years might be in better working condition than one which has been stored in a garage for a few years. Damp and dust are real bad news, and the slightest bit of rust, especially on needles, is no good for you, unless you only want the machine for spare parts.
Of course you might have a reason to buy a different type of machine, or an older machine without automatic patterning. For example, we often see Empisal 680 models for sale, and some of them are in great condition despite their age. They have eight push-buttons instead of punch cards for stitch patterning. Even if the buttons are still patterning properly (a common problem), you will eventually find that re-setting the buttons before each pattern stitch row becomes a real pain. But for learning and doing plain stocking stitch, they can be perfectly adequate for a while. These machines can be found at very low prices indeed, and are often discarded because not many people want them when there's so many cheap punch card machines around. You might pick one up in mint condition for a song!
There are some clues as to whether a machine might be as well preserved as suggested. Not always reliable, but they can add up to give you the picture. How fastidious is the owner seem to be? Does it still have all manuals and its original outer cardboard shell in reasonable condition for its age? You'll need the manuals, and the preserved cardboard carton indicates to you the owner's fastidiousness. Are its components / features listed knowledgeably? Is it pictured hastily propped up for a sale, or as an appreciated part of a lived-in looking room or craft space? Has the owner enjoyed using it enough to purchase optional accessories? (Check their other auctions too.) Ask how old it is, where and how it has been stored, and how long since it has been regularly used.
It doesn't hurt to write to the seller and get an idea of the machine's history, and the seller's knowledge, before you bid. If they can confirm that it is complete and working, or can tick off the parts against the manual, or say they wouldn't have a clue, you can begin to estimate your likelihood of happiness.
Machines usually lose a little piece or two over the years, and can acquire mysterious incompatible extras too! You can't knit with 95% of a knitting machine. The instruction books, or manuals, will itemise everything including what should be in the plastic tool box. You might be offered a lot more than what came with the new machine, e.g. extra patterned or blank punch cards and a punch, books, patterns, wool winder, ribber, attachments, cones of yarn.
Sellers are usually very up front about their knowledge level, so ask questions, calculate your risks, and be prepared to get what you pay for. If you're a beginner, though, you have no use for a spare parts machine and these risks can be a real problem for you. Try to buy from someone who knows.
If the machine has not been used for a few years, it will probably need a part replaced. The "needle retaining bar" or "sponge bar" is a special metal strip lined with a thick sponge strip that holds the needles down into their position on the machine bed.
Being sponge, the material deteriorates over time whether it's used or not. It is not normally visible, and it sends no cry of despair to its storage custodians, it just silently sits there and collapses. In extreme cases when it disintegrates completely, it can become like peanut butter or sand or both, dropping off inside and clogging the mechanism while the outside still looks beautiful.
If the seller specifically states that it has a new sponge bar and also can say how recently it was replaced, it's probably OK. But generally, be prepared to replace it when you buy an old machine.
The right sponge bar for your machine can probably be purchased new for under $40, and some people have successfully re-made their own using the old metal strip as the base (so don't throw them away!). Most manuals show you how to remove this bar in order to replace a needle, on the last couple of pages. Basically it just pushes out, with care, but there's a trick to getting it back in.
Here again, being in contact with other knitters through a guild association or club is important. Your ancient sponge bar might still be OK after all. On the other hand, the previous owner might have been using a deflated sponge bar without knowing that was the cause of their difficulty. None of the manuals ever told people that these need replacing!
Don't let shipping costs take you (and the seller!) by surprise, because they can be higher than the cost of the machine. These are long heavy devices that are not real easy to ship unless they have absolutely no extras with them. They weigh well over 10kg, sometimes double that, and they stretch the bounds of what Aussie Post accepts in length and sometimes weight as well. Personal pickup is ideal of course. I have met a seller at her nearest rail station and got help from fellow passengers, but I wouldn't like to do that too often.
I've had no problems with posted machines, but I do try to leave exposed the case's handle so the poor bloke can carry it. Busfreight (it's on the web) has done a great job for me at a reasonable price door to door, and couriers, well it can be tricky unless one of you has an account with them.
Ribbers turn a single bed machine into a double bed machine, allowing knit and purl stitches so that ribs and related stitch patterns can be produced. You will want a ribber sooner or later, but you can make do without it while knitting your first dozen garments.
For the Japanese machines (Singer, Brother) the ribber was never part of the machine, but rather, an expensive option. When you're not used to looking at knitting machines, the ribber can look almost the same as a knitting machine, just a little simpler, and sellers have sometimes innocently thought that they were the knitting machine itself. When you buy a machine with a ribber, you will get two parcels of roughly similar size and weight.
See the related Guide:
Knitting Machine True and False
for more information, including a list of the basic components you should expect.
If you are already a machine knitter, you might enjoy another guide,
Machine Knitting - Quick Latch Off Edging
Thank you :-)
More info will be added later, so check back now and then. Suggestions are very welcome. I don't sell machines, so this is just sharing knowledge for the good of all.
If you were pleased to find this Guide, do me a favour and click on the Yes vote below. Happy knitting! :-)