Understanding Your Clock

As the name implies, this document refers to mechanical clocks that were made more than 100 years ago. Mechanical clocks however, have continued to be made well into the 20th century and are still being made today.

It should be noted that practically all mechanical clocks that have been made within the past 100 years, i.e. those that are not antique, have been made in a factory using mass production techniques.

Mechanical antique clocks come in various forms, either floor standing  longcase (grandfather) clocks, wall hanging clocks, shelf and mantle clocks and bracket or table clocks. Antique clocks can be powered either by weights acting under gravity, or by springs. Both weight driven clocks and spring driven clocks are usually wound by a key or crank (key) through the dial at the front of the clock.

Many wall clocks are just time only clocks so do not strike the hours. Time only clocks have just one winding hole through the dial, usually located in the center of the dial just below the hands.

Most longcase clocks and bracket or mantle clocks have two gear trains and are thus striking clocks. They strike the number of hours on a bell or a gong. Bell striking clocks are usually earlier, striking on bells came first. Gong striking clocks are usually dated from 1860 or later. Gong striking clocks are rare before 1860, but it is possible to find gong striking clocks that date back to the early 19th century. French antique clocks often strike once on the half hour, and then strike the number of hours on the hour. Usually the right hand winding arbor winds the time side of the clock and the left hand winding arbor winds the striking side of the clock.

Some clocks have three winding holes, one on either side of center, and one below the center. These are quarter striking or quarter chiming clocks. Quarter striking clocks strike once, twice or three times on the quarter to indicate how many quarters have passed since the last hour struck. Quarter chiming clocks will play a short tune or melody at each quarter, similar to the Westminster chime. Westminster chiming clocks usually date to after 1870.

If there are three winding holes, the right side usually winds the quarter strike train, the left side winds the hour strike train and the center winds the time train. Train is the term used for a series of meshing gears.

It is important that if you have a two train clock that you fully wind both trains at the same time. Do not just wind the time side of the clock as this may cause a mechanical hang-up causing the clock to stop. Similarly, if you have a three train clock, wind all three trains at the same time. If you don’t want the clock to strike or chime, there is usually a Strike/No-Strike lever to achieve this.

All mechanical clocks should be lubricated or re-lubricated roughly every  five years. These same clocks should be cleaned about every ten years. Cleaning removes all dust and dirt, any corrosion or rust and removes all of the old oil. Fresh lubrication is then applied to the pivots and other areas that must be lubricated. Note that the gear teeth are never lubricated. The time between servicing depends very much on the environment where the clock is placed. The best location is out of direct sunlight, away from heat or cold and away from forced air vents or baseboard heaters. However, all mechanical clocks must be properly serviced on a regular basis. Servicing should be done by a qualified technician since to lubricate properly it is necessary to first remove the movement from the case, then remove the hands and dial to gain access to the front plate pivots.
Many clocks have stopped and cannot be re-started, or are reluctant to keep running. Such conditions are almost always the result of neglect. Often the clock has not been cleaned or serviced for 20 or more years. Lubrication dries and becomes gummed up. The bearings dry and residual lubrication becomes black. Such neglect often means that the bearings and pivots have seriously worn requiring either new pivots to be installed into the arbors or the brass plates need to be re-bushed, often both are necessary thus incurring an expensive service job.

The escapement is another critical area for correcting wear. The anchor pallets are often heavily pitted and may have been re-surfaced and polished several times in the clocks life. It is often necessary to re-build and polish the pallet surfaces so as to achieve the correct escapement geometry thus the correct pendulum impulse.

A restored clock has been cleaned, possibly re-bushed, lubricated and all parts have been adjusted for optimum operation considering the age and wear on the clock mechanism.

All antique clocks have been repaired and serviced several times in their life, likely every 10 to 20 years. Some service technicians have performed an excellent service, others unfortunately, not so credible, made it their job to get the clock ticking again, regardless of the “fixes” that that were used to achieve this. Often wrong parts are fitted since the correct parts were not available or too expensive. These same individuals frequently resort to soft soldering friction fit components, or fractures, thus preventing future service technicians the ability to appropriately adjust the fittings. When such a clock comes in for repair, much of the effort is used is to reverse and correct the poor workmanship of these previous “bodgers”, then, either acquire the correct parts, or custom make them in the manner of the original part so as to restore the clock to near its original condition.

It must be remembered that when an antique clock is restored, the clock is made to function as good as is possible, and is therefore likely to continue running successfully for years to come. However, the clock is not new, it remains 100, 200 or 300 years old, it likely shows its age and also displays residual wear on some of its components. Previous repairs can often be seen, some servicemen even scribe their initial and the service date on the clock parts.

Several parts of an antique clock are held in place by friction fitting components. Some are held together using taper pins which are also friction fit items.

Mechanical clocks don’t like to be moved or transported. Vibration, rough handling, bumping and incorrect packing often cause quite severe damage to the clock movement and sometimes to the case. Friction fit components can vibrate apart, levers and fragile components can be bent and some parts can be broken off or lost. Professional packing by someone knowledgeable about shipping clocks is always recommended. Never ship a clock with the weights and pendulum attached, first remove the weights then the pendulum. Secure all freely moving components with packing.

A mechanical clock that has been moved or transported will need to be correctly set up. Spring clocks should be placed on a level and sound surface. Wall clocks should be hung on an appropriate hook suitable for the weight of the clock. Do not use picture hanging clocks. The best solution is a screw that is driven into a wall stud for stability and strength.

Longcase clocks need to be placed on a flat surface, tile or wooden floors are best. A carpeted floor does not offer the stability required for correct functioning. If the floor is carpeted, place a piece of hardboard, cut slightly bigger than the base of the clock on the carpet, then stand the clock on the hardboard. Shim the feet as necessary to make the case vertical and solid. Then screw the case to the wall. If there is a skirting board, place a piece of wood equal in thickness to the skirting board behind the clock near the top of the case, then screw the case to the wall such that the screw goes through the wooden spacer therefore holding it in place while solidly securing the clock case to the wall. Longcase clocks need this degree of stability for proper functioning.

When assembling weight driven clocks, first position the clock and case in their final position. Next install the pendulum and lastly hang the weights ensuring that the line is correctly over the weight pulleys and also that the line is smoothly and evenly wound onto the movement barrels.

All mechanical clocks must be properly in beat to function. Any amount of moving will likely upset the beat. In-beat means that the tick-tock is very even. Each type of clock has its own method for adjusting beat. A professional horologist will quickly adjust the beat according to the type of clock. For longcase and bracket clocks it is usually a matter of slightly bending the crutch rod that drives the pendulum.

Details of this adjustment can be found on this website.
When adjusting the time, remember that only the minute hand can be moved, then only in a forward direction. Never turn the minute hand backwards, and never turn the hour hand at all, in any direction. If when starting the clock it reads a few hours slow, turn the minute hand slowly forward one hour at a time, stopping to allow the clock to strike at each hour before continuing. Repeat until you have reached the current time. If however the clock is ahead of the current time, it is best to wait until the current time is reached, as indicated by the clock, then start the clock.

We often tend to forget that our treasured antique clock is indeed 200 or more years old. It has given many years of good surface and is likely to continue doing so if properly maintained. These clocks were made at a time when neither electricity nor modern machinery existed. Therefore many of the parts were carefully made by hand. Appreciate your antique, treat it with care and do wind it regularly. With a little care and attention, along with regular servicing, your antique clock will add life to your home by sounding a reassuring gentle tick that only such an antique clock can deliver.

One last note. If you are going away, please stop the clock before you leave, don’t let it run down and stop on its own. This can cause damage to the delicate clock escapement.

Enjoy your clock.