Old Clocks: Repair, Restore or Conserve?

Obe questions that we constantly faced in the clock shop was whether it is more appropriate to repair, restore or conserve antique clocks that passed through the doors. This is a tough question, and in the end it was always up to the customer; but there actually were a few times that we passed on the work because we felt the customer was authorizing the destruction of a valuable piece of history.

Let me give you an example.
One day a customer called about a rare and early Herschede grandfather clock that "needs to be cleaned". It turns out that this clock was at the time (1986) valued at $65,000 and what it needed was a major overhaul. The last record of maintainance on it was dated 1965, and the clock was still working, yet the pendulum was sluggish and the strike and chime's were now silent. The pivots (the steel axles) and brass plates were worn so far that the wheels (gears) were no longer properly meshing. The repair would be extensive, expensive and unless time was take to do the repairs in the classic way the repair itself could reduce the value of the clock.

In the end the customer was not interested in making the investment that was necessary so we parted ways.

Fast forward a few months and I was face to face with the same clock; only this time I was there to quote on the repair from the damages caused by the local clock hack that was my competitor. This guy was what I would call a clock repairman. He used modern tools, methods and materals in order to make clocks keep time, strike and chime. He took no care when he touched the polished and plated parts, so every surface was covered with tarnish and finger prints. He used an ultrasonic cleaner, and I did too; only when I cleaned a clock movement I first totally dissasembled it. He dropped the movement into the cleaner fully assembled, then he used compressed air to blow it off, followed by a half hour in a cardboard box with a small heater for dry. After that he wold squirt some oil on all the pivots and set the clock on a stand for a test run. That's right, he didn't "overhaul" anything! Only if the clock displayed problems would he take the movement apart. One of his favorite tools was a bottle of Super Glue, which he used to lock loose parts in place once and for all!

Now, if you ever get a chance to see a Herschede grandfather clock what you'll notice is that the movement is HUGE! I had the largest ultrasonic cleaner on the market and there was no way that the clock plates would ever have fit, so I would have cleaned them by hand. This jerk (Yes, my emotions are starting to show) dropped the fully assembled clock movement into his cleaning machine, but only 1/2 of the movement would fit, so he cleaned one half at a time! Right down the center of the movement was a line of tarnish and dissolved lacquer on the once beautifully polished brass plates. So sad.

When they first called me this customer had three choices:
  1. Repair. Do what it takes to make the clock run.
  2. Conserve. That is, stop the pendulum and leave the clock as it was.
  3. Restore. This is what I ultimately did, and unfortunately for this customer, they paid substantially more for this restoration than they would have if they had not first had the clock repaired. (Not to mention what they paid the repairman.)
If you are faced with this same question ask yourself and the repairman if the materials and methods proposed will be correct for the era of the clock's manufacture. If they say no, or worse yet have no idea what you mean, grab your clock and head out the door.

If you have a repairmen making a service call on a large clock, observe carefully the care they demonstrate when handling your clock. Is it what you expect? Are they wearing soft cotton gloves when they handle the weights and pendulum? Are they damaging the nut or pin that retains the clock hands with knurled jaw pliers? Do they use care when selecting the appropriate screwdriver when removing the dial or hood from the case? Do they look (sound, smell) like the kind of person that you should trust taking the movement from your home? Keep in mind that it is very rare that the case needs to leave the home, so don't allow this without a very sensible explanation.

That's all for this rant. Let me know if you have any questions comments or cheep shots, and good luck with your clock!

The old "Over-winding the Clock" Myth

I’d be a rich man if I had a dollar for every time a clock owner dropped-off their clock with the phrase “It was running fine until (insert the name of the manliest man in the house) over-wound it”!
This reminds me a bit of the fact that light bulbs will most always “burn-out” at the moment the switch is thrown. Is it fair to say that the last person to flip the switch over-threw it? Of course not! The filament becomes weak from hours of tungsten being tossed-off, and it just happened to give up the ghost when the cold filament received the shock from the rapid heating that illumination brings.
While it is technically true that a mainspring can become damaged by repeated over-tightening , which is the term that Clockmakers use for winding the spring until it is tight, and then continuing to tighten “for good measure”. It’s unlikely, however, that the last person to wind the clock was entirely the cause of the spring failure.

Take note of detail #25 in the image above. This is an x-ray view of a mainspring inside of a spring barrel. The spring is attached to the winding arbor #13, which is where the key or crank is placed for winding. When the spring is wound it is coiled tightly around this arbor. The other end of the spring has a small hole which is hooked over a small hook or stud, which is riveted into the interior wall of the barrel . The hole in the spring can become fatigued over years of repeated "over-tightening", and likewise the stamped hook or riveted stud can also break free.

So is over tightening a main spring a myth? Not really. But it isn't the most common reason for clocks to stop. Usually it's as simple as the need for a good overhaul.

How Daylights Saving Time Kills Fine Clocks

Sunday November 4th marks the end of Daylights Saving Time, and the good news is we all gain one well-deserved extra hour of sleep. Unfortunately the end of Daylights Saving Time will also mark the end of many fine clocks.

While most modern mechanical clock movements contain safety features that permit the hands to be gently moved forward or backward, while antique clocks can suffer sever damage from this simple activity. So what’s the clock owner to do?

The minute hand can be advanced slowly on all mechanical clocks, with care being taken to stop and allow each chime, strike or cuckoo sequence to play completely through.

One of the easiest and probably the safest option for pendulum clocks is to stop the pendulum, allowing time to catch up with the time on the dial.

What should you do if despite all your best efforts your clock is damaged by the time change? Check your local phone directory for a clockmaker who is a member of the American Watchmakers-Clockmakers Institute (AWCI), or visit http://www.awci.com/ to locate a certified Master Clockmaker in your area.

Scott Markwood is a retired Clockmaker in North Carolina who keeps his fingers in clock making by maintaining a blog dedicated to connecting clock collectors with collectable clocks, and through sharing his knowledge of clocks with hobbyists and consumers. Visit Mr. Markwood’s blog at http://clock-shop.blogspot.com/

Where do you oil a clock? A better question might be should you oil your clock?

Oil is the blood in the veins of your clock that keeps it alive. Am I overstating this? Nope.
I’m hesitant to even share this information because a large number of the clocks that came into my shop were there due to damage caused by aggressive do-it-yourself attempts at oiling.

First let’s think about what oil does in a clock. Most clock movements are made using brass for the plates and wheels (Clock gears are called wheels by Horologists) and steel for the pinions (Small gears which are driven by the wheels) and pivots, which are small axels that pass through holes in the brass plates. As the clock runs these steel pivots rotate within the holes in the brass plates. You can imagine how that would feel and sound if these parts were not lubricated. In fact, when the proper amount of the proper lubricant is used these parts don’t even touch, but instead float on a thin layer of the oil. Cool, huh?

The other thing to understand is oil is a natural dust magnet! When you mix oil with dust, and add the friction of the pivot rotating, you’ve made an excellent grinding paste. Surprisingly the steel pivots will wear-out just as badly as the brass plates, so this is defiantly a condition we want to avoid. This is why we suggest having your clock disassembled and thoroughly cleaned every 3-5 years or so. This cleaning will remove this “crud” (This is another technical term) and prevent your clock from grinding itself into a serious and expensive overhaul.

So it almost sounds like when it comes to oiling that more is better, but unfortunately that isn’t the case. As you can hopefully see in the photo below, there is a small countersink in the brass plate where the steel pivots pass through. A lot of folk use the oil pen that came with their sewing machine to fill these oil sinks, thinking that as the oil is “consumed” that it will be replenished by this spare oil. In reality what usually happens is that this blob of oil eventually attracts enough dust to break the surface tension, or becomes too heavy on its own, and it begins to drip out of the hole and down the plates. Now here’s where the magic begins. Like a wacky wall walker the excess oil drags with it the oil that is surrounding the pivot, leaving it starved for oil. That’s right kids, over oiling can cause the same results as not oiling at all!

Another thing that you need to be aware of is that not every metal on metal part should be oiled. Some parts have so little friction between them that added oil will only muck things up over time.

This reminds me of why I used to hate cuckoo clocks. First you start with an inexpensive (cheap) clock movement, add several flimsy gimmicks that each put a load on the movement, and stick this into a case with lots of holes and even a couple bellows that circulate dirty air around the movement, thereby contaminating the oil. Oh, and add to this that all cuckoo clock owners in our town lived on dirt roads, used wood to heat their home, and had 17 cats! Seriously, you can tell this from the debris within the clock case. Ok, I’ll admit that I did like two things about cuckoo clocks; they were always breaking and their owners liked to keep them running!

So that leads us to the spots that you could consider oiling yourself. Clocks vary from manufacture to manufacture, so you’re will likely look different than the photo. Note that there are several spots on the front plate that will be duplicated on the back plate. These may not be accessible, but you clock will be better for your efforts even if you only oil the front plate. Make a note to get you clock to a shop within the next two years, of the rear plate and pivots can become damaged. (See #5 below)

Lastly, follow this list:

  1. Use clock oil purchased from your local clock shop.
  2. Use the eye end of a needle to apply the oil, not the little metal tube on the oil wand.
  3. Apply only the amount of oil that the needle’s eye can hold for each of the oil sinks.
  4. NEVER oil a wheel (gear)! There are a few exceptions to this rule, but let’s leave that to the professionals.
  5. If you can’t see it, don’t oil it.
  6. Never, ever, EVER spray an oil (or heaven forbid) WD40 on a clock movement! I used to charge extra if a clock had WD40 residue on it, because it created so much additional work removing the gummy residue.
  7. If your clock was made by Jaeger-LeCoultre, or states the name Atmos any where on it, don’t you dare ever oil it! You are fortunate to own a very valuable clock which requires a special lubricant and a very skilled craftsman to do the job. You’ll thank me later.

Is that it? Yes, that's about all that I would suggest you attempt. Keep in mind that spring-driven clocks should be greased with special grease, and as I mentioned before there are several other spots on most clocks that should be oiled, but it takes very specific instruction for each clock.

P.S. OK, my bride tells me I'm not being specific enough when I say use the eye of a needle. Who knew there were different sizes? I found a guy on eBay who has a very nice clock oiling set that also features an excellent oil. I know nothing more about this seller, but they have a lot of positive feedbacks. Click here to buy a great Clock Oiling Kit

Antique Mystery Clocks for Sale

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Antique Seth Thomas Regulator #2 and other Antique Regulator Clocks for Sale

Pictured above is a Seth Thomas Regulator #2. They are quite rare and the average final price on eBay in recent months is $1750. The best price we've seen is around $800, so if you happen see one for sale for anything less than $800, snap it up!
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Antique Grandfather Clocks for Sale

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Antique Mantle Clocks for Sale

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Antique Cuckoo Clocks for Sale

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Antique Wall Clocks for Sale

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