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

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