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!


Cliff Nielson said...

I loved reading this article. In fact, it inspired me to pull my old grandfather clock out and begin "repairing" it. Thanks!

David | Time Clocks

JoeyWalden87 said...

A lot of people treat there antique clocks with great care. I admit that even I would. There is so much going on in a clock that it would be better to have it repaired by a professional. http://www.midcoastclock.com/cleveland_clock_repair.html

Susan Hirst said...

I inherited my grandmothers antique clock a few years ago. It is a beautiful piece of work, but it hasn't kept time in years. I've been thinking about taking it in to a clock restoration service and talking to them about it.

Susan Hirst | http://www.johnagillclockrepair.com/Clock-Repair-Restoration-Lansdale-PA.html

Val Marchesoni said...

It is true that you have to be careful when deciding who to take your clock to, or what you will have them do to it. I have also discovered that sometimes it's not worth it to try to restore the clock, as it might decrease the value of the clock like you have said.