Anthony Gray Clock Repair and Restoration

Good Medicine for a Dodgy Old Ticker

How would you react to the suggestion that you drive the family car every day for the next ten years without once having it serviced or topping up the oil ? Already you are wondering which mental institution was foolish enough to release me. Yet this is almost exactly the kind of treatment that a great many people mete out to their valuable antique clocks.

The pendulum of a longcase clock will make a total of thirty one million, five hundred and thirty six thousand vibrations during the course of a year and over a ten year period will traverse a distance of some twenty thousand miles. I can think of no other domestic machine which is expected to perform in this manner and then be greeted with something akin to shocked surprise if it fails to repeat the exercise for another ten years.

“We got it from the wife’s grandmother about fifteen years ago and it’s always kept perfect time, so you see there can’t be very much wrong with it, can there!”

Given that the offending machine is frequently some two hundred years old it is a testament to the skill and craftsmanship of the maker that the above statement is often true, there is indeed “not much wrong with it”. More often than not, a clock which has stopped in this manner will not contain any parts which have actually broken, or even worn beyond repair. The problem is invariably one of dirt and encrusted oil allied to worn pivots and escape pallets. However, some skilled and knowledgeable remedial action is certainly advisable at this point, and it is not usually within the scope of most owners to attempt this themselves…a can of 3in1 or WD40 will definitely not do the trick, and in the event that either of these substances do restore the clock to what appears to be some semblance of normal activity, it will not be for long, and almost certainly at the expense of a far greater amount of damage to the movement than already exists.

In order to gain a better understanding of the problems that can arise with clockwork mechanisms, let us first take a general look at the way in which all clocks work. The easiest way to do this is to divide the mechanism into six clearly defined divisions which together make up the whole. With few exceptions the following applies to any clock:-

THE FRAME, normally made from brass and consisting of plates separated by pillars, is the structure or basic foundation on which the movement is built.

THE DRIVING FORCE…this is the power unit that provides the necessary energy for the clock to go, and comes either in the form of a weight or a spring.

THE WINDING MECHANISM enables the driving force (weight or spring) to be re-wound at periodic intervals, and also ensures that it can only exert its energy in one direction, ie; the clock cannot run backwards.

THE WHEEL TRAIN comprises a system of gear wheels and pinions and progressively speeds up the rate of rotation of the wheels; the sole purpose of this is to contain the power of the driving force so that it will not be expended too quickly and the clock will thus run for a reasonable period of time.

THE MOTION WORK provides a 12 to 1 reduction gearing which enables the hour hand of the clock to complete one revolution of the dial in a 12 hour period. The minute hand is usually driven directly from the wheel train.

THE ESCAPEMENT. In many ways the most important and usually the most complex part of the movement. It acts on the escape wheel (the fastest and highest geared wheel in the train) and allows the power of the driving force to be distributed in equal and regular intervals, eg; in most longcase clocks the escapement, assisted by the pendulum, allows the power to be released at intervals of exactly one second. Think of this if you like as an audible stop watch, with each ‘tick’ being equal to one second of time.

Taken as a whole, the above is a general recipe for any sort of clock, and contains the minimum ingredients required for a timepiece to function. Consider if you like, each section to be a basic theme on which there are numerous variations, and in particular the escapement, of which the varieties are easily a match for the 57 provided by Heinz ! Whatever complexities are introduced (and there can be many), these six basic ingredients must always be there…they must be well designed, well crafted and assembled to fine tolerances, such that friction is reduced to the absolute minimum.

By now it must be apparent that even the most basic machine, with it’s six essential parts, acting together in complete harmony, is a fine achievement both in terms of design and engineering, allied to the fact that it can suffer years of neglect and still continue to function (albeit only just) must make it one of the all time greats of mechanical engineering.

…Apart from being a pleasure to own, antique clocks are still an undervalued sector of the market, and therefore constitute a good long term investment, but only if properly cared for by a well trained and sympathetic restorer, who knows how to strike the right balance between necessary repair and conservation.

How do you choose a good clock restorer ? The answer is probably more straightforward than you might imagine. Unless you have been personally recommended to somebody by a friend whose judgement you can trust, do not entrust your clock to anyone who is not a member of The British Horological Institute. A restorer you find listed in the phone book with any of the following letter after his name (M.B.H.I. or F.B.H.I.) can be considered competent and reliable. The requirements of membership of the Institute include adherence to a strict code of practise and conduct, and a dissatisfied client can make an official complaint to the Secretary of the Institute, who will follow it up rigorously. Ask your restorer for proof of membership, and also for an estimate of his charges…a genuine member will be happy to comply with both requests. Do think twice before taking your clock to the local high street jeweller unless he can guarantee that the work will be done on his own premises by a qualified craftsman. Worthy though he may be at his own profession, the average jeweller will farm out clocks to the cheapest bidder and then add a very hefty sum to the final bill for himself.

A good clock can be ruined by bad repair work, and at best will leave you with a much bigger bill when it finally gets into the hands of a good restorer…nothing is more time consuming than undoing the damage of a ‘botcher’, especially the ugly blobs of solder that all too frequently appear where they do not belong. I have often seen pivot holes that could easily have been re-bushed, closed up instead with several hefty blows from a ball hammer. This sort of damage is irreversible and can only detract from the value of a good clock.

In conclusion, the aims of a good clock restorer should be as follows:-

1. To return your clock in perfect working order.

2. To preserve the integrity of the item, including evidence where possible of its history and manufacture.

3. To try to use methods which are reversible and materials that can be removed without damage to the item itself.

4. Finally to record all stages of his work.

An article of this length can obviously only scratch the surface of this huge subject, but hopefully the reader will have gained a little understanding of why his antique clock occasionally needs a little bit of loving care.