How to oil your mechanical clock

During the summer of 2016 my wife and I were traveling through the Muskoka area of the province of Ontario and stopped at a quaint village called Halliburton where we happened upon the only antique shop in town. There were a large number of clocks in the store that the proprietor has brought over from Ireland. Though there were plenty to choose from we settled on a Smiths Enfield Art Deco style oak mantel clock pictured above.

Smiths Enfield
Smiths Enfield time and strike

It was sold as-is and non-working. When explaining the lower price the clerk informed us that it was missing the pendulum bob. I got it home and found the bob wrapped with the key in brown paper and stuffed inside the clock. I attached the pendulum bob to the rod to start the clock and after a moment or two of fiddling, found the beat and the clock ran.

At my summer place I do not have the necessary tools to service clocks but decided to take the movement out to oil it.

Once out of the case I discovered that someone had oiled the movement by spraying it with an unknown lubricant. Spraying a clock with any lubricant is a bad practice. Indiscriminate oiling attracts dust and grime that will accelerate wear and eventually lead to stoppage.

There was no sense in operating the clock so I decided to put it aside until I got home where I could disassemble, clean and properly service the movement.

Oiling your clock

Lubrication is essential to the good running of any clock movement. Oiling a movement without first dissembling and cleaning it is normally a bad practice. The addition of new lubricant to old will mix with the dirt and grime to form a paste which acts as an abrasive that will hasten pivot and pivot hole wear. The purpose of lubrication is to minimize wear and the correct application of oil is key. The only exception is this. If the oil sinks are dry, oiling the movement without dissembling is acceptable.

Less is more

Apply only as much oil as required, a tiny drop goes a long way. Clock oil should occupy about one half the capacity of the oil reservoir. Use an approved clock oil and a pin type oiler to apply the oil.

Clock pivot oil
Clock pivot oil

Key points

Lubricant: clock oil has the correct viscosity and has a low tendency to evaporate, spread or react adversely to various metals. Pivot oil is for pivots and spring oil is for springs; there is a difference! Clock suppliers such as Timesavers or Perrin will shave the correct oil for your clock. Do not uses household lubricants and especially WD 40 which is not a lubricant but a water dispersing agent. Synthetic oil is preferred since it retains its properties for a longer period but I work with mineral oil which is cheaper and just as effective.

When to oil: Some say that one should apply oil only after disassembling and cleaning. Others say that a clock’s service cycle might be an average of 5 years or more and oiling every two or three years without a thorough cleaning is acceptable. If there is a visible build-up of black, contaminated oily sludge in the pivot holes, a disassembly and thorough cleaning is necessary prior to oiling. A clock’s the environment will play a significant role since dusty, smoky environments contribute to accelerated wear. A sealed case will also keep out dust and lengthen the cycles between oiling.

How much oil: After oiling there should be a visible presence of oil in the oil sinks around the pivot holes. Oil running down the plates is to be avoided and is a indication that too much oil has been applied. I use a clock oiler with dispenser. Oil cup reservoirs are also very helpful as they prevent any foreign material from getting into the oil bottle when dipping with a pin type applicator. Long case clocks with larger pivot holes will require more oil than a small carriage clock.

clock oiler with dispenser

What to oil: While looking at a clock plate (front or back) work from the top to the bottom. First and foremost are the pivot holes in the plate, then the points of contact between the pendulum and the crutch, escapement pallets faces and centre and motion works arbours. I generally do not apply lubricant to the mainsprings unless I have unwound them. Once out of the clock and assessed as to their condition and cleaned, I apply Keystone mainspring oil prior to re-installation. Do not oil the gear teeth.

Mainspring winder

This short primer on oiling your clock is not meant to be a definitive guide but will give you enough information to get you started if you have just found that mechanical clock you have always wanted.

For more information on clock lubrication I suggest the forum site at the National Association of Watch and Clock Collectors where you can find many expert opinions.

A properly oiled clock combined with regular servicing will give you many years of reliable service.

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