How does one wind an antique or vintage mechanical clock? The advice and suggestions, if followed, should provide you with the skill and confidence to correctly wind your antique or vintage mechanical clock.
In this age of everything electronic, it may surprise some people that a newly acquired mechanical clock bought at the local garage sale, flea market or antique store needs to be wound on a regular basis. Winding a mechanical clock takes a level of care but a few simple guidelines should have you on your way.
A chime is a musical tone and a typical musical tone found on most clocks with 3 winding points is the Westminster chime
Let’s begin by discussing some terms.
Winding arbours or winding points; one, two or three – what does each one do?
On your clock dial (other than a cable-driven tall case clock) you will see one, two or three holes. These are called “winding arbours” or winding points. Each winding arbour has a function. The number of winding arbours corresponds to the number of gear trains (or sets of gears) on a clock.
For example, if there is one hole it is a time-only clock; 2 holes mean that it is a time and strike clock, that is, it strikes the appropriate hour on the hour and either a bell or strike on the half-hour (there are always exceptions such as this two train Westminster Chime clock or a time-only clock with an alarm arbour). Clocks with three winding arbours chime on the quarter-hour making a musical tone. On a clock with three arbours, the centre arbour winds the time train and the left arbour, the strike side and the right, the chime side.
On some clocks, there is a smaller hole on the clock face near or above the 12 o’clock position. It is also an arbour but a smaller one used for regulating the speed of your clock. If you have a double-ended key the small end fits that arbour. Some clocks will have the regulating arbour located under the centre cannon where the hands are attached.
What is the difference between chime and strike?
A strike is simply a strike. An antique or vintage clock that is “time and strike”, strikes the indicated time on the hour by means of a single strike for each hour or a two-tone strike such as a Normandy strike or “Bim-Bam” strike. There may or may not be a strike on the half-hour.
Usually striking clocks have just two winding points.
Older antique clocks from the mid 1800s, for example, typically do not strike on the half-hour to preserve the wind on the strike side.
On the other hand, a chime is a musical tone and a typical musical tone found on most clocks with three winding points is the Westminster chime. Some clocks provide more choices such as the Schatz W3 bracket clock which has 3 musical tones, St Michael’s, Whittington and Westminster.
Where are the winding points?
On this spring-driven Seth Thomas mantel clock (next photo) the left arbour (arrow) winds the strike side and the right arbour (arrow) winds the time side. The smaller hole just below the centre cannon is for regulating the clock.
On the Ingraham clock (next photo) there is only one set or train of gears that indicate it is a time-only clock, hence the single arbour or winding point. The smaller hole in the loop end of the “2” on the number 12 is for regulating the clock.
If you do not like the sound of a strike or the strike bothers your guests a clock will run just fine if the time side is wound without winding the strike side.
However, to maintain even wear, winding both sides of a striking clock is recommended.
Most clocks are designed to run for eight days. Some older clocks run 30 hours and others run as long as 30 days on a wind. Still others such as anniversary clocks will run 400 days on a wind.
Winding a clock once a week for eight-day clocks ensures that the clock does not stop. A good practice is to wind your clock(s) on a specific day each week. It is also a good practice to make small adjustments to your clock from time to time, for example, you may have to occasionally speed up or slow down the clock as the seasons change. An article I wrote on regulating your clock can be found here.
Often your newly acquired clock will come without a key and if there is one, it is generally a replacement key. It is rare to find a clock with its original key. The key that comes with the clock will likely fit. If your clock has a speed adjustment arbour on the clock face (F-S) usually located on the top part of the dial face, you will have a double-ended key. If your clock came with a one-ended winding key (winding arbour only) when there are is a top speed adjustment arbour, it is not original to the clock. Two ends are required because the speed adjustment arbour is smaller than the winding key arbour.
Key size and type
All mechanical clocks require a winding key such as the one pictured below. The exception is, of course, alarm clocks and some carriage clocks that have integrated winding keys. Keys come in various sizes and it is important to have the correct size key for your clock’s arbour. It must fit snugly and not be too loose. If your clock came without a key it can be purchased at any clock supply house such as Perrin in Canada. Timesavers and Merritts are clock suppliers in the USA where keys can be purchased.
Over-winding a clock is a common myth. A clock which “appears” to be over-wound seizes because of a buildup of old oil and dirt in the mainspring coil
Next, we’ll look at how to wind your clock.
Winding your mechanical clock
If the dial is covered by a glass door, open it to access the face. Insert the key into one of the winding arbours and with your non-dominant hand, steady the case while you wind the clock. I recommend wearing a cotton glove on your non-dominant hand to preserve the finish of the case.
Next, turn the key clockwise. If it will not turn clockwise, turn counterclockwise. Yes, some clocks wind clockwise and some counterclockwise. Do not force the key; wind it with minimal force and wind the arbour until it winds no further. Once you’ve encountered resistance do not force the key any further.
Below is a prime example of a past owner who used excessive force to wind the movement in the wrong direction. The right spring barrel is unhooked from the main wheel and that can only occur when attempting to wind the spring with considerable force, in the opposite direction.
If you lose the key buy a new one! Do not ever use pliers or any hand tools to wind a clock.
The “clicking” sound heard when winding the arbour is the click engaging the ratchet on the mainspring. The purpose of the ratchet is to lock the mainspring in place during each turn of the key.
An 8-day clock usually requires 14 half turns of the key as the arbour does one complete turn per day.
Allow the key to gently rest back onto its click. On those rare occasions when the click might slip or break you must resist the urge to let it go. Allow the key to slowly unwind in your hand, otherwise, damage can potentially occur to the teeth and gears (and your hand!). Letting the key go will result in collateral damage to other parts of the movement.
Over-winding a clock is a common myth. A clock that “appears” to be over-wound seizes because of a buildup of old oil and dirt in the mainspring coil which causes the coil to stick. Servicing a mechanical clock on a regular basis is an important part of ownership and will mitigate future clock problems.
Weight driven clocks
Of course, not all clocks have springs. One example is a grandfather clock. The weights on weight-driven clocks must be raised to the top to begin the weekly time cycle. This is accomplished by either a crank key placed in the winding arbour on the clock face or by pulling chains manually to raise the weights.
For those clocks that have winding chains, slowly pull the chain on the shorter side in a downward direction until the weight reaches the underside of the wooden seat board at the top of a weight stop bar. Do this for the remaining two chains if it is a chiming clock. Let the chains do their work. Do not “help” them by lifting the weights at the same time. Pushing up on the weights will run the risk of the chain jumping the winding gear teeth or unhooking the weight. Wear cotton gloves to steady the weights while they are being pulled up to preserve the brass finish on the weight shells.
For those tall case clocks that have cable drives, wind with a crank key by inserting the key into each winding hole on the clock face and crank slowly till the weights reach the top.
All three weights on a chiming grandfather clock descend together through the week.
Both weights on a time and strike wall or tall case clock descend together through the week.
On older tall case clocks with weights concealed behind an access door, open the door to observe the weights rise as you wind the clock. As the weights rise to the top, slow down the winding and stop when the weights meet resistance.
30-hour time and strike clocks are typically wound with a winding crank inserted in the dial face winding points once per day. Wind the weights to the top of the case at the same time each day.
Enjoy your mechanical clock and remember to wind it regularly, take care of it, service it when required and even if you choose not to run it, enjoy a piece of horological history.