How do you wind a mechanical clock? This article offers advice and suggestions and if followed should give you 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 or antique store needs to be wound on a regular basis. Winding a mechanical clock takes some care but a few simple instructions 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

First let’s discuss some terms.

Winding arbors or winding points; one, two or three, what does each one do?

Look at your clock dial and you will see one, two or three holes. These are otherwise called “winding arbours”. Each winding arbour has a function. The number of winding arbours correspond to the number of gear trains (or sets of gears) on a clock.

If there is one hole it is a time-only clock; if there are 2 holes it means 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, generally the centre arbour winds the time train and the left, the strike side and the right, the chime side.

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. Older antique clocks, for example, typically do not strike on the half hour. 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 my 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 (next photo) the left arbor (arrow) winds the strike side and the right arbor (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 arbor or winding point. The smaller hole in the loop end of the “2” on the number 12 is for regulating the clock.

Winding arbors on a Seth Thomas mantel clock (arrows)
Winding arbors on an antique Seth Thomas mantel clock (arrows)
Winding arbor on an Ingraham Nordic banjo clock
Winding arbor on an Ingraham Nordic banjo clock

A clock will run fine if you only wind the time side assuming that you do not like the sound of a strike or the strike bothers your guests. However, it is always optimum for the general wear of the clock movement to wind both sides.

Running time

Most clocks are deigned to run eight days. Some older clocks run 30 hours and others run as long as 30 days on a wind. Winding a clock once a week for eight day clocks prevents the clock from stopping. It is always a good practice to wind your clock(s) on a specific day each week. It is also a good practice to make small adjustments to to your clock, for example, you may have to occasionally speed it up or slow it down. Here is an article I wrote on regulating your clock.

Keys

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 it’s original key. The key that comes with the clock will likely fit. If your clock has a speed adjustment arbor 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 arbor only) when there are is a top adjustment arbour, it is not original to the clock. Two ends are required because the speed adjustment winding arbor is smaller that the winding key arbour.

Key size and type

All clocks require winding keys like this one (photo below). The exception, of course, is alarm clocks and some carriage clocks. Keys come in various sizes and it is important to have the correct size key for your clock’s arbour. 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 other sources. Here is an article I wrote on key sizes.

Ingraham Huron winding key
Ingraham Huron winding key. Home-made but functional and over 120 years old

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

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 arbors and with your non-dominant hand, steady the case while you wind the clock. Wear cotton gloves in order 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. In any event do not force the key; wind it with minimal force and wind the arbour until it winds no further.

Here is a prime example of a past owner who used excessive force to wind the movement and in the case of the right spring barrel – the wrong direction. As you can see 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. Both winding arbors are “chewed up” by a pair of pliers.

If you lose the key buy a new one!

Daniel Dakota movement
Daniel Dakota movement

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 which causes the coil to stick. Servicing a mechanical clock on a regular basis is an important part of ownership.

The “clicking” sound you hear when winding the arbor 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 means 14 half turns of the key.

Mainspring rachet and click
Mainspring ratchet and click. The ratchet locks the spring in place during each wind of the key.

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 if the spring unwinds freely. If you let the key go it potentially means a major repair!

Weight driven clocks

Of course, not all clocks have springs. An example if 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 pulling chains to raise the weights. 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. Let the chains do their work. Do not “help” them by lifting the weights at the same time. If you help them you run the risk of the chain jumping the gear teeth. Wear cotton gloves to steady the weights while they are being pulled up to preserve the brass finish on the weight shells.

There you have it. Enjoy your mechanical clock and remember to wind it regularly, take care of it, service it when needed and enjoy a piece of horological history.