How to wind a mechanical clock

How do you wind a mechanical clock? The advice provided and some suggestions, 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?

Take a look at your clock dial and 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 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.

NOTE: You might also see a smaller hole on the clock face usually located at 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.

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 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 (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 (described above). 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 just fine if the time side is wound without winding the strike 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 a clock movement to wind both sides of a striking clock.

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 from time to time, for example, you may have to occasionally speed it up or slow it down as the seasons change. An article I wrote on regulating your clock can be found here.

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 speed adjustment arbour, it is not original to the clock. Two ends are required because the speed adjustment winding arbor is significantly smaller that the winding key arbour.

Key size and type

All mechanical clocks require a winding key like 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 snuggly 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 other sources.

Here is an article 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

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 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. Do not force the key any further once you’ve encountered resistance.

Below 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. 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 also “chewed up” by pliers.

If you lose the key buy a new one!

Daniel Dakota movement
Daniel Dakota movement

The “clicking” sound heard 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 requires 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 might mean a major repair and damage to parts other than the clock!

A click failed on a Mauthe wall clock and caught me as the spring unwound

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 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 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.

30-hour time and strike clocks are typically wound with a winding crank once per day. Wind the weights to the top of the case at the same time each day.

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


4 thoughts on “How to wind a mechanical clock

  1. I have a Daniel Pratt ogee clock which has been sitting on a basement shelf for about 30 years. Recently I decided to see if it could be put in working order. The gentleman at a local clock repair service did a lot of work for me for a very nominal fee. I put it on our mantel shelf and enjoyed listening to it tick away and chime the hours for a day. But I discovered that something is not right–the second weight does not engage once the first one reaches the bottom of the case. (I think that’s what is supposed to happen, not sure.) I don’t know if I’m supposed to do something manually to make this happen–it’s very possible that the man who fixed it for me said something to that effect, but since I am/was completely ignorant of how the thing works I may have missed it. Can I get a mini tutorial? I am prepared, I think, to take it back to him and pay a bit more if necessary, but if it’s a simple fix I’d rather not bother him.

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    1. Thanks for your question.
      First a couple of assumptions. I assume it is a 30-hour or 1-day clock. You mention the word “chime” so I take it it has not been striking on the hour as it should. If there are two winding points (arbours) on the front of your clock, the left side is the Strike side and the right side is the Time side. So, the weight on the left is for the hourly strike and the one on the right is for the time function. Both arbours must be wound each day so that both weights are wound or brought to the top of the case every day (again, I am assuming it is a 1-day clock).

      If I am missing it completely, let me know. Also, a photo might help. Send the photo to ronjoiner@gmail.com.

      Ron

      Like

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