Is it too simple to suggest that instruction is needed to wind a mechanical clock? Perhaps!

However, in this age of everything electronic it may surprise some people that a new-to-them mechanical clock they just purchased at the local garage sale or antique store needs to be wound on a regular basis. Winding a mechanical clock takes some care and things can go horribly wrong if it is done incorrectly.

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 look at 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. The number of winding arbors correspond to the number of gear trains (or sets of gears). 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 like this two train Westminster Chime clock). Clocks with three winding arbors chime and strike the hour and chime on the quarter hour. In a clock with three arbours, generally the centre arbour winds the time train.

People often confuse a strike and a chime. A strike is simply a strike. A chime is a musical tone and a typical musical tone found on most clocks with three winding points is the Westminster chime.

On this spring-driven Seth Thomas (photo) the left arbor (arrow) winds the strike side and the right arbor (arrow) winds the time side. On the Ingraham clock (next photo) there is only one set or train of gears for a time-only clock, hence the single arbor.

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

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. For eight day clocks winding it every 7 days prevents it from stopping. It is a good practice to wind your clock on a specific day each week. My typical winding day is Saturday.


Quite often your acquired clock has no key and if there is, it is generally a replacement key. Indeed, it is rare to find a clock with it’s original key. The key that comes with the clock will fit. One clue that the key is not original is the type of key. 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 arbor, 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

Generally speaking clocks require winding keys like this one (photo below). 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.

Ingraham Huron winding key
Ingraham Huron winding key. Yes, it is home-made 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

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. I like to wear cotton gloves when I wind my clocks in order to preserve the finish.

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 arbor 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 in the opposite direction. You can also see that both winding arbors are “chewed up” by what looks like a pair of pliers; a definite no-no. 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 which is why servicing a clock 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.

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

When winding it is important to 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. And yes, if you let it go it potentially means a major repair!

Of course, not all clocks have springs. The weights on weight-driven clocks must be raised to the top. This is accomplished by either a crank placed in the winding arbor on the clock face or pulling chains to raise the weights. Slowly pull down on the chains until the weights reach the underside of the wooden board at the top of a weight stop bar. Again, I wear cotton gloves to steady the weights while they are being pulled up.

There you have it. Enjoy your mechanical clock and remember to wind it regularly.

There is nothing like the melodious rhythm of an antique clock in a quiet room.