How to wind a mechanical clock

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 or antique store needs to be wound on a regular basis. Winding a mechanical clock takes some care but a few simple guidelines should have you on your way.

Junghans Corner feet finished
Junghans Sydney C.1911

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 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.

Double-ended Key

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 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.

Winding arbors on a Seth Thomas mantel clock (arrows)
Winding arbours on an antique Seth Thomas mantel clock (arrows)
Winding arbor on an Ingraham Nordic banjo clock
Winding arbour on an Ingraham Nordic banjo 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, for the even wear of a clock movement, winding both sides of a striking clock is recommended.

Running time

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.

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 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.

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 arbours and with your non-dominant hand, steady the case while you wind the clock. I recommend wearing cotton gloves 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 use pliers or any hand tools to wind a clock.

Daniel Dakota movement
Daniel Dakota movement

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.

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. 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 pulling chains manually 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 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. Wear cotton gloves to steady the weights while they are being pulled up to preserve the brass finish on the weight shells.

For those clocks that wind with a crank key, insert 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.

Final thoughts

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.


7 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

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  2. Have you ever considered writing an ebook or guest authoring on other blogs? I have a blog based upon on the same subjects you discuss and would love to have you share some stories/information. I know my visitors would enjoy your work. If you are even remotely interested, feel free to shoot me an e-mail.

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