Restoring an 1850s Scottish tall clock case – Part I

This is my first experience with a tall case clock from the 1850s and my first venture into English bell strike movement servicing.

Let me explain. Although the case was made in Scotland, the movement, dial and weights are all from Birmingham, England made at or before 1850. The clock was in fair condition when I bought it from an estate auction early in 2020, though I knew almost immediately that structural repairs and cosmetic fixes were necessary.

In this Part I, I will address case age cracks, a cracked backboard and attaching the backboard to the waist.

In Part II, I will continue with new door pins, replacing a missing right rear foot, cleaning the case, overall finishing & attending to various trim pieces.

Although modern adhesives were used for the main structural repairs, some trim pieces were attached using traditional hot hide glue

The first question is how to address present structural issues. Should I utilize materials and techniques that would have been available at the time or select a modern method that would ensure that the part(s) will continue to provide strength, rigidity and service for many years to come? I used both approaches and my apologies to the purists.

As found, standing in a corner of the auction hall

First of all, how does one transport the clock home without incurring further damage?

Preparation is essential when transporting a tall case clock. The weights and pendulum must be removed and separated from the case during transport. The removable bonnet, which slides off from the front, allows for access to the movement and is separated from the case. The dial, seat board and movement are essentially one piece and are lifted from the seat board rails. Curiously,  common nails secured the seat board to the rails. Normally the movement assembly simply rests on the seat-board rails and the combined total of 23 lbs of weights/pendulum/dial keep it from moving.

The movement was removed and placed in a cardboard box.

The bonnet backboard attaches to the case and my plan was to transport it in place but it promptly fell off when my wife and I moved the case. I discovered later that it was attached by nails and tacks; not secured well at all. While it is common for the entire backboard to be one solid piece of wood extending from the floor to the top, occasionally backboards are in two sections such as this one.

Is an authentic, period-correct repair even possible in this case such as this?

Issues during the repair/restoration of the case

  1. Age cracks
  2. Cracked backboard
  3. Attaching the backboard to the waist
  4. Installing new door pins
  5. Missing right rear foot
  6. Cleaning the case, overall finishing & trim pieces

This blog article will focus on the first 3 issues.

Hot hide glue would have been used originally but in the end, I opted for a modern adhesive for structural repairs and hot hide glue for minor mends. Yellow carpenter’s glue is ideal for maximum bonding strength and is readily available. Where possible, I used 100+-year-old wood pieces from old clock cases that I had salvaged over the years.

Age cracks

Age cracks are very common in old clocks. There was age cracking in 3 locations;

  1. The inner bonnet arch,
  2. A section at the top part of the waist and
  3. The bonnet backboard.

Age cracks – the Arch

The arch was cracked in two places as shown by the arrows. I had no intention of filling the cracked sections or even bringing them together since they are hidden from view when the bonnet door is attached. This is an aesthetic issue rather than a structural one.

The crack on the left side on the bonnet is protruding because it was detached from the corner block. It was glued and clamped. Otherwise, I left the cracks as-is.

Age cracks on the arch
The bonnet door conceals the cracks on the inner arch

Age cracks – the waist

A 1/16 inch horizontal crack in the middle section just below the bonnet is also a matter of aesthetics. It was filled with stain and it is now barely visible.

Waist showing age crack
Waist showing age crack about one inch below the bonnet moulding and backboard age crack

The last significant age crack is the bonnet backboard.

Age cracks – bonnet backboard

A crosspiece was tacked horizontally to secure the two sections divided by the crack and it looked like a sturdy repair. I have no idea when this repair was made but it appears that no attempt was made then to close the crack. The gap is almost 3/8 of an inch wide.

Bringing the backboard together would have caused a problem. Reducing the width would have resulted in a large gap on one of the sides which would be difficult to close without filling that gap with something or making modifications to the bonnet.

The backboard showing a horizontal piece that is an old repair. The vertical piece was added to stiffen the board

I added a 4″ top piece and longer vertical section to the existing cross piece to hide the gap and stiffen the board prior to attaching it to the waist section of the case. Scrap wood retrieved from a 100+-year-old ogee case was used for this repair. The strips were glued and screwed to the backboard. A very solid repair.

Attaching the backboard to the waist

The bonnet backboard is meant to be permanently affixed to the waist section of the case. As mentioned, the backboard was held together by common nails & tacks on both sides, a very flimsy repair. I was not surprised that it fell apart when I attempted to move the case. The tacks and nails that were pulled out are shown below. Forged iron nails, not common nails, would have been used at the time the case was built.

All the nails and tacks pulled from the section that attaches the backboard to the waist

The next photo shows repairs made prior to re-attaching the backboard. In order to close the gaps in the seat board supports pushed apart by nails and tacks over the years, I brought those sections together and glued then clamped for 24 hours.

Next, I fashioned new corner blocks to secure the backboard. The corner blocks are made from old softwood and were cut small enough for a discrete repair but large enough to provide the strength necessary to secure the top piece of the backboard to the rails.

Corner block to support the backboard, exposed sides are stained
The backboard is attached, it is a lighter colour than the section below because it has been cleaned of dirt and grime
Left arrow shows holes and cracks from prior nails and tacks repairs; arrows on the right show two new slotted screws which secure the new corner block to the backboard
Two screws are used to secure the side frame to the corner block; the dents and holes around the screws are the results of old repairs

The blocks were first glued and then clamped in place. Pilot holes were drilled into the wood and 3/4 inch slotted wood screws were used to attach the side to the corner blocks and 1 1/4 inch wood screws to attach the backboard to the block; 4 screws total on the back and two on each side to secure the blocks to the rails. This is a much more secure repair than simply nailing the upper backboard to the rails.

In Part II, 4 days’ time, I will continue with:

  • Installing new door pins
  • Replacing a missing right rear foot
  • Cleaning the case, overall finishing & trim pieces.

So far the repairs have gone well and I am anxious to move on to the next 3 items on the list.


6 thoughts on “Restoring an 1850s Scottish tall clock case – Part I

  1. Wow, I’ve never seen a backboard installed horizontally, or in two pieces on a longcase before. This is such a dumb construction design. This was almost built to fail right from the beginning. Not much else you can do other than fix it as best as you can. The entire top board almost looks like a later replacement. The only way I can see how this would have worked a bit more efficiently, and probably how I would have chosen to “repair” this, was to have the vertical grained portion start much lower on the trunk. At least 6-8″ down from the upper trunk moulding. At that point you have at least a short section of solid case to attach to.

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    1. Yes, the great majority of these tall-case clocks had a one piece backboard. Why the maker considered this approach is a mystery. A two-piece backboard is certainly not better.

      I see your point JC. Actually my repair was quite strong but if I had to do it over again, and in this case what is done is done, I would consider your approach. It is all good learning for me.
      Ron

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  2. Ron, it’s so easy to recognize the passion in what you are doing with these great items! (I must say, I’m so pleased that my stamps don’t have such age cracks…) 😁 Regards! Catalin

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