Restoration work on a 181 year old weight driven banjo clock

There are basically three types of banjo clocks with mechanical movements. Those with lever escapements which are usually in the $75 to $100 range, spring-driven ones that are generally $100 to around $300 and up but weight-driven banjo clocks occupy the upper end of the range and are normally between $300-$500 in fair condition and upwards of thousands for desirable clocks made by Simon Willard or E. Howard.

When my wife discovered this particular clock on Facebook Marketplace for $100 I suggested she make an offer for $75 and the seller immediately accepted. It is always a risk buying or accepting an offer without first examining it but this, I believe, was an excellent prospect and for the price I was willing to take a chance.

The day it was purchased

It is weight-driven federal style cased banjo clock from the 1840s. I have since learned that the clock was very likely made by John Sawin in 1840 (Boston) by himself or one of his apprentices or associates.

Unfortunately, there are no identifying markings on the movement or the case but there are strong indicators that this is a Sawin clock. John Sawin apprenticed under Simon Willard and was a journeyman under Aaron Willard, famous clockmakers of the day and makers of the original patent timepiece.

Everything is intact except for the dial class which was broken at some point in the clock’s life.

The broken glass is convex which prompts an interesting question. Is the glass a replacement and if so, did these clocks originally come with flat glass?

There is a school of thought among most horologists that simple mahogany cased clocks with wood bezels and an absence of ornamentation that were made in this particular style back in the 1840s had flat glass installed. Presentation timepieces, on the other hand, such as those with gilt accents, sidearms, brass dial bezels, a lower bracket/finial and reverse painted glass tablets had curved glass.

Patent Timepiece 1825 by William Cummens with convex glass

My belief is that this clock originally had flat glass.

So, let’s move on with the various case issues beginning with the missing pieces of veneer.

Veneer

The only section that requires veneer work is the left and right bottom corners on the pendulum. Many repairers attempt to hide the missing veneer with touch-up stain but new veneer is the only way to go.

New veneer pieces

Although the case is made of mahogany I selected rosewood from my collection of harvested veneer. It has the same thickness (modern veneer is much thinner). Although mahogany has a slightly different tonal characteristic and grain, the match was very close. Since I used hot hide glue, the veneer can be easily lifted with heat at a later date but for now my goal is to disguise the missing veneer.

While I was working on the veneer sections I cleaned the case and applied a light coat of shellac. I am not opposed to applying a finishing coat to preserve and improve a clock’s appearance. The added benefit is that it enhances the grains on the case.

In my view there is no clear right or wrong answer and it should be left up to the restorer (and owner) to decide how the clock’s finish should be addressed.

Veneer work is finished

The throat is in perfect condition.

The dial bezel has a crack at the 11 o’clock position which was addressed with hot hide glue. I forced glue into the crack, closed the gap with a number of elastic bands tied together and left it for 24 hours to dry.

Cracked bezel as found
The bezel crack is all but invisible

The glass

Removing the old putty was a little more involved than I had planned. A heat gun would have been too much and I did not want to ruin the wood bezel but a 30W soldering iron was perfect for this job. I picked away and removed just enough putty to install the glass. I ordered 6 13/16 inch flat glass and it was a perfect fit. Wet putty is always an option but Plaster of Paris is easier to work with, does an equally fine job and secures the glass in place.

Enough of the putty is chipped away for the glass to fit

Plaster of Paris dries hard in 30 minutes and is stainable/paintable. I applied the plaster with a putty knife and smoothed it out with a wet finger.

Plaster of Paris is easy to work with and dries hard in 30 minutes

After several hours I applied a dark stain to give the plaster an aged look.

The plaster is stained to give it an aged look

The bezel is now ready to be attached to the case.

The finial

The final was in the pendulum box when I bought the clock. It now requires a new post. The peg was broken and a previous owner attempted to secure the finial with glue and, of course, that failed. The finial would originally have been mounted with a piece of dowel.

New finial peg

Using a piece of 3/8 inch doweling I cut off about 1 1/4 inches. I scraped off as much glue as I could from the bottom of the finial and the plinth and drilled out the old doweling on both the finial and the plinth. Once the dowelling was glued in place it was given a mahogany stain. It fits well and looks great.

Other case repairs

Other case repairs involved closing or filling several holes. For these repairs I used yellow carpenter’s glue for maximum adhesion.

A clamp is used to close a gap
Shavings from old veneer are glued into screw holes

Shavings from old veneer are glued into screw holes for the mounting ears and the case hook to ensure that those screws are secure.

View of face
Mounted on the wall

The case repairs are complete and the last step is servicing the movement.


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