Maintaining your mechanical clock – it’s simpler than you think

Maintaining your antique clock – a discussion

Ingraham 30 hour cottage clock

How do I know if my antique mechanical clock is keeping good time? While it may be important today, years ago people had a different concept of time. Back in the 18th and 19th centuries common folk had little need to know the time of day precisely. There were no cars, TVs, or the Internet. There was little demand for careful timekeeping and clocks, whether they be spring driven or weight-driven, that were accurate to within a few minutes a week were considered excellent timekeepers. Astronomical clocks were certainly available to scientists and better regulators were made for commercial purposes (the railroads for example) but for the common man, the emphasis was on cost rather than absolute accuracy, and to-the-second time was neither sought nor desired.

The weight-driven ogee was a very popular clock for the home

The common mechanical clock for the home was a wonderful invention and by the mid-1800s, with a clock in every home people could regulate their lives whether it be sending the children off to school, attending church, or working in the fields.

In those days if the family clock stopped and usually there was only one in the home, the priority was to have it serviced often by backyard tinkerers. For those who could afford it, reputable repairpersons were available and professional repairs were provided.

Clockmaker's shop
Clock-maker’s shop from about 1900

Today professional repair shops are disappearing at an alarming rate and with it, knowledge is lost forever. There is no going back. Mechanical clocks are still with us and require periodic maintenance, after all, they are machines, and machines are not meant to last forever though they can last an incredibly long time if cared for properly.

That a mechanical clock can last a long time is partly because of clever engineering, robust construction, and periodic maintenance. Indeed, I have clocks in my collection that are over 150 years old that still work daily and not because of sheer luck. They are properly maintained.

180-year-old weight-driven banjo clock from Boston

Any clock repairperson will tell you that friction is a clock’s worst enemy. Worn clock parts that lack oil or dried up and dirty oil cause friction that can interfere with the running of a clock. Mitigating friction is the key a clock’s long life.

Trundle wear
Trundle wear on a lantern pinion

Several things happen to clocks as they run year after year. Oil contaminated with dirt and dust build-up, the oil turns black and parts moving with one another generate wear, gradually at first and accelerates as grime builds. In time wheels that are unable to properly mesh with one another cause a clock to stop. In some cases, weakened or tried mainsprings become set, lose their ability to completely unwind, cannot maintain their rated cycle (One-day, 8 days), and must be replaced. Wear is reversible in most cases but occasionally replacement parts are the only option.

When to oil and when to service

There is no absolute timetable with respect to periodic maintenance and servicing. there are many opinions among clock repairers but a cycle of between one to five years is considered reasonable. If a periodic inspection reveals that the clock is clean and the pivots well-oiled the period between servicing can be extended, assuming that the clock is running well, to begin with.

Clock pivot oil
Clock pivot oil

Routine maintenance should always include careful inspection and if necessary, disassembly of the movement, cleaning, addressing wear issues, reassembly, oiling, and testing. Even the simple task of reoiling a clock movement involves taking it out of its case in order to access all the oiling points.

When a clock stops

When a clock acts up it is sending out a clear message. When a clock is acting up one might be tempted to add more oil or spray the movement with either a lubricating oil or WD-40 (which is actually a water dispersant rather than oil). Doing so will actually turn the clock into a dust magnet and the combination will turn the oil or other questionable lubricant into a grinding paste around the pivots and exacerbate wear.

Those new to antique clocks will go to great lengths to avoid taking a clock movement apart but experienced clock repairers know that proper cleaning can only be done when a movement is taken completely apart. There are no shortcuts. Dunking a movement into a solution, drying it, and calling it clean is no substitute for complete disassembly. Dipping a movement into an ultrasonic cleaner also does not equate to a clean movement. Other than sending the clock to a shop which entails a fee for servicing one should either learn this task or establish a relationship with someone who knows how.

Ultrasonic cleaner by L&R
Ultrasonic cleaner by L&R

If one is mechanically inclined and comfortable working with small parts, learning to repair clocks can be a joyful and rewarding experience. Simple tools can be easily acquired and once the basics are mastered specialized tools can assist with more complex repairs.

Needless to say, one does not become an expert overnight.

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