Thursday, 15 September 2005

Clock this - making grandfather run true for centuries

by Christopher Proudlove©
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Brass dial

It's been a challenging few weeks. Regular readers will recall that instead of a balmy two weeks in sunny Florida, we ended up coping with the aftermath of Hurricane Dennis and our hearts go out to those who have suffered loss in area's newest disaster that was Hurricane Katrina.

Arriving home, we were surprised but delighted to see the Sold sign plastered across the For Sale board outside our house. After a gloomy few months wondering whether we'd ever find a buyer, the race was on to exchange contracts and complete in 15 days.

In the event, the move was surprisingly trouble free and we're thrilled with our new abode. The challenge now is to find homes for all the junk we collected during the 17 years at the previous address. It ain't easy.

Fortunately, our two longcase clocks fitted in straight away and both are ticking and chiming away merrily.

Ironically, one of them has not done so in all the time we lived at the other place. Don't ask me why, it was just never put back together when we moved there in 1985, so hearing it run again was highly cathartic.

The clock is very special to us. Aside from the fact that it dates from about 1690 (which means it has only a single finger and runs for just 30 hours) it was one of the first real antiques we ever acquired, paid for with a personal loan financed by the Business Manager's first wage.

Now it's back in one piece, I really can't understand why I never had it running at the old house.

The setup was a simple process, despite the fact that the removal men had prized the seat board - that's the small plank on which the movement sits - from its mountings, which in effect are the the sides of the clock.

If they had asked, I could have told them the movement was secured to the seat board by two vertical pins and simply lifted off it with absolutely no effort.

Fortunately, the old clout nails which held the seat board in place were still present and it was easy enough to refasten the seat board and replace the movement on its pins.

The hardest part of the setup was ensuring that the clock was "in beat", that is making sure that its tick equalled its tock, if you see what I mean.

Any clock - bracket, wall or longcase - has to be in beat to run successfully, in many cases to run at all. If you've ever listened to a metronome, you'll know that the pauses between the respective beats of the machine are absolutely equal.

Setting a wall clock in beat is a relatively straightforward process. Simply by swinging the case by small amounts either right or left using its hook as a pivot causes the pendulum to shift out of vertical. Listened carefully and you'll hear the difference the moves make.

The only time this is a problem is when it's necessary to swing the clock so far out of vertical to put it in beat that it is obviously hung crooked.

Circular, schoolroom-style clocks are much easier to accommodate, but long wall clocks such as a Vienna regulator, can look ridiculous if they don't hang straight.

The solution here is that physically bend the clock movement's crutch. This is the small vertical bar which protrudes from the rear of the movement through which the pendulum runs.

The same is necessary in the case of bracket (mantle) and longcase clocks, but it's not a job for the fainthearted.

The crutch is made from a softer metal allowing it to be bent readily to move the pendulum out of vertical so that you don't have too move the actual clock.

It's a delicate operation, though, and requires a certain amount of trial and error. Bend it too much, or too far, or too vigorously, of course, and the crutch can break. Disaster.

The bottom line was that after a couple of small alterations, our old clock was ticking, tocking and chiming perfectly.

Over the next few days, I shall be attempting to check that is running accurately - although this won't be easy, or crucial, given that it has only a single finger and is therefore accurate to only the nearest 15 minutes. (Remember: move the pendulum up to make the clock gain, move it down to make it lose).

All this said, having set the thing up and sat for a while listening to its soothing tick-tock, I started to worry.

Consider this, if you parked your car in the garage and left it for 17 years, how safe would it be to simply start it up and drive away?

I know enough about mechanical things to realise that the first journey should be to the nearest service bay to have the thing overhauled and given at least an oil change. To do otherwise could cause untold damage.

I realise antique clocks don't have things like onboard computers and catalytic converters, but they are mechanical. What's more, some of them are highly complex and unlike cars, they are an appreciating asset, so it's worth looking after them.

So I put the question to Michael Turner, head of clocks and barometers at Sotheby's. I was reassured.

Centuries of grime and old oil

Certainly, Mr Turner recommended giving the clock a full overhaul, but at a likely cost of £400 that will have to wait, after all we have just moved house.

It seems like a lot of money but the charge would cover a complete strip down of the clock movement. All the build-up of centuries old grime and old oil would be removed, the clock reassembled, tested and returned to your home where it would be set up to run satisfactorily and should not need further attention for the next 10 years or more.

This seems pretty reasonable when compared to the cost of a full service on a family motor.

But what about running a clock that has stood idle for 17 years? Should I get the oil can out and have a go myself?

Michael Turner said it was a little like recommending someone try to set up a clock in beat by bending the crutch arm. It was something an educated amateur could undertake, so long as it was done carefully, using the right oil applied sparingly.

The specialist clock restorer, of course, uses special clock oil. Refined domestic machine oil such as Three in One would do the job adequately, but the can of WD 40 should be left in the glove compartment. It sets and will gum up the works, stopping it completely. Leave for vegetable oil in the kitchen, for the same reason.

Applied in tiny droplets from the end of a piece of wire, the only places that need oil - and it's just a touch, not more - are at either end of the anchor where it engages and disengages with the escape wheel; the brass square at the top of the pendulum rod where it slides in the fork of the crutch and the ends of the arbors or spindles where they rotate in the small holes in the back and front plate of the movement (see diagram).

Do not oil the small toothed wheels, called pinions, which transmit the driving force to the next wheel in the movement. This causes dust to adhere to them forming a sticky mess which will clog the wheels.

Here are a few more tricks and tips should you be moving home or you simply need to relocate your longcase clock to another part of the house: never move the clock with all its various parts in position. Working in this order, remove the hood; wind of the clock almost fully and then unhook the weights (use a felt tipped pen to mark them discreetly left and right); remove the pendulum and then the movement.

If the clock is moving some distance, it is wise to protect the pendulum by fastening it to a strip of wood of a similar length.

Special care should be taken with the fine spring "feather" of the top of the pendulum rod which can be further protected by sliding a cardboard tube over it. The centre of a toilet roll is perfect for the job.

Reassembly is the reverse of the above. When finally assembled and going smoothly, the case should be fastened to the wall to prevent it toppling over with tragic consequences.

I look forward to celebrating the 400th anniversary of our longcase clock in 2090. It should still be going strong.

Pictures show, top: An early 18th century longcase clock movement alone worth £600-800. With its seconds subsidiary dial just below 12 o'clock and the date aperture just above 6 o'clock, setting the thing up to be accurate is not for the faint-hearted

Below, left to right, Oil here - sparingly (click to enlarge).

This good Edwardian longcase clock sold last month for £9,000. Tackle setting up in a new home at your peril. Its brass dial shows phases of the moon and has a subsidiary seconds dial and two dials to regulate the movement. The clock strikes and chimes on five gongs and eight bells with no way of silencing them!A good mid 18th century walnut longcase clock worth £4,000-4,500.

A good George III mahogany longcase clock by John Wilkins who is recorded as working in Islington, London, in 1773. It's worth £4,000-5,000

A good George III mahogany longcase clock by John Wilkins who is recorded as working in Islington, London, in 1773. It's worth £4,000-5,000

A late 18th century London clock by Walter Barry. Note the strike/silent dial in the arch which, as it sounds, stops the clock from chiming and keeping everyone awake. An alternative in lesser clocks is to muffle the point at which the striker strikes the bell with an Elastoplast! The clock is worth £1,200-2000.

Labelled drawingLot 370Lot 124Lot 121Lot 117

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