Basic care – Clocks and watches
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The small, delicate mechanisms in watches can go wrong very easily and can be very difficult to mend. We do not recommend treatment strategies for such items because they require very specialized tools and equipment and skilled expertise.
Store watches in a safe place that is dry, has a steady temperature, and is free of dust. Avoid vibration, and handle with care. Wrap the items in acid-free paper and keep them in a strong, stable box made of metal or a plastic such as styrene.
For more information visit National Association of Watch and Clock Collectors.
Clocks are made to tick. If they do not tell the time, many people feel that they are not fulfilling their function. Modern clocks are easy enough to keep in working condition. As well, there is a large industry for clock repair and servicing. Old clocks, on the other hand, are not as easy to repair. For rare or historic clocks, it is sometimes questionable whether this should be done, or can be done without compromise. It may be that your clock will never tick again. It just depends on how complete and how deteriorated it may be.
Before considering any repair work aimed at making an old clock function, a full mechanical assessment should be done. Whether the clock can or should be made to work will depend upon the following factors:
- all the working parts must be in good condition (every tooth of every gear wheel, the axles and bearings, springs and any other working part);
- all working parts must be present;
- gear wheels must show minimal wear on their teeth, and all teeth should be present;
- each gear must engage on the adjacent gear with very little "play" or backlash;
- axles must move smoothly in their bearings, with almost no lateral movement;
- springs must be in good condition, with no evidence of cracking or loss of temper;
- weights must be of the right mass and securely suspended;
- chains, cables or strings for the weights must be in good condition, with no fraying, loose parts or other deterioration;
- the clock mechanism should be securely attached to the case, and not wobble or move in any way when pressure is applied;
- the clock should be securely positioned, either on the floor (for long case clocks) or on a shelf or bracket;
- for long case clocks, it is advisable to attach the hood or the upper part of the case to the wall;
- the whole mechanism should be clean and free of dust and dirt; and
- the whole mechanism must be lubricated with the correct lubricant in the correct quantities.
If all these requirements can be satisfied, it is possible to make the clock tick again. If there is any doubt about the completeness or the condition of the clock, it will be necessary to have the clock professionally evaluated and assessed. Such an evaluation should only be done by a clockmaker acquainted with historic objects.
Light dust on dry metal and wood parts can be removed with a soft paintbrush used in conjunction with a vacuum cleaner. Cover the nozzle of the vacuum cleaner with a piece of screening to prevent small loose pieces from being sucked up.
Old clock mechanisms are very often coated with sticky dirt created by the combination of oil and household dust. If too much oil has been applied, or if the wrong kind of lubricant has been used, this dirt build-up can be resistant and difficult to move. In an otherwise sound and stable clock mechanism, it might be the only thing preventing the clock from working. Dirt residue can be softened and removed with mineral spirits. Avoid using cotton batting or cloth because loose threads that are almost invisible can wrap themselves around axles and bearings, inducing friction and providing sites for future dirt build-up. Apply mineral spirits with a small artist's paintbrush and wipe off with a lens tissue. Use a toothpick or sharply pointed wood skewer to dislodge any resistant material. Axles and other pieces of circular cross-section can be cleaned by wrapping them with a length of thin, tough string soaked in mineral spirits. This is worked backwards and forwards, without applying too much pressure, until the dirt is removed.
Some proprietary clock-cleaning solutions also contain acids. Inexperienced users can cause damage to the parts.
Wooden clock mechanisms should be cleaned with extreme care, using only the dry brushing method referred to above. Take great care around the working parts. Wood is fragile even when new. Over long use, the parts can become badly worn, cracked and distorted. It is rarely possible to make an old wooden mechanism work effectively, and much damage can result from trying.
Do not disassemble a clock unless you have previous experience, you have the correct tools and workspace and are absolutely sure of what you are doing. Document every step for future reference.
Lubrication of metal parts must follow cleaning as soon as possible. Once dirt and old oil deposits are removed, the metal is very vulnerable to corrosion. Also, because the bearing surfaces are dry and subject to friction, the clock mechanism should never be operated until it is oiled.
Only light machine oil specifically formulated for clocks should be used. Jeweled bearings, where a hard mineral such as ruby is inserted into a socket on which the pointed end of the axle rotates, do not need lubrication.
One small drop of oil should be placed on each metal-to-metal bearing, where the axle meets the supporting plate. The oil can be applied as a drop on the tip of a needle, or a specially made oiler can be bought from a clockmaker. Do not use excess oil and wipe away any surplus with a tissue. Similarly, place one small drop of oil where each gear contacts another. It is not necessary to spread the oil to each tooth on each gear; this will result in an excess of oil, thus re-attracting dust. Once the clock is set in motion, sufficient oil will be distributed to all working surfaces.
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