Frequently Asked Questions

Alarm Clock

What does it mean when a clock is overwound?

That is an interesting question. Often, one sees clocks advertised on Ebay and elsewhere as "not running, probably overwound." The fact is, there is no way to overwind a clock. Specifically, if a clock is wound fully, eventually the winding key will no longer turn. At this point, the spring is tight and capable of delivering the most power to the clock. This will not cause the clock to stop.

When the condition of a clock is described as "overwound," there is always another underlying cause for why the clock will not run. The clock ends up fully wound because winding is the first thing we try when a clock has stopped. It is difficult to determine the cause without inspecting the movement.

My alarm clock winds but not very tight. The clock only seems to run for about a half day. What can be done?

When a clock winds but the spring does not become significantly tighter, the cause is usually a broken mainspring. Most often the mainspring will break near the inside of its coil. If this happens, no power can be delivered to the movement. However, if the spring has broken on the outside of its coil, it will sometimes partially wind, then "slip." If it is wound to just before this slip occurs, there may be enough power available from the spring to run the clock for a short time. In either case, the spring will need to be replaced or (in rare cases) repaired.

How often should I have my alarm clock collection oiled?

We recommend that an alarm clock be inspected and reoiled every 2-3 years, especially if the clock is wound on a regular basis.

Can I oil an alarm clock with WD-40 or sewing machine oil to get it to run again?

One of the worst enemies of clock movements is WD-40. While it is an awesome lubricant meant to be used for general household uses (like door latches, hinges, rusted bolts and power tools), it is NOT suitable for clock repair. Clocks oiled with WD-40 may run for a short time, but will soon gum up again-and this time for the worst. WD-40 is a natural enemy to clocks. It gums up the fine movements, runs out onto dials and stains them, and contaminates clock-cleaning solutions when it inevitably becomes necessary to properly clean the movement. Please avoid this material, even as a temporary fix.

Sewing machine oils are generally highly viscous in nature, and won't stay put on the small pivots found in clock movements. Although they don't do anywhere near the damage that WD-40 does, they will also tend to run out and stain dials. There are some very good clock oils available on the market today and, when applied to a properly repaired and adjusted movement, will provide excellent protection from wear-and tend to stay where put. Also remember that proper oiling of a movement often involves more than one type of clock oil or grease. There are also some moving parts within a clock that are not oiled. The trick is knowing which are which.

When should a clock movement be cleaned?

When new, the moving parts, friction areas, pivots and bearings within the clock are oiled to minimize metal-to-metal resistance (called friction) that is ever present in any machine. Over time, these metal parts rub or roll against each other and, even in the presence of fresh oil, rub off small metal particles. These tiny particles are held in suspension by the oil and are generally not a cause of great concern. However, with time, dust and dirt from the outside get into these friction areas and cause the oil to dry out. Also, over time, oils tend to thicken. All of these factors combined result in a pasty abrasive gunk where there was once oil. This gunk often acts as a grinding medium and causes the movement to wear out. If left alone without oil, most clocks will wear themselves out. If you're lucky, the oil will dry to the point where it stops the clock before more serious damage is done.

How long this takes depends on the oil, the environment, and of course, the design of the clock. A clock oiled every 2-3 years has an infinitely better chance of lasting than a clock that is never cared for, oiled with the wrong lubricant, or even over-oiled. Over-oiling attracts more dirt and drags oil out of critical areas leaving friction areas dry of oil. Over-oiling also stains dials, ruins paint, and leaks out on you.

Even clocks that are meticulously oiled on a regular interval cannot escape an eventual cleaning. It's very difficult to say how long the interval between cleanings should be. It largely depends on the quality of the previous cleaning and repairing, how well the clock has been cared for, and its degree of use and wear. These factors are best evaluated with a movement inspection by Ken's Clock Clinic.

My clock is running slow (or fast). How can I adjust the speed?

On the back of an alarm clock, you will see a crescent-shaped opening. Just inside the opening there is a lever that can be moved to different positions within the opening. In one direction, moving the lever will shorten the effective length of the hairspring and speed the clock up. The other direction will slow the clock by increasing the effective length of the hairspring. To make your clock run faster, move the lever to F (or +, or "Faster"). To make it run slower, move the lever to S (or -, or "Slower"). Move the lever in small amounts at a time, and move it slowly. A movement of the lever by only 1/8" should make your clock run 5 minutes faster or slower. Some clocks do not have the crescent -shaped opening, but have a "screw head" adjustment. Some of the later Big and Baby Bens have this adjustment, for example. The same rules apply with this type of adjustment. Turn the screw in the direction of the "F" to make your clock run faster, etc.

I've tried adjusting the speed. No matter what I do, my clock runs 2 minutes fast (or slow). What's wrong?

In many alarm clock repair manuals, manufacturers point out that alarm clocks are not precision timepieces. Their accuracy will vary as the spring winds down. There are exceptions, but you can wear yourself out trying to improve the timekeeping with most alarm clocks. Remember, a peg leg Big Ben from 1915 only cost $2.50 (about $40 in today's dollars) when it was new. In 1915, you could also spend $300.00 ($5,000 in today's dollars!) or more to purchase a jeweler's regulator that would be accurate to better than seconds per day. The difference in the design and manufacture between these two timepieces was like the difference between a high-school play and a Broadway musical. Yet both are a great source of entertainment.

What does "luminous dial" mean on an old alarm clock?

With respect to vintage clocks, "Luminous dial" refers to hands, numbers, dots, etc. that are painted with a material that continues to glow after the ambient light in the room is turned off. It does NOT refer to an electric backlight behind the dial, as we see in newer electric clocks. These are usually referred to as "Lighted dials."

A little known fact is that the old luminous paint was mildly radioactive--actually, a form of radioactive cobalt and/or radium, mixed with phosphorescent paint. Everyone is familiar with the concept of phosphorescents, as they are used to coat the inside of TV picture tubes. When electrons strike the material, it glows. It is similar with luminous paint. Of course, it has been a long time since radium was used in luminous clock dials. The newer material is an acrylic material consisting of a long-persistence phosphorescent material, sensitive to photons (light).

In the old days workers who would use their mouths to point up the brushes to paint luminous material on aviation indicators and clocks ended up with tongue, throat, and lip cancer. We are not aware of any recorded health hazard with these dials installed on the clock in normal use. Remember, however, that the half life on the old radium paint is in the many hundreds of years. It is advisable to avoid scraping it off the hands and touching it. The phosphorescent material dies off, but the radium remains alive and well for a long time. Please read on.

How can I repair the luminous paint on the hands of my old alarm clock?

One point of view holds that it's possible to do this job yourself. However, for best results, the hands must be carefully removed and the old luminous material stripped. There are problems with this. First, safely removing the old hands will require special hand pullers. We have seen hands that were removed by untrained personnel with pliers or screwdrivers. It's a shame to see these clocks because the hands are often permanently damaged and the dials badly marred.

The other problem is that many vintage clocks used a radium-based luminous paint, which must be disposed of carefully. It must not be scraped off on the kitchen table and left laying around!! This material is at least mildly radioactive, with a half-life into the many hundreds of years. The fact that it doesn't glow anymore simply means that the phosphor-based additive is "dead." However, the radium is still alive and well.

We recommend you send the clock to us. We have the equipment and processes to safely and properly repair the luminous hands.

The plating on my Big Ben has worn to where I can see a brassy color. How can the shiny silver color be restored? Can I buy something to do this myself?

Actually, the shiny "brassy" color you are seeing is actually a copper plating that is underneath the nickel plating, which is what gives the Big Ben its silvery color. Over the years, from repeated polishings, wear and tear, the nickel is eventually worn off, revealing this copper plating underneath. We describe this in detail in our Clock Case Restoration Tutorial found by clicking here (.pdf - 332K Adobe Acrobat required).

To be honest, I wish there were a simple way to replace this lost nickel. There are brush plating kits available from Caswell Plating (www.caswellplating.com). You will have to be very careful with handling the supplied chemicals, and will have to buy some very strong acids to "pickle" the surface before doing the work. These chemicals are hazardous if used by an untrained individual. Brush plating will sometimes yield ok results; sometimes the results aren't very good. It depends on the degree of wear, the condition of the remaining nickel, and, of course, whether or not the surface is corroded or rusted.

The real trick with replating, however, lies in the surface preparation. To properly restore an antique clock case, the old plating must be removed. The substrate must be very carefully cleaned and then rebuilt. Layers upon layers of copper must be applied, then buffed, and finally, the nickel plating done. The equipment and chemicals that are needed to accomplish this are out of the reach of most clock restorers. We offer this service for a fraction of what it would cost you to buy the materials and do it yourself.

My metal-cased clock has a dent in the top, apparently it took a pretty nasty fall at one point. Can this be repaired?

In many cases, minor dents can be repaired in a metal clock case, to almost as-new condition. This is done with a variety of tools, punches, and dies, much like doing autobody work in the miniature. In the hands of our trained curators, damage can often be repaired and the clock case replated or repainted, depending upon the original finish.

How involved is it to restore an old alarm clock?

At Ken's Clock Clinic, we have never run across a clock movement that we could not restore. This is simply because over the years we have built up the equipment, supplies, training and experience to fundamentally re-create most movements from raw materials if warranted. This is important! Fourty years ago when we first endeavored into clock repair, many mechanical clocks we encountered (which later went on to become collectors' items) would often do well with cleaning, minor bushing repair, and oiling. Today it is a much different scale of problem than it was 40 years ago.

One out of three clocks we see require parts replacement because of excessive wear the years have brought. Unfortunately, the variety of clocks manufactured and obsolescence of most clocks today make it very difficult to procure replacement parts. So we often resort to professionally manufacturing our own replacements. There is also a level of custom engineering required in this effort, especially if the part happens to be missing. This can be quite time consuming and expensive. We always search first through our extensive old clock movement stock to find a replacement or substitute. Unfortunately in too many situations the "replacements" we find are just as worn or deteriorated from use as the original! So, we end up making parts.

Often we find it necessary to spend time reversing the "repairs" of previous well-intentioned clock repairers. Soldered parts, butchered plates, marred and chewed up arbors and pivots must be addressed, or worse wear, damage and corrosion can result from leaving them alone. This is not meant as a criticism of other clock restorers. Years ago, alarm clocks that we now consider collectors' items were often the "training tools" for apprentice clock repairers! We do see examples of well-done repairs with the attention to detail and high standards of craftsmanship that these fine timepieces deserve. Another reality is that poor practices are increasing in frequency as more and more craftsmen retire or otherwise leave the business.

When part replacement is not necessary, it is nonetheless almost always necessary to do disassembly, cleaning, bushing, and pivot repair. Ebay items that are marked as "just need cleaning" are misleading. A proper cleaning is an involved process. Please don't believe claims that you can swoosh a movement around in a cleaning solution or ultrasonic cleaner, blow it off and oil it. This is a great way to destroy a movement because moisture and contamination will be trapped deep in the microminiature bearings and friction points, where they can do great harm over time.

The standard prices we quote can only cover the general case. Until we see the clock, it's quite difficult to quote exactly.

Are there any books that will help me identify and date some alarm clocks in my collection?

I would highly recommend the Tran Duy Ly series of books on antique clocks. Tran Duy Ly has written books for collectors of Ingraham, Sessions, Waterbury, New Haven, etc. There are always sections on vintage alarm clocks. The information is very useful from the standpoint of the collector and the repairman. Often movements are listed complete with parts lists and pictorials. They are great for identification.

Another very good book for the collector is 20th Century Modern Clocks by Mark V. Stein.

Be aware that for alarm clocks, the current values listed in these books may be misleading, and are periodically not current. When current, prices are often average, and in no way represent the value to a collector for a particular style, year of manufacture, or condition. We have seen clocks sold at prices from 1/10 to 10x the values listed in these guides. It all depends on what you are looking for.

I want to get into clock collecting and perhaps at some point repair. Can you recommend some good books and organizations to help me get started?

Yes. There are several very good books. Here is a short list:

  • Clock Repair Skills by Steven Conover
  • Practical Clock Repair by Donald DeCarle
  • Handbook of Watch and Clock Repairs by H. G. Harris
  • Clock Repairing as a Hobby by Harold C. Kelly
  • Clock Cleaning and Repairing by Bernard E. Jones

We also recommend you subscribe to Clockmakers Newsletter. Steven Conover is the editor. You will find him to be pragmatic and very much an authority on clock movement repair as well as clockmaking. He is also a prolific writer and has published many books on clock repair, which you would find very interesting. You can get more info (and even subscribe on line) at www.clockmakersnewsletter.com

Of course the organization of choice is the National Association of Watch and Clock Collectors (NAWCC). The membership rates are very reasonable and it gives you access to regular Marts in your area where you can get great deals on old clocks for your collection. You can get all the information you need at their impressive website at www.nawcc.org.

Mantle & Wall Clock

What does it mean when a clock is overwound?

That is an interesting question. Often, one sees clocks advertised on Ebay and elsewhere as "not running, probably overwound." The fact is, there is no way to overwind a clock. Specifically, if a clock is wound fully, eventually the winding key will no longer turn. At this point, the spring is tight and capable of delivering the most power to the clock. This will not cause the clock to stop.

When the condition of a clock is described as "overwound," there is always another underlying cause for why the clock will not run. The clock ends up fully wound because winding is the first thing we try when a clock has stopped. It is difficult to determine the cause without inspecting the movement.

My mantle clock winds but not very tight. The clock only seems to run for a day or so. What can be done?

When a clock winds but the spring does not become significantly tighter, the cause is usually a broken mainspring. Most often the mainspring will break near the inside of its coil. If this happens, no power can be delivered to the movement. However, if the spring has broken on the outside of its coil, it will sometimes partially wind, then "slip." This especially occurs if a mantle clock has springs which are contained in "barrels." If it is wound to just before this slip occurs, there may be enough power available from the spring to run the clock for a short time. In either case, the spring will need to be replaced or (in rare cases) repaired.

How often should I have my clock collection oiled?

We recommend that a mantle clock be inspected and reoiled every 2-3 years, especially if the clock is wound on a regular basis. It may need more frequent winding if the mantle clock is kept in a dusty environment. One of the most overlooked conditions is on top of a fireplace mantle when the fire is frequently lit. The "soot" and combustion products (including a tar-like substance) from the fire will tend to foul a mantle clock rather quickly. The elevated temperature will dry out even the best lubricants.

When should a clock movement be cleaned?

When new, the moving parts, friction areas, pivots and bearings within the clock are oiled to minimize metal-to-metal resistance (called friction) that is ever present in any machine. Over time, these metal parts rub or roll against each other and, even in the presence of fresh oil, rub off small metal particles. These tiny particles are held in suspension by the oil and are generally not a cause of great concern. However, with time, dust and dirt from the outside get into these friction areas and cause the oil to dry out. Also, over time, oils tend to thicken. All of these factors combined result in a pasty abrasive gunk where there was once oil. This gunk often acts as a grinding medium and causes the movement to wear out. If left alone without oil, most clocks will wear themselves out. If you're lucky, the oil will dry to the point where it stops the clock before more serious damage is done.

How long this takes depends on the oil, the environment, and of course, the design of the clock. A clock oiled every 2-3 years has an infinitely better chance of lasting than a clock that is never cared for, oiled with the wrong lubricant, or even over-oiled. Over-oiling attracts more dirt and drags oil out of critical areas leaving friction areas dry of oil. Over-oiling also stains dials and case parts, ruins paint, and leaks out on you.

Even clocks that are meticulously oiled on a regular interval cannot escape an eventual cleaning. It's very difficult to say how long the interval between cleanings should be. It largely depends on the quality of the previous cleaning and repairing, how well the clock has been cared for, and its degree of use and wear.

My clock is running slow (or fast). How can I adjust the speed?

Most common mantle clocks are pendulum clocks. Imagine a weight swinging at the end of a string. If you lengthen the string, the rate at which the weight swings back and forth decreases. Now imagine shortening this string. You can imagine that the rate at which this weight swings back in forth will now increase. Thus it is with regulating pendulum mantle clocks. To slow the timekeeping, the effective pendulum length is increased.

Different methods are used to regulate mantle clocks. The most common is the adjustable pendulum bob. There is a "rating nut" located on the adjustable pendulum bob. Imagine viewing the bob from underneath. In this position, turning the nut clockwise will speed up the clock, because you are decreasing the effective length of the pendulum. Turning it counterclockwise will slow it down as this lengthens the pendulum.

Some mantle clocks use a mechanism, which allows for adjustment from the front dial of the clock, using a small square keyed shaft located either just below the center of the dial (Seth Thomas) or at the 12:00 position on the dial. Although the designs vary, usually clockwise will increase the speed and counterclockwise will slow the clock. On Seth Thomas mantles with the adjustment hole below the hands, it is the reverse of the above. Normally the dial is marked to indicate the proper direction.

I've tried adjusting the speed. No matter what I do, my clock runs 2 minutes fast (or slow). What's wrong?

Many early American mantle (and even wall) clocks used what is called a strip pallet escapement as the timekeeping device. There were two variations of this escapement manufactured. The most common was the "recoil" escapement. The more precise timekeeper was the "half dead beat" escapement. The difference is rather simple. With a "recoil" escapement, the beat of the pendulum depends strongly on the force from the mainspring (how tight it is wound). Thus, as the spring winds down, the clock slows because there is less force driving the pendulum back and forth. With a half dead beat escapement, the arc of the pendulum is less dependent on how tight the spring is. Thus, the timekeeping is more constant from fully wound to unwound. Some of the finest regulators were built with dead beat escapements. The low-cost strip pallet half dead beat designs were a close approximation to the precision dead beat escapements used in the most expensive regulators. You can achieve fairly stable timekeeping over a full 8-day run on these inexpensive clocks, perhaps 1-2 minutes per week with great care and attention.

There is an unfortunate fact associated with some of the "recoil" designs used in early American mantles, especially the most common Sessions mantle and black clocks of the early 1900's. These have a hideous tendency to slow as the clock mainspring runs down. This is a well-documented phenomenon. Many experts have spent hours in geometric analysis of this escapement trying to find ways to modify it to improve the timekeeping. Unfortunately, it cannot be done. The best you can do is regulate the clock so that, after a winding, it initially runs a few minutes fast over the course of a few days. Then, as it winds down, it slows and "cancels out" this gain so that over a full week's run, the timekeeping averages out to near even. But you'll drive yourself crazy trying to regulate these elusive old clocks to keep accurate time through their full 8-day run. At best, you'll be able to achieve 3-4 minutes accuracy over the course of the week.

In any case, don't count on stable timekeeping over the course of change in seasons. As the average temperature in the home varies, these clocks will change rate. This is due to the low-cost materials used in manufacture, which will expand and contract as temperature changes, resulting in the effective pendulum length increasing or decreasing, thus resulting in changes in rate.

My mantle clock is striking the wrong number of times. How do I fix this?

There are two types of strike mechanisms used in mantle clocks. One is the rack and snail type. This type of mechanism automatically resets itself to the right number of strikes for the appropriate hour. The second type is the "count wheel" design, which was exceedingly popular with early American mantles (Ansonia, Sessions, Gilbert, Waterbury, Seth Thomas, etc.). This very popular type of strike mechanism gained its popularity due to its simplicity in manufacture, but was a customer nightmare because, if the strike mechanism unwound before the time mechanism, you would find the strike sequence out of sync with the hour. This is a common ailment. Don't despair. It is very simple to adjust.

Several early American mantle and Kitchen clocks used a "wire" which would hang below the dial. The clock was fully wound before the adjustment process was begun. The customer would lift this wire to cause the clock to strike in sequence until it struck the right number of beats for the hour. Many mantle clocks do not have such a wire. The solution is simple. Move the minute hand until it is set to three minutes before the hour. This should not start the clock striking. Then move the minute hand back to 15 minutes before the hour. At this point the strike mechanism would begin to strike. Simply repeat this in sequence until the clock strikes one strike less than the hour you are approaching. Then, move the minute hand all the way up to 12 until the clock strikes the hour, and proceed to set the time thereafter, stopping at each half hour and hour to wait for the clock to complete its strike sequence.

Other than what is specified above, NEVER TURN THE HANDS OF A MANTLE CLOCK BACKWARDS! While some movements are designed to tolerate this abuse, most are not and serious damage could result!

How does a "Cathedral gong" differ from a chime rod or bell?

The sound of these three gong styles are uniquely different. A Cathedral Gong is usually a coiled, flat wire struck by the hammer that is driven by the clock movement. It projects a dull, deep, resonant "gong" sound. It is probably the most common American mantle clock sound. The second most common is the chime rod. There are various "bim-bam" chime rod strike mantle clocks with the characteristic "ding-dong" sound, middle tone, metallic sound. The most distinguished is the bell strike. The best example is the increasingly uncommon Seth Thomas "Sonora Chime." These clocks have the most unusual, melodic sound, as they strike bells that are tuned with an internal resonant chamber to yield a beautiful tone. There are 4, 5, and 8-bell Sonoras in circulation with beautiful sounds. Also, the more common Cathedral gong style early American mantle will quite often strike a bell on the half hour.

How involved is it to restore an old mantle clock?

At Ken's Clock Clinic, we have never run across a clock movement that we could not restore. This is simply because over the years we have built up the equipment, supplies, training and experience to fundamentally re-create most movements from raw materials if warranted. This is important! Fourty years ago when we first endeavored into clock repair, many mechanical clocks we encountered (which later went on to become collectors' items) would often do well with cleaning, minor bushing repair, and oiling. Today it is a much different scale of problem than it was 40 years ago.

One out of three clocks we see require parts replacement because of excessive wear the years have brought. Unfortunately, the variety of clocks manufactured and obsolescence of most clocks today make it very difficult to procure replacement parts. So we often resort to professionally manufacturing our own replacements. There is also a level of custom engineering required in this effort, especially if the part happens to be missing. This can be quite time consuming and expensive. We always search first through our extensive old clock movement stock to find a replacement or substitute. Unfortunately in too many situations the "replacements" we find are just as worn or deteriorated from use as the original! So, we end up making parts.

Often we find it necessary to spend time reversing the "repairs" of previous well-intentioned clock repairers. Soldered parts, butchered plates, marred and chewed up arbors and pivots must be addressed, or worse wear, damage and corrosion can result from leaving them alone over time. This is not meant as a criticism of other clock restorers. Often the repairer has done the best job possible with the resources and tools at hand. Another reality is that poor practices are increasing in frequency as more and more craftsmen retire or otherwise leave the business. A well-intentioned hobbyist may have "learned the trade" practicing on your newly acquired antique. The repair bill to reverse these earlier repairs will often be higher than if the clock had not been previously "repaired."

When part replacement is not necessary, it is nonetheless almost always necessary to do disassembly, cleaning, bushing, and pivot repair. Ebay items that are marked as "just need cleaning" are misleading. A proper cleaning is an involved process. Please don't believe claims that you can swoosh a movement around in a cleaning solution or ultrasonic cleaner, blow it off and oil it. This is a great way to destroy a movement because moisture and contamination will be trapped deep in the microminiature bearings and friction points, where they can do great harm over time.

The standard prices we quote can only cover the general case. Until we see the clock, it's quite difficult to quote exactly. When case restorations and replating are necessary, the job becomes more costly and time consuming. We have received clocks from customers as a box of broken and missing parts. We are sometimes able to restore these "projects" like new, but quite a bit depends on the condition of what's left. We have fabricated missing wooden case parts and replaced finials. We can replace and repair missing veneer. We will quote the best possible price given the work that has to be done. We will only return a clock to you after it has been returned to a condition that you would be proud to own.

Significant restorations involving case, movement, and dial repairs can be quite time consuming. Some may take up to 4 months to complete. Movement-only restorations can often be done in less than 4 weeks.

Are there any books that will help me identify and date some mantle clocks in my collection?

I would highly recommend the Tran Duy Ly series of books on antique clocks. Tran Duy Ly has written books for collectors of Ingraham, Sessions, Waterbury, New Haven, etc. Tran Duy Ly's books thoroughly chronicle old mantle clocks. The information is very useful from the standpoint of the collector and the repairman. Often movements are listed complete with parts lists and pictorials. They are great for identification.

Another very good book for the collector of small table clocks is 20th Century Modern Clocks by Mark V. Stein.

Be aware that the current values listed in these books may be misleading, and are periodically not current. When current, prices are often average, and in no way represent the value to a collector for a particular style, year of manufacture, or condition. We have seen clocks sold at prices from 1/10 to 10x the values listed in these guides. It all depends on what you are looking for.

I want to get into clock collecting and perhaps at some point repair. Can you recommend some good books and organizations to help me get started?

Yes. There are several very good books. Here is a short list:

  • Clock Repair Skills by Steven Conover
  • Chime Clock Repair by Steven Conover
  • Practical Clock Repair by Donald DeCarle
  • Handbook of Watch and Clock Repairs by H. G. Harris
  • Clock Repairing as a Hobby by Harold C. Kelly
  • Clock Cleaning and Repairing by Bernard E. Jones

We also recommend you subscribe to Clockmakers Newsletter. Steven Conover is the editor. You will find him to be pragmatic and very much an authority on clock movement repair as well as clockmaking. He is also a prolific writer and has published many books on clock repair, which you would find very interesting. Every week there are repair tips for mantle clocks. You can get more info (and even subscribe on line) at www.clockmakersnewsletter.com

Of course the organization of choice is the National Association of Watch and Clock Collectors (NAWCC). The membership rates are very reasonable and it gives you access to regular Marts in your area where you can get great deals on old clocks for your collection. You can get all the information you need at their impressive website at www.nawcc.org.

Cuckoo Clock

Cuckoo Clock FAQ

Stop back soon as we are adding more content to this area.

Electric Clock

What is a Vintage electric clock? How long have they been around?

It is not clear if there is an absolute definition of Vintage Electric clock. For purposes of this discussion, let's exclude early battery-operated self-winding models. These were fascinating and wonderful clocks, but a very broad topic suitable for a separate, future FAQ. For now, let's focus on those electric clocks that required use of a public utility power source and plugged into electric outlets.

Before electric clocks could be practical, electricity needed to be available to the general public. In the late 1800's only the rich could afford electricity. At the time, it was a rather unreliable service, primarily available as DC (DC refers to direct current. All electricity today is AC or alternating current). The use of AC current made possible the common synchronous motors used in electric clocks. This technology was not commercially viable until the 1920's when a substantial number of people had access to electricity in their homes.

Even after electricity was available, it took some time to develop the possibility of an electric clock. Probably the most notable pioneer of the electric clock was Henry E. Warren, who, in 1917, began experimenting with electric motors that could be used to run clocks. In addition, however, Warren needed to work with the newly founded electric utility companies to solve problems associated with precisely regulating the power line frequency before his inventions could become commercially practical. It wasn't until 10 years later that it all came together!

It would be fair to say that in general, the oldest commercially available electric clocks would be those manufactured in the late 1920's. Telechron, Sessions, Seth Thomas, New Haven, General Electric, Herschede, Hammond, and even Ingraham are examples of companies that manufactured electrics from the earliest era through post-WWII time. There were many others.

How does an electric clock work?

Inside an electric clock, there are four main components: a coil, a stator, a rotor, and the motion works. The coil connects to the power source. This device converts the incoming AC current into a magnetic field that switches polarity (alternates) 60 times per second, because the power line current changes polarity (alternates) 60 times per second (50 times per second in some countries). The number of times the current alternates per second is commonly referred to as the Frequency, or "Cycles per second," often abbreviated as CYCLES or CYC on the back or underside of the clock.

Think about how an electrically created alternating magnetic field works. If you wind a few feet of thin wire around a large nail, and connect each end of the wire to opposite ends of a flashlight battery, you will have an electromagnet. If you now connect these wires the other way around to the battery, the magnetic field will reverse. If you were able to do this 60 times per second, you would have an alternating magnetic field, similar to what is created inside of an electric clock.

This alternating magnetic field is captured by the stator assembly, which couples it to the rotating armature. The stator is a kind of frame that passes through the coil and surrounds the rotating armature with the alternating magnetic field from the coil. The action of this alternating magnetic field on the armature causes it to rotate, and "lock in" to the frequency of the alternating magnetic field. This rotating armature turns the motion works-a series of intertwined gears-that ultimately turns the hands and keeps time in synchronization with the power line frequency (Cycles per second). Effectively, these components form a "synchronous motor." These motors are not very efficient (they waste more energy than they need to turn a pair of clock hands), but they are fairly precise.

The AC current supplied to our homes is very precisely controlled for this frequency (Cycles per second). It is extremely precise, and has been that way since the 1920's when Henry Warren established a means to control it. For the time, electric clocks were potentially the most accurate clocks commercially available, as long as power remained uninterrupted!

Today, electric clocks have been largely displaced by the more popular battery-operated quartz clocks, which require no line cord and run for a year on a battery. However, these have a down side as well. They require that the battery be changed once per year. If you forget, you lose track of the time of day.

If I have a choice between buying an electric antique table clock and a windup, which should I choose?

That's a tough call. If you are interested in vintage clocks, and if winding a clock is not your thing, then electrics are the way to go. But beware. Many old vintage electrics often have dried out power cords and coils. Unfortunately, these can be safety hazards! In the earliest days of electric clock manufacture, UL and other safety certification agencies didn't exist as such. So there was a great degree of variation in construction standards for electric clocks. Over the years, the insulators and internal components become brittle, possibly exposing hazardous conductors within. Short circuits to the case become safety hazards. Short circuits in the cord can be extremely dangerous and result in sparks, burns or fires.

This is not to say you should avoid vintage electric clocks. They are wonderful treasures. Today, with the relatively high reliability of our electric power, they are also fairly reliable timepieces. The important point is that if you are going to put a vintage electric clock back into regular service, be sure to have it inspected and repaired. We have the training to properly service electric clocks and inspect them for line cord frays, loose wires, etc.

At a glance, the variety of vintage electric clocks with attractive wood cases is intriguing. However, it is probably accurate to say that the number in circulation is substantially less than the number of mechanical clocks remaining in circulation. By contrast, most vintage mechanical clocks have metal cases. There are however exceptions to both. So the aesthetics and style you desire might influence your decision.

Most critical replacement parts for the earliest vintage models are no longer available. If you find one in good condition, or if you can find a clock restoration expert with parts to repair your vintage electric clock, then you are extremely fortunate. Coils and phenolic resin wheels, the most common failure components, are no longer available for most electrics. So, if you obtain a non-working electric, you may have a great clock but there is a larger probability that it will remain in non-working order. By contrast, many mechanical clocks can be serviced successfully by a restorer with the tools to manufacture mechanical parts, or a large enough stock of old movements around from which to substitute damaged or missing parts.

We cannot emphasize it enough. You should have your vintage electric clock inspected and repaired by a responsible repair person or restoration service before putting it in service. This is even more important if the clock case is metallic! You should expect that the power cord will probably need to be replaced. Otherwise, dangerous sparks may literally fly when you plug it in. Please be careful.

The cord on my electric clock seems to be made out of cloth. Is it safe to use?

Let's just say that it's a bit risky. However, if the cord is in pristine condition, the cloth tightly wound on the full length of cord and not unraveling or worn, and no metallic conductors are exposed, then it may be safe, but that is no guarantee. We strongly recommend that you have it carefully inspected (both inside and outside the clock) by us before use.

My electric clock does not start up when I plug it in. What's wrong?

One of the most common failure items in vintage electric clocks is the coil. Over years of service at elevated temperatures (these coils get warm), the insulation on the thin enameled wire used to wind these old coils tends to dry out and eventually short circuit. When this happens, the coil is dead and needs to be replaced. This could be the problem. One way to tell is to gently and carefully put the clock up to your ear. If you hear a quiet buzzing sound, the coil is probably ok. If you don't, it probably requires replacement.

The same applies to clocks with one-piece motors. These have coils as well, but they are wound inside of a small motor. These electrics are even more difficult to repair because the coil cannot be separated from the motor easily.

A second type of failure is the phenolic resin wheel. This nonmetallic material was preferred for the wheel driven directly by the motor to insure quiet and smooth operation of the mechanism. A metal wheel might buzz or make a grinding sound, especially with some wear. Phenolic resin wheels are more difficult to repair than metallic wheels, more likely to be damaged, and can be quite difficult to replace.

Another common cause of problems with electrics is mechanical failures caused by sludge and dirt. Because mechanical clocks operate inside of an environment where there is heat and strong electric fields, it is a difficult place for oils to coexist. The oils tend to get thick, and when combined with dust attracted by the electric field, turn into a sludge that can stop the movement.

It may be that nothing is wrong. First, make sure that power is available at the outlet in question. This is easy to do by plugging a small lamp into the same outlet. Does it turn on? Wall switches control some outlets in bedrooms. Perhaps you happened to plug your clock into such an outlet, with the switch turned off.

Another consideration is the type of clock. Is yours a self-starting model, or does it require starting? Manual-start vintage clocks are generally those produced in the late 1920's to mid 1930's. They are characterized as having a knob or lever to twirl or push in order to get the motor started. Unfortunately, if the power is interrupted, the clock will need to be restarted again. These models were not considered reliable and met with untimely ends in production not too many years later.

I know you are going to think this is a weird question, but I have an old electric clock that runs backwards. Why? What can be done about this?

This is not a weird question. Many of the manual-start vintage clocks can be started in reverse, and will continue to run backwards! Some have mechanisms to prevent this, but some don't.

To "repair" this problem, simply grasp the starting knob and twirl it in the direction of the arrow. Alternatively you can have the dial fitted with numbers going in the opposite direction!

I just picked up an antique electric clock on Ebay and it unfortunately keeps terrible time-it runs too fast! How can I adjust it?

It could be that the clock is rated for use on a power line frequency different than that used in your country. This rating should be stamped on a metal decal or plate on the rear or underside of the clock. It will appear after either "CYC" or "CYCLES." Always ask about this before purchasing a clock. If the clock is rated for 50 Cycles per second, it will run too fast in the United States or anywhere with a line frequency of 60 Cycles per second. The reverse is also true. In Most European countries the line frequency is 50 Cycles per second. A line operated electric clock manufactured for use in the United States will run too slow in Europe. It's pretty easy to tell. The clock will be off by several hours in a 24-hour period.

Always be aware of the Volts rating of the clock as well, especially those marked for 50 CYC operation. It could be that they were intended to be operated in Europe, where the required Volts rating is 210-250V, unlike the 105-125V rating for use in the US. A clock designed to run on 210-250V will not run on 105-125V. On the other hand, a clock designed to run on 105-125V will be damaged if operated on 210-250V line!

Other causes of poor timekeeping might be a sludged up motion works, broken teeth on the phenolic resin wheel, or a fouled motor. Any of these can cause the clock to run slow, but it is unlikely that these would cause the clock to run fast.

What is involved in restoring an electric clock? What do you do in the repair process?

Electric clock repair has its unique challenges. We have seen movements that were worn so badly that it was difficult to tell where the wheels were originally located! Much of the bushing work we do on electrics is done with custom bronze bushings as a means of extending the life of the clock, especially on the high wear pivots. Sealed motors have become more difficult to purchase. They can sometimes be opened up, repaired, and then resealed.

Coils must sometimes be replaced. We have a small stock of unique replacements obtained from old clocks. There are even services available that will rewind coils and motors, but at a premium price. In extreme cases, it may be necessary for us to "hunt down" a similar clock or clock part through the periodicals, marts, and other professional contacts. This could take months to do and depend largely on chance. However, we've never had an electric clock we couldn't ultimately repair, one way or another.

Case restoration is another matter. We can re-plate the nickel missing or rusted off bezels and trim. We can re-enamel metal clock cases. We can restore the wood cabinets. If the condition of the clock warrants it, these improvements can result in a stunningly beautiful clock preserved for generations to come.

What does it cost to restore an electric clock?

It depends on what is wrong with the clock. It can range from simply replacing an electric cord to a complete movement overhaul. If the coil is good and wear minor, a movement overhaul can be done for around our standard movement overhaul price. If a coil or other parts are required, it will depend on availability of the parts vs. the need to make them from raw materials. Typical range is from $80-$150, but can be more if case restoration or other special services are required. Oiling and simple cord replacements are much less.

How often should my electric clock be oiled? Can I do this job?

Electric clocks should be oiled and inspected about every 2 years. They will run much, much longer than this, often to destruction if the oil is not kept fresh and prevented from drying out. Internally generated heat and dust attracted from outside the case will contribute to creation of sludge within the clock that can be a source of premature wear and other damage.

A special electric clock oil is manufactured for this use. Alternatively, synthetic clock oil is used. These oils are designed to tolerate the elevated temperatures found in electric clocks much better than conventional clock oils. Otherwise, the same issues exist for oiling electrics as for oiling mechanical alarm clocks.

You can oil an electric clock yourself if you know where to oil, where not to oil (this is very important), and the proper amount to use. If you make a mistake, you could end up with a ruined dial instead of a beautiful vintage dial, a motor that fails early (due to oil impregnation into the coil), a stained case, or in extreme situations, a safety hazard. We recommend you send your clock to us for proper oiling. The charge is quite modest and we'll do the job right, while inspecting the clock for other problems that might prevent costly repairs later on.

Are there any books that will help me identify and date some electric clocks in my collection?

I would highly recommend the Tran Duy Ly series of books on antique clocks. Tran Duy Ly has written books for collectors of Ingraham, Sessions, Waterbury, New Haven, etc. There are often mentions of electric clocks. The information is very useful from the standpoint of the collector and the repairman. Often movements are listed complete with parts lists and pictorials. They are great for identification.

Another excellent source book for the collector of small table clocks and electrics is 20th Century Modern Clocks by Mark V. Stein.

Be aware that the current values listed in these books may be misleading, and are periodically not current. When current, prices are often average, and in no way represent the value to a collector for a particular style, year of manufacture, or condition. We have seen clocks sold at prices from 1/10 to 10x the values listed in these guides. It all depends on what you are looking for.

I want to get into clock collecting and perhaps at some point repair. Can you recommend some good books and organizations to help me get started?

Yes. There are several very good books. Here is a short list:

  • Clock Repair Skills by Steven Conover
  • Chime Clock Repair by Steven Conover
  • Practical Clock Repair by Donald DeCarle
  • Handbook of Watch and Clock Repairs by H. G. Harris
  • Clock Repairing as a Hobby by Harold C. Kelly
  • Clock Cleaning and Repairing by Bernard E. Jones

We also recommend you subscribe to Clockmakers Newsletter. Steven Conover is the editor. You will find him to be pragmatic and very much an authority on clock movement repair as well as clockmaking. He is also a prolific writer and has published many books on clock repair, which you would find very interesting. There is a monthly advertising service if you are looking for a unique kind of clock or clock part. You can get more info (and even subscribe on line) at www.clockmakersnewsletter.com

One other place to find more information on Telectron electric clocks is www.billsclockworks.com. Bill has one of the most incredible clock history documentaries I have ever seen. You'll be impressed. He also does a very thorough history of Westclox alarms, if you are interested. As another source if you want to purchase Westclox alarm clocks, check out my partner Alarmclockdoc at www.alarmclockdoc.com and you will find our other collection of interesting alarms.

Of course the organization of choice is the National Association of Watch and Clock Collectors (NAWCC). The membership rates are very reasonable and it gives you access to regular Marts in your area where you can get great deals on old clocks of all kinds-even electrics--for your collection. You can get all the information you need at their impressive website at www.nawcc.org.

Self Winding Clocks

This site is strongly dedicated to the interests of self winding clocks. Thus, you will find a wealth of information in the Library section of the site. We strive to add and update these sections regularly.

However, it seems that there are certain questions and issues that never seem to find their way into the Library, despite our best efforts. This section is dedicated to these questions.

Recently, my Self Winding Clock Co. F style movement which you restored has started to hesitate when it winds. It starts, then stops. Then it starts and winds normally. I have changed the batteries but it persists. What should I do?

This is very common with SWCC movements. Sometimes they will develop this behavior and then it will disappear and re-appear later. Believe it or not, it is not something to worry about. The SWCC Style F hourly contact system consists of a cam driven by the center wheel which, as it advances, pushes two contacts together. When the motor starts to wind, the motor vibrates the movement and with it the cam. The cam that lifts the contact is "disturbed" by this vibration and sometimes backs up slightly. The contacts disengage but then the cam advances again as the movement runs and the contacts re-engage. Because the cam continues to drive the contacts together as the movement advances, it's unavoidable that it will ultimately wind properly. Again, many movements do this at some point and it really doesn't have any effect on the clock's performance. That said, if the clock has never been cleaned, or has been oiled some time in the past and excess oil found its way onto the contacts, it would be a good idea to address this. We offer a kit, the OK-1, with special oil, contact cleaning material, and detailed color instructions for this purpose. We had a Style F movement a few years ago which hesitated several times when it wound. In other words, it would start, stop, start, stop etc. up to 4 times before finally winding, and when it did wind it was weak. A thorough contact cleaning cured the problem. If this still does not help, or the movement stops, then it may need contacts replaced and other work. Again, if the movement has been recently restored, it is not going to need contacts replaced, since refreshed contacts will last on the order of 10 years of constant use. But if the clock has never been restored, it may be time for some work.