- Devon Dey restores a broken 200-year-old grandfather clock.
- He repairs the case, which is in bad shape compared to most clocks he sees.
- He cleans the mechanism and reassembles the clock, which is the most intricate part of the process.
Following is a transcript of the video.
Devon Dey: Hi, I’m Devon. Today, I’m going to walk you through how I restore a 200-year-old grandfather clock.
[clock chiming] Clocks that old weren’t branded with anything other than just the clockmaker’s name. A single person built the entire thing. This particular one is Abraham Shaw of Billingborough. So an English clock.
My customer brought it from England to the US. She inherited this from her parents, who inherited it from their parents, who inherited it from their parents, back to, ballpark, 1820s. Pre-restoration, this clock is probably not worth much. I’d say maybe $500 at most. Probably less.
The case definitely is in the need of more attention than the mechanism. The whole case has come apart. I like to start with a cleaning, just to make sure there’s not going to be any kind of dust or debris, or, with all clocks, spiderwebs, that’s going to be in the way of re-gluing everything.
The next step after I clean it is start approaching some of the wood repairs. I almost never have to fix a case this bad of condition. This case was in serious need of help. The parts of a clock case, the names of them vary. Each country would call them different things. But typically for an English clock, you would have the bonnet, which is the hood. Basically just slides off. It has the front door to it and then typically some type of decoration to make the clock look nice. Then you have the trunk, which is just the main body of the clock, where if you have a door you could see the pendulum and the weights.
The base of the clock is the bottom, the bottom square section. The floor of the clock was broken, and half of it missing. So I just do a couple quick measurements on the inside and cut out a new piece. This is the most common broken thing on grandfather clocks. If there’s some type of failure from the weights, the weights come crashing down, and when you get a 200-year-old clock, chances are it’s missing the bottom. So I attach the floor to the base by using glue and nails. And then the nails just help the glue dry properly.
The top right trim piece of the hood is often in very bad condition. I was left with decisions to make there, and I just decided to keep the original piece. It was a little difficult to tell what was actually the cause of that top corner, but my best guess, and a few other clockmakers that gave me an idea, was most likely bugs of some sort, and then if it rotted from there.
The first thing I needed to do was copy its profile. There was no good place to copy it on this piece because it was damaged pretty much all over. So I just went to the back edge of the other side and just used a piece of paper and a pencil, and I’d just get the profile for that piece. And then I glue that to another piece of wood to cut that shape out. And that piece of wood is what we will end up calling a form tool. And then I use a combination of Bondo wood filler and paint just to get it close to the right color initially.
And, of course, this clock would’ve been stained originally, so to try to match that look I just used a combination of brown, red, and black paint to mimic the wood grain as best I could. I mix that up with the hardener and apply it on in large, copious amounts onto the piece and make sure it’s all rubbed in to all the nooks and crannies, so it’s going to make a good joint everywhere. And then I use that form tool that I made to basically wipe off the excess other than where I want it. I wouldn’t call it fabrication, but I did have to, for lack of better terms, fabricate that piece.
And then I cut it off to size. So I give it a 45-degree angle on the front where it will meet the other piece and then cut the back off just straight where it will be at the back of the clock. And then I glue it down. In this case, I did not use wood glue because I used Bondo wood filler and I didn’t want the wood filler to make it so the joint would not be strong. So I used a general-purpose glue, everything type of glue, which I wouldn’t use on something load-bearing, but this is just an ornate decorative piece on the side. So that glue will be sufficient for that. Nine times out of 10, wood glue is going to be your best option.
There’s a lot of odd shapes on this, so it’s not easy to clamp. Clamps have to be opposite from each other, and you don’t always have that availability. So I usually use weights or something like that in place. Easily the hardest part of this case, easily the hardest part, was the glass. That could have been glazed in place 200 years ago, and then at some point during its life, then that glass broke, so I’m left with a bunch of glazing that’s full of glass shards all throughout it. So there’s no great way to get that old glazing out.
The method I use is just take a razor blade and scrape it out. You know, take your time going around the whole perimeter. Clean up as you go to make sure none of the glass shards are going to hurt the piece of wood. Removing that previous glazing is very tedious and can hurt you. And then I put the glass in. And then I use a couple nails to hold the glass in while I glaze it. And it’s straightforward but definitely requires a steady hand.
I, in between, do work on the mechanism, so, you know, disassemble it. Disassembly takes a lot of focus. You have to make sure you’re paying attention to where things are and if you see any kind of previous repairs, because previous repairs are usually a sign of disaster.
A lot of beginner clockmakers or hobbyists are tempted to not disassemble the movement and dunk it straight into the ultrasonic cleaner thinking that it’ll clean it. You know, it’s in there. But you do need to take everything apart. Not as much for cleaning but more so for rinsing and drying afterwards. The solution will go in between the little tiny parts if they’re still together, and it won’t come back out when you try to rinse it. You gotta take everything apart down to the very last screw, every last pin, and clean it that way in the ultrasonic solution, which needs to be clock-cleaning solution. If it’s just brass-cleaning solution or something along those lines, you can flash-rust the steel. Or if you use steel-cleaning solution, you can actually corrode the brass.
It sits there for, ballpark, 20 minutes. That solution stays on the parts for too long, it will ruin them. So you have to very, very thoroughly rinse it all off with water. And then water is just as bad as the solution if you don’t dry it off. If you get a little bit of water stay stuck in a corner, it’ll destroy the clock within a matter of a couple of years.
Now I’m going to repair the mechanism. I start working on the pendulum. The pendulum was already in pieces when I received it. The bob of the pendulum, the brass circle at the bottom, is actually how we determine how fast or slow a clock will run. So it needs to be able to slide up and down smoothly, without any kind of snagging or getting stuck. So I had to remove a very small amount of material from the rod to make sure the bob could go up and down and then polish that surface to make sure it’s as close to frictionless as possible. I actually found some witness marks on this particular clock. On the rod, there were some lines scratched, and I just went ahead and assumed that that’s where they wanted the pendulum bob set to. So I went ahead, set it right there, and put the screw on underneath it, and it actually worked first try. So that witness mark was correct.
Next, I am polishing the pivots. I’m not focusing on the gear. I’m actually focusing on the arbors for the gears. At the end of each arbor, there is a pivot point that it will turn inside the plates. Its axle, basically. Clock parts have a lot of terminology that don’t match up with today. Gears are not called gears, they’re called wheels. Axles are not called axles, they’re called arbors.
I use a lathe, which is convenient because it turns everything concentrically. Makes everything a lot easier and turns out nicer in the end. A lathe is actively trying to kill you at all times. If you touch it, it will not stop. So I keep my fingers out of the way by using paper. And then if I have enough room, I actually use very fine abrasive stones like an Arkansas stone, which is just very fine, fine grit. We’re talking around 4,000 grit. If you leave jagged edges, it doesn’t happen overnight, but over the course of a few years the clock will actually eat itself away if it’s not smooth, smooth surfaces.
The other end of them is their bearings inside the plates. There’s little holes in the plates. Those need the same process. They need to be cleaned very thoroughly and then made sure that they’re polished properly where it’ll have very little friction.
The escapement pallet is going to be one of the most-ignored things in a clock, but arguably the most important. This is what the pendulum is attached to at the very top. That groove, that’s a fraction of the thickness of a human hair. It’s really, really small. The escape wheel has been hitting that over and over again for many, many years. The clock will not run accurately if those grooves are there. Most people, when they repair clocks, will ignore this. But I go ahead and re-polish those surfaces.
We’re putting in brass cable. When I picked it up, it already had brass wire, but originally it would’ve had cat-gut cable, which would’ve been made out of cat guts. That’s exactly what it sounds like. We use brass instead of steel, because steel cable will actually tear up the parts inside the clock. But brass is what the parts are made out of, so it’s hard to tear up brass with brass. You want this to wrap around the barrel that it’s going onto the correct amount of times. And you also want it to have the weights reach the bottom of the case in eight days. This is an eight-day movement.
There’s a few things you’ve got to be careful of when assembling the mechanism. So, the obvious one of make sure everything’s in the right place, but that’s actually a lot less like a puzzle than you think. If you know what each part does, it only has one place to go.
And then the difficult part is indexing it, where you don’t just put it in the right spot, but it needs to be oriented correctly when it goes there. So you need to have one part of the gear meshing with another part of the gear. All those pivots that we polished are very fragile. So when you are putting the plates together, you have to be very careful and use very small amounts of force to try to nudge everything into its place and make sure that the pivots go into the correct holes and aren’t damaged. That’s definitely the art of fixing the clock, is trying to close the plates. It takes a certain feel.
Once it’s together, then you get it up on the test stand and make sure it’s still working right. [clock chiming] And then there’s actually a several-week period of testing. Every time I come into the shop, I see if it’s running fast or slow and make an adjustment. Usually when I test it there, I like to get it to where everything is working completely properly for a whole week straight. Then I put it into the case to test it there, to make sure it’s all going to continue to work properly.
Time at the workbench, I spent probably around two weeks or so actually working on stuff. You know, and that’s, I’m talking full hours of two weeks. I’m pretty happy with this restoration. Definitely the movement was, you know, everything went according to plan, how I liked.
The most satisfying part of this restoration, and every restoration, is definitely going to be one of two things. Either the first time the clock ticks, you know, when I set it up and it works. That’s extremely satisfying to have that happen. And the other part is the client when I deliver it back. It’s extremely satisfying to see these people’s reactions. Sometimes, for clocks that are chiming clocks, I’ll bring it back and they haven’t heard it chime since they were 8 years old in their grandparents’ house.
[clock chiming] You’re only the temporary caretaker of this clock. It’s been around for 200 years. It’s going to outlive you. So it’s more important to do what is right for the clock. I try to keep it original as much as I possibly can at all times.