Care of Antique Clocks

Almost everyone – that loves antiques, that is or  has an Antique Clock of some sort. By antique clock, we’re referring to a clock that has a mechanical mechanism that requires winding. This might be a mantel clock, wall clock or one of the larger floor, i.e., grandfather or grandmother clocks. When talking about antique clocks, there are four (4) basic types of clocks:

  • Time only – obviously these only tell time and have only one winding hole
  • Time and strike – this type of clock will tell time as well as strike on the hour with some striking a single strike on the half-hour
  • Chiming – this type of clock tells time, strikes the hour and will also play a melody – most typically the Westminster chimes – on the quarter hours. There are others that play other melodies such as Whittingham and St. Michael’s chimes. They will play one-quarter of the melody on the quarter hour; one-half of the melody on the half hour; three-quarters of the melody on the three-quarter hour and the full melody on the hour – with the hour then striking. These clocks may have 2 or 3 winding holes.
  • Alarm – There are some early mantel clocks that had an alarm feature allowing the owner to set the alarm to go off at the same hour twice a day.

For these old clocks, you will typically find two main types of movements:

  • Balance wheel – similar to the type of movement found in a watch – this type of movement is usually found in less expensive clocks
  • Pendulum – in these clocks the pendulum was set to move back and forth a set number of times in a minute with the act regulating the speed of movement for the internal workings. The speed of the clock could be adjusted by setting the pendulum’s length. (Always remove the pendulum or pendulum bob before moving the clock – not doing so may cause damage to the suspension spring.)

Antique clocks require delicate treatment, not only are antique clocks lovely to look at but also provide a service. These valuable mechanical instruments usually suffer from careless positioning, incorrect display, and over-enthusiastic handling. Their care requires special attention to extend their life. Clocks, scientific instruments like barometers, musical boxes and automata are likely to be harmed if subjected to direct sunlight, extremes of temperature or damp areas.

Following the simple rules below will help keep your antique clock in good running order for many years:

A common, but probably the worst place to place a clock is on a mantelpiece over a working open fire.

Remember, you not only have to pay the clock dealer a good deal of money when you purchase a nice clock, you must spend more money maintaining it. You are now responsible for the care and welfare of your gorgeous and expensive antique clock. Take care of it properly, if you don’t you’ll be much poorer.

Dust can clog the sliding or moving parts of scientific instruments and delicate mechanisms… so keep them in a box or in display cabinet when not in use.


Within 3 years or so, the oil lubricating the moving parts in your clock will start to dry up.

The wheel arbor pivots will start grinding into the brass plates of your clock, knocking out the alignment of the wheels that drive the various clock functions, and resulting in a loss of power, and ultimately… stoppage. Your antique clock doesn’t flash a red warning light when it’s running out of oil, but just like your car, it can continue to operate while serious damage results.

You must oil your clock every 3 years. In addition, you must have the clock professionally cleaned every 6 years. Do it and you will avoid any unnecessary damage. What should you do if your antique clock has not been oiled in over 4 years? Stop it … Further running will just cause more damage. Call a professional repairer or restorer and have the clock completely dismantled and repaired.


If the mechanism stops, forcing it to go may aggravate the damage; repairs should be left to a clock specialist. Even if they are in good working order, clocks and watches with delicate mechanisms should be checked and serviced every three years and those with larger stronger mechanisms every ten years.

Be careful when winding antique clocks, spring-driven bracket, and mantle clocks need to be held steady when winding. When winding a weight-driven regulator, longcase or grandfather clocks open the door to enable you to see that the weights do not hit the case or pendulum. Never use force to wind a clock. If there is resistance, stop – not all clocks wind in the same direction so make sure you are winding in the correct direction. Mantle clocks have either a swinging pendulum or a balance wheel to regulate timekeeping. If you don’t see a pendulum attached to the back of your movement, then your clock is regulated by a balance wheel.

The pendulum/balance wheel is driven by a powerful spring. Be sure you have wound up the pendulum spring. Do not over wind, once you begin to feel effort when winding or hear the spring coils rubbing against each other – stop. If you find winding your clock using this method does not allow it to run for full 8-days then you may want to have your clock serviced by a clock specialist.

Wind it up all the way. If your clock has more than one spring, and you’re not sure which arbor operates the pendulum, then wind them all. Next, reach into the lock and gently swing the pendulum to one side with your hand. Your clock should now be running. If your clock has a balance wheel, all you need do is wind up your clock, and the wheel should automatically start ticking.

Tip: Touching hands are guaranteed to stop your clock!

Look at the hour and minute hands closely. If they are touching, the movement is jammed and the pendulum won’t swing. Try moving the hour hand slightly back and forth while pushing it towards the dial in order to clear the minute hand (but make sure it doesn’t touch the dial!). If they still touch, you can bend back the minute hand slightly towards you, allowing clearance.


For your clock to provide accurate time, it needs to be level side to side. The reason a mantle clock with a pendulum stops swinging after being moved is that the clock case now leans at a slightly different angle than at its former location.

Tip: Mantle clock movements are adjusted so that their pendulums swing properly when the clock case is placed on a level surface. However, clock cases warp, or adjustments may change.

So put away your level and simply start your pendulum swinging, then listen carefully to the tick-tock sound. Lift the left side of the clock slightly. Does the tick-tock sound seem more balanced? If not lift the right side. When you hear an even balanced ticking simply shim the bottom of the clock at that angle your mantle clock should now be in perfect beat.

If your clock sits on a mantel or table, having it level front to back is not as critical unless the degree of tilt is too great as to cause the pendulum to rub on the case or movement.

Careless or unexpected movement can affect the workings of delicate mechanisms too. All longcase clocks and wall hung instruments should be screwed to the wall or to a solid wooden wall bracket or mount.

Before moving a mechanical object check that there are no detachable parts; don’t rely on handles but hold the object under the base with both hands.

Secure the pendulum of a spring clock by the clip provided or by the spring clamp on many English brackets and mantle clocks. Otherwise, remove the pendulum and use folded or scrunched paper to wedge the ticking crutch piece firm.

If your clock has a balance wheel instead of a pendulum, you’re in luck; you don’t have to worry whether the clock is level at all.

On a long case or other weight driven clock remove the weights and pendulum and take down the clock by separating the case hood and movement. If a mechanism is set in motion while being moved, let it run down completely.


Once you have the clock leveled, you should hear a perfect beat or cadence to the tick-tock. The sound should be consistent with even spacing between each ‘tick’ and ‘tock’.


If your clock has a pendulum, you can lengthen the effective length of the pendulum to slow down the clock; if you shorten the effective length of the pendulum the clock will run faster. How much you adjust the pendulum will depend on each individual clock. Your grandfather clocks pendulum bob: The round brass disc on the bottom of your pendulum rod is called the pendulum bob

The nut located on the bottom of the bob is used to adjust your grandfather clocks timekeeping ability. If the bob is raised up, your grandfather clock will run faster, if lowered, your grandfather clock will run slower. You can remember this principle, with the phrase ‘A SHORT DOGS TAIL WAGS FASTER’. Expect an accuracy of at least 1 minute, fast or slow per week. Start by setting your grandfather clocks time to an accurate electric or quartz clock or watch. Check the time 24 hours later.

If the clock runs fast, turn the nut to the left (as you face the clock) and the bob will be lowered slowing the clock. If the clock runs slow, turn the nut to the right, which will push the bob up, speeding up the clock.

Then reset your grandfather clock to the correct time again. Keep a written record of the distance you turn the nut each day and the resulting minutes off. Do this every day until you have zeroed in within 1 minute of the correct time. Then, switch to checking your grandfather clock every 7 days, using the same process until your grandfather clock keeps time within 1 minute per week.

Tip: Many grandfather clocks are designed so that one full turn of the pendulum nut equals 1 minute per day. So, for example, if your grandfather clock is 2 minutes fast in a 24 hour period, turn the pendulum nut 2 full turns to the left. Keep in mind that this rule of thumb is not true with all grandfather clocks. And remember, mechanical clocks are not as accurate as modern day electric or quartz clocks! When you regulate the pendulum of your grandfather clock, you are attempting to achieve the best time-keeping possible from a mechanical clock between weekly windings. During your weekly grandfather clock weight windings, it’s a good idea to make it a practice to also reset the minute hand to the exact time of day as established by a quartz clock in the house.

Does your grandfather clock have two nuts attached to the pendulum rod?

Some grandfather clocks have not one but two nuts on the bottom of the pendulum rod. If your grandfather clock has two nuts then you probably have a really accurate grandfather clock. Many owners believe that the bottom nut is used as a lock nut against the top nut. But this isn’t so.

Tip: Make sure the bottom nut doesn’t touch the top nut. Let the top nut raise or lower the pendulum bob until the most accurate timekeeping has been obtained. Then by turning left or right, use the weight of this nut as the final delicate time adjustment to regulate your grandfather clock.


Just like your car, for clocks in continuous use, they should be serviced every 2 years; the movement should be overhauled every 10 years. (Never use WD-40 on an antique clock for any reason.)

Setting Time

If you need to re-set the time, move the minute hand forward (clockwise) slowing down as you approach the 55-minute mark. Once there you will hear a click or some other sound indicating you are close to the hour, continue moving the minute hand slowly forward allowing the strike or chime to run its course naturally. When the chime/strike is finished, continue to move the minute hand forward as necessary to achieve the correct time.

Caring for the case (wood)

Unless the finish is totally ruined, do not refinish the case – as this can have an impact on the clock’s value. There are products designed specifically for cleaning clock cases so if you feel you must clean the case, get the correct product – available from a clock store.

Dial care

Do not attempt to polish the metal dial with any metal polish. While most metal dials are ‘silvered’ – the layer is so thin that any attempt to polish will most likely result in wearing the finish off. This is also true for bezels. So resist the urge to polish.


All clocks need cleaning and oiling periodically.  Cleaning can be done using a small dry brush to remove any dust or dirt from both the outside and inside.  Clocks also need oiling – however, if you do not know where to oil – it is better to have a professional do this.   (Again, never use WD-40 on any clock)

An antique clock is a good investment so take the time to correctly care for your clock and if you find yourself not knowing what to do or how to do it – invest in having it professionally done.