loading
Picture of Resurrecting vintage clocks
Those of you who follow my Instructables probably have noticed that I like to take something old and non-functional and save it from the scrap heap by giving it life once again.  I love to frequent flea markets and the challenge of fixing that which others have thought unfixable.

During my outings I'm always on the lookout for an old clock, particularly old alarm clocks and mantle clocks. 

Why clocks?  First, the mechanical nature of old clocks intrigues me -- I mean they have gears, and sprockets, and springs, and levers -- all sorts of neat stuff that, when working as designed, actually captures the passage of time!  Second, except for rare expensive clocks, when an old clock quits working, most people assume it is done for.

What I have learned over the years is an old clock can generally be fixed -- often very easily.  And, if it can't be fixed, AND it is of a style that is interesting, it can always be converted to a quartz movement, but I only do that as a last resort.

This Instructable won't make you an expert in clock repair, nor will it cover the details of clock repair, but I will try to go over what I generally find wrong with these old clocks and how I get them running.
 
Remove these adsRemove these ads by Signing Up

Step 1: Misaligned gear trains

Picture of Misaligned gear trains
The first thing I do when I look at a clock is to look for evidence of damage to the case.  If a case is cracked or broken, quite often a gear train has popped loose inside the clock.  The clock if the photo below is a good example.  It is an old General Electric clock from the '50's, and refused to run when plugged into the wall,  On the back of the case was a large crack, indicating it had been dropped.  Upon removing the case, I found the set of gears that had popped out of place, popped them back in, and the clock has now been running constantly (and keeping perfect time) for the past 3-4 years.

The case on this clock was plastic, and I fixed the crack (not shown) on the back with super glue.  Super glue tends to work well on old plastics.  I glue the crack shut, then fill any small gaps with more super glue.  If the crack is on the front of the clock housing, I then overfill the crack, sand it smooth, and paint the entire housing.  If it is on the back or the bottom, I simply glue the crack.

Step 2: Sometimes things get bent

Picture of Sometimes things get bent
This clock was found in an antique shop in New Mexico, and I paid substantially less than what the clock was actually worth, because it would not run.  I noticed that there was a small dent in the wood of the case (indicating the clock had been dropped).  What I found wrong was that when the clock had been dropped, the thin brass mount where the pendulum attached had been bent slightly.  Straightening this mount fixed the clock.  The pendulum on this clock, by the way, is hidden in the back of the clock.

Step 3: Sometimes things get dirty and dry

Picture of Sometimes things get dirty and dry
Imgp2690.jpg
One of the most common problems with old wind-up clocks is that they get dirty and need lubrication.  A good indication that this may be the problem is to look at the fast/slow adjustment lever on the back of a wind-up clock.  It it has been adjusted most or all the way to the "fast" setting, more than likely it just needs a bit of cleaning and lubrication.

I typically clean these old movements by first removing the movement from the housing, shooting some WD-40 around all moving parts (to blast away grit and solidified oil), then lightly oiling it with a very fine machine oil (such as sewing machine oil).  In most cases this will get these old wind-up clocks running again.

Occasionally a mainspring will get dirty or develop a light coat of rust.  WD-40 tends to fix this as well.  Many people believe a clock can be overwound, but there is no such thing.  Clocks were made to be wound completely.  If it's not running, more often than not it is either a lubrication problem on the balance wheel, or a dirty or rusted mainspring.

Step 4: Sometimes parts have fallen off inside the clock

Picture of Sometimes parts have fallen off inside the clock
Once in a while I have run across a balance wheel that has popped out of its mount, probably from being dropped.  These are relatively easy to get back in place, but the hard part is pre-loading the balance wheel spring.  These springs are about as thick as a human hair, and must be installed with the appropriate amount of tension.  The only way I've found to get the tension right is by trial and error.  The clock highlighted in the photo had such a problem.  I started out by tensioning the spring with only one winding, then kept increasing the tension until the clock once again kept time correctly.  Then I oiled it, and it has worked fine ever since.

Step 5: Clock runs fine, but the case is a disaster

Picture of Clock runs fine, but the case is a disaster
Img_3052.jpg
Img_2864.jpg
Img_2861.jpg
When a wooden clock case falls onto hard times, they tend to deteriorate quickly.  The clock in photo 1 had such a case.  The old varnish was flaking off, and there were deep scratches everywhere.  I stripped the case, found some beautiful mahogany underneath the old finish, and applied several coats of tung oil.

Photo 2 shows an interesting electric clock.  This clock chimes once on each hour.  There was nothing wrong with the clock motor, but the case had about an eighth inch of grime all over it.  All I had to do to this case was clean it, then apply a coat of paste wax.

The clock in photo 3 had a case that was a disaster.  It had apparently been stored where water dripped on it.  The wood was split, the finish was awful, and parts of the case had begun separating.  I stripped the case, glued everything back together, then re-stained and varnished the case.

The clock in Photo 4 is also an electric clock, and is covered in leather.  The clock motor worked fine, but the leather was coming unglued, and the dial cover was getting cloudy.  I used a fine metal polish to clean up the dial cover, glued down the leather, cleaned it, and then finished the leather with neutral shoe polish.

Most of these clocks looked like disasters when I acquired them, but buried underneath was vintage beauty.

Step 6: Sometimes you just can't fix it....

Some old clock movements are just too far gone to be fixed.  Gears are too worn, parts are missing, or things are just too bent and beat up for restoration.  When I come across a clock like this, if it has an interesting case, I remove the old movement and replace it with a quartz movement, but only as a last resort.  If the clock is repairable, I repair it.  If it is not possible to repair it or if it is just not worth repairing -- if I like the case I will install a quartz movement.   Quartz movements are inexpensive and reliable. 

Where possible, I always try to retain the clock's original hands.  Quite often this requires a bit of machining to get the hands to fit right on a quartz movement.  Where this is not possible, sometimes I will drill out the hole in the original hands and bond them to the hands designed for a quartz movement.  If one of the clock's original hands is missing or too damaged to use, I try to match the original hands as close as possible with either new hands, or hands from my growing pile of extra's.

Step 7: Other tips

Picture of Other tips
Img_2866.jpg
The glass or plastic dial cover of a clock can usually be polished with a fine metal polish (I use Semichrome).  Just rub it in like you were polishing a piece of metal, then buff it off with a soft cloth.  It will remove most fine scratches, and remove 50 years worth of built up gunk.

Fine metal polish is also good for cleaning up the case of plastic and metal clocks.  Automobile polish can also be used.  If a plastic clock housing has a lot of scratches, I have even been known to begin with automotive rubbing compound, then work my way down to finer polishes.

If a clock is missing its lens, sometimes you can mold one from the clear hard plastic containers that food often comes in.  If the lens is flat, simply cut one out.  If it is curved, sometimes you can make a wood mold in the shape you need and use heat to mold a new one from these plastic containers.  It is not easy, but it is doable with practice.

If you enjoy working on clocks, save the parts from clock movements or entire clocks that are not fixable.  It is always nice to have an available supply of extra parts, screws, hands, lens, winding keys, etc.

With electric clocks, always replace the old cord.  Old cords become brittle with age, and can be dangerous.

Wind every clock in your collection periodically.  This helps to keep the lubricated parts working.  I don't run every clock all the time, but I do try to run each one periodically.  With electric clocks, I run them constantly.

In terms of tools, a good set of jeweler's screwdrivers is your friend.  Also, a regular set of small screwdrivers and a good pair of needle nose pliers is handy.  A precision oiler is a must.






Step 8: Where to find clocks & what to look for

Picture of Where to find clocks & what to look for
Imgp2693.jpg
Imgp2692.jpg
Imgp2690.jpg
Imgp2691.jpg
Imgp2698.jpg
Old clocks are everywhere.  I have found them at flea markets, tag sales, antique shops, thrift shops -- anywhere used items are sold.  In terms of cost, I've paid as little as 25 cents for an alarm clock and as much as $30 for a mantle clock.  I usually find the best deals at thrift stores, and the highest prices at antique shops, although you can usually bargain at an antique shop if you're interested in a clock that doesn't run.

When you find a clock that you like, first see if it works.  If it is a windup clock, I first try to see if I can move the hands through an entire day (to make sure a gear has not been stripped).  The next thing I do is wind it a little bit, shake it back and forth and see if it will begin ticking.  If it ticks, I set it down and come back in about 5 minutes to see if it is still ticking.  If it is fully wound and does not tick, I see if I can manually start the balance wheel (sometimes you can spin the balance wheel by reaching a toothpick through the fast/slow adjustment window)  Next, I look at the fast/show adjustment to see if it has been moved all the way to the fast marker.  I then look for bumps and bruises on the case.  All these observations are made to give me some idea as to what it will take to get the clock working, as mentioned in the previous steps.

On electric clocks, if the cord looks safe, I plug them in.  They generally either work or they don't!  If they work, I listen to see if they're making any unusual noises.  Loud noises in an electric clock tend to indicate the motor is either worn out or its lubricants have hardened.  Again, this is to get an idea of what it might take to get the clock working again.

I also check to see if there are any missing controls on the back of the clock -- missing stems and winding keys.  I won't necessarily pass up a clock that I like because of a missing stem or key, but I like to know before I buy.

I look at the finish on the clock's case.  Metal clocks can be repainted, plastic clocks can either be polished or repainted, and wood clocks can be refinished.  If a wooden clock case has large missing chunks of its venier, I'll often pass on them.  Outside of missing venier, the condition of a wood clock's finish doesn't bother me, because it is easily fixable.

The lens of the clock can be a showstopper for me if it is broken or missing.  While it is possible to make a new lens, it is a lot of work, and I really have to want the clock to be willing to take on that task.

While this is by no means intended to be a detailed lesson on clock repair, I hope you have found it helpful.  Resurrecting an old clock can be both enjoyable and frustrating, but if you enjoy a good challenge, bringing back a 50 year old clock from the dead can be fun!
1-40 of 51Next »
macgyver713 years ago
I love old clocks & watches! Never tried working on them yet, just collect them to save them from the landfill...Hope to have a collection as nice as yours. Awesome instructable, and thank you for the pics of all those beauties!
knife141 (author)  macgyver713 years ago
Glad you enjoyed the Instructable. As you probably could tell from many of the photos, I have a soft spot for old alarm clocks. These old clocks are fairly easy to find, and in most cases they aren't expensive, particularly when they no longer work! I have found that most of them are fixable. Thanks for your comment.
CatharineH1 month ago

Not a quarter movement--a quartz movement. Apologies.

knife141 (author)  CatharineH1 month ago
Hold the shaft with a pair of pliers, then try to unscrew. Some of these unscrew to the right, and some to the left. Try both. Good luck!
CatharineH1 month ago

Hello. I have a Bakelite Seth Thomas electric kitchen clock. It has stopped. I want to take the electric motor out and put a quarter movement back in but I can't get the time set knob, which protrudes through the top of the case, to come off. Any suggestions for me? Thank you so much. I'm a clock-a zoid, and I'm glad to have found this site.

PierreG12 months ago

Hi have a question, my clock temporarly works only if i repeatedly tap on it,
what can I do to solve this?

p.s. the clock is a chairman Mao wood case alarm clock
http://www.theeastisred.com/clocks.htm

knife141 (author)  PierreG12 months ago
Probably needs cleaning & lubrication.
PierreG1 knife1412 months ago

since i know close to nothing in terms of cleaning and lubrication, what should i do?

knife141 (author)  PierreG12 months ago

You probably should take it to a clock repairman.

ray.lynch.7583 made it!4 months ago

I made a comment before but somehow it didn't get through I guess. This is an old Owl clock advertising piece for "Wise Potato Chips" the glass is cracked so it was dropped at some point. When I plug it in it just hums but none of the hands move. Any ideas how to proceed and how would I be able to fix the glass (Plastic) or find a replacement?

018.JPG
knife141 (author)  ray.lynch.75834 months ago
Where the glass is curved, I've had success using plastic that I heat and form over something (like an old globe) to get the curve. Clear plastic food containers are a good source for the plastic. As for the hum without movement in the hands, that's usually a sign that the motor lube has hardened. If it's a telechron movement, sometimes you can drill a tiny hole in the back housing and either squirt a little wd-40 in it, or use a really thin penetrating oil to free it up. Good luck!

I have a old advertising clock for "Wise Potato Chips" The glass is cracked so I think it was dropped at some point. When I plug it in, it hums but nothing moves. Any suggestions on how I should proceed? It has a Lanshire movement but I can't find a # on it anywhere.

018.JPG
dqsaenz6 months ago

Why do you have to shake wind up clocks to start,Is ther something binding?

LindaLW1 year ago

Well, I enjoyed reading about your work with old clocks. I love old clocks, and have an old general electric mantle clock that would be nice to have working again - but I can't even figure out how to remove the main knob on the back, picture two - I did take it to a clock maker, who is super busy, and didn't want to put in the effort it would take. That's why I thought I'd ask you; do you know how to open this old fellow? If it isn't fixable, I could take off the electric cord and just see how pretty it is. It's been in the family a long time. The knob on the back (for adjusting the time) just won't come out for love nor money. Thanks much in advance, I appreciate any comments you might give me about this. Linda

knife141 (author)  LindaLW1 year ago
Without seeing a photo, it's a bit difficult to say. However, you can remove a lot of these knobs by holding the shaft with a pair of needle-nose pliers and unscrewing the knob using another pair of pliers (some unscrew clockwise, some counter-clockwise). Good luck, and thanks for your kind words.
javi20131 year ago
hi!!! are you still here??? I have an old alarm clock and it was working until this morning when I wound it and it just didn't work anymore, I opened it and saw that the mainspring is fully wound but it won't unwind. Could it be just rust? the spring is bearly new!
thank you!
knife141 (author)  javi20131 year ago
If the mainspring is still good, it's probably needs lubrication. Use a very light oil, and apply just a tiny bit beginning to the escapement wheel pivots. Again, use a very light oil (not household oil). If you don't have any light oil, try something like a silicone based penetrating oil. After oiling the escapement wheel, you might have to start it rotating manually the first time. Once it is running, put a tiny bit of oil on all the other pivot points. Go easy on the oil. Hope this helps.
GMer564 years ago
My grandfather gave me an Elgin wind-up pocket watch a few weeks ago that would only run for a little while then stop. After researching for a while I found this instructable today and tried spraying a little WD-40 on the balance wheel. Now the little 128 year-old watch is ticking happily alongside my Spartus Alarm clock. Thank you for this great Instructable!!!
knife141 (author)  GMer564 years ago
Glad to hear you got your watch running. I've also had some luck cleaning & lubricating old pocket watches with cigarette lighter fluid. Sounds a bit odd, but it helps to dissolve solidified oil and provide a bit of thin lubrication. Thanks for your comment!
paqrat knife1413 years ago
I have heard in the old days they used to use kerosene (sp?) to clean watches. Never tried it myself. I don't know how useful it would be as a lubricant.
In the old days, they cleaned clocks with benzene which is not available anymore since it causes cancer. Watches were cleaned a hundred years ago in a solution of potassium cyanide. Many a watchmaker was found dead at his bench from accidentally inhaling the fumes. They oiled the watches with porpoise jaw oil. It stinks to high heaven when it goes rancid in an old watch.
paqrat GMer563 years ago
I worked cleaning watchs for several years and using WD-40 isn't the best thing to use. It can dry out and become sticky which allows bits of dirt stick to parts and can then abrade parts. Its not a good idea to run a pocket watch without its being cleaned and oiled with a watch compatible oil. A pocket watch spring is generally powerful enough to run with jewels dry which causes wear on the staffs of the various wheels and can lead to them needing to be replaced.
Great Article......I love clocks and watches. When I was working, and making good money I was a member of the NAWCC...National Watch and Clock Collectors Association. I highly reccomeand giving them a try. I left when we had financial problems, and could not justify getting magazines, etc. Now that I am retiree I shall look into joining them, again. They have a magazine, and an advertising publication called "The Mart", where you can buy clocks, parts, tools, services, etc. You can also borrow books from their library to learn about clocks... After I lost good paying jobs, I sold off my small collection of clocks and watches. My wife bought me about 10 in- expensive mechanical clocks, for our anniversary's. I thought I would have to completely tear them down to get them going. Now, after reading your tips, I shall take a look at them and see if I can get them going at little or no cost.
The NAWCC that I mentioned above, has a national museum in Washington DC. They have chapters all over the USA, so you can join the national chapter by mail, then join a local chapter...go to meetings,...shows and see a lot of collectors and clocks.!......I would like to add a tip.......many times there is ONE gear that has worn its pivot hole and is out of alignment that prevents the mechanism from working. If you can find this gear, push it back in center and stake it with a small screw in the brass plate, and a repair bushing. You can buy an in expensive kit of repair bushings and screws from many clock repair companies on line. Don't forget to check out local hobby stores who may have the kit and the tools the author suggests.
Thanks again for a great article. Monday I am going to examine all the non working clocks I have........................... and resume my hobby !!!!!
knife141 (author)  anthonybarbuto2 years ago
Thank you for the comment -- and the tip! I have made my own repair bushings in similar fashion a couple of times in the past to repair a worn pivot hole. Its a great way to salvage an old clock that just needs a little bit of help! I'll have to check out the NAWCC. Thanks again for the comment.
Thetis2 years ago
I've come to this article late in the day. I am a qualified watchmaker so I hope you feel my comments are valid - it is not my intention to offend anyone.

Professional clock makers have a love-hate relationship with the "WD40 mob". Hate because any decent horologist knows that treating a clock in this way does little more than hasten it's decline. Love? because you generate so much work for the professionals once the poor clock has ground to a halt again.

A spray of WD40 will neither clean a clock, nor lubricate it properly. Clocks are not lubricated with light oils, they are lubricated with the heaviest oil you can get away with without compromising the motion and only at the bearings and other selected places - the teeth on the wheels must run dry or they wear rapidly. The only time WD40 would ever be used would be when struggling to dismantle an old, seized mechanism; then it would be immediately cleaned. Proper cleaning requires the complete disassembly of the movement.

A spray of WD40 may get an old clock moving, but what you have applied is not a lubricant, but a cutting oil which mixes with the grit and dust and old dried oil to create a slurry that wears the pivots and their bearing holes with frightening speed. Once a pivot hole has been enlarged enough, no amount of WD40 will ever get that clock moving again. It will require the attentions of a professional to re-bush the clock and clean up the heavily scored pivots. Not a cheap job.

My speciality is watches. The use of the correct oil in the correct place is critical not only for the function of a watch, but also its longevity. The gear teeth must run dry or they will wear like cheese. The pivots must have lubricant or they will score and the lubricant must be applied in such a way that it does not immediately creep away. If I open the back of a watch and the distinctive smell of WD40 wafts in my direction, I will either politely give it back to the owner, or, if pressed, double the price for looking at it because I know there is going to be trouble.

If you don't know how to work on a watch, let me simply say that spraying WD40 in the back is as inappropriate as putting petrol through a diesel engine and your watch will grind to a halt again shortly afterwards.

It's great to get old things going and I'm not trying to be a snobby professional sneering at the amateur - there are a great many gifted amateurs. But, if you are have a clock or watch of great sentimental, or actual value, please do yourself a favour and give it to someone who knows what they are doing if you don't.

Knife141 is clearly an intelligent and resourceful guy, but this article could have been written deliberately to upset clock repairers, it contains so much bad practice and inaccurate information. Persuading an old clock to limp into action is not the same as caring for it.
cdslashetc2 years ago
Lately, I've seen some suppliers are actually selling replacement rotors even telechron style units that are compatible with old clocks, but they run like $25 but you can get them cheaper if you buy in bulk. For example see clockworks.com
Txkink3 years ago
A great instructable!
knife141 (author)  Txkink3 years ago
Thanks for the kind words!
Great Instructable! I love old geared clocks and this is a great guide for fixing them. Thanks!
Be wary of WD40 and electric clocks, as WD40 is very flammable and can be explosive in a confined space.
handy1573 years ago
I've been collecting and rejuvenating old clocks for a couple of years now. I have over 70 clocks that date anywhere from the 1820's through the 1970's. Almost all mechanical and some electrics. Using lighter fluid, kerosene, WD-40,etc. dissolves old thick or hardened lubricants and only temporarily lubricate pivots. Once the old oil and junk is dissolved and removed from the pivots and the solvent is evaporated, almost any clock will run just fine being dry. It's just wears faster. A good clock oil should be used for lubing the works, and only a tiny amount is necessary. Too much oil is actually worse than too little oil since it collects dirt and debris which acts like an abrasive on the bearing surfaces. Maybe I'll do some Instructables in the future dealing with cleaning and lubing clocks. It's good to save these cool machines!
movement after.jpg
orafist3 years ago
WD40 is NOT a lubricant. its a water displacer and contact cleaner. It will do more harm than good on a watch. I have heard it can triple the cost of having a watch repaired.
knife141 (author)  orafist3 years ago
I have heard that, too. But in all my years of fixing old clocks, that has not been my experience. In my testing of WD40 I've found that it floats above water (like most lubricants) rather than displacing it. That's why it is not effective in preventing rust (again, based on first-hand testing). It does make for a really good light lubricant, though, and attracts dirt less than regular light oils.
I absolutely love wd-40 and was surprised to see so many repair experts take a strong stand against its use with clockwork mechanisms. Many feel it will provide a temporary fix and will initially seem like a GREAT idea but will eventually (within a year or two) form a shellac that will coat the mechanism causing damage and undue wear.
knife141 (author)  orafist3 years ago
Yes, I've heard the same stories, but again that has not been my experience. I have clocks that have been running for a decade that were lubricated with wd-40, and they're still ticking away. Plus, I've yet to see a clock repairman that doesn't keep a can of wd-40 handy. I think the "don't use wd-40" legends are similar to the "don't use Armour All" ones in the automotive world.
I certainly believe that wd-40 in the right hands can do wonders, have you ever used wd-40 to repair a pocket watch/wristwatch?


knife141 (author)  orafist3 years ago
No, I've only worked on a couple of watches -- they're too small for my old hands and eyes. Wd-40 is too hard to control on a mechanism that small. I have had success lubing a couple of pocket watches with a tiny amount of cigarette lighter fluid, though. I've. Heard of others using kerosene, but have never tried it myself. It may be the same thing, though.
I have an older pocket ben "dollar watch" pocket watch and I am thinking about trying a small amount of lighter fluid, it has a shroud covering the majority of the movement and only the balance wheel is visible when you pop the back off , I have been told taking it apart to clean would be suicide for a beginner like me. Theres no way I can justify the price of a professional cleaning since the watch is not an heirloom, just a neat garage sale find that i would love to have working.
knife141 (author)  orafist3 years ago
I never take a watch apart -- too tiny for me. I would try just a tiny drop of lighter fluid on the balance wheel pivots first, then carefully start the wheel to see if that gets it going (might have to try several times initially to get it going). If that doesn't do the trick, I would move on to other pivots. Good luck!
I tried the lighter fluid and it did a nice job cleaning out years of gunk, unfortunately I could not resist touching the little dial that allows for slower/faster movement and when I did the hairspring contorted itself into a mess. I am pretty sure it would have worked if I just left well enough alone. No worries though, I can dissect this one and hopefully learn something. I really appreciate your advice, after reading your instructables I feel comfortable finding some older clocks and trying my luck at repair.
1-40 of 51Next »