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Resurrecting vintage clocks

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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.
 
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macgyver712 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)  macgyver712 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.
LindaLW6 months 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)  LindaLW6 months 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.
javi20138 months 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)  javi20138 months 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.
GMer563 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)  GMer563 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 knife1412 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 GMer562 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)  anthonybarbuto1 year 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.
Thetis1 year 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.
cdslashetc1 year 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
Txkink2 years ago
A great instructable!
knife141 (author)  Txkink2 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.
handy1572 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
orafist2 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)  orafist2 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)  orafist2 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)  orafist2 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)  orafist2 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.
paqrat2 years ago
This is a wonderful instructable. Informative and fascinating.
EdurusFas3 years ago
It is AWESOME that you area saving all these old clocks. Wind up clocks are becoming a dying art- and to be able to work on them is amazing! Kudos to you!!!!
knife141 (author)  EdurusFas3 years ago
Thanks for your comment!
TAP1193 years ago
Knife, that's so cool that you like to refurbish old clocks. I wish I had my parents' windup Big Ben alarm clock. As I got older, I remembered how it would gently start: ding......ding.....ding..ding..ding.ding.dingdingding, etc. Its bell had a nice sound.

zack2473 years ago
what might you think is the problem with a old battery powered bulova quartz clock?

it will keep the time for a few hours at a time, otherwise it doesnt do anything.

theres a 8 pin chip, a quartz crystal, and there seems to be a variable resistor of some sort too.

it hasnt ever been dropped, and the gears dont seem to be bent or anything, as far as i can tell the clock should be in perfect working order. its strange that its working like this, do you know what could be wrong?
knife141 (author)  zack2473 years ago
It could be a variety of things -- bad battery, bad connection, worn clock shaft, gear burrs, etc. Quartz movements are cheap to buy. If you want to save the clock, I'd just replace the movement.
Just because you replaced the battery, it doesn't mean the battery is good. Don't buy batteries at the Dollar Store. Buy batteries at Radio Shack on Wednesdays, when they are on sale. You will get good batteries at a good price, and always check them before installing them.
Phil B3 years ago
My wife's grandfather had a chiming electric mantle clock typical of the late 1940s or early 1950s. She wanted it after he died, but her parents hung onto it. They did bring it to us after it no longer worked. We lived near Cleveland, Ohio at the time and I found a clock parts place in the yellow pages. We were going to downtown Cleveland with her parents, anyway. I got the sealed part of the GE Telecron motor with the moving parts inside and cleaned up some green scum on some bearings. It was my first (and only) clock project, but with a little lubrication, it was working again before her parents left for home. We still have it and it still works.
knife141 (author)  Phil B3 years ago
These are neat clocks, and apparently somewhat hard to find. The one I have is the only one I've actually ever seen in person. It, too, has a Telechron motor.
kelseymh3 years ago
What a wonerfully detailed and thought out Instructable! The photos are great, too. About the only thing I would have liked (having never worked on a clock before) would have been a few pictures of the inner workings, annotated to show some of the components you mention in your text.
knife141 (author)  kelseymh3 years ago
Thanks for the kind words! I had actually thought about posting a photo of a clock mechanism, but got sidetracked and forgot about it. If I get some time, maybe I can go back and add it. Thanks again.