The ramblings of an old horologist

Ferdinand’s sprockets et al

Posted on: April 30th, 2011 by horologica

In April a chap, say Ferdinand, brought in a 30 hour longcase clock movement because the chain kept slipping round the sprockets on the two main wheels – a common enough problem caused by wear.

The trouble is that most of these weight-driven clocks started life with a rope to drive the wheels, but the ropes fray quite quickly as the spikes on the sprockets grip and release them. So most ropes needed replacing frequently. They also cause a lot of unwanted dust fibres in the movement, which sticks to the oil and dries out the pivot holes. So most owners have opted to replace the worn out rope with longer-lasting metal chain and this was no exception.

The particular problem was that the sprockets were original; there were just five spikes on each and they were worn and not designed for chain so they were too short and only two spikes were in contact with the chain at any one time. It needed new sprockets designed for a chain, plus a new chain, which I supplied and fitted using the existing cheeks to retain as much originality as possible.

Then while the movement was in pieces I agreed to clean the pivots and pivot holes and re-oil them. The owner collected the movement but when he got it home, he  re-fitted the dial and hands and put it back into the trunk himself. Next day he rang to say that the clock would not go and the strike would not stop.

The only way to sort this was to see the movement in action in situ, which I offered to do free of charge. I found that the pin on the strike wheel was now bent flat and it soon became obvious that it was suffering from metal fatigue and needed to be replaced. So I agreed to replace it free of charge, on site. This is not a small job as it entails stripping the movement again and I learnt from this not to reassemble a job on the bench without checking all the parts (even if I was not being paid to check them). Had I done so, I would have spotted the damage and fitted a new pin before assembly and collection. That was the strike problem sorted.

As I refitted the dial, I replaced the nails and split pins with proper steel taper pins, and I also added a new domed washer to the rather loose minute hand. Then, once the movement was installed, I could hear that it was out of beat. Some clocks will run like that and as this one was screwed to the wall, I guess it must have for many years. But there is a very great risk of it stopping, as indeed this one had evidently done. So I adjusted the crutch manually and set it in beat for this particular clock case, which of course I had not seen before. Again, no charge.

When I left the clock was running well again and it still is. The owner is delighted but I’ve learnt also not to expect an owner to be able to set up a longcase clock himself so henceforth I insist on attrending to the set up personally. It’s quicker and cheaper for me in the long run.

Another lesson learned.


Useless Eustace – the ‘friend who knows all about clocks’

Posted on: March 25th, 2011 by horologica

I had a call this week from a local clock repairer. Sticking with my sequential use of the alphabet, let’s call him ‘Eustace’. Eustace explained that he had  spent the day cleaning a friend’s clock. Having got it going again, he’d put the movement back into its wooden case but he had a problem – he was clean out of clock oil. Did I have any spare oil to help him out?

Now oil’s not expensive, but it’s not cheap either, not the quality stuff I use anyway. And it’s widely available online at a number of suppliers who’ll deliver next day. So I reminded him, as any repairer would already know, that there were many types of oil, and different viscosities were needed for different parts of a clock and different clock types, but he insisted he needed some today and that any type would do.

This is all very odd, I thought. The amount of oil needed for a clock was so tiny that you don’t just suddenly run out of oil and you don’t just have one bottle anyway.  I suspected that he had never bought or used clock oil before, which meant that he could not be a serious repairer at all, so I quizzed him some more. “What do you use to apply the oil and where do you apply it?”, I asked. He used a matchstick and added oil to all the moving parts! “Not the wheels and pinions? I challenged. “What do you mean by ‘pinions’?” came the unexpected response. “Is it a timepiece?” I asked, “or a two or three train movement? And how are you going to oil the front pivots now that you’ve already screwed the movement back in the case?”.

“I don’t understand what you mean.” By now, I had detected a Scottish accent so perhaps he just didn’t want to pay for his oil. But he was persistent so I offered to assist and a couple of hours later, he appeared at the door. “What did you use to clean the movement? I enquired, tempting him with a small phial of oil in my hand. “WD40″ came the instant reply, as though all clock repairers use it.

Argh! WD40 is wholly unsuitable for clocks and the image of Eustace spraying it all over the fully assembled movement sent a shudder down my spine. “WD40 contains all manner of chemicals that clocks don’t like” I explained. No repairer would even be seen with a can in his workshop, let alone use it on a clock. On the contrary, I have spent many an hour trying to remove all trace of WD40 (including that distinctive smell) from a movement.

Heaven only knows what the impact is of mixing clock oil with WD40 but this clock is moribund already so what the heck! I  handed Eustace the £10 phial free of charge and told him that he had no idea about clock repairing. Still, he left happy and smiling.

This was my first face-to-face contact with uncle Bodger, the ubiquitous “friend who knows all about clocks” to whom people entrust their treasured heirlooms, just to save a few pounds.

Useless Eustace!


horologica reaches out to Dubai (and now Tazmania)

Posted on: February 22nd, 2011 by horologica

Would you believe it? I have worked on and repaired the clocks in my collection inside these four walls in complete isolation for the best part of thirty five years. Then I wrote a website just for fun and almost immediately began to receive requests to repair other people’s clocks in and around Billericay, my home town. Then the word spread further afield, taking off across all of Essex. Next people were travelling from neighbouring Kent, then Kingston upon Thames.

I’ve since had enquiries from Newcastle and Rotherham, and then just before Christmas, Northern Ireland. Next it was Germany.  And then a chap brought in a 400 day clock for me to prepare for him to take to the Middle East, carrying it in his hand luggage (not ticking though!). Word quickly spread round that region , for soon afterwards I had an enquiry from a collector in Oud Metha in Dubai (before the troubles broke out).  This month, I’m helping  Doc, an enthusiast in Tanzania off the coast of Australia, who shares my utter dismay at the lack of service and support offered by L’Epée, a Swiss firm that started making carriage clocks almost 200 years ago and now seems to keep changing hands as frequently as a Premier League footballer.

John Harrison (he of “Longitude” fame who made an accurate sea-going clock rendering international navigation much safer, long before satnav) would have been blown away by this internet thing; it’s truly amazing. You type a page up that has no tangible existence, send it into cyberspace where it is mysteriously filed with billions and billions of similarly invisible pages, and then someone on the other side of the world searches for some of its content, not even knowing that it’s there, finds it and communicates with the author by email all in less time than Mr Harrison took to get out his Jacot tool.

Who’d have thought it? Certainly not Harrison, methinks!


Contrate wheels and how not to fit them, Claus!

Posted on: January 11th, 2011 by horologica

A lady brought me a small reproduction bracket clock late yesterday afternoon. It was a gift from her father three years ago but unfortunately it had never worked. Now living in Germany, she tried repeatedly to get it repaired locally. The last repairer had it for six months but still couldn’t fix it. Their expert, Claus, was emphatic: “Nein, zis eez unt Ingleesh clokken, und ve carnot get ze parts” he exclaimed!

She was due to return to Germany next day so while she was here, I opened it up to find a small but clean balance wheel movement inside. I could tell that it had been dismantled before by the marks on the screw heads and I said I thought it curious that the platform, supporting the jewelled lever escapement, was the wrong way round so that the regulator arm was impossible to access through the regulator slot in the back. I explained that I’d need to look at it more closely so I agreed to have it ready before her next visit to the UK in March.

After dinner, I released the tension in the mainspring and looked at it again. By applying a little pressure on the wheels, I got the clock running but there was a serious flaw- it ran backwards! It didn’t need any parts; Claus had simply rebuilt the movement back to front.

In a clock movement, the escapement controls the speed with which the escape wheel turns and in this clock that was a contrate wheel, which is a special gear on which the teeth are cut sideways into it, rather than vertically. It’s common on carriage clocks that have a balance wheel lever escapement mounted on a platform on top and reminds me of  the crown wheel in early verge movements on which it might be derived.

I saw that the pinion was in the centre of the arbor, which is a little unusual so I rebuilt the movement, reversing the contrate wheel so that it was now facing the back instead of the front, and that enabled me to fit the platform the correct way round. A few adjustments later and the clock was running again.

It just goes to show that sometimes you can’t see the problem even though it’s staring you in the face. The delighted owner collected it this morning on her way back to Germany.   Job completed in under a day.

England 1, Germany Nil.

Auf  Wiedersehen,


Don’t they know it’s Christmas, B’jesus?

Posted on: December 7th, 2010 by horologica

Well, not long till Christmas now. Yet still the good folk of Essex keep ringing for advice and guidance on fixing their clocks. And the word’s spreading – a chap in Newcastle called last week for advice about starting a 400 day clock collection and then a nice fella in Northern Ireland rang in the late evening at the weekend – just to talk horology for a while. Don’t they know it’s Christmas?

It’s getting colder now so to reflect the change in weather, I thought I’d add a bit of falling snow to my website. Getting the javascript to create snow effect was easy but it prompted me to ‘fix’ the website’s timeclock on the same page. I had previously downloaded some Flash code and images from the internet and set it up a couple of years ago when modernising the site; whoever designed it knew more about Flash than me, but a lot less about clocks (like whoever designed this WordPress template – the wheels could never actually turn because they are all interlocked!). In fact it was more like a pocket watch without a case than a clock and is quite commonly found on t’internet. A lot of things irritated me about it – that seconds dial, the lack of any case, the mismatched hands, the absence of any name… So I set about making my own last week. For the dial and case I photographed a fusee dial clock that I have here for repair at the moment and saved it as a jpg. Using Fireworks, I then airbrushed out the logo and superimposed ‘horologica’ and Billericay’ in text over the top. I also drew the hands in Fireworks, modelling them on the actual hands from the same clock to maintain authenticity. I then found some ActionScript and modified it because the minute hand only moved once every sixty seconds (like a quartz clock). As you can see, it now resembles the slow but continuous movement of the 19 century fusee movement that it is based on. The graphics still need some work but I much prefer it to the previous pocket watch, particularly as I don’t repair pocket watches! So, that’s another clock fixed, albeit with different tools from what I’m used to.

Have a great one!


Time to wake up, Angelique?

Posted on: November 11th, 2010 by horologica


Well it’s Armistice Day again, 2010, which means that statistically at least half my life’s passed me by already so I thought I’d better give the PC a kick (or is it a boot?) and find out what blogging was all about before it’s too late. I’m already confused by social netmaking, Tweeter and Faceblock so I’m hoping that blogging will be easier.

Time-permitting, I plan to describe some of the unusual clock repair situations I encounter every so often but in a light-hearted way and with a large added dose of poetic license. To protect my ‘victims’, all the names will be made up and arranged in alphabetical order, like the hurricanes of the US. So I’ll start with Angelique, the owner of a German ting tang bracket clock that I’ve just repaired. She rang me on Monday, a few days after collecting her restored clock, to report a strange high-pitched screeching sound moments after it struck  7 o’clock.

That’s bizarre, I thought. There’s nothing in this clock that could cause that so I wondered, with intrigue, what it could be and asked her to bring it back. It transpired that the high-pitch screech came not from the clock, but from her mobile phone! It was probably an alarm she had set for 7am.

There was a different problem with the clock’s strike train, however, which caused it to strike seven at one o’clock so I asked her to leave it with me anyway. As she prepared to leave, her phone began to bark like a lapdog and she jokingly explained that it was only her husband! After she’d gone, I began wondering if perhaps they had a pet bulldog at home and if so what he made of all this.

So who’s in charge of this asylum? I’m beginning to feel quite normal already and I’d like to leave now, please. Not much of an inaugural blog you’re thinking, but heaps better than the usual cringe-worthy “Hello World”. OMG!