Diary of a clock repairer is a monthly column in CLOCKS magazine, recalling the trials and tribulations of the job. It was started in the early 1980s by the late David Swindells FBHI, who used to work not half a mile from my father and me.
Being up in the Yorkshire Dales, it always had a flavour of James Herriott about it, the more so because David was one of the last clockmakers I knew who used to visit Great Houses on a weekly basis to wind the clocks and catch up on the “below stairs” chat. David continued right up until his untimely death two years ago. Always light hearted but informative, his “diary” gave great pleasure to many. I hope my own comes close to his wit and clarity.
“I’ve got a lovely old grandfather clock, it belonged to William Gladstone”, said Mrs McCreedy. “Would you come and take a look? It hasn’t worked since we moved house, but I’m fairly sure my father cleaned it himself before he died”.
From the tone of Mrs McCreedy’s voice I suspected father died not long after Gladstone. Nonetheless I was intrigued. I made an appointment to go and see the clock.
I’ve had customers claim all sorts of daft things as regards the “provenance” of their clocks. Only today someone brought in a clock, clearly a mass-produced product of the 1950s, which the customer alleged was a wedding present in 1923.
Quite why people labour under the misapprehension that all apprentices made “an apprentice piece” which will in some way be unique I do not know. I am sure there were clockmakers who, as they moved towards the completion of their time in the 1770s, quietly worked away at making their “own” clock for the fun of it. For the majority however, it is clear from the number of apprentice signatures I have seen engraved inside clocks that they were happily churning clocks out for their masters long before the traditional seven years were up.
Once again this week I was introduced to a cute miniature longcase clock, made about 1900 with a cheap pin-pallet German thirty hour movement, the whole thing standing about eight inches (20cm) tall. “My great uncle was a clockmaker in Sleaford, and I think this was his apprentice-piece.” Well how can I begin to explain that clockmakers rarely worked on wood at that time, and would be unlikely to produce as an “apprentice piece” a mass-produced clock of the cheapest manufacture. It can be a tough job trying to let people down as gently as possible.
Not long after taking Mrs McCreedy’s call, I took another phone call enquiring about painted dial restoration. One of our regular customers had a dial which might have been from Benjamin Disraeli’s clock.
Now as you have already seen from the above paragraphs, I can be a little cynical about where things come from. The customer promised to send me a picture of the dial to see if I could date it, as it was rather unusual. My usual cynicism was shouted down by the triumph of hope over experience. If I timed things right I could have the dials from Gladstone and Disraeli’s clocks simultaneously perched on my workbench. What fun!
Alas, the Disraeli dial turned out to be a little disappointing. The Disraeli connection was because there exists a painting of the great man with the clock behind him. Although most unusual, it was a definite dial type I had seen before and we had restored a similar dial for one of the Cambridge colleges a couple of years before.
What I could help the customer with however, was that whereas his dial was unsigned, the Cambridge one had been signed Finnemore. Thus a further snippet of information could go back to the owner.
Still, it all got me thinking about nineteenth century politics. I went to the sort of school where they believed sitting for twelve O levels was normal, unless you were really clever. The fatal flaw in this was that I would have to work like a Trojan all year in order to revise for them, I took a gamble. History had the most facts to learn so I would flunk History.
So as not to arouse alarm in my History teacher I stayed awake in lessons but that was all. When it came to sitting the exams, all I could remember was that Gladstone took his exercise by felling trees on his country estate and Lord Salisbury used to ride a tricycle. Allegedly Salisbury would free-wheel down hill and get one of the servants to push him up the other side. I’ve forgotten who was the first Secretary of State to install electric lighting and to electrocute his under-butler.
To my absolute fury when results time came, I got a “D” in History. If only I had remembered who electrocuted the under-butler, I might have scraped a “C”.
Still, off to see Mrs McCreedy.
Who was charm herself when I arrived. She showed me upstairs to where the clock wobbled, perilously angled across a corner on a half-landing where vigorous dogs thumped into it every time they ran up and down stairs.
I persuaded her to try moving the clock to a more secure location where, being flat against a wall, the weight was not bourn by the sides of the hood as it slowly slipped forwards. It was as nothing however, to the combination of wear, dirt and dead spiders lurking inside the movement. I knew however, that if I brought the clock back, restored, to the half landing then frequent house calls would be in order.
After much persuading, Mrs McCreedy agreed to the new location. I wrote a receipt out for the clock and I started to pack the movement into a box.
With all the stress of persuading a lady of advanced years and opinions to move her clock from “It’s favourite place” – the one where it had never worked – I had almost forgotten about William Ewert Gladstone.
“Oh yes,” said Mrs McC. “Would you like to see the letter?” How could I refuse. She proffered a neat letter, written in a script that could have been my late grandmothers, which related the clock had been “late in Hawarden Castle”, Gladstone’s house. The letter writer, so neat in all other things, had signed it in an illegible scrawl and dated 1898.
“That’s the year Gladstone died”, I almost shouted. “If only I had been able to remember it in the exam”.
“Which reminds me, I’m still not sure about moving the clock”, replied Mrs McC, “As Gladstone said: To be engaged in opposing wrong affords but a slender guarantee for being right.”
Come to think of it there are few things more fragile than clocks and watches. This week I have been thwarted by two customers who took their clocks home and broke them straight away.
Mr Green had a small, time only, carriage clock. After much humming and hahing he had decided to pay us more than it was worth to have it overhauled. We lovingly cleaned it, polished much worn pivots, bushed holes and replaced mainspring in the hope of getting it pretty much back to “good as new” order.
Incidentally it was one of a great many spring driven clocks where we have found the need to bush the spring barrel in order to get the barrel to sit square and upright in the train. We have had a few clocks in over the years where other repairers have spent many fruitless hours fussing over every other part but failing to spot wear in the barrel – which can clearly be seen lurching to one side like a drunk in a strong wind.
Mr Green came in to collect the clock and we sat down and gave him a lesson in how to look after the clock. Experience has taught that it does no harm to do this with every customer, no matter how patronised they feel. We explained how to set it to time and more importantly how to wind it.
The vast majority of carriage clocks wind in the same way (though not all) in that one half turn of the key equates to one day’s run. So seven days running needs seven half turns to wind back to fully wound.
It was with a little sense of disappointment then, that I saw the clock returned a week later. Mr Green had “overwound” the clock to the extent that the teeth on the spring barrel had sheered. As we had charged a small fortune to fix the clock, I took pity on Mr Green and decided to cut a new barel wheel for free.
So to the second offending clock. Unlike Mr Green’s clock, this was one of my misguided “part jobs”. A wee French mantle clock with a carriage clock like movement, its only fault was the winding spring had sheared. We had some identical springs in stock, which cost pennies, so I repaired it on the spot and charged a nominal sum.
The clock came back a week later, “overwound” and with sheared teeth on the barrel. When I explained that the only remedy now was to strip it and overhaul the lot, including the cost of a new barrel wheel the customer was furious. In the end she took it away undone and in bad humour. Is it really my fault she broke the thing?
I’ve not long returned from the British Horological Institute’s Summer Show. This year’s was a particularly jazzy do as the BHI is 150 years old and quite pleased with itself.
One of the very best aspects of the Institute is the sense of solidarity in the industry these days. Once upon a time clock and watchmakers revelled in the secrets and mysteries of their trade. Clockmakers would put down their tools when a visitor entered the workshop to ensure no secrets were given away.
Not so nowadays, where there is no longer a great sense of competition in the trade. Instead professionals and amateurs alike delight in sharing tips and information. I don’t think I have ever visited the Institute without coming away with some useful snippet of information.
My best this time was a tip on re-waxing brass dials. I’ve talked about silvering before in these pages so shalln’t bore you with that bit. Restoring brass dials is a thorny subject; we tread a careful path between what we believe is the correct approach and what the customer wants.
Every time a dial is cleaned, re-waxed and re-silvered, detail of the engraving is lost in the process. A little thought has to be put towards the conservation/restoration aspect. This is best explained to the customer. I usually remark on how if you don’t have the dial restored, you can change your mind late. If you do have it restored, it can’t be undone.
Re-waxing is probably the most damaging aspect of the process. We’ve all seen dials where the old wax has chipped and fallen away and there is no doubt that a well restored dial looks lovely by comparison. Generally speaking the older or scarcer a dial, the more this has to be approached with trepidation and an awareness of the potential damage.
It generally helps to start completely afresh. The best way to do this is by removing all the old wax with the tip of a graver or similar. Having done this we gently warm the dial on a hot plate until, if you hold a block of black wax on it, the wax will gently run to a liquid and into the engraving. Too much heat will have the wax bubbling away (leaving bubbles in the finished wax) and do no good for the dial itself
Ordinarily, I would at this point leave the dial to cool, covered in wax. It then takes some effort to scrub away the excess wax lying where it wasn’t wanted, and producing a gently grained or polished surface as appropriate.
The tip of the day was to make a wooden chisel, with a blade about a couple of centimetres or an inch wide. As the wax is still molten, use the chisel to scrape away as much of the excess wax as possible.
This has two advantages. The first is that far less brass is removed along with the excess wax and the job takes half the time. As less brass is removed there is a sense of the restoration being far less damaging to the engraving.The second result is that as the wax cools, it will shrink back slightly into the engraving. When the dial (or chapter ring or what have you) is then cleaned, instead of the engraving wax being a mat finish level with the dial, it has a slightly gloss finish, leaving – to my mind – a much more attractive finish.
If at this point the waxing looks a bit patchy – some gloss, some mat – then the answer is to just wave a blowtorch somewhere over the top of the dial, just enough to melt the very surface wax and no more. The result is a very even, glossy wax in every bit of the engraving. I can’t remember who told me this but I am most grateful.With a little practice since, my dials look better than they ever did and I have less of a sense of shame at having “removed” detail that was hundreds of years old.
It can take its toll in the end you know. The ceaseless battle between finding time to repair clocks, deal with the tax man, deliver and collect countless things hither and thither, it eventually grinds you down a bit.
Still, we have made a profit for four months in a row. This is a first, after having had the town centre shop for a mere six years. I did ask myself on more than a few occasions whether I would have been better off staying at home and working from the shed at the bottom of the garden.
Margaret has levered up a gear in clock repairing mentality in the last year and is now quite able to deal with almost anything that comes through the door. She has also managed to end up nominated for Stamford and Rutland’s “employee of the year”. At first neither of us were much impressed with this, but we now find she is in the final three out of seventy-odd nominations. This Thursday we tromp off to a black tie dinner and awards ceremony.
It might all sound a bit “small town”, but you have to enjoy being a bit “small town” to live here in the first place.
Oliver meanwhile continues apace with his so called “apprenticeship”. (That’s the apprenticeship that attracts no government funding, as they don’t recognise clock and watchmaking as anything but a hobby.)
He has passed both theory and practical British Horological Institute exams, but resolutely failed his Technical Drawing both last Summer and last Winter. Perhaps it’s my fault. I encouraged him to do the TD, which I have never done myself. We have now engaged a tutor for this, as our secretary Suzette is equally keen to pass her BHI exams and move into the watch world, so the two of them can study side by side.
Both Oliver and his tutor at Birmingham School of Jewellery railed against the idea of sending him as a “day-release” student. The tutor maintained he would not last the course. Oliver complained that he learnt more in the clock shop than he ever did in college. I’m not so sure. In eighteen months he has progressed faster than any employee I’ve ever had. Sadly, lack of demand means that no college is likely to offer this option again.
Suzette continues to go off for her fortnightly day in a friend’s watch workshop. She can now confidently strip and service simple mechanical watches and replace “off the shelf” bits by herself. Considering she spends nearly all day every day on the telephone to customers or dealing with paperwork, she must be putting in the hours at home!
So: all is well in the clock shop. As my wife Robina was about to apply for another step up the greasy pole of management in our local Further Education college (well one of us needs to have a proper job) she decided a short break would do us both good. “A break. Nothing to do with work at all.” I was all in favour.
We had decided to take a trip to London. A moment on the internet had us booked into a nice, old-fashioned, central hotel and off we went. The first night coincided with a dinner for the Worshipful Company of Clockmakers.
Robina is a sucker for anything that involves a new frock, so it was easy to talk her into that one. Sat on a table next to four other repairers / restorers and their clock widows however, she began to ponder the wisdom of my choice. I suppose talk did revolve around “trade” a little too much, but how often do we clockies get the chance to sit down over dinner and a glass or two of something?
The following day I had to pop to Hatton Garden to see a jeweller who does some repair work for me. Robina was tickled by this, as she had never actually visited Hatton Garden. I suppose it does sound glamorous if you have never been there. After visiting a gloomy workshop in grimy, run-down building that health and safety might condemn at any moment, she soon began to get the measure of the place though.
We decided that the three of us should go out for a light lunch, where yes, I suppose the conversation did revolve around work a little. That night we went out for dinner with a couple of friends up from Kent. Yes, they are both clock restorers, but as I said, “They are good fun”.
On the last morning of our little jaunt, I chanced to have a chat with housekeeping at the hotel. They had three antique clocks in the hotel. Two were not working and one was on its last legs. It only took a few minutes to assess each one for repair. What a good job I had my toolbox in the car, otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to get a proper look inside the bracket clock. Robina had advised me to leave it behind for some reason.
I was just concluding business when Robina appeared in the hotel lobby. As she caught the tail end of the conversation I could see her usually benign countenance darken. “Right,” said I. “What shall we do today. Absolutely nothing with clocks whatsoever. Anything you like.”
We decided on the exhibition of William Hogarth’s work at Tate Britain. I guessed it had to be a harmless day out.
Halfway around the exhibition we were looking at the six prints of “Marriage a la mode”. I started explaining how Lord Squanderfield’s drawing room in plate two had a “Frenchifed, over the top cartel clock, the height of fashion for a dandy in the 1720s, contrasting with the rather old fashioned and pedestrian lantern clock in the miserly merchant’s rooms in plate six”. I turned around only to discover that I was talking to myself.
I remember someone asking me once, with a hint of sarcasm, “If you’re such a good clock repairer, why do you have to go back to customers so often?”
Sometimes I seem to spend a whole day going back to jobs “under guarantee” again. These can start with the banal: where the longcase clock has sunk sideways into the carpet and the clock is no longer in beat. They move to the mendacious: “I haven’t touched the clock. I have no idea why the rack tail is bent and mangled,” to which the reply is that someone has tried to advance the time without waiting for the clock to strike each hour. I was on one such occasion informed that the poltergeist must have done it.
I went to visit a straightforward eight-day longcase clock, which the customer assured me had worked fine for months but now he couldn’t get a tick out of it at all. This clock had seemed textbook perfect in the workshop. It has no calendar, so nothing to jam or fail. The case is screwed to the wall with giant bolts, so it seemed unlikely it could have moved. When I left the clock the escapement was one of the most efficient I have seen in a while and had me wondering if the clock was designed to work atop swaying Singaporean multi-storey buildings.
On arrival I found the problem. The hour hand was bent. The seconds hand, at a quarter to twelve, had slipped inside a loop of the hour hand’s piercing. The clock had continued ticking for a further ten seconds until the seconds and the hour hand had locked tight. Further efforts of the customer to give the pendulum a push once or twice had entwined the hands lovingly together for all time. It took a minute to reverse the power, making the clock tick backwards, and tease the hands apart.
The hour hand had been bent at the stem. “Oh well my grand daughter helped me put up the Christmas decorations this year, and she did try to decorate the clock until stopped her”.
Still, on returning to the shop the staff were in a flutter. A customer had telephoned to say they had found a brass wall clock signed Thomas Thompion, whilst clearing out a cupboard in an old engineering works. They were about to e-mail pictures of said clock, to see if it was genuine and decide what to do next.
I have to say I was mildly interested. I’ve had one or two false alarms on such things, like the lantern clock signed Thomas Mudge, which was delightful except for the signature that could have been engraved by a child, probably executed only a few years before, ruining a perfectly nice anonymous lantern.
But on the other hand, we have pleasant surprises. One customer had no idea their Louis Breguet repeating watch either repeated, or had any value beyond the scrap weight of the gold. I waited with baited breath for the Thompion photographs.
Meanwhile my landlord, flavour of the month having decided not to throw us out for a few more years, brought in a pile of scrap he had picked up at a flea market. It was a 1970s reproduction staartclok, one of those mass produced wall clocks with pear shaped brass weights. We oiled it and managed to get the thing ticking and striking.
Having peered at the inside for some time, I chanced to look at the dial whilst setting the hands to time. Below the XII was an engraved plaque with the name “Thomas Thompion”. I began to think about the Thompion pictures on the Internet, wending their way to me.
I presented the clock back to my landlord, without a bill on the grounds that us not having to move workshops was worth a free tweak of a clock and a spot of oil. Having said our goodbyes, I turned to the computer.
There in front of me was a lovely set of pictures of a 1970s reproduction staartclok, complete with the name Thomas Thompion.
The following day, a lady walked into the shop and said she wanted to give away a grandmother clock. It was mine for spare parts if I could be bothered to make the ten mile round trip to collect it, otherwise it would go on the bonfire. She was moving house and had nowhere to put it in her new flat.
On the basis that many grandmother clocks are indeed worthless, I said I would be glad of it but could not make a special journey. Weeks later I found the scrap of paper with her name on, that had fallen behind my desk. As I was due to almost pass by her house later that day, I chanced a telephone call. “Yes, I still have the clock. I’m moving this week though, so I want rid of it today. Do you have a large van?”
As most grandmother clocks do not warrant a large van, I explained I had a big estate car that would take most clocks. “It touches the ceiling” she replied. Well I can’t imagine any clock which touches the ceiling to be worthless, so I set out immediately to see what was what.
To cut a long story short I was given a nice 1790s longcase clock. In spite of my protestations that it was too good to give away, and having given the owner a good idea of what it was worth, she was determined. “Take it for spares” she persisted. I explained that I would sell it at auction. “Good for you” she replied. I explained I would no doubt get at least five hundred pounds for it. “That’s your affair”, she replied. “You repaired my husband’s watch before he died. It made his day, as he had been told it couldn’t be repaired. This must be God’s way of rewarding you.”
There’s only so much looking a gift horse in the mouth you can do, so I slid the clock into the car and drove home.
The mountain of work undone grows sullenly in the workshop. Customers telephone with foolish comments along the lines of “well you’ve had my clock a week and I haven’t had a telephone call to say what’s wrong with it.” It can be hard to bite my tongue and not reply, “if I wasn’t on the phone now, then I might be looking at clocks instead of failing to give you the answer you so urgently crave”.
In fact some reverse psychology flits in occasionally. Customers who say “no rush” are usually met with “please, if you value your sanity, never say that to a clockmaker.” I am reminded of a friend who told an irritated customer, “I don’t feel like working on chronometers in the winter months. Try me again in June”.
I try hard not to tell barefaced lies to customers. An honest “I haven’t even looked at your clock for three weeks. I have other jobs to do and yours, as you already know, is something of a beast and not one we expect to make any money out of” seems not to upset many people.
Sometimes there is no option but to leave someone else to answer the telephone – assuring the world that I am “out” – and to buckle down and actually do some work. We’re all quite chatty in the workshop, so I leave these days for when either Margaret or Oliver are not here, otherwise there isn’t the opportunity to concentrate. With three of us together there is too much pushing and shoving over who has which tools or who is using the cleaning room (a glorified cupboard with a window which will not open and a noisy extractor fan over Hissing Sid, the ultrasonic tank).
The first job is a bracket clock, which will not run in spite of our initial efforts. Margaret assured me the day before that the problem is probably with the front pivot of the escape wheel, which she believes has no shoulder to speak of. As I check it over however, it seems obvious that the mesh of the fusee wheel with the centre wheel is not right. Stripping it down I see that a series of previous repairers have replaced first three, then one more either side, teeth: five in all.
The replaced teeth vary in degrees of correctness. The outer two are neat jobs, each one has a lovely profile to match the original teeth; the inner three have been inserted one at a time, with no dovetailing, and rather than a “bishop’s mitre” tooth profile, are straight bits of brass with the edges rounded off.
Textbooks suggest that to replace more than three teeth is asking for trouble. It creates too much room for error, too much drift from even spacing. The correct answer would be to cut a new wheel. I remember however, a nasty modern reproduction fusee wheel in the scrap box. Its radius and module almost exactly match and I chop five teeth out of that and fit them instead. As I try the newly repaired train, it runs perfectly smoothly – I can neither feel nor hear any difference between the new teeth and the old. It’s worth a chance. I re-assemble the clock and set it going, to see it stop again two hours later.
The escape wheel has jammed.
Meanwhile Mrs Gardener’s miniature carriage clock will not keep time. We have overhauled the platform time and again until it must be perfect and yet the clock loses. I have known the clock for years and it used to keep time until last month, so perhaps the problem is with the hands tension. Maybe the clock does keep time, but the hands do not keep up. So I while away an hour or two trying to get a friction fit sleeve perfect. When I am sure the hands tension is correct, I put the clock together again. Ten minutes later I check to see if it is still working.
Only to see the balance wheel spin happily, hesitate, stop for over a second, and then set off again. As Oliver is fresh from his Horological Institute “Platform Escapement” course, I suggest he strips it one more time and seek the cause of this mystery. By now it is late in the day and I must answer some of the endless telephone messages that have built up.
After an hour on the telephone I nip back upstairs to find Oliver on his knees, shoeless, in the kitchen. “The light was fading, so I decided to bring the lever in here to see better”, he explained. “Then I dropped it”. Which reminded both of us why the workshop has a hardboard floor, laid shiny side up, rather than the kitchen which is carpeted. Both of us spend a further ten minutes feeling our way through the carpet to locate the wretched thing.
Still he had, prior to dropping it, found the cause of the problem. I suggest leaving this to the following morning when there is some better daylight. Oliver has much sympathy with the repairer who doesn’t do chronometers in winter.
I go back downstairs for some fool reason or other, only to be confronted with Mrs Gardener standing in the shop. “I did say I wanted my clock back quickly, and you’ve had it for over two months now”. She took no pleasure in the knowledge that part of it was definitely not lost in the kitchen carpet. It seems my belief in honesty being the best policy didn’t work today.
Before Mrs Gardener has left, another little old lady has brought in a carriage clock. “Could you tell me what it would cost to repair?” No. We charge ten pounds to take it to pieces and then give you a price. If you have the work done, the ten pounds comes off your bill. If not, then you have paid us ten pounds to take it to pieces and put it together again.
“If you take it to pieces and put it together, and the clock then works, is that covered by the ten pounds?” Well yes, but that is rather an unlikely outcome. “Let’s try that then shall we?”
I am sorely tempted to decommission her clock for ever.
A spate of clocks seem to have wandered through the door which have “been restored” but don’t work. I usually try to persuade customers that they should go back to the original repairer but often they have moved on or passed on, one of the two. In this instance it is hard to know what to do.
One friend of mine regards each such clock as a new job and charges accordingly. I am beginning to suspect though, that the answer is to take the normal cost of overhauling the item and add another fifty percent.
I collected a 1780s ting-tang quarter chiming bracket clock. It looked spotlessly clean, except for the black oil in the pivot holes, which suggested much radical polishing of brass and a careless approach to cleaning out pivot holes.
The clock simply would not go. The previous repairer had been out to it a few times and had slipped cigarette paper thin shims under each foot of the clock in a desperate attempt to get the clock perfectly in beat. I noticed that the smaller pivots had been re-bushed with “push-fit” commercial bushes. I don’t think there is much wrong with these, but there is a tendency for fast workers to re-bush in the wrong place.
If the original pivot hole has worn 0.5mm to one side over the years, opening out the hole and fitting a new bush will leave the new pivot hole roughly 0.25mm to one side of where it should be. These measurements may seem tiny when looking at a longcase clock. In fact they are fairly big, as it affects how the very tips of teeth and pinion leaves mesh.
Looking at the original oil-sink depressions in the plates, it was clear that the new bushes were indeed slightly off-centre. So, re-measure and set those then. The bigger pivot holes, although badly worn, were not bushed. So, bush those as well then. I tried the strike around by hand and it seemed to work correctly, ting-tanging once for each quarter and only on the larger bell counting each hour.
We see many clocks where that have been “fully overhauled” and the larger pivots have not been attended to at all. As though “those big pivots are just there to support the weight / spring”. It’s not the case. Yes it takes a little bit more time to bush a big hole than a small one, and it is usually to do by hand rather than use a bushing machine, but we had one longcase clock that had worn so badly, in spite of the clock having been regularly overhauled throughout its life, that finally the customer went to wind the clock one day and it immediately unwound itself at speed, stripping the tips off all the teeth on the great-wheel and bending or breaking a few teeth along the way – not to mention bending the arbour above in the process. Spoiling the ship for a ha’penny worth of tar sprang to mind.
We do also see unnecessary bushing, notably on fusee clocks. In a fusee mechanism the spring barrel arbour does not rotate in use, it is fixed. Every so often we see that those holes have been bushed along with everything else. As the arbour only turns when the clock is being assembled, it’s impossible to think that it needed bushing in the first place.
Only after three days of working on the bracket clock did we discover that the clock always stopped just after the third quarter had struck. At this point a shunt mechanism pushes the small hammer out of the way, pushing against a blade spring.
If the blade spring is stronger than the hands-tension spring, this will do one of two things. Either the clock will carry on ticking but the hands not move, or the clock will stop. Removing the pusher spring I noticed for the first time that it was a replacement. Beautifully made, it was perfect in design for the clock, merely about three times thicker than it needed to be.
We thinned the spring down to weaken it and the problem was solved. The next question was – should we have bothered with all that bushing?
David Swindells, late of this column, once told me to always, when repairing striking or chiming clocks, assemble the clock with just the going train first and see if it will go. Only having done that would you then start to add on strike bits, then calendar bits etcetera. When I first started repairing clocks I would do this every time. The trouble is after twenty years you think you know what you are doing. If I had tried the going train alone in the bracket clock it might have saved me two days’ work. With forty years’ experience, David knew better than me.
Another thing he told me was never to abuse another professional’s work – no matter how bad. Anything could be excused by “something anyone could have missed”. I think it was good advice and have stuck with it. In my very early days as a self employed repairer I made a shoddy job of a carriage clock, probably because in those days I was fool enough to be “competitive” on price. (No good if you then discover that you are competing with people who don’t do a decent job themselves). Still, when I had finished the clock did work, keep time and strike correctly. A few years later it ended up in another repairer’s workshop. He declared it couldn’t have been cleaned for several decades, looking at the dirt and wear in it. “Oh no,” said the customer, “the last person to do it was Robert Loomes and I’m sure he would have done a good job”.
The other repairer muttered something about how a dusty atmosphere can easily wreck the pivots of clocks and changed the subject. Ten minutes later however, when the customer had left, he was straight on the telephone to me to pull my leg about it. He and I are now good friends and I was reminded that your mistakes always find you out in the end.
Cast your mind back a few months and I was railing against watch companies who will not allow run-of-the-mill repairers to purchase spare parts. We had a watch in last week, a rather expensive one, which had been to another repairer and come back not keeping time at all.
Disappointed, the customer decided to bring it to us. On close examination the holding spring to the shock proof balance assembly proved to be missing and replaced with super-glue.
I can guess what happened. The previous repairer had enthusiastically stripped the shock proofing and the spring (as they will do) had shot across the room, never to be found again. At this point three options occur: option one is to purchase the correct replacement, option two is to make a replacement, and the final option is to stick it with superglue.
The super glue is not a good idea, as at best the watch will no longer have a shockproof balance; at worst it will be ruined. Making a replacement spring is good for practice but not for the bank balance. The correct answer is to replace it with a factory-perfect spring.
The last repairer would have struggled to obtain the correct spring from the manufacturer – certainly I could not get one, as they do not supply spares to the independent repairer.
So, he did what he thought was best under the circumstances. In fact, as I suggested above, making another spring is the best alternative but it takes time. I could charge accordingly, because I could show the customer what his watch should have looked like, and where on his, the relevant part was missing, so the customer understood, whereas the previous repairer could have only held up his hands and admit “I’ve lost it”. If the watch companies didn’t make life so difficult, then this bodging and butchery of their fine watches would not take place. Never mind.
Talking about fine watches reminds me, I have been headhunted – clearly not by someone who reads Clocks magazine as they specifically wanted a watch repairer – but the salary and re-location package was amazing (far more than I have ever earnt). As a teenager I remember being told that I shouldn’t get into watches as by the year 2000 everything would be disposable quartz: clearly not!
Before I drift off the subject of watches for a while, many thanks to Henryk, who sent us a lovely watchmaker’s depthing tool when I mentioned not owning one. I’ve lost your details so this is the only place I can say thanks. Thanks also to all the folk who offered the use of one or to sell one cheaply. Did I mention the fact that we don’t have one of those nice £14,000 Bergeon lathes? Anyone?
Determined to “get out more” I decided to go to the unveiling of the John Harrison’s memorial plaque in Westminster Abbey last month and the series of lectures which followed. A superb day out and a good oportunity to swap clock repair tales with other folk from across the country (and beyond, one repairer having flown specially from Vancouver).
Nobody can chide Dava Sobel for her very readable and hugely successful book Longditude, which charts John Harrison of Barrow’s lifelong struggle to create an accurate sea-going chronometer. My only concern is that Harrison is portrayed as an inspired genius who learnt his clockmaking skills from nobody. During my day out a couple of people told me with pompous certainty how he was, “entirely self-taught you know”.
Anyone who has tried to undertake the British Horological Institute examinations without help from another clockmaker knows how difficult this can be: even more difficult than trying to become a clockmaker from solely having read John Smith’s Horological Disquisitions, which was probably the most common book available on clockmaking when Harrison started in the very early eighteenth century.
Sobel suggests that Barrow in Lincolnshire is a desperately remote corner of the world. A glimpse at early maps of the Humber shows that there were a great number of ferry routes across the river and that Barrow is in fact only a couple of miles from Hull, on a journey no doubt familiar to any Barrow resident with a spare couple of pence for a day out. Whilst not a large town, Hull was probably more important then than now and remains famous as being the first to declare against Charles I in the Civil War. After the restoration of Charles II, Hull had at least one skilled clockmaker in the form of William Trippett, and more by the time Harrison arrived in about 1700.
Please don’t think that I am decrying Harrison’s skill. His are the earliest clocks I’ve ever seen with roller bearings to the escape wheel, and his claimed accuracy of one second a month in the 1720s was as good or better than anyone. Certainly almost three hundred years later I haven’t matched it! I just can’t accept that anyone would wake up one morning and do that without a little bit of a helping hand.
Still, it was a good day out, and much of the chatter amongst repairers was concerning the lengthy backlog of work they had ignored to take time off, which made me feel that at least I’m not alone.
Diary March 2006
The nice thing about working here is that it is always busy. There is never a dull moment and the time flies by. The rotten part is that there is never time to stop and watch the grass grow.
Having young Oliver whizzing off on day-release to Birmingham makes life even more compressed, as he will have a tendency to return enthused on a Friday morning – always our busiest day of the week, as it is market day in Stamford – and ask me questions about things I don’t know the answer to.
“Where’s the depthing tool?” was one such question. Now I do remember having one fifteen years ago. Being a Yorkshireman, I remember because it was cheap. Being cheap I remember it was a poor thing, which had a tendency to move if anyone breathed near it.
I’m sure the purists would think that if young Oliver wanted a depthing tool then he should go out and make his own. That way he would value it as a treasure and a thing of beauty. I know there are lots of plans out there for depthing tools, which would give him plenty to get his teeth into. On the other hand, if I ask him to make his own then either it will take for ever, or he will stop going to the bank and the post office, cleaning Mrs Wiggins longcase movement – did you ever see such dirt in one clock – and all the useful things he does around the building.
I’ll skip the trip to e-bay, who only had a depthing tool for watchmaking, the fruitless phone calls to see if anyone had one they weren’t using, etcetera. Having telephoned all the material houses who advertise such things I plumped for Clockspares of Dereham’s own depthing tool. Being on the big size, it’s great for English clocks and I was truly impressed when it arrived.
As soon as it arrived, Margaret’s thoughts turned to one or three clocks we had either under guarantee or had never quite finished even though they’ve been here for months.
We had a spate of excitement last year with the automated bushing tool.
Laurie Penman has written a great deal about the trouble with accurate bushing in these pages – and highlighted the obvious failing of the automated bushing tool. We had a few clocks where we believed the problem was related to the fact that our bushing tool had re-bushed clocks in the wrong place, and the best way to check this would be with the new depthing tool.
In case you are wondering, the depthing tool allows you to take two wheels and see how they mesh out of the clock plates. In short, when you have found the perfect mesh and they spin freely and quietly and for a long period of time, you know the pivots are exactly the right distance apart.
Having found this distance, you can lock the tool at that setting. Holding the tool against the plates, to see whether the pivot holes are the correct distance apart or not. Often in clock repair, especially if the clock has already been bushed once or twice, they are not and the tool is a useful guide.
So, back to Margaret’s thoughts about problem clocks: they were all French clocks. Clockspares’ depthing tool being designed for English clocks, the pivots wouldn’t seat quite accurately in the tool. However Clockspares immediately sent a spare set of runners, gratis, for us to turn up accordingly – so I suppose Oliver has had a hand in the making of the tool in the end.
Finally we have an excellent depthing tool with which to measure every possible clock that comes through the shop. I don’t know what happened to the old one. It must be buried somewhere. With our new tool however, we set upon the problem clocks.
As with all such things, the depths were in fact correct, and if the clocks have problems it is not in the mesh of the wheels. Still, we have the depthing tool, and it has come in particularly useful when dealing with some big bushes in English clocks since.
Meanwhile however, Oliver has had considerable instruction in the action of escapements at college. Whilst Margaret and I argued about which of us was least competent in bushing, and the merits of other peoples’ methods of bushing (we have one friend who fits broaches into an electric drill, with which he reckons he can re-bush an entire longcase clock in no time at all), Oliver set upon the pallets of a problem clock and rapidly transformed them into textbook perfection, saying “it might go a bit better now the drop is equal and minimal on both sides”. He was right, and I was most relieved that his education is already paying dividends, even if he did look a bit smug.
Having solved the problem clock correctly I was reminded that it was Oliver who had originally asked about the depthing tool. “What did you want with a depthing tool?” I asked.
“I wanted to check the depthing of a train of wheels in a wristwatch at college”. My mind drifted back to the beautiful nineteenth century watchmakers’ depthing tool I had ignored on e-bay; sure enough, it has now been sold. Still, if Oliver has started to develop an interest in watches, I might see light at the end of the tunnel as regards our problem of sending watches out to third party repairers – in a few years.
The following letter was dropped through my letterbox, unsigned. I truly don’t know who wrote it, but the envelope had written on it “diary of a clock repairer” so I see no reason not to print it in full. Regular readers will know I am not a watch repairer and so these things often pass me by:
“Sir, I have been a watch repairer since I finished my watchmaking apprenticeship with IWC in the 1970s. The Swiss watch houses since then have increasingly colluded to make the obtaining of spare parts one of the great farces of our age.
Each of the big watch companies insist that I should go, at my own expense, to Switzerland and pay to be assessed by them. If I want Omega parts, I must be assessed by Omega; if I want Rolex parts, I must be assessed by Rolex.
Clearly, IWC must have had faith in me all those years ago, as they had me overhauling some of the finest watches I have ever seen. Little has changed in mechanical watches in forty years and those innovations I do come across are easy enough to repair, providing the parts are available.
Without the necessary accreditation by a watch house, if I need to obtain spare parts I am obliged to telephone ahead by three weeks with my order and then arrange collection at a telephone box by Euston Station, where like some ludicrous spy drama I swap a brown envelope of cash for a brown envelope of watch parts.
I do not know for certain if they are genuine or “generic” parts so I do not know whether they will fit correctly, nor do I know the third country through which they were smuggled between Switzerland and the United Kingdom.
In desperation, I decided to bite the bullet and to pay to attend one of the big watch company training and assessment courses. I shall draw a veil over my impression that some repairers were assumed to be “pass” material the moment they arrived, and that no matter how poorly they worked, they still passed. Nor will I rabbit on about how a proportion of good repairers were “failed” for no reason I could spot, except possibly to give the impression that it is not a “pay and pass” experience. Suffice to say that I passed.
On my return to work with new-found qualification, one of the first jobs was a customer asking for a genuine replacement bracelet for their watch. Having passed the course, I believed I was now in a position to take the job on. How foolish of me. The assessment only qualifies me for replacement mechanical parts. Why did I waste my time going?
By now I hope you will have heard about restrictive supply of parts in Clocks Magazine. I just wanted to let you have a personal view of how frustrated watch repairers are, and how foolish the big watch companies make us look in front of our customers.
As I am sure you know, CEAHR, the European Confederation of Watch & Clock Repairers’ Associations, are taking action through the European Community Competition Directorate to overturn this crazy state of affairs. I would ask that you publish their website – www.ceahr.org – and ask your readers to log on and sign the mass petition, also to pass the details on to their friends, customers and colleagues. The alternative is that the big watch houses will have all their repairs carried out “in house” and will charge whatever they like for those repairs. Yours faithfully, a watch repairer.”
As I said, I’m not by nature a watch repairer. However, these are demanding times, and for a few years now I have been forced to undertake more and more watch repair and to buy thousands of pounds worth of watch repair machinery and tools just to keep up, so my sympathies go out to the person who sent the letter.
A friend who works in a nearby market town once told me that nearly half his turnover and most of his profit came from fitting straps and batteries. “If people want their battery changing, why should they go to a jeweller rather than the only horologist in the town?” was his attitude. Certainly this proves to be the case for us, as we now find watch repair accounting for some 17% of our turnover.
Most of the work is outsourced, as we still haven’t the time or resources to do it all ourselves. A parcel of watches collected from an outworker is rapidly translated into a clutch of cheques cheerfully deposited in the bank. I try to be careful : We test each watch in three positions before being returned to the customer and we test for water resistance (or lack of) and the measurement is dated and recorded.
When Mr Fellowes’ Rolex watch came back I was particularly pleased, as we had quoted a large bill to overhaul it and to replace a cracked jewel, although our outworker had charged us very little for doing the same. We pressure tested it and it was nice and watertight, way exceeding the manufacturer’s specifications. We tested it dial up, dial down and with the button up and it worked perfectly and kept very good time. We telephoned Mr Fellowes and he collected and paid for the watch fifteen minutes later, handing over another large chronograph to service at the same time.
I happened to be working late that evening when the telephone rang at seven o’clock. “My bloody Rolex has stopped”, exclaimed Mr Fellowes. I suggested he brought it around immediately, which he did. He threw the watch on my desk and insisted I telephone the next day to let him know what was wrong.
For those who don’t know, Rolex have an unusual screw down back for which you need the correct tools to remove it. I have a non-Rolex case opener, which was cheap and although designed specifically to fit Rolex watches, is about as much use as a chocolate teapot.
Using said tool, it only took an hour and a half to open the watch without scratching it. It then took thirty seconds to replace a balance cock screw, which had fallen out and jammed in the balance of the watch. Which leaves me with two problems, one that it’s difficult to check other peoples’ work when they do it outside our workshop, the other that I now feel the need to buy a genuine Rolex case opener, even though I’m still not a watch repairer.
Diary of a clock repairer September 05
“I’m sure it’s me,” said Mr Blake appologetically. “I’m one of those people that do funny things to clocks and watches. I only have to put a watch on for it to stop.” Well after twenty years of clocks, I have no time whatsoever for those who consider themselves not bound by the laws of physics.
Sure enough on visiting the house to solve the errant Mr Blake’s clock the answer is simple. Because his clock sits on a warped sideboard, only three of the four feet touch the floor at any one time. When I give the pendulum a push, as the clock ticks, the whole clock rocks from side to side with the pendulum and it soon comes to a standstill. “You see it’s me,” said Mr Blake. “I shouldn’t have had it repaired, it’s a waste of time.”
I tried to explain the problem and inadvertantly mentioned (foolishly) that the clock had worked perfectly before he collected it from our workshop. This only confirmed of course, his earlier diagnosis. I placed a torn off scrap of business card under one foot to stabilise the clock and left, thinking that it wasn’t the best start to the day.
People are very wrapped up in superstition regarding clocks. I’m sure most repairers have had the “It stopped the day he died” connundrum to deal with. In my experience this is most common with wall clocks. As most wall clocks are eight day varieties, there is a one in eight chance that the clock will run down on the day in question. If, like my scruffy kitchen wall clock at home, the clock is rather fussy about being in beat (I know, I could repair its worn pallets, but the cobbler’s children are always the worst shod) the caring owner is usually the only person who can get it in beat.
Robina, my darling wife doesn’t realy like clocks. She teaches at the local college and steers clear of my job, which is probably a good thing as otherwise I would never stop working. She teaches A level arts subjects amd does not regard herself as a practical person at all. Thanks to me never remembering the clocks at home however, she has learnt three vital bits of knowledge – how to wind a clock, how to set a clock in beat and how to correct a countwheel strike. As she has often commented – if she can do it, anyone should be able to.
Surely once upon a time, people must have been more au fait with setting clocks in beat. I am often befuddled by those who can’t. One of our best friends is a music teacher and her teenage children are also all quite musically inclined. After I overhauled their wall clock, none of them could get it in beat. Each time I visit I set the clock going and put it in beat. I explain carefully to my friend and she cannot grasp what I am talking about. “Think of a metronome,” I said helpfully, “with each beat coming exactly the same length of time after the other.” Not only is all this to no avail, I also discovered that her metronome is out of beat as its pallets are worn.
We had a very scruffy fusee wall clock in for an overhaul. The movement had been much messed about with and poorly repaired over the years, and previous repairer had sheared the tip off the centre arbor, where one would pin the minute hand on, then shuffled everything to make it work, just. What I should have done was to explain exactly how much work was involved in re-making parts etcetera. For some reason I agreed to clean it and see if it would run – don’t ask why. So I cleaned it and replaced the rotting gut line and it did indeed go.
The customer took it away and it ran for only about two years. Then he returned it and we agreed to do the job properly. Having extended the arbor and re-drilled it, made a new bridge for the hour wheel, replaced the pallets and done a lot of work on the going train, the clock looked much better. It wouldn’t go, but it looked better. Somehow time flew by with occasional phone calls to say that we were still working on it, still trying.
One day I walked into the shop and the offending fusee was ticking away quite happily. The staff absolutely denied having touched the clock and we were somewhat mystified. Anyway, I telephoned the customer to explain that the clock was back in business, and that we would test it carefully before it was ready to go home.
When the time came for the clock to go back, I decided to deliver it myself as I now had mild doubts about it. On arrival, the customer’s wife let me in and I put the clock back on the wall where it hid the shadow of “we decorated around it rather than move the clock”. At this point she chose to tell me that her husband had in fact died the night before I telephoned to say it was working. “How strange,” she said, “because normally clocks stop when their owners die – not the other way around.”
Now this bothered me for months. I told quite a few people the story and they were equally amused. It was only when I told the tale in front of my wife that she had a plausible answer – “Was it one with mother of pearl inlay all around the dial?” Yes. “Oh I think I set it in beat one afternoon when I had come around and was bored, waiting for you to finish work.”
I was a bit brassed off by this, but it has happened before. Having overhaled a clock, sometimes one which will only run if absolutely perfectly in beat will, after a week or two, turn into a much happier clock. I suppose the “running in” period is just enough to bed in or smooth off any roughness in pivots or bushes and remnove that last bit of irritating friction. Similarly, having restored a month duration longcase once for a keen enthusiast, and set it running on twenty four pound (ten kilo) weights, the customer gradually reduced them to three quarters of that weight over a period of three months.
Diary of a Clock Repairer August 05
“I’d like to purchase some Mercury please.” I was beginning to give up hope. I had been telephoning industrial chemists for over an hour and getting nowhere. A good clock customer wanted me to fix a barometer with a leak and I had been railroaded into saying yes. Normally I refuse such work these days as we have plenty to do on the clock front and I am no keener on the idea of mercury poisoning than the next man.
Conflicting advice abounds over the use of mercury. A recent customer, a university researcher with a passion for all things horological assured me, “nothing wrong with a bit of mercury, you’ve got to ingest an awful lot of the stuff to start getting even a remote possibility of a small statistical rise in health problems. I’ve done a fair bit of research into extremely high level mercury pollution in the sorts of countries where if you kill a worker you can pay off the family for a fiver – nothing like the tiny levels you could incur in your workshop”. Which would have cheered me no end except that his next question was whether I would do his barometer.
On the other hand, my local council health and safety officer turned puce when I raised the subject and suggested we could – apart from other considerations – end up working in a condemned building and with a bill for cleaning it as industrial pollution, at a cost of many tens of thousands. So you pays your money and takes your choice but whatever you do don’t say I encouraged you.
Incidentally – and once again don’t say you got this advice from me – I have done mercurial gilding once. It is one of the most exciting things I have ever done, and I can understand why it was once so popular; it is true alchemy.
First mix equal amounts of mercury and gold leaf in a mortar and pestle and pound relentlessly away for half an hour until you have aching shoulders and a dirty grey sludge to show for it. Then quickly dip the item to be gilded in “aqua fortis”. Beware old textbooks which say this is oxalic acid; it is nitric acid – as dangerous as mercury and the cause of much poisoning of gilders in the past. Then sloosh the item (in my case, bits of a gridiron pendulum) through distilled water to rinse and allow to air dry.
I used a paint brush to apply the gilding paste of mercury and gold. I have rarely been so surprised as when I saw how easily it adheres to clean brass. When the whole is covered, then the more dangerous bit takes place. This is where you heat the item very gently until the mercury evaporates. If you have got the mercury and gold well mixed then you will have a perfect deposit of gold on the item. One advantage of mercury gilding is that the gold can be as thickly deposited as you like.
It does look good, but so does electro-plated gold. For people who maintain that they can tell the difference, read on…
Most antiques folk talk with deep reverence about mercury or “fire” gilding as though it is some super special kind of gold. It isn’t. It is simply gold. The colour or “fire” which we see on remaining examples from the seventeenth or eighteenth centuries does not actually come from the fact that it is mercury gilding. Once you have finished the gilding process, then you return the item to the brazier – gilders used wire mesh cages to hold the items) and heat it in the flames, which will oxidise the gold rather and produce varying degrees of rose colour depending on how long it is left in the flames. It is this last process which produces the distinctive nature of “fire” gilding.
In fact you can do this with any gold, be it electro plated or solid. I have experimented with scrap gold of differing carat and colour and had lots of fun along the way- without risking mercury coated lungs.
Back on the telephone I had hit paydirt. Yes the company concerned did refine mercury. Had I got a Home office licence? No. Had I got a Home Office licence for transport? No. Was I an international terrorist? I beg your pardon? For dumb questions this had to rank up there with flying to the states and being asked if I was a Nazi war criminal. Is the answer ever yes?
Apparently one of the commonest uses these days for mercury is as part of the guidance mechanism for heat-seeking missiles. “I just want to repair a barometer,” I pleaded. “Oh well in that case it’s cash only and you’ll have to collect”.
A trip to the mercury refiners was a real eye opener. I had a guided tour around the rather filthy works, where they produce several tons of mercury a week refined from scrap metal, dental waste, batteries and anything else which once held mercury. Much of the work was being done in large open crucibles over gas-fired braziers, with big stove like hoods and condensers out of which the pure mercury flowed. As the managing director was on site I decided to ask about mercury poisoning and he was as cavalier as one could imagine. “Have you ever been inspected by the Health and Safety Executive?” I asked. “Oh yes,” he replied “no problems at all.”
I’m still not repairing barometers however, as a subsequent phone call to a barometer specialist (to get the help I needed to fix the one in the workshop) threw up another bit of information. Mercury gives off vapour even at room temperature. Plainly visible on even a mild summer day, if you hold a piece of white card behind the open mercury bottle, is the haze of mercury gas wafting in the breeze.
Diary of a clock repairer July 05
Yet another cheerful customer pointed out how relaxing our workshops must be – “with all that gentle ticking I’m suprised you don’t just fall asleep”. If only life were truly that peaceful. I used to wonder when older and wiser friends complained about stress. I too would ponder how anyone could suffer from stress when they had a good skilled job, for which they could charge a fair price, and a job where the supply of work never runs out.
Stress seems to manifest itself in the workshop in one of four forms. The first is the constant feeling of never having achieved enough in any one day, and the sinking feeling that the job promised without fail for the fifteenth of the month may not be finished until the tenth because of some hicough or other, not leaving enough time left in which to test the clock or cover ourselves if anything else goes wrong – along with perhaps a dozen other clocks which have a deadline at any moment.
The second is the same sort of worry which everyone has in whatever job they do. A fusee bracket clock had a very badly worn rear pivot to the centre wheel. Margaret brought it over with a worried expression – “once I’ve filed this pivot true, will it be too weak for the job?” Well I suppose if you have to ask the question then the answer is probably yes. In this instance the pivot was down to 0.6 mm, around half its original thickness and more importantly, around a quarter of its original strength.
I was quite cheerfull abouth the repair, however, as all seemed to be going well. Take off the wheel to leave just the arbor; heat the arbor to bright cherry red and allow to cool very slowly indeed, by removing the heat very slowly; file up the old pivot to a stump; find the exact centre of the arbor and punch with a sharp punch; double check to ensure that it is truly central; drill slowly with a tungsten carbide bit; cheerfully note that the drill has not wandered from centre; watch the drill bit snap off inside the pivot hole.
This causes stress in the workplace. Firstly, tungsten drill bits are exceedingly difficult to extract when broken off inside holes – I find the only method I have got to work is to heat the thing up again to cherry red head and gently tap it against the anvil in the hope that the bit will fall out. Secondly, it will be the only drill bit of that size in stock, so that leaves two choices – either to order new drills and wait, or to chose a size ever so slightly larger or smaller than originally planned. With no waiting time available, the only answer I can think of is to use the wrong size. Too small will be too weak, so we plump for 1.4mm. This might be a little large for the job, but if we plug the hole with 1.4, we can no doubt turn it down in the lathe.
Incidentally, I’ve seen quite a few suggestions for re-pivoting and most suggest either a friction fit for a new pivot, or the use of some modern adhesive. Having once had a longcase clock come back twice under guarantee because the new pivot slowly, over a period of weeks, unscrewed itself, I now have no hesitation in applying a tiny sliver of soft solder to hold it in place. Tiny amounts of solder can be cut accurately by taking ordinary solder, flattening it on the anvil and cutting the required amount with a razorblade. Do not leave large blobs of the stuff lying around as this upsets people.
Once the new pivot is fitted in place and the whole has been re-tempered hard (which also fixes the solder) all that remains is to turn down the pivot from 1.4 to 1.2 mm. Once upon a time this took great skill and practice with a graver. I now find that using modern diamond coated files does the job in double quick time, and polish off with a clutch of old, increasingly fine, pivot polishers. So the job is done, but another unexpected hour has been added to the day and another job must be either cast to the wind or added to the end of the day, making home time stretch into the never-never.
The third stress related activity involves surveying the pile of work either being done or not yet started. I’ve spoken to lots of clock and watch repairers and I know many have been reduced nearly to tears over this one. Most of us are honest souls who try to “do the right thing” by our customers. There seems to be some law whereby the longer a clockrepairer ramains in the same place, the more work pours in. If, like me, you take on more staff, then the backlog which seemed unsurmountable can suddenly start shrinking rapidly, and it’s time to bother to advertise again.
On the other hand, like many repairers, you do nothing and the pile simply continues to grow. In all the years I knew David Swindells he had not advertised – yet continued to lengthen his waiting list. My grandmother went to see him one day about a watch repair and he informed her that he had a waiting list of twelve months before he could look at her watch to give her an estimate and would she like to take a ticket to get in the queue. I also remember him offering customers ludicrously high “joke” estimates for repair and the customers not batting an eyelid. David being David however, he would explain that it was a only a tease.
Oh, the fourth cause of stress would be the customers but as without customers there is no work…
Diary of a clock repairer May 05
I am used to requests from people who can’t find the specialist they need and feel that a clock repairer is the next best thing. Recently a customer telephoned:
“I’ve got a dancing ballerina in a brandy bottle and the mechanism is broken; that’s sort of clockwork isn’t it?” And so the bottle of brandy travelled to our workshops and back again. Although kitsch, I liked it. The dancing ballerina sets herself a-dancing should anyone pick up the bottle so it acts as an “alarm” if anyone sneaks a snifter. It’s the sort of thing that would raise a bit of interest on a daytime antiques and curios programme.
Speaking of daytime television, they came here last Friday. I won’t watch antiques programmes on television, as I end up shouting at the screen and it upsets the dog, so it is all new to me. The assistant producer telephoned us on Wednesday to ask if we would value a few clocks, in the shop, on the Friday. She e-mailed pictures of the clocks over that afternoon, and I replied with a quick summary – namely that quarter chiming Napoleon Hat mantle clocks were hard things to sell at the best of times, and that frequently the repair cost was way in excess of the value. Still, they persevered and belted up from London on the Friday.
Two young people, both of them on appallingly low “fixed fees” acted as camera, sound, direction and anything else needed; they filmed a very pleasant woman bringing me some clocks for a valuation. I felt rather sorry for her as she had a hundred mile round trip to be told the clocks were worth very little. The filming took an hour to create about three minutes of television, but no doubt a fraction of the cost of news or drama.
Friday afternoon was well chosen, as Friday is market day. In the morning Stamford is in chaos from seven o’clock in the morning. By two in the afternoon the market begins, especially on cold or wet days, to pack up. This is reflected in the shop, as the morning is jammed with callers who “just pop their heads around the door” to see if their beloved clock is ready. We always explain that as soon as the item is working we will telephone but it doesn’t stop them. Also we have the ones who just stick their heads through the door to have a nose.
Mr Rock has been popping on Market days for about five years. I had begun to tire of him, as although a very pleasant fellow, he never spent any money. Just as my patience was wearing thin, he called me out to take two long case clocks away to service. I think he just wanted to be certain that we weren’t a fly-by-night operation before trusting us with his treasures.
After taking the clocks back to his house I was called back as one of them was “doing exactly what it did before you took it away”. This is a soul-destroying remark, as it implies that I have taken money for nothing. When I returned, the clock obliged by striking twelve as I walked across the squeaky floorboards towards it at a quarter past three. “Oh, it usually strikes when you walk past”, said Mr Rock cheerfully.
This common fault is usually down to a slight bit of wear in the lifting lever, where it contacts with the pin on the warning wheel. Gravity should force the lever back down, but wear will build a small nick in the lever and this counteracts gravity. A slight bump or knock to the case is often enough to release it. Polishing the lever until it shines like glass usually resolves the trouble. Expecting it to be that, I removed hands and dial and extracted the offending lever. It gleamed with the signs of a recent clean and polish; there was not a nick or a scratch to be seen. Still, I used my best polishing kit to make extra sure: a small stick of mahogany, once impregnated with a little metal polish, is excellent for imparting a final sheen to steel.
One week later the customer was on the telephone: the same problem had recurred. This time I was determined to solve it. Perhaps wrongly, I added a small brass coil spring to ensure the lifting lever snapped back down on the hour.
One week later Mr Rock, very patiently, was on the telephone again. By the fifth visit to his house at least my car could find its way without me driving, and I determined to fix the clock. I noticed the strike weight was heavy at sixteen pounds, and the going weight only weighed ten. Strike weights are generally heavier than going, I suppose in the hope that the going train will fail first: so that is the way we usually send clocks back to customers.
The fault of the strike having warned but not released on the hour seemed to be exaggerated by the amount of power involved. The more weight I applied, the less likely it was to release. Swapping the weights over, to put the lighter weight on the strike side, seemed the answer. I have heard of people experiencing similar problems with spring driven clocks, a new spring on the strike or chime causing the same problem.
Finally the clock worked correctly and the customer was satisfied. I cheerfully removed my little brass spring and it still worked. A month later Mr Rock popped his head around the shop door. “Nothing to worry about, the clocks are going fine, but could you replace a broken leaf spring in an old watermill for me?” I suppose if you can’t find a waterwheelwright…
Diary of a clock repairer April 05 Robert Loomes MBHI
Mrs Hickman lives a long way out of my ususal travelling distance. She managed to persuade me to go out and look at her clock partly by being terribly nice on the telephone, partly by offering to pay whatever it cost and partly because she had bought the clock a few years before from a friend who is an antiques dealer in Stamford.
The antiques dealer is a fabulous generalist and I have huge admiration for his broad knowledge. He likes clocks and tries hard to only buy them fully restored, those which he absolutely has to have unrestored, he brings to us. So I felt I would probably be saving his skin a little, as Mrs Hickman had only owned the clock for a relatively short time.
When I scrunched up the long gravelled drive and parked next to the second best Jaguar I didn’t feel quite so bad about having asked for a large fee to visit. The sonorous doorbell jangled somewhere deep in the house and I waited. Eventually a charming young boy of about thirteen answered the door with coloured feathers in his hair and a home made bow and arrow under his arm.
“Hullo”, he said. “You must be the clock man. Mother said to expect you. The clock’s in the hall. Do come in.” Having been offered tea or coffee and shown the direction of the bathroom, he left me with the clock. On first inspection in the gloom it looked as though the clock had been lovingly restored. The plates and wheels shone like burnished gold. I went to give the pendulum a push to see if it was in beat, and it sounded perfect but the clock ran for only about twenty seconds before running out of steam. The closer I looked I could see that lovingly burnished plates and wheels was all that had been done to the clock, coupled with new gut line. The teeth of the wheels were filled with ancient dirt, as were the spokes. The front plate had not been polished, and carried the residue of a dunk in rather dirty soap and ammonia solution. The centre wheel rear pivot floated about wildly in its keyhole shaped home.
What I had found was one of the worst bodges I have seen. Someone had clearly gone to great trouble to make it look as though the clock had been beautifully restored in a way that probably took about two hours. Not wishing to ruin the reputation of the dealer, I delicately explained to the eager young lad who had popped out of a Famous Five book that the clock had, unfortunately, worn badly because dirt had got into some of the pivot hoes. “I’m sure mother would want you to take it away and do whatever seemed fit.” He told me, “I’ll be honest, she phoned and said she would be for ever, so just take it and do whatever it needs”. I countered by explaining that it might be quite expensive. “Well please take the clock anyway and by the time you get home, mother will probably be back and you can explain it then.”
I felt rather poor about doing this. It was rather like taking the clock and holding it to ransome under the circumstances but the boy was persuasive. In fact mother was perfectly happy with the situation and understood rather better than many customers that clocks do need servicing more often than once in a lifetime. I still feel that life should not be about caveat emptor and that my antique dealer friend, and his customer, had had the wool pulled over their eyes by a crook. I suppose all that glisters is not gold.
Later the same day I had to deliver another longcase clock. On this occasion I had agreed to have the case restored myself and take the whole thing, so returning it with a very hefty bill for movement, case and dial, I was determined to try and show the customer that they had got something for their money. To be honest the case and dial had been in a foul state and the transformation was amazing, so I was confident the customer would be happy.
I was met at the door by a very gentle and serene young woman, and led into the house which was dominated by a couple of wild young children. Not just boisterous, these two boys of about four and six were quite out of control. As I left my large toolbox and went back to the car, I resolved to bring in the least breakable bits first so the children could do the least harm. When I returned with the weights, the contents of my toolbox were spreading through the house. The six year old had grasped the concept of the small gas torch I carry and was playing flame throwers; the four year old was simply throwing clock pins around.
With the help of a calm but far from firm mother, we put the tools back, placed the toolbox out of reach and I went to get more bits of clock. When I returned the six year old had used one of the clock weights to batter a marble fire surround, so the weights had to be confiscated as well. I dread to think what the fire surround would cost to fix. It would be pointless to explain in full detail quite how much the arrival of the clock entertained these kids, but I can’t miss out on seeing a full length pendulum used as a whip on little brother. The cuts and wealts were impressive and even the usually benign parent was forced to administer sticking plaster. How I ever put the clock together was a small miracle, but at least it has a lock and key – for now.
The final bit of entertaining parenting I had was a couple of weeks ago when I had gone to return a nineteen thirties quarter chiming longcase, chiming on deep gongs. As the owners had obviously just had a baby, I tried to explain how the child would probably get used to the chime very quickly.
“Oh that will be okay,” said mother. “All through the pregnency I used to stand and lean ‘bump’ against the side of the clock. It seemed pretty obvious that even if my heartrate was up, the slow sixty beats a minute tick of the clock could calm baby. It did quite a good job for me too.”
Sure enough when the clock was assembled and ticking and chiming, baby looked happy enough.
Diary of a Clock Repairer Robert Loomes MBHI
Clock repair is generally only half our business. The other half (perhaps you’ve guessed this if you are a regular reader of the column) is story telling.
There are different kinds of stories. A well-known antiques dealer was working hard to sell a gold cased pocket watch years ago. “Oh yes,” he recited, clinching the deal, “The watch belonged to a Confederate Army officer in the American Civil War”. After the customer had left, he confessed that there was no such provenance at all. It was American, and pre- Civil War, so would no doubt have been in the Civil War. It was gold, so might well have belonged to an officer. Lastly, everyone loves a loser; so always say it was a Confederate officer.
What I find customers are more than happy with however, is the truth. What truth there is out there is usually far more interesting anyway. Last night I was delivering a 1760s long case clock and could find little about the maker of interest to tell the owner. The maker’s brother however, was a clockmaker in New York in the 1750s. By the time I had finished the owner was entranced by the knowledge that the man who made her clock had a brother who was engaged in the craft in America at such an early age.
I’ve taken a break from clock books and have spent the last months reading Samuel Pepys’ Diary (months because a million words takes a little reading time). Apart from being an enjoyable race through civil commotion, plague, monarchy, the civil service, public scandal etcetera, Pepys’ diary is full of entertainment for horologists. His undoubted joy in owning a watch – to the extent that he walks up to people in the street and tells them the time when he first gets a watch – makes great reading. He then purchases a watch for his wife and records his suspicions when the watchmaker has to return time and again to the house to adjust it, always when Pepys is out.
Pepys was interested in all things scientific. He was a good friend of Robert Hook’s and apart from being a watch owner he also bought telescopes and a microscope. The most entertaining bit for me however, is the evening he spends with a friend, being told how to strip, clean and re-build and regulate his own watch.
The Clockmakers’ Company oaths contain the expression to guard “the art and mystery” of the craft. Slightly older clockmakers have told me that as young lads this was impressed hard on them and that they were never to allow the general public access to their knowledge – extending to downing tools whenever a customer strayed into the workshops. This didn’t quite fit with my view of Pepys cleaning and regulating his own watch. In fact in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the term “mystery” was also derived from and associated with the French word “metier”. Another explanation however, would be that we were still in the age of patronage. Pepys’ friend and instructor is the much wealthier Lord Bounker. Might Bounker, as a patron of a watchmaker, have insisted in knowing all about the craft of the man he helped?
Apart from the naughty bits, Pepys is probably best known for his diary extracts for the great fire of London in 1666. It is curious how clock and watch making strays into this event so often. Firstly in the recording of the dead. Historically the list of deaths from a fire in which over 13,000 houses were consumed is short, standing at five named and three unnamed. This is assumed by many to be far too low a number. The exciting bit however is that one of the named is Paul Lowell (junior). Born in 1632 and apprenticed to his father Paul senior (a well known clockmaker who gave a substantial present of a silver cup to the Clockmaker’s Company) in 1646. Paul junior’s death in the fire, at his workshops in Shoe Lane, is described with macabre detail. “With his bones were found his watch keys”.
The second known clockmaker to be involved in the fire was the Frenchman, Robert “Lucky” Herbert or Hubert. Nobody ever had a more unfortunate nick-name. Robert was seized by the city authorities, tortured into a confession and hung at Tyburn. He was seen as a ringleader of a papish plot to weaken England’s international power.
As every schoolboy knows, the fire started at Thomas Farynor’s, the King’s baker’s house in Pudding Lane. Robert however, did not, and being led to the house he could not find the seat of the fire nor explain quite how he started it. London was quick to seek a scapegoat however, and Robert was it. When it later came out that Robert was in fact protestant, the City scrubbed out the detail about how the fire was a papist plot, engraved on the Fire Monument. Later still, a Swedish sea captain testified that he had landed Robert in England two days after the fire had started. Poor Lucky!
Going back to Pepys’ diary, it is clear from his entries between the 1650s and the late 1660s that the whole organisation of commerce, government and society changed in that period. At the beginning of the Diaries, little is mentioned of time. By the late 1660s however, meetings are often scheduled for strict times, occasionally for less than an hour’s duration. In essence, the newfound accuracy of clocks and watches allowed the whole of London to run according to clock time with a more punctual and presumably efficient rhythm. Never before have I seen with quite such clarity how the inventions of De Coster, Huygens, Fromanteel and Hook changed the world.
Robert Loomes Diary of a Clock Repairer
Many clock repairers refuse to apply themselves to certain types of clocks. I should know as for years I was one of these. It’s an easy line to take: “No Sir/Madam, I am a high class clock restorer and as such I work on HAND MADE antique clocks.” Followed by a slight sniff this puts off all but the hardiest.
Some years ago however, we were approached by a local chain of jewelers. Their man was off sick, and even on his return to work it would only be on a part time basis. When he retired, I was told, there would be no replacement as they could not be bothered to search out a steady, reliable clock-repairer again. Whilst lamenting how times have changed and what a shame it was that he would not be replaced – I jumped at the chance. There was only one catch and that was carriage clocks. The proprietor insisted we had to do carriage clocks or we would not get the business. He even went on to tell me how these could be extremely profitable. Knowing this not to be the case, I agreed to take the lot.
Repairing clocks for a jewelers is demanding. An agreed price list must be drawn up in order that the shop assistants may price up a two train Vienna clock who know no end of a clock from another. Work must be promptly collected and delivered with its guarantee and then handled by a minimum of one further person who knows nothing about clocks before being returned to the customer who then takes it home. Should the clock go awry under guarantee the whole hideous process must be undertaken again. We get notes with these clocks containing such illuminating information as “overhaul?” , “wrong strike” or simply “estimate?”. I have managed to eliminate “overwound” after complaining at length to a man who understood only too well it was a spectacularly inaccurate and vague description.
This chain of jewelers has – for reasons lost in the mists of the 1950s – a double numbering system for all trade jobs. This leads to “Is number 3875 ready?” “No, but whilst you’re on the phone, number 9005 is.” “Oh yes, that’s it!” along with other such mind twisting conversations. To add to these complications, longcase clocks have no number but the customer’s name and address. These are mostly mass-produced longcase clocks.
One such was a complete nightmare. It was an eight-day weight driven longcase from the 1930s, on chains. This must have been the only example I have come across which has run since the day it was bought as the wear was excessive, all over. Because of my “trade agreement” I have to overhaul this for the same price as any other modern longcase. Only broken or missing bits can we charge extra for. The broken or missing bit in this instance was a broken gong-rod. It saved the day. I wish I could remember who to thank for this tip but certainly can’t claim it for my own.
Most clock repair primers explain that you cannot silver-solder a gong rod to repair as the heat destroys the tone of the gong. This proves to be true, once soldered they sounds dead. If the break is at the narrow apex of the gong (the bit that tapers, close to the fitting screw) – and this is where they always break – the gong can be soldered. Sliding a large baking potato up the rod to just below where you intend to silver solder will provide just sufficient insulation for the rest of the rod to keep its original temper. Allow to cool down very slowly, as you would if repairing a cast clock bell. I have repaired several rods this way and all have kept their tone.
Not caring to count my gong rods before they have sounded however, I added the cost of a tuned set of eight to the bill, explaining that if it were possible to salvage the original then we would. The successful potato solder made up for a lot of the extra time with bushing and pivots and pallets. Whilst the clock is now set up in the customer’s home I am left with a mystery. In the workshop the pendulum amplitude was huge enough for me to worry about the pendulum hitting the sides of the case. The jeweler tells me it runs with only just enough to keep going. It has run for a couple of weeks now so I keep praying. Without seeing the clock in the house however, how can I know what the problem is? If it does come back under guarantee and performs normally in the workshop – what will that tell me?
A few weeks ago, a fellow clock repairer told me how he had made his workshop super-efficient. All work was costed down to the last telephone call, the last regulation of the pendulum. He was surprised to discover that some of the bigger restoration jobs, whilst the most expensive, were in fact the least profitable. This is no surprise to me. I well remember quoting a price to convert a bracket clock back from Westminster on gongs to the original eight bells. The following hours spent on fabricating hammers and hammer springs and sundry bits were never counted as it would have been too soul-destroying.
I decided to have a rough stab at the same costing exercise – well you can guess as this is an article but I was taken aback – our most profitable work is carriage clocks for the trade. Years of practice do make them a fairly quick job to do. We don’t have to deal with the customer and explain when and where and how or by whom it was made and we don’t have to wait months to get paid. They travel well – it seems to be in their nature. They are generally well made and based on tried and tested designs. In fact I could get quite carried away and call for national carriage clock (trade repair) week.
Diary of a Clock Repairer
Part Jobs – never again
Time and again I tell myself that I will not do any more “part” jobs. Somehow they build up none the less. The American spring mantle clock was yet another reason why I shouldn’t agree to them. The young man who brought it in was quite aware of what he owned and its low value.
“Could you just replace the ratchet on the strike?” he asked. It seemed like a fair question and I grudgingly agreed to the job on the basis that it had only been cleaned and overhauled a couple of years before. It didn’t take long to strip the clock down, remove the remaining rivet and make up and fit a new ratchet.
What added to the job was that it also needed a new spring on the strike train as, when the ratchet had failed it had terminally damaged the centre hole of the spring. Whilst the clock was in pieces it seemed only sensible to give the pallets a polish – clearly something that had not been attended to when the clock was last cleaned. Suddenly I had turned a two hour job into a three hour job. No doubt this won’t be reflected in the final bill.
Better still is the problem that whilst it now strikes quite happily it is not so keen to actually go. I have got the poor thing ticking but only when almost fully wound. There is a very obvious difference in tension between the old spring on the going train and the new spring on the strike. I would be surprised if it runs for five days let alone a week. Still, ultimately it is a “part” job and not my problem yet. I can predict the telephone call though – “it was going quite happily until I brought it to you!”
I have sung the praises of carriage clock repair in these pages. Today gave two quite contrasting time only clocks which illustrate the problem of estimating the cost of a straightforward overhaul. Clock number one astounded us by its cheap build quality. A commemorative object from Charles and Diana’s wedding, it has lasted twice as long as the marriage without needing any attention. Despite the astonishing corner cutting in its manufacture – the platform is not screwed to the clock but a friction fit, saving the cost of four screws but putting faith in the customer never giving it a good shake to get it going – the job was done in less than two hours from start to finish, has an excellent action and exudes confidence.
Clock number two, a slightly older but much more solid affair, defies description in mind numbing trouble. After replacing the mainspring and bushing every other hole in the clock all that remained was to replace the cleaned and lubricated platform.
Incidentally when oiling a carriage clock, don’t stint out of meanness. Grease the spring with grease, oil the pivots of the first wheel in the train with a heavy, load bearing oil. Use a lighter oil for the centre and third wheels and a very light clock or watch oil for the contrate wheel, the escape wheel and the balance wheel. Some people like to put the tiniest drop of oil on the pallets in a lever escapement but do not oil the pivots.
Usually I tend to put the platform back together and then unite it with the clock. With clock number two however, it seemed hard to judge the correct depth between contrate wheel and escape wheel. In this instance, put the platform back with only the escape wheel in place. Winding the clock up only one or two clicks should give enough power through the train. It is then a straightforward job to mesh the escape with the contrate to give smooth quiet performance. When you know the correct position for the platform, mark it, take it out and re-fit everything else, then re-fit the platform and you can’t go wrong.
Except with clock number two. There must be an optimum position where the thing actually works because it was going and keeping time when it came in – but I haven’t found it after hours of trying. More disturbingly, the platform is not the original and has scratched on in tiny spider writing, the word “bodge”.
Long ago I was given the advice to start the day with the smallest sized clocks and move on to larger clocks after lunch. It’s not just the brain that is fresh first thing but also the feeling in the fingertips. Lastly on a cloudy winter’s day it can seem very dark by late afternoon. As often as not however, it’s simply not practical and today has been small clocks all day. When I was at the point of dashing carriage clock number two against the wall at five o’clock, a customer came in with another one.
They had paid someone a king’s ransom to have it overhauled and it didn’t keep time in spite of a couple of return visits to the repairer. Watching the action of the platform it told a sad tale. Tick tick tick tick tick tick pause, tick tick tick tick. Looking at the top cock there was a crusty line of polish where it sat on the platform. It’s sad to think that the balance wheel – which oscillates hundreds of thousands of times a week – hadn’t been removed in the price of the overhaul. Sadder still for the customer, who now has to decide whether to ask me to do the job again or go back and do battle with the other repairer.
Particularly as I’m not doing part jobs any more.
Diary of a Clock Repairer
“I thought they were all dead”
My attention was caught by an A level text book left lying around in my wife’s study. The glossy cover shows a couple of wheels, one English hand made and one mass produced with lantern pinion. Delving into it I was caught out with the information that minuta is Latin for “little one” and the smaller division minuta secunda – “second little one”.
I have finally agreed to put Jessica through the three year British Horological Institute examinations. She’s a bright young woman with five A levels and a degree in archaeology; she has resented spending a year “just scrubbing brass”. I now stand by my original plan as I sit and read through the course. A sample question for the first year exam is to give six possible reasons for replacing the mainspring in a watch. I had to think hard myself about that one.
Another simple question however, which showed up my lack of supervision appallingly, was to explain the correct method of cleaning away any metal clogging the teeth of a file. “Scrub it with a wire brush”, was her reply. The correct method is to take a piece of scrap brass and push the brass along the cuts in the file. It cleans out the grooves perfectly.
The bane of my last twelve months has been moon drives for longcase clocks. I must have had one a month which proved trouble. Straightening teeth, replacing missing teeth, replacing missing drive wheels, flags and pins or levers. It is so easy to understand why moon-drives were thrown away by previous repairers. I’m often tempted to come out with the “well it probably never worked properly” nonsense myself. Repairing broken or missing moon drives is not a job I ever seem to make any money on, as the simplest job can so easily run into a day’s work or more. Then it works happily for days until the 18th when it moves one and a half points in a day and I start again.
Last month I overhauled a moon-dial for a trade customer. It was a lever system which had clearly been made in the twentieth century to replace an earlier failing version. It was however, a rather unsympathetic device in heavy, unfettled brass with a long coil spring to provide tension to return to its original position after having shunted the moon disk around.
I bemoaned the style and the anachronistic spring, and began to suggest how it should have been made. “Does it work?” was the response. Yes it worked perfectly. “Ah, well can we say it is a genuine alteration, made at a later date and part of the history and character of the clock? In fact that it would be un-ethical to replace it with a sham of what was there in the first place?” I was very happy to agree.
How far can we go with this argument though? Some customers came to see me to ask for advice on buying a fusee wall clock. We chatted about this for some time and I showed them what to look for and gave them an indication of roughly how much it would cost to buy what.
“Oh we’ve just been to see a chap who sells them for two hundred and fifty pounds restored”, I was told. This “chap” removes the worn out fusee movement mechanism and “restores” it with a top quality quartz movement.
Even my naïve customers began to have doubts about the ethics of this kind of restoration. When they asked why they couldn’t have one with its original movement he told them that they wouldn’t want one – not least because even if he sold them one, there are no clock repairers any more.
This is the second time I have heard this remark this week. A couple spent a good five minutes staring at us through the window before one said to the other: “I thought they were all dead by now”.
All of which reminds me of the customer who came in to have a quartz movement replaced in a carriage clock. In a tearing hurry he said “oh just do it and I’ll pick it up next time I’m in town”. When he came back we presented him with a bill of thirty pounds with some trepidation. I have had customers hit the roof when this price is suggested, but I have also wasted hours trying to re-collet hands to get them to fit new movements.
“No this can’t be the right bill”, he said. “Ten years ago I had the same job done at such and such a jewellers and the bill was over a hundred pounds.” He insisted on paying fifty pounds for the job and walked out telling me I was a fool to myself.
As more and more friends retire or move into “semi-retirement”, closing their shops and working from the garden shed and refusing to take on new customers, I don’t see a wave of bright young people coming up.
David Swindells- who wrote this column for twenty years- had a tiny sign over the door of his High Street workshop announcing “D Swindells FBHI, Registered Horological Craftsman”. He barely advertised, never wanted for work and more often than not had an impenetrable waiting list. If fact before his untimely death he had moved into larger premises to cope with it all.
So Jessica will carry on in our shop, plough on with her exams and I trust she will never want for work.
Diary of a clock repairer
The artful bodger.
Whenever I talk to other clock repairers the conversation usually swings around to the subject of bodgers. We sit and complain vigorously about those repairers who fill clocks with blobs of solder and throw out anything which appears beyond them (including on a recent double weight Vienna clock, the whole of the strike train except for the winding square – so it still looked intact when it went back to the customer).
We even start to recognise the work of certain bodgers, people who have a distinctive style of working. In Stamford we must have once had a miracle worker as I had three similar clocks in as many years. Taking a perfectly good eight day movement from a painted dial clock and superimposing a brass dial over the original painted dial.
The first one was a 1790s mahogany clock with a super eight day movement with moon drive. The clock was perfect except that four holes had been drilled in the dial and a 1730s square brass dial mounted over it. Done with superb skill, it left the moon drive intact, the winding squares matched up and only the seconds dial and calendar were rendered useless.
I came within a whisker of persuading the customer to have the work done to convert this one back to it’s original painted dial as it did seem a fair proposition. The second one showed all the same signs of workmanship but even more confusing in its makeup.
Here we had an interesting early eight day movement, maybe about 1690 to 1720 with a distinctive and unusual gravity driven rack striking mechanism. It was re-dialled with a square painted dial from a thirty hour clock and to top the job off a chapter ring from a single handed clock had been applied over the dial to hide the calendar.
The most recent was another early painted moon-roller. Three clocks bit the dust to develop this hybrid. On this occasion the moon drive had been made out of meccano, coat hanger wire, and copper coins. It worked perfectly.
This is the bit which upset me. I even met the man who produced these creations. He clearly had no formal training in the mechanical arts but he was an absolute wizard at repairing clocks.
Getting on in years, he sent his customers to me more and more. He was full of respect for me as a “professional” and I was always highly recommended for that reason.
A very neat spring wound Vienna clock came in this week. It had once been badly overwound. About fifteen teeth stripped from the barrel and a couple of mangled escape wheel teeth. The barrel has been repaired by taking a carriage clock wheel (slightly too small) and soldering it to the side of the barrel. This is done in an eccentric way so the teeth of the new wheel only project where the barrel has lost its own teeth.
The customer brought it in because when it was repaired it ran perfectly, but now it only goes for five or six days at a time. How could I possibly explain that the bodger got it wrong when clearly he got it right.
With all the training I’ve had and the hundreds of books and articles that litter the workshop, I don’t think I could have had the same success with that Vienna clock. A couple of years ago I paid the bodger a visit.
In 1940 his plane was shot down over Germany and the crew made a soft landing in a muddy field. He ended up in a prisoner of war camp “just up the road from Colditz”. Apparently he even played a game of cricket against Colditz prisoners on one occasion. He didn’t have a single harsh word to say about his captors and maintained he was kept “as well as the war allowed” for five long years.
They never knew when the war would end but many spent their time soaking up the knowledge of the next man. In his case the next man was a clockmaker. The Germans allowed the two of them a few simple hand tools and odd bits of scrap metal and solder. Through the war they worked repairing odd clocks from the nearby village. As he said, they had all the time in the world, so if one repair didn’t work they could always try another. They even cut their own wheels on occasion.
After the war he returned to his home town of Market Deeping (just up the road) and became a baker’s van driver – a job he continued until his retirement. In his spare time he continued to bodge his way through hundreds, maybe thousands of clocks and watches. He would do anything to make one work. Nothing was beneath him and he would spend a whole weekend on a tin alarm clock and charge a pound or two when the job was done.
Sadly, he developed a serious illness last year and phoned me up to ask if I would like to buy his tools and spares. When I went to see him the tools were: a small toffee hammer, screwdrivers, pliers, a piercing saw, a few pairs of tweezers, a vice, an electric hand drill and his precious de-magnetiser – the only piece of equipment he had ever bought.
His obituary was in the paper a while ago. No mention of clocks at all.
It’s left me with a strange respect for the man. I often think that if he had chosen clockmaker over van driver he might have been one of the best. But I’ve still got to sort out the vienna clock.
Diary of a Clock Repairer
Word of Mouth
Word of mouth is a wonderful form of advertising, although it can lead to overly optimistic expectations on the part of the customer. Because we repaired someone’s aunt’s clock, clearly we can do anything. Such a customer brought us a longcase clock which had fallen down a flight of stairs. Whilst the clock was a mess, they had absolute confidence. After a few weeks, the clock was working again.
When we test clocks in the workshop, particularly longcase clocks, we usually leave the bell off. Otherwise it would drive us potty at eleven and twelve o’clock. Usually I tend to put the bell on the day before the clock is supposed to go back just to make sure the hammer hits cleanly and bounces off.
On this occasion however the bell was cracked. It just wouldn’t ring “true”. However I couldn’t see a crack anywhere. When this happens I find the best solution is to turn the bell upside down on the bench, plug the hole with blu-tack, fill it with water and walk away. By the next morning the water has usually found its way through the crack and a dark wet line is visible.
Having found the crack it is possible to soft solder it back together from the inside. Often with bells the crack does not need to be filled all the way, as it is the outside edge of the bell which needs to be complete – many will have seen old bells with sometimes large casting holes in them which still work quite happily.
On this occasion I came back into the workshop and the whole bell was a mess of hairline cracks. Heating it would probably make the whole thing fall to pieces. We made a cage out of coat hanger wire to hold it all together, wiped the inside with flux, lined each crack with solder and then filled the whole bell with sand.
Having heated this creation until the solder could be seen to flow along the cracks we then left it to cool. Bells are brittle things and if you have soldered one back together it’s best to wait until it has cooled to hand hot before playing with it. Being full of hot sand, this took half the morning to cool but it had worked. I put the bell back on the clock and delivered it that afternoon.
I told the owner how pleased I was with the bell and she asked if I could look at the church bell. I explained that I didn’t do turret clocks but she was insistent. As it was an interesting old clock I gave up all thoughts of finishing early and tramped up the bell tower.
Apparently the bell was cracked, and a disappointment to all, as it had only been re-hung ten years before. Promising that there was a world of difference between a longcase clock bell and a church bell I tramped up the tower. In the clock room, with the bell in the room above, we triggered the strike. Indeed the bell sounded flat as a pancake.
Despite my protestations that I could not run a bit of solder into a two tonne centuries old church bell, I was dragged up another narrow flight of stairs to the bell room. There I was faced with a couple of tonnes of bell. As I was explaining that I could recommend a couple of firms who might be able to do the job I saw the problem. The hammer from the clock mechanism was resting permanently on the bell, rather than hitting the bell and bouncing back slightly.
I bent the hammer stop to change the position and the problem was cured. I didn’t charge for the job as it took two minutes and to be honest was quite fun compared to most jobs. “Well in that case I’ll make sure I get you some more paid work” she told me.
A common hazard at work seems to be people thinking that we can repair almost anything. It’s not helped by the fact that over the years there has been a television repair shop, a piano restorer and a private detective all working in the same courtyard we do. Personally I’ve never understood how hiring someone to spy on your spouse can mend a broken marriage but we keep being asked anyway.
I was a little surprised though when an electrician came around asking if we could repair some machinery from the local soft toy factory. It was installed before the second world war and now pronounced beyond repair or replacement by the firm who made it. I could charge what I wanted as the toy factory were despairing over the problem.
The machine was like a large mileometer. It measures how many miles of material has been used and after sixty odd years it had given up the ghost. The only difficulty was that we only had one day to do the work as the machines run all the time. In fact a simple job, it needed one new wheel cutting and a fair bit of bushing. The owners were so pleased that anyone could do this that they sent us a bottle of champagne as well as the cheque.
We were also told that they had approached over a dozen companies to try and get the thing repaired before us. It was only a chance conversation about a church bell which had got us the job.