1.03 – How to inspect an old clock

Last Update: 09-15-2022 @ 03:31

How to Inspect an Old Clock

You just saw an old clock that you like and want to buy. But how do you know if it is a good buy? In this section, you will learn to inspect five dimensions of a clock:

  1. The Case
  2. The Dial
  3. The Hands
  4. The Bezel, Door, Glass, and Graphic Tablet
  5. The Movement
A buyer inspect an old clock in an Antique Fair (Image: All Rights Reserved, Bordloub)
(Image: All Rights Reserved, Bordloub)

1.03.1 – The Case

Look at the case carefully. If parts are missing or some are broken, pass your turn unless you have the skills to repair them. Some replacement parts are available from clock parts suppliers or used object sites. But original, crafted wooden moldings or metal decorations like finials may be challenging to find. Furthermore, it is always better to find used old parts than buy newly manufactured ones to keep your clock fair value.

Then, if nothing is missing, look at the finish of the case. In over 100-year-old clocks, the finish will have a patina that you must keep intact. For instance, tiny circular cracks in the varnish all over a wooden case are signs of the patina. But larger black cracks in a mantle clock signify that it was near a fireplace or a wood stove. Faded color or white spots in slate or marble cases can be easily corrected. Large cracks or missing pieces may be challenging to repair. In metal cases, you will find cracks and even broken parts. Also, the finish of gilded spelter cases is often faded and blackened for you to judge if you can live with some defects and imperfections.

WARNING: If you see small holes in a few places on a wooden case and sawdust coming off, this is a sign that small white worms have blithely dug corridors inside the case. This case is suitable for garbage, and it is unrecoverable! If this happens to you, take the clock outside the house, and clean the sites where the clock was. ⬆️

1.03.2 – The Dial

The dial support may be cardboard, paper, a piece of metal, or wood with hand-painted, printed, or plastic, or metal numbers. A yellow or brown paper or cardboard dial means it is original if the numbers are legible and the time markers are readable. Therefore, do not seek to replace it. Mostly erased numbers on cardboard or paper mean the dial needs a replacement. Some are available at the clock parts shop. Missing plastic or metal numbers can be challenging to find and replace. If it’s a porcelain or enamel dial, ensure there aren’t too many fine cracks or shards of the finish.

Restoring painted numbers on metal, porcelain, or enamel dial is a job for a specialist. Also, beware of silver-finished dials that tend to blacken, primarily if they have been maintained with abrasive products. Therefore, don’t try restoration unless you have the skills to do it. You may find a replacement, but you decrease its value every time you change a part in an old clock with a contemporary reproduction. ⬆️

1.03.3 – The Hands

Do not paint the degraded finish of black iron hands. Instead, blue these with the right product. However, you may recoat some more recent clock hands with spray paint. Restore the brass hands with the appropriate product. The plastic hands of old cuckoos may be fragile. Over time they can be brittle when handled. If a hand is missing, you can usually find a similar one. Otherwise, you may replace the two hands with a model closest to the original. They are available at the clock parts shops. ⬆️

1.03.4 – The Bezel, Door, and Tablet

The bezel is a rim holding a transparent cover, either glass or plastic, which surrounds the dial and/or protects the pendulum. The bezel may be made of wood or metal. Most of the time, it is in decent shape. You may often find broken or detached hinges. It is easy to repair. Wooden dismantled doors are easy to glue. As for the metal bezel, sometimes the glass cover is missing. That could be more difficult to find. Therefore, used ones in good order are not necessarily cheap to get.

After the bezel and doors, you must inspect the glass or glasses. The glass must be impeccable, but it’s easy to find one at parts providers in case of breakage. However, be aware that an original old glass has many imperfections. For instance, you will see tiny bubbles or/and waves. If the glass seems too perfect, it’s a replacement. If it is a tablet with inverted drawings or inlays, ensure it is in good condition. The inlaid designs are commercially available, but it won’t be easy to find one that looks exactly like the one to replace. Therefore, a clock with replaced glass and design does not have the same value as one whose glass and design are original, even with some damage. If the glass has a large crack, but the tablet is in decent shape, it is better to repair it with a special glue than replace it with a new inlaid. ⬆️

1.03.5 – The Movement:  A Three-Step Verification

The movement is the heart of the clock. A clock with a non-functioning movement is purely an object of decoration. But a clock that gives time is a masterpiece of engineering. That is why it is essential to inspect the movement. I propose, therefore, a three-step verification process.

1.3.05.1 – First step: the mainspring-s

First, check the mainsprings using the supplied key, if available, or the multiple keys you will always bring when shopping for clocks. Make a few turns in the sole winding hole if it’s a timepiece. Check for any resistance in each hole if the clock has a bell, a gong, or a chime. If present, there is a good chance that the springs are in good condition. However, if you cannot turn the key, you face an overwound spring. Thus, it’s not a big problem if you have an excellent result afterward. But, if the key rotates freely, the springs may be broken, unhooked, or its retaining ratchet is faulty. You will see it unwound in the case if it is an open mainspring. But the defect will not be apparent in a barrel spring.

Therefore, if you have the skill and tools to repair mainsprings and make a lower offer, go ahead if the clock is worth it. If you do not intend to repair it, know that such a repair can get you as much as a hundred dollars. So, think about it! The price must be meager, and your desire for the clock very high! A defective spring could be a sign of another problem. So, exercise caution with these clocks.

1.3.05.2 – Second step: the escapement

You have already successfully given the springs a couple of turns, so it is time to go to the second verification step. Is the clock tick-tock? In a mechanical clock, the escapement is the part of the clock that produces the tick-tock. So, make sure you hear a ticking sound as you move the clock from left to right to start it. If there is no ticking or it stops after a few seconds, there is a problem. You now argue for lowering the price if you think you can put it back in order. If not, pass your turn.

The absence of ticking can mean that the power does not go to the escapement, that the escapement itself or the escapement wheel is broken. Too much play at one or many pivots on the movement plate may require new bushing. If you don’t have the necessary equipment to install bushings, look at another clock because that repair could be costly. In small clocks, you will sometimes find a broken escapement wheel pivot. It isn’t easy to find a replacement. For electrical clocks, ensure the needles move when plugged in or with the battery installed.

1.3.05.3 – Third step: the bell and chime

The third step is applied only to clocks with a bell, a gong, or a chime. If present, you will see more than one winding hole in mechanical clocks. Make sure there is enough power in the springs. Rotate the hands slowly clockwise, never in the opposite direction. You will hear a gear noise as you approach an hour, half an hour, or a quarter-time (in the case of chimes), then a ringtone on a gong or bell. That part of the clock is functioning.

However, it doesn’t matter if the number of strikes differs from the time displayed. It is the sign of an out-of-sync clock. It’s not difficult to synchronize a clock. And, in more modern movements, synchronization is automatic. Finally, it doesn’t matter if the sound is not harmonious. The hammer or hammers are misaligned with the bell, gong, or harmonic rods. It’s easy to solve unless it’s a complex movement like the multiple chime clocks. In these clocks, the hammer mechanism may be defective.

After the completion of these three steps, depending on the results, you must decide if you make an offer or not. But another point to consider is how much you’re willing to offer. See the next section. ⬆️

Next: 1.04 – How to Evaluate an Old Clock

Home » 1.00 – Collecting Old Clocks » 1.03 – How to inspect an old clock
Don`t copy text!