Last Update: 07-25-2022 @ 03:05
4.06 – Case Materials
Materials used in clock case making are the sixth point of view of the taxonomy. There are five main categories: wood, metal, plastic, minerals, and other materials.
4.06.1 – Wood
Clockmakers used wood to build both clock movements and cases. This subsection covers wooden clock cases.
The use of wood in the manufacture of houses, boats, furniture, etc., goes back to the dawn of time. More than 4000 years ago, the Egyptians built houses, cedar ships, etc. Fifteen hundred years Before Christ, they invented a veneer, consisting of a thin sheet of wood glued to another thicker piece to form a solid base. In ancient Egypt, the equivalent of plywood existed, used, among other things, to build coffins of pharaohs. Slices of wood, thicker than veneer, glued to each other, composed their plywood. Romans, Chinese, and Greeks also worked with veneers and plywood.
Wood clock cases
The manufacture of clock cases is a specialty of cabinet making. Indeed, cabinetmakers who often also made furniture hand-crafted the first wooden cases until industrial tools appeared. These tools allowed the automation of the manufacture of cases in the 19th century, along with the manufacture of wooden movements. Eli Terry, in 1806, was a precursor at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. He had agreed to make 4,000 wooden movements. To make them, he equipped his shop with a water machine that provided power to machine tools capable of producing the movements’ parts very quickly.
Several wood species have been used in clock cases, from softwoods to hard and semi-hardwoods. Note that the distinction between hard and softwood can be confusing. According to Nigel Barnes (2015), it is better to distinguish coniferous woods from all other wood species that are not conifers. Botanists call gymnosperm, straight grain wood, resinous and cocottes bearers of the pine or fir family, the coniferous wood. Other woods belong to the angiosperm family, or trees producing flowers and seeds. It is also worth distinguishing the wood species used in America from those used in Europe.
The oldest wood species to be used in its solid form was oak, very popular from 1500 to 1670, then chestnut from 1600 to 1795, walnut from 1580 to 1735, beech from 1628, mahogany from 1735 to 1810, yew from 1700 to 1880, pine from 1800, rosewood from Brazil from 1800 to 1875 and cherry from 1804. Most of the veneer of these species for the manufacture of the cases dates back to the 18th century.
It is difficult to identify the essence of the wood of a case. Generally, the case is coated with stain, not always per the essence of the wood used. Moreover, the clocks were often covered with a protective coating such as shellac or varnish. Robert and Étienne Vernis, two Frenchmen, invented varnish (Vernis in French) in 1730. Also, more than one wood species could have been involved in making an old clock case.
Not all wooden clocks were made of solid wood. Indeed, some clocks were made of softwoods such as pine. But they received a stain, paint, or a thin veneer, such as the Adamantine™ finish. The clock cases’ backs were often made with softwoods such as fir or spruce because less expensive. Finally, many clocks were made in wood veneer or plywood, especially in the 20th century. The parts of wood clock cases were assembled with raw iron nails and glue, often of animal or plant origin. The flat screws were mainly used to attach movement and bezel to the case.
List of wood species in clock cases
The wood species of clock cases that follow are certainly not exhaustive. For each, as far as possible, I give an example of a clock.
- Wild Cherry
- Butternut (White Walnut)
- Tilia (Linden)
- Lacquered or Varnished
- Non-identified Softwood
- Non-Identified Hardwood
4.06.2 – Metal
The use of metal in clock manufacturing dates back to the Middle Ages. They were weight clocks with an iron structure that is called a turret. The first major public turret clock was created in Italy around 1309. In England, the no-deal turret of Salisbury Cathedral’s steeple, still functional today, was installed in 1386. Around 1389, a clock was hooked over a street in Rouen, France, the first to ring the quarter-hour. In 1392, a clock was installed in Wells Cathedral in Somerset county in England. It also struck the quarter of an hour. Besides, it had a dial that displayed the movement of the stars.
The first metal domestic clocks date back to the early 15th century. They were miniature versions of the great public clocks. We cannot then speak of cases that contained the mechanism. Rather, hung on a wall or placed on a tablet or a piece of furniture, a skeletal metal structure showed all the clock parts. These looked much like the English lantern clocks but without the pendulum that appeared only in the middle of the 17th century.
Here is a non-exhaustive list of the metal most used in the manufacturing of clock cases through the ages:
- Stainless Steel
- Ormolu (Gilt Bronze)
- Gold-gilt white metal
- Black Cast Iron
- Cast-Iron Bronze-Gilded
- Painted Cast-Iron
- Adamantine™ (Marbleized)
4.06.3 – Minerals
The French were the first clockmakers to use marble or polished alabaster to make clock cases in the 1850s. In the late 19th century, the Americans became infatuated with these clocks, so much so that they began importing cases from Europe. They embellished them with bronze, brass, or metal trims. They then imported entire marble panels, alabaster, slate, or onyx to make their cases. The clocks of this period are architectural styles, often imitating Greek temples.
Here is a non-exhaustive list of the mineral materials most used in the making of clock cases:
4.06.4 – Plastic
The appearance of plastic in clocks is a phenomenon that dates back to the 1850s with the invention of the first plastics. Much less expensive than wood, porcelain, metal, or marble, plastic became widespread in manufacturing clock cases after the Second World War. Here is a list of the most commonly used plastic varieties in clock cases:
- Celluloid™ (1870)
- Adamantine™ (1880)
- Bakelite™ (1909)
- Catalin™ (1927)
- Acrylic (1928)
- Unidentified Plastic
4.06.5 – Other materials
Many materials, including metal, wood, plastic, or stone, have been used to make old clock cases. Here are a few:
Next: 4.07 – National Denominations