In this article you’ll get the basics on how to correctly spot clean and oil your own clock. If you haven’t already read our other article ‘What You Need to Know About Oiling and Cleaning Your Clock’ give it a whirl. It goes into detail about the frequency of cleaning and oiling a clock and is good primer for what you’re going to read in his article.
Most clock owners are familiar with what a clock movement looks like but in case you’re not, the image on the right will give you a pretty good idea. Each gear in a movement is mounted to an axle and each axle is mounted between two brass plates. The place in the plates where the axle goes into is called a pivot hole. On the outside wall of each plate around each pivot hole is a small bowl-shaped depression called an ‘oil sink’. Each one holds a small reservoir of oil and releases it slowly over time to keep the pivot hole lubricated. (photo on the right). The pivot holes are where a lot of friction takes place; they’re the focus of your mission, the spots where you’ll be cleaning and oiling. For a more detailed explanation on lubrication and friction see ‘Why A Clock Needs To Be Cleaned And Oiled’.
Before you do anything: If you have a newer clock that’s still covered under the manufacturer’s warranty, be sure to check with them first beforehand, since servicing your own clock could void the warranty.
Are All Clocks Candidates?
Floor Clocks: According to our clock repair answer man Jim Fischer, 85% of all floor clocks have access panels, either on the side if it’s a grandfather clock, or on the top if it’s a grandmother clock, and you can do your own maintenance on them. “But if access to the movement including all of the hard to reach spots, is not available, then various other techniques and equipment are needed. In that case a professional clock repairman should be hired to ensure that the clock stays in good working order.” Jim said.
As for modern wall clocks and pendulum style mantel clocks, he said “These rarely have side or top access, but if you’re vigilant and mechanically inclined you could do the work yourself. The movement would have to be carefully taken out through the back of the clock, or through the front by removing the dial, cleaned and oiled, then carefully put back in” (more on this in a future article).
“But there are some timepieces that the average clock owner should not try to service himself. and cuckoo clocks are one of them. Because of their complex mechanisms that operate the bird, bellows, chimes and figurines, a routine cleaning and oiling of a cuckoo is a big undertaking. It can take a professional three times longer to service than other kinds of clocks. And that gets very expensive. It’s why a cuckoo clock owner doesn’t typically have regular professional maintenance done, but instead has a new movement put in after about 25-30 years. If you know that a replacement movement is no longer available then regular professional maintenance makes good sense.”
“Then there are a myriad of other types of clocks – French, English, old German, Vienna, etc., These generally are ‘fussy’ and usually present some difficult tasks in getting them apart and back together properly. There are just so many things to watch out for on the antiques/vintage/non-American clocks that they should be left to the pro.”
You may be surprised to know (unless you own one) that there are some mechanical clocks that can go for longer periods of time without lubrication. “American antique clocks such as Seth Thomas, Gilbert, New Haven, Kroeber, Waterbury, Ansonia, etc., are designed with thick brass plates and because of that they continue to run without regular oiling for a long time, even with excessive pivot hole wear. Therefore, with these kind of clocks, a preventive oiling program is not as important as it is with clocks that have a modern German movement, which are built more for precision. ” Jim said.
The Basics: Cleaning and Oiling Your Clock
Ready to start? Here are simple guidelines:
Light: Make sure you have plenty of light so you can easily see how much dirt has accumulated and where it is, and to make sure you’re applying the right amount of oil.
Spot cleaning: A routine spot cleaning of the pivot points should be done before applying fresh oil. The process takes an attentive eye. First, wipe off any large deposits with a soft cloth. Then using a very sharp, thin pivot cleaning stick (barbecue sticks can also be used) scrape out any dried oil and dirt that has collected in and around the pivot points. If it’s packed into the pivots you may need a soft nylon toothbrush and cleaning fluid to remove it. If the movement is still inside the clock be careful that particles of loose dirt don’t drop onto any of the gear teeth. Q-Tips are not recommended for removing the oil and dirt because they can leave strands of fiber in the movement.
Keep in mind that spot cleaning does not take the place of a professional ultrasonic cleaning .
How to Oil:
Before you read further, have a look at this short video clip.
This video deals with oiling only and it’s assumed that any needed cleaning has already been done. Although the demonstration uses a movement that has already been removed from a clock, it also shows you where some of the oil should be applied when the movement is still inside a grandfather clock. In that case you won’t be able to apply oil to the oil sinks since you won’t have access to the outside walls of the plates where the sinks are located. In this situation, you’ll apply the oil to the pivot points on the inside walls of the plates. What does that do? Well, through Mother Nature’s process called ‘capillary action’ some of that oil travels across the axle from the inside of the plate to the outside of the plate and partially fills the oil sink. But know that when you oil pivot points on the inside, those points will need to be lubricated more frequently because the oil sinks aren’t able to fill up completely.
Not Too Much, Not Too Little: Using the right amount of oil is important. If you use too much it will drip down the plate and the remaining oil in the oil sink will follow the drippings due to gravity. Then it won’t be long before most of your oil in the oil sink is gone. Also, if after applying the oil you see that it’s bulging out of the sink, that bulge at some future point could break and the oil would then leak down on to the clock plate. So apply the oil in small amounts and if you see any bulging, carefully wick up the excess with the tip of a tissue. At the same time, use enough oil. If there’s too little, you’ll have to re-oil in a few months or worse, your movement will wear prematurely due to lack of lubrication. So it’s good to be careful when applying oil.
Ultimately, if you don’t feel up to the oiling, or your clock is irreplaceable or of great value to you, it may be better to leave it to a professional.
What About Gear Teeth?
Oiling gear teeth is a point upon which clock experts disagree. In the above video oiling the teeth of an escape wheel is recommended. But here is what Jim had to say about it “That might take care of a short term problem, but some repairmen feel oiling gear teeth can accelerate future problems. I don’t recommend it. If you keep oiling the teeth, then old oil builds up and gets tacky, and fills the spaces where the teeth meet – thus increasing friction over time.”
The Right Kind of Oil
Before we talk about the right oil to use for clock lubrication, there is one type that is so damaging to a clock, we have to mention it first. Under no circumstances ever use WD-40, even as a temporary fix. Yes, it’s an effective lubricant for general household use, but it’s one of a clock’s worst enemies. It gums up the movement and can add enough friction to stop the clock in a just few months. It can also run into dials and stain them and can contaminate the clock cleaning solution when the inevitable time comes for an ultrasonic cleaning. Other oils commonly found in a home are sewing machine oil and 3 in 1 oil. These might work for a while but are more viscous and will run out faster. They could even stain dials and are not recommended.
As for the right kind of oil, there are a number of excellent brand name synthetic clock oils available on the market today. They protect your clock from wear and tear and tend to stay where put. So it’s best to use them and keep your clock happy.
Tools of the Trade
Here is a short list of things you’ll need for cleaning and oiling your clock:
- pivot cleaning sticks or barbeque sticks
- toothbrush & cleaning fluid (for excess dirt)
- clock oiler
- soft cloth to remove oil drips
If you want to go deeper into the world of clock maintenance, Hermle Clocks publishes a professional service manual and has agreed to make it available to our readers in early 2014. Check with us for an update on this.
Did you enjoy this article? Find it helpful, or have any comments? Please let us know.
Ask The Expert: Do you have a specific maintenance or repair question about a clock you own? Post it on our Facebook page and we’ll have Jim’s Mobile Clock Repair provide the answer.
Photo and Video Credits:
Hermle clock movement – clockworks.com
Grandfather Clock – Hermle Floor Clocks
Cuckoo Clock – Anton Schneider Chalet Style Cuckoo Clock
Oil Sink Pivot – timezone.com
Video – norkro.com
Oil Drop – scaleswmulrica.blogspot.com
Gears – yorkshireclockrepair.com
Barbeque Sticks – alibaba.com
Tooth Brush –freeimageslive.com
3 Oiling Pens – timesavers.com