Furniture Detective: Clock project becomes more work than expected

Many years ago a friend of mine, who also happened to be a dealer and collector of older and antique furniture, called me with an intriguing find. One piece of a recently acquired estate, he informed me, was a very nice walnut, Victorian Renaissance Revival chest of drawers, circa 1880 with intact mirror, original pulls and casters and an untouched  surface in excellent condition. I congratulated him on his find but since I knew that he knew that “Victorian” was not my area of special interest I politely inquired as to the nature of his call. He then informed me of his discovery of what appeared to be the majority of the parts of a circa 1840 ogee clock in one of the drawers and did I want to take a look at it.

You bet I did. I am not a “clock person” per se but I do like most things of the early to mid 19th century and I had not yet acquired an ogee mahogany mantel clock. I went to his shop and together we carefully lifted from the drawer a mostly intact crotch mahogany clock case with the original reverse painted scene of Broadway, 1840 still bright and shiny on the original glass. What I did not see to my chagrin, were the complete brass works for the clock but there was an awful jumble of  parts incorporated into the very large rat’s nest which had occupied the bottom of the case, accessed no doubt, through the missing knothole in the bottom board.

We reached agreement on a price and I took the clock, nest and all to a well known clock maker. He called me about a week later and informed me that all of the parts, including the face were in the bottom of the case. The only missing parts were the weights which he assured me were very common and no problem to replace. To make a long story short, I told him to reassemble the clock’s works while I repaired and reconditioned the case. He did and I did and I took it home, attached it to the wall for safety while it sat on a shelf and wound it faithfully every day for many years without a problem — until recently.

Then about two months ago I noticed some difficulty and some noise as I wound the chime side of the mechanism. It had been raining for several days so I attributed it to a sticky winder or a damp weight string and assumed the problem would disappear with the rain. Then the other side of the mechanism started to get a little recalcitrant so without really exploring the problem, because the clock is just above eye level and the top of the clock is way over my head, I pulled out my trusty can of spray silicone lubricant and sprayed both the wooden winding wheels and their metal spindles that support the strings and weights of the mechanism. That helped for about two minutes. I decided it was time to fix it once and for all.

Before taking the clock off the shelf for inspection I stopped the clock and lifted off the pendulum. Then I removed both weights from their strings, an easy task since the strings are fitted with hooks. Lastly I fixed the hands at 6:30 and slid the face down over them and off the clock itself. After closing and latching the door I released the safety hook on the wall and removed the clock from the shelf, leaning it against the couch on the floor. From that position I could examine the wooden winding wheels through the ports cut in the top of the clock case. That examination revealed that the holes through which pass the metal spindles on both wheels had badly deteriorated over 150 years and thousands of windings. The holes had developed “pockets” and “coves” around their center so that the wheels would get stuck off center in a pocket on the spindles and put up significant resistance to my winding efforts.

The first step obviously was to remove the wheels but that was not as easy as it sounds. The spindles that held the wheel in the cut out port were resting in holes drilled through the case and were installed from the rear. So the inset back panel had to be removed. But the back panel was nailed to the case frame AND the inside structure that held the works. So either the works had to be completely removed or the inside structure had to come with the back when it was removed. As I said, I am not a clock man so I opted to have the insides come out with the back panel, works and all. Meanwhile I had to be especially careful of the old glass in the door. My door was installed using drive-in pin hinges which do not want to be removed so I had to work with the door in place.

Once the back panel was off and safely stored with the works still attached, the end of the spindles were visible and they could be removed using a pair of needle-nosed pliers, freeing the hardwood wheels.

But now what? Should I try to make or find new wheels or was there a way to repair these?  Since I did not want this job to last for days or weeks while I searched for or made new wheels I opted for repair of the originals (which is more to my taste anyway). Securing the wheels gently but firmly in the curved jaws of a pair of vise-grip type pliers, I used my drill press with very light pressure to drill a 5/16-inch hole in the approximate center of the wheel.

This diameter hole was enough to eliminate all the pockets and coves and leave a nice clean, round hole in the wheel. Then I glued a 5/16-inch maple dowel into the new hole, trimming the excess of the dowel on both sides with a coping saw and sanding the edges smooth. Finally a 3/32-inch hole was drilled in the middle of the new dowel and after lightly lubricating the spindles one more time with silicone, the clock was ready for reassembly. Total elapsed time for this fix, from start to final reassembly was about two hours.

In retrospect I do not know if the problem with the wheels was the result, perhaps, of the use of  replacement weights that may not have been exactly right for that clock or whether the wheels would have worn out anyway, no matter what the weights were. In any event, I now have my clock back and it winds and strikes just as it did in the old days.

Now if I could just fix my telephones…

Send your comments, questions and pictures to Fred Taylor, P.O. Box 215, Crystal River, FL 34423 or Visit Fred’s Web site:

His book “How To Be a Furniture Detective” is available for $18.95 plus $3 S&H. Also available is Fred and Gail Taylor’s DVD, “Identification of Older & Antique Furniture,” ($17 + $3 S&H) and a bound compilation of the first 60 columns of “Common Sense Antiques by Fred Taylor” ($25 + $3 S&H). For more information call 800-387-6377, fax 352-563-2916 or


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