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My “new” antique clock stopped running today. This doesn’t surprise me a lot- it has travelled half way around the world, and it is pretty old, so it being a bit out of sorts is somewhat expected. But I had some learning to do in order to figure out what was going on, and to see if it could be “fixed” without major challenges. I’ve collected some of what I found here for future reference.

There are two basic types of regulating mechanisms in mechanical clocks: a pendulum or a balance wheel. Both serve the same purpose: controlling the output of mechanical energy from a spring or weight drive using simple physics (i.e.: gravity). Without this regulation, the spring would spin down and the clock wouldn’t measure time accurately.

Balance wheels are more “modern”, and so of course my older clock has a pendulum. Pendulums are neat in that, as a result of the mechanisms they inhabit within a clock, produce the wonderful tic-tock (or tic-tic) sound we think of as measuring time. Interestingly, that sound should be precisely even, and if it isn’t, the clock is said to be “out of beat”. Being out of beat is basically a matter of balance: the pendulum is swinging more to one side then the other, or worse yet isn’t swinging straight side to side, but also front to back. It loses energy on each swing, and in most cases will stop swinging entirely in a short while- which of course stops the whole clock. The spring is still wound, so there is energy there waiting to be used, but it is the pendulum that puts that energy to work telling time.

Some pendulum regulated clocks have “auto-adjusting” mechanisms to rebalance themselves, but once again this is generally a feature of newer clocks. But as soon as you realize that being out of beat is mostly a matter of balance, you can start making careful experiments to correct the level of your clock. Without making any changes the mechanism, this can be done simply by lifting one corner or side of the clock a fraction of an inch while the pendulum is swinging. That beat of that wonderful “tic-tock” sound will change and either become more “balanced”, or more erratic. I can attest to the fact that this takes some practice, and the smart thing would be to have a nice collection of finely sized wooden shims to prop the clock corners up as you experiment.

On my clock a shift of about 1 mm on one side was enough to improve the balance: it isn’t perfect, but if the clock runs for more than eight hours I’ll know it is a step in the right direction. If you have to shim up a side so much that the clock looks out of kilter, then the adjustment needs to be made mechanically: that is, the internal balance point needs to be corrected. It is important to note that simply using a spirit level won’t help you here unless the clock is brand new and is already perfectly adjusted: the out of beat condition usually occurs in older clocks or clocks that have been moved recently, and generally “level” isn’t what they need to get back in trim.

I referred to several different sources to get the basic information I’m relaying here. Some of these sources refer to specific ways to correct the beat that may only apply to certain types of clocks (e.g.: those with “auto correcting” balance), but be careful: these may involve moving the pendulum / pendulum crutch to the extremes of their motion and, if the clock doesn’t have auto adjustment features, you can cause damage. Generally, though, if you are gentle you won’t likely be inflicting permanent harm.

I’ve put some bits of cardboard under two of the legs of my clock for now, and keep listening to its tic-tic sounds: if it is still running a day or two from now, I’ll look into a more permanent solution.

6 comments to Balance

  • Jim HIldebrand

    Instead of cardboard you might want to invest in a few small washers (the nuts and bolts kind of washers). They should be pretty uniform in size and allow you to make consistent adjustments. Once you have figured out how many washers you need at each corner then it might even be possible to to unscrew the legs and add the washers between the legs and the base and avoid the possibility of having someone mistake your bits of cardboards for trash and throwing them away.

  • Washers might do the trick. The legs are kind of odd-shaped (“ornate”), though, so a surface about 1″ on a side would be better I think. I was thinking wooden “shims” like are used for leveling door/window frames might do the trick. And if I knew more, there are also internal balance adjustments to put the clock back “on beat” that can be done.

    The clock has been running now for 24 hours, which is about 12 hours longer than the first time I got it started. If it is still going by the weekend, I’ll assume the balancing is the trick I needed and look at a more permanent solution. Then I need to correct its “gonging”: currently, it isn’t striking the correct hour. Supposedly that is easy to fix, though, as most older clocks have friction-drive hour hands, and you just manually reposition the hour hand to correct the problem. I must admit that I’m sort of enjoying “playing” with my clock- I want to learn more.

    I have bought a “how to repair clocks” DVD set from a master clock repairer, so I’m thinking I might start looking for busted antique clocks and putting together a set of tools so I can go through the process of attempting to fix a few. Not that I’ll ever be very skilled at it, but I’d like to know enough so that basic things about the mechanism and simple “tune ups” aren’t a mystery to me. Oddly, I’m not interested in working on electric or digital clocks- it is the old mechanical ones that appeal to me.

  • I still say you are steam punk at heart 😉

  • I’m a tinkerer, that’s for sure. I like to know how things work, and I don’t give up very easily on things that are within my reach to understand.

    But steam punk specifically… I’m not sure. Although I appreciate some of the creations that are labelled as “steam punk”, it isn’t making something that looks fanciful out of bits scavenged from antiques (which is what most of the steam punk “genre” seems to be about) that appeals to me. I like real, honest to goodness precise mechanisms- note, not needlessly complex, but engineered. Mechanical clocks, computers, guns, aircraft, even a well-made sword or a really good screwdriver: and not even so much for what they do, but how they do it. I also think that the fact that, by figuring such devices out, I’m somehow “superior” in my own limited way to someone who can’t figure them out, is appealing to me.

    I think electric or digital clocks don’t interest me very much in part because a) I understand how they work; and b) there is nothing in them that really permits much craft. If a digital clock stops working, you throw it out and buy a new one: trying to make it work again is largely pointless, since the entirety of the mechanism that *can* break costs about twelve cents to manufacture.

    Hmmm. That’s a bit too much psychoanalysis for today, I think 🙂 By the way, my clock has been running since Monday without a hiccup (although it has gained about four minutes over the week) and I’ve got it gonging correctly on the hour now. I’m planning on making a more permanent fix to get it in beat without cardboard under the legs this weekend… we’ll see how that goes.

  • I’m not steam punk myself … but it, like “goth” or even “punk” itself is a whole clump of things mashed together. From a philosophy / world view, fashion or design sense, through to role play. You can, I think, be “steam punk” without being all ga-ga over it, just like you can be into Star Trek without dressing in starfleet uniforms and writing poetry in Klingon. 😉

    I look at what you like stylistically (much more ornate than my taste for example,) you interest in antiques, and the interest in technology … especially antique tech, and I see “Steam punk” style and taste.


    As to a permanent fix. May I suggest you get nice bit of stained and varnished wood, then drill four holes for the legs of the clock to sit in. By drilling the leg indentations to different heights you can adjust the level of the clock.

    Alternately, you could put screw in feet on the bottom of the wood, and use then to adjust the level.

  • Yes, I think you are right re: “degrees” of steam-punkishness. I’m still not into putting decorative chunks of brass and old steam fittings on perfectly functional computers. A bit of ornamentation on something that was designed to be ornamental (e.g.: a clock) is another thing entirely 😉

    Re: the permanent fix. I’m thinking about properly adjusting the mechanism. Apparently this is done by bending the pendulum crutch (the piece of metal that gently “grips” the pendulum and transfers the motion to the clock mechanism). I know when I looked at the mechanism it was clear that it wasn’t perfectly straight: my guess is that someone had previously bent it to correct the beat. You bend it towards the side you have lifted to trim the swing… and it seems to me that it was bent the opposite directly. I’ll see once I get a decent pair of needlenose pliers.

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