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The Care and Conservation of Longcase Clocks

by Michael Barrington

With the exception of the very finest and rarest,  the longcase clock is, in comparison with any other type of furniture, grossly undervalued. This seems especially relevant when one considers how advanced the design and making of clock movements was in an era which began some 200 and more  years before the invention of the steam engine, electricity, steelmaking and,  particularly, reliable means of accurate measurement and standardization in such  areas as screw threads. Add to this phenomenon the fact that clocks made 200  years ago are still going and keeping time at standards acceptable for most domestic purposes and the undervaluation of old clocks becomes more obvious. It  seems reasonable therefore to say that at least we should treat the clock with respect, maintaining its working through care and maintaining its integrity of design.

The Victorians are notable for their desecration of both clock movements and cases, sometimes in pursuit of "improved" design and performance, sometimes to meet changes in fashion but also  through sheer ignorance and poor craftsmanship. It was in the latter part of the 19th century when "antique collecting" became a serious hobby and business, that the trade of "antique furniture restorer" was born. This trade has burgeoned ever since, particularly in times of inflated valuations of antiques, with an  accompanying proliferation of unsympathetic and downright bad restoration work and little or no regard for conservation which is a comparatively modern post  World War 2 development. Clockcases, and particularly country clockcases, seem to have borne the brunt of bad workmanship and it is principally in such clocks that we find the worst evidence. Finer quality clocks too have not been exempt  from poor treatment but their usually obvious superior quality has perhaps afforded them some degree of protection.

Many clock repairers/restorers do not profess to cater for clockcase conservation and restoration, much in the  same way as not every clockmaker made their own cases. Casework has always  tended to be a separate trade and is nowadays definitely the preserve of the  furniture conservator/restorer.

Major Alterations to Clock Cases

Before embarking on examples of  typical damage found in longcase locks, it is worth looking briefly at some  history. The revolutionary pendulum clock pioneered in Britain by Ashasuerus  Fromanteel in about 1650, with technology imported from Holland, was a  breakthrough in time keeping which certainly in the lantern clocks of earlier  years was more an approximation than a science ! Only very wealthy people could afford to commission clocks and this was often clearly done as a statement of status. Consequently clocks were highly valued and the owners, or chosen  henchmen, were the only ones allowed to wind or otherwise attend to the clock.  To make this a reality great lengths were pursued to ensure security of the  clock. Hoods were generally of the rising type, sliding vertically on the  backboard engaged in grooves in the hood carcase sides. A spoon catch enabled  the hood to be secured by shutting the trunk door, which was locked and  presumably openable only by the keyholder.

The hinged opening hood door came later, probably as a result of generally lower house ceiling heights  demanded by economics and perhaps fashion. In houses with lowered ceilings, hoods could not be lifted, since they required at least 2 feet of free air above  the clock. The answer for these clocks was therefore to cut off the front of the hood, making an instant door which might be secured either by a separate door  lock (either a cut-cupboard or staple lock), no lock at all or a neat spring loaded catch operated by a cord hanging down inside the trunk, thus maintaining the single point access of the rising hood clock. Often the saw marks of the hood cutting were left untrimmed and the grooves in the hood sides left unfilled  and, hopefully the mechanism for holding the hood both up and open and lastly the spoon catch have not been removed. Few fully complete examples remain but certainly some evidence of the rising hood usually remains intact. Those  interested in the history of such clocks can usually find the evidence, or parts  of it, and may detect such desecrations as filling in or otherwise disguising the sliding grooves and covering up the saw marks of hood-cutting with veneer, since planing would probably render the door frame too thin.

The next and probably the most horrible alteration to longcases of all vintages and origins  is that of shortening them to fit into a particular room. However, because of the status of the clock as a piece of family furniture which may have passed  through several generations, it is easy to see why some people will go to such lengths to get their heirloom clock into a room with low ceilings. The advice that they might either sell the clock and buy a shorter one or even move house will generally not be appreciated! A tall city-made clock will stand at about 7ft to 7ft 6ins which can be some 12 to 18 inches more than a cottage's or say  millhouse ceiling height at little over 6 feet. This is a lot to lose and will certainly not be achieved by just removing the brass finials, balls etc from the  hood top or even lopping off the bottom of the plinth. It is not uncommon to see  holes cut in ceilings and floors to accomodate a particularly precious clock but it is an option which will not appeal to everyone, although it does preserve the  clock's integrity.

Also, sinking a clock into the floor, which may be damp, can have serious effects on the welfare of the plinth. Lowering the plinth  height will almost certainly destroy the proportions of the clock and make it look stunted, and if it is a marquetry case, much of the picture on the plinth will be lost. However, shortened plinths are relatively easy to restore to their proper height but will be expensive if new marquetry has to be designed and cut. It is essential that the restorer knows enough about clockcase design and does  not embark on what may be a serious alteration quite unrelated to the original design of the clock; there are many such examples.

The next shortening  option, where the trunk length is altered, is worse still and usually signals  the end of the clock case as a collectable item. The trunk of a 17th Century  walnut marquetry clock (by Robertus Wilkins, London 1670) was cut by some 3 to 4  inches which further entailed shortening the door. The result is that the proportions of the whole case have been ruined, the boxwood lines on the trunk sides now disappear into the plinth, instead of being squared off, the cross  grained moulding round the door has been replaced by long grain wood and mahogany at that ! This was once a collector's piece, a clock of some importance  perhaps worth £25,000 or more today which, in its present and I am afraid  unalterable state, is now worth practically nothing.

Although this is quite the worst option for shortening, it could be better done by telescoping  the trunk into the plinth, which would make the operation reversible. In another  case the "excess length" of the trunk was cut off. The work required to restore  this clock back to its original height would be very expensive and the clock  would sadly not be worth anything like the cost involved. To continue with this  marquetry clock, evidently the amputation of the trunk was not enough and the hood was attacked. It is likely that the original hood was little if any higher than the ballustraded hat that has been attached, probably in the 19th Century,  so one wonders whether this was done either out of ignorance of the most likely design of a normal moulded (cross grain) and perhaps missing original pediment  or in an attempt to "improve" the look of the clock. Anyway the result is  dreadful and would require a complete rebuild to restore the hood to anything like its original form and the ebonised pillars would need to be replaced with  spiral twists (note the quarter section twists at the back which are original). Again this would be unlikely to a cost-effective exercise.

The last point about this poor clock is the shape and position of the lenticle. The lenticle is filled with either plain or pot glass and the pendulum bob should be directly behind it, flashing  through the glass as it swings. Since the pendulum is of set length, so must the lenticle be in a set position. This one is in line with the pendulum bob but it is decidedly off-centre in the layout of the door's marquetry which suggests that either the door started its life without a lenticle (unusual in such a clock) or that the cutting of the trunk was done with little regard for the  final position of the pendulum bob in relation to the trunk door. Lastly, the  quality of the lenticle frame is absurdly amateur, so perhaps the whole sequence of operations was done by an enthusiastic amateur or, possibly, the door came  from another clock, because there is no evidence of either hinges or lock having been moved, but there is very little space between the top and bottom edges of  the marquetry and the door moulding, so perhaps the door has been cut both ends.

Typical Damage to Clock Cases and Some Ideas on Conservation and Restoration

Backboards

Most country clocks of any age show signs of wood rot and  wood worm at the bottom of the backboard; this is of course not just confined to  country clocks; woodworm and perhaps rot can be found in all sorts of casework. The backboard is the clock case's spine and everything in the case is attached to it in some way. It is therefore important for the stability and longevity of the clock that the backboard does its job properly. Where the backboard bottom is rotten or worm-eaten, it needs to be treated by either consolidating the  unsound timber or cutting it out and replacing it. Consolidation of degraded wood is generally practical either with the use of injected resin based or other  consolident material or by steeping it in hot glue and this means submerging it in thin glue size and letting it simmer until all air has been driven out of the flight holes. This latter method of consolidation is impractical because of the  size of the backboard. However, backboards are thin, at the most say half an  inch in thickness, consequently often much material is missing, either because  rotten wood has fallen away or wood has disappeared as "frass" which is the wood dust or regurgitations of the wood larva. In such very common cases the best way forward generally is to replace the degraded areas of wood. This can be done crudely with a straight butt joint as and a wood strap, usually on the inside, which is in danger of interfering with the drop of the weights.

A better method and certainly neater, is to half-lap the boards new with old, using old wood. The best method, in my view, is to use what is known as a coppersmith's  joint. This has the advantage of a larger gluing area, albeit on the end grain  and it is less noticeable than the horizontal lap joint. It is in fact very  strong if well executed. There is no point in going overboard in concealing the joint which becomes very much a part of the clock's history and is a perfectly legitimate and sympathetic piece of restoration.

Plinths and Feet

While many clocks stand on plinths of some kind, an equal number stand on feet and the 17th century cases are often on four bun feet. Clock  design is as regional as that of country chairs and dressers. It behoves both owner and restorer to research what is correct for a particular clock. This work  is both interesting and rewarding. Sadly far too much of "this will look nice" goes on in clock case restoration. This is one of many examples which demand  that a restorer must know the history of the pieces he/she works on.

Doors

The shape of the trunk door varies hugely in clock design. The earlier clocks were somewhat austere and had oblong doors with square corners and often applied decoration either of veneer or marquetry or, of course, lacquer. Invariably the walnut cases had cross grained mouldings or banding to the door edges or surrounds. The cross-grain moulding warps delightfully with age and is, as on all walnut furniture of the 17th and early 18th Centuries, generally a tell-tale mark of authenticity. I say "generally" because walnut is one of the easiest woods to "fake" and much excellent "reproduction work" was done by skilled cabinetmakers  in the 19th century and one can be easily fooled ! In passing, this is a factor  which deters many Antique Dealers from stocking walnut pieces.

What does  not fool anyone is the replacement of cross grain with long grain and you can  easily find examples of this. Few clock cases had handles on the doors, this was to come in the 20th Century. Most doors are entirely opened by their keys and there will be either a flush brass escutcheon lining the keyhole or a brass plate escutcheon nailed (not screwed) on the surface. Doors usually have applied edge-mouldings or lip mouldings and have to have special cranked hinges to allow the moulding to 'clear' the carcase when the door is opened. Such hinges may be of iron or brass and the former is usual in 17th and early 18th Century and country cases. The iron hinges of the 17th century were nailed and later brass  hinges were more usually secured with iron screws. It should be said here that  this is about the only place in which screws would have been used in a clock case. Nails were of the forged flathead clout variety for securing hinges etc.  Elsewhere iron 'cut' nails and sprigs would have been used, especially in  securing the backboard.

Single board doors which are common to country clocks may be cleated top and bottom as in to counteract warping but it is as common to see uncleated doors which are often warped. The heart side of the  one-piece door is generally to the outside so that the door warps towards the  inside of the clock trunk (away from the heart). This fault is better than  having the door sides warp outwards, known as "Smiling"). Veneered and marquetry  doors and especially lacquered doors, were generally cleated and quite often  this shows through the applied surface where the substrates have moved. This is a difficult fault to restore and indeed, because it has happened through the  natural movement of the wood, there is a strong argument for doing nothing. Whilst on this subject, the principle of minimum intervention is a basic rule of  conservation which all good conservator-restorers should observe quite  religiously. Before we leave "Doors", the 20th century flat-head key looks  inappropriate on all antique furniture and particularly in clock doors where it is very obvious. A flat-head key can easily be filed into a nice replica old  fashioned key bow and I believe it worth doing; it certainly does not degrade  the clockcase or its integrity.

Hoods

The door frames are  either half-lap jointed or, in the best work, they are tenoned. Often veneer or  marquetry covers the joints. The hingeing of the hood door is either on iron  pins top and bottom, often located in the ends of a door pillar or, because a  door with pillars attached must swing well clear of the hood carcase, special  swan neck hinge plates are used to enable the door to move well out of the way of the hood sides and avoid a collision. The twists of the pillars, if fitted,  may be handed (right and left) on some hoods and it is a nice feature which is  surprisingly obvious to the viewer. More commonly the twists are both of one hand, usually right-handed. The pillars, of whatever design are usually repeated at the back of the hood with quarter or half-sections of the same design and  hand as those at the front.

The glass in the door must not be modern float glass and certainly not the non-reflective picture glass! Old handmade glass is becoming more difficult to find and, to my mind the replica material of  today is not that convincing. The restorer must go out and buy some old 19th or  early 20th Century pictures in the local market to build up a stock of old glass. Modern float glass shouts at you and, I believe ruins the look of an old  clock. The glass is almost always puttied into the rebates of the door-frame and given a coat of varnish or shellac. Lastly, the construction of hood sides is  interesting but not obvious to everyone. In hoods with rectangular side windows, the sides are generally made of three pieces which quite neatly provides the  window. In oak and mahogany clocks the grain of the three pieces of wood is usually vertical, whilst in walnut examples the centre section is turned on its side with the grain running horizontally, sandwiched between two vertical  neighbours. This latter construction facilitates the making of the small  integral mouldings round the window which will all be cut along the grain, which in turn defies the general practice in walnut furniture of producing mouldings  across the grain ! The best examples however, will probably have small cross-grain mouldings applied to each of the four sides of the windows.

Seat Boards

These are the boards which carry the movement and to which the movement is usually bolted by two hooks with screwed  shanks which hook over the two bottom movement pillars. It is always very obvious when a seat board has been renewed and is a practice which should be avoided where possible. The seat board usually rests on the tops of the two side  members of the trunk which extend into the hood space above the collar. These side members are often of thin section and become damaged to an extent when the seat board and hence the movement are neither safe nor stable. It is important for the running of the clock that the seatboard should be firm and carry the  weight of the movement with the weights and pendulum as well as supporting the extra stress caused during winding, however carefully done.

The most sympathetic way to restore badly damaged side members is to make replacement extensions which are jointed inside the collar moulding on which the hood rests. It is important that no thickening pieces are placed inside which may interfere with the lines carrying the weights or the movement of the pendulum. The seatboard rests on the side pieces and is held there by the weight of the whole  movement; screws and nails are not required and neither are they appropriate.  Finishes and Decoration Cracked marquetry on an unstable substrate is common and  over-restoration is also common. Part of the joy of old marquetry is the roughness of surface which develops naturally as veneers move and begin to curl at the edges, albeit very minutely. Loose and missing marquetry should be  restored, but beware of those who would try to resurface it and damage or even entirely remove that special "unflat patination" so typical of old marquetry  work.

Damaged lacquerwork or japanning (paintwork) is not as easily ignored because it is often very unattractive, showing the white gesso coats  underneath. Restoration and conservation of these finishes is achievable without seriously altering the object's integrity and it is arguable that a properly  restored lacquer or japanned finish, albeit involving major work, achieves more in the preservation of integrity than leaving it merely stabilized but seriously  degraded in its appearance. This is an area in which the conservation and  restoration arguments are fiercest! Restoration of lacquerwork is a very specialist area and involves serious artistic skill. It should not be confused with western japanned work. Good lacquerwork is valuable and should be treated  really carefully by a person who specializes in the skill - not many do !  Finally, not all furniture conservator-restorers will necessarily have detailed  knowledge of clock case design and history. It is as well to satisfy yourself that the person you choose to look after your clock case has the necessary  experience. It is usual, anyway in BAFRA, for members with particular experience and skills, to advertise the fact.


© 2000  BAFRA

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