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Building Wooden Grandfather and Tall Case Clocks

Jul 19, 2008
Fans of tall case or grandfather clocks are familiar with the many styles that have evolved over the years. When most folks think of a grandfather clock they envision the more traditional styles consisting of hardwood cases, painted dials, and brass pendulums.

While this style of grandfather clock is a classic, other styles have gained in popularity including more contemporary designs. What many do not know is that early long case or grandfather clocks looked remarkably different from more modern grandfather clocks.

Early long case clocks were often made entirely of wood, including the inner working or movement of the clock. Hands, gears, escapements and pendulums where made from wood if the necessary metal working skills were not readily available. During some early periods of American clock making, metal components could not be acquired from England. These disruptions in supply were a consequence of an embargo on British imports to the colonies, resulting in metal items of all kinds being withheld by the British government.

American colonialists proved to be very resourceful, a skill needed in times where the availability of materials created a need for alternatives. One resource in great supply in New England and the colonial Northeast was wood. Given the lack of metal clock parts, colonial craftsmen turned to wood as a substitute. Gears, dial faces, pendulums, in fact the entire clock, was made from native hardwoods.

Wooden tall case pendulum clocks were not a new idea in eighteenth century. Clocks made of wood had been a standard since for many years prior. Even as innovators like Eli Terry who conceived of using interchangeable parts for clock movements were advancing clock making, wood was still being used. The concept of interchangeable parts would become a standard manufacturing over the next two hundred years. Terry himself was said to have built clocks with wooden gears.

Wood clock movements presented clock makers and owners with some obvious problems. The introduction of the pendulum movement was the greatest technological advancement in timekeeping. Long before clocks were enclosed in a case, it was common for the clock, with the movement exposed, to be hung on the wall. Accurate to within a few minutes per day, early pendulum clocks or wag on the wall clocks were quite functional.

The term wag on the wall was a reference to the swinging movement of the pendulum. Not as durable as brass or steel, wooden clock parts were more prone to wear that would significantly affect accuracy over time. With increased precision and accuracy, the switch to more complex metal movements was thought to be the end of the wooden clock era.

It would make sense that wooden clock movements would be forever relegated to the past. It seems that wooden clock movements have never really fallen completely out of style. Though considerably less visible than contemporary grandfather clocks, many clock designers and craftspeople have taken a keen interest in keeping the wooden clock movements alive. Clock enthusiasts and folks with above wood working skills can access a wide variety of plans and parts for building wooded grandfather clocks.

A visual throwback to the old wag on the wall clock, wood movement grandfather clocks are limited only by the imagination of the individual designer. Modern wood stains and lacquers are far more durable than early varnishes or milk paints. If a truly antique look is desired, there are many formulas available for making milk paint. It is common to see the gears, escapements and other meshing parts to be coated with a coat of hard lacquer to keep the wood parts from wearing out prematurely.
About the Author
Mitch Endick is a staff writer for the quality online store Grandfather Clock Sale.com. Shop for fine quality Grandfather Clocks at Grandfather Clock Sale.com for your home or office. Please visit Grandfather Clock Sale.com today.
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