Maintenance of Polesden Lacey's antique clocks

John Harrison clock at Nostell

Discover how the house team maintain Polesden Lacey's collection of antique clocks.

Polesden Lacey is home to 18 antique clocks all of which are in perfect working order. Most are French except for the long case clocks which are English.

French Mantel Clock
The dial of a French mantel clock
French Mantel Clock

Members of the house conservation team take meticulous care in the maintenance and cleaning of these clocks so that they continue to operate as efficiently as possible.

Inspection

The winding and timekeeping of clocks should always be recorded in detailed condition reports. This helps the conservator to understand the workings of the clock if a problem arises.

Maintenance and cleaning

The movement of a clock should never be cleaned by a non-professional as dirt can cause the movement to seize up and with so many small parts it is easily damaged. 

A clock's outer case is cleaned as required according to the material it is made from. If the case needs to be opened, dusting should be directed into a vacuum cleaner and gloves should be worn at all times. 

Inspecting a French Mantel Clock
Gloves should always be worn when inspecting a clock
Inspecting a French Mantel Clock

Taking your time and ensuring that the key is a good fit is essential when winding a clock.
 
If the strike is out (it fails to strike the correct number of times for the hour shown), the minute hand is moved to the tell (the clunk you hear just before a clock strikes where the clock movement prepares to strike), but is prevented from striking.

The hand is then brought back behind the tell at which point it will strike. This process is repeated until it strikes the number of times before the targeted hour. When the targeted hour is reached, it will then strike the correct number of times.

Did you know ...?

A clock's main train (or wheels) makes the clock go and the second train is known as the ‘striking train’ for striking the hour and on French clocks a strike on the half hour.  There can also be a third train, the ‘chiming train’ to chime the quarter hour.

Clocks do not chime the hour they strike and they do not strike the quarter hour, they chime!

French Mantel Clock
Clock face of a French mantel clock
French Mantel Clock

Common damage

Temperature: Hot rooms can cause the lubrication to disperse and the pinions (gears with small teeth) to rust and wear away.
 
Physical: Damage to the movement is easy given there are so many moving parts.  The cases have their own individual risks and the face is easily damaged during winding.

Biological: cases can be attractive to pests, both of the munching variety and the web variety.  Whist the burrowers cause their own structural problems, spider webs can collect dust that can get into the movement. 

Protection and environment

Clocks should never be moved unless absolutely necessary as the moving parts can be easily damaged.  If it has to be done, either remove or secure the pendulum (with a catch or with a pad of tissue) to protect the fragile spring at its top and then strap it to a board to keep it straight.

Long case clocks need to have their weights removed, ensuring that they are labelled to indicate to which train they belong. The movement can then be removed.

Smaller clocks should always be carried with the face leant slightly forward to prevent any accidental movement of the pendulum.   Long case clocks should always be secured to a wall.

In terms of environment, metal and movement do not like moisture so they should be kept as dry as the case will allow.  To prevent dirt getting in the movement it is really important to keep it in as clean an environment as possible.

Wander through all the rooms in the house and enjoy the superb collection of French and English antique clocks.